Keep the Bums, Toss the System

By , Marcia Lynn Whicker is professor of public administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

CONSIDER the American Civil War: The nature of warfare changed forever. The firepower of armies exceeded the known tactics for combat. Generals still lined up troops and forced them to march headlong into barrages of rifle and cannon fire. When those men died, more were thrown into the same battle, in the same fashion, to the same brutal and ugly end. Now consider: The fate of the modern politician is like that of the Civil War soldier. The politics and problems confronting our government have changed irreversibly. Yet we continue to send waves of politicians to their political deaths, killed by barrages of negative attack ads.

Then we excoriate them if they try to dodge these bullets, ignoring that the politician who does not want to be re-elected is far more dangerous. We hold out conflicting goals for them and denounce them when they fail - ``never raise taxes but spend freely for programs that benefit me'' comes to mind.

But as with the Civil War soldier, the reason so few modern politicians perform laudibly has little to do with courage. Our political system has not kept pace with the times. The system of representative government was designed for a horseback era when elected politicians could vote on a limited number of issues, knowing they could communicate the logic for their decisions at length later in newspapers or in person.

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Today's politicians must confront voters, who have an MTV attention span, in 30-second blips. The politician must beg for money to create counter-ads from interest groups who expect a sympathetic ear in return for dollars. Or the politician must be independently wealthy. Just as heroic soldiers who led the charge up the hill were the first to be blasted away, so are courageous politicians who tell truths we don't want to hear. The system, not just politicians, must change.

Augmented by recent budget wars on Capitol Hill, a foul anti-incumbent mood now hovers over the country, manifested in a ``toss the bums out'' attitude, and proposals on the California and Colorado state ballots to limit the terms of state legislators. Yet what will this produce?

Will it decrease the incidence of attack ads and negative campaigning? Will it escalate the level of public debate on issues? Will it diminish the reliance of politicians on PACs and special interest groups for campaign funds? Will it make the budget process more rational? Will it diminish the deadlock produced by divided government? Not likely - any more than sending a fresh wave of soldiers would change the firepower of the opponent or the strategic nature of warfare to win.

If attack ads are a problem, putting new people up to be attacked every 12 years won't change the nature of campaigning. If begging for money from PACs is distorting the political process, forcing new people to beg will not sever the interest group linkage or limit their power. If divided government - a luxury perhaps more suited for a slower time - is the problem, perhaps we should consider ways to consolidate executive and legislative powers to reduce deadlock.

We were once a nation of craft masters, builders, innovators, and engineers. We knew that to fix a problem, we had to analyze it and understand it. We have become a nation of lawyers, entertainers, commentators, and headline grabbers, more eager to place a label on a complex problem than get at its root cause.

If we think the problem of our current political malaise is that most politicians are ``bums,'' we are grasping for scapegoats. A few are, but most aren't. They are just people too. There was a Keating Five, not a Keating 535.

We can't pay members of Congress and the Senate less than $100,000 to manage a government of more than $1.3 trillion while their corporate counterparts are paid millions to manage a few billion - then blame them for wanting elected office for the power it provides. Surely, they don't want it for the money.

Every generation blames its leaders for its own failings. Even the mighty Churchill was tossed out at the polls. Perhaps what we really don't face is that our current politicians - in their unwillingness to deal with issues, contradictions, and tradeoffs - simply reflect most voters mentality.

This defense of politicians is not an apologia for incumbents. Rather, recognizes the almost impossible system in which they operate - in which courageous acts are unrewarded or even worse, wasted and meaningless.

We have two options: We can change the system to reduce roadblocks to rationality, or we can send in fresh waves of politicians to be felled by the same limits and irrational expectations.

The first choice requires an engineering instinct and debate and action on public financing for campaigns and monitoring campaign tactics by linking spending to tax increases and even constitutional change to reduce presidential/congressional deadlock. The second choice is like blood and guts entertainment.

Here's hoping the engineering instincts that fashioned this government haven't fully capitulated to our need to be entertained.

The basic problem is not the character of politicians. It's an outdated political system that undermines discussion of policies and ignores tradeoffs. Until we fix it, the problem won't go away.

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