It is what cynics say about political candidates: “He’ll say anything to get elected.” I’ve demurred when I’ve heard that said about candidates I support. But I’ve had to accept that ideology doesn’t matter much when it comes to the tactics candidates use to … well, said nicely, broaden their appeal; in not-so-nice terminology, pander. I find this disturbing.
Rationally, I know that the higher the office, the more the candidate compromises. It makes a sad sort of sense-the higher the office, the more people you represent, which means you need to appeal to more people for votes. That often means taking stands or making statements that are designed to appeal to the elusive moderate mainstream voters.
I also know that sometimes candidates make promises they don’t keep. Sometimes they never intended to. Other times, the situation has changed or once elected, the candidate changes her mind.
We all change our minds, and sometimes for good reason. How we react to a candidate doing the same depends on the promise and the reason why.
My first personal experience with this happened many years ago. A candidate I worked hard to elect disappointed a group of former campaign workers by not hiring as diverse a staff as he’d promised. A couple former campaign workers called the campaign manager-turned-chief-of-staff. He was frustrated by our insistence that the new office holder keep his promise. Tempers escalated. One of the former campaign workers threatened an informational picket outside their office (what can I say-we were young and hot-headed). The horrified chief of staff said that we were friends, so why were we doing this?
Those of us who’d poured our hearts and hopes into the campaign didn’t do it for friendship. We did it because we were passionate about issues and this was a candidate who was passionate about the same ones. Expecting a candidate to do what they’ve promised by using leverage (like the threatened protest) is referred to as holding their feet to the fire.
I’ve always felt that it’s hypocritical to only criticize candidates you oppose for positions that appall you while turning a blind eye to the missteps of those candidates you support.
That brings me to a current TV commercial for the DFL-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate, Al Franken. Let me preface this by saying that although I am not committed in this race, my politics are much closer to Franken’s than they are to those of his opponent, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
Franken’s 30-second spot points out that the U.S. has built hundreds of schools, more than a thousand roads and thousands of sewer and water projects in Iraq. He goes on to say that instead, we should spend that money on education, health care, jobs and infrastructure in the U.S. He closes with, “We need to invest in America again” (emphasis his).
That’s what I call pandering. It verges on xenophobia-this statement more than implies that the choice is between spending money on Iraqi infrastructure or American needs. It is Us versus Them-they are the Other, we are Americans. This sort of message seems designed to appeal to Minnesotans who are bitter about the financial costs of the war and/or foreign aid in general. It says that once we stop spending money on them, we’ll have more for us.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m no economist-I often turn to others to explain economic theories and policies. But I do understand that even if the war in Iraq were to end tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that the resulting savings would necessarily all be put into domestic spending. I’ve heard Franken speak about the economy, and my impression is that he knows a pretty fair amount about it. So why did his commercial have the message it did?
When I spoke to Jess McIntosh, press secretary for the Franken campaign, she stressed the part of the commercial in which Franken refers to his “responsible plan for a safe withdrawal.” McIntosh contrasted that with what she refers to the “Bush-Coleman administration’s support for the war.”
When I said that wasn’t the primary (or only) message the commercial imparted, McIntosh said something to the effect that it’s hard to discuss these topics in a 30-second commercial. She talked about her candidate’s desire for a regional solution to Iraqi needs. Why not say that in a commercial?
In researching this column, I learned that in the last two years, the U.S. has funded 50 percent of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Prior to that, we funded about 60 percent of reconstruction costs. Some of that has been used on those 4,800 water and sewer projects. I’d say it’s money well-spent: In recent years, infant mortality in Iraq has increased 160 percent and there’s been a tenfold increase in typhoid, both attributed to dirty water. Seventy percent of the deaths of Iraqi children are due to waterborne illnesses. But they’re not American kids. American kids seldom, if ever, die from waterborne illnesses.
I’m down off my soapbox now. My message is that we need to expect more from the candidates. If we’re upset by a negative message, we need to speak up. While candidates are always looking to broaden their base of support to include uncommitted voters, they also need to remember electoral politics #101: Don’t alienate your base. If that base is you, remember your power. And hold their feet to the fire.