Character in politicians is vastly overrated

 

It seems that a Colorado candidate for Congress, Angie Paccione, really filed for personal bankruptcy in 2001,as, according to the administrative office of the U.S. Courts, did 1,452,029 other people. Why should anyone care?

Because Marilyn Musgrave, the two-term Republican incumbent Paccione is running against, has informed the world about the bankruptcy in a radio ad. Just as Paccione, in her radio ad, has informed the world, that in January of that 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.

Again, why should anyone care? Let's analyze both cases, putting the two candidates in the worst possible light: Paccione is sloppy about personal finances; Musgrave can be arrogant and hardhearted, especially if, as the folks in the other car claimed, 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.

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 always preferred voting for a candidate they found appealing. But thanks in part to political journalists who dislike politics, and who therefore tell voters to choose the contender "you'd rather have a beer with," that intangible known as character 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. Unless that Democrat is over 50 percent in the polls, he or she is still vulnerable to late political ads based on something in public, business or private life. At the Capitol Hill offices of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, a staff of 10 has been doing "oppo" research (that's looking for goodies on the other guy) for more than a year. The Republicans are not being cute about this; the purpose of the oppo research is 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. "When people are looking at national issues that are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole.

Add in the superior GOP get-out-the-vote operation, 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 consequence, the emphasis on character only enhances the severance of politics from governing. If the decisive swing voters opt for a candidate based on his or her cuteness instead of on his or 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 won't. I speak here as one of the one-tenth of 1 percent of the folks who has had beers with candidates for the House, the Senate, even President. I did not achieve this lofty status because I am nobler or cuter than the rest of you; it just came with the job.

And you know what? Those beers gave me little sense of what those candidates were really like. You might tell your swing-voter friends to have a beer with friends and neighbors, but to vote for candidates whose views on major issues are closer to their own. In politics, unlike the truly important pursuits like love, literature or baseball, character is highly overrated.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He covers Washington, D.C., from the safe distance of Vermont.