2008: The year of principles?
With Iowans going today to their caucuses, the beginning of a new year and the presidential primary season dangerously collide for voters. Distraught voters can now couple their prior unrealized weight-loss resolutions with their unrealized political resolutions like finding a new party or moving to Canada. Yet, every four years, we end up fatter and madder by the year’s end.
It is not the fact that, in a nation of more than 300 million people, our massive pool of potential presidents never seems to work to our advantage in producing high-quality candidates. It is not even the fact that our elections seem like contests of blow-dried, poll-driven robots. Rather, it is the overt insincerity of American politics. Candidates routinely reinvent themselves for the primary and then reinvent themselves again for the general election — often discarding prior positions like last year’s resolutions.
This election, the nation is debating fundamental moral and constitutional questions that demand something other than the usual transient or opportunistic views of politicians. A candidate’s views on taxation may change with time, even a short passage of time. However, changing one’s view on the use of torture or abortion or gay rights reflects a fundamental flaw in both character and conscience.
In many ways, 2007 was the Year of the Cynics. Members of both parties treated voters with open contempt — captive audiences with no alternative but them. The presidential candidates have treated issues like seasonal clothing choices, dropping positions as soon as polls show that they are out of fashion.
A third option?
It turns out that 2008 could prove them wrong. Voters have proven not nearly as robotic as the candidates and have not rallied around the establishment candidates with the most money. Indeed, many seem to be seriously looking at third-tier — and even third-party — candidates in a search for principle.
The signs of dissatisfaction are being seen on all levels. President Bush’s approval numbers have been polling in the low 30s, making him one of the least popular presidents in history. Congress has reached a low of 22% in some polls, putting it only slightly above mobsters and mule skinners in popularity.
These polls reflect a rejection of the cynical bait-and-switch politics practiced by both parties. For example, the Democrats secured both houses of Congress by promising that they would fight for civil liberties and investigate alleged crimes ranging from an official torture program to unlawful domestic surveillance. Once in power, however, the Democrats refused to take serious action. It was later learned that for years Democratic members knew of both the torture and unlawful surveillance.
For their part, Republicans continue to interpret every possible issue as an extension of 9/11, claiming everything from taxing oil companies to immigration to farm subsidies as part of a grand plan to defeat al-Qaeda. Various presidential candidates have been legitimately criticized for changing their views on abortion, the Iraq war, gay rights and immigration.
The great irony is that, after years of consistently refusing to fight on principle, politicians have discovered that they are both unprincipled and unpopular. Now, they are contemplating the unthinkable in Washington: Perhaps they have no choice but to try being principled in order to be popular. Yet, actual (as opposed to advertised) principle cannot be so easily produced in focus groups and political packaging.
Voters are clearly looking for an alternative. Democratic voters have done everything short of drugging and kidnapping Al Gore to get him to run. Why? Because he seems genuinely to believe in the environment — and that is one more principle than most of his likely opponents have.
Another indication is the surprising success of Ron Paul. Paul is an anti-war, libertarian Republican who is the rage among the outraged voters and could launch a credible third-party candidacy. Some of Paul’s views are outside of the mainstream, but those views do not appear to change with each poll.
Even for candidates who have been hardwired to avoid answering hard questions, it is not too late to try principle in politics. They would be well-served to look at the U.S. automobile industry of the 1970s. It had long taken for granted its lock on the market, dismissing the threat of foreign competitors. It built cars like the Ford Pinto that seemed to burst into flames when it struck a squirrel or hit a 5 mph cross wind. Detroit continued to produce cheap, low-quality products until the Japanese dominated the American market.
Our current politicians are the Ford Pintos of politics — they are built for smooth roads and accident-free driving. This election, however, may force some re-engineering to fit the new quality-oriented consumer.
There is an easy road test for a voter looking for principled politicians and not just a shiny principled exterior: If they have changed their views in the past 10 years on major moral or political issues such as abortion, war or gay rights, they are probably not as principled as their pitch. Of course, if one cannot find an honest politician this election, an honestly dishonest one might do. For those candidates willing to admit that they caved in to pro-war pressures or failed to inquire about widespread reports of torture or other crimes, some compensation can be made.
So here’s one New Year’s resolution worth making: Vote for someone with proven principles, perhaps even a few that you do not necessarily believe in.
Of course, there will be those who will again argue that you need to be pragmatic and select “a winner.” For once, don’t be pragmatic, be right — and perhaps we can show that popularity is only found on the side of principle.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.
USA Today: January 3, 2008