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In Defense of Politics

By Peter Wehner

(Note: The following is the text of a speech delivered by Mr. Wehner before the Ethics and Public Policy Center on October 18.)

My topic is "In Defense of Politics." This is, I will readily concede, a contrarian case to make, especially these days. Let me begin my address, then, with a necessary caveat: much of what goes on in politics is not impressive; and in some instances, it is not even defensible.

In the last several decades we have all seen too many instances of silly and dispiriting public discourse; wasteful spending; corrupt public officials; abuses and misuses of power; and just plain trashy behavior. We have seen urgent problems that demand solutions - and yet the machinery of government has often acted too slowly and inefficiently for our tastes. Many Americans have seen this, and they have seen much more than this, and they are frustrated. They wonder, and sometimes they are right to wonder, what has become of our political life.

But I submit to you that this is only a portion of a much fuller story - and that another, important and uplifting part of politics needs to be told. This evening I'd like to make that case by responding to some common criticisms made about politics; by offering some brief comments on the role of the media; and by making a case for the good that sound public policies can achieve.


I thought it might be useful to lay out three common complaints about politics and respond to them - not in order to dismiss these complaints as wholly without merit, but in order to add some perspective.

One common complaint about politics is that it is characterized too often by gridlock and nothing gets done. The public is tired of gridlock and eager to elect people who will focus on the real problems and work together to find solutions, we are told.

It seems to me that if you are going to direct your ire at someone or something for gridlock in our system, you might start with our founders, the American Constitution, and perhaps with original sin itself. If men were angels, Federalist #51 tells us, no government would be necessary. But we aren't, so it is. And the founding fathers, led by one of the best educated and wisest figures in American history, James Madison, did a remarkable survey of political history and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of other forms of government. Our Constitution is the result of that search.

You need only recall your own high school civics class to know that gridlock was built into the American form of government. One of the great dangers Madison and his colleagues feared was tyranny of the majority. To protect against it, the Constitution created a system of separate institutions and checks and balances. The founders put
in place a government that was, in the words of George Will, "replete with blocking mechanisms, including supermajorities, vetoes, veto overrides, judicial review ... and ... bicameralism."

Our founders, then, made it a great deal easier to step on the legislative brake rather than on the legislative accelerator. This can obviously lead to frustration; all of us - especially those of us working in the White House - want to push through legislation we believe will promote the public good. We want to act, because the President for whom we work was elected to act. And undoubtedly some very good legislation does not make it over all the institutional hurdles the founders set up.

At the same time, our system - our sometimes plodding, sometimes cumbersome, sometimes slow-as-molasses system - has endured for more than two centuries, and our form of government is the envy of the world. And for all the complaints we hear, we have preserved our liberty, built a nation of almost unimaginable prosperity, helped defeat several soul-destroying tyrannies in the 20th century, and acted when action was urgent. Our system of government is not perfect - but it is the best on the planet; and our Constitution is, in the words of Gladstone, "the greatest work ever struck off ... by the brain and purpose of man."

A second common complaint we hear is that political discourse is characterized by too much animosity and rancor. There is just too much bickering in Washington. Why can't we all just get along?

In response to this concern, there is a need for some degree of historical perspective. American politics has been characterized by angry, fractious elections and political bickering since our founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history1. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, "it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics."

One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."

Or reflect on the 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley - a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into "a shower of mud." One pamphlet circulated by Greeley's supporters called the Grant Administration the "crowning point of governmental wickedness" and accused Grant of bringing forth a "burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism...."

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?" (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: "Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!"). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election and said this: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions." Accusations of Blaine's corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!"

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols.

Now I don't hold up these campaigns as a model for political discourse or dueling as a way to settle disagreements. My point is simply that heated exchanges are endemic to politics; what we are seeing today is not outside the norm of American history; and our public rhetoric is less sulfuric than at many other points in our past.

My own view is probably the same as yours: our debates should be both less ad hominem and more spirited, less trivial and more serious. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters - such as which party and which political leaders are best able to lead the United States in its war against militant Islam. "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords," is how Theodore Roosevelt put it.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. Too often political debates are defined by slogans and shallow reasoning. What we need to provide are arguments - serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas's advocacy for "popular sovereignty" was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence - which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of "negative" campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so great. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

A third complaint we often hear is that this generation of political figures is too ideological and too "polarizing." We see too much "dogmatism" in contemporary Americans politics. Why on earth can't we all come together and reach common ground?

