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How to deal with the age of celebrity candidates

A modest proposal for bringing back policy.

NBC's '75th Annual Golden Globe Awards' - Press Room Kevork Djansezian/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

In the excitement over a potential Oprah Winfrey presidency, there is an obvious eye-rolling response: We already elected a celebrity with no political experience to the White House, and look how well that’s working out.

And yet there is a reason many are drawn to Oprah’s candidacy — and it’s a primary reason Donald Trump succeeded. In an era of nonstop politics-as-entertainment media, there’s something appealing about a celebrity candidate known for being an inspirational problem solver on television, who makes us feel like great things are possible. Like a president should.

Each in their own ways, and for very different audiences, both Trump and Winfrey play variations on what we think we want in a president — somebody who will tell us a great story, and who exudes authoritative decisiveness.

The problem here is that the actual job of being president (understanding complex policy trade-offs) is very different from the public role of playing president (reveling in broad, inspirational generalizations).

Being president versus playing president

The old cliché was that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. The cliché still holds. But the gap between the two skills has never been wider. Campaigning is more demanding than ever; governing is more complicated than ever. It’s now almost impossible for any single individual to be able to do both.

Trump excelled as a candidate not because of his grasp of policy details, but because of how he made voters feel, what he promised emotionally. The gauzy nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” was the perfect vessel for that vague promise. Details were not his thing. He was the pitchman. This set him apart from the more serious candidates in the Republican primary, who now and then got tripped up on actual policies.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton stumbled as a candidate because she loved the details. She sweated the details. She worried about the details. She had a website full of policy papers. But she was not a natural performer. There was no inspirational vision, no great emotional narrative — just incrementalist technocratics, which she hoped you’d love as much as she did.

But you didn’t. You wanted emotionally tinged stories, with heroes and villains. Because you’re a normal human being. And you’ve come to expect something ridiculously, hyperbolically grand from your presidential candidates.

Regardless of your view of Clinton’s policy priorities, her particular skills and experiences are exactly the skills and experiences we should want a president to have. But the way we now select candidates — two years of nonstop public scrutiny on broad, sweeping narratives — cuts against selecting candidates with those skills.

Could we do better?

Perhaps this is just an education problem. Maybe we will learn our lesson from the Trump administration, and promise ourselves that next time we will select via the characteristics and experiences that qualify someone for the presidency. Maybe next time, we’ll ignore the siren sound of big, sweeping promises that sound too good to be true because they are too good to be true. Maybe next time, the media will focus more on policies, less on personality, so we don’t all get swept up in the drama.

Yeah, right.

Maybe we’ll also all give up sugar, go to the gym every day, and never waste another minute on social media.

Alternatively, maybe party leaders will do a better job of selecting candidates who have the qualifications for the job, rather than leaving it to the voters. While this is the kind of change that many political scientists would like to see, it still places everything on a single person. It does nothing to manage the demands and expectations of the public. We still face the same problem: The gauntlet of running for president is poorly calibrated for selecting the candidate most qualified to be president.

Or maybe we’ll get lucky again. After all, Barack Obama the campaigner was a masterful poet. Hope, change: These are the oldest tropes in the political challenger playbook, yet somehow he made them new and exciting again. He also turned out to be a decent manager. But there was nothing in his campaign that presaged this level of executive competence. Obama played the role of celebrity outsider perfectly. It was pure chance he turned out to be a good manager too.

Let’s elect presidential administrations instead of presidents

So let me make a modest proposal. I know it has no chance of succeeding, but bear with me, because it’s an entirely sensible proposal, and the fact that it has no chance of succeeding reveals a lot about the problems of our current presidential election process.

I begin from the premise that maybe we just need to accept that electing a president now means electing a national spokesperson, someone who can make us feel good about our country and our future, and set some general themes. But not someone who is going to understand policy details.

It’s what we collectively want. Even if we shouldn’t, it’s just how plebiscitary presidential politics works. Let’s give up on rolling the stone uphill.

So here’s the proposal: At party conventions, in addition to nominating a president and vice president, party leaders should put together a Cabinet. Party leaders would negotiate over this, a log-rolling process that would give different groups in the party coalition representation in their party’s government. The presidential nominee could play an important role in the process, but ultimately it would have to be a negotiation among different groups within the party. Losing candidates might wind up in the Cabinet, bringing their supporters along.

I see five main benefits from such a change.

First, it puts more focus on actual policy. Envision a series of debates, in which the competing secretary designees argue over policy. An hour of secretary of state designees debating foreign policy; an hour of Environmental Protection Administration head designees debating on environmental policy; an hour of attorney general designees debating on criminal justice policy. These would of course not be as well-watched as the main presidential debates, but they would give media and voters an excuse for debating actual policies, something the press failed at miserably in 2016.

Second, it makes clearer that presidential elections are not about electing a single person, but about electing a whole administration. This brings presidential campaigns more in line with presidential reality. Perhaps it would even melt away our unreasonable expectations that a single superhuman president can intelligently know everything about everything.

Third, it makes it clearer up front what voters are actually voting for. After the election, presidents appoint Cabinet secretaries in a flurry, with little time for public discussion. If voters got to scrutinize an entire administration ahead of time, we might have had a very different election.

Fourth, it would mean that administrations would be ready to get going immediately. Instead of scrambling after the elections to put together a Cabinet, they’d already have a Cabinet ready to go, composed of highly qualified people who have been vetted.

Fifth, it would strengthen parties, by making them responsible for something very important. Parties are coalitions, but with only one prize to award (the presidential nomination), they become weak, since it’s hard to bring everybody together around a single person. It’s easier to maintain and strengthen parties when there are many important prizes (various Cabinet posts) to award.

But seriously? Why would presidential candidates or parties ever do this?

Yes, this is not going to happen.

Why would presidential candidates give up their right to pick their own Cabinet, sacrificing their power? And why would candidates and parties bind themselves to particular Cabinet picks, who will say and do things that might be unpopular? The vagueness of broad, sweeping rhetoric is an obvious advantage on the campaign trail. The more clarity there is about what an administration would actually look like, the harder it is for presidential candidates to try to be all things to all people.

Besides, Americans want a superhero as president, someone who can do it all. For a president to campaign as the leader of a Cabinet undermines this magical power of the position. It undercuts the mobilizing excitement of electing a truly transcendental leader.

But this is precisely the problem. By denying the reality of modern presidential government (lots of delegation), parties and candidates feed the destructive myth of the omniscient, Green Lantern president. The expectations of the role expand, and we demand someone capable of grand, sweeping performances. We want someone who can tell us what we want about everything, capable of simultaneously understanding the policy trade-offs and ignoring the policy trade-offs in order to give us what we want. And we are repeatedly disappointed.

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