Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Rudderless Politics

James Skillen


June 19, 2000

The amount of money being spent on political campaigns is not the only thing disturbing voters. More troubling is the feeling of emptiness generated by the candidates and the campaigns.

Bill Clinton may be popular due to the relative prosperity of the economy and because many interest groups have received what they lobbied for during the past eight years. However, the distaste for politics this year can certainly be related to the rudderless politics of the president and many others.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Clearly this is one of the most important questions of contemporary American law and politics. It represents either the legal killing of millions of unborn children each year or one of the most important vehicles ever devised for achieving women's independence. In either case, it is not a small thing. Now, after almost three decades of battles over a constitutional amendment, over various congressional proposals to restrict it, and most recently over partial-birth abortions, a growing number of politicians is concluding that an election campaign cannot be run successfully on the basis of proposing a resolution of the abortion debate. This may be a logical conclusion as regards the centerpiece of an election campaign. But if abortion remains a matter of such critical importance, what should the fair and wise politician do about it?

The trustworthy politician will do what Pennsylvania's Robert Casey did. Casey, whose death on May 30 has been acknowledged nationally in many obituaries, stood firmly against abortion all his political life. A Democrat and the governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1994, Casey served his party, his state and the country in countless ways. And when he was unable to advance the protection of the unborn, he worked to help the newly born and the women who struggled with unwanted unborns and with how to care for the children they did bring into the world. Bob Casey had a rudder. But since he chose to remain a Democrat, also for principled reasons, he was denied the stature in the party that might have been his had he been willing to change his position on abortion.

Contrast Casey with the current leaders in his party. Can we say, simply, that there have always been deep disagreements between Casey and Clinton/Gore over this issue? Even if we disagree with the president and vice president, may we at least express respect for their consistent, enduring commitment to a woman's right to an abortion, for any cause and at any time, if they choose it? No, to the contrary. As recently as 1986, Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas, said, "I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortion." And more recently than that, Al Gore took the same pro-life stance.

Is it any wonder, then, that voters cannot trust the positions politicians take on less weighty matters, such as Social Security, or trade with China, or taxes? Should we be surprised that when a voter hears what she wants to hear from a candidate, she must immediately wonder how long it will be before the candidate shifts to a different position?

More than campaign finance reform, we need politicians with rudders. Give us candidates for or against whom we can vote with confidence because we know the principles that guide them, win or lose. Give us politicians who will stand firm even when they lose, so that when they win they'll have a basis for governing and not merely a well-developed habit of reading polls and drifting where the wind blows. Give us more Bob Caseys.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice



“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”