Politicians, just like everyone else, don’t fit easily in one category

In our ‘Us Versus Them’ environment, it’s too easy to miss the human element

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
UTMikeColLogoPoliticians, despite reports to the contrary, are human beings.

With all of the invective being thrown around, it can be easy to forget, of course. As humans, we like to put things and people into boxes. But people being people, they are always more complicated.

A couple weeks back, I spent an hour listening to U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts talk at Unionville High School not about sequesters or fiscal cliffs, but art, his other abiding passion.

His first love is painting and drawing President Abraham Lincoln, but he’s branched out in more than 40 years of painting and sculpture to various subjects and he shows both talent and nuance. While his subject matter is sometimes influenced by the political life — he points with some pride to his sketches of abolitionist leaders — and has portrayed numerous conservative icons from Winston Churchill to Ronald Reagan, he’s also done landscapes and even tried his hand at impressionism.

What started as lark while serving in the U.S. Air Force — he entered a contest to win a $50 savings bond while serving as pilot — has been a sustaining passion for more than four decades. When he talks about art, a different Pitts emerges, a somewhat different voice than might be familiar from his decades as a lion of conservative causes.

U.S. Representative Joe Pitts (R-16) with his painting

U.S. Representative Joe Pitts (R-16) with his painting ‘Symbol of Freedom” depicting the U.S. Capitol immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

While he’s done a number of studies of the U.S. Capitol dome — from his D.C. office, Pitts enjoys a view of the capitol — he happened to be working on one in early September, 2001.

“I was just about done with it when the twin towers were struck,” he said, showing the simple, yet dramatic study of the dome. “I was driving, literally, by the Pentagon, when the smoke was billowing up. And I saw them put the flag at half-mast. I came home that weekend and put the flag at half-mast on this painting and called it ‘Symbol of Freedom’ because I think that’s where the plane (United Flight 93) was headed for, that went down in Pennsylvania.”

Nearly 12 years later, Pitts — like many Americans — still gets emotional about that day and there is something powerful about the image Pitts rendered, one that inspires similar emotions in those who view it.

The lesson here is not that Pitts is a great artist — he’s pretty good and better than his own comments would lead you to believe — but his work reveals a complicated, intelligent, thoughtful person.

There are a multitude of issues I disagree with him on, but certainly not all. And I do think, largely, he thinks he’s acting in the best interest of the country. In short, he’s not some evil troll, but a thoughtful, intelligent person with whom I disagree with at times.

I think that’s probably true of most elected officials.

Too often, voters, the media, and even political parties force candidates and elected officials to fit into column A or column B, when typically, as with virtually all other humans, they are nuanced and have their own individual take on the issues.

We, as a people, would be well served not just to remember that fact, but to embrace that idea. This country was built on rugged individualism — left and right — and our best-loved leaders from Lincoln to Roosevelt (you decide which one) to Kennedy didn’t easily fit in any ideological category, but charted their own course.

If we want a smarter, more nuanced government, we, as voters have to allow our elected leaders, Republican and Democrat, to stray at times from orthodoxy. Otherwise, we end up with what we have: grid lock and no solutions to the many problems we face.

* * *

Continuing that theme, both parties need to, well, get over themselves and their strict boundaries of what is possible, and do it now. Both parties, whether in Harrisburg or Washington continue to act like a bunch of frightened five year olds, unwilling or unable to do their jobs.

And yes, some of the blame falls on us — when guys like Pitts have to worry about facing primary challenges from the right (amazing to even consider such a possibility) for not being conservative enough, we know common sense has left the building.

But still, out elected officials, no matter how messed up we the voters are, have some responsibility to try to fix the mess we’re in.

As is often is the case, Harrisburg seems worse at this than even D.C. — but maybe there are one or two reasons for hope.

While some of the budget proposals from Gov. Tom Corbett seem, well, overly optimistic — yes, pension reform, I’m looking at you — the decades long battle to finally privatize the state’s liquor stores may finally be getting traction.

And let’s be honest: it’s time.

Yes, I know this offends the union that represents the workers at the state stores and the Democrats who must — must — walk in lockstep with said union leaders, and oppose this, but it’s common sense.

