Politics Isn't 'American Idol'

Governor and senator are not entry-level jobs.

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In this Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009 photo, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, right, arrive at a state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House in Washington. The Secret Service is looking into its own security procedures after determining that the Virginia couple managed to slip into Tuesday night's state dinner at the White House even though they were not on the guest list, agency spokesman Ed Donovan said.

In campaigns of yore, there were always a few random gadflies who would file papers to run for some office which they clearly were unqualified to hold. They knew this, on some level, and were largely running as some sort of statement or protest. These runs were valuable on that level, drawing some attention to what was wrong with the major party candidates or front-runners. Typically, those candidates were utterly unknown to anyone outside their own communities, and only got attention when some local reporter would do the obligatory story on the Area Man who was running for president against all odds.

That standard has changed, largely because of the culture of celebrity and the even more troubling belief in instant celebrity that has been fomented by such shows as "American Idol." There is a sense now that one doesn't have to actually work or acquire experience before assuming an important role or job.

There has been a backlash against the so-called "elites" that has taken on an absurd quality. I run a rather plodding a 10 and a half minute mile. Should the U.S. Olympic team let me on the squad to prove it's not elitist? Nope. So why do people think anyone is qualified to serve in public office?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The most recent, and arguably most grotesque, display of this trend is in the form of the quest by Virginian Tareq Salahi, best known for crashing a White House party, to be governor of the Old Dominion. Having failed to get the necessary 10,000 signatures to appear on the ballot as an independent (congratulations, Virginia voters, for that), Salahi is now trying to win as a write-in candidate.

Most likely, of course, Salahi isn't really trying to win. He just wants attention, and hasn't gotten much recently since the press grew tired of the tales of him and his ex-wife's distasteful behavior – not to mention their financial and legal troubles. Salahi maintains the cover story that he's running for public service reasons, telling the Washington Post that he has deduced that voters "are not comfortable voting for either candidate" for governor because they "fear the direction these two will take." Adds Salahi:

I urge my fellow Virginians to rise up and join me in letting our voices be heard.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Does Barack Obama Have a Mandate?]

The trouble with Salahi's reasoning – along with that of others who run for high office with no experience in public policy – is that he doesn't understand the difference between campaigning for the job and actually doing the job. Campaigning is a time to have a voice. Being governor (or senator, or congressman, or president) means actually having to deal with budgets, national security crises and policies to address education, poverty and justice. It's work; it's hard work, and it's made even harder by the fact that elected officials have to work with people who have radically different world visions.

Disaffection with the current government, or even with the major party candidates, is not alone a justification for running, let alone a justification for winning. Governor and  senator are not entry-level jobs. Both offices could use some new blood. But that doesn't mean those candidates don't have to earn it first.