Vail Daily column: The gap between governing and campaigning |

Vail Daily column: The gap between governing and campaigning

Jack Van Ens

Presidential campaigners promise voters “the moon made of green cheese.” Once elected, officials have to deliver on their promises by getting legislation passed. Making campaign promises is easy; governing hard.

“The moon made of green cheese” is a folk-saying used centuries ago. A rustic simpleton spied the moon’s reflection on a pond. Its saffron glow convinced him a chunk of cheese floated on the yellowy water.

Politicians running for office float cheesy promises to fix what they see as a broken government. By magical mandates, they pretend to clean-up Washington’s mess. Promising the moon is easy; implementing political promises is tough.

Those running for presidential office continually criticize existing health care policy. Bernie Sanders condemns President Obama for not getting enough government-sponsored health care. Sen. Ted Cruise excoriates the president for providing too much of it.

Campaigners get away with “promising the moon” critiques because they don’t have to deliver the goods. There’s a gap between what’s promised and how, once elected, officials will perform in the Oval Office. Senators Sanders and Cruz aren’t obligated to govern when running for office. Once elected, they must make deals, using the give-and-take of compromise.

Campaigners make outlandish promises. Diplomats work with leaders who differ on most everything and get them to agree on one agenda item. They are forced to take stands. “Let not what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’” taught Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Anything else comes from evil (motives)” (Matthew 5: 37). That is, cut the chatter (or cheese); say what you mean. Don’t fence-straddle.

Sen. Ted Cruz differs from Thomas Jefferson in that the senator, by sticking to conservative principles, accomplishes little in the Senate. Writing disparagingly to James Madison on June 20, 1787 Jefferson comments on King Louis XVI, who acted like Cruz. “He is irascible, rude and very limited in his understanding, religious bordering on bigotry,” declared Jefferson.

Our third president modified political stances if an outcome made our nation flourish.

In 1803, when Napoleon offered the massive tract of land known as the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson unilaterally cinched the deal. He knew what the Constitution stipulated, that land acquisitions needed Senate ratification. But Jefferson feared Napoleon might renege on his offer while senators haggled over an agreement. After signing the deal, Jefferson asked the Senate to ratify it, after-the-fact.

He practiced “make-it-happen pragmatism.” Sen. Cruz settles for “stick in the mud” fights because he won’t tamper with rigid conservative principles. A realist compromises; an ideological idealist won’t budge. Statesmen compromise; politicians don’t.

At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, his biographer Jon Meacham complimented Jefferson for bending on principle if it resulted in benefits for his constituency. “So he (Jefferson) saw… the art of compromise, the capacity to react to changing circumstances was, in fact, one of the high virtues of leadership,” declared Meacham. “Compromise is not a dirty word. It is simply the practical result of living in a representative government.”

Although the Constitution’s architect James Madison wasn’t an effective campaigner, he excelled in framing the document upon which our Republic stands. Madison wasn’t a purist like Sen. Cruz. He distrusted the federal government having too much power but didn’t endorse giving unlimited power to the electorate, either. Consequently, Madison opted for a Republic. Citizens elected representatives who govern through negotiation and compromise.

“In politics differences of opinion are rarely resolved and almost never definitively; in politics the best outcomes are typically compromises that leave all parties grumbling,” writes historian H.W. Brands in his introduction to President Ulysses Grant’s biography. “In politics the ignorant and venal have as much right to their votes as the educated and upstanding.”

Sen. Cruz promises the moon of a simpler universe in which he’s right and those who differ are wrong. Because he’s correct, Sen. Cruz sees no need to compromise. He threatens and flattens opposition who voice differing slants on difficult questions.

Joseph Epstein, in his essay “A Literary Education,” corrects bull-headed Sen. Cruz. He writes that good literature, like politics, always complicates. “The novelist says to the reader: things are not as simple as you think … life is more surprising, bizarre, fascinating, complex and rich than any shibboleth, concept or theory used to explain it.”

Sen. Cruz supposes politics is composed of stick figures who bow to his convictions. He blunders, reminding us of the rustic who couldn’t fathom moonbeams reflected on a pond. He conjured a floating hunk of cheese to explain it all.

Cheesy politics leaves less filling a constitutional appetite that thrives on a diet of compromise. Game shakers effectively govern. They measure problems from different angles. Such officials hone diplomatic skills to bring together colleagues. Such dedication to effective governing makes our nation flourish.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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