At the moment, the political firmament twinkles with amateurs. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most famous of them, by virtue of a movie career. Arianna Huffington is another, by virtue of little ideological virtue. They are both running for governor of California where, should either win, neither would have the slightest idea of what to do next. That's not because they are dumb. It's because they have never done anything remotely similar in the past.
Something comparable can be said about Wesley Clark and, to a degree, Howard Dean. Clark has never campaigned for anything -- and already his inexperience has shown. He stepped all over his overriding message -- that he's the antiwar candidate who has actually been to war -- by saying, and then retracting, that he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war. With his first campaign shot, Clark got himself right in the foot.
This game of politics is complicated. From time to time, the gifted amateur comes along -- Eisenhower, Reagan -- but it is no accident that the two are often likened to each other. They were enormously appealing presences, and they both had more than a smattering of political experience -- Ike as supreme commander in World War II, Reagan as a union and anti-communist activist.
More important, both Ike and Reagan had important constituencies that urged them to run -- and when they did, they won big. Reagan beat his first gubernatorial opponent by almost a million votes. Ike swamped Adlai Stevenson. No one is predicting that kind of win for Schwarzenegger, and no one is predicting anything for Huffington who, nonetheless, has the backing of some very smart people.
What are these people thinking? Huffington could not govern. The Democratic-controlled legislature is not going to play ball with someone who once swooned for Newt Gingrich and helped run her former husband's Republican senatorial campaign. As for Schwarzenegger, that same legislature is going to be there for him, too. Maybe he can be persuasive, but that's impossible to say from his record. He has none.
Look at Jesse Ventura, a relative amateur who became governor of Minnesota on the basis of straight talking and a to-hell-with-politics persona. It turned out a big mouth was not enough. Ventura could not get along with the legislature -- actually, with almost anyone -- and is now back in show business, from which, it can fairly be said, he never left.
I can appreciate the yearning for the outsider, since too many politicians become so burdened by experience they can't say anything straight. But the tendency to see all issues as contemporary Gordian knots -- one slash of the sword will do it -- severely underestimates the complexity of governing. After you win, you actually have to do something.
In California, the swallows come back to Capistrano and the chickens come home to roost. The state has term limits, which means it has an ineffective legislative leadership and lobbyists hold enhanced power. It is increasingly ruled by propositions, which means by voter snit. It confuses celebrity with political talent because, somehow, all fame is the same. It has made a mess of itself.
Wes Clark plunged into the presidential race without the foggiest notion of what he thinks on a range of domestic issues. Schwarzenegger mutters "details, details" while reading up on what he should already know. Huffington would govern from the left -- or maybe the right. The Candidate was a drama. What's happening now is a farce.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.