The state needs to get the heck out of the business of selling liquor.

But, here’s where I get off the bus: linking the proceeds from the sale of the state stores to some sort of nebulous education funding grant program.

Seeing as Corbett’s pension reform plan seems likely to be as effective as the North Korean nuclear missile program — and now that I mention it, has anyone actually ever seen Gov. Tom and North Korean honcho Kim Jung Un in the same room? Hmmm — anyhow, why not, instead take those cash proceeds — one billion dollars — and dump them into the two public pension funds?

In theory, by undoing some of the chronic underfunding of the pension program of the last decade, it should cut the rate increase needed for local school districts more effectively, more permanently and on a wider basis reduce the local tax burden than the proposed grant program.

At the same time, the utter failure to sensibly tax shale gas extraction — unlike those dirty, rotten socialists in uh, Texas — is ridiculous.

Other states have been able to dramatically lower taxes for their residents from oil and gas drilling, so why not Pennsylvania? It’s not like the drilling companies can leave and go drill in Vermont — the gas is here and state residents (and not the drilling companies) should benefit.

On the federal level, its the same thing.

Democrats relentlessly cling to a refusal to even discuss entitlement reform — a case where both the numbers and reality tell the story: too many retirees, too few workers. As President Clinton said about another issue last summer: “It’s math.”

Toss in the fact that people are living longer and it is evident to anyone with perspective that we need to change the retirement eligibility ages, and impose means tests. This could be done in a careful and pragmatic way to preserve the program without bankrupting the government — but only if Democrats let go of dogma and do the math.

On the flip side, Republicans gave in earlier this year in to little more than a token tax hike and proclaimed themselves done with tax hikes. This reminds me of when my now grown stepson Eddy would eat peas when he was a kid. He’d ingest one, with a drink and then fall on the floor as if poisoned. Of course, at the time, he was 10 and sort of maddeningly entertaining.

The Republicans in Congress are acting like they’re five and not remotely entertaining. The truth is this — and please Tea Party people, put down your I Heart Coolidge signs, even I’m embarrassed for you — we are a little undertaxed right now.

What? Sacrilege!

Nope, it’s not, and I’ll explain it while you gather the wood and gasoline to burn me at the stake, which frankly would be worth it if only to never have to listen to Grover Nordquist again, a man who’s understanding of macroeconomics ranks below that of your average roll of wallpaper.

See, here’s the thing: in the mid-80s, after Ronald Reagan cut taxes and the economy tanked, he raised them again and, boom! The economy took off. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton engineered tax hikes in the early 1990s and, wait for it, Boom! The economy took off.

George W. Bush cut taxes in 2001 and 2003 and what happened? A slow erosion of the economy, followed by a crash. A lot, for you Tea Party folks, like Coolidge’s management of the economy which led to this minor event called The Great Depression.

That’s not to say that taxes can’t be too high and strangle the economy — they were clearly too high throughout the 1950s and 1960s and led to the 1970s financial meltdown. There is, dare I say it, a sweet spot in the middle, roughly around the Clinton-era tax rates, that seems to fund the government, push enough money down in the economy and spur growth, without strangling industry.

Moderation, it’s for more than cutting back one’s beer intake, you know.

Could I be suggesting that we’d have better run government with two parties dominated by center-right and center-left leaders?

Well, duh.

But that’s not what we ask for. We let the extremists — the guys who stand on street corners screaming their lungs out – drive policy, so we’re left with the choice between the wacky left and the wacky right.

The moderates keep calm, don’t want to raise a ruckus and go with the flow. But we’re heading over a waterfall, without even a decent barrel.

The time has come to stand up and say “enough.”

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One Comment

  1. Dan says:

    I have never met Mr. Pitts but have heard good things about his work ethic. However, that being the exception, the report on politicians being human beings is still under review!! And not for a minute do I believe they are looking out for “we the people” unless the “we” is themselves and their contributors – like the unions for the Democrats and you can fill in the blanks for the Republicans… Mike, I’d have more confidence in you – if you were king for a day!!

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