Balkinization  

Sunday, January 28, 2007

High School Sports and Presidential Elections

Mark Graber

Mepham High School selected members of the basketball team on the basis of their performance on the basketball team the year before and their performance in a series of basketball games and drills held during tryouts. The system, used in almost every other high school, was obviously imperfect and left a good deal of room for some favoritism and kids having hot (or cold) spells. Still, I think general agreement existed at Mepham when I was there that the vast majority of kids on the varsity basketball team were among the best basketball players in the school.

Mepham High School selected members of the student government on the basis of competitive elections. Past performance in student government played no role in this selection. If memory serves me correctly, neither the president of the senior class nor the president of the student government during my senior year had played a major role in student government or any other similar institution while in high school. Certainly, no one campaigned for the office on basis of their demonstrated past capacity to govern. Rather, what we heard were promises to do better than the incumbent administration. Similar campaigns, I gather, annually take place in the vast majority of American high schools.

The adult world seems little different from Mepham High School. Professional coaches choose members of their teams on the basis of how well aspirants have played the sport in the past and their performance in a series of games and drills during tryout camps. We select our political leaders, most notably the president, in ways that more resemble high school student government elections. Looking in particular at the Democratic Party frontrunners, past efforts to govern seem irrelevant. Barack Obama may be articulate, but he has done no more in the past four years than any other Senator. Hillary Clinton seems to have spent her first term desperately trying to avoid responsibility for advocating or opposing any major legislation. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is arguably one of the few young Democrats who has actually attempted to champion and oppose policies. If this were a basketball tryout, he’d make the team. But as we are talking about a presidential election, actual efforts to govern seem the same disqualification they often were in high school. The upside is that because not every Democratic in the Senate is running for president, a few might actually make some effort at serious governance. But we should no more expect Obama and Clinton to play leadership roles in the Senate than we should expect the politically ambitious high school juniors in our communities to exhibit leadership in the student government as a springboard for their campaign this spring for senior class president.

Perhaps this is a reasonable way of selecting political leaders. At least during my senior year, the senior class president and head of the student government did a far better job than did the basketball team. Still, the progressive in me thinks that we might learn more about aspirants for the presidency by watching them on the floor of the Senate than watching them on the campaign trail raising money. Perhaps, mirroring Sandy Levinson, I should begin the following countdown: 723 days until anyone presently in serious contention for the Democratic nomination makes a serious effort to govern.

Comments:

Past performance in student government played no role in this selection. If memory serves me correctly, neither the president of the senior class nor the president of the student government during my senior year had played a major role in student government or any other similar institution while in high school. Certainly, no one campaigned for the office on basis of their demonstrated past capacity to govern.

I wonder how relevant experience is (understanding that relevant "experience" may well be in the eye of the beholder). Here's a list of Presidential contests with the more experienced candidate listed first:

1. Adams/Jefferson
2. Adams/Jackson
3. Douglas/Lincoln
4. Taft/Wilson
5. Hoover/Roosevelt
6. Nixon/Kennedy
7. Carter/Reagan

Sometimes experience is the reason a candidate is replaced.
 

Mark Field makes a sound point, that the relationship between experience and presidential performance is complex. Agreed. But I wasn't quite after experience in the sense of years in office. Rather, I was struck by the way in which those Senators running for president have been among the senators who have most actively refrained from taking leadership roles in the Senate. I am struck, in short, by how actively Clinton and Obama are trying to run for president by not taking advantage of their present opportunities for governing. Of the 7 candidates on the right side of the experience ledger, only Jackson can be said to have run the sort of campaign that is common now.
 

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Still, the progressive in me thinks that we might learn more about aspirants for the presidency by watching them on the floor of the Senate than watching them on the campaign trail raising money.

That is the point of your post, imo, that has the most functional implications going forward.

A legislative framework needs to be devised to remove the corrosive effect of money in politics, even if amending the Constitution is required to accomplish it.

Until such a process is formulated, the capacity to raise money will often trump ability, character, experience, or past performance.
 

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