Mr. GREGORY RODRIGUEZ (Los Angeles Times): If Americans have such a low opinion of politicians, and they do, why, then, do they invest so many hopes and expectations in one of them every four years?
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Gregory Rodriguez is a political columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Are they stupid? Naive? Like continually heartbroken but eternally hopeful lovers, do they really think their next suitor will not disappoint them like all the rest? Try writing a newspaper column for a few weeks, and if you dare check your email, you'll get a whiff of how much people want to love, revere, and believe in the perfection of the presidential candidate of their choice. Granted, the president is not just another politician. That office is the only one in the federal government that we all vote for. He or she is the only official responsible for and to all the people, and we expect him or her to be the embodiment of the good things we like to think about ourselves as a nation. As our estimation of politicians in general has sunk lower and lower, White House candidates have begun to portray themselves as outsiders, non-politicians, men and women who can promise not to tolerate business as usual in their chosen profession.
What shocks me, however, is that we actually fall for it. Just hold on, I'm not saying that your candidate doesn't have good ideas or intentions, nor am I peddling outright cynicism. But the practice of idealizing politicians, of putting presidents or any other elected official on a pedestal, is a little like repeatedly nominating a used-car salesman to the Better Business Bureau. How many Eliot Spitzers does it take before we stop being even a little bit surprised that these people are not only human, they are widely ambitious, which makes them especially prone to the big fall. I used to think that it was a shame that, at election time, I always feel obliged to choose between the lesser of two evils. But now I think it might be a blessing. Even the negative ads that pundits constantly complain about are a gift.
Eric Alterman wrote "Why We're Liberals," a political handbook for post-Bush America. He told me that he thinks we should always pick the candidate whose failings are the least damaging. Quote, "Liberals in particular tend to pay too much attention to good intentions. It helps to know what's wrong with these people."
But Cornell political scientist Theodore Lowi says that the cycle of hope and disillusionment is simply built into the system. We've turned the presidency into a godlike creature, he says. As the position's power went up, so did the expectations, and that's what leads presidents to the disgrace that's certain to come to them in four to eight years. As Democrats and Republicans have secured more and more power for the occupant of the White House, presidents are expected to accomplish so many things that they can't possibly accomplish, Lowi said, and are, therefore, almost obliged to engage in deceit to hide their failures, which brings us full circle. Our idealization of the character and the capacity of a candidate helps lead him or her down the path that ends in our disillusionment.
Meanwhile, I humbly suggest that when it comes to talking about presidential candidates, a little realism wouldn't hurt us. Maybe it won't make your favorite a better president, and it's certainly is not likely to persuade Congress to scale back the power of the presidency, but it just might save you from a broken heart.
BRAND: The columns of Gregory Rodriguez appear in the Los Angeles Times. He's author of the new book "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."
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