Personality, Policies, or Approach?

When we decide which political candidate to support in a given election, it seems that most commentators look at only two dimensions:  (1) each candidate’s personality, and especially whether the candidate seems to be the type of person we would “like to have a beer with;” and (2) each candidate’s list of policy proposals.  Often, these commentators will speak of opposing candidates as if these two dimensions were the only dimensions to be considered.  After all, once we know the quality of a candidate’s personality and understand the quality of that candidate’s policy positions on the issues that seem important to us, what more is there to know?

The Spirited Reasoner would argue that a candidate’s approach to policies should be viewed as more important than either the candidate’s personality or the policies the candidate publicly espouses.

Why so?

A candidate’s outward personality tells us little about that candidate’s ability to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.  Some of the most charismatic individuals in the history of the world turned out to be con artists, tyrants, or ineffectual leaders once they gained power.  The fact that I might feel more comfortable having a beer with one candidate rather than another might tell me something about that candidate’s social style, but would it really tell me anything useful about that candidate’s superiority as an elected official?  I can recall having a beer with some fantastically entertaining friends over the course of my adult life, many of whom I cannot imagine ever supporting in a political campaign.

A candidate’s policy positions on a list of important issues is often considered to be a better indication of that candidate’s fitness to govern.  But I would argue that this approach, though somewhat better, is still woefully inadequate.  Issues change; sometimes they change dramatically over a period of weeks, if not days or even hours.  In the 1960 presidential debates, for example, the question of U. S. support for the islands of Quemoy and Matsu seemed to be among the most important issues of the day.  Yet, almost immediately after the election, both islands seemed to vanish from public attention as if they had never been important islands at all.  What good was it for voters to know how Kennedy and Nixon felt about Quemoy and Matsu if the issue turned out to be dwarfed by the (apparently) much more important issues that followed–namely the escalation of the Vietnam War, the enactment of Civil Rights legislation, Medicare, and Medicaid?

I believe it is the candidate’s approach to issues–i. e., the methodologies used by the candidate in identifying and solving social problems–that should be given most weight by Spirited Reasoners when casting a ballot.  Even if I happen to disagree with these policy positions, did this candidate arrive at these positions through a process of objective, scientific reason and reflection based on values common to our society?  Does this candidate make it a habit to approach all social problems in this way?

I can imagine voting enthusiastically for a candidate whose personality style is different from mine and whose policy conclusions are different from mine at the moment, but who has demonstrated a thoughtful approach that will serve the common good on more issues than not over the long run.  In other words, I believe we should be voting for those candidates who are most likely to face each new and challenging issue with the thoughtfulness and objectivity it deserves, and whose ultimate decisions on most, if not all, issues will spring logically from a well-considered application of the values We the People hold in common.

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