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Contentions

Returning from the Political Arena

It’s a pleasure to return to COMMENTARY after having served as a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. At a later date I’ll dilate on the outcome of the election. For now I simply want to say that I ended the campaign with an even higher regard for Governor Romney than I began it. He is a man of great personal decency and integrity. He single-handedly revived his campaign on the largest stage in American politics (the October 3 debate); and he became stronger over the course of the election.

Tuesday’s loss was a body blow for those associated with the campaign. Few of us saw this defeat coming, which makes the defeat all the more jarring.

Most Americans are simply relieved the campaign is over. They believe it went on for far too long, that it was much too expensive, and that it was characterized by personal attacks and petty discussions. Everyone, it seems, is sick of politics.

Post-election lamentations aren’t unusual, and they aren’t without merit. But let me offer several other observations, the first of which is that we tend to be hyper-critical about the present while idealizing the past. That’s a mistake. Consider the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It’s regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns ever. One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

According to the New York Sun, the 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” So have many others. During the 1980 campaign, for example, the liberal New Republic declared, “President Carter has made a grave moral error in trying to portray Ronald Reagan as a racist.” The editorial page of the Washington Post chimed in, saying, “Mr. Carter has abandoned all dignity in his round-the-clock attack on Mr. Reagan’s character.”

My point isn’t to hold up these incidents as a model for political discourse; it’s that slashing attacks are often a part of politics. Even the Lincoln-Douglas election consisted of more than the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So some perspective is in order.

Point number two: It doesn’t help matters that many who comprise the political media tend to ignore intellectually serious discussions. Rather than discussing, say, the pros and cons of a premium support system or grappling with how to increase social mobility, they prefer to obsess on the horserace aspect of the campaign, gaffes, Twitter feeds and political intrigue. Many in the press are drawn to the sensational and trivial. Increasingly they themselves are contributing to it. Yet with the campaign now over, prepare for countless journalists to travel to the Shorenstein Center and appear on Charlie Rose to complain about the superficiality of campaigns.

A final point: Campaigns are never pristine and politics is an imperfect profession. But as flawed as they are, they have helped create an extraordinary nation and produced great leaders. Politics is a means through which we deal with matters of enormous importance, from policies on taxes and health care to the nature of justice and the relationship between the citizen and the state. Which is why it has always attracted, and still attracts, good people.

Shortly after Mitt Romney conceded on Tuesday night, a writer for whom I have great respect sent me a note. “Nights like this I realize how much easier it is to be in the peanut gallery rather than in the arena,” he wrote. “Easier but less satisfying.”

As for me, I rather like the peanut gallery. But I deeply admire the individuals I have worked with and for who have entered the arena. It isn’t an easy life. But it is a satisfying one. 



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