How many times have you heard a so-called statesman or stateswoman say, “this is beyond politics.” The implication is that the issue is of such significance that partisan bickering cannot interfere with the ultimate outcome.
What I’ve never heard is, “This is insignificant enough that petty politics is acceptable.” Maybe it does happen, such as in the naming of a post office (which represents legislation that accounts for about half the bills passed so far in 2012). However, the basic assumption is that anything more important than the naming of a post office is of such significance that neither party should play political games and block what would be in the best interest of the country. This may be philosophically true, but it certainly doesn’t stop the parties from acting politically. Virtually all votes of significance (and often insignificance) are partisan in nature.
Democratic advisor and former Bill Clinton staff member Paul Begala recently explained this phenomenon in the simplest of terms in an op-ed in the Daily Beast. He states:
Let’s posit that the point of politics is to get more votes than the other side – so everything a politician does is by definition political. Shocking. But there is frequently also an element of principle, a dash of ideology and maybe even a hint of idealism.
To analyze every act in terms of motive, and to reduce every motive to its basest level, is just dumb.
Why should politicians be different from other professions? A plumber’s job is to fix plumbing problems. Occasionally he or she will engage in gracious conduct and give the consumer a special break. She might be willing to go “off the clock” to buy a part for the job. But her basic job is to fix the pipes and to collect the money for her work.
The same is true for a teacher. His job is to teach students, and reluctantly, often his work is measured by meaningless and deceptively standardized tests. There will be times when the teacher will go beyond the call of duty and provide extra time to tutor a student. He might help a student learn his lines for a play or learn the plays for an upcoming football game. But his basic job is to teach. If he was primarily a stand-up comedian, parents and some students would be quite upset. He would not be doing his job any more than a politician who was not motivated by winning popular votes was doing her job.
Begala does not blame politicians for acting like politicians. They are simply doing their job as is the case in most other professions. His problem is with the hypocrisy of politicians from both parties as well as the media that expect politicians to “rise above” simple self-interest and to focus on the needs of their constituents and the public in general.
John F. Kennedy wrote a book while in the hospital for an extended stay called Profiles in Courage. He praised nine statesmen who sacrificed reelection for what they considered the “better good.” Occasionally that happens. However, in 99% of cases, we should expect politicians to do their job; to act like politicians seeking votes.
Perhaps term limits were created to minimize the motivation to focus primarily on votes. But recent history shows that our legislatures are as partisan as ever. Maybe we should move on to one of the quirkiest ideas that has been suggest, but one that might work. We select our leaders by lot; like a lottery, and “the winners” serve one term. Since they are neither running for reelection nor collecting money, perhaps they will think of the national and international interest, to the extent that they can. But oops, I forgot to look at the polls at how much the American people don’t know. That would include those who won the lotteries. I guess we’ll live with what we have.