“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
So said British statesman Edmund Burke in his famous 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol. Similarly, James Madison wrote in Federalist 57 that voters should choose the candidates “who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
Wise counsel, albeit forlorn in today’s campaign world in which most people—especially primary voters—back the candidates who are most shameless in sacrificing their judgment to the voters’ opinions.
Burke and Madison might well have approved the judgment-focused questions that pro-Obama journalists have so furiously excoriated moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, of ABC News, for asking at the April 16 debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales accused the two of “shoddy, despicable performances.” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg said that they had committed “something akin to a federal crime.” The New York Times’s David Carr called it a “disgusting spectacle.”
Such commentators were especially livid that for much of the first half of the two-hour debate the moderators bored in on Obama’s gaffe about “bitter” laid-off small-towners who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”; questioned his closeness to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright through many years of Wright’s anti-American, white-bashing rants; and brought up his more glancing connection to William Ayers, a University of Illinois professor who was a Weather Underground leader and (by his own admission) bomber almost 40 years ago.
Many who have been disposed to admire Obama, including me, see these matters as raising troublesome questions about his judgment and character. Many of us have come to wonder whether the purportedly post-ideological Obama is so close to his party’s business-bashing, pacifistic left wing as to skew his judgment on matters ranging from the capital-gains tax to Iraq. Perhaps our suspicions are mistaken. But Obama has hardly laid them to rest.
To passionate Obama devotees, however, questions about Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and the like are “specious and gossipy trivia,” in Shales’s words. They wanted Gibson and Stephanopoulos—who also asked about Iran, Iraq, affirmative action, guns, and taxes (not to mention Hillary Clinton’s fantasies about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia)—to spend the entire time on policy issues.
But in Burke’s view, the most important question about any candidate is not his or her canned, soon-to-be-outdated position on this or that policy issue. It is what kind of judgment, character, and values he or she will bring to bear on the many impossible-to-foresee problems that will not be solved by consulting a position paper and issues too subtle to be illuminated by campaign debates.
Burke wanted elected officials not to be mere agents devoted to transmuting public opinion, campaign pledges, and factional agendas into law, but rather real leaders with the wisdom and judgment to choose better policies than the voters could choose for themselves. This aspiration reflected two fundamental insights. First, on many issues, such as how best to fix the health care system, the cost-benefit trade-offs are so complex that almost all voters (including me) lack the detailed knowledge necessary to discern which candidate has the best plan.
Second, on some issues, such as trade, hardships have so roiled many voters’ passions that they support protectionism and other unwise nostrums that will only make things worse.
(Obama was making a somewhat similar point when he spoke of “bitter” people voting against their own interests. His implication that voters don’t always know what’s best for them was correct, albeit impolitic. His suggestion that this is why they “cling” to guns and religion was pure condescension.)
Indeed, Madison wrote in Federalist 63 that a “temperate and respectable body” of leaders may “be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” He was touting the Senate’s six-year terms and freedom (until 1913) from direct accountability to the voters.
There is not much left (except the filibuster) of the Senate’s onetime counter-majoritarian role. Nor of the Burkean notion that political leaders should not be slaves to public opinion.
But most voters still do want leaders whose judgment they trust, whose character they respect, and whose values they share. And I suspect that the Gibson-Stephanopoulos questions were a lot more illuminating on these points than it would have been to solicit yet another mind-numbing round of distortions about the two candidates’ not-very-different health care plans, or another exercise in me-too NAFTA-bashing.
It was Obama who called for a national conversation about race. And preferences are the most vexing racial issue we face.
I also suspect that the Gibson-Stephanopoulos approach was more useful to voters than it would have been to serve up questions on the issues that Hertzberg reproached them for neglecting: the 4,000th American death in Iraq; the dismal economic news; the public’s glum mood; and the news of high-level administration approvals of brutal interrogation methods. Such questions would have amounted to little more than an invitation to compete in denouncing Bush.
What better way to test Obama’s judgment than to press him to confront—for the first time in a debate setting—the concerns of millions of voters that he had been all too comfortable with a minister given to hate-filled diatribes against white America and to praising the Jew-baiter Louis Farrakhan? And to explain whether he had more than a nodding acquaintance with Ayers, who told The New York Times in September 2001 that “I don’t regret setting bombs”?
What better way to shed light on Obama’s values than to ask him how to square his comments about “bitter” small-towners who “cling to guns or religion” with his purported respect for gun rights and devotion to Christianity?
When John McCain debates the Democratic nominee, journalists probably will—and certainly should—press him about his close ties to some of the lobbyists whose profession he so forcefully denounces, his pandering to far-right religious extremists, and his volcanic temper, and raise other questions about his judgment and character. Will Tom Shales and Hendrik Hertzberg be outraged to see the Republican so treated? Fat chance.
The Burkean view that judgment and character are paramount does not deny the importance of debating the policy issues, of course. And the most-illuminating debates may be those that turn not on complexities understood only by experts but on value judgments accessible to ordinary voters.
Stephanopoulos zeroed in on one such issue when he asked Obama, “How, specifically, would you recommend changing affirmative-action policies so that affluent African-Americans are not given advantages, and poor, less affluent whites are?”
Obama’s vague response was seen by Mickey Kaus, Slate’s astute blogger, as expanding on an earlier hint that the candidate might come out for ending racial affirmative-action preferences while supporting special consideration for people of any race who have shown promise by overcoming poverty or other hardships.
Such a move would be popular with independent voters: Polls have consistently shown overwhelming opposition to the racial preferences that have become entrenched in university admissions and government employment and contracting, among other walks of life. An Obama call for ending racial preferences would also, in my view, be good both for racial harmony and for most African-Americans. The current racial-preference regime stigmatizes those “beneficiaries” who could succeed without special treatment, sets up some others for failure, and does nothing at all for the disadvantaged.
But coming out against racial preferences would horrify civil-rights groups and other core Democratic constituencies and would amount to a major reversal for a man who has long supported such double standards. Indeed, Obama opposed the 2006 ballot initiative in which Michigan abolished governmental preferences based on race.
With similar ballot initiatives pending in four other states this year, the moderators of the coming debates between the Democratic nominee and McCain should press them to take definitive positions. After all, it was Obama himself who called for a national conversation about race. And preferences are the most vexing racial issue we face.
But if, as I suspect, Obama wants to straddle the issue and avoid offense to his Democratic base, look for some of the same folks who trashed Stephanopoulos and Gibson for spending too little time on the issues to trash future moderators for spending too much time on race.
But perhaps I underestimate Obama. Perhaps he will break with Democratic orthodoxy and reach out to independents and Republicans by stating clearly that fortunately born black kids such as his own daughters should not get racial preferences.
If Obama has the judgment and fortitude to do that—and to show independence from his party’s special interests in other ways—he might be able to put Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and the “bitter” gaffe behind him.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.