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Candidates with good judgement needed
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All over the country, political candidates, consultants, reporters, campaign volunteers and politically active citizens are pondering a single question: What do voters want in a candidate? Will voters be motivated in next year’s elections by issues, personalities or some intangible mix of qualities in the candidates they’re considering?
Every voter makes up his or her mind differently, of course, but my suspicion has always been that most voters weigh a mix of considerations. The true “single-issue voter” is rare. To be sure, they want to know candidates' stands on the issues they care about — how they articulate them and what they consider most important. They also want to get a sense of the candidates’ overall vision and where they want to take us as a nation, how they see the role of the federal government at home and whether they propose a muscular or more restrained foreign policy.
They look for less tangible things as well, qualities that would make them comfortable with a candidate. Voters generally want a sense that a candidate knows why he or she is running for office — and in particular, that it has to do with a desire to accomplish goals or to improve the common good, rather than simply to slake some personal ambition.
Voters also want to feel good about a candidate’s values, intelligence and sensitivity to their concerns. This is why candidates who are masters of statistics and dense policy arguments sometimes leave voters cold, while candidates who can present a compelling “story” attract attention and support.
Throughout the years, poll after poll has suggested that voters put “integrity” and personal honesty at the top of their requirements in a candidate. My sense is that other concerns come higher. If voters like what a politician stands for or find some deeper personal connection, they can forgive a lot: Witness the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972 or the high poll numbers Bill Clinton enjoyed despite questions about his personal conduct.
One such consideration, generally dismissed by pundits but clearly embraced by voters, is simple likability. Americans want to feel at ease with the person they’re voting for. And while they won’t admit it, at least not to pollsters, they take physical attractiveness into account, as a string of handsome presidents in the television age — John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Bill Clinton — suggests. But I have always thought that perhaps the most important trait in a political leader is invisible, or at least difficult to discern ahead of time: sound judgment. It often gets confused for intelligence, but intelligent people can misjudge affairs if they’re led astray by ideology, dogmatic thinking or even good intentions.
On the other hand, you can often tell if candidates lack good judgment: If they are unable to be wary of their own passions, inclined to dismiss other views, unsuspecting of the information they receive, or unwilling to admit that their views might be wrong, then it’s a good bet they will mishandle people, events and the difficult situations that confront our nation regularly.
A great deal is at stake in this regard. Historians note, for instance, that while George Washington was neither a good speaker nor a scintillating intellect, he possessed very good judgment about people and events. The course of our nation’s history would surely have been different had he been otherwise.
Good political judgment calls for a keen sense of what will work and what won’t in a given set of circumstances, and what the best means might be to achieve policy goals — in essence, it requires that leaders see the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. It demands great insight into others: who is competent and who is not, who will speak the truth to them and who will not, whom to believe and whom not to believe, who will persevere and who will fold.
It demands equally keen insight into complex situations and events, and an ability to discern possibilities for progress that others might miss. Finally, it requires a keen sense of what can be accomplished given the personalities and events in play: when to compromise, when to yield, and when to stand firm. It is probably expecting too much that voters will be able to see all this as they go about choosing whom to vote for. But we can certainly hope they will try.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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