For a culture that loves redemption and second chances, we seem pretty hostile to asking for them. Nowhere does that appear more true than in politics, where acknowledging error is left for the last resort — or post-retirement memoirs. This isn’t really a partisan issue either, although it tends to run in cycles. This particular cycle, as I point out at The Week, it’s Democrats doubling down on obvious errors, especially Mark Udall, Alison Grimes, and especially Wendy Davis:
The use of the empty wheelchair and the barely implicit accusation of making his disability a wealth-generating scheme turned stomachs from National Review to Mother Jones. And yet, rather than walk it back, Davis chose to surround herself on stage with other disabled voters to defend the ad, which may qualify as one of the worst attack spots of all time….
What do all of these episodes have in common? All took place while the politicians were on the defensive and their opponents smelled blood in the water. Rather than give those opponents any satisfaction, or, more accurately, sound bites for ammunition, politicians prefer to brazen it out. When an admission of error might humanize a politician and an actual apology might impress, they still prefer to double down and hope that voters either believe them based on their consistency or quickly tire of the issue.
The problem with that is that the issues and errors may not be all that critical, but the evaluation of personal character is. Obama and Bush didn’t have to run for re-election when these issues emerged, but the erosion in voter perception of their personal qualities made it increasingly difficult for either man to push through his agenda. Grimes, Udall, and Davis have tough races, where voter assessment of their personal honesty and ethics might have made a difference. Still, they couldn’t resist circling the wagons rather than admitting error.
In the end, that’s bad for all of us. Mistakes will always be made, but we need leaders who acknowledge those missteps. Perhaps one day a politician will surprise us by admitting error, but will we be ready to reward honesty when it happens? Very clearly, candidates and officeholders don’t think so. But it certainly would be nice to be asked.
In the column, I point out that this became an actual meme during the second Bush term. Media outlets tried to get George W. Bush to admit a specific mistake, any specific mistake, at press conferences and interviews, turning it into a game — and Bush obliged by refusing to do so. Oddly, despite the series of blunders in the second Obama term, the media hasn’t had the same interest in playing that game. I wonder why that might be.
Still, I wonder what would happen if politicians simply admitted to mistakes and offered actual apologies for them — and not the “sorry some may have been offended” ambiguities that occasionally appear when nothing else will do. Opponents would quickly cut them into YouTube spots and bludgeon apologizers with the sound bites, which is certainly one reason we don’t get too many apologies. Would voters reward politicians for their honesty and humility, or punish them for it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the first politician who seriously adopts that kind of approach might reap some reward for it. It’s the antithesis of “the buck stops with my predecessor” attitude we’ve seen over the last few years, certainly.