In what has been called “Broder’s Law,” the late David Broder stated that anyone who is prepared to do what you have to do to become president shouldn’t be allowed to be president. And truly, in an ideal world, ability, not ambition, should be the decisive factor in determining who should govern.
These days more so than in the past, however, it seems that politicians have to engage in near-constant campaigning to attain and then keep public office. And while we the voters realize and have come to expect this, we also regret and despise it; we yearn for the candidate who is reluctant, ideally someone who already has made their mark in a non-political field, has accomplished something and could enjoy the fruits of his or her success, and only through the great clamor of the man in the street is talked into running for office.
Yes, we like to see some reluctance on the part of politicians, as described well by Irving Berlin in the song “They Like Ike” from the musical “Call Me Madam”, the song that became something of a campaign song for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“They like Ike, and Ike is good on a mike;
they like Ike, but Ike says he don’t wanna.”
“That makes Ike they kind of fella they like,
and what’s more, they seem to think he’s gonna.”
Eisenhower may indeed have been the last major-party candidate of whom it may truly be said that he was reluctant to enter the fray. Already famous after his prominent role in WWII, he was courted by both parties. Coasting to victory on his personal popularity, he saw no need for intense partisanship. What I see in Ike is a healthy level of ambition, a healthy level of confidence in his own abilities.
Calvin Coolidge is a more difficult proposition. The standard view is that he was not overly ambitious; more the beneficiary of good fortune than the active driving force behind his own advancement. While this would make him, in my view at least, a very attractive political personality, I think the truth is a little more complex. Coolidge was not unaware of the options and possibilities open to him. During the 1920 Republican convention, he was careful not to be too concerned about the efforts of his friends and backers on his behalf – he stayed “on the job” in Massachusetts and did not attend the Chicago convention at all. Behind closed office doors he did, however, keep close tabs on what went on, both over the radio and by telephone. My judgment would be that there was a healthy dose of ambition in him, not as much as to be destructive, but strong enough for him to always take an active interest in events that might lead to advancement. Similarly, Coolidge had a healthy assessment of his own capabilities, famously saying, after assuming the Presidency after his predecessor’s death, “I think I can swing it.”
I see in Mitch Daniels -close to ending a long-ish period of pondering a presidential run as I type this- a character similar to both Eisenhower and Coolidge. Ambitious, yes, but not overarchingly so. Confident, yes, but not blindly. And I see an ability to lead the nation in a calm, constructive, matter-of-fact way much like those two presidents who led the nation in times of peace, prosperity and fiscal probity.