News media love a horse-race so they tend to describe everything as one. They grossly oversimplify important, complex political issues, boiling them down to "who wins" and "who loses" with all eyes focused on how today's news affects the next big election. November may be the biggest election on the horizon, but November is not a finish line. It is a starting line.
The surge in political energy on the right, left and in the middle did not dissipate after the Great Recession fueled historic outcomes in national elections in the fall of 2008. This political energy is still growing into a movement of real power, especially among those most concerned about galloping government growth.
If one were to take cues from the news media and the people running for office, the whole game will be determined when voters go to the polls on Nov. 2. That's when we'll know "who wins" and who does not. But that won't tell us much about the kind of public policy we'll get. That's because all we'll know then is what the winning candidates promised they would do once elected. It will take a while longer to figure out if they intend to keep their promises.
Starting on Day One, every newly elected lawmaker will face enormous pressure to compromise the very principles on which they campaigned. Special interest groups and incumbent lawmakers with more seniority (especially those who are gerrymandered into so-called "safe seats") will see to that. Such pressure must be counterbalanced if voters are to have any hope that those they elected will keep their promises.
If voters treat Nov. 2 as a finish line, saying "mission accomplished" after their candidate or their party wins, they remove themselves from the game at the most important moment. The mission is never accomplished by merely electing the right person or party. The mission might be properly begun, but only just begun.
The mission is accomplished over time by holding elected officials accountable for their promises and for the actual results of the policies they enact. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, to vote for the right party or the right "good guy" or gal. What matters is for voters to know how the individual lawmaker actually behaves through his or her votes.
Voters hold lawmakers accountable when voters know how they vote and know the effects of the policies they enact. The lawmakers themselves do not always volunteer complete information because they wish to be re-elected and excused for any bad votes they might have made.
That's why the Mackinac Center for Public Policy provides tools such as Michigan Capitol Confidential, the MichiganVotes.org database, and this newspaper's new, online, sister publication at www.MichCapCon.com.
Informed voters, especially those who vote in primary elections, have disproportionate influence when they contact lawmakers about their votes. Such voters can counterbalance even powerful interest groups and legislative leaders.
Here is a recent example. Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, called our office the other day to let us know he had heard from constituents who apparently read in Michigan Capitol Confidential that one of his bills would have opened the door to sweeping unionization of privately employed, in-home health workers. The senate journal now reports that he has offered a substitute bill.
This year in particular, the primary elections on Aug. 3 may be more important than the Nov. general elections. Those August primaries will determine who the voters send to the November starting line. The primary elections are where new voices have the best opportunities to be heard.
By committing to treat November as a starting line, you can get in on the ground floor of the movement to hold legislators accountable between elections, not just at elections. More is at stake for our nation's future than at any time in a generation or more.
When the British Army drove the German Afrika Korps from Egypt in 1942 it marked a turning point in the war. But Winston Churchill warned Britons against treating it as "mission accomplished." He told them, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
That war lasted another three years. The fight for liberty and limited government will go on longer than that, unless we stop fighting for it.
Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.