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Friday, October 23, 2009
If You Want My Vote (Part V)

Two final principles: Don't make it about good and evil, if it isn't already. And shun the October surprise.

[Argh. Somehow almost all of this post disappeared, and I can't find an intact copy or draft. I'm not sure when it happened, and I didn't notice it until today. Here is my attempt to reconstruct it. -- DR 10/29/09]

This is the fifth and last in a series of posts in which my ego and I make bold to offer some advice for local political candidates -- current candidates, perhaps, but especially future ones. The first, secondthird, and fourth installments articulated these principles (two each):

1. Local means local.
2. Show up -- in advance.
3. Get your facts straight.
4. Check your conspiracy theories at the door.
5. Know your sunshine laws.
6. Don't just hint darkly at special interests; name names.
7. If you don't have a personal agenda, why are you running?
8. Politics is a contact sport.

Today's discussion is devoted to these two:

9. Don't make it about good and evil, if it isn't already.
10. Shun the October Surprise.

Someone has asked whether I will offer my evaluation of current American Fork candidates according to these principles. It's an interesting idea. We'll see. Meanwhile . . .

9. Don't Make It About Good and Evil, if It Isn't Already

Even the most stable political temperaments are subject to a particular temptation in the heat of political battle: to think of themselves as good and their opponents as evil. It's not a difficult calculation to rationalize. If I am good, and evil opposes good, then whoever or whatever opposes me is evil. The temptation to see a political contest in these terms increases as the number of days remaining before Election Day decreases. One consequence is that we find otherwise good and sensible people suddenly willing to do something slimy in the last days before an election, because they're fighting against Evil, which cannot be allowed to win under any circumstances. Therefore, means from which one might ordinarily recoil are justified. This is quintessentially human, but there are some problems with the rationale.

I certainly would not deny that good and evil exist, or that they may sometimes run for political office. But they are extreme ends of a continuum. Nearly all of us almost always occupy points somewhere between the two -- nearer to good than to evil, one hopes.

If your opponent is evil because he or she is really evil, fine. Make your case in those terms, if you can. It's generally a bad thing to have evil leaders, no matter how articulate or well dressed. But first be absolutely sure that your opponent doesn't just seem evil because he or she disagrees with you. Be very wary here, very suspicious of your own judgment. And think twice before you argue too vigorously that you are good, because, even if you can forget, someone out there surely knows that you are not completely good. Do you really want to have that conversation in public?

There are convenient badges of goodness, symbols some candidates use to suggest, overtly or otherwise, that they are good. These vary somewhat from place to place and party to party, but their purpose is the same: to make the candidate appear to be a good person in the voters' eyes, whether or not this is true to any significant degree. These badges tend to be inherently good things (when genuine), but they are unreliable political indicators, either because they are easily counterfeited, or because they are not directly relevant to a person's fitness for public office. Here are some of them, with a bit of a Utah spin in some cases: civility, fertility, piety, and church leadership experience. And let's add one more, the sort of fondness for the US Constitution that one can wear on one's sleeve. Again, none of these is a bad thing, but their presence doesn't always signal genuine, politically relevant goodness.

Civility is public discourse is a virtue. We need more of it. Seeing it may lead us to believe that a publicly civil candidate is good. But it is possible for tyrants, fools, and shallow zealots to be civil and well-mannered, too, at least in public. I'm not saying we shouldn't be civil; I'm saying we should not automatically draw too many conclusions from public civility.

A man or woman with a large family full of strapping sons, beautiful daughters, and cute grandchildren may be good, but isn't necessarily so. What that extended family picture on the flyer or at the Web site says is that the candidate is fertile. This is admirable, even enviable, but it doesn't infallibly imply goodness.

Piety (here meaning outward religiosity) doesn't necessarily translate into excellence in government. A picture of the candidate with an LDS temple in the background doesn't encourage me to vote for that candidate; I'm actually enough of a contrarian that it encourages the opposite, since I don't like to see people using religion for their own political (or commercial) gain. I think it would be dangerous for me, a Mormon, to think that I am duty-bound to vote for Mormons. What if all the candidates are Mormons? Worse still, what if I lived in Nevada? US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon and is reputed to be a dedicated home teacher, which is a reasonably indicator of a man's seriousness about his Mormon religion. But I am already on record saying that I would sooner vote for a spike-haired, coarse-mouthed, lesbian, atheist, college-dropout Druid with multiple body piercings and prominent tattoos (or something like that), if she shared my political values, because Harry Reid certainly doesn't. (This assumes that she would not a fundamentalist Druid, performing human sacrifices.) I might not want to look at my Druid very often, but the last thing in the world I would think as I voted for her is that I was somehow betraying my faith.

