The limited value of the ‘vote for the person’ maxim

THE LIMITED VALUE OF THE ‘VOTE FOR THE PERSON’ MAXIM…. The New York Times‘s Sunday magazine ran a brief interview with Garry Wills yesterday , and his chat with Deborah Solomon didn’t appear to go especially well. He twice referred to a line of questioning as “silly.”

But reader C.W. emailed to note the last exchange between the two, which stood out.

Solomon: Whom will you be voting for in this Tuesday’s election?

Wills: I always vote the party. It’s ridiculous not to. You may like a person who is Republican, but if you vote for that person, you’re voting for all the apparatus that comes along with it.

Wills, for the record, did not specify exactly which party would have his support on Election Day, though I suppose it’s not too difficult to guess his intentions.

As to his observation, though, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say, with some degree of pride, “I vote for the person, not the party.” I get the sense those who repeat it consider it evidence of high-minded independence.

But I’ve never fully understood what the sentiment is supposed to mean, exactly. After all, most of the time, those Ds and Rs candidates put in parentheses after their names are not just for show — they generally stand for something. One party wants to pursue policies that would take the country in one direction; the other party has a very different direction in mind. Especially as the differences between the parties become greater than at any time in generations, voters can express a preference between two visions that have precious little in common.

With that in mind, the “I vote for the person” crowd is making an odd argument. These folks seem to be suggesting they’re not especially concerned with policy differences, policy visions, or agendas, but rather, are principally concerned with personalities. Maybe the candidate seems more personable; maybe they ran better commercials. Either way, as a substantive matter, the “vote for the person, not the party” approach seems pretty weak. Indeed, it’s what leads people to express a series of policy priorities, and then vote for a candidate who opposes all of those priorities — a dynamic that’s as exasperating as it is counter-productive.

Michael Kinsley had a piece on voting party lines a few years ago, and its point still resonates: “There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person…. A candidate’s party affiliation doesn’t tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact, it tells you a lot — enough so that it even makes sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike.”