This Is A Good Time To Talk To Politicians

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Friday, November 2, 2007
With the 2008 elections a bit over a year away, you're probably already girding for an onslaught of advertising, campaign pitches and telephone calls. But here's a thought I hope has also occurred to you: Turnabout is fair play. This is a perfect time for you to seek the attention of people who are going to be asking for your vote, so that you can tell them what's on your mind and how you hope to be represented. 

There's a simple truth about election campaigns that you should remember. The closer they get to the moment when voters go to the polls, the less flexible they become. By next spring, candidates will have made up their minds about what issues they're going to stress and what they think will resonate with the electorate. The campaigns themselves will have become much more about tactics, strategy and responding to events, and much less about listening. 

That hasn't happened yet. At the moment, in the fall before an election year, the candidates truly want to know what you're thinking — and as someone who ran in 34 elections over the years, let me assure you that they really are paying attention. 

Why is this? For one thing, as an election approaches, anybody who wants to be a candidate — this includes incumbents and challengers alike - is trying to gauge the mood of the electorate. 

They want to know what people think about specific issues, of course: their views on the Iraq War, or how we should be confronting our broken health–care system, or whether No Child Left Behind should be renewed. 

But even more important, they want to get a sense of how voters are feeling about the direction of the country, the politicians who represent them, the role of government in their lives. They want to know whether voters are angry or contented, generally pleased with their representatives or determined to clean house, willing to put their confidence in a party or leery of Democrats and Republicans alike. 

And they want to plumb the reasons behind that mood, whether they can do anything about it, and whether they can come up with proposals that might either help assuage or give expression to what they're hearing from voters. 

This is not pandering. It's how our system is supposed to work. Elections are how we make sure our concerns get reflected in Washington, and the only way to do this is to express them to politicians who are stumping for our votes and see how they respond. 

Likewise, exchanges on the stump allow politicians to test their own ideas, articulate their beliefs and proposals, and in general gauge the response to notions that might eventually become themes for their campaigns — and beyond. This is the time when the two–way conversation that lies at the heart of our democracy is at its loosest and most free–flowing. 

In this cynical age, I suppose, there are plenty of people who think that politicians, especially once they get elected, listen only to lobbyists and big–time contributors and are uninterested in what ordinary people have to say. The truth is, though, politicians understand all too well that most lobbyists and big–time contributors don't vote for them. Their constituents do. 

There are any number of ways to get in touch with the people who represent you, or would like to. You can certainly write a letter, send emails, or make a phone call. Yet my own belief is that the most effective way to get your views across is in person — over a cup of coffee, in a respectful exchange at a campaign event, by dropping by a candidate's office or when he or she is out campaigning and rings your doorbell, even in a quick conversation in a café where a candidate happens to show up. 

That's why these next few months are so important. The candidates are listening for what you have to say right now. Let them know. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)