Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Open Letter to Political Victors

(From the November 11, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Many students of history may know that George Washington, the father of our country and one of the first to be elected to American public office, could have run for a third term but chose not to.  It may be lesser known that a significant part of the reason for this was an aversion to the hostility and incivility he faced from the news media and his political opponents.

So perhaps the rancor and vitriol in the recent election season are simply a long-standing part of American culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change. In fact, this election—and the two preceding it—were all about change. We have changed back and forth from party to party as if the will of the people were a pendulum.

But there’s a reason for all this change. Voters care less about political party than they do about policy, or more importantly, performance. So one lesson for the victors of Tuesday night, no matter what your party, is that politics is not about sport, or power or who “won.” You were elected. You were hired. We are not your fans. We are your employers. Get to work and do now what’s best for citizens. Don’t jockey and delay and do what’s best for your party or your next election.
I have some other advice for politicians who were elected last Tuesday.

Don’t gloat. Don’t play the game of who controls the senate or house, or this committee or that committee. It’s not about you. It’s about us. You didn’t get votes because people wanted you to win. You got the most votes because more people thought you could do what’s best for the state or country. As someone said on Twitter: “I don’t want my congressman to fight for me, I want him to compromise for me.” Exactly. That’s what most of us want. We’re don’t mean what Harry Reid defined as compromise when he gave Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska an exemption on his state’s Medicaid payments in order to get his vote for health care legislation. That’s not compromise; that’s bribery. Compromise isn’t doing favors for people to coerce a vote on policy. Compromise is giving up something to get something—when drafting policy.

Compromise isn’t perfect. But that’s what politics is. Our founders designed our system to have “factions” in order to prevent the tyranny of the majority. James Madison in particular advocated this in the Federalist Papers (number 10 to be exact). So debate, argue, disagree. But in the end, compromise. Get something done. We want action and solutions, even if they aren’t perfect or exactly what everyone wants. No one wants gridlock. Principled opposition on key aspects of policy is honorable. Refusing to bend at all on policy is childish. You give us gridlock and stalemate, and we’ll send you home. Play nice with the other politicians on the legislative playground. And try to play on the merry-go-round, where you can all work together to gain momentum. Avoid the teeter-totter for a while—we’re tired of seeing the only way for one to go up is to put the other down.

Don’t forget us, even though the election is over. Our interests and passions continue. Don’t look at it as if you have our vote. What you have is responsibility, to listen to and do what’s best for all of us, even those who didn’t vote for you or didn’t vote at all. Yes, that’s complicated because we don’t all agree on all issues. But that’s part of your job. Weigh our input with your own judgment and act accordingly.

Watch the rhetoric. Yes, the news media encourage pithy sound bites that can win back slaps from political colleagues and loyalists in the party. But elections are won by the independent thinkers in the middle. We are unimpressed by dirty digs. Speak with reason and substance. Keep dialogue a safe distance from the red herrings and red meat served to extremists of both parties.

Stay humble. Power corrupts, and you need to beware. Politicians call themselves public servants but too often seem to act as if the capitol is a self-service trough for their own ambitions and political allies. Be stewards of the public’s interest and resources. We are watching the numbers in the government’s and our own budgets more than the number of seats your party holds.

Actually read bills before you vote. That’s the essence of your job. Even if that means not going over your make-up before your stand-up with Fox or CNN, do it. Then, be prepared to explain your vote. Speaking of reading bills, we’d like to as well, thank you. There was this idea of making them available for the public to read before they were voted on by all of you. Because, after all, we’re your bosses and might have some thoughts for you. Don’t cave to pressure that if you just approve a law we’ll all like it later once we see what it’s all about. Many of you promised transparency, even audacity. Instead we got opacity. We’re not stupid. We want to know what’s going on; we demand it.
If all of this causes you some stress, don’t worry. You have great health care. In fact, yours is the best in the country, and one of the few health care plans that didn’t change due to the health care law. I’m paying more for less coverage. That’s why I feel ok giving my burden to you.

Your next review is in 2012. But we may be in touch before then. Respectfully, your constituent, fellow citizen, employer.

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