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Spending More Time with your Attorney's Family

Your Humble Blogger lived in Massachusetts when William Weld resigned as Governor to pursue (but not catch) confirmation as Ambassador to Mexico. I lived there when the next governor, Paul Celucci, resigned to actually serve as Ambassador to Canada. During that time, I attempted to formulate a Theory of Political Resignation that went something like this: an elected official cannot ethically resign his post except to accept a higher office, or if earlier ethical lapses make resignation the lesser violation of the public trust.

This is actually fairly tricky. I mean, the obvious rule is that if you are elected to a term of office, you are obligated to fulfill that term. On the other hand, I think that it’s pretty widely understood that if, f’r’ex, a Senator is appointed to the Cabinet, that’s an opportunity and a responsibility that overrides that obligation. I think most voters understand that, and consider it reasonable.

It does leave open the question of what constitutes a higher office. This is where the Theory comes in. I think there are tiers in our national government that help to some extent but there are still substantial judgment calls to make. For instance, clearly the Presidency and the Supreme Court are the top tier; I would consider anyone under that level who resigns to take one of those jobs justified. The next rank down are Senator and Governor, and they seem to me to be more or less on the same level. Which makes it a judgment call: William Weld ran for Senator from the Governor’s office, and was willing to resign to take the other job. I might make the call the other way, but it’s not clearly wrong that way. Generally, because of the two-year terms, US Representatives aren’t faced with resigning their seats to take new jobs as Senators or Governors, but it can happen and that seems to be clearly OK. And, as well, a State Legislator of any kind resigning to take up a federal post seems reasonable. And there are others that are very vague: a Lieutenant Governor who becomes an Ambassador, a Judge who becomes a US Attorney or a State Attorney General, that sort of thing. Judgment calls.

And then there’s the question of whether it’s ethical to resign an elected office to run for a higher office. Bob Dole resigned his Senate seat when he was nominated as the Republican candidate for President in 1996; I don’t know that it wasn’t a violation of his promise to his constituents. On the other hand, both Barack Obama and John McCain effectively suspended their Senatorial work during their campaign. Was it less of an ethical breach to stay in the Senate but not work at the job, coming back to vote every three or four months? What about Christopher Dodd, who continued to work in the Senate but became essentially inaccessible to his constituents here in Connecticut, moving his family to Iowa in pursuit of a longshot primary campaign?

But those are not resignations, and I don’t know how much they help with a Theory of Political Resignations. A Resignation is a violation of the public trust on a different level. When Newt Gingrich resigned his House seat after winning re-election, because he was going to be ousted as Speaker of the House, that was astonishing to me. He just walked away from his job. And nobody seemed to mind.

Well, and now Sarah Palin seems to be walking away from her job. Those of us who dislike her (for whatever reasons) find her stated reasons incomprehensible and bizarre. Joshua Micah Marshall, over at TPM, says that the only conceivable explanations are scandal and insanity.

I get the sense, though, that those of my countrymen who admire Governor Palin think that she is, in fact, resigning to take up a higher office. That office is unelected and self-appointed, and is essentially Movement Conservative in Chief. Much of the tone, both hers and from the (admittedly very limited) supportive reaction is that actually governing a state is a crappy job that she just wound up in, and she would be crazy to stay in it when she has a chance to make a difference on the national stage.

And this is where my Theory of Political Resignation falls to the ground. Underlying the theory is an assumption that Governor, or State Senator, or Mayor, or Judge, are terrific jobs, even if they are crap to actually do, that they are respected positions and worthy of respect, and that people who run for those jobs and ask for our votes for those jobs and take oaths of office to serve in those jobs actually want to do those jobs.

I mean, yes, they are often stepping-stones to some other job, and I fully expect that my State Senator, for instance, will have an eye on congressional, but then, I have half an eye on another job at the library while being perfectly happy about my own job. I think you can be a very good State Senator, and fulfill all your obligations as State Senator, and respect the job of State Senator, and still intend to run for the first available place that’s higher up the ladder. And then you can feel good about having done a good job at that level, while still feeling it was a stepping-stone.

I’d like to think that this was a Republican Party problem, and in fact I do think that it is a Republican Party problem, of the generation that was told that bullshit about government being the problem (which was, for the Reagan/Bush/Dole generation, always bullshit to front the unpopular policy positions they held that required government assistance for industry) and somehow believed it. I think there are a lot of Republicans who run for office simply to keep Democrats out of office. Having accomplished that, I think some of them find themselves less than persuaded that they are doing valuable work by governing or legislating. Still, to the extent that it is a Republican Party problem, it’s obviously not a problem typical of the Party. Most Republican office-holders serve out their terms. Very few resign, and even fewer resign without some obvious reason. And I suspect that it’s a small subset of the Republican Party that does see Sarah Palin as having a legitimate, ethical, reasonable path to resignation with a year and a half left of her term. But perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

The point? I suppose I should get around to having a point. Hm. Oh, yes. The point is that I think that my Theory of Political Resignation is worth talking about, because if you run for office, you should have some idea of what your constituents expect of you, and your constituents should have some idea of what you expect of yourself. A question such as Under what circumstances would you consider it appropriate to resign the office you are seeking? may seem like a dumb one, but it’s only dumb if we’re all working with the same Theory, and the only way to know if that’s true is to argue about it a little.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


The insanely long campaigns we've developed make it untenable to responsibly hold office while running for a major office such as governor or president, but I think that many office-holders resign when running for higher office to reduce their opponents' political leverage or avoid adding to their record. Once a candidate reaches a certain level of experience or recognition, the media covers their mistakes rather than their accomplishments.

sarah who?

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