AMERICAN politics cherishes the myth that businessmen make good presidents and governors. The government, so the argument goes, ought to be run like a business, and who could do that better than a successful businessman?
What's wrong with this argument is that quite different talents are needed to be president of the United States and president of a large corporation. The president of the US is not supposed to get involved in the day-to-day running of the government. The last president who tried this was Jimmy Carter, and he made a mess. Presidents of the US are supposed to set the national agenda, as John Kennedy put it, and then use the bully pulpit of their office (Theodore Roosevelt's phrase) to persuade people to fo llow their agenda.
The presidency of the US is frequently described as the most powerful office in the world (another enduring myth). But when you come right down to it, the president cannot do very much without persuading somebody else to help him do it. This somebody else may be Congress or bureaucrats or commentators or a skeptical public, but a president can get very little done simply by telling somebody to do it.
Now Ross Perot has large numbers of people energized to get his name on the ballot in 50 states so they can vote for him to give the country a businesslike government. This, it is said, will be more efficient than what we have. Efficiency is desirable with respect to, say, the National Park Service or the Food and Drug Administration, but not with respect to what we elect presidents to do.
An inkling of Mr. Perot's concept of efficiency appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Instead of fighting the Persian Gulf war, he would have sent a commando force, possibly with Israeli help, to assassinate Saddam Hussein. One would like to think we had advanced far enough toward civilization that assassination would not be seriously argued as a tool of public policy. Granted, the rule of law is not as widely respected as we would like; but better we should strengthen it through the Unit ed Nations, as in the Persian Gulf case, than to weaken it, as assassination would do.
The current resurgence of interest in businessmen as politicians comes at a time when politicians are in deep public disfavor. Rarely in living memory has the national government been in such bad repute. And not without reason.
Mr. Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush all ran successfully for president as outsiders bashing the government. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush continued this attack even while presiding over the government. It is not surprising that some of this has stuck. Now the House is rocked by the scandal of its comic opera bank and a growing public outcry against perquisites.
What is really wrong with Congress is that party discipline has crumbled. Capitol Hill lacks coherence and the leadership cannot lead. Individual members respond by trying to save their seats by acting as ombudsmen for constituents.
This is why most people think their own member of Congress is OK, while Congress as a whole is terrible; but this is not how members of Congress are supposed to spend their time. They are supposed to deal with national problems, not local problems.
The people themselves, while expressing growing frustration over the political process, are withdrawing from it. Voting participation in presidential primaries has declined in almost every state. That is not how to fix the problem.
The federal government, president and Congress alike, has behaved irresponsibly. It will continue to do so until the people hold it accountable. To paraphrase President Kennedy, voters should ask not what members of Congress have done for their district, but what they've done for the country.
We need to go further and start restoring the influence of political parties which used to provide a sense of direction in Congress. A good deal can be said for voting a straight party ticket, which is yet another reason for abandoning independent presidential candidates.