Courage on the Campaign Trail

While I hesitate to complain about standard-issue candidate hyperbole, I just can't help myself on this one. Here's Michele Bachmann's latest Iowa campaign ad:

"I have the will and I have the courage to see this through." And by "see this through," she means, "vote against whatever debt ceiling deal the people in Congress who do the actual work come up with." Here's the thing about courage: It actually requires you to put something at risk. Courage implies danger. A politician can be courageous when she, for instance, takes a stand on principle that she knows will increase the chances she'll be voted out of office. The only danger here is to the American economy, not to Michele Bachmann's fortunes. What would be courageous is for her to support increasing the debt ceiling, since that would get her supporters mad.

But for some reason, we expect candidates to embody every admirable human virtue. The campaign narrative a candidate weaves almost inevitably shows them as having been tested by adversity or the cowardice of others around them, at which point they rose up and stood strong for freedom and justice, despite the slings and arrows aimed their way. Every once in a while a candidate has a legitimate story of courage, but most of the time they're making a courageous mountain out of a pedestrian molehill.

We also want our candidates to be extraordinary, better than those around them, and when you've been a backbench member of the House for four years, you don't get a lot of opportunities to rise above all others and demonstrate your unique character. Which is why legislator candidates always characterize the mundane activities of their jobs -- holding hearings, writing legislation, voting for things -- as acts of uncommon heroism. But you'll notice something about people who are actually courageous: They tend to be pretty modest about it. Of course, modesty and running for office don't mix.