In response I would point out the important role semantics can play in this discussion. One person's "ideology" or "dogmatism" is another person's carefully considered political philosophy - and being "independent" and "unpredictable" can be another way of saying someone is unanchored, a cork in the political sea. Often people who hold no deep convictions direct their fire against those who do. And commentators often employ adjectives instead of arguments, portraying people with whom they disagree as "rigid" and "dogmatic." Maybe; or maybe not. I suspect that one's own political and philosophical beliefs determine whether you view a particular political figure as principled or stubborn; resolved or inflexible; independent or unreliable; moderate or lacking deep convictions; impassioned or angry; confident or arrogant; cool and objective or detached and aloof.

We also hear it said by pundits and analysts that this or that political figure is too "polarizing" - as if polarization is itself a sign of failed leadership.

This is of course not the case. It is true that some figures in American history were both polarizing and pernicious; George Wallace is one such example. But it is also true that many of our greatest and most successful leaders were polarizing and divisive figures in their day. Indeed, transformational, consequential figures - men and women who are agents of important change - are almost always polarizing.

Here is what was said about Martin Luther King, Jr. in The New York Times in 1961:

[Reverend King] is ... the object of bitter hatred, particularly among the whites of his region. The Governor of Georgia, his native state, has declared him unwanted, unwelcome, a man to be watched. Many who sympathize with his goals consider his methods dangerously provocative.

The Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates has written this:

In the summer of 1860, [Lincoln] was the Republican candidate for President of the United States in what promised to be the most combustible election the Union had ever known. In the South, Democrats who understood nothing about the candidate as a man, nothing at all, castigated him as a symbol of 'Black Republicanism' -- a 'sooty and scoundrelly' abolitionist who wanted to free the slaves and mongrelize the white race. In the North, Democratic papers disparaged him as a party hack and a political unknown who lacked the ability to serve as President.

According to Professor Oates, in 1860:

Lincoln could scarcely believe the vehemence and tumult his candidacy had caused in the South, where his name would not even appear on the ballot in ten states and where he was burned in effigy in windows and public squares.

And in 1864 a Democratic paper in Wisconsin said this:

If [Lincoln] is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.

Of Franklin Roosevelt, this was said:

"Roosevelt was a President toward whom no one was indifferent or neutral. After he had been in office a brief period, the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred. By 1940, every home regarded him as a household idol or its demon."

And of Ronald Wilson Reagan, it was said:

"Despite his winning personality, Reagan throughout his political career has been a polarizing figure who stirs strong antipathy as well as fervent support."

And this:

[Pollster Lou Harris] believes that Reagan is polarizing the country more than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt and that, when such strong political polarization occurs, it tends to lead to a greater voter turnout. That would benefit the Democrats, still the majority political party.

Haynes Johnson of The Washington Post wrote this last statement in the same year that President Reagan carried 49 states against Walter Mondale.

And among the greatest non-American political figures of the 20th century were Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill - two notably laid back, low-key, non-controversial, non-polarizing, non-provocative, let's-split-the-difference, don't-rock-the-boat types.

I would prefer to have comity rather than acrimony in our public life. All of us would prefer we find common ground on issues like Iraq and the war against militant Islam; Social Security; energy; immigration; abortion; and so much else. The problem is that what is considered a reasonable basis for compromise and common ground differs, based on what your starting point is and what your convictions are. And at the end of the day, successful political leaders are not judged by whether or not they are "polarizing." They are ultimately judged on how well they govern; on the wisdom of their decisions; on the causes to which they give voice; on the good they do; and on the principles for which they stand and fight.


I want to take a moment to offer comments about the American media, since it is an integral part of how politics is both practiced and how politicians are portrayed.

One of the fascinating things to observe in Washington is how journalists lament what they often encourage. Members of the media despair about the polarization of politics, even as many of them put a premium on drawing attention to conflict and controversy. They bemoan the obsession with poll numbers and covering politics like a horse race, yet that is what they focus on day after day after day, hour after hour after hour. They speak about the importance of deepening the public's understanding of key issues, yet they often build caricatures and toss out simplistic and misleading labels. They chastise politicians for staying relentlessly "on message" - and yet when a slip or misstatement by a candidate is made, it is like lighting a match to dry tinder. A bonfire ensues.

