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Term Limits Don't Work

Term limits will do little to fix any of the problems with politics in Hawaii.


In recent months, there seems to be a growing chorus calling for term limits for state legislators in Hawaii. While term limits currently exist for the Governor, Lt. Governor, Mayors, and County Council members, the state legislative members (Representatives and Senators) are not bound the same way.


Scientific public polling has consistently shown that large majorities in the U.S. supported term limits for decades. This, however, shouldn’t be reason enough to implement such a reform. Far too many Americans believe, sadly, that majority rule should be (or is) the law of the land. For too long in this country, majority rule has allowed segregation, voting suppression, same-sex marriage bans, and more.


Though these examples were not likely envisioned by the Founding Fathers, they nonetheless worried about the mob of the majority. As such, they designed a government with certain safeguards. The composition of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College are two such examples.


These days, given recent debacles in presidential elections and a dysfunctional U.S. Senate, calls for abolishing the Electoral College and a more representative U.S. Senate have also grown louder and more frequent. I am skeptical of these calls, but I leave this debate for another time. Maybe a future blog post….


No More Career Politicians


One of the myriad reasons given for the establishment of term limits is to excise “career politicians” from legislative service. Career politicians are generally looked upon with disdain by the electorate. The sense is these elected officials operate contrary to “the people’s will”. They’re more concerned, the belief is, about growing their political power for the benefit of themselves and their powerful moneyed benefactors. From minimum wage to gun control, to taxing the rich and corporations, “career politicians” in Congress consistently ignore the will of the majority.


There are some flaws in this line of reasoning.


First, there is little, if any concrete evidence that effectuating term limits would stamp out, or even curb, moneyed motivations. While there has been some research done on the effects of term limits, the findings are murky at best. Anecdotal outcomes aren’t any better.


Secondly, while the electorate has expressed repeated and prolonged frustrations with Congress as a whole, extensive polling shows those frustrations do not extend to individual members of Congress. Gallup has done extensive polling in this area, broadly, for decades. In September 2020, 17% of those polled approved of “the way Congress is handling its job”. During that same period, 60% of respondents said their own representative deserved to be re-elected. If the electorate believes the problem is Congress and not their own representatives, it is not clear term limits will change much.


Third, even if we conclude most legislators are “bad” or “career politicians,” it seems safe to say that at least some are “good”. Not only does it seem a bad idea to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” there is likely little to no agreement on who is “good” or who is “bad”. Because I am a progressive and support progressive politicians, let me use Senator Bernie Sanders as an example.


He served in the U.S. House for 16 years before moving to the U.S. Senate, where he has now served for nearly the same amount of time. As someone who has spent his entire adult life in elective office, Sanders is undeniably a “career politician”. But I can’t imagine a single progressive suggests its past time for him to go.


In Hawaii, it’s harder to point to any staunchly progressive legislators who might be considered “career politicians”. In fact, it’s only been in the last few election cycles that progressives have started to build any kind of power base at the capitol. Term limits would make that already challenging mission nearly impossible.


Who’s Really to Blame?


It’s not clear to me when the notion of “career politicians” became a dirty word. It seems to me there is no other professional arena where the idea of a “career” comes anywhere close to the level of disdain people have for politicians.


From athletes to academics, musicians, lawyers… the list goes on, experience and careerism seem a virtue. Only in politics is such experience condemned.


On some level, I get it. As an operative of sorts myself, I’m often sickened by the deceit, double-speak, horse-trading, lying, and incrementalism employed by far too many politicians.


Despite these loathsome tactics, the same politicians continue to get re-elected time and time again. I’ll point again to the recurring Gallup polls. But it seems to me the reality is simple to understand; they do it, at least in part, because it works. So is it our politicians, or the people who vote for them, that is to blame?


Civic engagement, even the simplest act of voting, requires some commitment. Some attention to detail. In Hawaii, half of all registered voters don’t vote. And that number gets even larger if you include everyone of voting age. Why should my choices for who represents me be limited because a majority of people choose to not take the responsibility seriously? Or worse, chose to abdicate that responsibility altogether?


When voters make their choices based on likability or whether the candidate is “someone I could have a beer with,” I find it hard to blame the politician. They want to get (re)elected, so of course they’re going to do or say what they think they need to. But what of the disinterested or, worse, ignorant voter? Ones who make their decision absent hard information about experience, voting records, or positions on important issues?


Yes, incumbency is a powerful advantage for any challenger to overcome. But that is the case largely because of the low-information, emotional voter.


Winning Elections Requires Planning, Critical Strategic Thinking, and Dedication


Too many progressives insist on term limits because they see it as the only way to win elections. However, at least in Hawaii, they seem uninterested in their own flawed approach to elections.


