11.24.2007

How High the Presidential Pedestal?

How much discretion about indiscretions is appropriate?

Mitt Romney told voters and reporters that presidential candidates should refrain from discussing with young people their early life "indiscretions."

The former Massachusetts Governor's statements were a response to Sen. Barack Obama's visit to a Manchester high school Tuesday where he told students he was a "goof off" in high school and had experimented with drugs and alcohol.

Is it better to be mum to the point of raising suspicion, like Romney? Or forthcoming to the brink of imprudence, like Obama?

Obama's honesty refreshes. It arguably indicates a basic respect for the capacity of high school students. It's a smart tactical move because he sets the field for addressing the issue. It is also healthy, as Rudy Giuliani noted in response to learning of the speech, for the electorate to realize candidates are not perfect. Candidates aren't perfect. We subject them to an incredible level of scrutiny - oftentimes on issues that are not central to presidential capacity.

Still, as much as America loves its scoundrely Tom Sawyer characters, why should a presidential candidate be the person to condone, in a way, youthful illegal activity? There are many other figures and sources in a high school student's life who can make a similar point to him or her. While Obama made it rather clear that his drug use and drinking were wastes of time, as the video shows, Obama didn't specifically urge the high students to abstain from drugs or underage drinking.

If Obama wants to be blunt with an audience of mostly minors about his illegal activities as a minor, it would be wise for him - even if he did believe the rules he broke were troublesome - to show he now respects the rule of law.

If he doesn't believe drug laws or drinking laws should be in place for minors, I don't have a problem with him noting those specific stances. That would actually show additional respect for students' mental capacities. Without accompanying admonishment against breaking the current law, however, for all his candor, what is he saying?

You can drink and do drugs, kids, and you can still catch up later and be a presidential contender.

Honesty = great (he is proof that it's true). Failure to distinguish the root problem of his indiscretions in light of his audience (illegal as opposed to simply unwise activities) = not so great. And so a role model creates a moral hazard.

And let me be clear: this critique is independant of a normative statement on prohibitions against drugs or drinking. It's about illegal activity generally. I would have a similar problem with Obama - or, say, Ron Paul - telling the students he cheated on his income taxes during high school or college without condemning it as more than unwise or a mere waste of time. If Paul voluntarily told a high school audience he failed to pay his taxes (which is not the case, to my knowledge), I would expect him to note that it was wrong because even if he had sound arguments for why taxes were excessive, the standing law still said he had to pay taxes.

Not all people are perfect. Not all laws are perfect. Obama admittedly made it relatively clear that underage drinking and drugs were not beneficial to him - I don't think it was what Romney termed a "huge error." Still, I expect a potential chief executive in a setting like the one Obama faced in Manchester to point out a bit more forcefully that the laws he may be charged with enforcing, until they are changed, mean something.