Church leadership doesn't necessarily imply that someone is good, though perhaps it makes goodness a little more likely. Nor does church leadership experience easily translate into prowess in elected office. It can actually be an obstacle, and not for moral reasons. Moreover, we cannot safely judge that the former LDS mission president will make a better mayor than the former LDS bishop, or vice versa. We could say the same of the Primary president and the clerk at the Church Office Building. I'm not saying current or former Church officials or employees are bad or evil; I'm just saying that an ecclesiastical resume doesn't necessarily imply fitness for elected office.

Conservative candidates, in the West especially, Mormon or otherwise, like to quote the US Constitution and swear their fealty to it, so that we voters will think they are good. No candidate with an eye on his or political future will deride the Constitution -- not even the calculating ones whose only interest in it is as a ladder for climbing to power. If you don't really feel devoted to the founding documents, you'd better pretend to be -- and it's altogether too easy to pretend, if all you have to do is say the right things for a while. I want my candidates and elected officials to be committed to the Constitution and to the rule of law generally; in fact, I insist on it. But before I'll believe that you really are so committed, I'll need to see how it permeates and unifies your thoughts about government. And before I'll be certain of your professed commitment, I'll need to see how you act in positions of power. Words simply are not enough; anyone who is cautious and intelligent can say the right words for the duration of a political campaign, sincerely or otherwise.

If you firmly and sincerely believe that your crusade is legitimately against actual evil, in the form of your opponent, fine. The burden of proof is on you, and I make a mighty suspicious juror. You still may want to consider the merits of making your arguments in terms of what is wrong or ineffective (not evil) in your opponents' political views and record. You'll find that there are a lot of voters who are even more suspicious than I am of political debates that one side or another reduces to good and evil.

It's good for us voters, too, to resist the temptation to mistake mere opposition or disagreement for actual evil. It's a mark of political maturity -- and moral maturity, I suppose, and it certainly makes for happier neighborhoods. We would have better candidates and better government, if we would resist the lazy shortcut of assuming that civility, piety, fertility, church leadership experience, photographic proximity to a temple, and verbal declarations of undying love for the Constitution infallibly signal politically relevant goodness in a candidate.

Finally, please don't think I have just said that religious people and moral principles have no place in public debate. That's a popular view these days, but it's breathtakingly dangerous. I actually think that we need crowds of thoughtful religious people who have heretofore shunned the moral rough and tumble of politics to dive into the deep end of the political pool and stay there. But the firm and saving principles we need in our candidates are political, not directly religious.

10. Shun the October Surprise

The October surprise is so named because most elections occur in early November. The trick is to time a damaging revelation about your opponent so that the revelation itself has maximum impact, but the voters don't have time for cooler reflection or, worse yet, for hearing the other side -- or, worst of all, learning the truth.

The timing has become more difficult lately, because of early voting and the blogosphere. Do you schedule the October surprise earlier, to catch the early voters, at the risk of allowing more time for a more balanced and accurate viewpoint to prevail, or do you ignore early voters in this respect?

With the blogosphere's ability to turn on a dime, and information's tendency to spread virally via the Internet, do you schedule the revelation later, to minimize bloggers' time to explore what the Big Media Acronyms won't have time or will to explore? Or do you run it a little sooner and risk becoming like CBS and Dan Rather in 2004? They thought they could torpedo President George W. Bush's reelection with phony National Guard documents. They ended up, if anything, hurting their own candidate, John Kerry, and trashing their own professional reputation. Within about 24 hours after CBS ran the bogus story, the blogosphere had proven conclusively that the documents were fraudulent; within 48 or 72 hours, the whole world knew it. October surprises can backfire.

Happily for the rest of us, it turns out that the blogosphere includes some very smart, very attentive, very skilled people, not just weird geeks who blog in their pajamas from their hi-tech bedrooms and basements.

