There are two kinds of politicians in Washington — the kind who do what they have to do to get re-elected, and the kind who do what they believe they should do because it’s the right thing.
For all of the speeches and sound bites, the campaign ads and polling, it’s really not more complicated than that. Every decision in the capital comes back to that fundamental choice.
President George H.W. Bush was the second kind of politician — the one who always seemed to do what he felt was right, even if it was dangerous or difficult or unpopular. I think that’s why the outpouring of affection for him has been so overwhelming this week. With so many examples of leaders focused on themselves or next campaigns, the elder Bush’s fundamental decency in office still sets him apart.
His most fateful decision was the compromise he led between Democrats and Republicans in 1990 to reduce the federal deficit in exchange for a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. For a president who had promised voters, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” the reversal was a fireable offense, especially for Bush’s own Republican colleagues in the House like then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who had tacitly agreed to the deal and eventually whipped against it. “You’re killing us, you are just killing us,” Bush told Gingrich at the time.
And Bush was right. On the day after the budget deal was announced in 1990, The New York Post headline screamed, “Read My Lips: I Lied,” while The Times-Picayune in New Orleans added, “Re-Read My Lips,” and the Allentown Call advised, “Stop Reading His Lips.”
But for Bush, he believed he was making the only responsible choice to re-start the sputtering economy, lower interest rates and get spending under control.
President Bush never wrote a memoir about his time in office, but first lady Barbara Bush did, and she shared her and Bush’s thinking at the time of the budget agreement from a diary entry that day. “Everyone wants to pile on, but I don’t worry. George IS doing the right thing,” she wrote. “We just have to get the deficit down. I find myself in the funniest mood. I truly feel that George is doing what is responsible and right for the country and to heck with politics. There is a life after the White House and both of us are looking forward to it.”
It’s uncanny timing that Bush would lie in state in the Capitol just as new members of Congress are making their own plans for the new careers they’ll have and how they’ll conduct themselves once they’re sworn in. Many will find, as Bush did, that campaign promises are easy to make, tough to keep, and more often than you’d think, not connected to the real world you have to govern in.
Those new members will also find out that one of the most powerful, and potentially toxic, incentives in their new lives is to do whatever is necessary to get re-elected. Say what you have to. Vote how you have to. Do what you have to. There are very few members who believe they can do more from the country outside of the Congress than from the inside. “Just get past November, and we’ll deal with it then,” I’ve heard too many times to count.
But ironically, the instinct to do what’s necessary to get re-elected can make a member too cautious, too calculating — and ultimately might not work anyway.
When Rep. Mia Love gave her concession speech last week, she hammered President Trump for making fun of her loss the week before, as well as Republicans generally, for their treatment of minorities. “I am unleashed, I am untethered, and I am unshackled, and I can say exactly what’s on my mind,” she announced. But why didn’t she say what was on her mind before now?
Sen. Claire McCaskill had a similar moment of truth telling with NPR after she lost her race. “I just think Tom Cotton is kind of rude. He’s just not very friendly,” she said. “Ted Cruz has gotten more friendly. He has been much more warm and friendly and funny. It’s probably very rude of me to name names, but what the hell, right?”
At the end of every politician’s career, they usually realize that they can’t control the political environment they’ll run in; they can’t control the economy; and they certainly can’t control this president. They cannot control whether they’ll win or lose, but they can always decide whether they’ll do what they think is right.
Even if voters can’t live with it, you can live with yourself. And as George H.W. Bush showed us all, that’s what matters in the end.