In recent days I’ve read on p.ie and elsewhere and heard on the airwaves about people who are decent, honest and honourable and for this set of reasons should be public representatives or hold high office.
One of the most impressive moments of the 2008 for me wasn’t any part of the razzamatazz but I guess surprisingly a contribution from Sen. Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate with Gov. Sarah Palin. Yeah, I’m that much of an anorak I watched it and even paid attention to what was said.
It’s about 2 minutes 45 seconds into this clip of the later stages of the debate* in which the nominees were asked about bi-partisan ship. It highlighted for me a problem with modern politics in general and with an interesting Irish quirk to it. The problem is that too often people on the left and the right tend to question the motivation of their opponents. To listen to members of the left you’d swear that those on the right were oppose to people having good paying jobs and good schools and access to decent health care. And you’d swear blind after listening to some of the right that those on the left were planning to lock us all up for thinking a thought that diverged from the acceptable norm or buying for extra lessons for our kids after school.
The real focus in political shouldn’t be arguments over the motives we imagine for ourselves that others must have but their judgement and the substance of their argument that they make for the policy position they are supporting. It’s part of the key difference between those who are politics for personal ambition and advancement and those of us who want to see changes in matters of policy and substance.
The Irish quirk is that we have become so used to the widespread myth that all politicians are inherently dishonest, indecent and dishonourable that the mere fact someone comes forward who it is suggested is decent, honest and honourable even if they are from the same party as the incumbent that this is is a sufficient reason to vote for them. To give them a go this time. It’s not!
Instead, those traits and others like them should be a necessary** condition but not a sufficient one for voting for someone. We should be able as adults to presume unless it is shown otherwise that all those who put themselves forward for election are decent, honest and honourable. Those who crow loudest about being decent, honest and honourable are implying that all others in the field aren’t. And the same goes for the I’m local, I’m ordinary, I’m just one of you, schtick we often hear from candidates.
I don’t think Brian Cowen or Brian Lenihan or the rest of the members of the government are somehow inherently dishonest, indecent or dishonourable. I do think they is balls out wrong with the approach they’ve adopted with dealing with the various problems we’ve been faced with and they were plain wrong in how they dealt with the economy prior to the crisis which in turn made a bad situation into an awful one. Like kids that played with matches and burned and badly damaged the family home, it’s not that they did it out of shear badness but rather out of lack of cop-on.
*The full text is below but it reads much more dryly than it come across on tv at the time.
Sen. Biden “I have been able to work across the aisle on some of the most controversial issues and change my party’s mind, as well as Republicans’, because I learned a lesson from Mike Mansfield.
Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day — he — I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, “What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?” I said, “I’d feel like a jerk.”
He said, “Joe, understand one thing. Everyone’s sent here for a reason, because there’s something in them that their folks like. Don’t question their motive.”
I have never since that moment in my first year questioned the motive of another member of the Congress or Senate with whom I’ve disagreed. I’ve questioned their judgment.
I think that’s why I have the respect I have and have been able to work as well as I’ve been able to have worked in the United States Senate. That’s the fundamental change Barack Obama and I will be bring to this party, not questioning other people’s motives.”
** I’m channelling my inner engineer with recourse to a standard maths phrase of a condition “being necessary but not sufficient”. In other words, it’s presence doesn’t prove a thing but it’s absence does disprove something.