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Why character issues usually don’t matter

May 29, 2016

Many people who hate Clinton policies think the email scandal  will help defeat her electorally, and more importantly that it reveals something special about how she will govern. Unless she is (improbably) indicted or charged,  the email scandal will not hurt her politically, and also reveals very little about  how she will govern. This is generally true in politics about this sort of scandal.

Lets start with the idea that this will hurt her politically.  Most of the time, well known politicians are not brought down by scandal short of a criminal conviction. Think of “family values.”  David Vitter who has been able to remain a sitting Senator despite the prostitution scandal. He had to give up his run for Governor, because the scandal first came to light too late in the game. The email scandal, whatever its merits, has been around long enough to be unlikely to hurt Hillary. There have been so many phony scandals around the Clintons that at this point, even if a real one turns up, it will be tough to get anyone who is not already a Republican to believe them.  And that is mostly the case. Even when people are brought down by scandals, mostly it is due to  having already lost political support. The one exception is when somebody can actually be brought to trial or believes that they can be, and resigns as part of a deal to avoid jail.  Short of that, scandal gets ignored.  And when it comes to character in general, people ignore most scandals. People do very much judge politicians on character, but not by the stuff normally thought of as “Character issues”. They judge character by indicators of what side the politicians are on.  Judging politicians by which side they are on rather than personal characters is actually quite a reasonable thing to do. The problem is when that judgement is based on symbolism rather than substance.

For example, as a lefty, I think Ronald Reagan was a horrible President. He was a liar and often seemed to have trouble distinguishing reality from parts he played in movies. He pushed Pentagon spending up, busted unions, shifting tax burdens from the rich and upper middle classes to working and poor people. He slowed down, and in some cases even reversed civil rights gains.  Here is the thing though. Most people who voted for him wanted those things. They saw which side he was on and supported it.  I know very few people who voted for Reagan who regret it. Even if they suffer for his policies today, they find scapegoats for what is happening to them that don’t include their beloved Reagan.  In spite of his personal issues, he made it clear which side he was on and pretty much governed the way those who supported him expected.

And in general that is true. If a politician has actually picked a side, and sticks to it, that is a much more important indicator of what that politician will do than their personal character.  So I’m not only picking on the right here: Adam Clayton Powell was a staunch Black left-liberal and civil rights leader, who was well known to be personally corrupt. But he was re-elected no matter how deep his hand was in the till because his constituents correctly perceived that he would fight on their side on issues important to them, and do so  more intelligently and with greater strength than any bland characterless anti-corruption replacement.

Thus even on the immediate political level, the email scandal has no value. It has no impact on the perception of which side Hillary is on. Moreover, focusing or not on scandals represents a disparity on views of what  electoral politics are about.

Some view politics as the art of getting good people into office. If good people are elected then they will use that office to do good things – to the extent circumstances allow. That is a view most politicians love. Who does not see themselves as good people? So any politician either running for or serving in office can thus justify just about anything that helps their political career. After all, say politicians to themselves, if awesome me can advance to higher office, then awesome things will naturally follow. And, most politicians seem to believe, given that I’m elected rather than king, really anything I do is pretty awesome cause awesome me is here being awesome at making the hard choices.  Note that for such politicians, the more they can lower expectations about what is possible, the more awesome they appear.

The other view of electoral politics is that the point of  electing someone to office is for them to accomplish some things. And to the extent they can’t win everything they are to fight for them and win as much as possible. The former  is the difference between the politician who wants to do something and the politician who wants to be something. Neither type can win everything. But the politician who is out to do rather than be will try and fight for what they want, and get as much of it as they can. If they have to take half a loaf or even a quarter loaf , it is as  compromise to be used as a basis for further fights to get more.  A politician out to *be* something will  accept  that quarter loaf as a glorious victory – which means down the line  if the quarter loaf is cut in half, that is a glorious victory too, cause it is still more than a single slice. The majority of politicians who run on personal awesomeness, depend on a constant lowering of expectations, so that wherever they are is the best possible outcome in this best of all possible worlds.  Some of them, of course, pretend to be on a side they are not learning the cultural signifiers of those in that fight. But that is something only the most skilled politicians such as the Clintons can do.

At any rate, scandals are effective in only a certain circumstances. One is when they can lead to actual indictment or charging. Another is when they undermine a political narrative about where a politician stands. A third is when an entirely new scandal, as opposed to a mere update on a well known existing scandal, can be broken at the last moment. The Clinton email scandal does none of these. It does not clarify how conservative her economic and foreign policy history is, or for that matter how much her support for welfare and criminal deform have hurt women and black people far more than initiatives she has supported to help them.  It is not likely to lead to actual prosecution under a sitting Democratic President.  And because it has dripped out a little at a time, it will not shock anybody.













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