Rep. Rick Lazio was carrying on the other day about how he’s a genuine New Yorker who rides the subways, whereas Hillary uses a “chauffeured limousine”—a vehicle never previously seen in New York, apparently—when, according to the New York Times, someone asked him how much a MetroCard costs. It was slightly a trick question: You can buy them in various amounts. Unfortunately $3—Lazio’s guess—isn’t one of those amounts.
No politician, I presume, ventures into public these days without knowing the price of a gallon of milk. Price, to show that they’re regular guys who go grocery shopping and need to worry about what ordinary things cost. Milk, to suggest wholesomeness (“I don’t know, but a liter of gin is about $15,” would not be a good answer, even in New York). A gallon, to signify family man with lots of children. (Another bad answer: “A half-quart costs about 82 cents. If I buy any more it goes sour in the fridge.”)
All that knowing the price of milk really proves is that you’ve got good handlers. Lazio probably was ready for the milk question when he got blindsided by the subway one. Serves him right, of course, for his tiresome harping on what a real New Yorker and regular guy he is. A pro-Lazio TV commercial being run by the Conservative Party mysteriously picks up these very themes, although by law it is supposed to be uncoordinated with the Lazio campaign. It’s a photo montage that (according to the voice-over) “could be from any New Yorker’s life” or “could be from Rick Lazio’s own photo album,” but (according to the Times) is mostly stock images from ad agency files.
It’s true that Lazio was born and raised in New York. Went to college there too (Vassar). He then went to law school in D.C. (American University). A stint as a county prosecutor and then, in his early 30s, he was elected to Congress. Now he wants to be a senator and probably dreams of being president. He is, in short, a career politician and has been one his whole adult life. His passions and aspirations are in Washington, not New York. If he actually does know the price of milk, he looks forward to forgetting it. He would like to have a job that required you to ride around in a limousine without requiring you to admit you like it.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that! Another way to put Lazio’s story is that this man decided early on to dedicate his life to public service. That he is directing his brains and ambition toward democracy instead of capitalism. (You get a limo if you win either of these lotteries.) Unfortunately, while our culture currently treats naked business ambition as almost saintlike, it treats naked political ambition as shameful. In a free-market economy, one person’s business success can, and often does, benefit everybody—though it’s not clear why we need to be wildly grateful on top of the material rewards. Political success, by contrast, requires at least some direct concern about the general good. Yet political success in America also requires pretending that political success is not your life’s goal.
Lazio’s party is partly responsible for his tragic inability to come out of the closet and admit his desires. The Republicans have promoted a powerful variant on populism aimed at an elite of politicians, professors, artsy-fartsy types, and suchlike specimens. When this works, as it worked wonderfully from 1980 through 1992, it redirects public resentment from the traditional financial elite and any favors the GOP may be doing for its members at the moment.
Compared with those years, anti-pol populism seems like a spent force. Gosh, remember term limits? What a frenzy that was. We almost had a constitutional amendment! Millions of Americans, most congressional Republicans, not a few Democrats, and George F. Will all became convinced that life was unbearable if anyone could serve in Congress for more than six years. Then Republicans won control of Congress (running on term limits, among other issues), times got good, people got bored, the issue disappeared, life went on. It’s now safe for a politician—even one who got elected initially on term limits—to run for a fourth or fifth term. But it’s still not safe to openly admit that you’re a career politician. Let alone add “and proud of it.”