What Makes a Good Politician?

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Wednesday, April 19, 2000
If you've been paying attention to media coverage of this year's congressional races, you probably consider yourself pretty well informed about what's happening. You've been listening to the positions of the various candidates on a whole host of issues. You know that campaign contributions will likely reach record levels. You also know that control of the House of Representatives is very much up for grabs. 

But here's one thing I'll bet you don't know — how effective the candidates running to represent you in Congress might actually be in office. 

How can I say this? Let's just put it this way: In the 34 years that I represented southern Indiana in Congress, I must have participated in thousands of election-year voter forums, newspaper and television interviews, radio call-in shows, and candidates nights. And I cannot remember a question about my political skills. People knew all about my views on foreign aid or abortion rights or gun control. They knew how seriously I took constituent service. They knew I come from a family of ministers, and that I share the Hoosier passion for basketball. But for the most part, they never asked me how good I'd be at turning their concerns or mine into law, or at advancing local and state interests among my 534 colleagues in Congress. For some reason most people, journalists and the voting public alike, seem to take basic political competence for granted. 

They shouldn't. As hard as it is to get to Congress, doing a good job once you're there is even harder. It demands that you be a good politician, in the best sense of the word: that, in the face of the diverse beliefs and opinions represented in Washington, you know how to build support for an idea, convince other people of its merits, accommodate others' points of view without undermining your core goals, and, ultimately, find the points of agreement that will allow you to forge consensus amid the clamor of the democratic process. 

And clamor it is, these days. Take the ongoing debate over what kind of aid the federal government should provide for education. The players include the states, the teachers, students concerned about quality, taxpayers who worry about costs, parents fretting about everything from safety to quality issues... you get the idea. Every one of those groups has several voices speaking up for them in Washington– lobbyists, policy experts, and members of Congress alike. 

Now, the people running for office in your district have all sorts of ideas about what should be done about education. Maybe they want to put more money into building schools, or into shrinking classroom size. Or maybe they want to go in the other direction — give vouchers to parents and let competition wring improvements in school quality. My advice to you is, don't let them stop there. Push them on why they think they are qualified to advance these ideas in Congress. And then ask them some questions: 

Do they know how to listen? That's the first thing you have to be able to do as a politician: Figure out what others want. 

Do they know how to have a real conversation? You build support for your ideas one on one, in discussions with colleagues on the way to vote or on the floor of the chamber, in talks with lobbyists, in dialogue with interest group leaders. They all have their own ideas and their own valid concerns; they expect to be able to share them, not simply to be lectured to. 

Do they know how to compromise? Good politicians search for the common ground among diverse views, negotiate with those who agree and disagree with them, and make adjustments to their proposals without betraying their core beliefs or threatening what they seek to accomplish. Demanding all or nothing may sound good on the stump, but it's guaranteed to get you pushed to the sidelines when it counts. 

Do they inflame or calm the discussion of controversial issues? Are they interested in press coverage and who gets the credit, or are they interested in results? 

And, finally, do they know how to persuade? The merits of your idea may sound obvious to you, but they don't to others. It takes an enormous amount of work to build support for your ideas. I once set out to push a modest piece of legislation having to do with reviewing the operations of Congress. It wasn't especially complicated, but by the time I was done, I'd been in touch personally with scores of different groups and individuals, from both parties, trying to line up backing. 

All this is what it takes to be an effective politician these days, and you should expect no less of the people who want to represent you. 

(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.)