Steve A. Stone
Dear Friends and Patriots,
This missive has a very specific purpose, though a non-specific audience. I hope to provoke some level of dedicated thought on the subject of defining favorable personal traits and understanding expectations when it comes to the person who’ll represent your interests in Washington. It doesn’t matter much if the office is in the House or Senate, the considerations should be essentially the same. In short form, I want to focus you on understanding what you want and what you should reasonably expect whenever you’re deciding on your vote, perhaps even long before you cast it. Then, I will describe how to construct a decision matrix to use what you’ve created.
Think of a laundry list of positive traits you can choose from and then decide which you think are important to you: honest, decent, hard-working, intelligent, father/mother/grandfather/grandmother, entrepreneurial, fearless, studious, well-spoken, educated, well-connected in the community, dedicatedly religious, involved in community activities, photogenic/telegenic, tireless … and more. These are the kinds of traits we often look for in political candidates. We tend to want them all, but we all know there are seldom “perfect” candidates, so we are forced to compromise. We are forced to compromise – think about that for a bit. We are most often forced to pick the best of a lot, all of whom fall short in one or more category we think of as important. Challenge yourself and think of each of those traits in a stand-alone way.
Honest – How is that determined? By reputation? By arrest record? By personal interaction? By rumor and innuendo? We all want our elected representatives to be honest, but what is our standard of judgment? How much can we possibly know about the honesty of another human being, unless they’ve lived under our roof? If a candidate has no arrest record, nor any proven public accusations of compromised integrity, is that sufficient to get an top rating on your scoresheet? What would you think if you found out the candidate was arrested as a teen, or was accused of stealing something 30 years ago? Would either of those facts cause you to lower their grade? What if someone stepped out of the shadows to levy a charge that was another kind of indiscretion, but could offer no tangible proof? How do you judge? Does your standard allow for maturity and moral growth? Incumbents have records. Records can be studied and incumbents can be challenged on what they did. They can be asked questions and their honesty and integrity can be assessed by the way they respond. Do you know how to do that? Can and would you do that?
Decent – What does that word mean? It’s defined in your dictionary. Mine says, “marked by moral integrity, kindness, and goodwill.” There are subsidiary definitions, but that will do. We all want candidate who are decent, don’t we? Can an ex-pole dancer be decent? How about someone who did a stint in jail for car theft 25 years ago? Even if we’re dealing with a community leader with a clean police record, how do we really know if they are decent? Even very well-known people have their secrets. Perhaps this standard should read “Seemingly decent.” That’s a criterion we can judge by without prying. Can we agree that the public record is sufficient, or do you think a comprehensive FBI-level background check should be a requirement? Should we require ten years of demonstrated decency? Twenty? A lifetime? If this is among your criteria, you have to decide. You have to judge.
Hard-working – What constitutes work? Is a successful farmer your benchmark for a hard worker? How about a roofer or the person who collects your trash? Don’t they work hard? Is the fact someone has a successful law or accounting practice proof of hard work? Isn’t “work” a bit of an amorphous term? Is “hard-working” objectively provable? Can’t a person be an extremely hard worker and still fail in their chosen field? What is the requirement of the job description we “hire” for when we vote? How do we ensure the person we vote for is hard-working in the right way; in the way that will ensure they succeed in working for the people? What is your standard? How do we know an incumbent is working hard? How do we know they’re working at all?
Intelligent – My, yes! We don’t want stupid people in Congress, now do we? Evidence might suggest there’s plenty there already. Do any of us want to be responsible for another? Yet, how do we truly know a candidate is intelligent? It’s not like any candidate takes an IQ test. I’ve yet to see one run on “I have an IQ of 167, so I’m naturally your best candidate.” Are campaign speeches sufficient to judge by? Is success in other endeavors of life good enough to judge by? Is intelligence the same or equal to knowledgeable? Do we want truly intelligent people in office or people who know, retain, and can effectively use a lot if valuable information? What exactly do you mean when you think of intelligence, anyway? Is intelligent as good as having common sense? See what I’m suggesting? We always say “yes” to this question, but we have to know what we mean.
