Political ethics, or political audacity?

I’m gonna have to cut Obama some slack on that one.  I do not think he was referring to Sarah Palin, he didn’t reference her.

Mike Huckabee

McCain’s ads have gone one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100% truth test.

Karl Rove

If the lower classes don’t set us a good examplewhat on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.  

Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. 

Robert Reich explains that left of centre politicians (Democrats) bear the white man’s burden when it comes to politics.  They are such nice guys that they just find it harder to have their ends justifying dodgy means than right of centre politicians (Republicans).

The underlying problem is that Democrats care about means as well as ends, while Republicans care almost exclusively about ends and will use any means to get there. The paradox lies deeper. For most Democrats, the means are part of the ends. We want an electoral process that eschews the lying and cheating weve witnessed since Richard Nixons dirty tricks. If we use their tactics, we undermine our own goal, violating one of the very things that distinguishes us from them. Yet if we dont stoop to their level, how can we prevail in a system that allows even rewards such lying and cheating?

Those who are willing to do anything to achieve their ends will always have a tactical advantage over those who regard the means as ends in themselves. The question posed in this election, and, one hopes, by an Obama administration, is whether the moral authority generated by the latter position is itself enough to overcome these odds.

I think this is self indulgent codswallop.  I still think that the Democrats would never do something as outrageous as the Republicans have just done to such great effect. In the recent ‘lipstick’ wars, if roles and respective positions in the polls were reversed, the Democrats would have been unlikely to have appointed Sarah Palin to the ticket. And had they done so, the Democrats might have enjoyed any trouble that their opponents might have got into if they inadvertently used the word ‘lipstick’ when it could be misunderstood. But they wouldn’t have done anything as outrageous as spending millions on a TV ad that claimed that their opponent’s ‘lipstick on a pig’ comment was a ‘smear’ against Palin.  Why not?  Because they would be afraid (probably rightly) , that they’d be howled down for their opportunism.  

The difference? I think the key is audacity.  Conservatives are more audacious because seeing themselves as the natural setters of the rules, they feel greater equanimity in breaking them.  And more to the point, since politics is a tough game and everyone bends the rules a little, the public is won’t to feel that things have gone too far when left of centre parties bend the rules.  

IMO Paul Krugman is right that it is important in this context, especially when the media take so many of their cues from the body language of the situation rather than the merits of the contending cases, to be agressive since this helps shift what I might call ‘the reasonable centre’ towards oneself.  The Tampa incident tends to be understood by the left in Australia as a particularly outrageous piece of political opportunism.  So it was.  But it was also audacious.  Howard was warned that what he was doing was contrary to international law.  He decided to go ahead undaunted by the risks.  I doubt any ALP politician would show such audacity even if it was done in some cause that would be compatible with ALP values (I’ve tried to sell a couple of them over the years on issues about which the ALP was grandstanding at the time and about which I felt strongly, only to have them instantly ruled out for their stepping outside the boundaries of ‘politics as usual’ – too risky etc).  

Meanwhile one measure of how ethical politicians are which is objective even if it is not foolproof, is their contributions to charity.  Left leaning politicians have two possible excuses for giving a lower proportion of their income to worthy causes.

  • That they reckon that charity isn’t all that flash and that their view is that everyone should be compelled to give more.  But hey, if you’re so ethical, if your political views are built on the idea of the community caring for its least well off, it’s a bit of a dud story not to help out. 
  • The other argument they might have is that they have less money than right leaning pollies.  Perhaps, but then I’m talking about shares of income, not absolute money given.  

Anyway, Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden’s tax returns have just been released. They tell a pretty sorry story, especially if you consider that for a good while before now he would have hoped that they might be being made public in the circumstances that they are being made public today.  Not just mean, but stupidly so. 

Greg Mankiw takes up the story over the fold.

The most surprising fact I learned yesterday:

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden released 10 years of tax returns Friday…The Bidens’ joint gross income hovered between $215,000 and $320,000 a year during this period…The amount they gave to charity during this period never exceeded one-half of 1% of their annual income. The Bidens never gave more than $995 to charity in any of the tax years, and usually gave much less.(Source)

Compare Biden’s behavior to that of a typical American:

The IRS reports that those who itemize deductions on their income tax returns have claimed, since 1975, that between 1.6 percent and 2.16 percent of their income went to charitable concerns. (Source)

This contrast is an example of a broader phenomenon:

conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure. Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone’s tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes. (Source)

If Biden’s below-average charitable giving is typical of those with his political views, why am I surprised by it? Because this man has run for President more than once. He must have known there was a good chance that his tax returns would at some point be made public and undergo close scrutiny. He had a far greater-than-average personal motivation for charitable giving and, nonetheless, chose not to chip in. 

This entry was posted in Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Timothy Moriarty
15 years ago

Sub: Election tools for your state
Your state is going to play a key role in the upcoming Presidential Election and our tools will help you in making registration to vote easy and obtaining an absentee ballot.
Please check http://www.StateDemocracy.org for more information

15 years ago

But they wouldnt have done anything as outrageous as spending millions on a TV ad that claimed that their opponents lipstick on a pig comment was a smear against Palin. Why not? Because they would be afraid (probably rightly) , that theyd be howled down for their opportunism.

How would explain the ad that McCain is a computer illiterate then when his is unable to raise his broken arms above a certain level because they were broken?

I don’t like either candidate, but to suggest one side is more gentlemanly than the other – less audacious- doesn’t seem to appear that we’re watching the same election.

As for the Dems not selecting Sarah Palin type, Obama has less experience and Nancy Pelosi has often proved to be a joke than a serious politician. 11% approval rating for the Congress is well earned it seems.

Audacity also manifests itself in many ways. Preventing a vote and turning of the lights in Congress to stop further debate on the subject of the drilling rights around the US coast line- something incidentally the ALP would never do- is pretty audacious.

Suggesting the 04 election was stolen in Ohio when the GOP won by around 100,000 votes is pretty audacious. Audacious in the sense of attempting to remove legitimacy.

Yea, i can think of numerous things the Dems have done that are pretty audacious.

Audacious: unconstrained by convention or propriety.

15 years ago

“How would explain the ad that McCain is a computer illiterate then when his is unable to raise his broken arms above a certain level because they were broken?”

Hardly relevant to computer literacy.

And speaking of literacy, if you spell checked what you write it might be more comprehensible :)

15 years ago

Hardly relevant to computer literacy.

Is that because you use your tongue for letter selection on the keyboard, Mel :-)

tim watson
tim watson
15 years ago

Regarding Bidens tax returns.

The returns don’t prove that Biden hasn’t given to charity, they merely prove that he has claimed a low proportion of charitable contributions as tax deductible.

There could be many explanations for why this is so. for instance, what about contributions to political and other causes that might not be tax deductible? He may not keep all his receipts. etc etc.

Big yawn in my book.

15 years ago

Yes, Tim, of course that might be right. And doubtlessly McCain’s charitable deductions were falsified anyway, and Biden probably did volunteering at the library, too, and the world you live in must be a very funny kind of place.

I thought Biden was an extremely uninspiring choice of VP, frankly – witness his complete disappearance since he split from Obama.

That certainly was not ‘audacious’! But maybe actually nominating Obama nearly a decade too early was?