In defense of political ambition

August 28, 2013

Cory Booker is ambitious as hell.


Newark Mayor Cory Booker

That fact comes through loud and clear in Jason Horowitz's excellent profile of the Newark (N.J.) Mayor and soon-to-be Senator.

"His detractors see him as an insatiable political animal who, in pursuit of his own national prospects, is willing to compromise on Democratic ideals and continue boosting his mutually beneficial relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is a potential Republican presidential nominee," writes Horowitz.

Conventional wisdom suggests that ambition for higher office -- or a bigger national stage -- is an unseemly characteristic in politicians, the sort of relentless climbing that people disdain in the men and women who represent them.

Bull. The Fix is a big believer in the general goodness of political ambition. Here's why.

1. ALL politicians are looking for the next big thing. Let's take politicians at their word that they got into politics because they want to serve the public. (We know that's not entirely true, but just hang with us for a minute.) Under that logic, the best way to serve the most people is to be president of the United States. Short of that, it makes sense that you can do more good/have more influence over policy as a U.S. Senator than as a state Senator.  Take that fact and then live in the real world where lots of politicians get into this line of work not just for the public service but also for the competitiveness of it, and you see that virtually everyone who gets into Congress (or even serves at the state legislative level) has their eye on something higher. Some politicians -- like Booker and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- are just more honest about it.

2. Politicians are just like us.  In what other profession would there be an expectation that you can never, ever think about what you might do next?  The Fix spent years working our butt off to get the attention of the folks at the Washington Post in hopes of landing a job here.  That didn't mean we didn't do our job at the time well; in fact, it probably meant we went above and beyond in order to showcase as much of our ability as we could. The same holds true for politicians. Would you really want to be represented by someone who was 100 percent comfortable with where he/she was and had no interest in ever doing anything else?  Restlessness -- of intellect and action -- is usually found in our greatest politicians.

3. Ambition fuels politics. Like it or not, ambition is the fuel that powers the Washington machine. (Bad metaphor alert!)  As much as we dislike "House of Cards" -- and we really dislike it -- one thing the show absolutely gets right is how ambition oozes from the Capitol. And -- unlike "House of Cards" -- not all, in fact, not most, of that ambition is used for nefarious purposes and ends. Ambition for higher office or a better assignment on a better committee often drives politicians to work together that might not do so if they were locked into the seat they held.

Yes, political ambition also, quite clearly, has a downside. (John Edwards and Anthony Weiner leap to mind.) But, to deride a politician SOLELY because he or she is ambitious is a mistake. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko: Ambition is good. Ambition is right. Ambition works.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | August 28, 2013