When Calls for 'Transparency' Go Too Far
Transparency in politics, while widely regarded in the public eye as a panacea for all societal ills, winds up being a recalcitrant beast once it’s actually sprung from its cage. As all too often happens, this sort of “sunshine” is a tool viewed in very different fashions by the public and the candidates for high office who seek to represent them. For the voter, it’s a critical method of peering under the hood and hiring the best person for the job, but for the politicians it’s more of a weapon. The general theme would appear to be, transparency for thee, but not for me.
The use of the term “sunshine” is particularly apt as the 2012 Republican primary race moves forward into the hotly contested Sunshine State of Florida. Fresh off his somewhat sensational victory in South Carolina, upstart Newt Gingrich seeks to carry that momentum forward into the January 31st contest. This has forced the hand of the formerly inevitable Mitt Romney, leading him to reach into the political tool chest and remove an old friend: disclosure!
Governor Romney is still stinging from his campaign’s ham-handed, politically tone deaf fumbling on the issue of his tax returns. The relentless badgering from both the media and his opponents resulted in a humbling display when he allowed that he would, in fact, be generous enough to share one year’s worth of his filings. (An event, we should note yet again, made all the more ironic by the fact that his own father was the person to originally institute the practice of releasing tax returns.) But what’s good for the goose -- in this case at least -- is great for the grandiose by Mitt’s way of thinking.
Romney moved quickly, launching a new line of attack on the former speaker over his claims that he had never been a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. In a matter of hours his team had crafted a new television spot, targeting Floridians struggling in the depressed housing market. In it, he claimed that Gingrich had “cashed in” at the mortgage giant while their housing values plummeted, going so far as to call on Newt to give back the millions of dollars he had earned in their employ.
This prompted one wag -- no doubt an enthusiastic Gingrich supporter -- to ask if Mitt planned on releasing his “confidential, client related files from Bain.” And before the 24 hour political news media could wake up from the sugar induced coma brought on by the delicious, internecine warfare, Mitt was back on the stump wondering about documentation surrounding Newt’s resignation as speaker so many years ago. It takes neither a brain scientist nor a rocket surgeon to see where this path is leading, and the debate set me to wondering if there might not be a point where the healthy medicine of transparency might not eventually reach a level which triggers an overdose.
Some of the demands currently being waved about are clearly problematic, if only from a logistical standpoint. Gingrich may or may not be able to publish his contracts and “produced product” from his period of employment as a consulting historian for Freddie Mac. Some such deals require the compliance of the other signatories to the agreement. The case with Romney’s clients at Bain is, if anything, even more unlikely to bear fruit for the same reasons. But the deeper question here isn’t whether they can produce such documents, but rather if we should reasonably expect them to do so.
Office seekers are commonly called upon to provide all manner of private information, even when the law doesn’t specifically require them to do so. Much of this data includes details which the vast majority of voters would never themselves consider releasing and would likely be offended in the extreme were you to ask for it. Few of us would care to cut loose the protections of doctor-patient confidentiality, yet we routinely expect it of politicians. The voters might have a vested interest in seeing if the candidate is likely to live long enough to complete their term and retain the competency to do so. But their opponents might be more interested in fine grain details, such as… why did you need that penicillin shot back the summer of 1972, sir?
Financial records are also a matter of curiosity in all quarters. Conservatives tend to wish for everyone to pay lower taxes, but they prefer this take place through the lowering of marginal rates, not having their candidates break the law to dodge the IRS. But yet again, malicious opponents would like to pry further into the bank vaults, examining each and every investment and return. Did the politician perhaps purchase the stock of a company who once did business with some overseas entity which once purchased oil from… Iran!? Surely an endorsement of sharia law in America if we’ve ever seen one, ladies and gentlemen.
The list of potential discoveries stretches on from there to eternity. So is there such a thing as too much background information on a candidate? Does the search for legitimate, character-defining historical data ever delve too deeply into a quagmire which does nothing but muddy the waters and provide fodder for misleading or baseless attack ads? To be sure, we don’t want to cut off the flow to the point where we leave the candidates comfortably ensconced in a dark, salubrious hole of anonymity. But it seems there should be some sort of Rubicon we don’t want to cross here, and only the voters can establish that standard.
(Also read: "Mittens Takes Off the Gloves")