August 6, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Every elected official fancies him or herself a statesman, a leader whose portrait will soon grace currency after he or she carefully deliberates a new constitution or the next Treaty of Versailles. In reality, they are mere functionaries we hire to perform tasks we are too busy to do ourselves. They are replaceable with a long line of equally or perhaps more satisfactory contractors willing to take each of their places at a moment’s notice.
I don’t mean to denigrate the politicians we hire to represent us in our constitutional republic. Nor do I suggest they are without talent or industry. In fact, I would prefer we hire the most talented and industrious contractors available for the job. If I need electrical work or plumbing done, I want to hire someone with talent and knowledge that I don’t myself possess.
But all too often, the romance and comfort of high office seduces the person we elect into believing that he or she is our leader, our better, someone with specialized knowledge and wisdom who can’t be replaced. This is more likely at the federal level with large salaries, dozens of staff to follow you around, carry your bags, and generally tug their forelock as they bow before you. It tends to be less seductive to make $100 annually and receive, for your trouble, a locker in the basement and free tolls.
During election season, the visions of statesmanship and servitude compete for attention in the sight of those seeking elective office. A candidate wants to simultaneously portray him or herself as something special and remarkable as well as an everyman, a regular palooka like you or me.
On the one hand they want to impress us with their knowledge of the problems of the day and their ability to analyze the issues and propose solutions. On the other hand they want us to know that they will strictly represent us, they believe what we believe, they will do precisely what we want and nothing more or less.
In 1774, Edmund Burke spoke to the voters of Bristol of a representative’s competing obligations to those he represents: “It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The sometimes contradictory and often competing impulses are not inconsistent with the view of the elected as contractors. We pay a plumber for his knowledge and his judgment but not to put the sink where he wants but where we want.
In this respect it is critical for those seeking election to tell us as much as they can about their judgment, their analysis of the current problems of the day, and their preferred solutions. We expect not that we will agree in each particular but rather that we can form a complete picture of the man or woman who seeks to serve us, how they might react, and the philosophy they bring to the table.
Every year, campaign professionals (particularly those with the misfortune of living in greater Washington) will advise candidates to run away from specifics. Other actually well-meaning people are annoyed with specifics like pledging to oppose an income tax.
The thought is that being less specific presents fewer targets for attack and doesn’t limit your action post election. On the other hand, a candidate that won’t offer opinion or defers specifics to blue ribbon commissions merely sends us the message that he or she is vague, shifty, and more interested in being elected than in doing anything.
It is at election time that we have the best chance of finding the true character and opinions which will guide those we temporarily contract to serve us. They owe us their honest answers and opinions but only if we insist they give them to us.