Commentary: Virtue of Selfishness

Aug 22, 2012

Once upon a time, the rules of politics were fairly clear. When you got caught in a scandal, you resigned, as gracefully as possible.

That is, unless it happened to be in Japan, where you were expected to kill yourself.

There was also an extremely quaint idea that the cause and your party was more important than you were.

Thirty years ago, I interviewed a candidate for the U.S. Senate who had no realistic chance to win. He wasn’t just a name on the ballot; he was reasonably qualified. I asked him why he was running.

Speaking off the record, he told me he knew he had no chance, unless his opponent were to die. But he was running because he believed the voters deserved a decent choice between ideas. His party had asked him to run. Now, there was the mostly unspoken understanding that if he did this, and did a credible job, they later would see that he was put up for a race he could win.

That, or perhaps appoint him to something. These days, however, we live in a different world. Ayn Rand, once one of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s political heroes, once wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

These days, it sometimes seems like that is the slogan of most politicians. Michigan Republicans have been falling all over themselves trying to get State Rep. Roy Schmidt to quit. Last month, it was learned that he conspired to try and get a phony candidate to run against him as a Democrat.

The idea was to prevent a write-in campaign by a legitimate Democrat. The phony candidate, who Schmidt lied about not knowing, was even supposed to be paid off for doing this.

Though the local prosecutor somewhat incredibly found this wasn’t illegal, it is hard to see how Schmidt can legitimately ask people for their votes. Yet he refuses to drop out. Nationally, Republican leaders yesterday did everything they could to get their U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri to drop out. He’s the one who said women probably couldn’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape." His race may well determine control of the Senate. But he refuses to resign either. That makes sense only in a world where life is “all about me.” Republicans aren’t alone in this. Minnesota Democrats’ ability to win their state legislature is threatened, because one of their members refuses to drop out after being caught having sex with a teenage boy.

If you think this dangerously adds to cynicism, that’s because it does. But this whole attitude goes beyond scandal. Right now, both political parties are writing their platforms, which are supposed to be a statement of principles on which their candidates run for office.

Years ago, these were important documents. Today, nobody, including the candidates, read them or feel bound by them. Yesterday, in response to worries that the GOP’s anti-abortion stand was too extreme, the Republican national chairman assured people that it wasn’t necessarily Mitt Romney’s platform. In other words, he basically said the platform is essentially meaningless.

A teacher once told me that, “if you don’t stand for something, you really stand for nothing.” These days, it’s sometimes hard to find candidates who stand for anything at all.