May 23, 2011

Daniels' Decision Highlights A Problem With Our Politics

Now I’ll be honest – I pronounced Mitch Daniel’s presidential candidacy dead time back. And while I’ve been hoping I was wrong – after all, we have more pressing matters to deal with at this time than the social issues, given the state of the economy – I’ve never really expected him to become a candidate (even though I would have liked to see him do so).

But it is the reason for Daniel’s decision that leaves me disheartened – the fact that his marriage broke up for a time in the 1990s, before he and his then ex-wife reconciled and remarried, and the potential for that aspect of their marriage to become fodder for political exploitation. This points to a real problem with our political system – the fact that non-relevant matters have become fodder for political attacks.

Let’s be clear – there is nothing in this matter that reflects on the ability of Mitch Daniels to do the job of president or his fitness for that office. Indeed, I’d argue that what we know reflects well on him as a human being – despite the sense of betrayal he undoubtedly had, Daniels put it aside in order to salvage an important relationship. That is, for me, the height of family values and tells me a great deal about him as a man.

Unfortunately, as I’ve seen on a number of websites and in comments on articles about his decision, that isn’t enough. Having distorted what conservatives believe about marriage and family, liberals declare that he is a “hypocrite” – despite the fact that his wife dumped him and the courts awarded him custody of their children and the couple later reconciled. This makes no more sense than the argument that Sarah Palin is a hypocrite on family values because she didn’t kick Bristol to the curb after the teenager failed to abstain from premarital sex and instead showed her daughter love, compassion, and acceptance when she became pregnant. Oh, the horror of it all! What gets ignored is that the “family values” conservatives generally support are aspirational and rarely lived out perfectly by those who profess them even as they aim for them as goals to be attained.

Let me offer this perspective as a supporter of these family values – when it first came out that Bill Clinton had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, it did not bother me that much. The problem I had was that he had been willing to lie about it until the tapes came out – followed by evidence that she was not the only case of infidelity. This indicated something much more flawed in his character – but much like any number of men who have occupied the Oval Office, I didn’t find the dalliances themselves to be disqualifying. And in the end, what troubled most of us and led us to support his impeachment was the discovery that he was willing to prey on government employees over whom he exercised authority, make use of law enforcement to procure women or obscure the affairs, and (most importantly) the perjury he was willing to engage in to cover up the other misdeeds. At least one of these constituted a crime, and the rest was unarguably misconduct of the sort that qualified as abuse of his position that made him unfit for the office he occupied.

But Bill Clinton is too easy to point to – after all, I did not support the man or his policies. So to move across the aisle into my own party, let me say that these are the same sort of character flaws that lead me and so many others to reject Newt Gingrich as a fit candidate for office. This stands in contrast to Ronald Reagan, whose first wife, Jane Wyman, divorced him and who later fell in love with and married his beloved Nancy. The latter did his best to live out those values through the trials and tribulations of life, while the former shows a pattern of conduct that calls into question his general trustworthiness. And on the Democrat side, I never cared about John Kerry’s divorce and remarriage – but find in John Edwards’ conduct enough to argue that he was manifestly unfit as a human being to trust with the presidency.

But back to Mitch Daniels and his decision. Based upon what we know about the Daniels family today, does the marital breakdown of the 1990s have any bearing upon his fitness for office? I’d argue very little – except to the degree that it tells us something about his capacity to love and to forgive. Why are we not looking instead at his policy proposals and his record of accomplishment? If marital fidelity is the standard, then those who want to make having a great marriage the litmus test would be trumpeting Ron Paul, who has been married to his wife for 54 years. I think we all see how absurd that criteria is – after all, much of Paul’s platform is out on the fringe and it is unlikely he would be an effective president if he were to win. Daniels, on the other hand, would likely be a superb president able to craft policies that would help pull this country out of the economic mess we are in.

Am I saying that marriage and family questions are inappropriate things for us to consider when vetting candidates? No, I’m not. What I’m saying is that we need to keep such matters in perspective, and consider them only in their proper degree. Trouble in the Daniels marriage fifteen years ago, a Palin daughter knocked-up (or caught speeding), or the Bush twins engaging un under-age drinking – those should not merit much more than a passing note in the paper or a biographical sketch. Such things should only become matters for deeper scrutiny and perhaps disqualify a candidate when there is a pattern of conduct so outrageous and/or so out of keeping with the candidate’s platform and professed values as to undermine that candidate’s ability to do the job effectively. That is true of Republicans and Democrats – regardless of the position of that candidate on “family values”. Every candidate is going to be an imperfect human being with imperfect family members. So let's focus on qualifications and ideas instead of the "gotcha" scandals related to those imperfections.

The question, of course, is how we get past what a goof friend calls "tabloidization of American politics and culture". After all, we've long seen that sleaze sells, and not just in the modern era. Such scandals are, in their own way, entertaining -- in the same sense as replays of high-speed crashes at the Indy 500 are entertaining, and for the same reason. Are We the People prepared to forgo the titillation of scandals (especially sex scandals) when they are no more than tangentially relevant to a candidate's qualifications for office AND they are prepared to deal with the issue forthrightly? Are we prepared to penalize media outlets and candidates by withholding our patronage and votes in order to keep well-qualified Americans willing to participate in the political process? Will we make this "politics of personal destruction" a strategy that costs those who engage in it more than it costs the victims? We must -- or else we find ourselves stuck with the bland, the blank, and the bald-faced liars as our choices for leadership.

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