Politicians: puppets or professionals?

The affiliation of Kadima to the Likud-led coalition came in the middle of the night, at the 11th hour before a Knesset vote to dissolve and begin the onset of an election campaign. It triggered not only the surprise and wonder of commentators, but shrill criticism of Shaul Mofaz for being a turncoat.
On the evening following the announcement, prime time news showed one film clip after another with Mofaz calling Benyamin Netanyahu a liar, and swearing that he would never join a Netanyahu coalition.
The next day the left-of-center Ha''aretz headlined on its print and Internet editions, "63 percent: Netanyahu and Mofaz acted on the basis of political motives and not out of concern for the country." The number came from a poll whose key question might be faulted for its capacity to produce a desired result. ("Did the agreement between Netanyahu and Mofaz to work together result from a concern for the country or personal political motives?") The right of center Israel HaYom (Israel Today), bankrolled by Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson, headlined, "Unity and Opportunity."
What is described as several hundred or a thousand individuals, said to be Kadima supporters, participated in an ad hoc street demonstration in Tel Aviv against the agreement. Insofar as organizers moved quickly without a formal permit, the police moved to break up the demonstration with what Ha''aretz described as excessive force. Tzipi Livni approached the crowd, expressed herself against the old style unprincipled politics of the man who defeated her in the party election for leadership, but may not have actually participated in the demonstration.
What we have in the responses to the broadening of the coalition is an insight into contrasting views of how politics ought to be.
On the one hand is a view that we might call rational and honest democracy, where candidates and parties present their case to the voters, speak nothing but the truth about their values and intentions, and persist in those postures until the next election.
On the other hand is a view of more limited democracy, where the voters select individuals and parties, but implicity grant them discretion to operate as they see fit until the next election. Then they can be judged on the basis of fidelity to earlier promises, and their success or failure on other grounds, including whatever allegations are levelled against them for one or another kind of corruption.
The second view of politics is the more complex and nuanced. It recognizes that politicians are actors of a sort, whose career depends on their appeal to the masses. They must speak well. It helps if they are good looking. In some cultures (e.g., the US more than in Israel) they campaign along with spouses and children trained to look adoring. It is recognized that politicians lie. (Googling for "why politicians lie" produces 38,100,000 hits.) Reading some of the "literature" gets quickly to the need to please a diverse cluster of potential supporters, the fluid nature of political discussions and memory, and notions about the boundaries of acceptable lying, fudging, or dissimulation.
If it is not already clear, I''ll admit to my support of this second view. I see politics as a profession. Its path to excellence is not as codified as medicine or law, but resembles them in combining study and experience along with requirements of personal intelligence.
Among the skills required of politicians is a capacity to adjust in the face of complex issues and changing circumstances, with an eye on how the voters will respond to whatever alterations in posture or tactics seem appropriate between one election and the next. Depending on laws and politics, an individual may have to operate in a between-election mode for several years, all the while economics and foreign affairs are fluid, small or major crises erupt to demand responses, and party colleagues, political allies, or antagonists present changing problems or opportunities.
Experience is important in medicine, law, and politics. What is regrettable is that the world''s richest and most powerful country, important for all others, is also inward looking and parochial. This is understandable. The rest of the world may lament the situation, but Americans can afford to think mostly about themselves. They also tend to be limited in the languages and histories of others.
It should be no surprise that American politics emphasize domestic issues. What is most risky for the rest of us is the nature of presidential politics that allows the speedy ascension of individuals with no or severely limited experience in issues beyond the country''s borders. George W. Bush and Barack Obama may be good enough for Americans to win two terms, but their actions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East produced tragedy or ridicule.
The differences between politics in autocratic and democratic regimes are clear, but more a matter of degree than kind. Things are more open in a democracy, and the rules permit freedom of criticism and organization. Yet even dictators must think about the limits, beyond which there is likely to be a more severe penalty than in an orderly democracy for violating what is acceptable to powerful others.
What we are hearing by way of shrill criticism of the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal is partly the harping of individuals and parties who feel they have been left out and will lose by the arrangement, and partly the shrill comments of individuals who would like politics to be simpler, more straightforward, and what they call "honest."
The first group I respect for their adhering to the political norms of opponents. They are using language likely to enhance them with supporters, financial donors, and those who might be enticed to vote for them whenever the next election rolls around.
The second group provokes me to use the word "naive."
I also admire truth and predictability, but I see the environment of political decision-making as requiring skills of maneuver and flexibility.
There are limits to what is acceptable.
Against politicians who break the law, a decent society has ample capacity to interrupt an established period of office holding. Israeli authorities moved Moshe Katsav to trial and eventually to prison from the presidential residence. For a while he shared a cell with a former Minister of Health, and may have encountered a former Minister of Finance. Ehud Olmert has been in court for some time after having to resign as Prime Minister. The file of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is still with the state prosecutor, who promises a decision about bringing charges in the near future.
Against politicians who operate within the law, but who violate what voters view as campaign commitments or good sense, the opportunity for change comes at the next election. In the United States, elections occur on fixed dates. Israel and other parliamentary regimes are more flexible. Along with maximum terms, which may seldom be served completely, there is always the opportunity to declare the end of a parliamentary term, and schedule an election. What produces a sudden opportunity may be the calculation of the leading party that time is ripe for renewal of its mandate. Or the realization that sitting members cannot bring themselves to decide about budgets or other pressing matters. Or the sense that voters are restive, and demand an early change.
As in other cases, there is room for discretion. The voters'' mood months or years ago cannot provide clear instructions for what sitting politicians must decide today or tomorrow.