Paul Begala: Politicians Act Politically. Motives Don’t Matter.

Blaine Harrington III / Corbis

I know it’s a lot to ask, but can we please ban the phrase, “He’s doing this for political reasons”—at least until after the election?

Let’s posit that the point of politics is to get more votes than the other side—so everything a politician does is by definition political. Shocking. But there is, frequently, also an element of principle, a dash of ideology, and maybe even a hint of idealism.

To analyze every act in terms of motive, and to reduce every motive to its basest level, is just dumb.

Here’s an example. A few months ago I spent a long weekend at spring training in Florida with some college buddies, leaving my wife at home with our four feral boys. We’ve been married for nearly a quarter century, and I’d like to continue the streak. So on my way home from the airport, I diverted course and picked up a bouquet of flowers. If the political press were covering this act, the story would not be: “Because he truly, deeply loves his wife, Begala brought her flowers.” More likely: “In a shameless attempt to cover for his weekend abandonment…” Even more likely: “In a cynical attempt to get lucky…”

All of those things are true. We do what we do for a multitude of motives—some noble, some selfish, some cynical. I will never deny that a politician has a political motive, but that observation is so obvious that we can safely presume it. To say a politician is just doing something to get votes is like saying, “The Miami Heat only want to win basketball games.” Try that on ESPN and see how long you last as an analyst. (One more reason why it’s easier to be a cable-TV pundit than a sports reporter.)

Obama’s shift on the DREAM Act is a case in point. Last year our president was telling immigration reformers he didn’t have the authority to suspend deportations of “dreamers,” but now he’s done exactly that. Was it political? Of course. Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, and 90 percent of Latinos support the DREAM Act. So to deny any political motive would be foolish. But it was also substantive. Some 800,000 young people who have done nothing wrong can now be protected from deportation. I call that good policy.

Same with President Obama’s “evolution” on marriage equality. A plurality of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS poll supported the president’s position. But two out of three Americans thought the president was acting “mostly for political reasons”; only one in four thought he endorsed marriage rights for gays and lesbians “because he thinks it is right.” But irrespective of the motive, Barack Obama will go down in history as the first American president to support full marriage equality.

Or take Mitt Romney’s flip-flop on abortion. How many of us change positions on abortion at age 57, after two statewide campaigns spent defending (in Romney’s phrasing) “a woman’s right to choose”? Romney says he was motivated by conscience, not politics. Whatever.

It really doesn’t matter why Romney switched. What matters is that as president he would nominate Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. What matters is that if Roe were overturned, Romney would support state constitutional amendments that would outlaw abortion and many forms of birth control. If you’re pro-life, should you care whether a convert to your cause is motivated by politics or principle? And if you’re pro-choice, do you feel better knowing Romney only wants to criminalize abortion because it helped him get the votes of social conservatives? Or would you be comforted by knowing that his opposition to abortion is a deeply held belief?

Politics play a role in every presidential decision. Trying to remove politics from governing is like trying to remove mathematics from physics—you can’t do it. Math is the language in which physics is expressed. And politics is the language—and the mechanism—through which governing is expressed.

Lincoln was given the legal authority to free the slaves in the rebellious South in 1861. In July of 1862 he finally told his cabinet he was ready to do so. But he didn’t. Lincoln withheld the Emancipation Proclamation, the most important presidential directive in American history, for months, finally issuing it on Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the battle of Antietam—for political reasons. Should we scrape him off Mount Rushmore?

You can drive yourself crazy trying to peer into a person’s soul—or you can do the sensible thing: ask not what inner motives drive a politician’s policy choices but instead whether those choices are good for the country.