While George Lakoff declares "all politics is moral" -- a pageant of values in action -- the great paradox is great politicians need not be especially moral or law-abiding or compassionate. LBJ comes to mind, renowned for high-handed, rough talk, hardnosed deal-making, and the bloodbath that was Vietnam. My hero, FDR, dishonored himself and America when abusing the rights of law-abiding citizens with the racist internment of Japanese-American. And sometimes, he was untruthful.
Sure, LBJ had moral principles, like any Texas wheeler-dealer, old-style Democrat desperate for a legacy -- to win big, dominate his era, and be adored by millions. Of course that was long before Texas went goofy, practicing its own spiritual secession from the rest of America. Last week, Texas upped its speed limit to 85 mph, bespeaking its out-of-touch, sheik-enriching, gas guzzling mentality.
Once upon a time, appealing politicians needed moral character but not since Nixon, Clinton, W. and Gingrich came along. Indeed, fussing over a politician's inner motivation, even sincerity -- is usually a fool's errand, similar to misusing words like good or evil for amoral pragmatists. Politicians should be judged by success, overcoming unexpected, dire events, and whether you agree with their achievements. Election winners, as history shows, are no more -- or less -- moral than lawyers, doctors, plumbers or real estate brokers.
Focus on Known Knowns
Thus let's put aside that which we will never know about politicians (or most high fliers) -- ultimate intentions -- and stick to empirical behavior, like decisions or speeches or battle lines. Look at the utter wasteland when authoritarians divide the world between "good Christians" (or good Muslims) vs. "traitorous, enemy evil-doers." Talking of overmoralizing, it's laughable how Birthers blame not only our feckless president for not getting born in Hawaii but impugn his parents for blowing the obvious cover-up -- making them immoral and dumb.
Admirable politicians answer only to one standard: to advance the greatest, long-term good for the greatest number, here serving our greatest American value: socio-economic mobility. That mandates good public education, lack of discrimination, public health care -- and access to capital. Certainly, overt immorality impedes good politicians from progressive gains (Clinton for one), and flagrant lying usually obscures cataclysm (LBJ, Nixon, or W. the fabricated "war president"). Notably, the private Obama (and top staff) have escaped scandals over sex, money, or indictable influence peddling. What if Obama boasts moral family values, he's a bust so far as a liberal president, increasingly as any kind of president. Nice guys make dreadful negotiators-in-chief.
In this light -- let's unpack not his inscrutable (in)sincerity or imagined motivation but last week's scandalous headline, "Obama Unplugged," regarding an offstage brouhaha from our presidential Sphinx. "You want to repeal health care?" Obama taunted Republicans into a mic he didn't know was live: "Go at it. We'll have that debate. You're not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we're stupid?'"
A Powerhouse of Timidity