It is hard for me to understand why many politicians are able to abandon principal in order to get re-elected. I know that they want to be re-elected above all else—I understand that. As a legislator I wanted to win re-election, but I like to think I didn’t have to sell my soul to do it. There is something that drives public officials to seek election in the first place whether it is a sense of obligation to a nation that has treated them well or a belief that they can make America a better place. The motives that cause politicians to run for re-election are somewhat different and it may be a sense of duty or sense of self-importance or a combination or permutation of those two items and anything that might fall in between.
Power is one reason people run for re-election. Power has been called the greatest aphrodisiac, but it seems to me that it is more successful in seducing the person who has it more than those the person would like to seduce, but once you have it you don’t want to lose it.
Love of the work is a reason. Legislative work is fascinating. It yields the opportunity to delve into the intricacies of how governments run, the mysteries that lie within the issues dealt with, and the ability to have staffers do the research that is needed to understand them both. It is the ability to do good things for people from helping them get needed medical care to fixing a bureaucratic hassle over red tape.
Indispensability is another reason, but that is more one of self-delusion than accuracy. Elected officials do gain understanding of issues that most folks don’t have, but to think that is reason alone for people to reelect you to office can be disproved by looking at years and years of successors gaining the same knowledge and doing the same job.
But through all of it there needs to run a thread of self-awareness of the importance of the trust that is placed in the office and the understanding of the principles of governing, in short, that the position is bigger than the person who holds it. In short, it is the responsibility
of public service and the willingness to take an unpopular position for the good of the country.
There is the story of Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska who, in seeking re-election, found himself in a moral dilemma over how to vote on a bill proposing a Constitutional amendment to criminalize burning he American flag. Awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in Vietnam, where he lost a leg, he loved the flag he had fought under and for, and he loved our Constitution, especially the promise of freedom of speech it granted. His inclination was to vote against the bill because he believed in freedom of speech, but he knew that would not endear him to his electorate, so his choice was clear. Vote for the bill and assure re-election or vote against it and invite himself to a re-election struggle. He voted against it, and his reason was that if he ducked the hard choices once, it would only make it easier to duck them the next time, and the time after that and the time after that.
There was probably no issue more difficult to face for Republicans than that of supporting the leader of their party and the nation during the hearings on Richard Nixon’s actions in the Watergate affair. Republicans supported appointment of a special counsel to look into the matter. Senator Howard Baker, a friend and defender of Nixon was the one who asked the question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor, and Barry Goldwater was among those who counselled the President to resign.
So today when I see Republican Senators running for re-election embracing the popularity of the President but refusing to criticize or even comment on his most divisive comments on race or belittling our military and its leaders, among many other issues, comments that they know are wrong, my reaction is one of sadness. There was a day, long ago, when Republicans put principles over politics, when I could disagree with them politically but admire them for having courage and I miss it.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.