Why you should care
Our elected officials must realize that what matters more than elections are the days between them. Go lead now!
To the Elected:
Congratulations to you — the members of our new congressional class! Feels good to win, doesn’t it? Almost as good as finally getting some sleep. And now, bright-eyed and bursting with confidence, you’re looking at a Wednesday that, along with a string of congratulatory calls from people who never thought you had a chance, includes a big meeting to answer that most important question: Now what?
Let me save you some time. Now comes the hurt.
Campaigns are all about good versus bad and right versus wrong. They are odes to America, patriotic portraits of the many ways you will make this country better and the many ways your opponent will not. You campaign in a world of black and white. But you govern in a messy, trying world of gray.
As I said, get ready for the hurt.
That’s the hurt. And to be clear, this isn’t something that infects one party and not the other. It’s a bipartisan disaster.
I’ve been there. Not as a candidate, but as a staffer. Six years ago I left my job as a CNN reporter in Cairo to join Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Chicago. I’d always wished I could trade a year of my life for a week in the ’60s, to be part of a definitional battle in American history. 2008 became my battle. “Washington is broken,” Obama had said over and over again on the stump. In him, I felt we had a fix. So did millions of others, many of whom gave mightily to secure a historic win.
On election night, after the confetti had fallen and the TV crews had packed up, I left Grant Park on a bus with other campaign workers. As we drove beyond the barricades, someone stood up and read aloud the first post-victory press release. “President-elect Obama,” he said, “has …” I didn’t hear the rest. I sat there, staring out the window at the crowds, savoring that “president-elect” and the moment — the mandate! — those voters and my country had just delivered. Hype had given way to hope. And my hope was sky high.
Were we naïve or what? Lying in wait in the halls of the Capitol was the rest of the story — the hurt. Congress, it turns out, is not a place where mandates are real or outcries are heard. Congress is a battlefield, where every win is someone’s loss; where, on the night of Obama’s first inauguration, his opponents began developing a war plan to prevent his getting another. That’s governance today. That’s the hurt. And to be clear, this isn’t something that infects one party and not the other. It’s a bipartisan disaster.
My first job in the administration was at the Treasury Department, as a speechwriter for Secretary Timothy Geithner. Our task was staggering: save the economy and shore up the middle class. Oh, and do it against a persistent opposition. Ready, set, GO! A few Republicans stood up in the name of reform and recovery, but they never quite recovered. Same with Democrats. And same with health care reform. Those who tried to do were told to step aside. They had forgotten the main tenet of today’s politics: More important than doing is preventing the other guy from doing.
Energy reform, education reform, even fixing bridges — they’re all going to sit in Congress until we all forget they’re there.
They didn’t prevent Obama from a second term. By then I had become one of the president’s speechwriters, and a few weeks after his second inauguration, I worked on a speech in Las Vegas about immigration reform. Immigration was the great unmet challenge of our first term, and we intended to make it the signature success of the second. In front of an impassioned crowd, Obama described immigration as a challenge where “the differences are dwindling; where a broad consensus is emerging; and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America.”
That was true then, it is true now, and the speech went well enough that I ordered a beer on the plane ride back. Here was one of the most urgent issues of our time, and the momentum for reform felt unstoppable. I thought that for months, as the Senate drafted and eventually passed a comprehensive bill. I thought that and thought that and thought that, and then one day, I realized that nothing is going to happen. Immigration reform is going to sit in Congress until we all forget it’s there. Gun control is going to sit in Congress until we all forget it’s there. Energy reform, education reform, even fixing bridges — they’re all going to sit in Congress until we all forget they’re there. There had been euphoria. What we had left was a slow, stunning, sad deflation.
Emerging from the rubble of sleazy ads and spammy emails are you — the citizens in whom we place a sacred trust to build a better America.
Which brings me back to yesterday. In this, the greatest democracy on earth, there’s no greater moment than an election. It’s the beating heart of public will. It’s the clearest verdict we deliver on our past and the clearest statement we make about our future. And emerging from the rubble of sleazy ads and spammy emails are you — the citizens in whom we place a sacred trust to build a better America.
There may be hurt waiting for you in Washington. But, naïve as it may be, I still hope that what’s broken can be fixed. That’s why, as you embrace the unforgiving task of governing, I wish for you — Republicans and Democrats alike — two things: First, an issue that you’re willing to make the cause of your life. And second, a constituency that stays aware, stays engaged and places the fight for good policy over the fight for absolute power.
For if we — the people — realize that what matters more than elections are the days in between and the duty to back up our vote with our voice, then you — our elected representatives — will know that the time has come to end the endless campaign, to replace the battle of ideology with a battle of ideas and to allow progress, not politics, to again define our government.
Congrats! You won. Now lead.