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Editor's Weedkly: In politics, the shortest route to solving a problem is not a straight line

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2013 - Dear Beaconites - It's no mystery why so many citizens are frustrated with the convoluted ways of Washington and Jeff City.

We want government to solve the problems efficiently that government is best suited to address. But efficiency was definitely not the first word that popped to mind this week as our elected officials grappled with three hot button issues -- Medicaid expansion, immigration and gun violence. As the Beacon's reporting showed, each issue stirred complicated cross currents of politics, principle and practicality.

Take Medicaid. As Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies noted, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pushed the legislature in his state of the state address to expand Medicaid and accept federal funding for it. Nixon, a Democrat, won his first term after making an impassioned and principled argument for restoring Medicaid cuts made by Republicans. Then, politics and practicalities held sway. With Republicans dominating the legislature and the state budget shrinking, the governor largely ignored the issue during his first term.

Monday, Nixon argued for Medicaid expansion primarily on practical grounds. Missourians can use federal dollars to fund needed health care, he said, or we can watch our tax money flow to other states. Of course, Nixon's new/old position has political benefits as well, appealing to his Democratic base and to the state's health-care industry.

Republicans, too, have political points to gain on Medicaid. GOP legislative leaders oppose expansion, arguing on principle that government programs and federal spending should be reined in. That's popular with the GOP political base.

In a sense, Missouri Democrats and Republicans are not engaged in a debate over Medicaid. Rather, they're conducting two monologues simultaneously -- one about principle, one about practicalities. The disconnect was clear in an excellent Nine Network special on the topic that aired Monday. It includes perspectives from officials, from urban and rural clinics and from political reporters.

Immigration is another issue with complicated cross currents. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin was among the eight senators who proposed a compromise that speaks to principles and practicalities, Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig reported this week. But politics is the motivating force that has forged this compromise now. Both parties are mindful of the power of Latino voters last November, and Republicans especially are wrestling with the nation's changing demographic realities.

Rob also reported on the cross currents at play around gun violence. Gun rights advocates argue their case primarily as a matter of principle -- that the Second Amendment cannot and should not be altered. This week, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., joined with New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to introduce legislation that would make gun trafficking a federal offense. They characterized the bill as a practical approach to reducing gun violence. But it was also likely to play well politically in Chicago, where 500 people were murdered last year.

Yes, it's no mystery why citizens grow weary of the convoluted ways politicians address problems. Still, given the cross currents surrounding each of these issues, it's no wonder that even the best elected officials work in strange ways.

Unlike a business, which is designed for efficiency, or a military unit, which is designed for clear lines of authority, our government is designed to bring disparate factors to bear on difficult decisions. This is an inherently messy and frustrating process.

Yet because of the pressures of politics, elected officials keep the will of the people always in mind. Because of principled beliefs, political expediency is tempered by considerations of justice and morality. Because of practical concerns, policy is informed by reality.

Or at least that's the way our democracy is supposed to work.

Rather than growing frustrated with the process, we citizens might focus more productively on whether, in the end, the process achieves a functional result -- an amalgam of principle, practicality and politics that works to solve a problem. This week, the Beacon reported on how three issues are being addressed. We'll continue to report on whether these amalgams-in-progress prove strong enough to meet the problems at hand.