Broken windows at the White House

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Last week I wrote an article objecting to an invitation I had received from the Obama campaign to have “some grub with POTUS.” Though I think that particular invitation demeans the presidency more than most dinner-with-the-candidate invitations, my criticism applies to both presidential candidates, since they’re both doing it. Even the local candidates for office here in Oregon are sending out these sorts of invitations.

An apparently sympathetic commenter suggested that I was trying to “turn back the clock” and must therefore be close to his 86 years of age. “Get with it or stand aside,” he urged.

I am happy to report that the octogenarian commenter has a few years on me, but I have nonetheless given serious consideration to his suggestion that I get with it or stand aside. After all, this common-folk behavior on the part of our presidential candidates (and candidates for virtually every public office) is mostly symbolic pretense intended to attract voters presumed to be common folk themselves.

Why not lighten up, go with the flow, join the 21st century? What’s the point of insisting, or just wishing, that those who aspire to be president of the United States act presidential? For that matter, what does it mean to act presidential? Maybe having grub with contributors, cracking jokes on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and hanging out with the stars in Hollywood now counts as presidential.

But that’s what worries me. When a Las Vegas fundraiser takes precedence over conferring with the leader of one of America’s staunchest and most threatened allies, when campaign demands require the president to duck in and out of the United Nations without the traditional meetings with other world leaders, the new presidential starts looking like it’s about more than politics and symbolism. Surely tradition, taste and good manners are about more than some old guy’s nostalgia for days gone by.

Three decades ago social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling proposed a “broken windows” theory of urban crime. Their idea was that vandalism and other types of minor social misbehavior contributed to a culture of expanding and escalating criminal conduct. If so, they theorized, one way to reduce serious crime is to enforce laws against vandalism and other minor offenses. Though still debated among criminologists, New York City’s revival under Mayor Rudy Giuliani convinced many of the validity of the broken windows theory.

Perhaps it’s a leap too far to suggest that bad behavior by presidential candidates leads to bad behavior by presidents, but given that we have a president who has embraced a whatever-it-takes view of his office, I’m not so sure. If you can campaign however you like, why not govern by asserting whatever authority it takes. If the traditional mores of electioneering are old fashioned, well so too might be the constitutional rules of governance.

President Obama is a child of the liberating ’60s and ’70s, decades that brought much positive change to America but left us with a moral relativism that plagues everything from our schools to our governing institutions. As for Mitt Romney, he is clearly trying to follow the advice of his political consultants, though he always seems a little uncomfortable in the skin of a modern presidential candidate (as well he would given his patrician and Mormon upbringing). I fear there is no reforming Obama, but one hopes that if elected Romney would revert to form and bring some old-fashioned refinement to the White House, along with an old-fashioned commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Regrettably it would only be a temporary reprieve for our constitutional republic, if my broken windows theory of presidential electioneering has any validity, and if presidential candidates continue to act like college boys running for fraternity president. So after reflecting on my octogenarian commenter’s suggestion that I stand aside and embrace “grub with POTUS,” I have decided to double down on my objections to tasteless political fundraising. If we old guys stick together and insist on better campaign behavior, maybe we’ll get better behavior from those we elect.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.