Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"We Elect People, Not Position Papers"

Back in my post endorsing Obama and McCain, I make the sloganish remark that "we elect people to be president, not position papers." A reason why I think this approach to voting is important was highlighted after last night's Democratic debate. Chris Matthews asked Andrea Mitchell for her analysis of the proceedings and in so doing, made the comment that in all likelihood, the most significant issue facing our next president had not been discussed during the debate. Why? Because none of us know exactly what that issue will be.

The world is too crazy a place to be able to predict what will happen in the next four to eight years and the odds are that some completely unforeseen events will serve to define the next presidency. Roosevelt didn't know that Pearl Harbor would be bombed; Kennedy couldn't have predicted the Cuban Missile Crisis; and W sure couldn't have expected 9/11. But all of those presidencies were profoundly shaped by those events.

Examining the positions of candidates can only get us so far in predicting how they will handle various situations mostly because you only really know how you are going to handle a situation once you are in it. It is far better--if somewhat more difficult--for us to get a feel for how they approach and think through issues than it is to get their canned responses to an array of hypothetical scenarios or a laundry list detailing their policy agendas.

Of course, as Maureen Dowd pointed out a couple of weeks ago, even these judgments may not always bear fruit in terms of wise governing. People sometimes act contrary to our best assessments of who they are and all of us are, in various ways, in conflict with ourselves. The truly and completely integrated and consistent person is a figment of our imagination. But even if it can't secure us certainty about how the future will go, I think this kind of reflection is the most promising and prudent way forward.


NonVoxPop said...

AJK- When are you going to narrow your endorsement to one candidate? Or aren't you?
While you've cited the craziness of the world and its unpredictability, I think it's worth noting that not all of the events which shape the world are military or tumultuous. Your further meditation on persons in conflict with themselves reminds me of Thomas Jefferson who, despite his deep conviction that the president's actions should be limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution, nonetheless went through with the Louisiana Purchase (an exercise of power way beyond what the Constitution delegates to the president). It would be hard to overstate the profound impact of that decision.
Thus, the more I think about it, the more I agree with you that while positions are of great importance, character is perhaps more important. I've found the way the character of the candidates has been revealed in the context of this crazy-long campaign process to be very useful in making my decision about who to cast a vote for, and has been inspiring, too.

AJK said...

If I had to vote tomorrow, I'd vote for Obama. But I'm interested to see how the remainder of the campaign plays out and am, in principle, open to being convinced otherwise. In particular, I find the war in Iraq a vexing issue and am not sure that Obama's plan of action there is the best one. I need to think about that further and decide where that ranks on the scale of relative importance given everything else the country is facing.

Foolish Sage said...

I don't have any hard data on this, but I think it would be interesting to go back over the last several presidential elections and see how many of the stated positions or policies of the candidates actually ever made it into actual policy or legislation after their election. My guess is not too many. If I'm right, then you are right that assessing a candidate's character and ability to handle crises may be far more important than reviewing their campaign promises.