Monday, August 17, 2015

Candidates: Please Tell Us The Truth That We Need to Hear

“Tell the truth boldly, whether it hurts or not. Never pander….If truth is too much for intelligent people and sweeps them away, let them go; the sooner the better.”  --Swami Vivekananda

Twenty two. Twenty two! That’s the number of women and men running as candidates to become the President of the United States, on January 20th, 2017.  Two women and twenty men.  Five Democrats and 17 Republicans. Eleven former or current governors, seven ex or standing United States Senators, a real estate mogul, a retired high tech CEO, a neurosurgeon and a recent Secretary of State. And a partridge in a pear tree…

A somewhat seemingly diverse bunch in its own way, I suppose, hailing from places as different as their personalities: a sharp elbowed New Jersey boy, a soft spoken son of steamy Florida, an old boy Arkansas preacher, a diminutive Rhode Island politician.  All but three will one day collect a government workers’ pension.  Two come from Presidential relations and want to carry on the family tradition. Ideologically they range from the fiery Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont to the radically Libertarian Ron Paul of Kentucky. 

But each, in his or her own way, practices that oldest of political games.  Pandering.  That’s where a candidate tells us what we, in the electorate, want to hear, or does not tell us what we need to hear. So red hot is their desire to win, to take office, to sweep to victory, to govern, that the typical politician these days regularly says from the stump whatever their given audience is clamoring to be told.  They tell liberals exactly what they want to be told, and tell conservatives exactly what they want to be told too.

Or they just equivocate, prevaricate, dodge, or avoid the questions all together.  Last month candidate Hillary Clinton was directly asked whether she favors or opposes the Keystone pipeline, a proposal to pipe Canadian tar sands oil through the heart of the United States down to refineries in the south. Liberals and green voters hate it.  Conservatives and energy independence folks love it.  You’d think she’d bite and just say “No way. I’m against it!”  Yet her answer? A non-answer. “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.” 

What?! To be fair, pandering and prevarication is the norm across the political spectrum.  But still it begs this question: why can’t our candidates just tell us the truth?  Tell us what they really believe and how and why? No glossing. No nuanced verbal dancing to win votes or avoid controversy.  I’d love to see a Democrat stand in front of a group of New Hampshire seniors and say the only way to save Social Security is to raise payroll taxes and the minimum retirement age.  I’d love to see a Republican stand up in front of a group of wealthy donors and say that the rich need to pay higher taxes to fund vital government programs and lower the deficit.  I’d love to see any candidate stand in an Iowa cornfield and tell farmers that ethanol subsidies are nothing more than welfare for the farm states. Heck, I’d love to see a candidate at the Iowa State Fair refuse to eat a proffered corn dog and instead reply, “Yuck—that looks disgusting! And I’m on a diet anyways.”

The problem is not just about the candidates.  It is about us as citizens too, we who far too often just do not want to hear what we need to hear, about all the challenges we face as a nation.  We clamor for and expect robust government programs like universal health care and national defense but then protest that we pay too much already to Uncle Sam.  We drive on roads and bridges crumbling around us but then refuse to pay higher gas taxes.  We are more than ready to cut services to some groups—the poor, the homeless—but then get angry when our pet subsidy (student loans, the mortgage interest deduction, a local military base in need of closure) is on the chopping block.  We want to have our cake and eat it too and our candidates are more than happy to then feed us any position, as long as it results in a vote for them.

Reminds me of a complaint the biblical prophet Jeremiah had against the leaders of his day, in ancient Israel. The priests and the generals sat by and did nothing as invading armies gathered at the borders of that nation.  All pretended that nothing was wrong, the people and the politicians together.  “They cry ‘peace’, ‘peace’, when there is no peace!” Jeremiah lamented.  Some things never change.

So candidates: I know it a lot to ask.  I know it will take each of you time to figure out how to tell us, the voters, the actual truth. I know it will be a great risk for each of you to have the moral courage to tell us exactly what you believe and then what you will really do when elected President.  And fellow voters: I know to be pandered to sometimes feels really, really good. To imagine that a candidate is perfect just for “me”: my peeps, my specific issues, and my narrow needs.

Yet we need a President, not a panderer.  Twenty two candidates. Fourteen months to go. Let the truth telling begin.

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