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The Bad Guy Is Us

Why Gore and Frist fell short — and why Obama just might.

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Conventional wisdom says former senator Bill Frist is not a political player anymore. After a stillborn run for president and a decision to forego the governor's race, Frist has rejoined Nashville's Belle Meade Country Club and all but sworn off elective politics.

As a senator, he was competent but not outstanding. As a majority leader, he was underwhelming. As a potential presidential candidate, he was a disaster. But now, as a former politician, his advocacy on the big issues of the day — health care, education, AIDS, even extremism in the Republican Party — has been, dare we say it, statesmanlike.

Where has this Frist been? Would the old Frist have said that the so-called birther movement wasn't a "reflection of the Republican Party" and that people "trying to connect the two are exaggerating and trying to make a point"?

Would the same man who carried water for the Bush administration and diagnosed Terry Schiavo via videotape have been willing to buck his party and declare a Democratic health-care plan, denounced by conservatives as socialist, to be a viable option he would vote for were he still in office?

Would an earlier incarnation of Frist have chastised his own party for raising the specter of "death panels"? Would an elected Frist call arguments against the public option "overblown"?

Retired politicians always seem more attractive when they're out of office than when they're in. They exhibit a freedom outside the confines of political calculation that they never do when they're in the game.

Al Gore was the same way. In 2000, he was a wooden, timid presidential candidate. Apart from his choice of Joe Lieberman as a running mate, he was afraid to make bold moves or show any authentic personality. If the Gore of 2003 and beyond had run against George W. Bush, some say, our country would look very different from how it does today.

It seems the version of politicians we say we want to run and serve are rarely the ones who actually do.

We blame the game of politics, the media, and even the politicians themselves. We blame anyone and everyone for this eternal condition — except ourselves.

We talk about politics like it's something far removed, as though we're pawns on a chessboard manipulated by something out of our control. But the sad fact is that these pandering, paint-by-number politicians who measure their words and actions haven't been foisted on us — but rather chosen by us.

We may say we want politicians to act like post-political Gores and Frists, but if that was what the public really thirsted for, surely there'd be an entirely different kind of political consulting.

Consider President Barack Obama. As much as he may have looked (and to some still does) like a leader above politics, it's clear he's just as cautious and calculating as any other Democratic leader. He hasn't taken bold action on foreign policy, and, domestically, he opted not to push a bold, concrete plan for health reform — opting instead for a vague outline.

He did that for the same reason any politician does anything: to preserve a political future.

We can blame a lot of people and cite many reasons why politicians are so much different once they get out of office, but the real reason is staring at us in the mirror.

We may have media — mass, alternative, and new — seeking to manipulate and trick us. We may have political professionals trying to bamboozle us. And there may be monied special interests bending politicians to their will. But we're in control if we want to be.

If we want politicians who say what they mean and mean what they say, voters should support them when they emerge. Otherwise, politicians will behave exactly like Gore and Frist — cautious and calculating in office, bold and statesmanlike outside of politics.

Until voters show leaders that they can buck the system and be rewarded, they'll simply show up and toe the line. And if they're reelected, well then, the bad guy is us.

(A.C. Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com's political blogger and aggregator. This column appeared first in the City Paper of Nashville.)

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