Real Hope and Change Comes From Ideas Not Politics

In 1993, I officially launched my campaign for President of the United States.  Granted, I was only 17 years old, hadn’t graduated high school yet, and wasn’t a member of the Kennedy family.  Nonetheless, I developed a plan —go to college, study political science, do something for 20 years, then become the youngest POTUS in history.
Truth is, I had been inspired (or rather uninspired) by the presidential election of 1992.  Watching George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot pander, obfuscate, deceive, and flip-flop, I was greatly disappointed in the quality of the candidates.  I reached the conclusion—as I assume did many others—that I was more intelligent, more honest, and more principled than those seeking the highest office in the land.   
But although it was the ‘92 election that first drew me in, it was not electoral politics and campaigning that I was truly passionate about.  It was political ideas.  
Shortly thereafter, I penned my first letter to the editor, in support of NAFTA (I don’t remember the economic arguments I used at the time, though I’m sure I thought they were brilliant), but it was years later that I realized my dream of being President was only a tool to accomplish what truly motivated me—persuading others.
Becoming President was based on the belief that I had great ideas grounded in history, economics, political philosophy, and I wanted to share them.  My political goal in life—and with the Commonwealth Foundation—is to convince the world of the merits of those ideas.

In interviewing for my current position, I was asked to name my political heroes—I assume to gauge my philosophical leanings. But I had to respond that I didn’t have any “political heroes,” because I’ve been disappointed by most politicians.  Perhaps that is because I’ve put too much stock in them in the past, and they never live up to the hype.  The reality is that politicians are human, and humans are flawed.  To borrow from my favorite movie of all time, Braveheart, “All men betray, all lose heart.”  Or, as James Madison writes, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  
Focusing solely on winning elections is a waste of energy.  Too often we expect to elect heroes to office; men and women who, unlike the rest of us, will put aside their own self-interest and act for the public good.  I have friends who believe if we would just elect a few good people to office, everything would change.  I’ve met others who spent most of their time fighting for “the lesser of two evils,” and some who hope we elect a great villain in order to bring about a great hero.  But I have come to realize that we cannot depend on great men to reform a corrupt system or to scale back a government that has grown far beyond its purpose.
We should not put too much faith in any politician to transform our political culture. Whether it’s Obama’s message of hope and change, McCain’s image as a maverick, the mythical inerrancy of Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, or Jefferson, or even the Benefield for President campaign, the reality will always disappoint. Politics forces the greatest statesmen to make promises they can’t keep, compromise on their principles, and do things to win elections that they wouldn’t otherwise. You can’t put flawed men into a flawed system and expect anything but flawed results.  
But it is not the fault of politicians.  If you want to know who is to blame, look in the mirror.  We have enabled this culture of celebrity to take over our system of government.  We donate far more to politicians than to political causes or advocates.  The media covers politics like a horse race without engaging in the debate over ideas—and we soak it up.  We closely follow polls and the personal lives of candidates, but ignore the fundamental debates about good public policy.  
Without an active, vibrant, and well-informed citizenry, we will never build that City on a Hill. It is the power of ideas, not heroic political leaders, to which we must turn.
Ideas change the world.  There will never be slavery again in this country.  Women will never again be denied the right to vote.  No American will ever be prohibited from attending the church of their choosing.  In other countries, these rights are frequently abridged.  Why not here?  Because these ideas have taken root in the public consciousness.  
Yet we are still waging a war over the truth of our ideas.  The virtues of limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility are frequently challenged. We must continue to champion the power of school choice, the wisdom of public-private partnerships in transportation, the benefits of lower taxes, the merits of a part-time legislature, and the means to diminish the corrupting power of big government.
Do I still want to become President?  Perhaps.  But only if I can be elected while staying true to my principles.  If I do that, I will already have accomplished my goal.
Winning the war of ideas—not an election—is the true objective for which I fight, and to which those who believe in the principles of a free and just society should join.
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Nathan Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.