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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...