Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint recently announced that he will be leaving Congress in January. He has served only two years of his second (six year) term, and will be taking a position as President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Having just been reelected in 2010, should he walk away from the responsibility bestowed by the voters?
You will remember another early-leaver (quitter?). Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. She had barely cleared the snow from her desk in Juneau before she left office after only 2.5 years. She took a lot of heat for her inexperience while campaigning with John McCain. That feeling only increased when she abruptly left the highest office of the northern state to cash in on her fame by writing a book and joining the television political commentary circuit.
A bit closer to home, and a few years prior, we had a similar situation with current Portland Mayor-Elect, Charlie Hales (set to take office in January 2013). It was 2002 when he left his position as Portland City Commissioner with over a year and a half to go in his third term. He took a job with an engineering firm to promote street car transportation. While in office he was a champion of the streetcar, successfully bringing that form of rail transportation to downtown Portland. During the recent mayoral campaign, he also felt some heat for not sticking it out during his last stint in local politics. Unlike Palin, Hales was forgiven and voted back in.
Is leaving office early acceptable or not?
I suppose there are worse things one could do. Like stick around too long. The States and various jurisdictions have laws for replacing outgoing politicians, so the people are not really at much of a loss on representation. The bigger problem is the opposite problem: those politicians that just don’t seem to ever go away. Term limits are another subject entirely.
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City (2002-current), helped get the rules changed to increase the two-term limit to three-terms in time to let him run again. It’s worked out well for him so far, though many residents seem to wish they hadn’t allowed it. Current governors Jerry Brown (1975-1983!, 2011-current) of California and John Kitzhaber (1995-2003, 2011-current) of Oregon are serving their third terms, though non-consecutive. No rules were changed, and this is a fair move. But it seems like a sneaky maneuver.
Our problems with entrenched politicians pale in comparison to those in other countries, where the powerful maintain their position for many years. Vladimir Putin has manipulated Russian politics for sometime, having served as either Prime Minister or President or Prime Minister or President continuously since 1999. Fidel Castro was of course the leader of Cuba for over 52 years (and some dinosaurs).
We should respect the faithful completion of a full term, but I can appreciate the politician’s decision to leave office early. It’s his life, and he shouldn’t feel entrapped in a position he no longer feels is a good situation. Those who leave seem to have a pretty good gig waiting for them, and they know that they’ll most likely not be welcomed back. We probably won’t see Jim DeMint or Sarah Palin in an elected position anytime soon, though we’ll continue to hear from them. Charlie Hales is playing small ball in local politics, so he can get away with more.
It’s the other guys we have to worry about, and it’s our own fault for voting them back in. Again and again.