Monday, August 9, 2010

The Chameleon Factor, Authenticity, And The General Election

A chameleon will change its color, depending upon the place in which it finds itself, so as to make itself invisible to predators. Large animals have powerful toothy, bone splitting jaws to see them past precarious moments.

Small animals have their wits.

I saw my first chameleon when my wife and I were visiting Savannah, Georgia. I had taken my coffee out to a brick enclosed courtyard and from the corner of my eye perceived a motion in the plush ivy. I froze when I saw the chameleon because, never having seen one before at close range, I wished to observe it moving stealthily not a foot from the cup. Rotating its pin-hole of an eye, it passed from brick to ivy, changing color in its course from brick red to ivy green. When I made a sudden movement, it was up and over the wall like a marine at boot camp.

Some politicians are like chameleons, others not.

Martha Dean, the Republican nominee for attorney general this year, opened her campaign last March with all flags flying. Her opening campaign statement, more literary than most, left nothing to the imagination.

Dean said she did not wish to hide, chameleon like, in the usual political brush. And so, on the day she announced, friend and foe were treated to her opinions on matters of all kinds. She revered the state and federal constitutions and vowed to trim her behavior as attorney general to their strictures. Among rights enumerated in the federal constitution, was the right to bear arms, and she did not see why that right should be any more abridged than the right to freedom of speech or assembly. A little more than a month after her announcement, the Supreme Court, clearing its throat on the matter of whether the right to bear arms related to militias or individual citizens, gave her position on the second amendment some heft.

In the course of her campaign, Dean sought to answer forthrightly questions on capital punishment. She was not in favor of it, though later she seemed to admit certain exceptions. This is a sign of sanity: There is no rule on earth, said the great Cardinal Newman, to which there is not at least one exception. Dean thought it might be useful if firearm safety courses were taught in schools.

Many of these subjects were political tripwires. She danced light-footedly over them, certain that positions on political matters outside the purview of the office for which she was contending could not affect decisions she would make as attorney general. In fact, her principle objection to the present attorney general was that Richard Blumenthal had, in the course of his 20 years as attorney general, unnecessarily politicized his office.

Dean is not a chameleon, which is why her campaign early on struck a responsive chord among tea party activists and a handful of journalists in Connecticut who regularly beg shilly-shallying politicians to man up and take a firm position on this or that question in dispute. Tea party activists tend to support politicians who both make constitutional commitments and are unafraid to defend sometimes politically inauspicious positions. There is something in a Tea Party activist that does not like a chameleon, the sort of politician who in his first month in office will turn from bright red to deep blue depending upon the environment in which he finds himself.

This distrust of Mr. Politician-Looking-Both-Ways – the chameleon’s right and left eye each can rotate 180 degrees in different directions at the same time -- is a trait Tea Party folk share in common with many independents.

Blumenthal, now moving steadily from attorney general to U.S. senator, is, some would say, a chameleon’s chameleon. The attorney general and prospective U.S. senator has displayed a positive genius for sensing the political background, usually liberal, in which he finds himself and so audaciously conforming himself to it that one cannot see him, either on the brick or passing through the ivy. Startle him, and he is over the wall in an instant, like a marine in boot camp.

The chameleon factor will be important to many voters in the upcoming general election.

So, for that matter, will authenticity.

At a very basic level, authenticity involves a direct correlation between what is said and what is done. The hypocrite is the opposite of the authentic politician, be he liberal or conservative. Authenticity does not fear compromise. It is willing to make a deal. But the authentic politician is not willing to deal away his political patrimony, or his spine. In this sense, the late Edward Kennedy was authentically liberal. Reaching outside of active politics, we might say the late Bill Buckley was authentically conservative.

As a general rule, those new to politics cannot bring a political background with them because they are, politically, blank slates. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. A prospective politician without a political background, like a man without a country, ought not to have our undivided trust – until he unfurls his flag. This is why it is important before a general election to force the political newcomer to show what stuff he is made of. We may flee from the evil we know; but, to turn a phrase of Will Rogers, it’s not what you know about politicians that can hurt you -- it’s what you think you know, and don’t.

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