America’s Least Favorite Trait in a Politician

In late July of 2017, shortly after his diagnosis of brain cancer, John McCain came back to the Senate in dramatic fashion to a standing ovation. He then proceeded to cast a deciding “yes” on a motion to proceed vote to move the ObamaCare repeal process forward. The vote ended up being tied 50–50 with the tie breaker being made by Vice President Mike Pence — meaning that John McCain, or any other Republican, could have joined Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to single-handedly stop this healthcare effort.

Right after casting his vote, John McCain made a stirring speech decrying the partisanship of the whole process and calling for a better functioning Senate. One like the old days, where people listened across the aisle, debating and legislating in sincerity.

The speech was as much a passionate and accurate portrayal of current Washington as it was frustrating and ironic. Needless to say, it got much condemnation, given the nature of his vote.

I find this situation to be a pressing example of one of America’s least favorite traits in a politician: inconsistency.

How not to Persuade

Robert Cialdini, the Psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book Influence, talks about the powerful impact our past displays of commitment and consistency can have on the choices we make today.

From Cialdini’s website,

“Consistency is activated by looking for and asking for small initial commitments that can be made.
So when seeking to influence using the consistency principle, the detective of influence looks for voluntary, active and public commitments and ideally gets those commitments in writing.
For example, one recent study reduced missed appointments at health centers by 18% simply by asking the patients, rather than the staff to write down appointment details on the future appointment card.”

This drive for consistency doesn’t just affect how we act in our personal lives, it colors our perceptions of others, our opinions of who is trustworthy and who is not.

When we feel this principle being violated, it agitates us. Someone who is inconsistent often feels like a worse person than someone who is consistently mean or dishonest. Maybe this is why people hate politics — as it often amounts to people being opportunistically inconsistent day in and day out, with no repercussions. Sure, people get criticism and “heat,” but few actually lose power because of the gap between what they promise and what they do.

Late night Comedians understand consistency. Watch any Trump segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to find point-blank inconsistency jokes. A favorite technique is to show a clip of Trump saying one thing, and then immediately follow it with another clip of one of his spokespeople (or Trump himself) saying the exact opposite.

The retired king of political ball-busting, Jon Stewart, called this tactic the “one-to-one” in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview

“If you can get a one-to-one with a guy saying the exact opposite of what he said today, then you don’t even have to do anything. You just lay them back-to-back and sit back and giggle.”

Everyone But Herself

To see how this issue with consistency plays out in a different political context, take the case of Hillary Clinton’s responsibility.

In May, a few months after losing the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton momentarily came out of the woods to do a speech at the Code Conference in California talking about her thoughts on the country and the election.

While earlier in the month she claimed to take “absolute personal responsibility” for the faults of her campaign, during this conference, and at several prior, she discussed some of the issues in the election that were to varying degrees outside the scope of her control. Her view was that factors such as the DNC email hacks, candidate Trump’s divisive speaking style, and the decision of James Comey to reopen her email investigation all played a significant role in the reason she lost.

The result? Media figures quickly turned to criticize Clinton’s blame game. Fox News’ Krauthammer called her “pathetic” and “childish” for not taking true responsibility for her role in the loss. The idea that Hillary Clinton blamed “everyone but herself” received near ubiquitous agreement.

Of course, multiple things can be true at the same time. It can be true that Hillary Clinton was an unlikable, robotic candidate who ran an ineffective campaign and that outside factors made these problems worse.

But whether or not the claims of Clinton or her critics were fair or accurate is somewhat beyond the point. The mistake was that she said she would take full responsibility, and then it appeared that she didn’t. This apparent inconsistency is unacceptable.

Partisan Gain at Any Cost

The Atlantic’s David Graham well summed up the issue with McCain’s call to unity. Referring to the healthcare repeal push as a whole, Graham says that it “would be hard to think of a more desperate effort to win partisan gain at any cost, and yet here was McCain denouncing such efforts moments after enabling one.”

The Senator also spent part of his speech criticizing the President, which speaks to a broader pattern of both John McCain and several other Moderate Republicans who reject Trump with their words, but often prop him up with their actions.

“McCain has repeatedly criticized his [Trump’s] ignorance and judgment, particularly on national-security issues. Yet he has reliably pushed forward the president’s priorities and generally stayed in line at decisive moments.”

John McCain speech after Motion to Proceed vote. Image from CBS News.

The difference between McCain’s partisan vote versus his bipartisan speech was only one part of the inconsistency. There was also the visual of McCain the man — 80 years old with visible markings from surgery over the left side of his face, along with our knowledge of his treacherous diagnosis. All contrasted with his efforts to pass a bill that all estimates say would lead to millions less insured Americans. Not to forget the strain and deaths that would inevitably follow.

Six hours after McCain promised in his speech that he would “not vote for the bill as it is today,” he voted yes on another vote that moved forward the Better Care Reconciliation Act, one of the Republican Senate Leadership’s several bills on the table for repealing the Affordable Care Act. Overall, the motion failed 57 to 43. (While this vote would not have officially passed BCRA, it would have moved the bill closer to its final procedural stages).

Similar to Hillary Clinton’s seeming refusal to take responsibility, and his initial vote on the motion to proceed, McCain’s second vote strengthens the appearance of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, as I’ve mentioned, is considered somewhat of a political cardinal sin, although that’s not always warranted. To what extent these political misgivings are actually inconsistent and hypocritical are up for debate. But all these things certainly feel disingenuous, and the public isn’t having it.

I think it’s good to remind ourselves that politicians are humans. Which means they’re a messy bundle of contradictions, just like us. Perhaps we should be a bit more forgiving to these people and their internal tensions.