Beware of Beto’s Charisma — and Everyone Else’s, Too

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- My recent attempt to point out why charisma in political candidates might not be quite as desirable as some people think brought a fair amount of pushback. So let me continue the effort by a quite different route.

Suppose that when it comes time to go to the polls on Election Day, the only information we have about those seeking the highest office in the land is their biographies and their positions on the issues. Maybe we have some of their writings or speeches. But we have few images of them, and certainly no video recorded during the campaign. None has sat for the cable news cameras or batted softballs out of the park at a carefully stacked town hall meeting. We have none of this because the candidates did not actively campaign.

Are we worse off or better off?

I believe there is a case to be made that we would be better off. In the absence of an endless stream of dialogue, we would be forced to go instead to the candidate’s policy views and experience. No doubt there would still be a surfeit of surrogates and pundits who will praise or blame according to their partisan preferences. We would see very little, however, of the candidates themselves.

A psychologist I quoted in my earlier column warned that the constant exposure to candidates on television served as a distraction. I think this is true. The important questions — what the candidate truly stands for, whether the candidate possesses integrity and moral courage — are buried beneath carefully tailored images and the occasional provocative sound bite. (And these days the sound bite is often shown over and over until the candidate apologizes for it, turning campaigns for the presidency into throw-yourself-on-the-mercy-of-the-mob tours.)

In this sense, the 19th century got it right. There’s an awful lot that the 19th century got wrong. (Is there ever!) But one attractive aspect is the way that the public generally frowned upon candidates who went out on the hustings, stumping for votes. Running around the country trying to win people over was seen as beneath the dignity of one seeking to serve as chief executive.

Consider a single example: During the 1860 presidential campaign, Republican standard-bearer Abraham Lincoln followed tradition and remained at home in Springfield. Meanwhile his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas, tried to sneak in a few speeches, and was blasted by the press for his presumption. One editorial declared that Douglas “demeans himself as no other candidate ever yet has, who goes about begging, imploring, and beseeching the people to grant him his wish.” To want the office so badly was viewed as a disqualification for holding it.

All of that changed within a few decades, but it’s not clear that the change represents progress. If we lived in a world where we met the candidates only through accounts of their positions — a world in which there were no interviews or televised debates — it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump would have emerged from the Republican field, still less that he would have been elected. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that he would have considered running.

The world in which the candidates are constantly before us is a world in which they kowtow constantly to their bases. Even when they sit for interviews, they are not really invited to justify or even explain whatever their positions might be — they are asked merely to state them. The only constant tests they face are the challenges of being telegenic and of having quick answers. There are no points for being the least bit thoughtful or reflective.

I quite understand that we can’t rebottle the genie, and I’m not suggesting that we try. But it does seem to me that there are refinements we can make that will help us mimic the virtues of the earlier model while not giving up what is useful and attractive about ours. Here’s the virtue I think is most important: When candidates spent less time on the campaign trail, they felt less need to respond to every minute shift of the political weathervane. It’s a lot easier to be courageous when you have time to think things through.

How do we model that virtue today? For a start, I suggest that we run a simple test for the moral courage of anyone seeking the presidency. Rather than demanding their positions on the applause lines that we boldly call issues (“Where do you stand on third-trimester abortions?” “Do you support Medicare for All?”), let’s test the candidates’ courage directly, with this one simple question:

“Name three issues about which your party’s base is passionate but wrong, and explain why.”

A candidate who has no answer, or who dances around the question, has no business sitting in the Oval Office. One reason is the inference that a person who can’t answer lacks moral courage, and is likely to be a follower not a leader. Another is that the candidate who can’t stand up to the party’s base will never be able to stand up to the rest of the world.

But the third reason — and for me, the most important — is that the candidate who has no answer to the question is a candidate who has abandoned the possibility of persuasion. And yet politics at its best ought to be the art not simply of pleasing crowds but of persuading the people that you’re right when they thought you were wrong.

The nation is suffering today from a president who can whip a partisan crowd into a frenzy but is too timid to challenge what he believes to be his party’s base on just about anything. We don’t need another one.

For the source of this and similar anecdotes, see this enjoyable book.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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