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Why Candidates Should Stipulate

by David Brin, Ph.D.

One of the chief flaws of our electoral system is that real candor is punished. Both sides may rail against each other, but they'll never aim hard truths at us.

Why Candidates Should Stipulate

It's been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career — at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or need to flatter voters. One final chance, before the cameras, to tell the truth.

Not all retiring officials spill their hearts, but when they do it can be colorful. Take the day in 1991 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas withdrew from public life. They made headlines by jointly suggesting that everybody was at fault for the country's condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the then Democrat-controlled Congress, all the way to the American people. The pair castigated politicians of all parties for not telling citizens that burgeoning budget deficits threatened our economic well-being. Responsible economists agreed. A few even credit Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

A more recent example of post retirement candor came with ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's revelations about the second Bush Administration. It resulted in a fire storm of attacks from his own party. O'Neill's explanation for this candor? That he was "old and rich" and unafraid to speak his mind.

However one feels about those specific examples, we can all agree that they are rare. One of the chief flaws of our electoral system is that real candor is punished. Both sides may rail against each other, but they'll never aim bad news at us. Even if both nominees believe in their hearts that the public needs to face some hard truth, neither will dare be first to say it, lest the other side take advantage.

Think about it. Throughout the coming election we will learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. We will also hear platitudes, as each tells voters what they want to hear. Logically, there must be a third category — areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but are afraid to speak out. But we will never hear whatever topics or beliefs occupy that logical box — no matter how full or empty it may be — because neither of them will dare speak first.

Now consider this. There is no political cost to telling voters what you really believe... if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

Now at first, this statement sounds absurdly simpleminded. After all, the metaphor for an election is a race. "Give 'em hell" combat, with no holds barred.

But wait. What's wrong with the idea of two leaders finding a patch of consensus amid a sea of discord? We cheer when this occurs among heads of state, overcoming differences between nations in order to sign a treaty that finds common ground. Then why not between candidates?

The process is called stipulation... as when the attorneys representing opposite sides in a trial agree to agree about a set of points. By stipulating these points, they help move the trial forward, focusing on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics?

And, given the exceptional intensity of partisanship, in recent American political life, is it utterly dumb to even dream of mature behavior popping up, like a flower in the desert?

Bear with me for a little while, in a "what-if" thought experiment. Imagine, along with me, this weird, but possible scenario.

Suppose, amidst the 2008 campaign, Republican candidate John McCain and his Democratic opponent were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to get together and meet for an afternoon. First, they and their staffs would cover issues such as scheduling debates, and how to prevent spirals of mudslinging. The people would applaud any agreement on fair campaigning principles. Heck, just seeing them talk to each other like adults might be refreshing. Think how the image might affect the rancorous mood we see in politics today, independent of policy disagreements.

So far, so good.

Only then suppose the two nominees do something unprecedented. They go for a walk, alone. Unpressured by cameras and media flacks, they talk. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don't dismiss this too readily! For all of his faults, McCain has done this sort of thing before. So have Senators Clinton and Obama. In fact, the only ones to object would be those at the extremes in both parties. Those wanting nothing but take-no-prisoners political war. Of the sort that has come near ruining our country. So, let's ponder this fantasy a bit longer.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other's mind concerning major divisions. But what about issues where they do agree? Here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America's future. Surely there would be some areas of overlap? Things that both of them feel we, as a nation, should do.

Now imagine that this overlap this results in a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they go on to make public, simultaneously, their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law "X", or repeal restriction "Y". Further, they agree that neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, a lot of folks might say — "Gosh, if both of them agree that the country needs this strong medicine, let's give it some thought."

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something we've seen rarely... leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

Unprecedented? Well, actually, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached the Republican candidate, Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy.

Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR's request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited — Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines as in memory.

How might today's politics differ if two adults — each the standard bearer of a major party — agreed to let it be known how, in a few ways, they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform, or perhaps shifting strategy in the endless, brain-dead War on Drugs?

That would still leave plenty for us to fight over, don't worry.

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today's opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2008 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of certain leaders, overshadowing any national good.

Still, American politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates became so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling.

So why not barriers against candor?

Might the Candidates' Post-Convention Summit become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October? Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation — awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically wise, but what is simply wise.


Why Candidates Should Stipulate

about this article

"Why Candidates Should Stipulate" (published in full here) was the second of a series of three articles written during the Presidential election of 2008, proposing "fixes" for the dysfunctional way we elect our Presidents.

The first article proposes a way to reform the Electoral College without passing yet another Constitutional Amendment. The third article addresses the central issue of modern-day Presidential elections: the "winner" typically does not earn more than 50% of the vote.

Copyright © 2008 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave


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