I knew very early in my life that I would suck as a politician. My mother told me. Success in politics means getting elected and re-elected, more than it means legislating in the best interest of constituents. I used to rant on and on about the illegal fishing village that blighted what could have been a scenic view of Hunts Bay along the causeway that connects Portmore, St. Catherine with Kingston. I could not understand why the powers that be could not, or would not, level the shacks that presented traffic and health hazards and keep the inhabitants from returning. (As it turns out, the fishing village was finally moved in late 2009 to allow for highway construction.) My mother tried at the time to explain please-the-people politics to me, but it did not make sense to me that government would act against people's long term best interest to win political points in the short term. Surely, it was a just a Jamaican thing.
When I worked with a utility in a large United States municipality, I was confused when raising rates was weighed in the context of losing votes, even though the money was needed for federally mandated capital improvements. Politicians and bureaucrats made an assessment that more votes would be lost by raising the rates, than by continued poor service, and federal fines. Surely, it was just a local government thing.
For better or for worse, the Obama administration has made implementing health care reform the idée fixe of their first year in office. As the debate has raged on, dissenters muddied the waters, raised unwarranted fears, then said they could not vote for a health care bill their constituents don’t support. Because of the price tag and complexity, the health care bill was a hard sell to begin with. Rather than engage in intelligent discourse about its merits and the possible immediate and long term benefits to the American public, politicians pandered to the party line and to the short-term, mis/uninformed whim of constituents. As President Obama pointed out in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, the health bill has never been good politics. Taxes, economic incentives for businesses, increased utility rates, reduced bus routes are other things that are often not popular with the public, and hence not good politics.
It must be a quandary for the best-intentioned politicians: how do they do what is best for their constituents – even when voters do not realize it is for their own good – and still win votes. For politicians whose only intention is to maintain their clutch on power, access and benefits of office, there is no such conflict. It is the electorate that must make the difference. We must become educated citizens who understand that sometimes long term gains must be prefaced by some discomfort. Immediate gratification should not be the driving incentive for supporting or opposing policy, or politicians. Our representatives must be required to show substantive long-term solutions for their time in office, not just feel good bits that leave problems unresolved. We must grow up.