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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Doing What Is Right

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked in his July 7 press briefing about the political implications of the recent Justice Department lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law.

Gibbs denied that the lawsuit had political implications:

“The filing of the lawsuit is based -- I would put it in the rubric of where I would put a number of the decisions, some of which I’ve talked about in here, things that are the right thing to do but may or may not be, according to your polling or others, the most popular thing to do. But the President wasn’t elected to do what’s popular. He was elected to do what was right.”

And a little later, Gibbs restated his talking point:

“The President -- and I think you could -- I think if you look at the polling that all of you all have done on this law in the short term, it’s pretty safe to see that the President did this because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the popular thing to do.”

When Gibbs notes that Obama was not doing the "popular" thing in reference to the Arizona law, he apparently was referring to overall national sentiment on the issue -- which is leaning in favor of the Arizona law and against the Justice Department lawsuit. What Gibbs did not mention is polling among certain segments of particular interest to Democratic candidates this fall -- including the core Democratic base and in particular Hispanic voters. Obama's positions would be more popular with these particular segments.  So skeptics might take some issue with Gibb’s implication that the political equation of the coming midterm elections had nothing to with the filing of the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I’m most interested in Gibb’s broad evocation of the fairly standard political mantra that ignoring polls to do what is “right” is a commendable and good thing.

Gibbs isn’t the first politician or politician’s representative to claim that it is a noble calling to do what is right and to avoid pandering to the wishes of the people as measured by polling.

This position is popular with elected representatives in part because it is easier for them to make decisions based on what they think “is right” than it is to base decisions on the more complex process of attempting to take into account competing and various inputs, including the views of the people.

When an elected representative says that he or she is doing what is right, they really aren't telling us much. Basically, doing what “is right” is another way of saying “doing what I want to do.” (It is safe to assume that most politicians think that whatever they want to do is, by definition, the “right” thing to do.)

The significant question, to me at any rate, revolves around the specific inputs that an elected representative is using in deciding what is “right.”  Any decision is based on something.  Personal judgment? The judgment of advisers and aides? Instructions from party bosses? Political judgment of what has the best chance to win elections? The views of lobbyists, special interest groups, contributors? The position of the stars in the heavens?

Or. The views of the people who elected the person to represent the politician to begin with?

The latter is what constitutes doing what is "popular" in many of these elected representatives' minds. And I've never been entirely clear why these representatives are so quick to downgrade its importance. I find it hard to argue that taking into account the views of the people who elect the representatives is a bad thing.

If we substitute "the people" for "popular" and "what he wants to do" for "what is right," we have this paraphrased statement by Robert Gibbs: “The president was not elected to do what the people want him to do. He was elected to do what he wants to do.” 

At the moment, the president thinks it is the right thing to do to file a lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law. The American people, taken as a whole, tilt in the opposite direction. So what the president believes is right is at variance from what the majority of the American people think is right. The president has no doubt thought about this at some length and has arguments and reasons for his position. It would seem to be important that he continues to explain to Americans why his vision for what is involved here differs from theirs.

More broadly, it might be refreshing if Gibbs (or other spokesmen for elected representatives) were to say: “The president was elected to make the best possible decisions, and he does that based on taking into account a wide variety of inputs, including the attitudes of the people who elected him to represent them.”


Anonymous said...
August 2, 2010 at 9:47 PM  

Frank, where is your data (poll results)to show that this is issue is popular among democracts?
I am afraid, if you begin to make political statements without the backing of strong data, Gallup would lose its credibility.

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