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In the 2008 presidential elections, candidates may fall on either side of the ideological spectrum. Not the left versus right, liberal versus conservative divide—I’m talking about where candidates stand on the spectrum between total ideologue and complete flip-flopping weathervane.
Voters value consistency. Our leaders are expected to have a guiding set of bedrock principles that inform their judgments. For example, candidates are expected to be either pro-choice or pro-life and not to deviate from their side of the moral question. This expectation even applies to more low-brow matters. For Yankees fans like me, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s recent comment that he supports the Red Sox in the World Series is tantamount to blasphemy—his inconsistency and lack of honor for the traditional rivalry can only be interpreted as pandering to the pro-Sox state of New Hampshire.
On the other hand, candidates with steadfast principles from which they are never willing to stray can be considered ideologues. Typified by Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), this candidate places his or her abstract beliefs above any pragmatic concerns. In the case of Paul, he has such a profound distaste for the federal government and its role in our lives and in the lives of others around the world that he supports withdrawal from the United Nations and NATO, wants to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Reserve. Yet, despite these radical views, his YouTube channel boasts over 5 million views and he has more money in his campaign war chest than John McCain.
The ghosts of presidential politics past, specifically Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, are similar to Paul in many ways. All three have army experience and tend to favor isolationism, social conservatism, and anti-establishment sentiment. Each opposed the waging of the Gulf War and the War in Iraq.
My congressman back home, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), is a similar ideologue. He voted against emergency funding for the victims of Hurricane Katrina because of a tiny amount of pork in the bill, paying no mind to the fact that people would not receive much-needed money if the bill didn’t pass. He voted against the Voting Rights Act because it allows ballots to be printed in non-English languages, and was only one of four in the entire House of Representatives to vote against unemployment benefits.
On the flip-flopping side, one of the leading presidential candidates, former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney, has made some startling moral reversals in the recent past. When running for Senate against Edward M. Kennedy ’54 in 1994, Romney proclaimed to be a bigger champion of gay rights than Teddy. Now, he claims to represent the socially conservative wing of the conservative party. In 2005, Romney praised the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill as a “reasonable proposal” that is “quite different” than amnesty. Now he calls the bill amnesty and opposes the Bush immigration compromise.
It is tough to decide who is potentially more dangerous for the American public to elect: the person devoid of willingness to compromise or the person devoid of principles. Electing either an ideologue or a weathervane can be a very precarious proposition for voters. Maralee Schwartz, the former national political editor of the Washington Post and current fellow at the Institute of Politics, told me, “Voters are risk-averse this election.” She compares 2008 to 1992, except that while people back then were willing to take a risk on a young Arkansas governor named Bill, now, after 9/11 and 7 years of Bush rule, voters want someone safe, someone they know.
Ideologues initially don’t seem as risky as weathervanes. We know where they stand. That has been the biggest appeal of Paul, and his consistency, combined with his opposition to the war, has propelled him past Fred Thompson in some New Hampshire polls. But ideologues are not good fits for a country of diverse opinion and backgrounds. By being so zealously devoted to one side of an issue or to one frame of mind, ideologues often miss the picture or purposely ignore the reality of a situation to suit their beliefs, as Garrett did with the aforementioned Katrina relief vote. Even a well-respected and beloved ideologue like Mahatma Gandhi would not have been suited to be the leader of a nation.
The dichotomy between ideology and pragmatism has been best described by German sociologist Max Weber in his essay “Politics as a Vocation.” Weber asked, “How can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?” He urges balance and concludes, “An ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contracts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’”
Everything in moderation. In the Republican Party, with Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani on one side of the consistency spectrum and Ron Paul on the other, voters are still left searching for the happy medium. Too bad John McCain is so old.
Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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