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Senator Evasive for President

Voters profess hope for straightforward candidates, but instead choose equivocators

By Jarret A. Zafran

Last week, Robert Redford was on campus to screen his new movie, “Lions for Lambs,” in which one of the characters succinctly explains the nature of politicians: They’re those guys who never say anything, even though they are constantly speaking.

A Gallup poll in April and an Associated Press poll earlier this month showed that the public wants, above all else, a president who is honest and straightforward. In these polls, honesty was valued above traits such as leadership/strength, integrity, and competency.

A recent book, called “The Political Brain,” by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen argues that the average voter makes his decisions based mostly on emotion and gut feeling, and not on reasoned stances on the issues. Many have commented on the role of anger in the 2006 midterm elections in sweeping the republicans out of office. I believe 2008 will be the year of frustration.

If I am correct, it would follow that the candidate who gets fired up, who speaks to the truth without fancy rhetoric and calculated, poll-tested language, and who seems direct and least evasive in the debates, would be the front-runner. I must be wrong.

Bill Richardson is notoriously blunt. He is lauded for his sense of humor and willingness to directly address all questions, but lambasted for seeming unpolished and making countless verbal gaffes. When asked why he, who is half-Mexican, hadn’t called for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation as quickly as his fellow candidates had, he said, “It’s because [Gonzales] is Hispanic. I’m honest.” When asked why he accepts lobbyist money, he acknowledged that he can’t afford not to: “I have enough trouble raising money to run a campaign,” he said.

Sen. Joe Biden was declared the “winner” of many recent debates for his passion and honest assessment of both foreign policy and the records of his colleagues. Sen. Barack Obama was similarly praised for a recent speech on foreign policy delivered at DePaul University, where he took Congress and the media to task for failing to adequately investigate the president’s claims in the run up to the War in Iraq. John Edwards has been extolled for his immaculately detailed plans on health care, which even explain how he plans to pay for it all.

Yet somehow, all of these passionate and straight-shooting candidates are behind in national polls. While there are certainly plenty of other issues at play here, this still begs the question of whether the voters actually vote the way they say they vote.

On the other side of this election season, we have front-runners such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani. Clinton won’t admit her vote to authorize the war in Iraq was a mistake. She rejects all questions involving hypothetical situations, and refuses to offer specifics on how she would make social security financially solvent. Romney has shifted his opinion on abortion, gay marriage and everything in between. When asked why his sons were not serving in the armed forces, he responded that they were helping their country by campaigning for him. Giuliani has tried to bolster his conservative credentials by obfuscating any former liberal positions and wallowing in the nuance of ideology.

In all of the latter cases, the candidates may not be lying outright, but is what we are hearing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? It doesn’t seem that way, and the average voter understands when a politician isn’t being completely straight with him.

The current dichotomy has appeared before. Howard Dean and Bill Bradley each positioned himself as a straight-shooting alternative to establishment candidates like John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and Al Gore in the 2000 and 2004 primaries, and were unceremoniously set aside by the voters for their trouble. The honesty strategy never seems to be a winning one.

After all, there are certainly drawbacks to being blunt. From George “Macaca” Allen to John “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” McCain, not to mention Joe “Indian Accents at 7/11” Biden, many candidates have felt the sting of the “gaffes” that result from attempts at undiluted honesty. But the cautious, soundbite, consultant-approved language that others practice does not have to be the only alternative. It is a difficult balance to strike, but a candidate who lives in a soundbite-obsessed world like ours needs to be direct and truly honest and while being careful to avoid embarrassing and insensitive faux pas.

Honest and straightforward politicians are like medicine, trying to heal the various ailments of the nation by telling us what we really need to hear about ourselves and our country: the truth. But it can be a bitter pill to swallow, and when it comes time to vote, Americans are apparently not interested.

But until all citizens begin to impress upon the candidates the dire urgency with which so many issues today need to be truthfully acknowledged and resolved, the candidates will continue to shy away from straight-talking, and go on seeking political success through equivocation and wordplay. If a fire is not lit beneath them, they will have no incentive to move to a higher political ground.

Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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