For candidates, policy must outweigh personality

We’ve all heard a great deal about the 2008 presidential candidates over the course of this long, grueling campaign season. We’ve watched the pundits break down the political affiliations of the American public state by state; we’ve monitored the consequences of the appearance of a tear in Senator Hillary Clinton’s eye; we’ve agonized over the question of whether America is ready for a female president, or an African-American president, or a Mormon president.

What we haven’t heard enough about are the issues and resolutions that will effectively govern this country in the coming year. Instead of asking their analysts “Who’s right?” “Who’s wrong?” “How certain are the promises?” and “What can be expected of the results?” most media outlets have confined their analysis to voter preference and policy differentiation.

We’re much more likely to know the ins and outs of the individual campaigning processes than to be familiar with the platforms at the heart of the campaigns. Of course, this is not a new problem; campaigning has never been remarkable for its ability to avoid obsession with spinning character. And we can’t just blame contemporary media.

In 1840, presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, a wealthy Virginian, was painted as the candidate of “log cabins and hard cider” and succeeded in achieving widespread support. “The time has come when the cry is change,” Henry Clay announced at a rally for Harrison. “Every breeze says change, every interest of the country demands it … we have fallen, gentlemen, upon hard times, and the remedy seems to be hard cider.” As the French say, la plus ca change, la plus c’est la meme chose (“The more things change, the more they stay the same”).

So what’s to be done when the campaign becomes more about the candidate than about the policies they support? First, we shouldn’t deny the problem. Some voters gauge a candidate’s leadership capabilities based on his or her individual personality traits and performance under great pressure. These voters say that perceived character and public presentation are important indicators of a candidate’s ability to lead with a firm hand, present a positive face to the rest of the world, unite the country and inspire people to care.

This isn’t necessarily true.

A campaign is often a poor measure of a candidate’s leadership capability. If we try to focus on character traits, campaigns will fixate their attention on manipulating the candidates’ image in order to conform to normative ideas of what a good leader would look like. If the public is constantly trying to glean information about “values,” theatrical attempts to prove virtue will abound.

On the other hand, if the public and media focus on issues and policy, candidates might be forced to enter more substantive discussions. We’d still see them on television, talking to crowds, but we’d be able to judge their ability in a more meaningful way. We’d see them reason, respond to criticism and attempt to inspire with their ideas. In refusing to give in to image worship, we’d be telling the candidates that if they want us to focus on them as individual leaders, then they need to let us know what they want to accomplish and why.

At the end of the day, palpable change is enacted in Washington. The president may be far more restricted than people imagine, but his or her priorities matter. Advisors, appointees and the think tanks that find themselves in favor fall into roughly the same political camp as the president. Together, they have the ability to change the direction of our country. A president who tries to paint “change” or “experience” or “unity” or “faith” on any issue is not just another face if he gets elected.

It’s up to us to engage our friends, parents and professors in discussion about the policies and ideas behind this campaign. 2008 is expected to be a watershed election, but not simply because of the sex, race or religion of the candidate we may elect. In November, at a critical juncture in American history, U.S. citizens will vote into office an individual who will indelibly effect our families, businesses and lives for the next four years. We have the chance to influence that effect. Yet the only way to act on this opportunity is to stop focusing on the polls and start talking about what each candidate really stands for.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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