Honesty, politics, don't mixPosted Wednesday, April 16, 2008, at 9:38 AM
There are times when being honest can get a politician in trouble.
Which is why most of them avoid hard truths and speak in platitudes, instead. Voters complain about how mealy-mouthed their campaigns are, then jump on candidates when they get specific. Because every time you get specific, you're going to anger someone, so it's safer to stay bland, punch all the right key phrases for the groups you're trying to reach, and ultimately say nothing.
The most recent case of a politician straying from that time-tested approach to victory was Sen. Obama's remarks that when times get tough, rural Americans turn to "guns and God." Of course, like most things, that phrase was part of a longer explanation, and as much as some people have jumped all over him for it, he was right.
In impoverished areas of the country, where good jobs, or sometimes any jobs at all, have disappeared, often due to overseas outsourcing, there is an upsurge in church attendance, as people turn to God for help (since the politicians aren't doing it). They band and bond together, and for males in particular, that often means going hunting together. He was right on, as much as people didn't want to hear it, and anybody who says he wasn't just doesn't understand rural Americans.
John McCain faced a similar situation earlier this year, when he said he thought we'd have an American presence in Iraq for "100 years." Nobody really wanted to hear that, and he's been crucified for that remark.
Personally, I want this ill-conceived and misguided war, that drains our pocketbooks and costs us precious American lives, to end as quickly as possible. But McCain didn't actually say we'd be fighting there for 100 years, simply that we'd have a presence there, and that, whether you like it or not, is quite possibly a true statement.
If, at the end of WWII, a politician had told this war-weary country that we'd have a troop presence in Germany and Japan for the next 100 years, he'd have probably been villified as much as McCain has been. But 63 years later we still maintain troops there and I don't think very many people would be surprised if we still had troops there 37 years from now.
McCain's assuming that we're going to "win" and that Iraq will eventually stabilize, which may or may not be true, but if it is, a long-standing troop presence there, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on everybody else in the region, would seem likely.
Right off hand, I can't think of a similar type of statement from Clinton, but then she's pretty much stuck to the platitude and key phrase strategy (with the odd -- very odd -- personal "war story" thrown in).
Part of the problem McCain and Obama faced over their statements stems from the famous "20-second sound bite," which is about all of a long speech you'll ever see on TV. It's actually pretty rare for the media to take a statement out of context, but all too often people don't do the work to find the rest of a speech, or finish reading a long story, to place those sound bites in the full context of a candidate's remark.
Gen. Petreaus faced a similar situation last week in his testimony before Congress on the progress of the Iraq war.
Now no general is ever going to go before Congress and say "I screwed up, we're losing badly." But you should read the full text of his remarks, not just the 20-second sound bites most people heard. It was a remarkably candid, bluntly honest portrayal of the war that probably didn't win him a lot of points with the current administration.
This war has tarnished the careers of a lot of generals, who've consistently had to suffer from micro-management from the White House and lack of adequate troop strength. Patreaus may have been the best of the bunch sent over there. His monographs on countering urban guerilla warfare should be standard reading for every military officer (and a lot of politicians). They're based on cold realities and solid analysis of what has gone right and gone wrong in various campaigns by nations around the world.
The one thing Petreaus got that his predecessors didn't was some extra troops. Which is why the surge eventually showed some solid results. Even if he admitted those successes were "fragile," they were still successes. And it showed that if the generals had gotten what they wanted at the start of the war, the current situation might have been a lot less gloomy.
The truth is, this war was screwed up from the very beginning at the political level, not the military level, and the bad decisions by this administration, who were convinced they knew better than the generals and didn't give them what they asked for (despite Bush's public protestations to the contrary), virtually guaranteed we'd be in the leaky boat we're in now.
These three cases all show that the weird reality is that no matter how much people, in principle, demand the truth, in practice they often don't want to hear it. Politicians (and generals) are well aware it's often counterproductive to their careers to speak bluntly before the public.
But maybe the blunt honesty of McCain, Obama and Petreaus is why I like them so much. I may not like everything they say, but I've got to admire them for having the courage to say it.
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