The Difference Between Leaders and Politicians

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

April 19, 2006

For better or worse, good politicians are like mirrors. When we look at them, we see ourselves.

That’s why we pick them to represent us. They look like us, talk like us and act like us. More or less.

When we look at good leaders, we also see ourselves. But we don’t see ourselves as we are. We see what we could be.

That’s what sets leaders apart from politicians. Leaders show us our own potential.

Not many politicians are leaders. With rare and extraordinary exceptions, politicians are followers. They don’t move a muscle without a poll telling them to do it. Once they know which way the crowd is headed, they run to the front of the parade and grab a banner.

Leaders cut their own path. Alone if necessary.

A lot of what’s happening these days in Wisconsin government can be explained by the absence of real leadership.

A case in point is the proposed constitutional amendment limiting taxing and spending by the state and local governments that seems to have the support of a majority of our state lawmakers. They used to call it the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Now they call it the Taxpayer Protection Amendment. Some consultant or pollster must have told them there’s a difference.

The new name doesn’t change what’s wrong with it. There’s absolutely nothing in the state Constitution preventing elected officials from acting to control government spending and taxes. What you have at the State Capitol is a bunch of politicians – mostly “no-new-taxes” Republicans – who have written budget after budget that increases spending. Not a little. A lot.

Out of one side of their mouths, they loudly assure us they are not raising tax rates. Out of the other side of their mouths, they whisper reassuringly to each other that the same tax rate will raise more today than it did yesterday and it will raise still more tomorrow. And without drawing any attention to it, they raise fees too. The only thing they tell us is that “fees” aren’t the same as “taxes.” And what’s not paid for is put on a credit card. Have you noticed the state’s debt is growing at an alarming rate? Our kids will notice. They will get the bill.

Then they tell us we need a Taxpayer Protection Amendment. What they’re really saying is that the Constitution needs to be changed to protect us from them.

No, the Constitution is not the problem. They are. If they believe government taxes too much and spends too much, the only thing stopping them from doing something about it is the jelly that’s where a spine is supposed to be.

Just as we can’t blame the Constitution for the taxes we pay, it’s also not the Constitution’s fault that we have a broken health care system that leaves more than a half-million people in Wisconsin uninsured and pushes automakers to build new factories in Canada. The Constitution is not the cause of spiraling home heating costs in a state that once had the lowest utility rates in the Great Lakes region and now has the highest. The Constitution isn’t why every lake in Wisconsin is contaminated with mercury. College tuition going up more than 50 percent in just four years is not the Constitution’s doing either.

We need good leaders. We’ve got run-of-the-mill politicians.

That’s our fault.

There’s a big difference between leaders and politicians. But they also share many common traits. Cream rises. So does hot air.

The future of our state depends on our ability to tell one from the other.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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