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

Out of Focus

James Skillen


August 17, 1998

The Lewinsky affair is not the only cause of our blurry vision of national politics. There are at least four reasons why political leaders appear unable to bring government's task into focus for the American people.

First, the economy, which typically comes to the fore as the focal point of national politics, is a big question mark today. Politicians and economists cannot agree on what to do in response to apparently inconsistent developments—the rapid rise and fall of stock prices; low unemployment and low inflation; the Asian economic meltdown; shrinking budget deficits now approaching surplus; and more. Some, like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, call for huge tax cuts. Others, like the president, urge the early reform of Social Security and health insurance. Others want to start paying off the national debt. And still others want new federal investments in education, infrastructure, or environmental protection. The economic picture as a whole does not come into focus.

Second, with respect to many of today's hottest issues, the states rather than the federal government are again becoming the engines of political change. The top concern of voters right now is education. Education is the key to employment and economic well being, to moral and civic responsibility. All of this sounds universal, indeed national. Yet the reform of education will not come from Washington. Control of education is largely in state hands. Unfortunately, there is insufficient connection between state and national politicians to coordinate a plan for education reform.

Third, governments must always deal with multiple issues in order to foster the political well being—public justice—of the entire body politic. Yet how shall we judge the political health of the United States today? We are the world's leading economy, the world's dominant power, and the world's oldest democracy. But of what quality and for how long? Many citizens worry about economic instability, moral decline, continuing racism, the breakdown of family life and schooling, and yes, the immorality of presidents. From one vantage point, American society looks more and more like a freewheeling bazaar and less and less like a civic community.

Finally, our political/electoral process seems to have dissolved in this blurred landscape. The national parties have little or no identity uniting individual politicians. The parties test constantly for the opinion of voters in order to be able to frame messages that regurgitate voter opinion. But nothing draws together politicians—even from the same party—into an overall, integrated purpose. The politicians have become interest-group brokers rather than team leaders. Millions and millions of dollars will be spent this fall on campaign ads rife with empty rhetoric. Voters have opinions, indeed, but they look to politicians for leadership that can accomplish something. Not finding such champions, most eligible voters will sit out this fall's election.

Given the seriousness and complexity of this four-part predicament, there are no quick fixes. Attacks on Clinton may help some Republicans get elected but will not secure voter confidence in the Republican Party. Calls for Congress to spend more on education or the environment may help some Democrats get elected but will not redefine or integrate the Democratic Party.

What is needed to bring political reality into focus for the American public is nothing less than a comprehensive and balanced approach to the task of governing. Political parties need to galvanize and discipline their candidates at both state and federal levels on the basis of full-orbed agendas that aim for the long-term well being of the republic.

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


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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.”