2013 Elections / Hampton Roads / Local / Politics

Day: A parade of ill-prepared candidates

duh-tg-ver-4-blogPilot editorial writer Shawn Day had a blistering column in today’s paper about the candidates that are being interviewed for the paper’s endorsements.

Several House candidates, when asked their views on certain issues, have told me and other members of The Pilot’s Editorial Board that they lacked information to offer an informed opinion.

These aren’t obscure matters. We’re talking about whether they would’ve approved the transportation proposal that raised taxes this year. Whether to lift the ban on mining uranium. Whether lawmakers should approve terms of public-private transportation projects before they’re signed. The personhood bill.

But party labels and platitudes too often substitute for the kind of substantive qualifications and knowledge in short supply, both on the campaign trail and in Richmond.

I think what we are seeing here is the clear separation between politics and policy. The former, around which campaigns are built, have come to dominate the conversation. The latter seems an afterthought , only something to be considered when sitting in front of the editorial board. Remember this?

Even the most concerned voters – the ones who take the time to attend candidate forums and debates – are rarely exposed to real policy positions and issues. The very nature of candidate forums and debates – whereby the candidate is given two minutes to respond to what is often a question that is outside of the purview of the office the candidate is seeking – tends to reinforce the idea that talking points are all that are necessary.  Candidate websites are not help: most just parrot the same bullet points.

There is no “there” there.

How in the heck are the voters supposed to a) learn about policy and b) determine where the candidate stands on said policy?

We can’t. So we rely on the same shallow BS of talking points – or just party ID – to make a decision.

Two things I’d like to see:

  • No more 2-minute answers. Set up forums and debates so that they cover less ground and allow more time – maybe 5-7 minutes – for each candidate to answer substantive policy questions that affect the office being sought. For example, forum moderators need to stop asking federal questions of candidates seeking state office. If the moderator doesn’t know the difference, then get another moderator. Further, moderators have to be more than time-keepers. Cut off candidates that aren’t answering the question that was asked.
  • Make ed board interviews public. If every candidate went into an ed board meeting knowing the public was going to see them answer tough questions, you can bet they would come in prepared. And if every ed board knew it was going to be seen, they wouldn’t ask softball questions.

We can’t expect an informed electorate if no one steps up to the plate.

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7 thoughts on “Day: A parade of ill-prepared candidates

  1. Pingback: Predictions on Pilot endorsements 2013 edition | VIVIAN J. PAIGE | All Politics is Local

  2. I’ve met more than my fair share of empty shirts in politics, Vivian, but I have to disagree with your ultimate conclusion that “we can’t expect an informed electorate if no one steps up to the plate.” I think Shawn was a little bit closer to the truth in his own conclusion: “It’s a horrifying embrace of ignorance. And, unfortunately, a view that frequently aligns with a substantial portion of the electorate.

    Politicians and politicos wouldn’t run campaigns in this manner if it hadn’t been proven to us over the years that it works most of the time better than most anything else. Voters don’t respond well to facts; you posted an article several years ago citing a Univ. of Michigan study of social psychology that revealed a high propensity for voters to reject facts that disagreed with the preexisting cognitive frameworks through which they understand the world. Beyond the scientific research over the years that has illuminated voter behavior for us, we also can point to past experiences to show us that being the most educated man in the room is hardly a clear path to victory; one of the knocks against Al Gore in 2000 was that he spent too much time lecturing folks while George Bush was the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with. That’s not to say that it’s preferable to run a total flipping nitwit for public office–you correctly point out how Herman Cain’s inability to articulate even a talking-points level of understanding on the issues undermined his primary campaign, and I’d further point to Rick Perry’s debate performance in 2011 and Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric in 2008 as similar examples–but a critical component of those flame-outs is that they persuaded people who were otherwise prepared to support those candidates that they were too stupid to trust with any sort of decision-making authority. Even if Sarah Palin hadn’t revealed herself to be woefully ignorant on most public issues, I still wasn’t going to vote for her or her running mate. Most Democrats weren’t; the only way being an idiot harms you in electoral politics is if you’re so stupid that even the people who might otherwise vote for you can’t ignore it. If you’re a *functional* moron, your partisan supporters will nevertheless conclude as a matter of simple heuristics that you’re still a better alternative than the candidate from the other party.

