November 26, 2007
Lance Armstrong's political future

I think Lance Armstrong did a good job in getting Prop 15 through the Legislature and then approved by the voters. He did the hard work necessary for such an endeavor, he leveraged his celebrity and his life experience, which were his two biggest assets as spokesman for the measure, and in the end he got the job done. I'm not surprised that in the afterglow that stories like this, about what kind of future he might have if he chose to pursue politics fulltime, are now appearing. But I think a little more thought needs to be given to the matter, because I'm already seeing some potential red flags.

"He's got the political DNA without a doubt," said Cathy Bonner, an aide to former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.

"He's an extremely fast learner," said Ms. Bonner, a board member at the 1997 launch of Mr. Armstrong's anti-cancer foundation who last year came up with the idea of a $3 billion bond issue for research after Ms. Richards died of cancer of the esophagus.

"When you travel with him, it's a rock star kind of thing - and to use those sorts of skills politically is also a talent," Ms. Bonner said. "The skills are there if he wants a political career."

Mr. Armstrong declined to be interviewed about what, if any, political ambitions he has.

Stumping for Proposition 15 last month, Mr. Armstrong said that as a private citizen who is not linked to either political party, he's more effective urging more spending on cancer research and - in a new addition to his message - more affordable health insurance so more people can receive preventive care and be diagnosed early. However, Mr. Armstrong declined to rule out a future run for office.


Ms. Bonner, the architect of Proposition 15, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said they would like to see Mr. Armstrong run for public office.

They use words like "authentic" and "heart" and "incredible potential" to describe Mr. Armstrong, who was born and grew up in North Texas.

But neither claims to know Mr. Armstrong's intentions about running for office - or for that matter, whether he's a Republican, Democrat or independent.

"He transcends those labels," said Mr. Watson, who like Mr. Armstrong survived testicular cancer. "Most people get that trying to find a cure for cancer - trying to make sure that people who are touched by that beast are able to live full lives - that's not about labels."

I'm always leery of claims that someone "transcends party labels". The simple fact of the matter is that if you're going to make a serious run for office in this state, you're going to have to do it as an R or a D, and once you claim such a label, you can't really transcend it. Neither side will let you - one will demand that you wear it with pride, while the other will try to make it be a negative. That's the nature of our system, and it ain't gonna change.

That doesn't mean he can't appeal to people in each party, as well as independents. There are plenty of such politicians in Texas today. It's one thing to do so on an already-popular, genuinely bipartisan effort like Prop 15. But if you want to be Governor or Senator or some such, people are going to want to know how you feel about things like immigration, abortion, and taxes. Sooner or later, you've got to pick a team.

None of this is to suggest that Lance Armstrong couldn't be a successful politician if he wants to pursue that path. He's got plenty of Elvis in him, he's likely to have name ID and favorable numbers that anyone would kill for, he's a proven fundraiser, and he's clearly got some skills. All I'm saying is that an actual partisan race is a very different animal from what Armstrong just experienced, and sometimes the skills don't translate from one type of race to another. History suggests that candidates who try to rise above partisan politics - the Adlai Stevenson types don't do so well at the ballot box.

One last point: It's not clear to me that Armstrong couldn't accomplish more for the issues he cares about as a lobbyist/activist than he could as an officeholder. Right now, he can focus exclusively on what he cares about the most, he can pick his fights, and he can maintain his status as a transcender. If cancer research and funding is his thing, I'd probably advise him to keep doing what he's doing. Just a thought.

Some see bumps ahead, though, should Mr. Armstrong decide he wants to be governor, U.S. senator, maybe even president.

The Proposition 15 campaign "sounds sort of like a low-cost test run" of a candidacy, "where you see both how good you are at it and how people respond to you," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

"It's not a particularly good test because you're on a feel-good mission and you don't have [a campaign's] nastiness and the partisan slash and burn," Dr. Jillson said.

He said that just as Mr. Schwarzenegger in his 2003 gubernatorial race fended off sexual harassment allegations and reports about possible past drug use, Mr. Armstrong's divorce and highly publicized dalliances with rock star Sheryl Crow and actress Ashley Olsen could complicate any bid to win political office.

"I think what Lance Armstrong would have to think long and hard about is what people would make of the end of his marriage," Dr. Jillson said. "Mostly it would be the way the marriage ended, as opposed to playing the field afterwards."

Well, yeah, there's that, too. Some people with colorful pasts have a harder time with them than others, but it's a consideration. It's also my understanding that Armstrong wasn't even a registered voter prior to 2006. The oppo research has not yet begun on Armstrong, that's all I'm saying. Only he can say if that's a concern or not. State of Mine has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 26, 2007 to Show Business for Ugly People