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Editorial: Principles vs. preferences

Obituaries and commentaries on the death of Sen. Jesse Helms almost invariably have described him as a stubborn and uncompromising individual who left no doubt where he stood on any issue, whether he was comparing abortion to the Holocaust, opposing civil rights legislation or threatening to withhold funding from the United Nations. Some have called this the politics of polarization; here’s how Helms himself described it in his 2005 memoir, “Here’s Where I Stand”:Too many politicians think that the road to success lies in being “open.” Too often that is simply another word for “hollow.” I believe leaders must have principles, and stand up for them.
I told my young staff that the way to be successful in politics and remain true to your principles is to know the distinction between your principles and your preferences. On your principles, you should never yield; you should be prepared to be defeated. Nobody likes to be defeated, but you should let everybody know in the most articulate and thoughtful and civil way you can (you don’t go out and pick fights with people) that in certain matters that you define as matters of principle you will not budge, you cannot yield, you will not compromise. If you don’t have the votes or the winning argument, then you stand to be defeated and rolled over, and you’ll just have to come back another day.
But on circumstances that are your preferences, you’d better be prepared to compromise, because that’s where you can engage with other people. Then you can, in fact, operate in the political realm.
So make a clear distinction anytime an issue arises ó is this a point of principle or is this a point of preference? An awful lot of politicians never understand the difference. They compromise their principles and they fight to the death on their preferences. They end up, of course, being frustrated and unsuccessful ó and failures at achieving their objectives.
When I took my seat in the Senate, there were forty-two Republicans, one Conservative, one Independent, and 60 Democrats. I probably was not much like many of those Republicans. They enjoyed being considered moderates, even liberal in their own politics. Plus, they were so outnumbered that they had become comfortable with the idea that they simply would never gain control of the U.S. Senate. Instead, they created a sort of gentleman’s club, for which I had no affinity. They didn’t want to make any waves; I wanted to drain the swamp.
I believed then, and I believe now, that people who will not surrender their principles to assure their popularity can get things done. I did not have time to waste because there were critical issues facing us, not the least of which was the direction of the war in Vietnam and the negotiations for peace. I hoped to find a way for conservatives to work together without regard for their party labels, and to force change.
… I believed then, and I still believe, that people, especially Senators, should have the courage of their convictions. I thought, and I will forever believe, that people should be “on record” about things that really matter to most Americans.

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