They are among the loudest voices calling for term limits. Their frustration isn’t entirely unjustified.


The Democratic super-majority in the Hawaii legislature is dominated by moderate and neoliberal members. Legislators who long ago gave up championing working people, economic justice, civil rights, and more. They operate almost entirely in service to the Chamber of Commerce and corporate interests. With little more than lip service to labor, public education, or climate change. And in those instances, incrementalism is the name of the game.


The Democratic Party of Hawaii isn’t much better. Despite an arguably strong progressive platform, the Party is largely a toothless organization. Without real power or influence in local politics, the Party is in the business of knuckling under to legislative Democrats whose only interest in the Party is to keep it weak, dysfunctional, disorganized, and ineffective at advancing any agenda whatsoever.


But given the Party’s history of taking on The Big Five and the plantation economy, the Democratic Party of Hawaii continues to dominate local elections. So much so that in the last decade a number of Republicans abandoned their own Party in favor of joining mine. All while not changing their views, priorities, or allegiances in any way. The “big tent” ideology of Hawaii Democrats has made the organization meaningless. When an organization represents nearly every political ideology and policy agenda, it effectively represents none.


These are all good reasons for progressives to look skeptically at the Democratic Party while nonetheless running for public office in Democratic (but open) Primaries. Beyond that, there have been a number of candidates in recent years, supported by progressives, who weren’t themselves genuinely progressive. “Lesser-thans” is what I call them. Progressives’ desire to take out bad actors at the capitol has made them support candidates who didn’t ultimately share their ideology but rather weren’t quite as objectionable as the incumbent.


If those candidates win, they will abandon the progressives who helped get them there. If they lose, they’ll likely never be heard from again.


Then there’s the support for more “fringy” candidates. Ones with few roots in the districts they run to represent. No real experience or substance beyond some progressive bona fides. Too often those candidates run slap-dash campaigns; starting late with virtually no fundraising base or community support in the form of volunteers.


Progressive candidates are also, in my view, far too interested in living up to their own principles than actually winning elections. Now, don’t get me wrong, principles are great. I wish more candidates had them and I cling to mine as tightly as I can. But principles don’t win elections.


When candidates immediately and consistently close doors to fundraising potential, they choose to handicap themselves. Unfortunately, only those who win elections get to legislate their principles.


It’s no wonder progressive candidates consistently lose elections. Tapped by various “godfather” progressive leaders, these candidates fall tragically short. And in doing so cast a pall on the progressive movement in Hawaii.


With very few exceptions, candidates taking on incumbents really need to have direct ties in the district in which they’re running. They need to start early; roughly a year before the primary election. They need a well-established campaign plan, including a budget, a strategy for fundraising, and clear and direct messaging. The number of candidates supported by progressives that have done this successfully can be counted at less than a dozen in the last decade.


Amazingly, and despite all this, far too many progressives fail to see the fault in their own strategy. Instead, they blame “the corrupt rigged system.” Yes, it’s more than a little corrupt. Yes, it’s rigged. But this is the system we have and if we want to change it we have to win elections. Period. Until we are willing to play by the rules as they exist today (rather than how we think they should be) we will continue to lose elections and be marginalized by the general electorate.


Term Limits Are Not The Answer to Broken Elections, Government


For all these reasons, term limits will do little, if anything, to fix any of the myriad problems with government, elections, or politics in Hawaii. Or really anywhere else.


In fact, a fairly comprehensive study conducted in 1998 (after a wave of states implemented legislative term limits) found that “despite all the speculation about term limits producing a new breed of legislator, our results show that not much changes in the composition of legislatures can be attributed to the reform.”


Instead, term limits would likely make it virtually impossible for progressives to build any kind of substantial legislative power. It would also almost certainly ensure no institutional knowledge could be built over time. For any legislator or constituency group.

Instead, we need to keep our eye on the prize: governing.


This means recruiting, training, and supporting progressive candidates and campaign workers. Candidates need to be representative of the district in which they’re running. They must be both viable and genuinely progressive.


And we need to resign ourselves to the fact that it takes money to win elections. That means raising money from wherever they can, including… yes… corporate and PAC contributions. I’d never suggest candidates solicit from entities that operate contrary to their values. Nor trade their own judgment and policy agenda for that of their donors’. But righteously refusing to accept large donations or donations from sources that don’t share values immediately hamstrings a candidate’s ability to be competitive.


When we have strong progressive blocks in the House and Senate, we will be in a far better position to change election laws. Strengthen clean and publicly funded elections. Until then, let’s not confine ourselves to a set of rules by which our opponents aren’t playing.

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