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The presidency is not an award we give for achievement in another field

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Over at the Concourse, Albert Burneko expresses puzzlement at the demise of Larry Lessig's presidential campaign:

Lessig's résumé, by any reasonable standard, is very impressive. He is among America's most credible and authoritative voices on political and campaign finance reform, as well as on technology and internet rights, which will be among the most important areas of public policy in the 21st century. He has degrees in economics, management, philosophy, and law; he has clerked in the Supreme Court; and he is one of the top professors at Harvard Law School, from whence graduated the current presidents of both the United States and Taiwan, five of the nine sitting justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and damn near every other political figure whose name you know who has a law degree. He helped write the constitution of the nation of Georgia! He co-founded Creative Commons! He was fictionalized in an episode of The West Wing, for god's sake! How many of the other candidates have been portrayed by Emmy- and Independent Spirit Award-winning thespian Christopher Lloyd, I ask you? None of them.

And yet, none of this—nor a campaign as formally and legitimately declared as any other, nor fundraising and polling numbers not meaningfully smaller than Jim Webb's or Martin O'Malley's—could even get Lessig on the stage for the Oct. 13 Democratic debate.

Scott Lemieux rightly notes that we don't, thankfully, pick presidents this way:

Not every smart person who has written books and has expertise on certain political issues is capable of being a good political leader. Policy expertise is no guarantee that you'll have good ideas about how to bring desirable policy changes about, and Lessig has now shown this multiple times, after attracting money that could be used for something that's actually useful.

Yes. For whatever reason, Burneko's piece brought me back to an episode in season one of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), entitled "Cosmic Whiz Kid." The whiz kid is a character named Hieronymus Fox, played by none other than Gary Coleman. I swear I am not making this up. Bear with me.

The setup is that Coleman's character is supposed to have been a child genius growing up on Earth in the late 20th century. He had himself cryogenically frozen but was later thawed, and the planet Genesia thought he was so brilliant that they named him their president. That's it. Genesians was so hungry for leadership, they elected a child from another world simply because he was smart.

Obviously this is an extreme example, and this wasn't a particularly well-thought-out plot even by the standards of Buck Rogers. But the idea that the presidency is some sort of reward for people who have excelled in some other area is well-established. It's certainly the rationale of the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who tout, respectively, their wealth and surgical skill as their chief qualification for office. It was the rationale of Ross Perot, who claimed his business know-how gave him insight into how to eliminate the debt and repair the US economy.

This is also a rationale that's belied by decades of former governors and senators occupying the White House. Parties recognize that the presidency is an actual job requiring not just intelligence, wisdom, or determination, but political skill. Knowing which agenda items to push for and which to abandon when times get tough; knowing whom to appoint to what positions and whom to avoid; knowing how to work with Congress when possible and fight them when necessary; knowing the tone to take during a war, crisis, or natural disaster; knowing how to work with people you can't stand and occasionally break with longtime allies; knowing when advisers are being honest with you and when they're pushing crap — these are actual skills, and they are vital to the job of the presidency. Some people may have more aptitude for them than others, but they all take time and effort to hone, and there's absolutely no reason to think that a well-published law professor, a wealthy real estate mogul, or a talented surgeon has more of these skills than anyone else does.

Arguably, military generals are an exception here — neither Eisenhower nor Grant, for example, had held elective political office prior to their presidencies. Yet being a general is a deeply political job, requiring management of a complex bureaucracy and extensive dealings with Congress and the White House. The presidency was no doubt frustrating at times for its former military heroes, but it was hardly alien to them.

In general, if you want to succeed in politics, do just that. Get involved at the local level as an activist, staffer, or candidate. People with actual political experience tend to do better when they run for office than even very successful people from other lines of work. Partially, that's because the political experience helps, and candidates learn mistakes to avoid. But partially, it's because the parties don't want amateurs.