On Friday afternoon, four days into the government shutdown, a man walked onto the National Mall, stood on the grass in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, faced the United States Capitol, gravely saluted, then doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire.
Despite the courageous efforts of nearby joggers and tourists who ran to his aid, beating out the flames with their own clothing, the man later succumbed to his burns at a nearby hospital, his body blackened beyond recognition, his identity reduced to DNA and dental records. We will likely never know what possessed this man to take his own life, in such a dramatic, even ceremonial fashion. The blank canvas of motive is available to all of us to paint our own themes, to project our own theories, but one thing is clear, this man, in a final expression of political speech, made an awfully permanent decision.
Lighting yourself on fire as a political strategy rarely works to good effect, whether you do so literally on the National Mall or you do so metaphorically in the halls of Congress. I am deeply concerned that, by relentlessly pursuing an all-or-nothing strategy over the objections of most of his Senate Republican colleagues, which resulted in this government shutdown, Sen. Mike Lee, while sincere in his efforts to stop Obamacare, has committed an act of self-immolation that will cripple his influence in the United States Senate. Unfortunately for the State of Utah, the damage may be permanent.
During my time in the Utah Senate, I learned that elected officials, despite the caricatures they are often made out to be, are really just human beings. They are noble and flawed, passionate and proud, pragmatic and ideological, confident and insecure all rolled into one.
While I certainly made many rookie mistakes and stepped on my fair share of toes, I learned quickly that the best leaders in the Utah Legislature were ones that afforded the greatest respect, in both public and private, for their colleagues. They could disagree, passionately at times, and yet went out of their way to ensure that their fellow legislators knew that their opinions were respected, and, more importantly, that they were held in the highest personal regard. I tried to emulate these leaders during my service in the Utah Senate, and any legislative success I achieved while there I credit to this collegial approach.
I also witnessed the other side - how certain legislators, perhaps caught up in the intoxication of elected office, perhaps mistaking attention for influence, perhaps focused on developing their own celebrity with a view to higher office, would take every opportunity to lecture rather than listen, to posture rather than persuade, to criticize rather than communicate. These were the legislators who routinely, if not gleefully, poked their own colleagues in the eye at every opportunity, often in front of television cameras. These were the legislators who eventually lost their ability to influence their colleagues and pass legislation.
Real power and influence in a legislative body is not the ability to cast a vote, or delay a nomination, or filibuster a bill. Rather, it is the ability to persuade colleagues, not through force or coercion, but with kindness, and rationality, and sincere, humble conviction. I hope Sen. Lee, whom I admire for his intellect and passion, will choose to pursue a different strategy in the United States Senate. I hope he will learn from this experience and work to repair relationships over time. I hope it’s not too late for him to recover.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.
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