What to do when cynicism becomes your political default

It’s almost impossible not to let cynicism become your default as you watch the American presidential contest, and particularly so if you live in the nation’s capital. The mood feels like damp cloud cover, a dense fog, just thick enough to obscure the sky and shut out the sun.

Admittedly, there is a lot to be cynical about. With the 2016 presidential and congressional elections just two months out, our presidential candidates, along with Washington’s politicians up for re-election, are blowing in the wind — in constant motion, in reaction to, or anticipation of, the latest polls.

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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE’s off-script remarks take him down a few percentage points. Not a problem. Voilà, a teleprompter. His extreme immigration policies are alienating moderate republicans? Tone them down. Oops. The base doesn’t like that. Back to building that wall.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMueller's team asking Manafort about Roger Stone: report O'Rourke targets Cruz with several attack ads a day after debate GOP pollster says polls didn't pick up on movement in week before 2016 election MORE’s words seem pedantic to voters, without emotion. She is not trusted. We can fix that. Send her to a church in America’s south. Prepare a speech about how her faith has guided her life. Shed a tear.

And then there are the Members of Congress up for re-election. Many of them are no better. Their actions are likewise a calculation, with all eyes on the down draft effect on the ballot from the presidential contest.

So how do you hold onto your optimism? Where do you look for inspiration?

Like most things, you just have to dig beneath the surface. Take a look behind the politicians, literally, to those impassive faces, backstage of their bosses on CSPAN during floor debates and at congressional hearings, to the backbone of our legislative branch of government, to the Congressional staff.

Meet Tim Rieser. Tim is a former public defender from Vermont, and his boss, Senator Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Missing journalist strains US-Saudi ties | Senators push Trump to open investigation | Trump speaks with Saudi officials | New questions over support for Saudi coalition in Yemen MORE (D-VT), is a former Vermont prosecutor. Leahy was first elected in 1974, and in 1985, Tim moved to Washington to work for him.

In 1989, the Senator became Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, the subcommittee which oversees US foreign assistance, including the budgets of the State Department and USAID. Tim has served as Democratic Clerk for the subcommittee since 1995, shifting to majority or minority, when the political fortunes change. Tim is currently in the minority. He also serves as Senator Leahy’s senior foreign policy aide. 

Says Tim, “We’re both Vermonters, and the Senator and I have the same interests in the law and justice. In fighting for people with no voice and against those who abuse their authority. In fighting for human rights.”

And that’s what the Senator and Tim have done in dozens of countries, from Colombia, to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, and Liberia, to name a few.

“Senator Leahy sets the agenda and his goals, and I find ways to implement them. After three decades I know his priorities and what he stands for. It keeps me going,” he said. 

Dedication to something bigger than self is a bi-partisan quest when it comes to Congressional staff. Meet Tom Sheehy, Staff Director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA).

Tom started his career at the Heritage Foundation, three decades ago where he devised the Index of Economic Freedom, which has since become a benchmark for how the U.S. measures economic opportunity around the world. The index has been integrated into the criteria of U.S. foreign assistance programs, including the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

Tom left Heritage to work with Congressman Royce 20 years ago when Royce, as a junior member, had a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In the late 1990s, Royce focused on promoting peace and democracy in Africa, serving as Chairman for the Africa Subcommittee. This was at a time when the failure of the U.S. mission in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda left many with a sense of despair. Not Royce and not Tom. Ed Royce has been the Chairman of the full Committee since 2012. Tom has been Royce’s staff point on foreign policy for these two decades.

“I went to work with Ed Royce because I shared his world view. He has a deep commitment, a passion, and manner of work which allows him to get things done.”

“I always believed that Ed would one day become Chairman of the Committee. That he would help define America’s foreign policy around the world. And he did.”

Tim and Tom are two of the most powerful staffers in Congress presiding over U.S. foreign policy and U.S. foreign assistance. And they didn’t compute their way to those positions. They did it the old-fashioned way. They found someone/something they believed in, they dedicated themselves, stuck with it, and made a difference.

Maybe the thick fog of cynicism in Washington, DC will soon lift. Maybe the campaign managers will let Trump and Hillary be themselves — true to who they are — so that the American people will know exactly what they are getting.

Okay, probably not.

More likely the fog will dissipate sometime after November 8, or as more us look behind the CSPAN cameras, and get to know Congressional staffers like Tim and Tom.

K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC, www.krlinternational.com, a DC-based consultancy that works in the world's emerging markets. She is the author of Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President (Kiwai Media, 2016).


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.