Montana Viewpoint: Chasing political purity may fail Democratic voters

Ideological purity and consistency of opinion over time are two standards to which many Americans want to hold their political candidates.

People want to elect candidates who think about things the way they do. Sometimes it’s just about one or two issues, like abortion or gun control (whether pro or con). Other times, people want their candidates to believe in everything they themselves believe in — no exceptions.

People also expect that candidates do not change their opinions over time, so that an action today is measured against their past actions and that any inconsistency between the two is viewed as hypocritical.

Changing a position based on principal is not differentiated from changing a position for cynical political convenience. Couple those two standards and you have a lock on voters who care about that. The problem is, it may not be a lot of voters. They are two standards that politicians work hard to exploit in order to lower the public’s opinion of their opponents.

The major problem is that neither of those two standards is either realistic or admirable, at least as far as the good of the nation is concerned. The easiest way to deal with is the second standard; consistency of opinion over a long period of time, that is to say, the tiger can’t change its stripes.

It seems to stand as a given that the only reason a candidate would change their position on an issue has to be based on the hypocritical action of trying to get more votes. Personally, I believe that changing a position based on changing circumstances, or new information, or even just giving it more thought is more of a virtue than a fault.

For an extreme case in point remember that the Democratic Senate was the champion of segregation in the 1950s until Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Texas turned his own Senate voting record and American politics on its head with his strong support for integration after he became president.

The purity issue is a bit more difficult, and these days is far more of a problem for Democrats than Republicans, largely because of President Donald Trump. Purity is often at odds with practicality. Saints are pure, and they are martyred for it. Politicians are practical and they get things done, but perhaps at the sacrifice of their soul.

Statesmen are people who can find the middle ground between the two and get away with it.

President Trump has defied all the logical rules of political purity and consistency of opinion, and is not only successful at it, among his followers he is revered for it. You may have noticed that he is not facing a serious primary challenge for his re-nomination.

On the Democratic side, well … everybody’s in trouble. Candidates with experience have that big problem with experience, a record to look back on and to hold them to. The candidates without a record, or with less of one, seem to be one issue candidates: gun control, climate change, wealth inequality; all of which will doom them in a general election, if not a primary.

Democrats are united on only one particular aspect of a candidate’s value, and that’s beating Trump. The problem is, if a candidate who might beat Trump also has an issue or two that some Democrats can’t stomach, will they vote for that candidate in the general election?

As sure as the sun will rise and set, we will all know in a few months. Republicans will vote for Trump whether he is consistent or not. Democrats will want to vote for a saint, but that saint might get martyred.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at