Is Politics a Catch-22?

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Feb 26, 2007 9:20 AM

Is it possible to be in the arena -- and still be popular?

Earlier this week, Barack Obama was dragged into the trenches of hardball politics, when David Geffen offered some negative comments about the Clintons.  Obama, of course, was hoping to stay above the fray and above partisan politics.  The only problem is, you can't wrestle with a pig and not get a little muddy.  At the very least, you get splattered when others wrestle in the mud (which is precisely what happened to Sen. Obama).

If Barack Obama -- Mr. Nice Guy -- can't avoid the pitfalls of partisan politics, you might wonder if anyone can avoid it.  ... Which makes me wonder if it's worth doing, in the first place.  Consider this:

Newt Gingrich -- the man who brilliantly helped Republicans take control of Congress for the first time in 40 years -- was demonized beyond belief in the late 90s, by the press and by his political enemies. Yet today, (out of office) he is in high-demand as a political strategist, pundit, writer, and speaker who is thought of as one of the few highly-articulate Republicans.

After the 2000 elections, Al Gore left politics with his tail between his legs. Seemingly over night, he gained a lot of weight, grew a beard, and disappeared from the pubic view. In 2004, he endorsed Howard Dean (which may have spelled doom for Dean). But today, (out of office) Al Gore is an Oscar winner and a highly influential liberal activist and leader.

Both Newt Gingrich and Al Gore endured stunning political defeats and disasters, only to rehabilitate their careers.  Today, many "true believers" (in their respected parties) think these men are better than any of the candidates currently running for president. But there is a problem with their running:

The irony is that both Newt and Gore owe much of their popularity to having left politics. It's really a catch-22. You can't win unless you’re popular, but if you get involved in politics, you become less popular.

Being out of power can be liberating. You can take bold and unpopular policy positions without fear of losing donors or major supporters. Think ethanol is a bunch of bull? Now you can say it! You also get to escape the controversial issues of the day.

As Jerry Seinfeld proved when he cancelled his show when it was still doing great in the ratings, timing is vital.  Being out of office at the right time is a blessing.  For example, Newt is lucky to been out of office during the 2006 elections. Rudy was lucky to leave office at his apogee -- right after 9-11.  (If Bush's term had expired in 2002, he would have probably been regarded as one of our greatest presidents.)

My concern is that the minute either Newt or Gore gets involved in politics (as a candidate), the halos will come off. Sure, there will be a brief honeymoon -- but then -- it's back to the old days.

In today's media age, it's very difficult for any presidential candidate (much less an elected president) to remain popular.  I have been surprised that Rudy has maintained his popularity.  Conventional wisdom was that his numbers would crumble once he got in the race (and endured the predictable slings and arrows).  Thus far, that has not happened.  Could it be that the rules are changing?

Note: I haven't given up on the romance of politics. It's still possible to have a Reagan or a Churchill -- a bold leader who can endure the political battles -- and still go down in history highly regarded. But remember, Ronald Reagan had to endure Iran Contra -- and Churchill was turned out of office after leading his nation through WWII. In a world where our average politicians get melted, even our legends get a little tarnished.

By the way, this is also true in sports and entertainment, as well as politics.  As one of my heroes Joe Gibbs has found out, second acts are hard. Heck, even Michael Jordon found out third acts are darn near impossible.

Barack Obama is beginning to discover that it's impossible to be in the world, but not of the world (when it comes to politics).  Rudy Giuliani has, thus far, managed to play the game quite well.  But, despite his personal background, he enters the game not having taken a signifcant national hit on his reputation.  He has not yet been demonized to the degree both Gingrich and Gore were in the late 90s.  By pulling out of the Senate race against Hillary, Rudy avoided the nastiness that would surely have come out of that race.  It remains to be seen whether or not he can be the exception to this rule.

Both Newt Gingrich and Al Gore are very popular today.  Both are rightly considered serious contenders for the presidency (if they choose to seek it).  Are they willing to sacrifice the comfort of adoration for the trials of the campaign trail?