Political litmus tests

I've often pondered why anyone would run for public office. There's a lot of overtime, as well as personal risk and overhead, to put it mildly. So what's it all about? Power, plain and simple.

Sometimes people's quest for power is not a healthy one. And more often than not, the people who might be most responsible with public power are not those likely to be the most aggressive in obtaining it. As I've interviewed more and more candidates over the years, the issues in any race can become less important than why a person is seeking public power and how they approach making decisions about complex, expensive public systems.

One enduring lesson I've learned is to ask candidates to name a situation where they took a position that later turned out to be wrong. Ask what they learned from that. Listen and learn.

It doesn't need to be a big thing. It doesn't need to be a political situation if it's a first-time candidate. Any parent ought to be able to relate such an experience. Anyone who's ever tried to accomplish anything of any complexity should be able to. If a candidate's answer is too canned, ask more probing questions. If the candidate is stumped, be wary.

Lack of a candid answer to this question is one sign of a candidate who's desire for office could be driven more by their ego than their wisdom, more by polling than principle.

Candidates learn to be on their best behavior in public. They tend to surround themselves with true believers who cater to them. And just because someone goes door-to-door doesn't mean they're the right person to wield public power. It may just mean that they have time on their hands. It may make them master of the 5-minute flow and glow. It doesn't make them a good manager or judge of conflicts or responsible with the public purse.

While many voters are trying to figure out where a candidate stands on an issue, what matters as much is what their relationship to power has been. What other positions of power have they held? What have they accomplished? How have they failed? Have they held others -- and themselves -- accountable? How?

All humans make mistakes. What's important for positions of power is how that individual approached their own fallibility -- and that of others.

A few other signs to learn from include:

  • Do they answer questions with "I don't know" -- instead of making up an answer on a topic?

  • Do they really answer questions that are asked or do they ramble on with their own predetermined "themes"?

  • Have they demonstrated a capacity to learn and a capacity to be tolerant of some things -- and not others? Where do they draw those lines?

  • How do they clean things up when they -- or their associates -- have made a mistake?

    These are all measures of how responsible a person is in their dealings. But this is not what campaigns are designed to be about. Campaigns are pretty much explicitly about telling you the things they think you want to hear. And they are more and more sophisticated at targeting what that is. It may or may not coincide with what that candidate is actually able or willing to accomplish once in office.

    This also does not mean that you can believe whatever you hear that's negative about a candidate. People in "attack mode" play fast and loose with the facts and the media lets them get away with it.

    Getting behind the veil with candidates takes time. It's one of the main reasons I became active in the Sierra Club's political endorsements process. Over time, you meet lots of candidates and see lots of campaign tactics -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

    How open candidates and their representatives are to learning on a campaign trail is another indicator of how open they will be to learning about important issues when they are elected. If they already know all the answers, the chances of them being willing to work with diverse constituents is reduced, if not non-existent. I've learned to pay attention to how willing a person is to even listen to opposition arguments. Do they engage in real arguments or just rely on simplistic beliefs?

    When faced with facts that contradict something they believe, do they integrate the new information, or deny it? Denial can be the preferred political and psychological course when reality is inconvenient or costly to favored constituents. When they feel compelled to deny something for political reasons, are they honest about that?

    Being willing to acknowledge ones' own shortcomings and take responsibility for them is a key test of character.

    Another is understanding of the importance of the concept of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

    This is a sacred concept when it comes to achieving justice. Decisions made on partial truths from interested parties can seldom accomplish a public good. The public good of the integrated commons is beyond that of the good of the individual pieces. Those in a position to represent the public good must understand how to integrate the interests of parties not able to participate -- as well as being fair to those who are.

    It can be summed up: Are they running to gain power for their own interests or are they running to gain power for a definition of the public good? If they're saying they're running for the public good, how does their record define that? Do they try to integrate all aspects of the public good, or just how they define it?

    You won't find answers to this in any campaign ad or brochure, but only by seeking diligently from others who've sought out candidates' personal and professional records before the campaign.

    Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at

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