In politics, it's not about who you want to drink a beer with

 

So Angie Paccione filed for personal bankruptcy in 2001. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, so did another 1,452,029 people. Why should anyone care?

Because Marilyn Musgrave, the two-term Republican incumbent Paccione is running against to represent northeastern Colorado in Congress, has informed the world about the bankruptcy via a radio ad.

Just as Paccione, in her own radio ad, has informed the world, that in January of that same year, Musgrave drove into the rear of another car in Adams County, and then "left the scene of the accident, did not file a police report, did not immediately call the police."

Apparently true, but also apparently legal; the damage didn’t meet the $500 threshold that would have required Musgrave to call the cops and to stay until they arrived.

Maybe Paccione is sloppy about her personal finances, and maybe Musgrave is both arrogant and hardhearted, especially if, as the folks in the other car claim, she left while one of them was still in pain. Big deal. Should Paccione win and the Democrats reclaim the House majority, it would be at least a decade before she’d get to be chair of the Ways and Means Committee, or anyplace else where her fiscal capability would matter. As for Musgrave, it’s hard to see why a voter who agreed with her on most public policy issues would vote against her because she may have been a nasty twit one day. (Or, come to think of it, every day.)

And yet, as we enter the final weeks before the 2006 midterm election, we are reminded again that we live in a political culture in which personal history dominates public policy. Not that this is entirely new; folks have always preferred voting for a candidate they find appealing. But thanks in part to political journalists who dislike politics, and who therefore encourage voters to choose the contender "you’d rather have a beer with," that intangible known as "character" now trumps such irrelevancies as wars, taxes, schools and health care.

This reality has two consequences, one tactical and one philosophical. The tactical consequence should soothe Republicans who look at the latest polls showing Democratic candidates two, four, seven, even nine points ahead in so many races.

Forget the spread. Unless that Democrat is over 50 percent in the polls, that Democrat is still vulnerable to late political ads based on something in his or her public, business or private life.

So are the Republican candidates. But the Democrats just aren’t as good at this kind of thing — even if they had as much money to spend on it, which they do not, and even if they had started as early, which they did not.

At the Capitol Hill offices of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, a staff of 10 has been doing "oppo" research (that’s looking for the goods on the other guy) for more than a year. The Republicans are not coy about this: The oppo research is designed to fuel attack ads. "You haven’t seen the majority of the negative ads yet," committee spokesman Carl Forti told the Los Angeles Times in late September.

The Republican strategy is to try to get voters’ minds off public policy issues such as the war in Iraq and the insecurity of pensions and health care policies, and onto the sordid details of every Democrat’s personal life.

"When people are looking at national issues that are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent," Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, R, told his colleagues in a memo last month.

Add in the superior GOP get-out-the-vote operation — with phone banks starting 72 hours before the polls close and a marketing process patterned after corporate microtargeting — and any Democrat who isn’t at least three points ahead in the last pre-election polls is likely to lose. There is hardly a state in the Rocky Mountain region without at least one Republican seat that looks vulnerable. But under these circumstances, "vulnerable" does not mean lost. Not yet.

As to the philosophical consequences of our brave new political world, they aren’t very complicated. The emphasis on "character" only furthers the severance of politics from governing. If the voters — or at least the decisive swing voters — opt for a candidate based on his/her cuteness or personal probity instead of on his/her position on Iraq or Social Security, then Iraq and Social Security recede in importance.

But here’s how dumb it is to choose the candidate you’d rather have a beer with: You are never, ever going to have a beer with that candidate. Ever. And I speak as one of the one-tenth of 1 percent of the folks who really have had beers with candidates for the House, the Senate, even the presidency. I did not achieve this lofty status because I am nobler, wiser, or cuter than the rest of you. I am none of these things. (Well, maybe cuter.) It just came with the job.

And you know what? Even having beers with them gave me little or no sense of what those folks are really like. It would take more than a few beers to do that.

Remind your swing-voter friends that beers are for drinking with friends and neighbors. Votes are for candidates, and they should go to those candidates whose views on major issues are closest to your own. In politics, unlike the truly important pursuits (love, literature, baseball), "character" is highly over-rated.

 

Jon Margolis watches Washington, D.C., from his home in Vermont.