Politician: it can be an honorable profession

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Donald Trump recently made headlines by telling people that he didn’t care about the increasing national debt because it would become a serious problem after he left office. This, despite the fact that he repeatedly claimed that he can get rid of the national debt in just eight years. So much for caring about the long-term needs of the country.

Certainly, Trump has done what he can to increase the debt, not reduce it, during a time of relative prosperity when we could be making great strides on reducing it. His indifference to the future is endemic throughout his administration. He is leaving global warming to future generations to wrestle with, our decaying infrastructure, the North Korean nuclear threat (despite his claims otherwise), etc…

Despite the cynicism that has developed among Americans, especially young people, not all politicians are so contemptible. I worked on two campaigns opposing George H.W. Bush and worked in Washington during his administration, bemoaning his occupancy of the White House the entire time. I anguished through the Anita Hill hearings.

Nevertheless, upon Bush the elder’s passing last week, I was reminded of his deficit reduction effort. Here he was, a son of privilege, who pledged during his 1988 campaign against Mike Dukakis, “read my lips, no new taxes.” But he supported a deficit reduction plan that included taxes on the rich.

The 1992 Clinton campaign ran ads with video from Bush’s convention acceptance speech in which he made the tax pledge, contrasting that statement with what he actually did. I must admit that at the time, I loved the ad. In retrospect, the lesson that every Republican learned was never to increase taxes, something that has become a manacle upon legislative policy-making since then. Bush, of course, lost the election, at least in part due to his tax increase.

Like many, I was moved by the video of Bob Dole, Bush’s one-time opponent, who famously growled at him “stop lying about my record.” Dole, of course, brought into the Capital rotunda by wheelchair, insisted on standing before Bush’s coffin to honor his passing. Many reminisced about a bygone era when politicians behaved civilly to each other.

But what is often forgotten is that Dole also pushed through a deficit reduction package. During the Reagan years, as Senate Republican leader, Dole helped pass a number of bills that would have reduced the budget deficit. Ultimately, these bills never became law because then Congressman Jack Kemp convinced President Reagan that there was no need for a deficit-reduction package. He argued that the United States could simply grow its way out of the deficit, a message that found an enthusiastic listener in Reagan.

For Dole, however, this was disaster. Not only did the deficit not get reduced, but he had Republican Senators on record voting to increase taxes and reduce spending on things like agriculture and entitlements. The result? Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, and Bob Dole lost his position as Senate Majority Leader, a bitter disappointment to him that led, at least in part, to his unsuccessful Presidential run two years later.

I have a more recent example that is near and dear to my heart of a politician doing the right thing despite the danger to his personal political interest. From 1995 to 2004, I served as Deputy Mayor of Michigan’s third largest city. I was appointed by the Mayor who I served faithfully.

My boss was a lifelong union supporter who came from a working class background. But he realized that the city’s finances were on an unsustainable trend. Increases in city revenues were capped by state law, and retiree health care and pension costs were increasing at a much faster rate. My boss was term limited, but he knew that this problem could be dealt with easily now, or painfully after he was gone. He decided to do something about it even though he easily could have kicked this issue down the road to the next Mayor.

This was a departure from past practice. In the past, it was always easier for Mayors to agree to give the unions whatever they wanted in pension benefits. The unions loved it, leading to their providing political support to the Mayor’s re-election. The Mayors loved it, because the costs of this agreement would be borne by future administrations. But my boss, Mayor Mark Steenbergh, refused to take the easy path, even though he easily could have done so.

What followed was a multi-year battle with our unions over reforming our retirement system. During his re-election campaign, we had to endure repeated attacks from firefighters and other union members outraged that we were working to get these costs under control. Fortunately, we explained the issue to the voters, and so we were re-elected twice, but Mark did not get elected City Treasurer once he reached the end of his allowed service. I would argue that the blame of this loss can be placed squarely upon the anger our cost reduction efforts created among certain city employees.

I can think of one more example from the most recent midterm election. Consider Heidi Heitkamp, the former Senator from North Dakota. She represented a state that was firmly behind Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her decision to oppose his nomination in the wake of the testimony by Dr. Blasey Ford led directly — and predictably — to a big drop in her polling for her underdog re-election campaign in such a Republican state. She knew the potential cost, but she took the position anyway because she believed it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, she lost her race by a ten-point margin. Prior to her Kavanaugh vote, she was neck-in-neck with her Republican challenger.

In this day and age of cynicism, it is worth noting that there are still politicians who try to do the right thing. From experience, I can tell you that it is often hard to push through unpopular, but necessary, legislation. It’s something akin to making your children eat their broccoli because it is good for them. If there is any weakness to our democratic system it is the ability of people to vote for easy solutions rather than real ones. That is the weakness an unscrupulous demagogue like Donald Trump can step into.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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