Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Not About the Debate

This is not about the vice-presidential candidates' debate.  It is a little rant about our political process, and the complicity of the news media.  In various forums of political discourse, it is common for people to try to make an argument based upon the voting record or a politician in Congress.  "He votes for higher taxes 99 times," or "He didn't vote to support our troops," etc. 

Certainly, it is a good idea to look at the voting record of a candidate when trying to make an informed choice about voting.  What bugs me is that one has to be very careful drawing any sort of conclusion about the candidate, based upon the kind of statements given in the above examples.  Ask the question: given that candidate X voted for/against bill Y, what valid conclusions can be drawn?  First of all, the name of the bill often is misleading.  Second, most legislation contains a zillion provisions, many of which have nothing to do with the main point of the bill.  Third, congresspersons trade votes all the time, for a variety of reasons.  Fourth, often legislation is introduced for the sole purpose of allowing candidates to score political points by casting certain votes, or to force the opposition into expressing an unpopular position by casting a certain vote.  Much of this legislation never goes anywhere; it will pass the House, but not the Senate, or vice versa.  Fifth, almost always, congresspersons know how the vote is going to turn out, well in advance of the actual vote.  A politician may very well cast a vote against a bill that he or she supports, in order to make a point about some minor provision, knowing full well that the legislation is going to pass anyway. 

For these reasons, it is very difficult to know what conclusions can be drawn for the single datum of how a politician voted on a particular bill.  In order to know how to interpret that data point, it is necessary to understand the entire context of the vote.  I would hope that everyone would know this, but sometimes it seems that there is a conspiracy of silence that prevents an adequate and thorough discussion.  Politicians collude with this, by not bringing it up.  News reporters and pundits collude with it, by echoing the allegations about the meaning of certain votes, without given their readers/viewers/listeners the entire context.  And worst of all, voters allow themselves to be influenced by this, without doing the homework it takes to find out if the conclusions presented are, in fact, valid. 

So next time you hear that candidate A voted for/against legislation B that did/would have done C, either do the homework, or better yet, just ignore the comment as a bit of non-information.