Look beyond personal stories in voting choices

Even though I knew better, I took the bait. I’m not sure what it was about this one, but it sent me over the edge when I saw a friend’s Facebook post about how an Israeli group had discovered “proof” that President Obama was really born in Kenya. My plea at first was simple: “Stop. Please.”

But as I watched the conversation unfold, I could not leave it at that. The comments deployed the birther rhetoric to blame Obama for all the country’s ills, using personal attacks to delegitimize his presidency, expeditiously paving the way for a sweeping dismissal of all of Obama’s policies and actions. It was quick work, and I felt compelled to point out that such attacks serve as distractions from what really matters in making voting decisions. You can imagine how that went over.

The thing is, it really does not matter that Obama’s father was Kenyan, or that Mitt Romney is a rich kid from Michigan, or that Mike McLachlan was a Marine or that J. Paul Brown is a sheep rancher. Sure, that’s all interesting and shapes the story we learn about our candidates, but these stories do not necessarily determine the positions each candidate comes to hold. Given the range of factors that contribute to who a person is and what they stand for, it is possible to knit together any sort of narrative you’d like. Looking for a reason to hate (or love) Romney? Pick your poison: He’s a Mormon. A venture capitalist. A governor. How about Obama? A community organizer. A professor. As for Brown, he also was a county commissioner. McLachlan is an attorney. None of these vocations makes the man, but each can held up as evidence in whatever case we care to make.

Fundamentally, though, it is wrong to see as interchangeable the person and the policies. Doing so oversimplifies an exercise in decision-making that deserves more effort from voters. We owe it to ourselves to think a little harder about whom to vote for and why.

Now that the parties’ respective celebrations of themselves have wrapped up, the focus can at long last turn to the meat of the matter: what each candidate perceives as the solutions to the laundry list of problems facing the offices each seeks. This is true from the top down. As much as we need to have a clear sense of what Romney offers as solutions to the country’s economic challenges, voters also need to understand the county commissioner candidates’ diagnosis of and prescription for solving La Plata County’s top three, five or 10 problems. With the arrival of debate season, that opportunity is finally here.

This is where participation in the political process becomes crucial. Campaign ads and mailers and political conventions and fundraisers are important components of any election: They introduce candidates to their base, tell the candidates’ stories, and establish a brand that derives from those stories. Through the debates and forums though, candidates must articulate their positions and differentiate themselves from their opponents. The exercise gives voters a clear sense of how those personal stories inform – or not – the public policies that candidates will advocate.

It also is the time that candidates must answer for any of their preceding gaffes. Romney has a bit of accounting to do for his comments dismissing half of America as victims incapable or unwilling to take personal responsibility for their own lives. Former President Bill Clinton has invited Romney to clarify those comments, naming the upcoming debates as the place to do so. “I think it puts a heavier burden on him in the debates to talk about what he meant,” Clinton said Thursday on CNN.

Those conversations are critical to informing the decisions that voters must make. They move from one-off sound bites to more detailed and substantive revelations – those things that will actually affect the lives of the electorate. However that meshes with each candidate’s personal story is really neither here nor there.

It is tempting to avoid that deeper thinking, though, and get mired in the personal, if not the ridiculous. I am amazed by the number of times I have heard people I respect greatly, but differ from politically, say that Obama’s competence as a president is compromised by the fact that he has never met a payroll. A converse criticism could be made of Romney, who appears to never have met someone who is not on one.

These stories are interesting, perhaps, and good for a bit of cocktail party gossip and disagreement among friends. Ultimately, they must yield to the more important issues at hand: what exactly each candidate proposes as economic fixes; where each stands on social issues that affect the lives of individuals across demographic lines; what each sees as the vision and values of the community they aim to represent.

From the county to the state to the United States, these are the things that matter. The weeks to come are the time when candidates will have to reveal their beliefs, not just their personal histories. It behooves us all to pay close attention.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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