Politics of Purpose
The most overused word in politics is “mandate.” The word that should be used more often is “mission.”
The American people are too reactionary for mandates. They will disapprove of some Republican pursuit. Woe to the Republicans if they respond that they’re acting on a mandate and will stay the course since the country elected for change.
The Democrats tried that. They were ushered into the supermajority in 2008 and immediately set sight on a trillion-dollar package of pure pork barrel spending to stimulate the economy. They insisted that they were simply meeting the moment and would often tout their successes in a manner symbolic of their whole agenda: steering the economy and propping up their biggest supporters rather than empowering Americans to chart their own course. They packed the stimulus bill with handouts to favored industries, particularly the renewable energy sector, along with demand-side spending for those hit hardest by the recession. They tried to make the case that their infrastructure improvements would revitalize the heartland and then, in What’s the Matter with Kansas fashion, lambasted red state Republicans for not knowing what’s in their best interest but they should have kept reading the tome - there was no indication they would win votes for doling out cash.
The Democrats weren’t just wrong but politically stupid. In July 2009, with less than 10% of the federal stimulus dispensed, they pivoted to health care. The American people reacted and Republicans found their unifying, appealing message for the 2010 election: “where are the jobs?” The messaging worked. At one point, over 70% of Americans polled by CNN agreed with Republicans that President Obama had taken his focus off the economy too soon and should scrap his push on health care. One of their best arguments was that Democrats should “go back to the drawing board.” Democrats refused but conservatives in Congress should be ready and willing to ignore the beltway press and “return to the drawing board” when the moment calls for it.
It’s assumed President Trump will be heavily invested in his approval rating. He shouldn’t be, at least at the outset. If anyone has a mandate, it’s Trump. He ran as a true rebel and leads a country desperate enough for change that it opted to elect the first president with absolutely no experience in elected office. But even he doesn’t know what kind of change is going to elicit approval from the masses. Does “drain the swamp” refer to reducing the influence of legislators and lobbyists or does it mean permanently closing the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street? Will the American public be more concerned with him appointing insiders to help run the federal government or will they disapprove of him looking for fealty among subordinates? Speaker Ryan likes to say Trump “heard a voice” from the American people. He should continue this open ears policy to drive his agenda as president.
Representatives in Congress and state capitols should look to Scott Walker’s example in Wisconsin. While he claimed a mandate for reform, the details of the Budget Repair Act immediately stirred controversy. To combat the perception, he carefully insisted that the effort to roll back collective bargaining for public employees was premised on the important mission of binding future negotiations. Moreover, he would often lament that he and the Republicans weren’t more effectively explaining that mission to voters. They persevered, though, and Act 10 is a total success. In a remarkable twist of fate, public employee unions were neutered in their birthplace. Today, Democratic candidates choose to run against a host of other issues and the reforms continue to deliver.
Republicans should list their priorities as mission statements. The public will react, and Republicans will have to reconcile their agenda to match the country’s needs. In addition, the politics of competing missions avoids the folly of mandates and populist sentimentality. Negotiation in Washington has largely consisted of staking out a position that is popular and then bashing the other side for not “listening to the will of the people.” Leadership, instead, consists of laying out an agenda, running on it, and then acting on it when elected, always prepared to accept the consequences no matter what.
Negotiation can be a means of forging consensus to reach a meaningful goal but long-term victory is easier to achieve than the violent swings of the pendulum suggest. Political inertia typically favors the status quo but serious reform is possible. And that kind of reform is our purpose, so we must state our mission and prepare to adapt as we pursue victories to outlast any mandate.
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