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For decades, America’s elected public servants have paid great lip service to the grand political principle of hearing and heeding the vox populi.
And for decades, America’s politicians had little trouble doing this. Because in election after election, the voice of the people has been loud and clear: “Please lie to me!”
We’ll eventually get to the fact that all of the latest polls point to the possibility that the vox populi is making sounds that could become big news on Election Day. After decades of look-the-other-way gullibility, voters are fed up with political lies and hypocrites, or at last wising up.
But first, let’s review the decades when the people’s message to their leaders was “Please lie to me!”
In the 1960s, voters bought into Lyndon Johnson’s promise that we could afford both guns and butter _ a war in Vietnam and his “Great Society” war on poverty at home. Also in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon promised we would win the Vietnam War if we kept America’s men fighting and dying there just a few years more.
In the 1980s, voters gave free passes to a Reagan White House that followed the American hostage crisis by giving Iran’s militant ruling ayatollah military weapons, an autographed Bible and even a cake in the shape of a key _ in exchange for Iranian moolah that was secretly slipped to Nicaraguan rebels in violation of U.S. law.
The 1990s, presidentially remembered for those Clintonian lies about sex, also gave us an era of political duplicity symbolized by the poster boy of political liars, an otherwise obscure Republican Washington state congressman, George Nethercutt Jr. In 1994, as the Newt Gingrich revolution swept Republicans into control of Congress, Nethercutt unseated House Speaker Tom Foley by campaigning on term limits and promising he’d serve only three terms. But three terms later, in 2000, Nethercutt decided to run again. “I’m less enamored with the idea of term limitations, and I’m the perfect example of why we don’t need them,” Nethercutt told The Washington Post. Voters he’d lied to re-elected him two more times _ which, come to think of it, makes those 5th Congressional District voters poster persons of the “Please Lie to Me” vox populi.
The new century, of course, continued the political tradition of dishing deceits to accepting voters. We heard untruths that led us into a war in Iraq that may prove impossible to win: unfounded claims about Saddam Hussein’s unfound weapons of mass destruction, and assurances that the Iraq war was being won and the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
What to do about Iraq now is a problem so complex that voters can’t tell who, if anyone, has the right answer. (Sadly, there probably is none.) But then came a scandal that is so simple that we all get it _ and we all can see that our basic values of family, trust and decency have been compromised by House GOP leaders who put staying in power ahead of all other values they once embraced. Former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., no relation to the ex-speaker, had been preying upon teenage boys who are House pages _ and House GOP leaders knew it but failed to do all they could to stop it. Speaker Dennis Hastert dissembled when asked what he knew and when he knew it.
The good news in this comes in two levels: First, conservative leaders in the private sector have raised their voices to condemn Hastert and the House leadership that has strayed from the solid conservative values, family values and even Christian values they once embraced. Because of this sad sexual scandal _ and also the GOP leadership’s protection of close associates involved in lobbyists’ scandals of money and corruption _ these leaders have called for the speaker to resign.
Now another voice is being heard. New polls all show that the public is finally raising its voice _ louder and stronger than ever before _ against all who have betrayed our trust. Polls of The New York Times/CBS News and The Washington Post/ABC News show Republicans plunging and Democrats gaining in questions about which party should control Congress. They show that people overwhelmingly say Republicans think they are above the law and don’t understand ordinary people’s problems. And President Bush’s approval rating has drooped to a new low, with 60 percent disapproving in the Post/ABC survey.
Those stunning stats may trigger a tsunami of political panic that could sweep from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. As a last resort, desperate politicians in power may even heed this new vox populi _ and start telling people the truth.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)