Thursday, September 04, 2003

What’s With Candidates’ Non-Responses

Tibor R. Machan

Someone with the views about the proper scope of politics that I have concluded is sound may be thought to be completely cynical about politicians. As one character’s thinking in Alan Furst’s spy novel, Dark Star, would have it, “Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus; the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.”
I cannot say I am not tempted to think this way. Why?
All you need to do is follow for just a little bit the current California scramble to attract voters to the October 7 special election. Whenever one of these people is asked a question – or indeed, whenever their campaign managers is asked something – invariably the response is obfuscation, changing the subject, broad generalities, and, well, BS, to be plain about it. “What would X do about the California deficit?” “Well, there are many problems in the state and our candidate is best qualified to deal with them and his or her staff really has a plan that will make it all right.” Or perhaps, “Now that you mention the deficit, isn’t it interesting that those in office haven’t been diligent enough to come to terms with it.” Or, and here is the most frequent ploy, “I am glad you asked that question because we are willing to go anywhere in the state to address anyone’s concerns about anything, any time, so you can see that we are best suited to run the state government.” As if any of this amounted to an answer.
Why are politicians so blatantly evasive? One suggestion that seems to carry conviction is that since they are dealing with such a huge electorate, each with such an incredibly long and diverse wish-list, politicians and their spin doctors have concluded that saying nothing is safer than to say anything at all.
If they did propose something specific and clear cut, odds are they would more likely alienate a great many voters instead of attracting a sizable number to their camp. Any specific proposal will only please a small percentage, whereas saying nothing at all leaves open the possibility that no one will notice the evasion and some kind of blind hope or a reliance on image and charisma will carry the day.
As much as this sounds like a promising answer, it is so cynical about voters that I find it very difficult to accept it. I do not consider myself such a superior being, compared to other voters, that only I and a few others – like Alan Furst’s fictional character – could notice the rank evasion in how candidates handle questions. Nor do I think my values are so unique that only I and a few others would find this repeated, persistent evasiveness and obfuscation an unworthy trait in a person, let alone someone who aspires conscientiously to serve millions of people in state or any other government.
So what may well be true is that because many others are just as disgusted with the deliberate shelling out of non-answers to questions posed to candidates as I am, this sizable group simply does not vote. The remaining millions are those who do have some kind of blind faith in – or are moved by the irrelevant imagery projected by – some candidate. And there are the loyalists who line up behind some special interest leadership – say, the public service or teacher unions – and vote for anyone these people recommend.
But the reason why such a relatively small percentage of the voting population goes to the polls is probably that the disgust with evasiveness is indeed widespread.
How might this be remedied? Only by getting government out of the zillions of tasks it hasn’t any business trying to perform and giving it a clear mandate everyone has a stake in, defending our rights. Then the issue will indeed be what Michael Dukakis once said – and was roundly condemned for having said – namely, a candidate should be judged primarily on competence. Not on how he or she can fulfill a wish-list that not even Santa could handle.

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