The entire job of a politician is to discern what he or she thinks is right at any particular moment on any particular question. And of course they have a way of knowing what's right: it's called judgment and practical wisdom. For Jonathan to say that this is somehow not part of their role seems to miss a core part of human conduct and nature.I'll apologize right at the start for going on at some length here...it's a topic, as regular readers probably have noticed by now, in which I have quite a bit of interest. I should also say that while I do lean here on theorists and empirical students of representation, this is a case where I'm certainly not, er, representing political scientists here (sorry).
I certainly agree that politicians should use, as Andrew says, "judgment and practical wisdom." The question, however, is to what purpose those human attributes are put. For the writer, the banner "Of No Party Or Clique" is, in my view, an honorable one. What writers owe to their readers is the truth as they see it, and they have no master but their own beliefs tempered by reality.
Not so for politicians elected to office in a democracy. They do have masters -- they serve their constituents. They are in office, as Hanna Pitkin says, to re-present those constituents: to make them present, even though they are not present. In doing so, they are guided by the contract they have with their constituents, which is composed of the promises the politician made while campaigning for office. Some of those are about public policy: I will oppose abortion. I will support a public option. Some are partisan: I will be a Democrat. Or, I will be a Democrat, but I'll side with the district if there's a conflict.
The most interesting promises to me, however, are about what type of representative a politician will be. My favorite contrast is between two Senators from New York who served together, Al D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. D'Amato was "Senator Pothole." He promised to look out for New York, whether it was finding every last dollar of pork, or seeing every foreign policy question strictly in terms of ethnic rivalries and loyalties within the Empire State. Moynihan, on the other hand, was a "national" Senator. New Yorkers expected him to weigh in on important issues of the day, whether it was the proper role of the CIA or how to make Social Security work better. The idea here is that these two Senators promised very different types of governing -- not (only) in terms of their positions on the issues, but in how they go about representing their constituents.
Now, given their promises, Moynihan had far more independence in his actions than did D'Amato. His representational relationship with New Yorkers would allow him to stand with Burke when he said, "Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
But that doesn't make him a better representative than one who promised, and then delivered, specific votes. Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship. And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best. That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves. Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians. Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom. A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised.
I think I'm being too abstract here...take a pro-life Democrat. Take Bart Stupak, for that matter. What exactly has he promised? How central to his campaign was abortion? Health care? Did he promise to reduce abortions (in which case a strong argument could be made that supporting health care reform would do that), or did he promise, above all, to toe the line on right-to-life issues, in which case all that matters is what the bishops or other authorities say. How do promises about health care reform rank against promises about abortion? How has he said he would make decisions? Has he promised to always listen to the district? To hold town hall meetings? To vote his conscience, regardless of the consequences? To support the president? To consider what's best for the district? Each of these are different promises, and may very well point to different choices (and sometimes very difficult choices) for the representative, and almost certainly will point to different ways of explaining his actions.
And, again, my point is that as long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative. That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned. For Edmund Burke to be a good representative, he must do as he promised the electors of Bristol, and act as he thinks best. For a representative who promises to slavishly follow the whims of her constituents, well, she must do exactly that to be a good representative.* And I suppose what I'm saying is that for politicians, from their point of view, there is no "what's right" beyond good representation. Excepting, of course, the cases in which a representative has promised only to do what she thinks is right, and is elected to do so (in which case...ready?...doing "what's right" is right not because it's right but because she's fulfilling her promises by so doing). To get back to Saletan -- yes, sometimes good representatives will lose elections, because of course there's more to elections than how much constituents have come to trust their Members of Congress. But to the extent that voters do reward their politicians for fulfilling (all kinds of) promises, doing the right thing means doing just that. And in the long run, that should tend to be good politics.
*My favorite examples of promises are gender and ethnic promises, generally made by "firsts" to hold some particular office. Sometimes, it seems as if that's the only promise such a candidate makes -- to "be" Jewish, or Polish, or African American, or female, or gay. Breaking that promise could be a matter of wearing the wrong clothes or eating the wrong foods, much more so than any particular "wrong" vote one could cast. Often, by the next generation, those descriptive traits -- while still just as much there as before -- are no longer the subject of promises. There are other kinds of promises, too...how bound is Scott Brown to that pickup truck?