Father/mother/grandfather/grandmother – How important are the parenting and grand parenting experiences? Are they vital to the requirements of the office? Can a single person understand all the concerns of a parent? Can anyone who’s not a grandparent understand the hopes and aspirations that come with having grandchildren? Is the welfare of the next generation and the one after of major concern to you? Can you trust a “twenty-something” to share your concerns, even if they are a parent? What are those concerns, anyway? Quality of education? The prospects of impending war? National debt? Overall quality of life in the future? How national policies affect future careers? Regardless of all, is the mere fact that the candidate is a father/mother/grandfather/or grandmother indicative of anything useful at all? Is that one fact truly telling? If you think so, determine if and where it falls in your hierarchy of considerations.
Entrepreneurial – At least this trait is relatively easy to determine and observe. Has the candidate ever operated a business, or been a material part of a business that can be judged successful? Is the candidate one who has taken personal and financial risks that have paid off? How do you judge such things – by financial return alone, or some value judgement of yours that’s attached to the product or services of the candidate? Would you favor a successful pharmacist over someone who runs a small but successful paving company? Would you naturally favor a successful doctor in private practice over the owner of a plumbing supply company? Does the product or service matter, or does the idea that the person would take risks in owning and operating a business matter more? Does entrepreneurial success guarantee any candidate can succeed in Congress, or is it a trait marker you believe is indicative of a candidate’s willingness to consider other entrepreneurs when contemplating future legislation?
Fearless – It’s another very subjective consideration, isn’t it? What does “fearless” mean in a political context? What do you look for that assures a candidate will be “fearless?” The mere fact that any person would face a crowd of strangers and talk about themselves and their vision of a future if elected is itself a mark of some degree of fearlessness. But, is that enough? Does that tell you all you need to know? Do you require something more from your elected representative? Isn’t “fearless” something that can be both good and bad? After all, if they’re fearless, yet corrupt, then they won’t fear standing in front of you to lie when challenged on their mistakes and corruption. At the same time, don’t we want champions – people who won’t hesitate to stand and speak out with truth and wisdom in times of need? Don’t we need people who are willing to take up verbal swords in our behalf – “dragon slayers” who will not hesitate to rise and publicly challenge those who advocate for positions anathema to you and your neighbors? Fearlessness can be that double-edged sword that can help or hurt. It has to be sought in concert with other traits mentioned herein. It can’t be judged by itself. Is it one of your important requirements?
Studious – This is a trait you may not often think about. Do you want a candidate or incumbent who relies on others to provide encapsulated information or one who delves into the guts of issues themselves? Some might say “There’s not enough time for that.” Is that answer acceptable? Is there a balance, where some questions are more critical than others; where one is something that could be assigned to staff for answers and guidance, but another must be decided based on personal investigation, perusal, and contemplation? Is this a trait that can be assessed by a voter? I’m not sure it is, but I am sure it’s valuable. What do you want? Can you accept a representative who relies on staff to do all the research and position determination on all issues, or do you insist on one who does some, but not all? You should be reasonable, but what is your concept of “reasonable?” How can you know how much your candidate will or your incumbent does actually study the details of any issue? Like many other considerations – this one presents a conundrum.
Well-spoken – At least this trait is relatively easy to assess. It may or may not be important. It’s sort of a style thing, isn’t it? You want your representative to be able to articulate positions well, but is there a threshold to that? Is plain-spoken and understandable English sufficient, or do you think your representative needs to be a supremely skilled orator? Is it enough for a candidate or incumbent to be able to reliably convey the central concepts and specifics of any issue, or do you prefer one who embellishes with emotion and adds color to their speech, perhaps even a bit of hyperbole? The question here seems to be – can plain-spoken oratory be as effective as speech that’s more emotional and emphatic? What is necessary? What is sufficient? Are necessary and sufficient … sufficient? Is the speech of someone who always “gives it straight” what you want, or do you have to have a poet? Being well-spoken is important, but when judging, there’s a great amount of subjectivity and preference involved.
