Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Who's Bad?

In the comments to a recent post about Newt Gingrich, there's been a discussion of how much character should matter in voting for candidates.  I say very little.

First, I don't believe personal character tells you much about how someone will serve.  There are plenty of people who personally connive, sometimes even going over the line, but who otherwise are very effective leaders. In any case, someone who has personal failings but supports programs I do is far preferable to someone simon pure who supports horrendous programs.  I don't vote people into office as a reward for their morality--in rewarding them, I'm punishing myself.

Is it possible for someone's private morality to fall so short that the candidate would lose my vote? I suppose, but it'd have to be pretty bad--say, murder or child molesting. (Or rape, you say?  Some believe we already had a rapist as president.) Lesser infractions, especially if they're safely in the past, don't bother me nearly so much.  Other failings--drug use or affairs--probably wouldn't change my vote. (If anyone who ever had an affair or illegally used drugs couldn't run for office, a lot of ballots would be empty.)

Then there's public morality--has a politician abused the public trust in the past.  Once again, this doesn't bother me too much.  Blago was a rotten governor because of how he ran things, not because, like so many Illinois politicians in the past, thought he could use his power to get a little something extra.  In fact, legal bribery is what politics (unfortunately) is all about--"give me money and vote for me and when I'm in office I'll use my power to return it all back to you and more." And then when they leave office, they make millions legally selling their influence.  In light of this, I can't get too excited about minor corruption from a politician who does a good job otherwise.

Second, we don't really know the character of candidates.  When it comes to issues, we can easily see their differences, since we have their political records, and direct statements on where they stand.  But when it comes to character, they're all trying to convince us they're good people (and no doubt believe it).  The one who wins the character contest may then be the one who hides his past and his personal life the best. 

Third, character is really a partisan issue.  It's always the other guy who lacks character, and the other side that's involved in so many scandals.  Our side is the good guys--we're unfairly attacked and misunderstood.

Finally, the character issue is a waste of time.  It's a smokescreen that prevents actual discussion of issues, which, after all, is what will matter once the winner takes office.

Character can matter in a roundabout way, in that you don't necessarily want to nominate a candidate with character questions since other voters may be turned off.  So perhaps Republican voters can't ignore Newt Gingrich's personal life, as it will come up in a general election.  But that doesn't mean it'll make him a worse (or better) President.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone hated Newt during 94-98 but he worked with a President hated by many of the same people that hated Newt (on that side of the aisle) and we had tremendous economic growth despite all of the ethics and intern-diddling and plane-seating tantrums.

You don't need to like the President you just need him to do things

5:35 AM, January 24, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

As I said below, I don't try and place character as the first measure of a candidate, in particular because, as you point out, it's really hard to accurately assess character from afar. Nixon, for example again, seemed a pretty good guy until we found out the depths to which he was willing to sink.

I agree that a bad guy can do just as good a job as a good guy,given the right circumstances. As long as it is in the interest of the bad guy to side with the public interest, he will probably work for the public interest.

My concern is that a bad guy is more likely to abandon the public if his interests (political interests) diverge from the public. I don't believe politics is legal bribery (what a cynical view!). I believe most (not all) politicians have their beliefs and leanings, and attract the campaign support of like-minded individuals, and businesses whose business affairs are benefited by that same line of thinking. This is one reason you don't see politicians frequently changing parties to follow the money.

You said "But when it comes to character, they're all trying to convince us they're good people (and no doubt believe it)." I think the line for me would be a politician who doesn't believe (or care) if he is a good person. This is a very small class of politicians - someone like Edwards is my example - he can't have thought he was a good person without having been delusional. Newt, on the other hand, probably does think he's a predominately good person, and I will vote for Newt if he is the nominee. Character becomes the tie breaker, between a Romney and newt (or for that matter, a Santorum or even a Paul and Newt, any one of whom I would vote for before Gingrich). But I readily admit that Obama may be a better person than newt, I would still vote for Gingrich over Obama.

8:09 AM, January 24, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't consider my view of democracy cynical so much as clear-eyed. It's how it's always worked (and it's why the Founders didn't trust non-propertied people to vote). As long as you have a government that spends more than it has on numerous programs, and redistributes trillions, it's human nature to vote for the guy you think will put more in your pocket. This is one of the main reasons I'm a libertarian--the only "solution" is to have government do less, and have most of what it does good for the public as a whole. Now don't get me wrong--the politicians don't see it as a crooked deal, they believe what they're doing is noble, no matter what voting bloc they end up paying off.

Speaking of cynical, I'm shocked you think Edwards believed he was a bad guy. I'm sure he thought he was the noblest American of all, fighting to make sure the little guy got his fair share. If he occasionally messed around, as so many of our politicians had done in the past, and tried to cover it up to make sure he could serve the public better, that was a minor peccadillo compared to his shining goodness. Same for Newt, Clinton, whomever.

11:10 AM, January 24, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Newt seems to have expressed regret for mistakes in the past (who can tell how sincere he is). From what I've heard and read, Edwards knew he was a bastard, and was playing a part to get more power. I think this is true of Blago too. These people I think view politics as a game, or a scam, in which they want to succeed.

Going to extremes, I think people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Mao were actually evil people, not just misguided politicians. In the US, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, maybe Boss tweed (don't know much about him)

"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." - Plato

4:09 PM, January 24, 2012  

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