In today’s Washington, D.C., it’s more important to say you have principles than to actually have principles. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi illustrated this well on June 6 during a trip to Normandy, France, to honor the heroes of D-Day. When asked by reporters about President Trump and the great Mexican tariff standoff, Pelosi balked, “I don’t talk about the president while I’m out of the country. That’s my principle.”
One small problem: the California congresswoman has repeatedly violated her supposed “principle” in the past. In April, Pelosi lambasted the president while on a trip to visit U.S. troops stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. Two days later in London, the speaker proclaimed, “I don’t ever criticize the president outside the country,” only to turn around the very next day and criticize the president from Dublin, stating, “the president is bankrupt of any ideas” while charging his Republican Party with being “in denial about the assault on climate and the climate crisis.”
Even if Speaker Pelosi is an honest politician sticking to her “principles,” she seems to have a definitional problem on her hands. Not criticizing the president while abroad is more like a rule designed to uphold the larger principle of projecting strength and maintaining a united front in front of foreign nations. Throughout America’s history, many leaders and politicians have espoused elements of this idea.
In fact, it was a taboo in the 19th century for presidents to even travel abroad in the first place. Vanderbilt University political science professor Tizoc Chavez explains that Americans feared that a president gallivanting abroad would “degrade America’s image as being free and separate from the old world.” Like the principle that Pelosi claims to follow, the fear was that any separation or rift (physical, political, or a combination thereof) between American leadership and their homeland would be ruthlessly exploited by opportunistic foreign powers.
Except…that didn’t happen. At the dawn of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt notably bucked the trend by taking a diplomatic trip to see the Panama Canal (then under construction). Needless to say, other presidents followed, and the rest is history. Of course this proliferation in international dialogue happened to coincide with the rise of America as a global superpower.
About 60 years ago, a new consensus—spearheaded by Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson—emerged that politics stopped at “the water’s edge.” Under this new “policy,” political leaders were not supposed to wade into domestic politics while visiting other countries, and leaders should not be attacked while abroad. But politics had a way of getting in the way.
From President Jimmy Carter’s stinging rebuke of President Ronald Reagan in Cairo to Senator Tom Daschle’s criticism of President Bush while Bush was in Europe, the “norm” has regularly been broken. Leaders often assail other politicians for violating the “water’s edge” rule before breaking it themselves. In 1996, President Bill Clinton scolded Senator Bob Dole for criticizing him while he was abroad, only to have his chief of staff (traveling with him) lay into Dole.
Politicians such as Pelosi should stop invoking rules they don’t intend to keep for vague principles that don’t really matter anyway. There’s no shortage of better principles floating around, such as the federal government spending within its means, or the U.S. not committing to endless, unwinnable wars. But there’s also a shortage of politicians willing to embrace these principles, which are far more important to the survival of the nation than the daily “water’s edge” travesty. It’s time for leadership to address America’s problems head-on, rather than obsessing over principles and precedents that no one ever adhered to anyway.
Ross Marchand is a researcher and economist based in Washington, D.C.