Saturday, January 21, 2012

What is lacking in today's political class

One of my occupations for the last couple of years has been to read and comment on a Facebook group called the Wheelspinners - which is a selection of former reporters, political consultants and others who range in political philosophy from right to left.    This morning one of our reporters mused about what is different about today's political class.  He suggested that three of Reagan's key staff people (Ed Meese, Lyn Nofziger and Jim Baker) were  "not only helpful in understanding what was going on but also to be genuinely good people."   He lamented that the GOP of that time had leaders like Everett Dirksen,Thurston Morton, Margaret Chase Smith, George Aiken, Hugh Scott and Clifford Case.   He concluded that what  "we need most is some adults in the political equation and not petulant poseurs."

There was a lot that I agreed with in the post.  I actually worked with a couple of those senators (especially Aiken when I worked for the other Vermont senator at the time).   But there are a couple of assumptions that I think were flawed.   First, I think one of the key variables in the Reagan team was that they understood the difference between principles and policies.  Reagan had a series of well developed (although many democrats then and now belittled them) principles which guided his actions.   And I think he was rarely willing to compromise principle.  He was even willing often to make statements that many in the political class found troubling (for example - Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!)   But he was willing and able to compromise policies.  The 1986 Tax Act is a superb example - Reagan started with a couple of principles (lower rates) but was willing to change policies that had been cornerstones of GOP politicians.  I think many politicians today lack a set of clear principles.

The second slight disagreement I had with the post is that I think part of the people he mentioned (including Hugh Scott and Everett Dirksen) were classic politicians.  Their first goal was to get elected and re-elected.   I am not sure that they started, as I believe Reagan did, with a set of principles.   I think the need to be re-elected has often trumped politicians who start with principles.

Third, I think the post ignores (he went on to lambast the Tea Party people) that the ideologues inhabit both sides of the aisle.  How many democrats in the national leadership would dare to violate the absolute right of choice on the abortion issue?

It is a dilemma that all of us should think about.  One of the promises of the current president was that he would try to work with the other side.  He clearly has not tried to do that.  We would have had a much better set of policies (health care, economic recovery, financial regulation) had he simply followed his original promise.  Had the President done that I think he would be in the position of being almost unbeatable.   

In my opinion, although many GOP theorists believe that the President will win, this election is still undecided.  The last couple of days of the GOP debates, may have begun to turn a tide against a strong GOP nominee.   The original point of the reporter's note is still worth considering.

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