(This article appeared originally on Virginia Politics on Demand on August 15, 2013.)
My long-ago colleague and collaborator at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Peter Wehner, has an insightful and instructive article posted at Commentary magazine, headlined "Why Tone in American Politics Matters."
He points out that, as personally satisfying as combativeness in politics may be, it seldom paves the path to electoral victory. (I'd add that it seldom leads to legislative success, either.)
Looking at history and at current conditions, Wehner notes that American voters are non-ideological by their nature, and that is why one's tone matters as much as, if not more than, one's stated positions on policy issues.
"The willingness to fight for a cause is often an admirable thing," he writes,
and many of us were drawn to politics in large part because of a desire to advance a set of convictions. That effort elicits opposition, which in turn leads to clashes. That is the nature of politics in a republic and something that can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided. Politics ain’t beanbag.This is a message worth repeating -- and worth scrutinizing, for that matter -- but above all, it's a message that should be taken to heart by activists and candidates alike.
But in choosing to fight, one needs to pick the most favorable terrain possible–and even then (and whenever possible) to wage battles with affability, a touch of grace, and in a manner that projects steadiness and reasonableness. Winsomeness, equanimity, and a moderate temperament (which is different than moderate policies) are what most voters are looking for in candidates–especially from people who have strong philosophical convictions. It’s a mistake to assume that in order to be principled one has to be alienating and agitated.