Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Campaigning’s the easy part
Do political campaigners deliver on their promises? On the stump, it’s easy to promise the moon. Once elected, though, it’s far more difficult to get voters on board to land there.
Consequently, candidates for office usually dupe voters. They recycle glittering generalities on the campaign trail that get lost when elected officials backtrack during the give and take of political negotiations. “Let no one deceive you with empty words,” the Bible warns (Ephesians 5:6).
Politicians on the stump, however, scratch the itch in voters’ ears with deceptive patter that produces meager results.
It’s easy to make political promises. It’s hard to convince Congress to enact them into law.
Jon Meacham, in his recent Jefferson biography, shows Jefferson’s deft touch bridging the gap between promise and performance.
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“Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators,” writes Meacham. “They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision he compromised and improvised” (“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” p.xx).
Meacham calls Jefferson’s opponents the “philosophers,” rigid ideologues who won’t bend. Today they cling to maxims, such as: don’t raise taxes except for the military; lower taxes, guaranteeing a bull stock market; and never increase the national debt limit.
Meacham describes how Jefferson differed from 18th century ideological purists. “Broadly put, philosophers think, politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius is that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power” (p. xx).
President Barack Obama has perfected the Jeffersonian tactic of getting legislation enacted against fierce opposition. Like a boxer, he bobs and weaves, while opponents stand flat-footed in the center of a political ring, vowing not to backpedal. Dancing like Muhammad Ali, Obama jabs and feints, punching opponents whose political axioms set them in concrete.
After electing Obama 2012 Person of the Year, Time Magazine listed the president’s legislative achievements.
“The Obama effect was not ephemeral anymore as ‘that hopey-changey stuff.’ It could be measured – in wars stopped and started; industries saved, restructured or reregulated; tax cuts extended; debt levels inflated; terrorists killed; the health insurance system reimagined; and gay service members who could walk in uniform with their partners” (Time Magazine, Dec. 31, 2012 – January 7, 2013, p. 58).
Flexibility goes a long way when governing.
Effective governing maximizes the give and take needed with intransigent legislators. Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” shows how to do it.
“Part of what Lincoln teaches,” observes President Obama, “is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you to also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs, and there are compromises. Anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect.”
Lincoln was adept at political horse trading. He didn’t get everything he wanted but moved controversies along through compromising.
Today, House Republicans reject this way of doing political business. “My way or the highway” is the tea party dictum on Capitol Hill.
Thomas Jefferson rejected this obstructionist mentality, writing, “In general, I think it is necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours.”
He wrote James Madison, after reviewing in 1787 the Constitution in Paris, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic (big) government. It is always oppressive.”
Republicans say Jefferson lacked confidence in the federal government. When Jefferson left Paris, however, and reunited with Madison, he cinched the biggest national land deal ever. He negotiated with Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the Unite States even though he knew that as president, the Constitution didn’t delegate this power to him. Talk about a president who operated unilaterally, using big government’s power!
Moreover, Jefferson promoted the federal government building turnpikes to speed interstate stagecoach travel. The initial effort in 1785 between Alexandria near Washington, D.C., and the lower Shenandoah Valley proved a miserable failure. Potholes and washouts made the road impassable. Congress got irked by such ill-spent money. They ruled such public works “a public grievance” and suspended road building until the end of Jefferson’s first term in 1804.
Then many turnpikes were constructed in a huge public works project. Ignoring calls for limited government and minimal road construction, Jefferson was the first president to put people to work on large government projects. He called for a constitutional amendment to finance “education, roads, rivers, canals,” along with other government projects.
Doesn’t this sound like President Obama? He desires more roads and bridges because of our nation’s aging infrastructure.
House conservatives nix such projects because of debt increase. When will they concur that some debt is beneficial, puts people to work, and stimulates the economy?
Effective governing requires winning campaigners who are flexible in office.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.