The ability to sell a contradiction is sometimes the measure of a man or woman, at least when it comes to success in politics. But nowhere does such artifice cry out for our attention more than when displayed by candidates for our highest elected offices. The habit of disassociating what one says from what one does has turned our electoral process into a game of rope a dope. And too often, when the dust of election season settles into the daily grind of lawmaking, the voters are no longer interested enough to hold politicians accountable when their actions fall short or simply diverge from their rhetoric.
This is not simply a matter of broken campaign promises that waft just out of our reach like suspended election night confetti. Many of today’s politicians are adept at assigning certain aspirational characteristics to themselves or their party that just don’t ring true when compared with the public record of accomplishment or incompetence and everything in between. A third variation on the theme is the art of condemning the behavior of one’s opposition while shamelessly indulging in the same conduct. All of these behaviors are duplicitous and none should go without challenge when they are acted out by those holding the public trust.
For a recent example of Alice Through the Looking-Glass logic in political discourse, take Minnesota Governor and probable 2012 presidential contender Tim Pawlenty’s recent excoriation of President Obama to stop making apology tours. The timing of the remark suggested it was in response to the President’s efforts to right the course of a domestic agenda that had been tossed too long and hard on the tide of an intractable healthcare debate and to refocus on the priorities of unemployment and economic growth. Governor Pawlenty and others on the right are in no mood for being patient.
But, as it turns out, the Governor is infinitely more gracious in handling the remorseful utterances of his GOP colleagues who are still reeling from the reversal of fortune they suffered in 2008. Lately, when asked whether Republicans should still be trusted with the mantle of fiscal conservatism, even as the nation struggles to put its financial house in order after the Republicans sponsored eight years of Fat Tuesday on Wall Street, Pawlenty offers up the results of an apology tour of his own. According to the Governor, he’s met with GOP leaders around the country who all say that they have learned their lesson on excessive spending and won’t do it again if given the chance. A caravan of contrition is far better than an apology tour.
While it remains to be seen whether voters will be as quick to forgive as Pawlenty’s group of apologists hope, there are plenty of men and women still in the ranks of incumbency that seem to be enjoying unearned good will. While Congress’s favorable ratings indicate almost universal distaste for the legislature as a whole, nearly all Congressmen and Senators fare much better as individual representatives. Among other privileges of office that help cultivate good will at home are well timed victory laps through the home state or district bearing goodies from the Washington.
But beware the contradiction. For a case in point, we in Missouri need look no further than across the Mississippi where Republican Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois, 27, enjoys the spotlight as our nation’s youngest legislator. As the freshest face in the minority party and potential thorn in the side of our President from the same state, Congressman Schock has been favored with an abundance of committee appointments to which he would not otherwise be entitled under the rules of seniority and has been named Deputy Minority Whip.
As further evidence of his party’s favor, Congressman Schock was trotted out on Valentine’s Day for an appearance on Meet the Press. In discussing his resistance to the current healthcare reform plan, Schock explained he was representing the views of the majority of Americans. While the statement was seemingly excused as so much partisan puffery, moments later his co-panelist Rachel Maddow called the Congressman out on the two faces he wears when it comes to pork barrel spending. Seems Congressman Schock’s Washington beltway persona had voted against a stimulus bill on grounds it contained too much earmarked spending, while populist Congressman Schock ran back to Illinois to celebrate the award of a green technology research grant made possible by the bill he’d just voted against. The fact that the public display of largesse occurred on a community college campus may have permitted it to fly under the radar of cynicism in the short run, but Maddow was not going to let such rank hypocrisy lie. First he decried such spending as imposing long term debt to be paid in perpetuity by his constituents and their kids, then he followed the trail of stimulus funds right back home to get his picture taken without red ink on his hands.
It is critical that voters remain engaged throughout the processes by which we are governed and not just the processes by which we choose who will do it. For even the most earnestly intentioned voters, elections can become an empty exercise when we pay too little attention to the words, actions and votes of our Congressmen and Senators in between elections. As much as possible, we should use technology to follow our representatives to the Capitol so that we can talk to each other and to them about how well or how poorly they are honoring the public trust of their constituents. A couple of excellent resources are http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/ and http://votesmart.org/ There you can check the voting records of your Congressmen and Senators and see how well their votes reflect opinion at home among constituents and how well they match statements or actions of the representatives in the public record. We can’t afford to continue letting contradiction be a commodity that is sold to voters in order to get to Washington and then traded there at our expense.