Chapter 16: The Role of an Elected Official and American Values
Every person elected to public office brings a host of unique factors to the job: their origin, experiences, family background, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and financial status, as well as the characteristics and dynamics of the places from which they come. But they also have the common, overarching goal to be an effective representative of their constituents. In my case that meant being pragmatic and not ideologically rigid. It also meant being willing to compromise to get things done. I’ve always said if you don’t come to elected office willing to compromise, you don’t come wanting to govern.
Being an effective representative, I’ve concluded, doesn’t necessarily mean voting in the way the majority of one’s constituents think best. I describe my approach as that of a fiduciary, that is, a person to whom a power is entrusted to act on behalf of another. I saw my responsibility as first needing to seriously study, without arrogance or certainty, an issue with all its complexities, being open to and respecting different views on the subject at hand.
Then, when the time came to take a position on a matter, I viewed it as my responsibility to do what I believed was in the best interests of my constituents in the long run, even if my position might have been unpopular at the moment. I was not a populist or a poll taker. Of course, I hoped my position might reflect the currently popular view, but I felt that doing the popular thing when not believing it to be the best approach for my constituency was really working for myself or my reelection instead of working for the people.
What I came to understand is that what people want most is to trust their representatives, and the best way for an elected representative to earn that trust is to listen and learn and then express their own authentic view and not blow with the winds of public opinion. In fact, if elected leaders publicly support positions in which they don’t believe, the public can’t be confident that behind the scenes, where many of the decisions are made and deals are cut, they won’t be acting differently from their public stance.
Sandy and I regularly debated with our campaign pollsters over their desire to poll mainly to determine where people stood on various issues and whether we were on their side, versus our desire to poll to determine whether our constituents trusted us and found us to be fair and ethical. How often we heard from people who said that they disagreed with many of our beliefs, but they voted for us anyway because they trusted us. That was always music to our ears.
It’s also true that when you ask people about the appropriate role of an elected representative it usually evokes an ambivalent response. I often met with students during my career and would ask them the following three questions: Do you want your senator to reflect the popular will? (Most students said, “Yes.”) Do you want your senator to vote for what he believes in his conscience to be in the best interests of his constituents, whether or not that position is popular? (Most students said, “Yes.”) Do you see those two answers as being inconsistent? (Most students laughed and said, “Yes!”)
The closest I came to facing a Senate vote that I knew as I cast it could determine my future was when I voted in 1981 against the Reagan tax cut. Reagan’s proposed tax cut was extremely popular, but I thought it was a mistake because it disproportionately favored upper-income folks and would have a severe impact on spending for government services, such as loans for college students and funds for economic development. I also spoke against it because it provided tax reductions for the very profitable oil companies. And I pointed out that it would add three-quarters of a trillion dollars to the deficit, which I characterized at the time as a “staggering sum.”
As I was one of the relatively few who voted against it, I did so knowing that I would be attacked in television ads in my upcoming 1984 reelection campaign as being a “big-taxer.” Sure enough, President Reagan, who was on the verge of winning an overwhelming reelection vote, made a television pitch for my opponent from the Oval Office, telling people that a vote for me in the Senate race would amount to a vote against him as president. I knew I had to find a formula that was authentic and would express what I believed but would also respect a popular feeling. We decided to directly address the tax issue in my major television ad.
I could not honestly come out in favor of a different kind of a tax cut, and I had already refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge. So, in the ad I looked squarely into the camera and said what I truly believed, that for the majority of the people, “the last thing we ought to do is raise your taxes.” It was authentic because the people I was addressing were for the most part the people (the working and middle class) for whom I did not want to raise taxes. Showing some sensitivity to popular opinion, while trying not to pander to it, helped take the edge off the repeated attack against me that I was “pro-tax.” As expected, I needed all the help I could get, since it was an extremely close victory on election night.
Another vote that was controversial enough to be a possible “election decider” was my vote against a resolution authorizing the war in Iraq in the middle of my 2002 reelection campaign. Again, I was one of only a small number who voted against very popular legislation. As I described earlier when writing about Iraq, I voiced a number of objections to the decision of President George W. Bush and offered an alternative resolution. Those who opposed President Bush’s decision to go to war supported my alternative, but even many of those who favored the Bush resolution saw my alternative as a reasonable one. While having an alternative to an unpopular vote was not what motivated me to offer my resolution, it surely helped me survive my campaign opponent’s predictable attacks on my opposition to the Iraq War.
But taking an unpopular position at times does have risks that cannot be mitigated by offering or supporting alternatives, and doing so on a highly visible and emotional issue has at times led to electoral defeat. When I talk to people thinking about running for office, I emphasize the importance of having something else they would be happy doing if they lost an election because they went against public opinion. In my case I felt I could be happy as a teacher or a lawyer if a vote cost me reelection.