Watchdog Blog

Carolyn Lewis: The High Cost of Doing the Right Thing

Posted at 1:01 pm, February 24th, 2009
Carolyn Lewis Mug

It was just a small item in The Washington Post: California’s Republican Party voted to deny party funds for the 2010 election to six GOP lawmakers who broke ranks with the party to support a tax increase. The increase was desperately needed to pass a state budget facing a $42 billion shortfall.

The party’s decision “sends a strong message to politicians that there will be consequences for breaking their no-tax pledge,” the story said.

This raises the question: To whom, exactly, does an elected official owe the highest loyalty? To his constituents, his party, or his conscience? Some say the first duty is to reflect the wishes of those who voted for you, even if in time you think the voters are dead wrong. Others argue that loyalty to your party is most important. These beliefs leave little wiggle room for a politician to think for himself. He’s expected to merely rubber-stamp the wishes of others.

I would argue that a politician’s chief responsibility is to apply his best sense of what is right for the whole community – the state, the country; in the case of the mayor, the city or town. In the crunch, he should follow his conscience. The fact is, while voters choose a politician because they want him to reflect their opinions, they are at the same time investing trust in his ability to choose wisely on their behalf. And hang the consequences.

Tennessee Senator Al Gore, Sr., father of former Vice President Al Gore, Jr., was a case in point. In the late Sixties, when I was covering Capitol Hill, the Senate rejected two less than qualified Southerners, Clement Haynesworth and G. Harold Carswell, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. Their nomination was part of a Southern Strategy to garner Southern support for a conservative movement that balked at integration. Gore’s vote was considered vital to that movement’s success. I recall asking him what would be the consequences of his bucking the tide and he answered, “I expect I’ll be defeated in the next election.” He knew he was already vulnerable politically because of some of his earlier votes, and he felt that these Supreme Court votes would put the final nail in his coffin.

And so they did. Gore, a Democrat, who had served in the US Senate since 1952 and in the House many years before that, was defeated in 1970. It was a time when the traditionally Democratic South was already turning Republican, and perhaps Gore’s defeat was inevitable. But in the end he did what he thought was right, voted no and accepted his fate.
At least when he left he could look himself in the mirror without flinching.

Moral of the story: There are worse things in politics than consequences. There are worse things in life than being defeated in an election.

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