Is it “shallow” to worry about McCain’s character?

Isn’t it worth practicing a little bit of “gotcha” politics to put an end to torture?

A reader writes, reproachfully:

People like us believe, for very good evidence-based reasons, that GW Bush has been the worst, or at least high up among the worst presidents ever, and that U.S. policies and governmental actions of the last 8 years have been deeply wrong, sometimes atrocious. How can intelligent people be falling into the trap of making it seem like the campaign is about digging up dirt or scoring daily points on the opposing candidates, or even about contrasting the candidates in shallow and trivial ways. There is so much at stake.

I’d love to see you list, say 6-10 significant ways in which the present administration is awful and so very wrong, and then some well-supported, substantive reasons why you believe (as I do) that the election of Obama (and Biden, if you like, but that’s so much less important) gives hope for meaningful improvement, while the election of McCain (and Palin) would not. I haven’t heard a Serious Word about torture recently, or Guantanamo, or domestic spying, or the economy, or the corruption of the DOJ, or poorly qualified extremist-vetted judges, or the rejection of science as a method for informing health or environmental policy, or the ??% expansion of prisons with no effect on crime, or [you make the list]….

To which I answer:

Anyone who cares about those issues, and hasn’t been comatose for eight years, should already be enthusiastically voting for, working for, and giving to Barack Obama. I don’t see why I, or the campaign, should have to spoon-feed those people. Those haven’t yet made up their minds, and whose choices will determine the election outcome, are primarily low-information voters who care about all the stuff my correspondent dismisses as “shallow.”

Now, I’d argue that someone could be agnostic about some of the larger issues and make a rational judgment based on character and temperament. For that person, understanding who and what Sarah Palin is ought to provide ample evidence that the man who chose to risk giving her the responsibilities of the Presidency cannot himself be trusted with those responsibilities.

The one issue where it currently appears many voters are actually confused has to do with reproductive freedom. Many voters who are themselves pro-choice believe that McCain is somehow a moderate on that issue, and those voters need to be made aware of his actual record (132 out of 134 votes against reproductive freedom according to Planned Parenthood), the content of the platform he is running on (criminalization of abortion even if the pregnancy resulted from rape) and the views of his runningmate (identical to those in the platform).

But for anyone who cares about Constitutional government, scientific integrity, corruption, torture, greater equality of income and opportunity, environmental protection, workers’ rights, women’s rights in the workplace, access to higher education for anyone who can do the academic work and is willing to do two years’ public service, or universal access to health care, the argument is already made, and I see no reason to waste time or bandwidth making it again.

As always, there seem to be people who prefer losing high-mindedly and with great ideological purity to winning. I have to question how seriously committed they are to serving the causes they profess. We can all go off after the election and practice moral self-flattery to our hearts’ content. Now is the time for business. And “business.” for the next sixty days, means appealing to voters who may not share all of our values or opinions.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: