Friday, January 20, 2012

Policymaker in Chief

The media has been abuzz with Newt Gingrich's push-back against inappropriate questions asked by CNN's John King during last night's Republican primary debate in South Carolina. Responding to opening questions about allegations, made by Gingrich's ex-wife, of a request for an "open relationship," Gingrich refused to play by the standard rules of the game and fired back at the "despicable" line of questioning.

Gingrich's response is refreshing. Far too often politicians play by the media's rules, failing to push back against unwarranted assumptions, questions, and rules that have come to govern America's political process. This has unfortunately made too many good politicians look bad and has distracted the electorate from substantive issues (the Lewinsky scandal is a prime example). Gingrich said it well, "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run of for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

In truth, far too much emphasis is placed, in political campaigns, on what should remain strictly personal. Accordingly, candidates often fail to draw a clear line emphasizing what is relevant and what is off limits. Instead, they act guilty and try to avoid direct answers, implicitly accepting underlying assumptions that reside within a question. This not only leads to discussion about issues that are irrelevant to an office-holder's job responsibilities, but also develops a culture that unquestionably accepts certain behaviors, even if they are unjustifiable. [This same failure to challenge implicit assumptions has lead, as argued elsewhere, to additional problems.] Instead, what should be relevant is the candidate's ideas, policy prescriptions, and how he will act as an office-holder.

Other candidates would be wise to follow Gingrich's lead. Romney, for instance, should make a similar argument regarding calls for the release of his tax returns. His past income, he should argue, has no bearing on his ideas and ability to be a successful president. He could easily link this to Gingrich's argument, defending a separation between the public (job-related) and private realms of a candidate's life.

Critics, of course, love to argue that these personal issues are somehow relevant to understanding a candidate. But such arguments fall flat. It is not relevant what income your attorney, accountant, or grocery-store bagger makers, nor does it matter what your gardener, professor, or firefighter does in his free time or in his personal relationships. What matters is if the individual has the required talents, ideas, and ability to execute the responsibilities of his job. America would find that it attracts more talented, intelligent, and more capable candidates, if it focused on the policies not the politics of their officials. The rest is just a distraction.


  1. Josh,

    Interesting thoughts here-- I certainly agree that questions and debates within the political realm should focus on policy that is relevant for the public, and not things that happen behind closed doors.

    The issue I must take with your post is about the particular question that Gingrich was asked, about his fidelity and marital arrangement. Given that he has been a longtime staunch and public advocate for respecting the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, as well as respect between a husband and wife, any question that points out his atrocious hypocrisy and double-standard becomes relevant. Gingrich led the charge against President Clinton during the Lewinsky ordeal, while he himself was having an affair. Then, the man who champions the "sanctity of marriage" asked his wife if she'd like to have an "open marriage" instead, allowing him to further violate that sanctity!

    I'll admit that Gingrich is probably smart enough to be President, but among the other qualities you suggest above should be honesty and integrity. His behavior, during his time as Speaker and now, have demonstrated an utter lack of these things, as well as even a modicum of respect for the American people, as he boldly looks us in the eye and blows off his hypocritical attitudes and dishonesty to his wife as irrelevant. If we were to live in a world where politicians weren't prone to such immorality, the questions you propose could rightly make up the only questions on the field, but as long as people like John Edwards, Mark Sanford and others claim to stand for one thing but behave in a completely contradictory manner, they deserve to be pressed on those issues.

    Alex Shapero

  2. Alex,

    Thanks for your comment. I think you are certainly right to point to the hypocrisy and contradictions. Part of the problem though is that these politicians use these arguments not for the moral purposes they profess but as political attacks. I think many people are subject to "such immorality," as you put it. Politicians, for better or worse, are just subject to more scrutiny and prying eyes given their public personas. It doesn't mean they are less human in their frailties or should be held to a higher standard than the guy who sits down the hall from you or me. It is not so much Gingrich I wish to defend but the principle he espoused here - even if he himself hasn't stood by it in the past.

    The truth, in my opinion, is that "morality" in a broad sense should have little role in choosing our policymakers (politicians included). Morality can become very subjective and reasonable people can disagree on what is right. For me character is less important than being able to do the job properly. (I won't go so far to dismiss it completely, because obviously some aspects of one's personality influence how they can succeed at their job). This is one reason why I am uncomfortable with the "sanctity of marriage" arguments that come from some on the right. As much as I disagree with infidelity on a personal level, it doesn't necessarily preclude someone from doing a good job as a leader. We no longer attach scarlet letters to our neighbor's lapels, we shouldn't be doing it to our politicians either.

    The best, I think, is for politicians to avoid partaking in such politicking and stick to the issues - whether they are the victim or the attacker. It may a lofty, if not idealistic, goal but I think we'd be better off for it. The electorate too, I must add, has a responsibility to diminish these ad hominem campaigns. If the voter didn't jump on these issues - infidelity, tax returns, etc. - the media and politicians would be less inclined to sensationalize them.



"Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man." - Benjamin Franklin

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