(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on July 28, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)
The Democratic and Republican parties announced their nominations for the November elections in towns throughout Fairfield County last week, eliciting little more than a collective sigh from an electorate weary of partisan politics. To be fair, the announcements were made even as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner turned the crucial negotiations surrounding the need to raise the national debt ceiling into a high-stakes game of “he said/she said.” Faced with an opportunity for leadership, both sides reverted to childish antics more akin to “Thomas The Train” than Thomas Jefferson.
All sides in Washington agree we need to at least temporarily raise the amount the government can borrow by August 2 or risk defaulting on our obligations. This could mean further destabilizing the financial markets while devaluing the dollar and increasing interest rates. Rather than bowing to the gravity of the moment, both President Obama and Speaker Boehner chose to host separate press conferences vilifying the other.
On Sunday’s “Face The Nation,” US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner bemoaned that the histrionics resulting from these delicate negotiations have already gone too far. “You want to take this out of politics… you don’t want politics messing around with America’s faith and credit.” This simple posit can be applied to every major issue facing all levels of government today: painting each debate as an ideological struggle has wasted whatever credit our politicians had left. Few have faith in the ability of our elected leaders to play nice with each other, much less solve the problems set before them. A July 20 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 80% of respondents are “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the way the government is working.
While discontent is not unique, one associates negative numbers like these with the Arab Spring more than a congressional recess. More and more Americans are growing sick at the prospect of further political gamesmanship among the major parties; former President Richard Nixon referred to this group of citizens residing in the middle of the two extremes as the “silent majority.” These are not flag-wavers or gavel-smackers; you won’t find them standing on the corner with sandwich boards or rallying in the streets. These are the folks whose time is taken up providing for their families, paying their taxes, and improving their community. They just want their government to work, and they’re smart enough to realize that some compromise is in order when working with a diverse population. To think otherwise is not merely childish but dangerous
It’s amid this backdrop that we meet the newest crop of nominations for local government, and one could be forgiven the cynicism that accompanies the platforms they trot out. I have the utmost respect for those local men and women who seek the thankless job of representing our best interests, but it’s hard to maintain that respect when important issues are held hostage to political affiliation. What we need is a layer of insulation between the strident ideology that paralyzes government and the consistent productivity which we desire of it.
In the interest of restoring some of that lost faith and credit in our elected leaders, I propose a simple three-part, common sense test to help weed out those whose “leadership” would contribute to political stagnation rather than remedy it. After all, we have to pass both a written test and a driving test before we get a driver’s license—shouldn’t we require a few things of those who will control our tax dollars?
First, each nominee should demonstrate familiarity with the primary definition of the word “compromise,” which is generally understood as a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. It is not, in fact, a dirty word, nor is it interchangeable with its secondary definition, which is to reduce in quality or value. Far too often, politicians seem to have missed the nuances between these two denotations. In short, if you feel that making concessions automatically means you’re compromising your values, you can leave your place in line and retake this test later when you come to your senses. You need to join a book club, not town council.
Second, each nominee should demonstrate the requisite level of creativity, adaptability, and resiliency necessary to accomplish the difficult tasks of representative government. Put bluntly, are you smart enough to figure out how to solve difficult problems and get other people to understand your solution? We don’t want to hear about the labor pains—just give us the damn baby. We’re sick of politicians whining about why things are broken—fix it or step aside and let someone else have at it. If you don’t have the ability to discover alternative solutions and see them though to fruition, don’t take up space on the ticket.
Finally, nominees should understand they are but stewards of a community that’s existed long before they were born and will continue long after. We don’t care about your won/loss record at town council meetings; we care about the pothole that just broke the rear axle. None of you will be in office long enough to change government, you can only nudge it forward or hold it back. If you’re pushing an agenda, step out of the line and paint it on a sandwich board. Leave the governing to those who value results over rhetoric and pointless posturing. If you don’t have the common decency to feel shame when little is accomplished on your watch, you won’t have the guts to take the blame. And yes, we expect that, too.
Sadly, it takes a certain kind of courage to submit to this kind of test, not coincidentally the same kind of courage it takes to become an effective leader. Platitudes are easier and allow for a larger pool of otherwise unqualified candidates to sneak in and gum up the works when elected. Like the mythical “Test To Become A Parent,” this test is too hard for the childish.