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Rarely do you find someone who excels both in policy and in politics. The policy wonk can manufacture ideas, but he cannot sell them. The political hack, on the other hand, can sell anything, but he needs products.
Harvardians dread this dilemma. To avoid it, they try to learn practical skills. At the Institute of Politics, for instance, they attend study groups like “From College to Congress: Preparing as a Student to Run for Public Office” or “Staffing Up: How to Hire (and Fire) Campaign Staff and Consultants.”
I’m skeptical of this approach. The only way to gain practical knowledge is to practice it. Study groups merely fool you into thinking you’re experienced. Rather, you should spend your years in college grappling with your beliefs—not with imaginary pollsters.
Unconvinced? Let’s take an example—a model, if you will: Congressman Paul D. Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin. I consider Mr. Ryan a model because he is serious. He does not simply oppose President Barack Obama’s agenda; he offers a better one in its place. To solve our fiscal crisis, for example, Mr. Ryan has proposed a “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which even the president considers “a serious proposal.”
Mr. Ryan is wonkish yet savvy. He represents a congressional district that favored President Obama in the last election. So how did he spend his time in college? Was he constantly knocking on doors?
“I did very little door-knocking,” Mr. Ryan told me. “I did some for John Boehner; but at the time, I didn’t know how to pronounce the guy’s name. I spent my formative years reading. I had a great economics professor, Richard Hart. He was conservative, and he put me onto this stuff. I was reading the supply-siders like [Robert] Mundell and [Robert L.] Bartley on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page…Political philosophy, that’s where I spent more of my time.”
In particular, he spent more of his time with the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. “I grew up learning about all these other ideas—the progressive model and such—and that had never set right with me. One of the first things I read in college was Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ It just made so much sense to me. It was about reaching human potential. Individualism is far more pro-human than collectivism; I think Hayek did a great job of showing that,” Mr. Ryan said.
Still, students—especially conservatives—fear that intellectuals make poor politicians because they eventually become snobs. Yet Mr. Ryan, admittedly bookish, defends average Americans, particularly Tea Partiers. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed by the tea parties. They are people fed up with big government. That is something that every conservative should be comfortable with…It’s more of a snobbish thing. If you’re trying not to be associated with tea parties, you’re not prepared to intellectually defend your ideas.”
But surely, I said, there is a tension between intellect and politics. In a university, you can admit the weaknesses in your argument without fear. In a campaign, however, honesty can be fatal.
“I think the opposite,” Mr. Ryan replied. “If you have a weak argument, don’t make it. A lot of these issues involve tradeoffs; you should be explicit in the upside and the downside. If there is downside to a particular policy, you should be the one to discuss it rather than let your opponent discuss it.”
There you have it: an intellectual politician. And, encouragingly, he’s not a wimp. When I asked whether he should accept the fact that Democrats won the last election and stop writing bills that die in committee, he objected: “So we should surrender our principles? I think we owe it to people to give them an alternative. The reason my plan is not going anywhere is because Democrats control Washington. I’m not prepared to accept that as a permanent condition. You don’t get the climate of change without giving a principled detailed alternative.”
“Fine,” you ask ever so pragmatically, “What is the takeaway?” It is that a bookworm can get elected. True, Mr. Ryan had experience before running for office—he was Senator Sam Brownback’s legislative director. But he gained that experience after college. During college, he was reading, listening, thinking.
Harvardians say they wished politicians did more of that. My response to their complaint is, “Well, now’s the time to do it.”
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, an editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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