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John Whitehead's Commentary

Are Principles a Thing of the Past for Politicians?

John Whitehead
In 1987, then-Senator Al Gore sent a letter to one of his constituents in Tennessee. In it, he assured the man that he was strongly opposed to federal funding of abortion, which, Gore wrote, "is arguably the taking of a human life."

Fast forward to twelve years later in 1999. The Clinton Administration agreed to halt funding to international groups that promote abortion in exchange for an agreement from Congress to pay the United States' back dues to the United Nations. Soon after, Gore criticized the move in a speech at Microsoft. "I do not favor bargaining away any critical aspect of protecting a woman's right to choose," the Vice President/presidential candidate told his audience.

Gore's 180-degree turn on abortion funding actually occurred back in 1988 during his first run at the presidential nomination. This was only a year after Gore's written assurance that he strongly opposed the government paying for abortions.

Gore, however, isn't the only practitioner of politics without principles. When the Lewinsky scandal first erupted, President Clinton had a secret poll conducted on whether he should tell the truth about his affair. The poll results came back negative. As a result, the country was subjected to a months-long assault on the truth.

Democrats don't have a monopoly on the phenomenon, either. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential frontrunner, has steadfastly refused to answer questions on his past drug use. Whether he actually smoked marijuana or snorted cocaine years ago is not the point. It's his refusal to set the record straight, coupled with his harsh drug policies as governor of Texas that seems hypocritical.

Bush's failure to be upfront about his past appears to be rooted both in money and politics. He has raised a staggering $56 million in the first seven months of his campaign. Whether we're willing to admit it or not, politics has become the playground of the rich. The point is that new ideas and solutions are drowning in a sea of cash. Afraid to alienate donors, candidates soft-pedal the issues.

Political hypocrisy is occurring at all levels of the system. Recently, several members of Congress who had pledged to limit themselves to one or two terms conveniently decided that their initial zeal for term limits was misguided. They were found on ballots around the country this past election.

This hypocrisy isn't benign. In fact, it encourages voter apathy and appears to be taking a serious toll on democracy. In 1996, only 49 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls. By 1998, that number had dropped to 36 percent. If the trend continues, less than one-third of the eligible voters will choose our next president.

A closer look at these numbers reveals just how astonishing this drop is. Assuming the winning
candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, but only 35 percent of those eligible vote, the next president will be elected on the strength of less than 20 percent of Americans over the age of 18.

There are no clear solutions to this crippling loss of principles. As more Americans drop out of the political process, incentives for politicians to clean up their act grow weaker. And if people with principles see that the system is corrupt, they'll be even less likely to enter into public service.

It's obvious that we need leaders, not politicians, running the government. Keeping the faith against popular opinion and not wavering on principles is the mark of a great leader. But it's been a long time since America had a great leader at its helm.

American voters need to take charge of their destiny. We must abandon our apathy and get back to the voting booths. We need to hold our elected leaders to higher standards. If not, we will get exactly the kind of politicians we deserve.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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