Professor-Politicians:

Eugene asks about successful Professor-Politicians.  Commenters add several he omitted, most notably Dick Armey.  To the list we can also add former Mercer Law Prof Jim Marshall of Georgia and the late Paul Wellstone (oddly, if you type in a Google search for “Was Paul Wellstone ___,” Google suggests the word “murdered” instead of “a professor”).

For me it brings to mind the famous story about Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s challenge to incumbent James Buckely in the 1976 New York Senate race.  Buckely at one point referred to Moynihan as “”Professor Moynihan from Harvard” to which Moynihan memorably replied, “the mudslinging has begun!”

But Eugene’s post suggests a larger point–I suspect that the real reason why there are so few successful professor-politicians is a matter of temperament.  Academia is at root a job for introverts who like to sit in their offices and read and write.  Politics is at root a job for extroverts who like meeting and working with other people.  It is this same dichotomy that suggests why so few academics are interested in, or capable of, being a successful dean or administrator.

My impression is that this dichotomy may have grown in recent years.  As professors generally have come to teach less and gain fewer rewards for student interaction, the self-selection for introverted personality types has grown.  Meanwhile, the almost universal growth in administration in universities has led to more people pursuing those jobs as a permanent career and an earlier self-selection into those jobs, as naturally smart but less-introverted people move into administrative careers earlier.  The extreme specialization of academia today, moreover, reinforces this divergence in the career path as administrators find it increasingly difficult to return to research after being away.  In a more teaching-oriented world, I suspect that movement in and out of administration is probably easier.

My prediction would be that in years to come we will see more academic-politicians–but drawn increasingly from a class of professional university administrators that increasingly is coming to look more like corporate CEOs or politicians and less from the ranks of typical professors.

Note also that in recent years it seems that there are a larger number of politician-professors–a movement from politics to academia.  One thinks of Tom Kean, Bob Kerrey, and Hank Brown, as examples of Senators who became university presidents.  I suspect that has something to do with the nature of the job of a university president these days, which is much more of a CEO-type job of managing a large organization, and a glad-handing fund-raising job, rather than steward of the intellectual mission of the institution.  I have my doubts as to whether that is a beneficial development overall, but it does seem to be the case.

As to Eugene’s query about the errors that might arise from professor-politicians, I think that he is likely being too kind to our colleagues in the academy.  I think more likely is not that professors would overestimate articulateness and data, but rather that professors in general have very little patience for the minutiae of policy.  As one who has worked in and with the government I am struck by how much detail work there is in the regulatory and legislative process, and that this is the truly hard work of the job.  And work that I suspect that professors are ill-suited to tackle.  I think this is what an academic might be tempted to refer to as “boring details,” but is the bread-and-butter of actual policymaking.  I suspect that a government run by academics would look an awful lot like the Berkeley city council rather than an oasis of reason and data.

As for President Obama, I suspect that the issues that have arisen have less to do with the professorial aspect of his personality (however we choose to define that).  Instead, I think that his performance thus far tends to confirm a concern that was raised when he was running–that he does not have an “executive” temperament, by which I mean the ability to act decisively and then move on.  Of course, it is possible to have an overabundance of executive personality in terms of acting too decisively and being unable to reconsider a course of action–as arguably George W. Bush illustrates.

I suspect that is much of the appeal that Sarah Palin had in 2008 was that she was the only one in the race with executive experience and executive temperament.  Like GWB, it seems likely that she probably has that in over-abundance.  But voters, I suspect, look for an executive temperament in their Presidents, which is a main reason, I suspect, that Governors tend to become President rather than Senators.  Palin’s popularity, I further suspect, is largely a manifestation of being compared to such a weak group when she arrived on the national scene (Obama, Biden, and McCain).  Compared to a group of more plausible and qualified presidential candidates, especially those with executive experience, I doubt that she’d have gotten any traction.  Compared to that particular group though, for those who consider executive decisiveness a valuable presidential attribute she provided a distinct contrast to the others.  If she runs for President in 2012 and she gets matched up with others who have worn the mantle of executive decisionmaking but also have greater knowledge to back it up (Romney, Huckabee, Pawlenty, Barbour), her distinct appeal compared to the 2008 general election field will be less prominent.