Even when you know you're right…
...you might still be wrong. Seems obvious, right? So obvious that it shouldn't have to be said. Unfortunately, in spite of the clear nature of the conclusion, the business of politics is about absolutes.
Conservatives are absolute in their opposition to expanding government and adding tax burden. Back in 2000, the choice was clear. Conservatives rallied around Texas Governor George W. Bush as our next president, and one of the most oft-repeated slogans was the wide gulf between then-Vice President Al Gore and future President Bush.
I recall Grover Norquist, the head of a conservative national taxpayer advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform, actively campaigning in 2000 for Mr. Bush as the choice for traditional conservatives. Mr. Norquist even appeared at campaign events for Mr. Bush, in spite of his own father President George H.W. Bush's abandonment of conservative principles.
Looking back at the seven and a half years of the Bush 43 Administration, I'm not sure Mr. Norquist (nor any other traditional conservative) would have been as enthusiastic as they were for Dubya had they known how far from those traditional values his policies might stray. Most notable: spending sprees like No Child Left Behind and the expansion of the Medicare prescription drug program.
Similarly, liberals embrace the need for forgiveness bordering on weakness when it comes to the treatment of convicted criminals. The application of the death penalty is attacked as a cruel and short-sighted supposed solution. Frequently, the rallying cry is that the death penalty is disproportionately administered to minority groups, particularly African-Americans.
Hummm. What about those pesky statistics that prove, without debate, that those same ethnic/racial groups are actually responsible for committing a majority of the crimes that are death-penalty qualified? Should we ignore that fact in this societal rush to excuse and forgive?
A good friend and fellow state legislator is struggling with communicating his political identity. Unlike me, he considers himself a traditional conservative, and defines his own brand of politics using those core conservative values of anti-tax, strict enforcement of law, and free market economic solutions.
In a letter he's writing, he defends those he represents: the elderly fearing tax increases, the small business owner, and the victims of crime. He suggests that he will fight the forces of progressive policy in Annapolis on their behalf.
Last time I looked, every elected state official takes an oath to represent all of the residents of their legislative district (and the State of Maryland), not just those who might have the exact same political alignment. Sure, campaign messaging should play to a political base, if for no other reason than to assure the re-election of the incumbent legislator. It seems that the oath is only applicable for the first few days of a legislator's political tenure, after that, the traditional partisan ideology becomes the most significant influence.
Term limits might be a hedge against this narrow-view political behavior. The founding fathers never envisioned these career ideologues as they toiled through Philadelphia's hot summer those long years ago.
The best defense against a consistently under-performing elected official seems to be a well-informed electorate. Unfortunately, after many years of active political involvement spent trying to reach out to those same voters, a well-informed electorate seems like a pipe dream.
Today's voter is more likely to have voted for an American Idol contestant than they have for a local, state, or federal political candidate. Maybe we need to get Simon, Randy, and Paula to moderate a presidential debate!
Speaking of television and politics, the recent HBO mini-series John Adams reminds of what this little experiment in self-governance was really supposed to be.
Thoughtful debate, quality discourse, and lofty goals and aspirations guided Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. No pretty-boy, empty suited demagogue would have survived those all-night stirring debate sessions in Independence Hall. Those guys knew they were right, the difference was that they had the presence of mind and intellectual capacity to sway others to see their vision.
Today, we suffer from sound bite messaging and convenient, easy-to-absorb policy positions. Our elected officials lack the passion and vision to see our state, nation and our world from a broad enough perspective to design real solutions to real problems. They're more concerned with the next election than they are the next generation.
Need more proof? Just look at the lack of leadership on the issue of power generation. We want unlimited access to electricity to satisfy our technology demands, but we'll be damned if they build a power plant near us! We want alternative energy, but no windmills we can see from our picture window, please! We want to pay less per watt, but we surely don't want the by-products of nuclear energy production.
I'd trade every single incumbent office holder at the state and federal level for one true statesman in the Adams mold. Imagine the excitement of a truly passionate debate from the well of the House of Representatives in the place of those silly special order speeches to a TV camera in an empty chamber.
Imagine a state or federal legislature that isn't so carefully controlled and scripted by political leaders that one could raise a really significant issue and alter state policy merely through the power of their words!
Or maybe that's another one of those pipe dreams!