Carly Fiorina doesn’t like the sound of the term “career politician.” And I think she suspects that you don’t like the sound of it either. Go to one of her appearances and she’ll tell you that “career politicians” are “part of the problem. They’re not about solving the problem; they’re about feathering their own nests, and taking care of their friends and staying in office.” Tough talk, especially when you apply it retroactively to career politicians like Ted Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
Both Senate candidate Fiorina and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman are using the years of public service on the resumes of their opponents Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown as bats to hit sloppy grounders. Fiorina wants and needs to bark about Boxer’s record, yet when Boxer cites the layoffs and relocation of American jobs tied to Fiorina’s record as chief executive of Hewlitt-Packard, Fiorina charges that Boxer is out to “vilify me.” So “career politician” implies a bad thing past its freshness due date; job-reducing computer executive who was fired from her own job and now getting into politics… that’s bold and exciting.
It’s odd that a nation that responds to such things as brand names, buying Skippy Peanut Butter and Crest Toothpaste because Mom did, would accept the premise that because political leaders have a lot of experience and knowledge they are too inside and by definition “feathering their own nests.” That’s way before you even get to the often mind-blowing discrepancies involved in how corruption is being measured these days. Bush and Cheney: Thousands of American troops and Iraqi citizens killed for oil and Halliburton contracts. Current position: Retired statesmen writing books and commenting on TV. Charles Rangel: Tangled finances. Currently under investigation and cooking on the media grill.
A Los Angeles Times article on Labor Day took a look at the campaign and message styles of Fiorina, Boxer, Whitman, and Jerry Brown, and while the article might have been about appearances and approaches it underlined the primal difference between career politicians and newbies coming to politics after a cycle of success in business: When you are accomplished and respected for your service in politics, it’s tough for your upstart opponent to go from rally to rally with little more to say than “I made a pile of money. Money is good. You like money, right folks? Don’t you think our state should make more money?”
Don’t get me wrong, because just like Meg Whitman I understand that money is good. Whitman, whose own career consists of having managed an online garage sale, has already committed more than $100 million dollars of her own money to buy (I’m sorry, but come on!) the governor’s job. A great deal of that has been spent on elaborate mud-slinging equipment including ads that characterize Jerry Brown as having, in her words, “a legacy of failure.” I don’t have room here to wrestle with that pretzel logic, but I can tell you that it’s definitely akin to the line of thinking that has President Obama saddled with being a failure because he hasn’t solved all of America’s problems and righted the economy in a period of two years. A whopping 730 days and we’re still working on the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Come on, Obama. Get the lead out!
Some people saw spirit and even course-correction in professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s 1998 election as governor of Minnesota. Never mind that he’s now working as host of a cable TV show about conspiracies, his election then was arguably the beginning of the contemporary trend in “I was good at this, so I’ll be good at politics” reform spearheaded by novices. “Career politicians” were bogged down, causing gridlock, bla bla bla. We needed a new approach: Amateurs.
Let’s look at some other areas where we might do better hiring amateurs. Teaching? No, that’s not what we want. We’re so driven to increase standards for teachers that we’re actually shaming teachers who are doing great work by publishing their dubiously conjured performance indices. Airline pilots? No, we’d like them to all be more gray-headed and experienced like Hudson water landing hero Sully Sullenberger. Medical care? I don’t hear much chatter about replacing doctors with computer executives and Internet moguls.
Politics is an arena that draws candidates who always come from something else. But their success in previous endeavors is not inherently applicable to their career change. Especially if, like George W. Bush, they’ve never actually had any real success at anything before politics. We can vote our conscious and elect experience in November. It won’t be a strike against women, because thanks to Sarah Palin we’re now completely over any guilt about voting against ambitious women who bump us the wrong way. The term “career politicians” may be language that moves you in one direction or another. What it can’t do is make you forget what has happened when those with more aspiration than inspiration have grabbed a hold of the steering wheel.