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.