Candidates and Consumption

In a column tearing his party a new one for ever defending Sarah Palin, David Frum says that we should "Quit treating consumption patterns as substitutes for character":

It's very important that politicians understand the everyday lives of Americans. It's important that politicians champion the ordinary person and not pay undue heed to the wishes of the rich and powerful. It's important that politicians be people of integrity, not hirelings of industry lobbies. These are issues of character, and character counts.

But the choice of cowboy boots over loafers, enjoyment of hunting rather than bicycling, a preference for ketchup over mustard — these tell us precisely nothing about a candidate's character.

Yet it was precisely these kinds of irrelevant lifestyle choices that persuaded so many conservatives that Sarah Palin would be a fitting leader. She drops her "g"s! Her husband owns a fishing boat! She shoots moose! (Not really on that last point, but that's the story we were told at the time.)

It's an important point, because we pay so much time talking about those consumption choices that we often forget that when we do so, we are indeed using them as shorthand for something that is supposed to not only reside deep within the politician's soul, but actually connect to how he or she might conduct him or herself in office. When George H.W. Bush told Americans he loved pork rinds, it wasn't to convince us he'd singlehandedly revive the American processed pig meat industry. It was supposed to give us a window into how he'd treat us -- as an ordinary fella who partook of simple pleasures, he'd have in his heart the best interests of other ordinary folks and would act accordingly. Barack Obama does the same thing when he takes his occasional trips to Five Guys to munch down a burger.

Over the course of the campaign, the candidates will be asked what foods they like, what music they listen to, where they buy their clothes, and various other consumption choices they make. This will tell us, as Frum says, precisely nothing about whether they're honest or brave or thoughtful or caring, and whether the decisions they make will be wise or foolish.

We should also note that while candidates often initiate discussion of their own consumption, just as often it comes from the press. You might remember the absurd GOP debate a couple of months ago, when the "journalists" at CNN, in a segment they cleverly called "This or That," forced people running to be the president of the United States to choose whether they preferred Leno or Conan, "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol," iPhone or Blackberry, Elvis or Johnny Cash, deep dish or thin crust, Coke or Pepsi, and spicy wings or mild. Truly, Edward R. Murrow would have been proud.