News & Views from 465 California Street

Political Motives

Clint Reilly
Jan
8
2008

Political careers are based on a complicated brew of idealism and ambition, self-interest and altruism, fiction and conviction. On stage, in the harsh spotlight of the 24/7 news cycle, the motives of our potential leaders are put under a microscope. Those who fall short are held wanting on the one quality Americans demand in their leaders – Character.

But what seems like an easy test is actually quite subjective.

The single reason for the partisan polarization of American politics is that voters demonize the motives of candidates with whom they disagree.

Is Hillary Clinton running for President to bring a needed change of direction to the nation or simply to regain power for the Clintons?

Is the young Barack Obama’s candidacy truly based on the premise of his book The AUDACITY of HOPE or is it merely the audacity of hype?

Is John Edwards passionately pursuing the presidency out of a sense of duty in spite of his wife’s illness or is Edwards cynically exploiting his wife’s cancer to win sympathy?

Does Rudy Guiliani recall 9/11 repeatedly as a reminder of the need for vigilance against terrorism or because he is riding the memory of 9/11 victims to win the presidency?

Does Mike Huckabee truly believe the Christian ideals he espouses so earnestly in speeches and television commercials or is he shrewdly cultivating the Christian Right?

Was Mitt Romney’s Texas speech on Mormonism at the George Bush Presidential Library about defining the important line between church and State or was it a veiled pitch for the votes of Evangelicals?

Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rumored self-financed independent candidacy for president arising out of a desire to offer a successful business leader’s skills to the people or is it the self-indulgent ambition of a bored multibillionaire?

Did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly become a Green Reformer as he advocated legislation that made California a global warming pioneer or was he simply seeking to ingratiate himself to centrist Democrats after failing miserably as a conservative Republican?

Did Mayor Gavin Newsom defy state law and legalize Gay marriage in San Francisco because he wanted to legitimize Gay relationships in America or because he had just won a narrow election in which many Gays voted for his opponent and he sought to co-opt Gay support for the next election?

Did Mayor Ron Dellums deliver an impassioned speech about the social causes of Oakland’s wave of killings and atmosphere of lawlessness because he believed it or because he was politically afraid to confront his African American base?

Do Democratic politicians support higher taxes for the rich because a tax on a small group of Americans who are primarily Republican is good public policy or because necessary funds can be raised with little or no political risk?

Do Marin County voters who live in California’s most affluent county repeatedly oppose the construction of workforce housing in their county because they are standing up to protect the environment and open space or simply because they selfishly want to preserve their own elite lifestyle at the expense of opportunity and access for potential newcomers?

One of the contradictions of leadership is that good things are often done for the wrong reasons and bad things often result from well intentioned acts. That’s why the true motive behind any act of leadership is usually opaque. What matters is the result.

The roster of candidates listed above did not include John McCain. Among the candidates for President, McCain does provoke ideological disagreement on many issues and also evokes fear about his age. But few people question his motive. On character, the war hero and former POW occupies a unique pedestal. That’s why he still has a chance to be the Republican Nominee.

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