Democracy endangered when leaders lack “the vision thing”

When George H.W. Bush was preparing a run for president, he asked a friend to suggest key issues for his campaign.  He understood most issues, but sought top policies to highlight.

Time magazine reported that his friend advised him to take time off, “to figure out where he wanted to take the country.”

“Oh,” replied an obviously annoyed Bush, “the vision thing.”  His rejection of advice to find and state his goals for the country stuck with Bush for the rest of his career.

Like Bush, candidates prefer to focus on only a few current issues.  Often, poll results guide the campaign agenda.

A recent survey in Maine showed the top two concerns are health care and the economy.   With the oldest population of any state and increasingly restrictive state policies, health care makes sense.  And just about every politician runs promising to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Many voters might now understand that promises on these issues, as on most others in federal or state politics, likely mean little.  Presidents and governors depend heavily on Congress or the Legislature to enact the programs they promise.

Voters still like to be pampered by promises made by candidates.   But they miss the “vision thing,” a sense of the goals the candidate would pursue. In fact, the candidate’s vision may be much more important than specific proposals.

Of course, some candidates have no vision, and are driven only by their desire to gain and hold public office.  They make promises first and excuses later.

The situation is even worse when leaders, lacking a vision, run the government as if it was their personal property without much regard for the will or needs of the people.  That’s what seems to be happening now.

President Trump’s main policy focus is himself.  His vision often seems to be promoting himself as being superior to any of his predecessors.  He appears to be immune to his relatively low political popularity, while catering to his “base.”

He has surely convinced himself.  When asked about the possibility of being impeached, he replies that won’t happen, because he is doing such a good job.   Yet he makes few claims for his role in economic growth, because he is so focused on protecting the legitimacy of his 2016 election.

In short, Trump makes no attempt to offer a vision of the American future that might appeal to voters outside of his base.  The focus of his actions is more about appealing to what some people dislike, especially immigration, than about where he seeks to lead the country.

In Maine, Gov. LePage seems to believe that his personal opinion ought to prevail over the popular will.  Even after the voters themselves express a vision for their state on issues like health care or the minimum wage, he acts as if his position as governor allows him to ignore the people.

The voters and a majority of the Legislature decided they want Medicaid to cover more people.  That’s their vision of health care policy.  But LePage, who disagrees, believes that he alone is right on this issue.  Courts had to force him to obey what the voters decided.

LePage’s attitude not only skips the “vision thing,” but reverses it.  In a system based on rule by and for the people, he substitutes his own opinion, damaging the foundation of the system itself.

The extent of both Trump’s and LePage’s failure to provide a broad vision with wide appeal is shown by their use of hostile and divisive language even against members of their own party.  “I am the state,” they seem to say.  Their vision extends no further than themselves.

That happens elsewhere as well, with negative and predictable consequences.  Victor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, opposes a democratic system open and fair to all.  He rejects the principles of the new Europe, but willingly takes EU financial aid.

At the European Parliament, he was surprised to be censured last week by an overwhelming vote that included even his conservative political allies.  Unlike many of Trump’s Republicans, his friends were willing to stand up to him.

Trump and LePage are not models for candidates who would look beyond themselves to the long-term needs of the nation and state.  Candidates’ proposals could fit within a sensible and consistent view of the political future.

In this year’s campaign, federal and state candidates should share their vision for the governments they would lead.  Offering the “vision thing” beats leaving the campaign to the half-truths and negativism of 30-second television spots.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.