Our elected officials are in an era of tough decisions. Very few policy issues are an easy yes-or-no answer. While party politics may provide a guide in some cases, our public officials are on their own to determine what is best for their constituents and the country as a whole. And now, with midterm elections looming, our political figures must weigh an additional factor: how their decisions affect their reelection prospects. In this type of an environment, what is the true role of an elected official? What should their priority be? Reelection? Party? Country?
Former T4A Convening Guest Senator Tim Kaine (VA) recently expressed his sentiment on this issue. When criticized for his push to bring a vote on strikes in Iraq and Syria because of the difficulties it would pose for the Democratic party in an election year, Kaine replied “I don’t think anybody should just be in this job for the politics. They should be in the job to do the right thing, […] The notion of, ‘Well, we don’t want to cast a hard vote before a midterm because it might be unpopular,’ that’s the job we volunteered for.”¹
His view lines up with the old notion that the right decision isn’t always the easiest one. Kaine asserts that, as an elected official, his role is not to play politics, but to focus on the needs and wishes of the American people. He’s not there to please his Democratic colleagues; he’s there, as he implies, to make the tough decisions when necessary.
Governor Kitzhaber of Oregon displayed a similar position in one of our recent TechTables, wondering how much more could be accomplished if elected officials did not worry about being re-elected? Or as our Director of Operations Sam Kaspick put it, “Why don’t ‘doing the right thing’ and worrying about reelection incentivize elected officials to perform the same behavior?” While in theory these actions should be the same, in practice, unfortunately, they are not.
The flipside of this though – an argument for reelection as a top priority – is the often expressed “How can I make change if I don’t get reelected?” This is a fair point. If an elected official cannot hold on to their seat, then they won’t be even be in the position to make these tough decisions.
There’s also something to be said about party pressure. Being an elected official is a team sport and there are rarely times when an individual representative can accomplish anything on his or her own. This then means that often, to get anything done, you have to play the game by the rules. You have to keep your party happy.
So what do we expect from our representatives? I won’t deny that determining priorities as an elected official is a tough choice, but as a citizen, I want my safety and well-being to be a priority. As Governor Kitzhaber implied, as long as an elected official has my best interests in mind and is actively working to protect those interests, I’m happy to vote for them- even if I may not agree with them on all issues.
So what’s our win-win situation? How do we ensure that everyone is happy? Well for one, let’s encourage elected officials who are willing to make the tough decisions, the people that will fight for what they believe in even if it’s not the easiest or the most popular choice. While we may not be able to directly change how party members interact, if we commend elected officials who adhere to this structure, we can slowly create a culture change in which all of our leaders believe that, as Governor Kitzhaber and Sam both put it, doing what’s best for citizens and doing what will get them re-elected are the same.
¹Bolton, A. & Parnes, A. (2014, August 27). Senate Dems frustrated by colleague’s push for ISIS vote. The Hill. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/216026-senate-dems-frustrated-by-colleagues-push-for-isis-vote
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