Thursday, June 14, 2012

When You've Already Been Elected....

What does it matter if your constituents aren't "good followers"? Cynical though they may be, they voted you into office and, if you're lucky enough to be holding federal office, odds are you're not in any great danger of losing your seat.

Why would the onus be on your constituents to assume that you are an honest, well-intentioned person who will work hard to protect their interests and to do what you truly believe to be best for the country? Why shouldn't your constituents, and others across the nation, judge you by your actions?

President Obama earned some deserved criticism for making up-front deals, behind closed doors, with powerful factions within the health industry in order to help pave the way for a healthcare reform bill that could get through Congress. But as unseemly as that was, his actions were made necessary by the fact that Members of Congress are susceptible to lobbying, and when you're up against monied, powerful interests it's difficult to maintain the necessary majority if the lobbyists start peeling away necessary supporters. Obama cut the deals, sure, but it was the habits of Congress that made it necessary to do so.

Why is the average voter expected to believe that political elites are good men, as part of a just authority, when those same elites are tearing each other down, questioning each other's motives, engaging in base pandering and prevarication? What is to admire when a slate of would-be Presidents, lined up for a debate, overwhelmingly rejects basic facts of science? What is to admire when they suggest that the incumbent President is a socialist, out to destroy our way of life?

Four years ago, John McCain attempted to correct some voters about his opponent,
I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.
That, of course, is not a message those voters had been receiving from other Republicans, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, from the talking heads on Fox News... so they jeered.

Does that make them bad followers? Hardly. They were following an orthodoxy that had been engineered and fed to them by any number of elites, albeit not elites that I would consider to be men of good will. Elites who don't care if they cause four years of gridlock at a time when the public needs Washington to be responsive and effective, because at the end of the day that will bring them more power. Those voters needed to question authority - not McCain's, not the possibility of Obama's, but the authorities that were and are intentionally misleading them.

When John McCain was able to cultivate his maverick persona, the people liked him. When he appeared instead to be abandoning principle in the pursuit of power, he lost a lot of credibility with voters. Yes, a good case can be made that McCain's reputation as a maverick was a product of good public relations, more than of standing up for principle. But at the aforementioned town hall, he did stand up for principle. Other politicians looked on and apparently asked, "... and what did that get him," because the public expression of similar sentiments is exceedingly rare.

One of the favorite tests of "seriousness" among Beltway pundits is whether a politician is willing to "fix" Social Security. A fix is easy - it's been done before, and there's every reason to believe that if the Republicans were willing to do so the two parties could easily fashion a reform bill that would tweak FICA taxes and retirement ages and balance the books (at least by CBO projections) for 75 years or more. But that isn't happening. Is it not fair to say that it's not "men of good will" who are preventing a fix? That hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) agendas are at work?

Seriously, an elected politician has only two things to lose if he votes his conscience - if he chooses to be honest, reject demagoguery, and try to do what's best for the country - namely (a) lobbyist money (and invitations to their parties), and (b) reelection. The joke, "What's the first thing a politician thinks about when he wakes up in the morning?" (Reelection), may be cynical, but it also happens to be accurate. If it weren't, Congress would be a lot more productive and the public would be a lot less cynical.

Is everybody in Congress a bad person? Far from it. The unfortunate mindset seems to be that if you don't learn to play the game you're "ineffective" - yet if you play the game you're part of the problem. All it takes for Congress to be a dysfunctional institution, suited more to serving special interests than to advancing the public interest, is for a sufficient number of its good men to do nothing. While the good men (and women) who are trying to do the right thing, and those who arguably want they could do the right thing but have decided to "go along to get along", probably do wish that the public were less cynical - but it's perfectly fair for the public to judge our elected officials by their actions, and on the whole their actions (and inaction) justify cynicism.

We're not living in a performance of Peter Pan, where if we clap our hands and repeatedly declare our belief in Congress's good intentions they'll suddenly end their antics and start solving the nation's most serious problems. They already have our votes. If they're willing to give up the lobbyist money and take a chance on having to find another job in a couple of years, they can do the right thing, right now.

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