Un-Spinning the ‘Sin’ of Spin

It’s telling that we have a television news channel with a show called The No Spin Zone. News is supposed to provide facts. But in politics everyone (it seems) tries to put “their spin” on the facts. And when it comes to campaign promises, one really has to watch for “the spin.” We’ve almost come to expect it. Here are some thoughts on the “sin” of spin and cutting through it.

“Spin” to me is an effort to make something look different (better or worse) from what it might appear to the average person who is looking at what happened. It is not the same thing as giving a constituent more information by which he or she can better evaluate what took place. That’s not what is meant by spin. Spin is generally more in the genre of distortion, deception or manipulation. And sometimes it may just be outright lying.

In the old days we called things like deceit, manipulation and lying sins. And while two people can see something in different ways, the real crux of issue surrounding “spin” is the matter of integrity. Integrity in elected officials matters. A candidate might espouse the right values, but without the integrity to follow through with votes consistent with those values, it doesn’t matter much what they say their values are. Our actions reveal what we really believe.

In a way, the issue of integrity goes back to my first article on the subject of evaluating candidates. Sometimes the only one who will ever know the truth is God, and a candidate who doesn’t understand there is an all-knowing Judge to whom he or she must give an account is more likely compromise on integrity.

Cutting through the Spin

So, how do we cut through the spin to find the honest politician? It’s hard, particularly for people who are not familiar with the political process. That’s why a candidate’s responses to voter guide efforts by organizations that share your values are important. Those voter guides may raise issues about which the typical voter is not aware and about which no candidate is talking.

Using Voter Guides Effectively

First, voter guides can give you information by which to evaluate the integrity of a candidate’s campaign rhetoric. FACT’s Voter Guide and personal interviews with the leading gubernatorial candidates will be on our website beginning July 16th. Often times a survey question relates to legislation that has been voted on or been filed. FACT’s voter guide makes reference to existing legislation if such has been filed. In those cases, you can look up how the candidate voted on that legislation and see if the vote and survey answer are consistent. Where there is no vote by which a comparison can be made, compare the survey answers to the candidate’s campaign rhetoric and publications. If there are inconsistencies, take note of that fact.

Also, while some candidates won’t answer voter guide questionnaires from any type of organization, if possible find out if a candidate has answered any organization’s voter guide survey. If so and if a candidate espouses political positions consistent with an organization’s values but won’t answer that organization’s survey, then take note. The candidate may be avoiding putting into writing what he says he believes.

Parenthetically, one way to find out about a candidate’s record is to read the information from other candidates for the same office. But if a candidate is criticizing a fellow candidate’s position, see if the criticizing candidate actually cites you to the legislation at issue. If not, the criticism may lack substance, in which case the critic’s own integrity may need to be questioned.

A Promise That Can’t Be Kept

Second, watch out for subtle contradictions. For example, watch out for candidates who talk about smaller government and lower taxes while also talking about new programs they want to initiate or agencies or organizations for which they want to increase funding. In my opinion such talk may lack integrity because honestly:

  • at the state level, the state has no money for anything “new” unless collections begin to go up or the candidate is willing to cut some existing program. So, if they promise smaller government and new programs, ask them where they will get the money—what they are going to cut? If they can’t tell you, they haven’t thought it out.
  • at the federal level, it is fiscally broke, thanks to the Democratic and Republican parties who have taken turns driving us into bankruptcy. Enough said about a congressional candidate who wants less government, lower taxes, and less debt and also proposes to start something new.

A Promise That Wasn’t Kept

Third, has an incumbent made a campaign promise in this cycle or in the past that has not been kept? If so, did the incumbent try to explain it away? Or did the incumbent have the integrity to admit either that the promise never should have been made (Bible scholars, consider Jephthah) or that breaking the promise was wrong.

Rationalization for why it was “okay” to break a promise is a quality that can well (and most likely will) carry over into other issues at other times. We can rationalize about anything if we put our mind to it. Integrity and humility are most evident when a person is willing to admit he or she was wrong. No candidate is perfect. Pretending that one is perfect simply means the person is more imperfect than he or she thinks.

Undermining Their Stated Values

Fourth, will the candidate commit to vote for a Speaker that holds views consistent with the ones the candidate espouses? Ask a candidate if there are any values a candidate for Speaker must hold or cannot hold in order to get your candidate’s vote for Speaker.

In other words, if being pro-life (or pro-Second Amendment) is very important to you, a candidate who says he or she is pro-life (or pro-Second Amendment) but votes for a Speaker who is not pro-life (or pro-Second Amendment) will have just killed most, if not all, pro-life (or pro-Second Amendment) legislation that will be filed.

Why? Because the committees that vote on legislation will reflect the values of the Speaker who appoints the committees. For example, regarding funding for abortion under “Obama Care,” my recollection is that, in the end, Nancy Pelosi won the day, not Congressman Bart Stupak and his so-called “pro-life” coalition. The same kind of thing happened in the Tennessee state House under former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh with respect to pro-life legislation.

Have They Walked the Talk?

Last but not least, is a candidate’s talk consistent with their personal walk—do they walk the talk? If the candidate espouses pro-family values, do they live out pro-family values? It makes a difference. For example:

  • Are any “indiscretions”—DUI’s drug use, infidelity, etc.—far enough behind them that a sustained course of conduct since then has made it clear that what was in the past is in the past?
  • If a candidate has disclosed his or her financial records, do those records reflect a consistency with what the candidate says he or she values? Maybe this is just me, but if a candidate professes to be a follower of Jesus, and the information is available, how does that candidate’s giving compare to his or her income? Many candidates espouse “compassionate conservatism.” Many profess the need for civil government to do less and private associations to do more in caring for the disadvantaged. All that is fine, but does the charitable giving of those candidates reflect a willingness to put their money where their mouth is? Someone once said, “If you look at where a person’s treasure is, there his or her heart will be also.”
  • What nonpolitical activities is the candidate engaged in and for how long? And is there anything to indicate that those activities reflect a decision motivated by the heart or by a desire to firm up their political base? For example, if a candidate says he is pro-life, has he been involved with a local pregnancy resource center, adoption agency, or abstinence education ministry and, if so, did the involvement begin prior to being in politics or deciding to run for office? Candidates can’t be involved in every kind of activity, but the ones they are involved in and for the longest will be a clue to their real values.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that a person without integrity in his or her personal life will exhibit integrity in public life. If anything, elected office at the very least tempts one toward rationalization, compromise, and even outright dishonesty. People don’t often (ever?) get more honest once they get into politics. Remember the Tennessee Waltz sting anyone?

Again, having the right policy values is critical. Without the integrity to follow through when it’s time to vote, a candidate’s campaign values may not matter.