David Brin: Why the candidates can’t be honest with us
By David Brin
It’s been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career — at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or flattering voters. One chance to tell the truth.
All right, it’s rare. Many politicians hurry through a revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms. Still, it can be colorful when a few spill their hearts.
Take the day in 1992 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas made headlines declaring that everybody was at fault for the country’s fiscal condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the Democratic-controlled Congress, to the American people. Responsible economists later credited Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.
Around the same time, retired senator and conservative eminence gris Barry Goldwater denounced the followers of émigré philosopher Leo Strauss – so-called “neocons” – for hijacking Goldwater’s beloved movement over cliffs of romantic delusion.
A more recent example of post retirement candor came When G.W. Bush’s ex-Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, revealed a swamp of backroom dealings and ineptitude, explaining that he was “old and rich” and unafraid to speak his mind. On the other side, some claim that Senator Joe Lieberman really came into his own when he ran as an independent, shrugging off party discipline (if such a thing exists, among democrats.)
Alas, under our electoral system candor is punished. Folks on both sides of the lamentably oversimplifying “left-right axis” yearn for the best and most sincere people on the other side to wise up! To eject radicals from control over the other party’s agenda.
Too bad we rarely ponder the way crimes like gerrymandering have been used by our own side, with terrible effects upon the radicalization of politics. (Elsewhere I describe one time that party self-reform actually happened.)
A Modest Proposal
Let me offer here a proposal that I’ve made every presidential election for decades. Throughout the campaign we’ll learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. And platitudes, what they think voters want to hear.Logically, there must be a third category – areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but fear to speak first. But consider: there’s no political cost to telling voters what you really believe… if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.
What’s wrong with two leaders finding patches of consensus amid a sea of discord? It has a name – stipulation… as when attorneys in a case agree to agree about a set of points, so the trial can focus on areas where they disagree. What does stipulation have to do with politics?Given the intensity of partisanship in recent American political life, can we dream? Bear with me for a “what-if” thought experiment.
Suppose, amidst the 2012 campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to meet for an afternoon. Staffs would cover debate rules, and maybe how to prevent spirals of mudslinging and people would applaud just seeing them talk to each other like adults.
Only then – they go for a walk, alone. During this quiet moment before the rough-and-tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.
Don’t dismiss it too readily. For all his faults, the last GOP nominee ,John McCain, did this sort of thing before. So did Senators Clinton and Obama, amid their primary fights in 2008. In fact, the only ones to object would be extremes in both parties.
Oh, neither candidate will change the other’s mind concerning major divisions. But here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America’s future. Surely there’d be some overlap? Things that both of them feel that we, as a nation, should do.
Imagine a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they make public simultaneously their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law “X”, or repeal restriction “Y”. Further, they agree – neither will attack the other for taking this stand.
This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something rarely seen… leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.
Is This Impossible?
Well, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy. Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR’s request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.
Everyone benefited – Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines in memory.
How might today’s politics differ if two adults – each the standard bearer of a major party – agreed to let it be known how they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform…
… or the biggest candidate for such a declaration? The obvious of course. The topic that neither side dares to raise first. The failed Drug War.
How it could happen
Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today’s opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2012 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for two decades, overshadowing any national good.
Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates become so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling. And note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this kind of stipulation process, and the other refused… well, there might be benefits there, as well.
Indeed, imagine if a third party candidate – say the Libertarian Party’s unusually reasonable/interesting Gary Johnson – were to join one of this year’s presidential debates. (Okay, so I think that would devastate one of the major candidates, offering sane, libertarian-minded conservatives a place to escape their party’s current madness.) Johnson’s natural move would be to pounce on obvious things like the drug war.
Ironically, this could offer one of the other guys cover to step forward, partially agreeing with Johnson while remaining moderate/skeptical. Good positioning, politically speaking. And as a result, we all benefit when the topic itself (changing the drug war) moves up in peoples’ minds.
All right. It won’t happen. Not this time around. But it could. And maybe someday it will.
Shatter the barriers against candor!
Once upon a time, it was just a glimmer in a few eyes to imagine that debates would be standard in elections. Now it’s normal.
Could the Candidates’ Post-Convention Summit and Letter of Stipulation also become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October?
Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation – awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically savvy, but what is simply wise.