Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Perils of Taking Things at Face Value

Back in 1999 during a presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush, Bush scored big points with almost everyone by saying he didn't believe in nation building and he thought the US should stop interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. Yet during his first term as president Bush invaded two countries, setting up puppet governments in both and running a full-scale military occupation of one.

Does that mean he didn't mean what he said?

I doubt it. He probably thought in his non-reflective way that it sounded like a good idea. Bush was way out of his league in the debate with Gore, but this one sound bite was enough to let many pundits say that the debate was tied. The statement was especially effective because he popped it out unexpectedly so Gore had no comeback. It was his "You, sir, are no John Kennedy" moment. It reeked of a gimmick thought up by political strategists.

A presidential contender should have a long-developed political philosophy and track record, but Bush had neither, and anyone interpreting his nation-building statement should have realized that it had very little weight - unlike, say, his heartfelt statements about the need for more religion in public life or his intention to nominate anti-abortion judges.

Recently we've heard a lot of reports that Obama has been shifting to the center on a number of issues. More recently there have been charges of flip-flops on Obama's part. But Obama never said that he's moving to the center: that's a matter of interpretation. Another interpretation of what he's doing (that Ted Koppel has given) is that he's toughening up his stance on a number of issues. Koppel believes that Obama's intent is to show he's tough enough to be president: tough enough to make the hard decisions, to see the whole picture and not just the partisan black-and-white. The growing charge that Obama is moving to the right, a hypocrite, a flip-flopper: that's spin, not fact.

Joe Lieberman was on This Morning with George Stephanopolous today, representing the McCain side in the presidential contest. Stephanopolous played footage of an Obama-Clinton debate in which the moderator demanded that they both take an immediate pledge to remove all troops from Iraq in short order even if military commanders advise against it. Stephanopolous interpreted Obama's response as agreement to the pledge. Lieberman argued that McCain wins the Iraq debate because the two candidates have similar viewpoints but McCain has been clear on his and Obama has flip-flopped.

You can't take too seriously any statement a candidate makes when backed into a corner. It's not flip-flopping in any real sense of the term. Candidates dodge while media tries to nail them to an issue, and occasionally media seems to score a hit. (Did you ever see Tim Russert asking a politician if they intended to run for president? During an interview with Condoleeza Rice, I think he asked the question point-blank at least two dozen times, while Rice desperately tried to say No while leaving the door open. It was ludicrous.)

Likewise, there are a lot of complaints that McCain has sold out, suddenly lost his values and become another person. With a long record as a moderate senator, suddenly he's appealing to the religious right. Well duh. That's the only way he could win the nomination. That's the only way he can win. I don't believe that McCain has changed at all. He's not necessarily lying either. He has moderated his stance on some issues and made some concessions: nobody rises in politics without doing that. In fact, the only politicians who don't moderate their stance based on the will of the public are the dangerous ideologues: the Hitlers and Thatchers.

It is fundamental to the concept of representative democracy that there's a push-pull between a politician leading the people and following the people. Sometimes you vote with your conscience and sometimes you vote with the polls. This applies to policy formulation in the campaign as well as policy formulation as an elected representative.

It's a fundamental aspect of communication that when you're talking, you're talking to someone, and as your audience changes, your message sometimes should too. The issues tend to be complex and multi-faceted, but politicians tend to have to discuss them in simplistic ways, and it isn't necessarily inconsistent to emphasize different parts for different people. Obama's Democratic base wants to end the war in Iraq, so he told them (I'm sure quite honestly) that that is what he intends to do. Now that he's in the general campaign he is talking about the need to pull out responsibly; I don't see any hypocrisy in that.

The only responsible Iraq exit strategy is one in which the US pulls out in a slow, careful way that doesn't plunge the country into civil war, but any candidate who admits that is labeled pro-war; they're under enormous pressure to say that their intention is to pull troops out immediately.

The best candidates are often the ones who change their minds or expose the nuances of issues, while candidates who adhere ridgidly to their message are often the least qualified.

It isn't necessarily lying to not do what you promise to do. The most notorious flip-flop I can think of concerns the re-election of Pierre Trudeau in 1974. Trudeau's most effective campaign plank was his opposition to wage and price controls, but after he won he implemented them (causing outrage and uproar around the country). I don't believe Trudeau lied: it was clear that he was sincerely opposed to wage and price controls (as was I). I don't understand the forces that caused him to implement them, but even a Canadian prime minister with a majority is not a total dictator. With the US implementing wage and price controls and inflation in the double digits, we should have foreseen that Trudeau might have to implement controls. I'm not saying that Trudeau has no blame in that disastrous policy, but that we as voters bear some of the responsibility too.

Politics is PR and marketing - and it can't be any other way because it's Darwinian. Politics is what it is, and it's up to us to interpret it intelligently. We should judge candidates on their actions before the campaign, not their promises and stump speeches; and to the extent that we believe them during the campaign, we should interpret every statement very carefully.

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1 comment:

LARRY said...

A very thoughtful and sensible post, Yappa, and a clarification of the earlier one, which might have seemed insufficiently nuanced.

I'm sure your associating Hitler and Thatcher--'In fact, the only politicians who don't moderate their stance based on the will of the public are the dangerous ideologues: the Hitlers and Thatchers'--is intended as a narrowly focussed analogy...but even so it's worth keeping in mind that there are dangerous ideologues and then there are DANGEROUS ideologues.