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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Forget next election, worry about now


Too often after an election, people try to skip ahead to the next one, forgetting that elections actually serve a purpose other than making campaign workers and candidates feel good or bad until the next campaign. Too many people in political circles are talking about the next election, new candidates or who should run a political party. They should be focusing on the important time between now and the next election.

Some recounts aren't over yet, and most news organizations haven't decided whether John McCain or Barack Obama won Missouri. Yet we are treated to a regular dose of "what will the Republicans do in 2012?" Here at home, poor Sen. Judd Gregg has been asked since election night if he's starting his campaign for re-election in 2010. Gov. John Lynch is expected to tell us if he'll seek a fourth term before he's even begun serving his third.

Republicans are still licking their wounds after two resounding defeats. For some, the most important question is, who will run the party's campaign operation during the 2010 election? Others focus on which candidate might have a chance of winning something in the next election. Democrats, basking in the joy of a long run of election triumphs, look forward to picking challengers for those Republicans left standing.

But elections are not football games, which are isolated events with practices in between. Elections are about who will govern and how. The future isn't four years hence; the future is now.

Talking to the press at a Republican Governors Association meeting, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was asked about her run for another office instead of about her current job. Her answer is good advice for partisans of both parties. "The future is not the 2012 presidential race; it's next year and our next budgets." That's the right answer, not just for Gov. Palin but for Gov. Lynch or anyone else in elective office.

The people who won election in both parties are now expected to do something. Republicans in particular, because they lost so many things, will have internal fights about what they should call themselves, who gets to be leader of this or that and what went wrong. But at the end of the day, the labels and the personalities matter less than actually doing something.

On the same day Gov. Palin talked about doing something instead of worrying about the next election, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander was in Washington talking about the same thing. As a presidential candidate, Alexander was more devoted to finding core principles than perhaps anyone in recent history. Just as important as finding the right principle was putting that principle into action.

Sen. Alexander's advice is also applicable to both parties. "We can stand around and talk about our principles, but we have to put them into actions that most people agree with." Notice that Alexander isn't advising anyone to abandon his principles, modify them or walk away from them. On the contrary, he urges the opposite. He urges action based on principle.

In New Hampshire, we face a significant budget crisis, perhaps the greatest in recent history. Partisans on all sides will be tempted to look ahead to the next election. They need to avoid that temptation and follow Gov. Palin's advice to focus on the task at hand, the job they were elected to do.

In doing that job, they can focus on principle or abandon principle in search of some mythic consensus or middle ground. Lamar Alexander suggests action based on principle.

Voters elect people to represent them. We expect each to do the right thing, to adopt policies he or she believes will be effective and to accomplish something. Sometimes a policy choice might achieve consensus or something close to it. However, consensus is necessarily rare. If it weren't, it would be because there were no policy differences and elections wouldn't matter.

Margaret Thatcher decried consensus as "the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects."

No party or politician should abandon his beliefs to present a mild front before the next election. Once elected, he or she should take action and fight on the problems of today.

Lest we forget, elections pick the men and women who make decisions that impact the economy, taxes and everyday life. Focusing too soon on the next round of voting trivializes the purpose for which we just voted.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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