Paradoxical Advice for Politicos

If the presidential candidates and other politicians want to enhance their appeal, I suggest they consider the following proposals, counterintuitive though they may be.

1. Observing the primaries and presidential politics in general, one is struck by the fact that candidates seldom say anything remotely like "I don't really know" or "I'm not at all certain." Surely, this sort of admission is the correct response to so many questions put to politicians that its non-utterance is something of an intellectual scandal.

One reason for this pose of infallibility: Politicians fear that voters will confuse a slow, qualified response with ignorance or evasiveness (and hope they'll confuse a quick, glib response with knowledge or resolve). As a result, most feel they must sometimes square their jaws and forthrightly utter the political equivalent of astrological drivel.

Might not the electorate be more impressed by a courageous confession of ignorance? I suspect so and thus offer my first proposal: Candidates should occasionally admit to not knowing something substantive or to not being fully confident of the consequences of some policy initiative. Certainly the mathematical discipline of chaos theory as well as common sense strongly suggest that such hesitancy is more than warranted at times.

2. Candidates generally appear only before well-defined and positively disposed voters' groups in supportive settings. They seldom speak to or even recognize the existence of voters less cohesively organized, especially when these latter voters are viewed as only marginally acceptable by some in their party.

Since we're all statistically marginal in some way or other, there are many examples. Consider just one - atheists and agnostics. Although they happily do not form another agenda-crazed bloc, they are more numerous than most politicians realize and more numerous than many conventionally recognized groups. Nevertheless, they are virtually invisible. If politicians were to acknowledge (not necessarily woo) such categories of voters, I think their independence and openness would prove attractive to the electorate as a whole. Hence I offer my second proposal: On occasion, candidates ought to address unsafe groups - bureaucrats, immigrants, millionaires, trailer-park residents, plastic surgeons, welfare recipients, even professors.

3. Most people would agree that a politician's ambition and motivations are not completely pristine and selfless. Although there is nothing shameful, objectionable, or even dispensable about this, candidates almost never concede the role that personal vanity or tactical one-upmanship play in their quest. Instead they wrap themselves in the cloak of duty, self-sacrifice, and ideology (strong motivating factors, to be sure, but not the whole story). The circularity of so much political commentary (accounts of reactions to remarks about speculations, and so on) can be short-circuited if politicians candidly and briefly admit their motivations and then get on to business. A presidential candidate's terse admission, for example, that personal psychology and needs are relevant to the quest for the "highest office in the land" would be salutary. (Witness the reaction to Colin Powell's admission that he lacked these needs.) Therefore, my third proposal to the candidates is: Plainly state your motivations if at all possible, even when they are less than noble.

By confessing to occasional ignorance, acknowledging outsider groups, and demonstrating motivational frankness, presidential candidates paradoxically might appear to be more knowledgeable, more acceptable to the mainstream, and less self-serving.

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