The student of politics must recognize a genuine statement of principle when he encounters one. Distinguishing retail political speech—the rhetorical red meat flung at supporters—from a core belief on which a leader will not compromise is the essence of political analysis. The consequences of misjudging can be profound.
|Meant What He Said|
Some candidates are easily understood. Congressman Ron Paul is purely a candidate of principle, and accordingly one with a near-zero chance of victory. Some voters will agree with his libertarian views and others not, but few will doubt that this is a man who means what he says, and who, upon attaining office, will not compromise his beliefs. In the U.S. context, Paul appears shiny-eyed, and a bit dotty, and is tolerated to the extent that he has no chance of attaining national office.
Mitt Romney is a a slightly harder case, a candidate of deeply held views about the U.S. economy, how it works, and what must be done to strengthen it. A President Romney would spend the full measure of his political capital furthering his economic vision. But observers of the candidate’s tone, rhetorical enthusiasm, and even body language quickly grasp that he considers “social” and many other issues peripheral. Whatever Romney’s stated views on these subjects, his policies will “evolve” as political needs dictate. Indeed, Romney’s “authenticity” problem derives precisely from this transparency. The fate of his candidacy rests on whether Republican voters for whom non-economic issues are a matter of principle will accept a leader for whom they so palpably are not.
Barack Obama is a harder case. In their public statements, the President’s conservative critics treat Obama as a man of principle (imposing socialism on unsuspecting Americans; kowtowing to the nation’s enemies) who acts upon his convictions. Obama critics on the political left instead see a trimmer, a man devoid of political principle and unwilling to fight for matters of vital importance. And of course the President's critics may themselves be principled, self-serving, or somewhere in between.
Even the most canny political operators sometimes make their core values and intentions plain. In an extraordinary 1862 encounter of two future political titans, Benjamin Disraeli recorded the words of the visiting future Prussian- and German leader Otto Von Bismarck:
I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army, with or without, the help of the Lantag [legislature]… As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership.
Disraeli judged Bismarck correctly. “Take care of that man,” he told the Austrian envoy, “He means what he says.”
|A man of principle?|
Seventy years later, too few understood that Adolf Hitler meant what he said.
A more recent case: on 11 May of this year, Hamas MP and cleric Yunis Al-Astal offered these remarks: “In just a few years, all the Zionists and the settlers will realize that their arrival in Palestine was for the purpose of the great massacre, by means of which Allah wants to relieve humanity of their evil.”
Intuiting ‘when they really mean it’ can be a matter of life-and-death.