How To Run For Congress

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I love election season. My fondness for it may be stronger now that I don't actually have to be out campaigning or raising campaign funds, but as an American I find it immensely inspiring. 

In towns and cities from one end of the country to the other, men and women at this moment are doing their best to grapple with the hard issues that confront us and to persuade their fellow citizens that their approach will help this nation grow stronger. We get to weigh what they say and do, and make our choice at the ballot box. This is the heartbeat of our democracy, and I never tire of listening to it. 

Just as amazing is the fact that ordinary people — our friends and neighbors, our teachers and military veterans and farmers and shop owners — have decided to step forward and run for office. They know that the challenges of campaigning are enormous. Yet often, when I speak in public, a few listeners will come up to me afterward and ask my advice on running for Congress. Our hurried conversation always feels inadequate to me, so here's what I wish I had the time to tell them. 

First, know why you're running, and be able to articulate it. "I want to serve my country" is not enough. In my experience, the vast majority of members of Congress are there because they want to make America a better place, but most Americans — if current surveys are to be believed — believe they're there to enrich themselves. Just as important, people aren't interested in hearing only about problems; they also want to hear about solutions. So know what you want to accomplish and be straightforward about it — Americans can spot phoniness amazingly quickly. 

You should also be prepared to spend an enormous amount of energy. Campaigning is exhausting work. It begins early in the morning in front of plant gates, and ends late at night in neighborhood bowling alleys and American Legion halls and wherever else people congregate and might be willing to lend an ear. 

That is why enjoying people is an enormous asset for a candidate. A campaign is an unrelenting parade of people; indeed, I know of no business that brings you in touch with a wider variety of people than politics. One night you're making the rounds in a popular watering hole, and the next morning you're in church; one day you're shaking hands and patting babies' heads at a county fair, and the next you're sitting around a table trading ideas with community leaders. In some ways, Americans look at Congress as a local office, and they want to be able to size you up, eyeball to eyeball. 

Yet if you have to become good at getting yourself across, you also have to learn how to listen. People don't just want to hear what you have to say, they want you to know and to care about what they think; if you can't be troubled to pay attention and ask good questions, they won't trouble themselves to vote for you. 

Moreover, as a politician, you need to be able to size up a crowd quickly; since every crowd is different, you need to be able to gauge whether they're pleased or reluctant to see you, and whether they're after a reasoned exchange of views or want a red-meat tub-thumper that will get them fired up to help you. 

For the truth is, you can't run for Congress alone. You need a core of aides who can help you with advertising, polling, research, writing speeches, developing positions, scheduling your time, figuring out how to respond to your opponent's attacks, and organizing volunteers — the people who will stuff letters, answer the telephones and make calls on your behalf. 

And you need to raise a lot of money. Running for Congress is expensive, and while it's true that you can still lose with a lot of money, you can't win without it. 

Finally, you have to figure out how to enjoy yourself. Campaigning is such hard work that it's easy to burn out, to get short-tempered with staff or simply tune out the people you're meeting. Once you've developed your stump speech, you're going to be giving it over and over again, and if you can't make it sound fresh each time, your listeners will know right away. Your days will be filled with people whose help you need and who won't be shy about offering their advice or demanding favors. 

Yet as great as the challenges might be, you'll also be on one of the most incredible adventures any American can have. Our system of government depends on ordinary Americans coming forward to run for office, and though the inconveniences may be great, the rewards of being part of our ongoing experiment in democracy are even greater. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)