The primaries are over in Maryland. There was a time in the not too distant past when that meant that, as a practical matter, we had selected our leading elected officials and leaders. Well, “the times, they are a changin’.” The selection of our next Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, and U.S. Senator is definitely not over. In addition, many Congressional and State legislative districts, and even counties, that were once a lock for one party or the other can no longer be accurately described in that manner.
In my last column, I opined that a candidate’s leadership ability and character were more important than his/her positions on issues. I also said that we can identify those leadership qualities and character traits by examining a candidate’s record and his/her reputation among his/her peers for “being able to get things done,” particularly if the candidate has previously held public office. I also pointed out that we should focus on their positions on issues to see if they are logical and substantive as opposed to rigid and ideological.
Those criteria for selecting leaders should apply across the spectrum to both parties and to politicians of varying political and governing philosophies. Positions on issues can and sometimes should change as a result of political or economic necessity, or because the facts, which form the basis for a public official’s position on an issue, themselves change. Any candidate for public office or elected official who takes the position that an elected or appointed leader should never change their mind on an issue is usually either an ideologue whose rigidity should be disqualifying for further public office or an unprincipled and opportunistic partisan whose only goal is to satisfy his political or ideological ambition.
Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, an Independent Think Tank where I serve on the Judicial Advisory Board, said in addressing the Miller Center of Public Affairs at my alma mater, The University of Virginia, invoking Thomas Jefferson, “Good Governance is based on good ideas and good ideas are based on respect for facts, rigor in thinking, rationality in debate, and civility in discourse.” If an elected or appointed leader’s or candidate’s positions on issues, regardless of whether the person is “conservative or liberal,” “left or right,” “democrat,” “republican,” “green libertarian,” etc. is not fact based, well thought out and rational, as well as capable of being articulated with respect for those who disagree, then we should probably look elsewhere when choosing who to support for that public office, even if it is to someone who may not as closely reflect our personal point of view on issues.
This does not mean that issues of governance and leadership are not subject to the push and pull of partisan interests, or even passions. They obviously are and quite properly so in our representative democracy, since they are by definition political. Indeed, partisanship is a natural and healthy part of our political system. It is institutionalized in the two-party system.
What is not healthy, however, and should not be allowed to further develop is the “intense destructive partisanship” described by Strobe Talbott, which appears to be institutionalized at the federal level and heading in that direction in Annapolis. This is evidenced by the recent partisan debates and rhetoric, as well as litigation, over redistricting, energy regulation and early voting, as well as campaigns based on slogans suggesting who the “real republicans” and “real democrats” are. What do these themes have to do with the Jeffersonian concept of good government based on good ideas, which are based on respect for facts, rigor in thinking, rationality in debate and civility in discourse? The answer is they do not have anything to do with them. What they relate to are appeals to activists on the right and left fringes of their parties and unfortunately to special interests, who fund these appeals by direct mail or other media.
What do we do about this? We start by electing leaders who by their example reject this intense, destructive, ideological and party partisanship. Second, we create an atmosphere and new institutions that proactively encourage collaboration on projects without regard to party or other partisan, philosophical, or religious affiliation. That includes the creation of institutions within University programs and Independent Think Tanks where scholars with widely different perspectives and viewpoints work together to address difficult policy challenges. The purpose of this is not to have a debate and it is not to have every policy reflect both sides of a contested issue. On the contrary, both of those are results to avoid. Furthermore, our agenda should not be simply to forge compromises or to aim for the “middle,” which is a moving target in America’s politics.
No, our goal should be for these scholars to use the best tools of social science and thorough objective research to come up with fact-based innovative solutions to tough policy problems, which can be explained persuasively by reference to facts, which have been examined with the greatest degree of intellectual rigor accompanied by the civility, which enables it to go forward.