Paul Nitze: You can’t plagiarize conviction
July 14, 2010
We keep our leaders on a shorter leash than most democracies, particularly when it comes to personal failings, but American politics still offers plenty of wiggle room. Misdemeanors, garden-variety lies, adultery – we tend to forgive them, at least the first time around. What we can’t abide are wrongs that highlight a deeper, irreparable character flaw.
Scott McInnis isn’t on his way out of the Colorado governor’s race because he plagiarized the water law writings of Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. Or the op-ed he lifted from The Washington Post in 1995. Before the month is through we’re bound to find out that he cobbed his Christmas card greetings too.
It’s not the “intellectual dishonesty,” in the words of The Denver Post editorial board, that’s the problem with McInnis. “Intellectual vacancy” is more apt. The tag on McInnis is that he’s a bit of an empty suit, a vehicle for mainstream Republican policies, but not an advocate for anything. When you plagiarize, the dishonesty of the act is a first-order problem. The second-order problem is a failure of original thinking, and that’s what Colorado voters will ding McInnis for.
No one remembers that the McCain campaign plagiarized portions of a speech he gave about the crisis in Georgia in the summer of 2008. It had no effect on the general election result and it was out of the news in a matter of days. And yet Vice President Biden was dogged on and off throughout the race about a speech he plagiarized in 1988, 20 years prior.
Why? Because some voters had already convinced themselves that Biden was too smooth, too slick, and not to be trusted. His theft of a speech by the British M.P. Neil Kinnock played into that image. John McCain’s plagiarism played into nothing. Authenticity is McCain’s watchword, a powerful personal brand, and he was quickly forgiven.
Before this plagiarism scandal broke, voters knew that McInnis had an uneventful tenure in Congress. It wasn’t that McInnis was ineffective, just that he didn’t seem interested in telling voters what he truly cared about. There’s a rich irony in the first line of the McInnis campaign’s response to this scandal: “Voters don’t really care about this issue,” McInnis told 9 News. “They care about jobs, getting back to work.”
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Well, surely voters do care about jobs and getting back to work. But what does McInnis care about? Does he “care” about the economy? If so, why did McInnis tell the Durango Herald in 2008 that President-elect Obama should pass a “massive stimulus package” once installed in the Oval Office, and then call the stimulus a “crack high” earlier this month?
Does McInnis care about the right to life? If so, why did McInnis join forces with former Republican Sen. Hank Brown as an adviser to Republicans for Choice, and then switch to a staunchly pro-life position?
This isn’t just about presenting a coherent picture to the electorate. It’s not just about building trust. Much of the work of governing is simply about making the trains run on time. As anyone who has worked for a politician will tell you, it’s better to go into your boss’s office knowing that he thinks you’re wrong, but to hear you out, than to go in not knowing what he thinks at all.
If McInnis were elected, he’d find it impossible to command the loyalty of his staff. Conviction is a prerequisite to good management. If you work hard and say what you mean, you can get away with a lot in politics. You can be unbearably abrasive (see Rahm Emmanuel). You can exhibit all sorts of bizarre behavior (see Jerry Brown, soon to be governor of California, again). You can say many crazy things (see Tom Tancredo). But you have to stand for something.
Campaigns have always been long, hard slogs. They’ve gotten even worse of late. But ruthless and distasteful as they are, eventually they force a candidate to show his true colors. Scott McInnis skated by on stump speeches, position papers and campaign aides for a while. But eventually the curtain was lifted on McInnis’s heartfelt beliefs – and there wasn’t much to see.
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