Draw a Line

Author: Gary Hart

Some years ago, when the United States Senate was a better institution than it is today, a great Senator, the late Mike Mansfield, offered some advice that proved impossible to forget: “Draw a line,” he said, “and don’t cross it.”

You had to intuit what he meant, but it was pretty clear: Decide what is more important than being in the Senate and do not compromise that value in order to stay there.  He wasn’t referring to loyalty to a political party or an ideology, a movement or a passing fad.  He was talking about principle, that which defines both who we are and how large and serious a human being we may become.

Senator Mansfield knew that every political instinct is for survival and position.  There are few jobs in this life, and that may include the presidency, that rival being a Senator.  That being the case, especially for a young lawyer from Colorado, there were enormous temptations to weigh every vote, every speech, every position for how it might play back home, whether it would help or hurt politically when the next election came.

That temptation for office security, particularly security in a highly desirable office, produces caution bordering on timidity.  It puts a moistened finger in the wind for even the slightest breeze on every occasion.  It seeks a hiding place in a murky, difficult to attack, “center”, presuming that that there is a way to split the difference on every issue and thus make everyone happy, or at least take away a matter that the other side might make a political issue.

Moderation and compromise make a democracy work.  No side, left or right, can win all the time, every time.  Failure of compromise is part of the reason our government has ground to a halt.  For those who believe government if inherently evil, this is not a bad thing.  For those who believe democratic government is the only effective way to manage the public’s business, it is disastrous.

But the Mansfield principle was less about whether effective government is necessary or evil and more about individual integrity.  It was surprising, while in office, to encounter so many people, mostly young people, who thought politics must require a “profile in courage,” a decision on a matter of principle, virtually daily.

Though rarely, those matters do arise.  How an elected official deals with them, balancing what may be popular with constituents against what that politician knows or believes to be right, starkly defines character and integrity.  It is what voters claim to want, though more often than not they penalize rather than reward it.  Most if not all of those in John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” were turned out of office. 

There are only three options that offer themselves.  One is to serve a “safe” State or district which provides the official with latitude and political capital.  It is easier for this official to occasionally stand on principle and yet survive politically.  But we have divided the nation into “safe” red or blue States and districts, and it has produced very little courage or principled behavior.  Another is to sacrifice principle for security, trimming votes and decisions in order to survive and perpetuate a political career.

The third is to draw a line and not cross it.

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16 Responses to “Draw a Line”

  1. Gary Hart: Draw a Line | Twitmerlin - News, Celebs Gossip, Social Media Says:

    […] To comment, please visit Senator Hart’s blog at http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/. […]

  2. Robert Crump Says:

    One would like to believe that if only we had public financing of elections we could break the stanglehold of money on our political institutions. However, I often think the desire to be in the spotlight, at the center of storm, and the celebrity and access that comes with elected office these days is as much a corrupting influence on our politicians as the money that fuels our endless campaigns.

  3. Political Courage « afterbirthnation Says:

    […] 2010 March 8 tags: Politics by r.e.c. Gary Hart yearns for a bygone era in which politicians possessed the courage to do what they saw as being […]

  4. Phineas Says:

    Senator Hart: There’s another thing at work here–the parties themselves. The pressure to remain “in-line” with the parties must be enormous, especially to newer members of congress. I keep thinking that there are probably several Republicans who would genuinely like to work out something in terms of health insurance reform, but are being pressured because of the GOP’s perception that they are on the offensive when it comes to President Obama’s policies. We still have some profiles in courage today–3 GOP senators broke ranks last year to pass the stimulus. And years ago, we had similar ‘profiles’ by people like your former colleague Mark Hatfield, who voted against a balanced budget amendment–the only one of his party to do so–and also against the first Gulf War resolution. Was the pressure as bad in your day? Or was it easier to be the sort of senator you were back then?

  5. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    Perhaps some may think that the U.S. Senate of 30 years ago is now a bygone era, but doing nothing will not help repair it to what it could and should be.

    Bob Dylan’s song “Political World” written in 1989, tells the tale that should encourage senators to “draw a line” and defend principles we have cherished and still can restore.

    I have taken some of the more poignant lyrics from Dylan’s song and posted them below. Many may agree that his lyrics are more relevant today than they were 21 years ago. I wonder how many senators have ever listened to the lyrics. Maybe they should start listening and stop bickering.

    We live in a political world,
    Wisdom is thrown into jail,
    It rots in a cell, is misguided as hell
    Leaving no one to pick up a trail.

    We live in a political world
    Where mercy walks the plank,
    Life is in mirrors, death disappears
    Up the steps into the nearest bank.

    We live in a political world
    Where courage is a thing of the past
    Houses are haunted, children are unwanted
    The next day could be your last.

    We live in a political world.
    The one we can see and can feel
    But there’s no one to check, it’s all a stacked deck,
    We all know for sure that it’s real.

    We live in a political world
    In the cities of lonesome fear,
    Little by little you turn in the middle
    But you’re never sure why you’re here.

    We live in a political world
    Under the microscope,
    You can travel anywhere and hang yourself there
    You always got more than enough rope.

    We live in a political world
    Turning and a-thrashing about,
    As soon as you’re awake, you’re trained to take
    What looks like the easy way out.