I had a chance to pull an October surprise once. In 1996 I managed a Republican candidate's campaign for the New York State Assembly. (That's the lower house of their state legislature.) It was in a strong Democratic district, and the opponent was an effective, popular multi-term incumbent. The word on the street was that there was little point in bothering to oppose him; my guy was going to get shellacked, no matter how good a campaign he ran. Worse, in a year when President Bill Clinton's reelection coattails were expected to be as overwhelming as the top of the Republican ticket was underwhelming, how could there be any hope of victory? The incumbent opponent wouldn't even have to break a sweat.

It's bad for government when even invincible candidates go unopposed. Issues need to be debated, votes questioned and defended, and so forth.

We worked pretty hard, my candidate most of all. There were speeches and debates and press conferences and lots of events with vulcanized chicken. (Occasionally, to vary the monotony, it was barbecued vulcanized chicken.) We had no financial help from the state Republican Party, so we had to run lean. There were signs and buttons and volunteers and letters to the editor. I wrote a couple of op/eds for the local newspaper, one of which has delighted me ever since -- not because of anything I wrote, but because the other side threw up their hands and dismissed it (in print) as "sanctimonious claptrap." It's a fine phrase. Later, I almost named this blog "Sanctimonious Claptrap." But I digress.

Hopes of victory were slim indeed, and we knew it. In the end, we lost, but not by anything near the margin by which we were supposed to lose. Near the end, the opponent was sweating, and in the last broadcast debate my guy had him on the run, reacting to our strategy instead of advancing his own. It wasn't enough, but it was something.

I believe it was early October when I received a call from someone in the assembly district, whose name I do not now recall. He claimed to have some very useful photos of the incumbent. Let's just say that they allegedly had the incumbent in a compromising position with someone with whom he ought not to be in a comprising position. This fellow wanted my guy to win, so he would be happy to provide the photos to the campaign free of charge. I could pick them up later that day.

I didn't bother asking the candidate, because he was and is an honorable man. I just told him about it later. To the prospective donor I just said without hesitation, Thank you, no, we'll muddle along without your October surprise.

A day or so after the election, the local newspaper ran an editorial post-mortem on the various campaigns of local interest there. They singled out ours as the only race that hit hard on the issues and kept hitting hard, but only on the issues. We were the only race that stayed relevant and didn't go dirty, wrote the editors, and the outcome was unexpectedly close.

I don't know whether the photos were real or not; I never saw them. I don't know whether a local newspaper or other media outlet would have published them. As a practical matter, I don't think it's very likely that they would have changed the outcome of the election in our favor. They may have had the opposite effect, even if they were genuine; an October surprise can have a devastating backlash. I do know that the candidate and I don't have to take a shower every time we remember that campaign, because we kept it clean. It was a defeat, to be sure, but it was not a moral surrender. Best of all, perhaps, we didn't poison the waters for other local Republican candidates who would follow.

I'm not saying that October surprises never work. They often do. In 2005 one probably changed the outcome of American Fork's city council election. But I'd like to believe that voters are gradually getting smarter and are thus increasingly likely to punish the perpetrators of the October surprise, not the victims.

If you have something on a candidate that could be used as an October surprise, the honorable thing, if you're going to use it at all, is to raise it as early as possible, clearly and fairly -- and personally -- so the voters and others can examine it in the light of day. If it's true, you may have done us all a service. If it's false, or if the voters don't care about it as much as you do, maybe it won't help you.

Can I be a wild-eyed idealist for a moment? The real objective is not just winning the election, but governing well. Governing is hard enough in the long run; why act in such a way in the election that many of your constituents -- assuming you actually win -- are repulsed by the sound of your name from the beginning of your first term? Won't you and your agenda fare better in office if you have the respect of the people you're supposed to serve?

We'll probably see an October surprise or two in American Fork this year; we usually do, if the race is close. But you, candidate, don't have to use them, and we voters don't have to buy them. In fact, we can openly oppose them, and we're in a perfect position, as voters, to punish them if they occur.

Look at it this way: By shunning the October surprise, we'll help attract good people to politics and keep them there, instead of contributing to an environment where only those with egos so large that they don't care about conscience or reputation can survive in the long run.

[Pause for a deep breath.]

There you have it: Ten principles by which I measure candidates before we even get to the issues. I probably expect too much, and there are certainly easier votes than mine to win. And I am in the end, and despite having a big mouth, only one vote.

I can live with that.

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