John McCain, Trust and Politics

Don’t worry: this is not a political blog, nor about to become one.

In 2000, Sen. John McCain campaigned for the presidency from his bus, the Straight-Talk Express. His image and strategy were about being the Man you could Trust to Tell you the Truth.

In November, 2003, John McCain said:

"Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it. Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality."

In August of 2006, McCain said, "I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.”

And oh yeah—that’s while he was visiting Iowa, land of corn ethanol and presidential primaries.

I’m not bashing John McCain. He is not unique. Remember “read my lips—no new taxes?” “I did not have sexual relations…?” Or, going back, the “secret plan to end the Vietnam war?”

But McCain’s case acutely raises a dilemma. Can you—or can you not—speak truthfully and be elected? I don’t mean to be coy or cynical. I mean to pose a serious question: is the notion of trust fundamentally compatible with the practice of politics?

Do Honesty and Trust Win You Votes?

It would appear that McCain has answered in the negative. On the face of it, he is saying that direct appeal to various groups’ economic interests is a better strategy for getting elected than the “straight-talk” strategy he had before.

Resolved: Straight talk is a viable strategy for success in politics.

First, the ayes. Voters tirelessly say they want someone trustworthy. Bush scored big points on Kerry’s “flip-flop”— his convictions were unstable, he could not be trusted. Jimmy Stewart cleaning up Washington sells big movies.

Now, the nays. Politics is the art of balancing interests—“truth” is not relevant, compromise is. Except in state-threatening times of war, bi-partisanship and selflessness just gum up the works. People elect people to promote their interests. Politics is about allies, not trust; the art of the possible. If all sides hurt equally, the process worked.

I don’t think this is a no-brainer. Many businesspeople tell me that CEOs can be successful by embodying the values of trustworthiness and devotion to customer, employee and shareholder value. But, those same people say, you simply cannot do that in politics.

Would Iowans vote for someone who spoke the truth, even when it conflicted with their own sectarian best interests? Would you?
McCain answer is clear: the nays have it.

I suspect he may be right. Still, it would be most fascinating to see someone actually test the proposition someday.

(Further reading: John McCain’s biograph from Quick Overview)