Educated – Another “Yes!” But, how educated, and educated in what? We all know people who have advanced degrees, but little practical knowledge or sense. Degrees don’t tell us much about the person, unless they have an abnormal number of them. Isn’t it possible for a high school graduate to be just as effective in elected office as someone with a PhD in macroeconomics? Does having a degree convey any truth about the person that can’t be known by other, perhaps more reliable means? After all, how many members of Congress have degrees in Political Science or an allied field? The answer is “mighty few!” That being the case, and assuming no one in Congress is using much they learned as an English, Education, Math, Physics, Psychology, or Music major, just how much benefit is conferred to the candidate or incumbent by having anything more than a basic high school education? Consider this – if they made it to the point of running for office, why consider their education at all? Any positive or negative trait conferred by education should be readily obvious. Your answer may be “Yes!” but where would you rank it in importance?
Well-connected in the community – This is something determined by observation. Is it important for a candidate to be connected, or is it sufficient to know that all in Congress get connected by virtue of the office? A lot of candidates are name-droppers. Do their relationships in the community truly matter? Perhaps it’s true they do, once in a while. You have to decide if that’s a good or bad thing. It could be either, depending on who those relationships are with and their context. Again, those are difficult things to know for certain. Is this important, important to you, or not very important at all? Decide.
Dedicatedly religious – It’s true in some places no one gets elected unless they declare their religiosity. We see that all the time in campaign literature in some places, yet not in others. There are those who believe their representative must be a person with deeply-held religious convictions. But, how is that determined? Is church membership and regular attendance sufficient? Is your criteria satisfied by a declaration on a push-card, or do you require knowing the person is a deacon or Sunday School teacher? Is public demonstration of faith a deal-breaker? Think about it and rank it. Just keep in mind that many people spend their entire lives living up to the expectations of others. How will you be certain of your candidate? How are you certain of your incumbent? If this trait is important to you, it has to be figured out.
Involved in community activities – We tend to want candidates who demonstrate their political passions through participation in community activities. We want them very involved. Such things are viewed as training grounds for leadership. It’s a reasonable criterion to consider. Who wants to vote for a wallflower? Who would vote for a hermit or a social outcast? We want the person who is always involved in something that helps our communities, don’t we? This one trait may be the most clear-cut of all to judge. A person either has a record of community involvement or doesn’t. Now all you have to do is determine how important it is to you in making your decisions.
Photogenic/Telegenic – Okay, I admit it – this one seems a bit unfair. What have looks got to do with ability? The true answer is – nothing. But, we are human, after all, and looks do matter. We don’t want a slob representing us, do we? We can deal with someone who’s a bit overweight. They don’t have to have great hair or flawless skin. We don’t usually care how tall they are, or if they wear contacts or glasses. But, we do tend to want our candidates and incumbents to look at least normal, don’t we? We want them to look at least average in photographs and whenever they might be on TV. Let me ask you, would you be willing to vote for a paraplegic? How about a candidate who is missing two fingers on one hand, or perhaps has a large facial burn scar? Does that really detract from your willingness to vote for them? Do we insist on some physical standard of acceptability that will rule out an otherwise outstanding candidate? Where does a person’s appearance fall on your ranked list of important traits?
Tireless – Is this a real need, or just a desire? Who wants a representative who is lazy? Who wants one who expects to put in less than full-time on the job? Being an elected representative is a 24-7-365 gig. Isn’t that your understanding? Don’t you want it to be your representative’s? How do you judge, though? How can you be certain? If a candidate doesn’t seem particularly energetic in campaigning, is that evidence they’ll “lay down on the job” once elected, or is it something else? An incumbent is visible. Are you watching? Are you listening? Are you judging? What is your criteria for this trait? How will you compare candidates?
… And many more – What’s important to you that’s not already mentioned? Give some serious time and thought to the question. There’s no Master List, and what you just read is not actually mine. It’s only meant to suggest ways of considering a candidate. Every voter understands their life’s needs better than anyone else. Every voter should understand how those needs translate into traits candidates must be judged on in order to determine who to vote for.
I recommend constructing a decision matrix for each race, with candidates named across the top and your important considerations along the left side. Each consideration should have its own definition – your definition, and criteria for scoring each candidate. Put your considerations in ranked order, with the most important first to the least as last. Number them in reverse order. If you have 10 considerations, then the first on your list as #10 and your last as #1. If you then assess each candidate by the consideration and its criteria, you should be able to give each a score, based on how you judge them. For example, if you have 10 considerations and three candidates, you would only need to score each candidate according to how they compare to each other: 1, 2, or 3. Do the same for each consideration, then multiply the consideration rank number times the score to get each candidate’s multiple. When you have the multiple scores for each consideration for each candidate, simply add them up and put the totals across the bottom, under each candidate’s column. Now, you’ll have the candidates “objectively” ranked. You may be surprised to find your pre-favored candidate isn’t the one your own considerations and criteria tell you is the best person for the office. Now, it’s up to you to decide if judging candidates on trait-based considerations is a valid way to substantiate your vote. All I can add is … that’s how I do it.