    The sad and simple truth today is that the political discourse of our state and national governments are a shockingly accurate reflection of the discourse taking place within the body politic. That’s true not only of the disregard for knowledge; I would posit to you that the extraordinary brinksmanship we saw earlier this month in Washington, D.C. is a natural extension how the voting public expresses itself nowadays. Particularly, the 2011 GOP primary revealed a persistent and intractable split between the party’s establishment voters and their ultra-conservative activists who kept migrating from one Not-Romney to the next. As tempting as it is to hold up people like Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint as scapegoats for the the internecine warfare that broke out among Congressional Republicans over the past weeks, it’s important to remember: it’s not the tea party’s politicians but the tea party’s voters who started that particular fight.

    It’s certainly tempting to blame our candidates and political practitioners; it’s not nearly so depressing as acknowledging that maybe we have the government we deserve. On the bright side, if this is our fault collectively among the voting public, then at least we all own part of the solution. Maybe if more of us resolve to stop acting like a bunch of petulant, childish halfwits–maybe if we stop dressing up like Thomas friggin’ Paine and standing out on street corners with a Gadsden flag in one hand and a protest sign focused on some Glenn Beck-inspired screed in the other–maybe we’ll get the government we deserve then, too.

    • I think you miss my point. I believe the public embraces ignorance because that’s what the politicians feed them. Few pols are willing to engage in policy debates; rather, they repeat talking points. Perhaps it is because the pols don’t understand policy, either. But that doesn’t change their responsibility to educate themselves – and us – on the issues.

      That’s the admonition of the Jefferson quote that is posted above.

      • No, I caught it. I don’t think it’s the political class’s responsibility to educate the citizenry–it won’t work, and even if it were to work, is that really desirable? Jefferson also wrote that “[t]he basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep [the] right [to freedom of the press]; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

        I certainly want an educated citizenry, but I don’t think the way to accomplish that is to feed the electorate information through an intermediary who’s interested in providing only that information that will ultimately net him more votes. Our founders envisioned the task of educating the populace on current affairs as falling to the press. There are two critical failures to my mind that are both but-for causes that explain why people today are so politically stupid.

        1. Information consumers increasingly flock to those media outlets who tell them what they want to hear. I’m talking about Fox News on the right. I’m also talking about MSNBC on the left. Neither network created the phenomenon of a politically-aligned media outfit; they were beaten to the punch long ago, but at least the National Review had William Buckley.

        2. Those outlets that try to maintain a tone of neutrality achieve this tone by providing “equal time” without of providing any sort of factual context that might be construed by someone as “bias.” Case in point: Crossfire is somehow a television show again.

        I applaud Shawn Day for publicly calling out those candidates who have learned from the modern electorate that they can get by with a minimal amount of knowledge and effort. I posit the notion that the solution to this problem starts a whole lot closer to home than he immediately realizes.

        • Yes, the press has a role.And yes, there is far too much “both sides do it” in the reporting. But the op-ed pages of the newspapers don’t do that. I think of Fox and MSNBC as the talking-heads equivalent of the op-ed pages, but without any commitment to telling the truth.

          But that doesn’t get to my fundamental problem, which is the lack of policy information. Give people the facts first – then give them an opinion on why to support or oppose them. That’s what I try to do with my weekly column. That’s what I’d like to see politicians do,

          Instead what we get is 24/7 spin.

          • That’s certainly true.

            The bizarre thing from my perspective is that speaking objectively, it has never been easier to be a supremely well-informed citizen. With limited exceptions related mostly to national security, anyone with an internet connection has access to all the same information that our members of Congress use in making decisions. CBO has a website. BLS has a website. BEA has a website. If you want to know how much money the U.S. Department of Education spent per school aged child in the Houston metropolitan statistical area in 2009, there’s a website for that.

            Unfortunately, so many of our neighbors are don’t enjoy learning and knowing things the way you and I might.

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