The American media is a large, varied, and vital institution, and it consists of many intelligent and impressive individuals. At its best, it is, in the words of Walter Lippmann, "like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision." But too often, it fails at that task. It takes away from, rather than adds to, our knowledge and insight into events.


Let's now consider the good government can do when it is employed in wise ways. Let me do this by citing problems that not long ago were thought to be virtually intractable - but problems against which government policies have made tremendous inroads.

Perhaps the most successful social reform in decades was the 1996 welfare bill, which reversed 60 years of federal welfare policy by ending the legal entitlement to welfare benefits, mandating that a large percentage of recipients work, and imposing a five-year time limit on the receipt of federally-funded benefits. You may recall that this legislation was fiercely opposed by liberals like Jim Wallis and Marian Wright Edelman, who predicted catastrophic consequences. But welfare reform was also opposed by some distinguished public intellectuals; and by the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And the conservative columnist George Will was a deep skeptic of welfare reform as well.

In 1995, Mr. Will expressed his concerns toward welfare reform this way: "no child is going to be spiritually improved by being collateral damage in a bombardment of severities targeted at adults who may or may not deserve more severe treatment from the welfare system."

Now the results are in - and the largest welfare caseload decline in history occurred in the aftermath of welfare reform. Overall, the caseload has declined by more than 60 percent since its high-water mark in 1994, and some states reduced their caseloads by more than 90 percent.

Not only has the number of people on welfare plunged, in the wake of welfare reform child poverty, black child poverty, and poverty among children of single mothers declined. Employment of single mothers increased. And the growth of out-of-wedlock childbirths slowed significantly.

Not all of these gains are attributable to welfare reform - but many of them are. Welfare reform stands as a remarkable and hopeful achievement: a policy that reduced dependency, encouraged self-reliance, improved the lives of those living in the shadows of society, and helped promote traits that are vital to a self-governing nation.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was also said that when confronted by certain demographic realities - primarily a surge in the number of young "at risk" males - there was little government could do to decrease crime. But we now know that government, in conjunction with other efforts, did quite a lot to reduce crime - and did it far more rapidly and far more effectively than almost anyone thought possible.

When he became mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani instituted important reforms, based in part on James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's "broken windows" theory. As a result, Mayor Giuliani helped transform the city and decrease the number of murders by more than 70 percent in eight years. Nationally, violent crime and the murder rate are near their 30-year lows.

If you review what was said by many conservatives at the time about welfare and crime specifically, and social and cultural issues more broadly, you will find the tone was characterized by extreme modesty - and even by a sense of powerlessness. It was often said how little we know, and how little could be done. The implication was that government cannot do anything right. In fact, quite a lot of good has been achieved.

I will cite a third example: Afghanistan. Five years ago, Afghanistan was ruled by one of the most sadistic regimes in modern times - and perhaps in history. By now the litany is a familiar one: Under the Taliban and al Qaeda, Afghanistan was a land where men were beaten for missing prayer meetings and could be jailed if their beards were not long enough; where women were publicly whipped and imprisoned in their own homes; where girls couldn't go to school; and where children were forbidden the smallest pleasures, like flying kites. Summary executions were held in Kabul's soccer stadium in front of cheering mobs. And of course Afghanistan was a terrorist safe haven.

That ancient land was liberated. This does not mean everything is perfect; far from it. Afghanistan, after all, is one of the most impoverished nations on earth. Progress in that nation will come slowly, over many years, and we will witness both successes and set-backs along the way. We know, for example, that the Taliban are stepping up their brutal efforts, roadside bombings and suicide attacks have increased, and the struggle continues.

Yet the liberation of Afghanistan counts as a great human achievement - and with the help of the United Nations and coalition countries, Afghan leaders chose an interim government. They wrote and approved a democratic constitution. Afghanistan held elections to choose a new President and to elect a new Parliament, and in those parliamentary elections, more than six million Afghans defied terrorist threats and cast their ballots. Five years ago, the leader of Afghanistan was Mullah Omar; today it is Hamid Karzi.

Let me mention a fourth issue: the global AIDS initiative. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced the five-year, $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease. This was a quantum leap from what any previous Administration had done - and the United States is on track to fulfill its unprecedented commitment.

