Thursday, November 12, 2009


Executive vs representative

Last week had many of us in the U.S. going to the voting booth in “off-year” elections — elections in a year that has no federal voting, where we vote mostly on local issues and candidates. These elections usually suffer from low voter turnout, and usually have little of broad importance in them. Notwithstanding that, there were a few important ones this time around: the passage of proposition 1 in Maine was a setback for gay marriage rights, the election of a Democratic representative in New York’s 23rd congressional district told the Republican Party that they can’t shove right-wing extremists on everyone if they expect to stay relevant, and the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey got national and international news coverage.

As did the mayoral race in New York, in which Michael Bloomberg won a third term as mayor, after having gotten the city council to approve a waiver in the two-term limit rule. His opponent, New York City Controller Bill Thompson (himself barred from another term as controller, due to term limits), based most of his campaign on the unfairness of the waiver, and on the slogan, “Eight is enough!”

Mr Thompson was interviewed on a local radio news segment that I listened to on the way to the airport. In a reference to the closeness of the race — it was much closer than anyone (except, it seems, Mr Thompson) had expected — he said, “When you’re representing New York City, you can’t just represent 51% [who voted for Mr Bloomberg]. You have to represent the whole city.” We hear the same thing when a president promises to represent all the people, even the ones who didn’t vote for him.

But how much sense does that make?

A mayor, a governor, and a president are chief executive officers, elected not to represent people, but to run a government. Isn’t there a difference between an executive and a representative?

We blur that distinction, of course, when candidates for executive office make promises they can’t keep, because the promises go into areas that are not under their control. The president doesn’t make law, yet all candidates promise laws “they” will pass if they’re elected.

And, yet, what we really need them to do is to run the government, the city or town, the state, the country. We need them to make executive decisions, and we want them to decide in the best interest of the entity they’re in charge of. But we don’t want them to be representing any particular population, and calling it that is distracting. A particular executive decision might, in fact, be wildly unpopular when it’s made, but is, nevertheless, the best choice.

When some of us reviled George Bush for what he did in his presidency, it wasn’t so much for the decisions he made (which certainly didn’t represent at least half of us), as it was for the questionable ethics, legality, and constitutionality of those decision. It was for the secrecy and lies around the decisions. We didn’t expect the president to represent everyone, no more than we expect President Obama to do so. What we expect is sound executive decision-making.

We have others — city council members, assemblymen, congressmen, senators — who represent their wards, districts, and states in legislative bodies, and it’s they who are expected to fairly represent the needs of their constituents. And, as sense would have it, that’s why we have a bunch of them working together to make the compromises necessary when one is looking at representative government.

But there’s only one chief executive for a reason.

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