He has a firm handshake and a confident smile. He is already planning his congressional run with his staff and advisors, but for now he will have to do with being the student government president and then a local politician. He is well versed in the conventional platitudes of political rhetoric but also has an uncanny ability to tell you exactly what you want to hear. You can never really tell who he is or what he believes, but you’re still going to end up voting for him. After all, he is “the candidate.” align=”right” Fifth in a series. Read part one, part two, part three, and part four.
Growing up on a steady diet of “The West Wing” and Fox News, the candidate spent years perfecting his political persona. By the time he reached college, he had developed a false sense of modesty to mask his otherwise off-putting unbridled ambition. He’ll skillfully deflect questions about his political aspirations and will always deny that he wants to run for office. He’ll explain that politics is a dirty business that requires tremendous levels of personal sacrifice. Why would he put himself through all of that if he didn’t have to? But… of course… he has to. It’s his duty to work in public service—after all, he’s the only person who can fix all of the problems that we have. So, can he count on your vote?
Much to the candidate’s chagrin, there is an age requirement to run for national office. And so, he settles in for his runs at student and local government. Realizing that conservatives are social pariahs on campus, he cultivates his image as a well-meaning pragmatic practitioner who won’t drag ideology into his decision making. He works hard to solve the practical problems that affect average students on a day-to-day basis and he runs one hell of a ground game on campus. And because of this, everyone knows him. And though many know that he’s a conservative, he doesn’t make it central to his identity. Instead, he makes it easy for liberals to excuse away his political affiliation. “Oh, he’s from a small town in a rural state . . . he’ll come around eventually.” “Oh, he means well and he is so devoted to his religion . . . besides, look at his dreamy eyes.”
The candidate spends his summers working as an intern at the White House or at a congressional office in order to bolster his credentials and his resume. And after college, he will enroll in law school or in the military—after all, he has a few years to kill before he can stage his congressional run. But make no mistake, he started fundraising three years ago and already knows his district inside and out. He has also made significant inroads with the Republican establishment and regularly schmoozes with conservative pundits. He has Karl Rove on speed dial and Frank Luntz as his personal mentor. And much like the Bookworm, he has convinced all of the party elders that he is the last hope for western civilization.
Ultimately, the candidate positions himself as a necessary fixture of campus conservatism. He is pragmatic enough to engage with the mundanities of student government politics while being enigmatic enough to avoid the ritual tarring and feathering of conservative students. He is also ruthless enough to routinely win campaigns. His entire life is aimed at holding political power and spends most of his time working toward that goal. With enough intelligence and diligence, there is little question that he will eventually become a congressman or a senator. And there is no doubt that conservatives need good, hard-working career politicians to fill the ranks of government.
But the candidate has a major weakness. He is following a well-defined path and is checking boxes. And because of this, he is unable to take risks or truly to speak his mind in public. He always has two sets of positions: the ones that he actually believes, and the ones that he will ultimately embrace as part of his future campaign. And he must constantly assess how any particular statement, action, friendship, or life choice will affect his political career. There is a chance that he will at some point become a leader, but at least for now, he is a follower, following the path that others set a long time ago. Ultimately he cannot call his own shots because he is too beholden to the establishment systems that allow him to function.
Most candidates are well meaning—they have been instilled with a sense of duty and service and truly want to make the world a better place. But be wary. The higher the candidate climbs up the winding path of politics, the harder it will be for him to discern the line at which the means no longer justify the ends; and given his lifelong practice of pragmatically playing politics, there is no guarantee that he won’t bound over it with gusto.
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