As of March 31 of this year, the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief had supported antiretroviral treatment for more than half-a-million men, women, and children in 15 of the most afflicted countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. And through September 30 of last year, the Emergency Plan supported care for nearly 3 million people, including care for more than 1.2 million orphans and vulnerable children.

Last year my former colleague Michael Gerson traveled to an orphanage in Ethiopia run by the Sisters of Charity. Of the 400 children in the orphanage, all of them were born HIV positive and all of them lost both their parents to HIV. Two years ago, they were all under a death sentence; none of the children would have made it to his or her 10th birthday. And yet today, largely because of the efforts of America, most of them will live for many years to come. In fact, the nuns are doing what they never thought they would have to do: preparing the children for job training.

The nuns will show visitors a mural on the wall of Jesus and the children. On the wall are pictures of boys and girls who have died of AIDS - and the other kids in the orphanage will touch the pictures and talk to them, as though they are still alive. The nuns will tell heartbreaking stories about how children on the cusp of death would, as a final act, thank the nuns for all they had done to make their lives better; and how other children, afraid to die, would ask the nuns, "Why can't you come with me?"

Young children should ask about play dates, and soccer games, and homework, and birthday parties; they should not have to ask why they will have to die afraid and alone.

Good policies, wise policies, can make an enormous difference.

What, then, are we to make of all this? First, enlightened policies, pursued with energy and resolution, can go a long way toward solving persistent problems. And second, change and progress can happen faster than many people, including many conservatives, thought possible.


Politics should also be understood as part of a great human drama. There is a reason that when Abraham Lincoln saw Harriet Beecher Stowe, he reportedly said, "So this is the little lady who caused the great war." There is a reason that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's book, The Gulag Archipelago, was a mighty blow from which Soviet Communism never really recovered. And there is a reason that the words "all men are created equal" helped found a nation; that the words "with malice toward none, with charity for all" helped heal a nation; and the words "I have a dream" helped move a nation.

At the heart of politics is the search for justice.2 It is about upholding the value and worth of every human life. It is about helping set up the conditions that allow for human flourishing and human excellence. We need to explain why the policies we advocate are part of a compelling narrative and a large purpose - a purpose that can touch the deep things in the human heart.

Washington, D.C. can be a tough and rambunctious city. Politics ain't beanbags, as Mr. Dooley said. People in this city can play rough - and they play for keeps. Politics is not a profession for those with delicate sensibilities. At the same time, I have been deeply impressed with many of the people with whom I have worked. I have told countless friends who have asked me about the experience of working in the White House that what has most impressed me is the quality and integrity of many of my colleagues. They are hard-working, committed, and impressive individuals. Indeed, the majority of people I know who enter politics - Democrats and Republicans - do so for the right reasons. They want to do good - and they want to advance causes in which they believe.

The Scotsman John Buchan authored Pilgrim's Way, an autobiography of great beauty and power. In it, Buchan wrote these words: "Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honourable adventure."

Contrast Buchan's statements with that of Andrew Sullivan, author of a new book, The Conservative Soul. Mr. Sullivan makes the claim that, "Politics, for a conservative, is a necessary activity, but it should never be an uplifting one." (emphasis added) I dissent from what Mr. Sullivan forthrightly calls his "dismal or uninspiring approach to politics."

Much of politics is mundane and prosaic. And as a Christian, I believe there are intrinsic limits to what politics can achieve and the place it should hold in our lives. We cannot usher the Kingdom of God into this world; that task belongs to Another. But political acts can have profound human consequences. They can determine whether people live in freedom or servitude; whether government promotes a culture of life or a culture of death; and whether the state is a guardian of human dignity or an enemy of it. The stakes are very high indeed. And so we must resist the temptation to resort to easy cynicism and indifference, which corrode the heart of those who hold them. "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire," Oliver Wendell Holmes once said. "It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing... we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference..."

And so it should be with us. We should scorn both indifference and cynicism. We should instead pursue politics with passion and integrity, with energy and good cheer, and do all we can to make this country we love stronger and better and more just.


1) It is true that the Jefferson-Adams election was bitter - but it was also, and more importantly, historic. Professor Harry Jaffa reminds us, "we know of no example before 1800 of a government in which the instruments of political power passed from one set of hands to those of their most uncompromisingly hostile political rivals and opponents because of a free vote."
2) "Justice is the end of government," is how James Madison put it in Federalist #51.

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.

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