    We live in a political world
    Where peace is not welcome at all,
    It’s turned away from the door to wander some more
    r put up against the wall.

    By Bob Dylan, Copyright 1989

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    There is much more discipline, Phineas, on the Republican side than on the Democratic side. Incumbent Republicans worry more about a primary challenge from the right. Democrats are much more free agents. The party needs them more than they need the party. In my day there were a good number of independent or moderate Republicans: Javits; Mathias; Percy; Case; as well as Hatfield; and even traditional conservatives: Simpson; Rudman; Brown; and a number of others who were independent enough to make common cause with Democrats in the national interest.

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    Neal Tazlitz deserves thanks for reminding us of the great Dylan lyrics. Let us pray that courage is not a thing of the past in 21st century America.

  8. John Says:

    Years ago former elected official told me the first thing she learned in politics, “Half a loaf is better than none.” Compromise has become an evil word. The minority in government stands on principle until it becomes the majority. (IE-Democrats and Charles Rangel)In an odd way I think the 1965 Civil Rights Act has caused part of the problem. With Majority Minority districts we have seen more liberal (urban and minority) and more conservative (rural and white) districts and fewer moderate ones.

  9. Michael Califra Says:

    You would have to blame the White House for a good deal of the lack of discipline on the Democratic side. It’s been clear since the beginning that there is never a price to be paid for defying the president; nor has the administration kept an overarching narrative of its goals, or the reasons for the mess we’re in, before the American people. Instead, Obama has made occasional speeches on health care or financial reform, then dumped it all onto congress’ lap without defining what legislative specifics should be untouchable. The president gives the impression that he’ll settle for anything that congress sends to his desk, as long as he gets something to sign in the Rose Garden. That’s a prescription for every member of the caucus going his/her own way and grab whatever they can for themselves.

  10. Gary Hart Says:

    Sorry, Neal. Taslitz

  11. Gary Hart: Draw a Line | Goo News Says:

    […] To comment, please visit Senator Hart’s blog at http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/. […]

  12. Phineas Says:

    Mr. Califra: yes and no. I’m not a believer that senators (or other members of Congress) should simply step in line with parties, a president, etc. As such, there should be no price, but that which constituents decree. But as for the rest, we are in stark agreement–the president has put forth no real agenda, and when he has set goals, they’ve been too broad to ‘sell’ to either citizens or the congress. As a staunch advocate of a single-payer health delivery system, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t kept the engine of that blue and silver jet warm making the case for real reform across this nation. Not that I expect him to advocate my cause specificially, but to explain that our current system is ultimately unsustainable.

    And yes, Senator Hart–thank you Neal. Great lyrics from a great musician.

  13. Michael Califra Says:

    Phineas, Obama was swept into office with 365 electoral votes and carrying six “Bush” states at a time when people were fed up with Conservatives and begging for the “change” he was promising. If he were more of a leader and used the tremendous amount of political capital he had a year ago effectively, Democrats in congress would not have dared cross him (and the Republicans would have been finished for a generation). By now we should have already had health care bill – with a public option – as well a real financial reform. And if that were so, the president would have been at 65% approval and the Democrats would not be worrying about losing control of both Houses. Make no mistake, this is Obama’s fault. He turned what should have been a political realignment akin to 1980 into…I don’t know what.

  14. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    Thank you for your kind comments.

    Here are a few more Dylan lyrics to think about. Although I am less optimistic than I once was, I believe it is not too late to restore the principles that made us strong. However, time is of the essence, and we will all have to sacrifice something in order to turn things around.


    By Bob Dylan 1983

    Democracy don’t rule the world,
    You’d better get that in your head.
    This world is ruled by violence
    But I guess that’s better left unsaid.
    From Broadway to the Milky Way,
    That’s a lot of territory indeed
    And a man’s gonna do what he has to do
    When he’s got a hungry mouth to feed.

    Well, it’s sundown on the union
    And what’s made in the U.S.A.
    Sure was a good idea
    ’Til greed got in the way.

    Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music

  15. Phineas Says:

    Mr. Califra: I already agreed with you, with the exception I noted about not being a fan of congress simply “stepping in line” with a president or party. But the ‘change’ promised shouldn’t really surprise us. The Democrats recaptured both houses of congress in 2006 promising an end to wars and real oversight. I’m still waiting for both. President Obama ran a brilliant campaign, but I’m not overly impressed with 365 electoral votes or the capture of 6 Bush states. I’m impressed with leadership. So far I haven’t really seen any. Otherwise, I’m not sure what you’re taking exception with.

  16. Michael Califra Says:

    Well, that was 2006. Now the Democrats have the congress and the White House, Phineas, and the time is now for leadership from the executive. We agree that Obama hasn’t shown any. He’s governing like a president who won the office with less than 50% of the vote in a three-way race. But Obama won those 365 EVs on an agenda. And by not standing by it he allowed those in congress who found it inconvenient (because it wasn’t consistent with their big donors wishes) to go their own way. He should have done everything in his power to keep them in line when he had the political capital to do it. That’s my point. And that’s seems to be what you disagree with. But that’s the failure that’ll come home to roost in November.

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