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Judging Pols’ Guilt by Association

8 minute read
Michael Grunwald

Guilt by association is supposed to be terribly unfair, but all of us are guilty of practicing it. When our friends and relatives marry slimes or tramps, hang out with bores or thugs, or join congregations or country clubs that make us uncomfortable, it tends to affect our opinions of them. So even if they ought to be judged strictly on their own merits, presidential candidates rarely get cut any more slack than the rest of us.

That said, the media scrutiny of supporters and surrogates of the 2008 candidates has at times rivaled the scrutiny of the candidates themselves, culminating in the firestorm over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s loud-mouthed former pastor. And since America is picking a President, not an entourage, we really ought to start thinking about fairer ways to evaluate political guilt by association.

The first question to ask when a supporter scandal erupts is whether the supporter really has anything to do with the candidate. Larry Craig’s antics at the Minneapolis airport caused some grief for Mitt Romney, because Craig happened to be his campaign’s Senate co-chair. But that’s just an honorific, and Romney was obviously unaware of Craig’s bathroom behavior before giving it to him. Similarly, Rudy Giuliani had no way of knowing that his South Carolina co-chair, Thomas Ravenel, would be indicted for drug dealing, or that his Southern co-chair, Sen. David Vitter, would be ensnared in a prostitution scandal.

This is the lamest kind of guilt-by-association gotcha, the assumption that candidates are somehow responsible for every faux pas by every clod who gets a title in their campaign, writes them a check or even expresses support. Obama didn’t seek Louis Farrakhan’s support or endorse the controversial minister; why should he have to apologize for Farrakhan’s backing? And Geraldine Ferraro was essentially just a fund raiser for Hillary Clinton when she claimed Obama is where he is in part because he’s black. Hillary said she disagreed, so who really cares what Ferraro thinks?

The point is that it’s not fair to blame candidates every time one of their millions of supporters misbehaves, unless the candidate somehow condones the bad behavior. When Hillary launched a hair-splitting attack on Obama for “denouncing” Farrakhan without “rejecting” his support, Obama made her look silly by offering to “reject and denounce” if it made her happy. Really, “denounce” should have been fine; politicians are in the business of accumulating votes, and they shouldn’t have to pretend they don’t welcome support from anyone. I recall watching Hillary explain during her 2000 Senate campaign that she wouldn’t meet with Farrakhan not because he was reprehensible but because “I don’t find it would be very useful to me.” All politicians are, in case anyone forgot, political.

It’s a bit different when a candidate openly courts someone distasteful, as John McCain did when he wooed the evangelical pastor John Hagee, who has called the Catholic Church “the Great Whore.” McCain is clearly desperate to suck up to Hagee and his followers, because he’s declined to denounce or reject the pastor, merely issuing tepid statements distancing himself from anything Hagee has said that offended Catholics. It’s entirely reasonable to wonder whether a President McCain would continue to suck up to Hagee and his followers; there’s no reason to think that McCain is a religious bigot, but there’s no doubt he’s pandering to one. All politicians are panderers, even the ones with straight-talk reputations, but voters have every right to make judgments about who exactly they chose to pander to.

McCain also knew Republican Congressman Rick Renzi was under investigation for corruption when he named Renzi a state co-chair and even taped robo-calls praising Renzi’s “tenacity, honesty and integrity,” so he deserves to take a modest hit for putting politics first now that Renzi’s been indicted. But again, politicians tend to put politics first. If McCain is guilty by association with Renzi, he’s guilty by association with the Republican Party — which, come to think of it, is not an outlandish concept these days.

Unlike McCain’s bonds with Hagee and Renzi, Obama’s bond with Rev. Wright extends well beyond politics, which is one reason it has hurt him. There’s a suspicion that since Obama obviously wasn’t thinking about politics when he got tight with a pastor who thinks God damns America, he must secretly share Wright’s worldview. In fact, it’s not so obvious that a half-white politician in Chicago didn’t reap some political benefits from joining a black church with an Afro-centric pastor. But in any case, no one has ever seen Obama trash America or incite racial tensions; why assume his true beliefs are reflected by his pastor’s recent comments, and not by his own words and deeds throughout his career? McCain has said that candidates should not be tarred with the views of their friends, which is not only honorable but sensible. Rev. Wright, after all, would not be Secretary of State in an Obama administration.

This is why the most telling surrogate controversies usually involve campaign aides. For example, it’s not clear whether Obama’s economic adviser, a free trader named Austen Goolsbee, really assured Canadians that his boss’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric was just rhetoric, but it would be worth knowing. The mere fact that Obama’s economic adviser supports free trade is worth knowing. Samantha Power, one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers (and a TIME columnist), had to resign from the campaign after calling Hillary a “monster” in an unguarded moment, but her more consequential slip-up was her suggestion in the same interview that Obama wouldn’t necessarily rush troops out of Iraq in his first months in office. True or not, it was worth knowing that one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers thought it was true. And it’s worth knowing that Hillary’s top political adviser, Mark Penn, has spent the campaign delivering preposterously self-serving spin, since he’d presumably continue to deliver preposterously self-serving spin in a Hillary White House.

What matters most about the candidates, after all, is what they’ll do in office. But that’s a question of character and judgment as well as policy, which is why the Wright story has stuck; even if they have no suspicion that Obama agrees with his former pastor’s more controversial statements, some voters can’t help but wonder about a guy who would choose such a firebrand as his and his family’s spiritual adviser.

Maybe that’s guilt by association, but in politics the voters decide who’s guilty and why. We’re all going to have to spend the next four years with one of the candidates, and while it’s true that most of us don’t choose our pastors for their political views, and that many of us have people in our lives who say cringeworthy things, it’s also true that you usually can tell a fair amount about people you don’t know personally by the company they keep. Including Obama, who mostly surrounds himself with extremely impressive people.

Speaking of impressive people, we’re also going to have to spend four years with the next President’s spouse, which is why Michelle Obama’s suggestion that she’s never been proud of America (or at least American politics) before her husband’s campaign was certainly a fair target for rival attacks. And just about anything Bill Clinton says is fair game as well, since he’s not only the candidate’s husband and surrogate-in-chief but the dominant figure in the candidate’s party — not to mention the candidate’s putative boss in her last stint in the White House. Let’s face it: When you take a marriage vow, for better or for worse, you sign up for a lifetime of guilt — and credit! — by association. That’s especially true if you’re Hillary Clinton, as she has learned the hard way on the campaign trail in the last few months.

Still, the bottom line is that if guilt-by-association scandals can often tell us something about candidates, they can rarely tell as much as the rhetoric and records of the candidates. In fact, the constant focus and furors over the flubs of surrogates and supporters in the 2008 campaign might tell us something else: All in all, these are pretty good candidates.

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