Vote for political courage this election
Holding a press conference does not require political courage. Engaging in fake fights and shouting false choices is cowardly. Running to the media to decry political opponents is hardly a sign of bravery.
Political courage and true character aren’t really required to fight your foes. Courage and character are necessary when you have to stand up to your friends and supporters in order to lead. If ever there were a time when political courage should be the determining factor in deciding who to vote for, 2020 is that time.
Just this week, Democrats blocked a law enforcement reform bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott, an African American from South Carolina, from being introduced in the United States Senate. To be clear, it was not a vote on passage of the bill; it was merely a vote to allow the bill to be debated and amended by all 100 senators. Most members agree with the vast majority of what is in the bill. Sadly, Republicans in the House followed a similar path.
On an issue where the country is mostly united and where most members of Congress also agree ... nothing is happening. Why? Lack of political courage. Both sides are too worried about giving their opponents a political win in an election year. So Americans get stuck with a policy failure. Tragically, this is how politics is being played at every level.
Holding a press conference does not require political courage. Engaging in fake fights and shouting false choices is cowardly. Running to the media to decry political opponents is hardly a sign of bravery. Issuing tightly scripted press releases or statements that have been thoroughly scrubbed by communication staff doesn’t require a lot of resolve.
Now is the time to elect leaders with political courage.
In every election whether presidential, gubernatorial or municipal it is important to realize that as voters we don’t get what we pay for; we actually end up paying for what we get, and generally we get what we deserve. The most burdensome cost to voters is electing someone who lacks political courage.
Both sides are too worried about giving their opponents a political win in an election year. So Americans get stuck with a policy failure.
Whenever I am asked the question, “Who should I vote for?” I always respond by saying that it depends what you want out of your elected official. I ask four or five questions to the voter. The first and most important question, especially in 2020 is, how is this candidate positioned to show real political courage?
There are far too many in politics today who can’t begin to contemplate losing an election, let alone consider what they would do outside of elected office. If the candidate is consumed with holding on to whatever power they have, and if each decision is based on maintaining that political power, it is impossible for them to demonstrate real courage, character and conviction.
Can you really trust someone whose every move, vote or message is poll-approved and consultant-certified?
Another way to think of it would be to ask yourself whether you believe this candidate is willing to lose an election in order to do the right thing. Would this candidate be OK with not winning election, or reelection, based on making an unpopular decision, casting a “no” vote or using the veto pen? Would they be able, with confidence, to oppose an issue their supporters in the business community or popular crowd are promoting? When faced with political criticism from friend or foe, will they disappear or cower in the corner?
The challenges of our time, local and national, are going to require leaders with real courage and character. Standing up, speaking out and sometimes standing alone takes courage.
Another way to access the courage question is to ask, “Is the candidate more concerned about making friends or keeping promises?” Many politicians have become too eager to get along, go along and make deals that are good for them or their supporters but which are not necessarily good for their constituents. Real friends tell you the truth, even when it is hard. They tell you what needs to be done to solve your problems without sugar-coating it.
We need more elected officials who are truly independent. Some office holders have a deep-seated need to be liked. Liking to be liked and needing to be needed makes a leader dependent on special interests, donors, lobbyists and consultants.
When I was a chief of staff, I often said that if you are an elected leader and you really need to be liked and needed, buy a puppy. Ribbon cuttings, happy social media posts, group hugs are all important. But they will prove insufficient when big challenges or trouble comes.
Leaders with courage understand that trust only comes through speaking the truth, providing transparency and demanding accountability. Wishy-washy words, uncertain sounds and pleasant distractions prevent the truth from being seen and critical conversations from happening. Courageous leaders are never afraid of truth, transparency and accountability for themselves and all who work for them.
In 1902, William George Jordan wrote, “The politician who is vacillating, temporizing, shifting, constantly trimming his sails to catch every puff of wind of popularity is a trickster who succeeds only until he is found out.”
The lack of political courage shown by leaders he had observed caused Jordan to lament, “He who sacrifices his ideals, truth and character, for mere money or position, is weighing his conscience in one pan of a scale against a bag of gold in the other. He is loyal to what he finds the heavier, that which he desires the more — the money. But that is not truth. Truth is the heart’s loyalty to abstract right, made manifest in concrete instances.”
Many politicians love to speak of courage and character but are less interested in manifesting it in concrete instances.
Over the past several weeks, I have read, reread and shared excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” On June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois, the Republican State Convention was held and they selected Lincoln as the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln easily could have delivered a speech filled with what the delegates wanted to hear that night. If his purpose was to be liked, he could have done what many politicians do today: Deliver some red-meat applause lines, make some squishy statements, crack a joke or two, bask in the adoration of cheering delegates and call it a night. He didn’t.
Lincoln wasn’t interested in being liked. He was a man of immense courage and character, fiercely independent and committed to truth.
Lincoln had read his speech to his law partner, Willian Herndon, prior to the convention. Herndon advised against delivering it. A speech on the issue of slavery was simply too radical. He told Lincoln that the speech was morally courageous but politically incorrect. With typical courage and character, Lincoln responded, “The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written.”
In the end, the speech cost Lincoln the Senate election, but it likely contributed in a significant way to winning the presidency. Such courage and character in Lincoln ultimately help preserve the Union.
That is the case for political courage in 2020. As voters, we must elect people with political courage and personal character to every office. The future of our communities, the state and the nation depend on it.