by Barry Edelson
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A Vote of No Confidence

Have the choices with which we are faced
on Election Day always been so pitiful?


Ned Regan died the week before last. He was the New York State Comptroller from 1978 to 1993, and had a reputation as an upstanding, nonpartisan public servant. He was also the last Republican who got this voter's support for a major office.

This is not in the least a statement of pride, but rather an ongoing source of profound disappointment. It is not as if one pulls the lever with enthusiasm for many or even most of the Democratic candidates for whom one has voted over the last generation. All too often one is left with a stark choice between two less than stellar politicians — between two dishes, as Lewis Black indelicately put it, of human excrement — leaving one to do as best as one can to elect the candidate whose odor is the less offensive of the pair. It is not always easy. This year's race for governor of New York is a prime example, pitting an irritating, hectoring incumbent who barely qualifies as a Democrat against a little-known Republican county executive who barely qualifies at all. When faced with such meager fare, there is a strong temptation to leave one's plate untouched. Small wonder so many people don't even vote.

It would truly be wonderful to be able to cast a ballot for a moderate, level-headed Republican who was not in thrall to some angry right-wing faction or other. Or, for that matter, for a moderate Democrat of the same centrist ilk. If there were another Regan around, a man devoted more to his job and his constituents than to himself or his party, there would be no hesitation. But one waits in vain for such civic-minded virtue to reappear. There are indeed Republicans whose primary message is economic and not ideological, who promise policies that will invigorate business and generate employment. However, we have seen this script play out too many times before to buy the premise: no sooner is the Bible laid aside after the inauguration than bills magically appear to cut taxes on the newly elected office-holder's wealthiest friends while slashing every program for the poorest of the poor, bills to eliminate regulations that not only stymie innovation but also those that protect health and safety, and, to round out the scorecard, bills to close abortion clinics, stop funding stem-cell research, deny rights to minority voters, denigrate gays and lesbians, turn over public lands to unfettered development — and the list goes on. Assuredly, conservative voters have their own list of liberal touchstones that are kept discreetly in the drawer until after Election Day but get taken out for a polish as soon as a Democrat sits behind the big desk. They can speak with their own voice on their misfortune.

It would of course be healthier for the country, too, if the ardent supporters in each respective half of the partisan divide didn't live in mortal fear of the other party's ascendancy to power. This fear is clearly exaggerated — grossly — because we do not (yet) live in a country where a ruling party's hatchet men literally go out and hack its opponent's supporters to death to ensure victory. Still, as long as the culture wars continue to zip people up tight into close-minded camps of the like-minded, and each side's most unsavory intentions are largely hidden from view for fear of alienating the swing voters who actually decide most elections, then each party will become ever more suspicious of the other, and compromise will remain a dirty word among the faithful.

We read frequently about how Republicans and Democrats enjoy a decreasing share of voter fealty, with more and more citizens identifying themselves as "independent" with each passing election cycle. If fewer people than ever consider themselves party loyalists, shouldn't there be less polarization rather than more? Well, no, because it's in the interests of everyone who makes a living by demonizing the other party — incendiary talk show hosts, internet hit-and-run artists, professional campaign staffers, procurers and providers of money, lobbyists, not to mention the politicians themselves — to keep the game going. Vilification pays, and there's much less heavy lifting involved than in trying to get along. The squawkers who dominate the media on both ends of the spectrum do their very best every day to leave a strong impression that the country is riven like the two Koreas.

This certainly isn't the first era in which the parties were far apart and decent politicians with good intentions were few and far between. Periods in which the two major parties actually got along (more or less) have been aberrations. Commentators often point to the friendship between Bob Dole and George Mitchell when they were the leaders of their respective parties in the Senate. But how often has this actually happened? In politics, hostility is the norm, comity the exception. More often than not, presidents, governors, and members of Congress and state legislatures who were as genuinely concerned about the welfare of the nation and "the people" as they claim in their stump speeches labor mostly alone and in defiance of the political machines that got them elected in the first place.

No better example of this reality can be found in The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin's epic account of the rise of the great reformist presidents of the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and of their long and complex friendship. Much is already known about TR, a larger-than-life figure who enjoyed a level of popularity that is astounding by the standards of today's politics. The real revelation in the book is Taft, who was the public servant from central casting: conscientious, honest to a fault, a natural administrator, and a friend to everyone he met. Like TR, he had a visceral disdain for political corruption, against which he fought righteously in his home state of Ohio and later teamed with Roosevelt to carry on the fight on the national level. His sole desire in life was to be a judge, a role for which he was ideally suited, and to see justice done from the bench. An overwhelming sense of public duty induced him to accept, reluctantly, all of the political roles of his career: as solicitor general of the United States, the first American governor-general of the Philippines, a member of Roosevelt's cabinet, and finally as Roosevelt's hand-picked successor to be president. More than once he gave up a chance to be nominated to the Supreme Court, his crowning ambition, to answer the call of executive service.

In a cruel twist of fate, after Taft became president he and Roosevelt had a falling out that seemed to be the fault entirely of his predecessor's outsized ego and insatiable desire to be the man in charge again. Roosevelt had always regretted his announcement, the day after his re-election in 1904, that he would not run again because by 1908 he would have already served nearly two full terms. His long-time friend and ally would become the victim of his own thirst for power. Taft lost his own bid for re-election in 1912 with TR running as a third-party candidate of the so-called Bull Moose Party, thereby splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Not until 1921 did Taft reach the pinnacle of his career, when Warren Harding made him Chief Justice.

Taft seems to have suffered from some of the political weaknesses of the current incumbent, who was elected exactly 100 years after him. Like Barack Obama, Taft was brilliant but considered even by his allies as too deliberate and professorial, too hesitant when it came to the tough decisions. In truth, their real shortcoming is that neither one of them was born with the ruthlessness of TR or his distant cousin, Franklin, men who combined the vision and will to change the country with the political killer instinct to make those changes happen. Unlike Obama, Taft was never criticized for being cool and detached. He was by all accounts a naturally gregarious individual to whom people warmed easily. He was the sort of man in whom, even if you didn't vote for him, you could at the very least have confidence that he would work very hard at his job, never line his own pockets, and never put his party ahead of the public good.

In different ways, Roosevelt and Taft were the kind of Republicans that even Democrats could support, and some clearly did. Roosevelt lacked Taft's innate friendliness and dignity, while Taft lacked Roosevelt's irrepressible energy and willfulness. But both represented a short-lived brand of progressivism that engendered broad appeal among the electorate. They fixed many things that were broken in both politics and business, and earned the respect of most of their peers and even higher regard from succeeding generations.

It's anyone's guess whether Ned Regan was specifically inspired by these Republican predecessors, whether the model they presented helped him decide to turn his own decency and skills to the task of running New York's finances. In any event, we are fortunate that people like him come along from time to time. The current comptroller is a Democrat, Tom DiNapoli, who seems to share Regan's ability to set aside partisanship and to carry out his job with admirable impartiality and thoughtfulness — for which he will likely be re-elected this year with wide bipartisan support. (He first came to prominence by running for a seat on his local school board on Long Island while still in high school.) But he is a member of an increasingly rare species of public servant. We are not so fortunate that the soul-destroying meat grinder of modern politics prevents even more of them from finding government service worthy of their energies. By all means, vote on Tuesday, but good luck finding even a single office on the ballot with two candidates, both of whom put your mind at ease that the government will be in safe hands, whoever wins.


November 2, 2014


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