Horse and buggy legislators – The Last Hurrah

This is part of a series of articles that first posted in August 2006.

The 1958 Spencer Tracy film “The Last Hurrah” is about “an old Irish-American political boss, running for reelection as a mayor of a U.S. town for the last time,” an“outstanding look at old time politics as it begins to give way to the era of mass media.”

Half a century later we’ve entered yet another new era, so it’s time for a remake. The new version of the movie could involve a member of Congress, or for that matter a state legislator, who is coming to grips with the fact that the times have passed them by and their approach to their job hasn’t kept pace.

For many years it has been considered acceptable for them to merely provide good constituent service and to satisfy as many lobbyists as possible. That has to change. Communication with the larger public must become the name of the game. Legislators in fact must become educators.

Americans are busy living their lives and a justified cynicism keeps most of them from becoming more informed. Since they don’t know what to believe, it’s quite rational for them to just tune out the political noise.

Because public support is not optional, Republican members of Congress must make a connection with more people than just constituents or lobbyists who ask for help. They must outline in clear terms, for example, why we are fighting in Iraq. How does the threat from an extremist sect of fascist Islam pertain to Iraq? Too many Americans don’t know and never will without a stepped-up effort on the part of those we’ve elected.

Anyone who has read even a little about the history of warfare knows that, to say the least, there are ups and downs. Few conflicts play out as cleanly as the Gulf War did in 1991. Most are drawn out, terribly bloody, and a test of will for those fighting on the side of right.

During World War II an average of 7,000 American soldiers lost their lives each and every month. Back then, however, people in this country were strong and clear headed when it came to the war. In the present struggle, every time the going gets rough there are serious discussions about retreat. Clearly, today’s America isn’t anything like the America of the 1940s.

A historically large segment of our population is convinced that the United States is causing all of or at least most of the world’s problems. Fortunately, the vast majority of American citizens will still support the right policies once they’ve heard the right argument about the reality and the stakes involved.

Our Republican leaders better soon figure out how to engage the public like never before or we’re going to lose the war. And if you think the international scene is messy now, just wait until we leave the field.

Without Republicans legislators adopting a new approach to their job—one primarily aimed at using all available methods to argue their case—voters may give Democrats control of the Congress because war is hell. It doesn’t get any dumber than that.

And if the state of the war wasn’t bad enough, gas prices are at an all-time high. How many Americans understand that we’re in a global energy market and that the laws of supply and demand can’t be repealed? If gasoline costs more, the solution won’t be found by giving power to people who have stood in the way of increasing domestic drilling and domestic refining capacity for decades.

There’s no use pining for the old days. The new reality has to be met with a new kind of leadership. On the international front we face a threat as serious as any we’ve ever faced. To make things worse, too many people here are mistaken, believing that the United States is at fault.

There already is a blame-America-first party. It’s called the Democratic Party. If the GOP is to be different, Republican legislators have to make a counter argument aggressively and effectively. So far they’re not getting the job done.

Up next: Republican leaders need to come out of the wilderness.