Washington D.C. and Hawaii are awash in tributes to the late Senator Daniel Inouye, who died last week, in office, at the age of 88. This is as it should be. Inouye was a historic figure in his state, a war hero (a Congressional Medal of Honor recipeient, in fact) , a statesman, in in all respects, from every source I’ve seen, the epitome of an honorable U.S. Senator and a good man.
But he stayed too long at his job. This is an obvious statement, since he dropped dead while still committed to filling his position for four more years. In 2010, Inouye ran for office knowing that he would be 92 when he finished his term. In this he was irresponsible, just as his former colleagues Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and many, many others were irresponsible before him. Senator Inouye even allowed himself to become President pro tem of the Senate, placing him third in line to succeed to the Presidency, after the Vice President and Speaker of the House.
We do not need term limits: if the voters, as they do, choose to keep electing representatives on the basis of nostalgia, or laziness, or fear of change, or loyalty, that’s democracy, just as it’s democracy that they elect officials for no better reasons than the fact that they had popular or successful grandfathers, parents, and spouses. The presumption in democracy is that we elect leaders who are better qualified to assess our best interests than we are, and that means that we should be able to trust them to know when it’s time to take themselves out of the active process of governing, and to remove from us the opportunity to irresponsibly confer power on those who are no longer fit to wield it. Continue reading