The Cincinnatus Trap

Conservatives and libertarians have a certain romantic fascination with Cincinnatus, by reputation if not by name.  Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who reluctantly left his fields to take charge of the Republic during a moment of crisis, served wisely and selflessly for precisely as long as he was needed, and trudged quietly back to his farm when Rome was safe once again.  There’s a statue in his namesake city of Cincinnati that shows him surrendering the symbols of power with one hand, while he limbers up his trusty plow with the other.

That’s the mythological ideal of a limited-government president, isn’t it?  He, or she, would be a successful businessperson of great intelligence and humility, modestly accepting the nomination of the Republican Party without any unseemly hardball campaigning.  Our citizen-candidate would catch an early morning flight out of Galt’s Gulch and arrive in Washington just in time for the inauguration, and serve a term of courageous and principled reform.  With those years of noble service complete, our hero would ride off into the sunset, leaving behind nothing but a note requesting that all funds collected for a presidential library should be donated to cancer research instead.

This ideal is a dead end, an intellectual bear trap that ultimately serves the purposes of the Left.  Embracing it will deny us the tough and energetic leadership we need for real reform to succeed in Washington.

I found myself thinking of the Cincinnatus Trap as I read an opinion piece from former Republican senator John Sununu in the Boston Globe on Monday.  Sununu criticizes prospective GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sarah Palin for being “captivated by the idea of being President,” which makes them “exactly the type of political figure our country’s founders were worried about.”

Sununu goes on to recount the Founders’ abiding suspicion of populism, reminding us how they were “troubled – some might say preoccupied – with the potential dangers of ambition, factions, and concentrated power.”  Although he assures us he doesn’t “view Palin or Trump as a threat to the republic,” he feels “ill at ease with officeholders or candidates who are too enamored with the idea of holding a particular office.” 

Here’s the problem: no one will win a modern Presidential race unless they want the Oval Office like Gollum wants the One Ring.  The 2012 race will be an incredible test of endurance and character.  No matter how affable and inoffensive they might seem today, any candidate who runs against Barack Obama will be mercilessly savaged.  The media will sit up nights preparing ambush interviews, and magnify the smallest gaffe into evidence of greed, stupidity, or psychosis.  Every moment of the candidate’s history will be scrutinized, every element of their personal lives will be weaponized, and every member of their families will be a target.

In 2008, swarms of reporters went crawling through dumpsters in Alaska, while aliens who chose to make first contact by landing a saucer in Chicago would have found not a single reporter to cover the event.  It’s going to be like that again in 2012, but even more so.  The candidate will spend the first round of media appearances appealing a summary conviction of racism, hypocrisy, and slavish obedience to the Evil Rich. 

No humble Cincinnatus is going to be able to weather that kind of storm, or generate the non-stop energy and flawless attention to detail required of today’s high-profile candidates.  Even if public disgust with Obama is so powerful that a modest candidate could waltz into the Oval Office, they wouldn’t be able to fight the tough battles that lie ahead.  The man or woman who answers America’s call in this desperate hour will be at war with the system itself.  A terrible network of gears, covered with decades of rusted ideology, waits to devour them.

Turning up our noses at Republicans who display a hearty appetite for the White House grants a tremendous advantage to the Democrats, who can disguise the ambition of their candidates behind a veil of sanctimony.  People like Barack Obama are never portrayed as being hungry for power.  Instead, they care so damn much for “working Americans” and the downtrodden that their full-contact, no-holds-barred battle for power is transformed into a holy crusade.  They enjoy a presumption of selfless nobility that will never be extended to any Republican… even one who shows up in Washington lugging a bag lunch and a dirty plow.

Many words will be used to describe the man or woman who unseats Barack Obama in 2012.  “Reluctant” will not be one of them.