11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A "Birds of a Feather" Campaign Strategy

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Obama and Wright. McCain and Keating. Palin and Muthee. To what extent is it right or wrong to judge candidates by the company they keep?

Inevitably voters assess candidates by the company they keep. This begins with their preachers and spreads out from there. Sen. Obama renounced Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his outrageous ranting from the pulpit, but the association will continue to haunt him. The question is whether Sen. McCain will thump on the theme of guilt by association as he runs out of hail Mary passes. Obama has done him the courtesy of not playing upon McCain's own embarrassing preachers. But we are all braced for what Republicans do when they get into trouble: they smear their opponents mercilessly. McCain has thrown Rezco into the race, and Obama feels that he has no choice but to hurl Keating back at him.

Character assassination is grossly unfair, but it's not unfair to judge people by the company they keep. No man is an island, least of all in politics. We will never see another Lincoln walking out of the back-country straight into the halls of power. But that was a myth to begin with. In reality Lincoln was an ambitious, well-paid lawyer who played the political game shrewdly. If he existed today, he would be raising money from rich donors and attending chicken a la king dinners alongside hundreds of supporters, many of whom want a return on their contribution.

As much as we instill virtue in our own candidate and vice in his opponent, guilt by association rarely works. First of all, every national candidate either comes from the financial elite or rubs shoulders with them. Second, politics is about money, in both savory and unsavory ways. There's no pure position in this regard. Constituencies want projects paid for by the federal government. Lobbyists and special interests call upon both parties all the time. Vast expenditures must be allocated. A candidate who absented himself from this side of politics would be useless. It remains for each office holder to manage his own ethics, and that will never change.

The real pitfall of the "birds of a feather" argument is that politicians flock with so many birds. We don't know which ones they identify with. If someone on your staff is a divorcee, does that tempt you to be unfaithful to your spouse? If you get a contribution from a corrupt businessman, will his failings turn into yours? Osmosis is a stupid way to judge human interactions. But we won't stop judging candidates that way, and for obvious reasons. We crave osmosis. We go to the movies to feel as beautiful and desirable as Hollywood stars. Cosmetics are sold so that women can absorb youthfulness by osmosis from supermodels. Voters ascribe shining qualities of leadership to politicians -- many of whom don't remotely deserve it -- because they want to absorb courage, patriotism, steadiness in a crisis, optimism, and power from them.

This need leads to very bad things when we project those qualities on to leaders who seriously lack them. The neocons were birds of a feather who squawked the same tune so loudly that the public was fooled into believing them. At this point, when our economic crisis grows deeper every day, I imagine that most voters have stopped caring about preachers, pastors, and fat cat contributors. They've become a sideshow at best. As Bertolt Brecht said, first fill the stomach, then preach morality. He was considered a good Communist for believing that every citizen deserves survival first and morality second. It may turn out that the same axiom applies to good capitalists, too.

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