Policies aren’t the only thing that matter in elections

An analog clock reading 11:032012-10-24 / 2012-W43-3T23:03:44-05:00 / 0x5088ba20

Categories: politics

Much of the talk about “values” and “character” that surrounds elections is phony, not uncommon for campaign rhetoric, but it’s a mistake for voters to disregard these issues.

Every once in a while, I’ll run across some online quiz where you answer some questions about your policy preferences—e.g. should we spend more or less on war—and it identifies the presidential candidate you should support. I regard these results with some skepticism. It’s not just because I’m worried the issues might be cherry-picked, and it’s not just because such questionnaires usually fail to ask about the strengths of my beliefs. It’s because such metrics disregard the candidates’ competence and trustworthiness.

I moved away from Portland in 2003, haven’t lived there since, and doubt I’ll live there again. So, let me disclose up front that I don’t have much of a stake in the upcoming mayoral election there. But I have been following it, because I find it interesting.

Portland uses a nonpartisan two-round system for municipal elections. Advancing to the second round are Charlie Hales, a former city commissioner, and Jefferson Smith, a state legislator and founder of the Bus Project, a group that gets young people involved in progressive politics in Oregon. (Here’s a picture of me wearing a button reading “I’m on the Bus”. I’m posing with the guy who ran this awesome ad.) Both are Democrats, which is unsurprising given that Democrats outnumber Republicans by over a 3-to-1 ratio in Multnomah County.

Smith seemed like a rising star in Oregon politics, but some unpleasant background surfaced in the mayoral race. First, there was his “embarrassing” driving record (to use his word), which included a citation for driving with a suspended license.

More troubling were two incidents of violence. He punched a woman while in college, back in 1993, hard enough that she needed stitches. The victim told police that he had spent the evening leading up to the punch harassing her. In a stunningly idiotic move, Smith turned up uninvited at the home of the victim on the day the story would break, ostensibly to assure her that he wouldn’t identify her publicly. This and his failure to disclose the incident earlier are distressing.

More recently, last year, Smith was kicked out of a pick-up basketball game for fighting. Other witnesses say Smith punched a man in the groin; Smith denies he hit the groin specifically. Before that, in January 2011, he was banned from a co-ed soccer league for a season after pushing another player.

(In the interest of fairness, I will also point out that there are allegations that Hales, Smith’s opponent, claimed Washington residency for tax purposes while continuing to vote in Oregon.)

Unsurprisingly, Smith’s candidacy has been hurt by this. Some organizations have withdrawn their endorsement. In response, Smith’s campaign blamed the media for “character assassination”. Quoth the Oregonian,

Jefferson Smith supporters are trying to raise money to buy ads that would blame the candidate’s recent troubles on “gotcha” journalism.

An email circulating this week says coverage of the Portland mayoral candidate in The Oregonian and Willamette Week newspapers amounts to “character assassination.” The email lists other supporters and asks for money to buy ads in the two newpapers.

“Their coverage has bypassed the issues and the positions of the candidates in favor of ‘gotcha’ journalism,” the email reads. “Portland deserves better.” The group is also planning a news conference this week, the email says.

This is absurd. Portland does deserve a debate on policy issues, but a candidate’s character and competency is also important. It’s impossible to predict exactly what issues an elected official will face—I don’t think most Portland voters predicted that water fluoridation would later become an issue when they voted in the last election—and so Smith is asking voters to trust his judgement to make decisions on unforeseen issues. His past decisions, the good and the bad, is all voters have to go on. And so it’s absolutely appropriate for the media to shed light on a candidate’s past, and what the candidate has done to learn from their past, especially in the wake of the candidate’s failure to disclose major incidents.

Likewise, competency is an important issue. Even if a candidate is on the right side of all the issues, they might still be terrible at doing the job. Temperament comes into play as well; I believe the current dysfunction in Congress has less to do with policy positions and more to do with the poor temperament: the unwillingness to compromise, the preference starting fights over finding solutions. Likewise, electing a mayor that has a problem with punching people probably doesn’t encourage a functioning city government.

Smith blames the media for his political problems, instead of his own poor handling of his past misbehavior. Smith seems to think that character issues are unimportant. That, alone, is probably a good reason for Portland voters to be reject him.