May 2008 Ethics Dunces

Andrew Sullivan and Others

Media political pundit Andrew Sullivan was among the most vitriolic about the ABC Democratic candidate debate's lack of concentration on what he and other critics call the "real issues": the economy, immigration, Iraq, health care. "…petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about," he fumed on his entertaining, well-written, eccentric and often whacked-out blog, andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com. Later others joined the chorus: all the attention on Reverend Wright, Hillary's phantom sniper, and other issues of character, judgement and honesty are "distractions," and trivia.

Well, on this topic, Sullivan and everyone else are 100% wrong, and the reasons should be obvious, especially with these two candidates. In the age of ubiquitous video tape and instant transcripts, we know, or should know, that any position taken by either presidential candidate (or any presidential candidate, if you prefer) is almost certainly over-simplified, over-stated, disingenuous, pitched to polling results, aimed at short term impact or an out-and-out lie. It is not that the stated policy positions of candidates are meaningless, exactly, but that they are unlikely to have much relevance to what they actually will do once they are in office, for several reasons. First, the job is overwhelming, and priorities and positions that sound reasonable in the abstract often have no resemblance to reality once the practical requirements of the Presidency become apparent. Second, events change everything. When Lyndon Johnson ran for re-election in 1964, the Viet Nam War was barely and issue. Jimmy Carter's administration was supposed to be devoted to restoring public trust; instead, it became about runaway inflation and Iranian hostages. Ronald Reagan promised to reduce government spending, and the budget exploded under him. George H.W. Bush swore he was never going to raise taxes, but ultimately had to. George W. Bush was not going to get bogged down in nation-building. Third, the president doesn't have much control over many of the issues the public supposedly wants discussed, such as the economy, immigration reform, and abortion.

It is very difficult to predict how a potential president will act based on what he or she says while campaigning. Few expected Lincoln to fight a war to keep the South from leaving the Union; nobody thought FDR would re-design the whole theory of American government. Richard Nixon ran as a "new Nixon" who would banish the "Tricky Dick" reputation. That worked out well. Bill Clinton ran as a force for change who would bring the parties closer together, and instead triggered the most vicious partisan divide the country had seen since the early 19th Century. What Americans can determine, however, is what kind of character and values a person will bring to the White House, and what kind of leader will emerge. But they can only determine that by recognizing and examining behavior that reveals character and values.

Hillary Clinton maintains a disbarred lawyer, Sandy Berger, on her staff of advisors. That tells me something about her regard for law and ethics. Barack Obama supported a racist minister and hate-monger without protest for twenty years. That suggests either cowardice ( a leader has a duty to confront wrongdoing), lack of integrity (Obama purports to reject divisive politics), dishonesty (what does he really believe?), or terrible judgement. Does Andrew Sullivan really believe that it isn't important to find out which description applies as we consider the man for president? Sen. Clinton's sniper story reinforces the impression that she will lie about anything to achieve her ends. Should we elect a leader who is untrustworthy? Apparently, Sullivan doesn't care, as long as the candidate mouths deft policy positions.

The Republican party lies in disarray and ruin, not because it has amassed a long record of failed policies, though it has (and the current Democratic Congress has been as inept or worse), but because so many of its elected officials and leaders proved themselves unworthy of trust: accepting bribes, engaging in outrageous conflicts of interest, breaking clear ethics Rules, engaging in unfair tactics, embracing disrespectful rhetoric, enriching themselves, attracting allies of dubious character, or dabbling in men's room cruising, employing prostitutes and stalking pages. It was failures of leadership, ethics and character, as much as bad policy, that led to the current plight of the Grand Old Party. And bad policy priorities often arise from unethical character and flawed values.

Yet Andrew Sullivan and so many other deluded voices in the media continue to say that "{we shouldn't waste our time" inquiring into the character of our presidential characters. This is ethics ignorance, not to mention historical ignorance and an affront to common sense. It is likely that we would elect better presidents if we only learned one thing from the endless campaign: Who can we trust?

 

 

 

   
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