Still reeling from his defeat on election day, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., spoke to a less than half-full Salomon 101 about truthfulness in government on Monday afternoon.
Shays, who has represented Connecticut's fourth district since 1987, began the talk sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy with a sad acknowledgement of his recent loss to Democrat Jim Himes. Shays was the only Republican representing New England in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he compared his failure to get re-elected after 21 years of service to an athlete at the height of his game not having his contract renewed.
"I would have preferred to address you as a re-elected (congressman)," Shays said. "It's still pretty raw. And it's difficult for me. If you see me get a tear in my eye, it will be a sincere tear."
Shays stressed the importance of truthfulness in government in his talk, called "We Need to Go Where the Truth Takes Us."
"The fact is, unless we are truthful with each other, our country will continue to muddle through, will continue to kick the can down the road, will continue to ignore one inconvenient truth after another," Shays said.
Shays cited many examples of these "inconvenient truths" that he said government figures tend to leave for later or flat-out ignore, including energy dependence and deteriorating infrastructure. Real action on these issues fails to materialize because it would be costly and time-consuming, Shays said.
Other truths - like the flawed public education system - are inconvenient because they are so daunting, Shays said.
"In urban areas, young people fall into gaping holes," he said. "It raises the question of whether public education can really meet the competitive challenges of a global economy."
One of the biggest "impediments to truth-telling," Shays said, is a press that "seems to have been dummied down to the point of absurdity." Shays pointed to the death of local newspapers and lack of in-depth reporting as contributing factors to the media's lack of accountability and responsibility.
The advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the popularity of blogs worsened the problem, Shays added, by leading to the spread of misinformation. He told a story about his elderly mother showing him a clipping mailed out by an interest group about health care. The brochure said congressmen did not have to pay into the Social Security program, which Shays said was not true. But "seniors are very vulnerable and believe a lot of what they get" in the mail, he added.
Shays also identified campaign financing and partisan politics as disincentives for honesty. Because politicians need certain blocks of supporters to get re-elected, he said, they may not say what they truly believe.
When he decided to support a vouchers program for schools, Shays said he promptly lost the support of the National Education Association and many unions, who then backed his opponent. "If I had not gone that route, I would have at least kept labor on the sidelines," Shays said.
Shays also said the millions of dollars poured into campaigns and the increasingly negative tone of elections did not improve democracy.
"If McDonald's spent all its time telling you why you shouldn't buy Burger King and Burger King spent all its time telling you why you shouldn't buy McDonald's, you wouldn't buy either," Shays added.
Many students in the question-and-answer portion asked about Shays' feelings on the election results. He was generally critical of the Republicans and the Bush administration, particularly Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, calling them "arrogant." He said the GOP will continue to lose power if it becomes more conservative and that it must find a way to attract moderate voters.
The approach of the Republican Party has been flawed, Shays said. "Don't tell me that abortion is the most important issue facing our country. ... While Rome is burning, we're talking about pro-life. And that didn't speak to a lot of people."
Leaders need to have brilliant ideas and be able to explain them, Shays said. "I think we're all hoping Barack Obama has that capability."
Asked if, as a social liberal, he had ever considering switching parties, Shays said that he did not feel he would fit in with the Democratic Party. "Color me purple," he said.