Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 31, 2010

Ignore platitudes, focus on principles

“Those are my principles and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.” ~ Groucho Marx

I’ll be conducting what are essentially job interviews in the near future; if you’re a registered voter, you should be, too. Labor Day marks the unofficial election season kickoff, so over the next several weeks, I’ll be interviewing candidates for local elected offices with my editorial board colleagues.

I ignore the trite platitudes that litter campaign brochures, ads and stump speeches. Of course, everyone supports improved efficiency, vibrant economies, more jobs, reduced crime, balanced budgets, and revitalized downtowns; yes, we’re all concerned about the children. Platitudes bore me, and worse, they waste everyone’s time.

Screen shot (taken 8/29/10) of platitudes on the home page of Forrest Williams' campaign web site

Think you’ve spotted a platitude? Here’s a test: Ask yourself if any sane person would disagree with the suspect sentiment. If the answer is no, you  identified a time-wasting, tells-you-nothing campaign platitude.

What’s important to determine is how a candidate plans to achieve those universally acceptable goals: What programs does he advocate and what other programs will he cut or taxes will he raise to pay for them?

And even more important, why?

During candidate interviews, I’m always trying to decipher not just what candidates think about local issues but why they think that way.

I try to determine the underlying principle — if any — justifying a position. For example, if a candidate supports “peanut butter spread” cuts where all functions share the reduction burden evenly, I ask why she favors that approach rather than prioritizing cuts according to the importance of the function under review. As the interview progresses, I listen for other positions that are based on the principle that she articulates. I’m looking for consistent adherence to her stated principles.

My judgment about a candidate is largely based on the wisdom of the underlying principles he articulates and my rating drops significantly if I detect inconsistency in his application of his stated principles. I’m not seeking ideologues; far from it. Instead, I’m seeking critical thinkers who understand why they take the positions they advocate.

I do this because I lack a crystal ball; I cannot know the myriad of issues that might arise during an elected official’s tenure. However, if I elect critical thinkers who consistently follow sound principles, I can be reasonably sure that they will act wisely in situations that I cannot predict today.

When candidates cannot articulate principles, fail to demonstrate critical thinking skills, or do not apply stated principles consistently, I immediately have several concerns:

• Is he a non-thinking party man whose true principle is to do whatever the political machine tells him to do, whether it is a wise course of action or not?

• Is she subject to the whims of special interests and can be swayed with carrot or stick pressure to bend to the will of big-money donors or power players?

• Does he lack the intelligence or forethought to articulate principles or to think critically?

None of these possibilities speaks well of any candidate.

I hope you’ll study all of the local candidates who are asking you to hire them and try to decipher their principles. Local candidates are very easy to meet even if you’re not a member of an editorial board.

Decisions made by school board, water board, county supervisor, and city council officials not only dramatically affect your day-to-day life, but these folks might well be vying to represent you and hundreds of thousands or millions of others on the state or national level in a few years.

Here’s an example: Sharron Angle, the tea party-endorsed Republican candidate for Nevada’s Senate seat, started her political career as a Nye County School Board trustee who, according to the Pahrump Valley Times, opposed black football jerseys because she believed black to be an evil color. That should have been a red flag for local voters. Angle is now on the national stage criticizing unemployment insurance and those who use the benefits for which they paid while working, abortion even in the case of rape and incest, a vigorous press, and social security.

Perhaps if Angle’s principles had been more carefully scrutinized by voters when she was a local school board candidate, her political ambitions and frightening, extremist agenda might have been thwarted much sooner.

If you agree that deciphering candidates’ principles is key to choosing good elected officials, please remember to disregard campaign platitudes and instead carefully evaluate candidates before you vote.

It’s hard but important work.

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