Over the weekend, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked, “What do you say to your members, when it does come to the House to vote on this, who are in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now?” Her response was:
Well first of all our members — every one of them — wants health care. I think everybody wants affordable health care for all Americans. They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill. But the American people need it, why are we here? We’re not here just to self perpetuate our service in Congress. We’re here to do the job for the American people.
In this one instance, Ms. Pelosi has a point. Kind of.
The Speaker touched on one of the important debates in American political history, which is what the role of legislators is. Is it to reflect the views of their constituents, rather like a seismograph? Or, as Edmund Burke put it when speaking about constituents, “Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention.” But in the end, a legislator owes them something more: his “judgment.” He should not be guided by merely “local purposes” or “local prejudices.” Parliament, Burke insisted, was a “deliberative assembly.” (For an excellent discussion of this matter, see George Will’s book Restoration, and especially the chapter “From Bristol to Cobb County.”)
I place myself in the latter camp, more now than ever — in part based on my own experience in the White House, when President Bush was advocating a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that was unpopular with the political class, with Congress, and with the American public. He proceeded anyway; and the results were stunningly successful. If the surge had failed — if Bush had pulled back, or listened to key Republicans, or decided that his job was to mirror public sentiment — America would have been dealt a terrible geopolitical and moral defeat. What George W. Bush did was right – and it was also politically courageous.
The acid test on these matters is always the wisdom of the act itself. Insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a legislative monstrosity would be unwise, whereas insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a piece of legislation that advances the common good would be commendable. Since I consider ObamaCare to fit in the former category, I naturally believe what Nancy Pelosi is asking her caucus to do is politically insane. Why issue political death warrants to your allies in behalf of a terrible idea? But her broader point, which is that self-perpetuation in Congress is should not be the lawmaker’s primary concern, strikes me as quite right — and since she believes that nationalization of health care is in the public interest, her argument is understandable. I don’t for a minute, though, pretend that what she is asking of others (and not of herself) is easy. As John F. Kennedy (or perhaps Theodore Sorensen) wrote in Profiles in Courage,
Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all — including his own career — for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest — within the limitations of the law — in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice their private interests to permit the national good to progress.
In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige, and his chosen career on a single issue.
Nancy Pelosi is asking many House Democrats to sacrifice honors, prestige, and their chosen career in behalf of a single issue: ObamaCare. I don’t think they will do it; and in fact they would be very wise to turn down her invitation. To go down in flames for a plan that is both noxious and unpopular is not the political epitaph most lawmakers want. But if Ms. Pelosi has her way, it’s an epitaph more than a few Democrats will end up with.