Montana Viewpoint

July 10, 2006

Good policy and good politics are often seen as incompatible in today’s political climate. Well, they don’t have to be, and in fact, shouldn’t be.

Maybe it’s due to the nature of our American system of government with elections every two years, maybe it’s due to the monumental change towards negative campaigning introduced about 1990, or maybe it’s due to a lack of leaders of vision. Whatever the reason, it’s past time for a change.

America’s two political parties used to have distinct differences in policy, and had leaders that could effectively articulate them. Republicans believed in small government and fiscal responsibility, and that private enterprise and the market forces would sort out the inequities inherent in life.

Democrats believed that the powerful interests directing business posed an impediment to what our Montana Constitution so eloquently calls “the equality of opportunity,” and needed governmental intervention to assure that equality.

Now, it seems that either party believes that whatever “policy” that can get them elected is the best policy. That’s called “the politics of expediency,” and it might be OK if attention were paid to the long term problems of the Nation once they got elected to power.

Unfortunately, the next election is usually about as long term as it gets.

While each party does have some basic principles, I don’t believe either of them have an inkling of how they envision America in 100 years, let alone ten, or how to direct us there. Even a start-up business has a better plan than our political parties do.

To be blunt, if the national political parties were businesses applying for a loan to advance their interests, no self-respecting banker would loan it to them.

Of course there is a major problem with having a plan and talking about it, and it lies in an age old truth: it is easier to tear down than to build, and every, and any plan put forward by a political leader is fair game for destruction.

But what I see today that passes for policy is nothing more than a patchwork quilt of politically salable items, that have is no central guiding factor. It’s no joke that there is a bumper sticker that says “If the people lead the politicians will follow.” Political polling, rather than personal vision, is what “guides” this country today.

Today’s leadership is set by unelected people who are not a part of middle class America. On the left the self-appointed moral leaders of the entertainment industry voice the concerns of Los Angeles across the nation; on the right it is the equally self-appointed opinion makers, the media tycoons speaking through their mouthpieces on talk radio and the far-from-liberal wing press which they control.

What passes for political leadership gets their instructions from these sources.

OK, I’ve been carping about lack of leadership and lack of vision, and since it’s easier to complain than create, it’s fair to expect me to have some conclusions of my own. Fair enough.

I believe that leadership comes from within the leader, and that a leader’s policy comes from deeply held convictions about what’s right and wrong in society and a need to fix it. Leadership is the desire and ability and courage to champion a cause that is not politically popular, but needs attention. It is sometimes telling people what they don’t want to hear, but need to. It is risking being unpopular.

I believe that the path to a good and just America is embodied in that simple phrase “equality of opportunity,” and that it can be achieved by making sure that all Americans have equal access to three things: health care that prevents illness as well as treats it; a good education, including affordable college tuition; and a decent wage for honest labor that doesn’t require more than one full time job just to stay alive.

It’s a simple logic; you can’t work if you’re not healthy and you can’t get a good job if you’re not educated.

And one last thing; you can’t lead if you don’t care about people.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620