There are times when this methodology won’t do any good. When an incumbent runs unopposed, you have no choice other than “Vote?” or “Don’t Vote?” It’s not a case of lesser of evils. You’re just stuck with who you have, whether you like them or not.
My most important consideration of isn’t on the list above. It’s not there because I’ve never figured out any way to assess it in any reliable way, at least not for a candidate. I can easily determine it for an incumbent. We all can. But, because no one knows until a person is in the office, it’s not all that useful for making choice determinations unless you’re so fed up with your incumbent that you’re willing to roll the dice for someone else – come what may. That consideration is – Fighter.
A fighter is one who is reliable when it comes to standing up for constituent interests. A fighter doesn’t hesitate to utter truths. A fighter understands the responsibility is to serve the home district or state – first, foremost, and always. A fighter makes allies with like-minded members of Congress, based on common interests and makes those alliances known – for each individual bill proposal. A fighter will not compromise on or seek any rationale to “get around” any principle. A fighter is not afraid to be a lone voice on any important issue, but instead, will be as loud as necessary to ensure their voice is heard.
No one can reliably judge a candidate on their willingness to fight for principles, for constituents, and for home district and state interests. Every incumbent will tell you they’re a fighter. Every incumbent can list the bills they attached their names to and declare they “fought” for those bills, especially the locally popular ones everyone knew were doomed to fail from the beginning. Such claims are most often political hyperbole. They’re indicators that the incumbent in question is “playing the game,” and “racking up creds.” So, how does anyone determine who the fighters are and aren’t? Start with their votes. The voting records tell us who is willing to compromise and who isn’t. They tell us whose set of principles align with our own. They tell us which representative votes according to constituent needs and will and who votes according to their own ideology. Then, there are their words, both oral and written. Know what your incumbent is saying on each important issue. Ensure you understand how their words and their votes align. You might also ensure you take every opportunity to push your representative to go on record on every important issue. Any politician who won’t go on record on an important issue will not fight for you. There’s always a reason for their reluctance, and too often that reason isn’t one you’ll like.
I have one more thought I’d like to share. It regards incumbents who are allowed to run unopposed. I propose you think about that phenomenon in one way only – unopposed candidacy robs the people of even the worst choice, because it’s a condition of no choice at all. The worst choice is the “lesser of evils.” No choice at all means for good or ill you’re stuck until the next election. It also means the incumbent doesn’t face the people and withstand scrutiny for what they did or didn’t do in their term. We should all work to ensure every incumbent faces a challenger, even if the challenger has some obvious flaws. In doing so we may decide we do have the best person in office, or we may roll the dice again and just see if the next person can do any better.
When I was young my father and I had a conversation about voting. I think I was 14 at the time, and was curious about how my father made his choices. He told me he always voted against any incumbent. I thought that was incredible and asked why he’d do such a thing. His response was, “Son, most politicians are crooks of one kind or another. That’s why most get into politics in the first place. Once in a while we get lucky and vote in an honest candidate. But, if you leave them in office long enough, sooner or later someone is going to figure out what it takes to buy them, then they’ll turn crooked on you. So, it’s better for you and for the one in office if they get replaced.” That, my friends, is what’s called TERM LIMITS! My father’s rationale is one that’s still common in some parts of Texas. Even though it’s not my practice, I admit I see the wisdom of it.
My hope is something in this narrative helps you.
P.S. Recently I was asked if I had any thoughts that could help determine when an office holder needs to go. I had to think for only a moment before replying. “Yes! When anyone in office is asked a question and begins their response with “You just don’t understand ….” that’s what should tell you. Your intelligence was just insulted. No politician should ever assume what a voter does or doesn’t understand. Doing so is a remarkable sign of arrogance.” Think about that.© Steve A. Stone
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