Insight: A Tale of Two Presidents — Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Nixon

“In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” — Abraham Lincoln, August 21, 1858.

Throughout the campaign cycle of 2010 we have seen long term incumbents from both political parties struggle with re-election. In the primary season Republicans were dogged by Tea Party backed candidates in their re-election bids. Now, it seems, Democrat incumbents are facing broad electoral challenges, both here in Wisconsin, and nationwide.

Many media commentators, and even office holders themselves, have made dismissive comments about this energized segment of the electorate — voters that stretch well beyond the parameters of the Tea Party, the political parties, or any other organized political groups. But, dismiss or even attack these energized grassroots voters at your political peril.

President Lincoln seemed to capture the essence of turbulent political times in the statement quoted above during one of his series of pre Civil War debates with Stephen A. Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat. Mr. Lincoln did not win that Senate race, but we all know that he went on to become the nation’s sixteenth President of the United States, leading a divided nation in war and preserving the Union.

Mr. Lincoln learned his political skills through a series of political campaigns, and offices that he held. He lost nearly as many races as he won. But, he learned early on that a leader cannot lead a nation in a direction that it is not inclined to take.

If only our current leaders had gained Lincoln’s insight. President Obama seemed to offer a new kind of American leadership in 2008 — a post partisan approach to inclusive governance. It was a message that the electorate hungered for after many years of war in far flung theaters, and an economic system at home that seemed to be faultering.

The people voted for representatives that they thought would govern on their behalf, and who would begin to effectively address their principal concerns here and abroad — in a word, jobs and peace. George Bush had lost the ability to mold public sentiment by the end of his term, but Barack Obama and Congressional leaders never seemed to care to be bothered with public sentiment. Instead of a post partisan President, the country got an administration dominated by Washington elites, seemingly oblivious to its citizens’ views.

At this writing, we are less than two weeks out from the 2010 Mid-Term elections. That is many lifetimes in the news cycles of today’s political world. Events abroad, outside of our control, could for instance impact the mood of the electorate. But, on the domestic front voters appear to have decided that they do not want any more of the leadership, or lack thereof, that they have received from Washington and Madison on the fundamental lunch bucket issues of jobs and the economy.

Unfortunately, a strategy seems to be emerging in some quarters that would devolve many campaigns into name calling and false accusations. For example, representatives of the White House in a baseless, almost Nixonian manner have accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of laundering foreign money into Congressional campaign ads that the Chamber is running.

The last time we checked, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is still in effect. The White House may not like the Chamber’s message — they are calling out lawmakers who voted for the President’s stimulus package and other misguided legislation — but the White House should not attempt to silence the business community with false allegations. The country does not need an “enemies list” in the West Wing, and the President and his representatives should stand down on targeting leaders of the business community who are speaking out on the policies coming out of Washington. It didn’t work in suppressing speech in Wisconsin, and it won’t work in Washington D.C.

What should businesses and their employees do in these troubled times? What I intend to do for the coming days is to listen for substance from the candidates, and reliable sources of information like the U.S. Chamber. Listen to what they have to say on the hard issues. Where do they stand on the Bush tax cuts? What are their views on climate regulation? Where do they stand on fundamentally amending the nation’s labor laws?

In the hyper media saturated climate in which we live there is often a tendency to dramatize events beyond their significance. However, it is fair to say that the Mid-Term Congressional elections of 2010 are shaping up to be generational. New lawmakers will be coming forth that will define the way that government at the federal and state levels will operate for a generation.

We’ve seen these before. The election of 1946 resulted in a class of federal lawmakers who redefined America’s role in world affairs. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 reversed both the defeatism that had mired America abroad through the 70’s, and the decade of economic stagnation that had sunk his predecessors’ Presidencies.

Now is your time to shape the future. Our nation’s economy can be rebuilt, and we can return our state and nation to the forefront of job creation and robust economic growth. While the remaining time is short, support candidates for office with your time and your financial resources. Talk with your friends and neighbors about the candidates you support. You can vote for the kind of change you want in 2010.

The Insight Column is a weekly column that provides commentary and background information from WMC lobbyists on issues affecting your business. For more information on this topic, contact James Buchen, WMC Vice President of Government Relations, (608) 258-3400.