We Need Courageous Political Leadership
"Let’s hope future political leaders rise to the challenge and channel their inner coonskin cap-wearing frontiersman from Tennessee."
We need more courageous leadership in today’s politics. Courage to do the right thing, even when it’s not the popular thing to do. Courage to tackle the tough issues, not the flashy issues. Courage to stand up to a mob of your supporters and deliver the hard truths. But do we even know what an act of political courage looks like in our modern era of social media-driven influence?
Davy Crockett is one of my political heroes and a great example of courageous leadership. While the Tennessee frontiersman is well known for fighting in the Battle of the Alamo and his iconic coonskin cap, Crockett was also a member of Congress that demonstrated tremendous courage in Washington DC.
Crockett famously objected to a bill proposing Congress make a $10,000 donation to the widow of a distinguished naval officer, a proposal that was originally expected to pass unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives. Arguing that it was beyond the scope of Congress’s constitutional powers to allocate funds purely for charitable purposes, Crockett stood up and delivered an impassioned speech imploring his fellow representatives to oppose the bill:
“I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”
Then, Crockett displayed real leadership:
“Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.”
Crockett sat down to crickets from the chamber. The bill, previously thought to be a unanimous vote, subsequently failed the floor vote as members heeded the wisdom in Crockett’s speech.
At the time, opposing Congressional charity was a political third rail. Crockett certainly would not have expected to win any votes or adoring fans by opposing the legislation. He chose instead to make a stand for principle. Most interesting of all was that his courageous leadership was so effective that it actually shifted the window of what was popular, resulting in a change in how his fellow members voted. Crockett’s courage was the catalyst needed to make doing the right thing popular again.
We need more modern politicians that aspire to model Crockett’s courageous leadership. While stimulus, bailouts and handouts might win cheers, the most unpopular third rails of politics are precisely where leadership is needed the most.
One of the most obvious areas where courage is needed is in addressing the “sacred cows” of the federal budget: Social Security, Medicare, and Defense. Everyone recognizes that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are on a fast track to insolvency. And many reasonable people have pointed out that the billions we are spending to fight a war in Ukraine would be better spent on pressing issues here at home. Yet, year after year, Congress refuses to act on the budget because voters overwhelmingly oppose reducing spending in these areas.
The federal budget is just one example of many where courageous political leadership is desperately needed. Let’s hope future political leaders rise to the challenge and channel their inner coonskin cap-wearing frontiersman from Tennessee.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.