Over many years, I have been asked for advice by presidential campaign staff from both political parties. This time around, my advice to all comers is simple: Stop the pandering. Run on the one fundamental issue that matters most to the public—that you will restore the stature and integrity of the office of president of the United States.
The oath of office contains two powerful promises. One is to execute the duties of the office, not merely those that attach to being a good person. The other is to honor the Constitution.
Obviously, many people neglect the duties of their offices—the accountant who does not account to inform, the lawyer who subordinates justice to his own interests, the businessperson who reneges on his fiduciary responsibilities to workers and consumers, and even the reporter who, as presidential debate moderator, seeks more to create controversy than to inform.
Whether our parents respected their offices more than we do ours, I do not know. But I do know that something has gone drastically amok when we expect the lowest civil servant to hold to higher standards than most political appointees and even the president.
The president's vow to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as the supreme law of the land reverberates throughout government. But that vow has an additional dimension.
The office of the president is unique because only the president is elected by all the people. True, the Constitution authorizes Congress to collect taxes "to provide for the general welfare." But our founders understood that representatives from different geographical regions would represent different interests and so vested the office of the president with the higher standing and authority needed to represent the national, not just parochial, interests.
Now, I am not naive enough to think that each president, at least since George Washington or perhaps John Adams, hasn't also headed up a political party. But no one takes an oath to defend a political party or promote its members’ success. Factionalism at its best reflects legitimate differences among principles and, at its worst, competition to feed at the trough. Because both possibilities ride high, the threat that party politics will trump the general interest only adds to the importance we want the president to attach to the oath.
Nor am I so idealistic as to think that keeping the president's office on such high ground is easy. Yet Americans are desperately seeking someone they can trust, which might actually make it easier for good government and effective politics to marry. On almost every contentious issue ranging from taxes to Social Security, I have found that people are much more willing to compromise than many politicians believe, but only—and this is a big only—if they think the process is fair and the information from their leaders is trustworthy.
So, candidates, my advice is simple. Cite the words to the presidential oath. They quickly raise the level of discourse. Then convince us that you really mean them.
C. Eugene Steuerle, former deputy assistant Treasury secretary, is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute (www.urban.org).