Wednesday, 12 November 2008

What do you do?

You are the presidential candidate of the same party as the incumbent, in the last few months of the campaign. The president makes a controversial decision which, by association, could harm your chances. Polls show that a significant majority of the population does not approve. The press is asking for your comment.

What do you do?

In all likelihood, your advisors will be telling you to distance yourself from the president, and perhaps even go so far as criticising his decision. It's the obvious political choice, as the alternative offers very little advantage - siding with the president may keep some bridges intact, but burning those bridges keeps your chances of getting elected intact.

Some among you may recognise the scenario. It was one of the many complications on the road to the election in the final season of The West Wing. The reason I'm writing about it here is that Matt Santos' solution to the problem struck me as an approach characteristic of the sceptical mindset.

He did not distance himself from the president's decision. However, he also did not simply state his approval of Bartlett's actions. He stated his support for the president and then went about explaining his reasons for doing so - and the president's reasons for doing what he did. He saw that the main reason Bartlett's approval ratings were so low was the presentation of the matter in the media; his tactic was aimed at improving the information available to the public.

Perhaps it was a somewhat naïve move, based on the assumption that the press would report his full explanation and not the simple summary that he sided with the president. But one of the more appealing aspects of this particular presidential candidate is his determined idealism and reluctance to play by the standard rules of campaigning.

There are a number of different branches I could follow from this anecdote, and I probably will do so at some point. A rant about soundbite campaigning; the connection between scepticism and idealism; maybe even a comparison of the West Wing election to the most recent one. For now, it is just interesting to note that, when presented with a dilemma, it's a good idea to make sure it's not a false one.

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