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Politicians always disappoint purists

A lot of conservatives are really disappointed, even downright angry at Congressman Tom Emmer.

Emmer has taken a series of votes in Congress that seem to put party loyalty over principle — the latest being his vote to fund the Department of Homeland Security without condition. Conservatives have been clamoring for a showdown with President Barack Obama over his executive order that effectively grants temporary amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

Emmer voted with Speaker Boehner to send a bill to the Senate that would pass, and the president would sign. The Senate wouldn’t take up a bill that would defund the president’s actions, and if they somehow could, the president would veto it.

Conservatives have a point about fighting Obama on the immigration order. Whatever the merits of the policy, the executive order stands on very shaky legal grounds — grounds so shaky that Obama himself asserted repeatedly that he didn’t have the power to do it, until he changed his mind.

The knock against Emmer, not to put too fine a point on it, is that he has turned into an establishment tool. Michele Bachmann he is not.

Personally, I think that is a good thing. I have known Emmer for six years, and Bachmann for 15. As much as I like Michele as a person, she was a firebrand, not a legislator. As a firebrand, Bachmann became a voice for the disaffected; as a legislator, her career was defined by her being a near outcast among her colleagues. Activists’ satisfaction with her was directly proportional to her unwillingness to bend to the majority.

Tom Emmer has chosen to become a legislator, not an activist. He is no less conservative than he portrays himself — he simply has chosen a different path than Bachmann to achieve his goals.

A path that arguably has a lot more chance of success in the long run than Bachmann’s, despite the heartburn it gives his supporters.

Effective legislators always disappoint their most fervent supporters, with good reason.

Politicians who inspire passion seem to embody our aspirations for the future. Barack Obama didn’t blaze a path to the White House by promising incremental change; he created a movement promising to “fundamentally transform” the country. Ted Cruz has built a career out of promising to block Obama’s policies, yet it is difficult to find an example of his actual success in doing so. It is the words, not the deeds that are so satisfying.

Politics almost never works that way; in fact, outside existential crises, it never does. The Founding Fathers exerted a lot of effort to ensure that changes are made incrementally, with great difficulty, and after years of wrangling. They built a system in which inaction is the default outcome.

That’s why Obamacare passed in 2010 — Obama rode the crest of a political wave driven by an economic existential crisis, and still barely got his way. Yet despite massive political victories that allowed Republicans to retake the House and Senate, they have made zero progress in repealing Obamacare, even in the face of government shutdowns and public opposition.

Successful legislators practice the art of the possible. And they do not determine what is possible by themselves, but in the context of a rapidly changing balance of powers within Congress, and between Congress and the two other branches of government.

It is simply impossible to stop either Obamacare or Obama’s immigration order until 2017 under any circumstances, because Obama has a veto. Both policies are at risk not because Congress opposes them, but because the courts are considering their constitutionality.

Any politician who promises to fight to the death opposing these policies is promising what they simply cannot deliver. They are talking the talk, but could never walk the walk. They are in a sense doing what in most cases we revile about politicians: promising what they never intend to deliver.

The best members of Congress will always disappoint us because they will never accomplish the goals they and we seek. The political system is designed to stymie them, with reason. Battles have to be picked, compromises have to be made, and progress is necessarily excruciatingly slow.

The real test for Tom Emmer as a congressman won’t come this year or the next, but over the next decade or so as he rises through the ranks. Will he distinguish himself as an effective leader who achieves important but incremental reforms that increase freedom and decrease the power of the federal government to interfere with our personal and economic lives, or will he become comfortable with furthering the goals of the political establishment?

We don’t and can’t know yet, but I am willing to predict, based upon my own experience with Emmer as a person, as a legislator in the Minnesota House, and as a candidate for governor.

Tom has an unwavering moral compass, with a strong practical bent. As a lawyer he was a tenacious representative for his clients, getting them the best outcome possible — yet keenly aware of what wasn’t possible.

Those are the qualities you want in a legislator.

David Strom is Principal at Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. He served as Tom Emmer’s research director and speechwriter during Emmer’s 2010 run for governor.

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