THE FOUR-WAY DEMOCRATIC RACE for Ted Kennedy's vacant Senate seat has less than two weeks to go -- the primary election is on Dec. 8 -- yet according to the latest Boston Globe poll, nearly three-quarters of likely voters still haven't made up their minds.
Clockwise from top left: Steve Pagliuca, Michael Capuano, Martha Coakley, and Alan Khazei.
I have a suggestion for the other 74 percent.
Don't vote for a career politician.
Congress is filled with permanent members of the political class, government lifers addicted to the influence and prestige that come with high office. In a setting that glorifies politics and fawns on public "servants," the air is thick with the arrogance of power -- a narcotic that deludes politicians into thinking not only that they are capable of exercising authority over others, but that they are uniquely qualified to do so. Rare is the senator or congressman who hasn't heard of Lord Acton's warning that power tends to corrupt; rarer still -- perhaps nonexistent -- are the members of Congress who believe it applies to them. The longer they remain in public office, the more certain they are that they belong there, and the more willing to bend their principles to make sure they remain there.
But the problem with career politicians isn't just their fondness for the perks and privileges of government life, or the sense of entitled superiority that those perks and privileges induce. It is also how readily they dismiss or circumvent the ordinary standards of the private sector.
ABC News recently reported that to
buy secure the vote of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu for his health-care bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid inserted a provision funneling an extra $100 million to her state. Instead of clearly saying so, however, the added language -- which provides an "adjustment" for "certain states recovering from a major disaster" -- does the opposite. According to ABC's Jonathan Karl, the new section spends more than two pages defining which states qualify for the "adjustment" -- pages of dense legislative verbiage drafted to avoid what could have been "written with a single word: Louisiana."
I realize that such political manipulation and deceit exist in every political system. I know that career politicians will always predominate on Capitol Hill. But must they be given an absolute monopoly? Isn't there something to be said for occasionally electing a representative or senator whose life has not been a single-minded quest for public power? Someone who hasn't spent the last couple of decades on the public payroll? Someone for whom the constraints and concerns of life in the private sector are more than just a memory?
Two of the four Democrats in the Massachusetts Senate race, Coakley and Capuano, are career politicians. For all I know, either might turn out to be a splendid senator. But surely the last thing this state needs is to elevate yet another government lifer -- yet another professional officeholder, steeped in the culture of politics.
Whatever else might be said about the other two Democrats -- Khazei and Pagliuca -- they have spent their lives in the real world. They know what it means to build something from the ground up, to risk their own assets on a goal they believe in, to bring a dream to reality without being able to pass a law ordering others to do it.
As a conservative, I don't share Khazei or Pagliuca's politics. I'm sure I'd oppose most bills they would favor. But I would much rather vote for either of them than for yet another lifelong member of the political class.
After a long career in Washington, former Senator George McGovern came to rue how little he had known about the realities of the marketplace his actions in the Senate had so often affected. "In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties" businesses face every day, he wrote. "First-hand experience ... would have made me a better US Senator."
We've already got plenty of politicians. Isn't it time to elect a senator with experience?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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