Politicians walk fine line between private belief and public image

    Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell probably wishes he could go back in time and have a long conversation with his 1989 self while he was attending the Christian Broadcasting Network University, putting the final touches on his thesis paper. Not yet an accomplished politician, he still has to learn one of the most important laws of politics: Never say exactly what you believe, and under no circumstances write it down.

    For those of you who might not be familiar with this story, McDonnell would eventually compose such fateful sentences as “man’s basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse or homosexuality” and describes women entering the work force as “detrimental.” One can imagine McDonnell’s political opponents gleefully uncovering his 20-year-old political indiscretion and gleefully proclaiming, “I have you now, I know what you believe.”
    Belief, or perceived belief, in anything can be disastrous for political life. A politician’s career depends on getting a majority agreement; people generally elect the politician whose views most closely mirror their own.

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    However, convincing people you are right and they should support your position takes time and talent. It is much easier to simply agree with the majority opinions rather than attempting to get them to agree with you. Therefore, being a successful politician entails a solid grasp of public opinions and the flexibility to shift with the fickle tastes of the moment.

    Consider U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klan member who received a 100-percent member approval rating with the NAACP in 2004 and has summarized his policy on race as, “My mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anyone.’” His position on race relations seems to be determined by political necessity. He did not let such pesky things as beliefs stand in the way of political office.

    This is probably the cornerstone of a political strategy that has served him well for over the better part of a century. If he had stuck to his old professed beliefs, he would be long gone.

    We, the public, understand this about our politicians. We know they don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. Yet, evidence that they hold or have held beliefs too far out of the mainstream has the power to smash any candidate’s political ambition — even if they deny it or insist that they have changed.

    The controversy involving President Barack Obama’s radical pastor is a good example of this. Of course, he survived it, but McDonnell will have a harder time, considering that he wrote the offending document.
    In order to become governor, he will have to put sufficient distance between himself and his old self. He has already issued two somewhat contradictory statements saying that the paper was a purely academic exercise and does not represent his true views, and also that his views have evolved since 1989. If he plays the politics game correctly, he may win.

    But consider what this says about our elected officials. This system favors those who have no true beliefs, or at the very least keep them under lock and key. Those who are elected and reelected are the ones who, unfettered by a specific viewpoint, are able to embody the majority view of the moment. On the one hand, they are responsive to the electorate, an important facet of democracy; on the other, they are a bunch of spineless opportunists.

    E-mail Ed Innace at einnace@wm.edu.


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