Glittering generalities, we learned in High School Government class (God Bless my government teacher back in Jackson, Mississippi!) are as old as the Republic itself. When the property owning white men of the first Washington term were discussing politics, they threw out many words about the Father of our country. I’m certain that “courageous” was among them. As we count down the days to the end of George Bush’s presidency, both McCain and Obama supporters use the term in application to their candidate.
If we stop and really think about it, though, is political courage a “glittering generality?” What happens when a politician displays real political courage? Do we, as a people, really want political courage?
II. What is political courage?
By definition, courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” In our times, particularly from 2001 to 2006, our current President’s stubbornness is often misperceived as courage. True political courage, for example, might have been realized by a withdrawal of troops from Kuwait after Hans Blix’s fruitless inspection. To be fair, it might have been displayed by President Clinton actually doing something about Social Security’s long term stability in 2000, instead of just talking about it.
III. Historical examples
In my own lifetime, I recall the candidacy of John Anderson in 1980 as my first encounter with political courage. Going up to New Hampshire in January of that year, Anderson made a show for himself by going in front of a gun convention and endorsing some forms of gun control, and was met by a chorus of booing and catcalls. While the other candidates at the forum denounced him, Anderson’s stunt made the news, and kept him in the spotlight all the way to a third party candidacy that gathered more than 6 million votes.
Walter Mondale’s disastrous attempt at political courage four years after Anderson led to his political annihilation. His statement that Ronald Reagan would raise taxes was proven correct in 1986, but it didn’t matter.
Ultimately, both Anderson and Mondale were rewarded with defeat.
Sometimes, political courage comes when a candidate actually wins and then attempts its use in governing. In two cases, this just led the electorate to conclude both leaders were flip-floppers or liars. George H W Bush’s agreement with the democratic congress to a tax increase partially led to his later undoing in 1992. This came after his famous “read my lips” pledge to not raise taxes. Bill Clinton’s popularity declined sharply after he rammed through a tax increase that was designed to balance the budget. In doing so, he paved the way for the GOP to enact a “contract on America.”
In both cases, the President displayed political courage instead of stubbornness. In both cases, they were rewarded with defeat.
IV. Political cowardice
The flip side of the coin is political cowardice, always in abundance, and usually always leading to disaster. Andrew Jackson’s life was saved by a group of Cherokee warriors at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the War of 1812. He betrayed an entire nation of them later when gold was found in Georgia, making sure they were sent to Oklahoma. The beneficiaries of the betrayal were voters crucial to his political career. Later, the five Presidents before Lincoln allowed slavery to pull the country into war while the debate grew more extreme. The Whig Party died because it failed to confront slavery. Though the Spanish-American War was mostly smoke and mirrors, President McKinley knew it would help his Republican Party, and future President Theodore Roosevelt led a fabled charge up San Juan Hill with a band of barflies he had gathered in San Antonio, Texas. The list of leaders taking the easy way out is quite lengthy.
V. The results of political courage
The results are defeat and punishment. We love to reflect on political heroes and myths that just are not there. We ask our leaders and candidates to be bold and step out of the box.
When they do so, they go down in defeat.