Vikram David Amar

Putting Politics Aside, One Thing About This Week's Election Is Clear: We Need and Deserve Better Candidate Statements


Friday, November 5, 2010

Now that this Tuesday's election is over, it is time for me to vent. Not about the results, although I, like most people, can't claim to be happy with all of the outcomes. In this column, I complain instead about the poor quality of communication by the candidates. I am speaking here not of the shameful, misleading and unrelentingly negative advertising that dominated the nation's airwaves. Rather, I am talking about the embarrassingly bad candidate statements submitted by many aspirants for high office.

California's Candidate Statements -- Either Missing, or Deeply Disappointing

In my home state of California, candidate statements are included in the official voter information guide pamphlet compiled by the California Secretary of State's office and sent to all eligible voters (and also made available on the Secretary of State's website). These statements represent the one place and time in which candidates can present their basic messages to the voters in clear, concise, written terms. To be sure, TV and radio spots communicate a great deal of useful information, but the written word is still -- or at least ought still to be -- a special form; in a well-functioning democracy, the ability and willingness of each voter to carefully and at his own pace read, and reread, each candidate's own framing of the key issues in the race would seem indispensable.

And yet the candidate statements I saw when I sat down to finalize my own voting plans this year were, by and large, a joke. Many major party candidates for the highest state offices didn't think that including candidate statements was even worth the bother. For example, for the office of Governor in California, neither Democrat Jerry Brown nor Republican Meg Whitman submitted a candidate statement for voters to examine.

I know, of course, that many (maybe most) voters will make up their minds based on party affiliation, general knowledge of the candidates, partisan ads, debate performances, media coverage and depictions, endorsements, and the like. But it still surprises and troubles me that these candidates felt that writing directly to the voters in this official voter-information publication wasn't important enough to do at all.

On the other hand, maybe eschewing a written statement altogether is better than submitting a statement of exceedingly mediocre quality. That is what many other major candidates did, and their efforts offended me as an educator, as a citizen, and as someone who believes that education and clarity of expression are important themes America must stress if it is to thrive in the global Twenty-First Century.

Two Illustrations Show How Candidate Statements Fall Woefully Short

To illustrate this point, I have reproduced below two candidate statements for two important offices on which California voters just cast their ballots. In an effort to be nonpartisan (which also explains why I penned this column after, rather than before, the election), I include statements by one Republican and one Democrat (albeit, running for a nonpartisan office).

I also chose two offices where eloquence and clarity of expression should and do matter. The U.S. Senate is often called the most deliberative body in the world, and has produced great orators and communicators over the course of American history. President Obama -- a skilled wordsmith -- himself emerged on the national scene from the Senate. And it should go without saying that whoever holds the office of California Superintendent of Public Instruction is literally the face of public education, and thus should be able to construct a strong essay. And, again for balance, I picked one candidate who won, and one who lost.

Here, then, are two of the candidate statements from this year's official voter guide, with some commentary by me after each. (The italicized emphasis in each statement is in the original, but the numbers before each sentence in the two candidate statements are added by me to make the comments I offer after each statement easier to follow.) The critiques I offer are not, I think, overly picky. I am not beating people up over a stray typo here or there (which is something all of us commit from time to time). Nor am I focusing on the quality of the argumentation and reasoning. I am commenting here on some basics of written communication skills.

Carly Fiorina's Statement

United States Senate

Carly Fiorina (R)

1) I started my business career as a secretary, earned an MBA and became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company, Hewlett-Packard. 2.) I understand the challenges people face and how to create jobs. 3.) America is in a crisis. 4.) Soaring federal spending and the mushrooming federal deficit are killing jobs and stalling economic recovery. 5.) Unless reversed, our children will be burdened with unsustainable future debt. 6.) We need real job creation not failed federal policy like the stimulus. 7.) The problem is old-line politicians, who have been in of fice for decades, are not interested in solving problems 8.) They are more concerned with partisanship, ideology and the next election. 9.) I'm a strong fiscal conservative who will fight to reduce spending, slash the federal de ficit and stop the expansion of federal control over the economy. 10.) We are at war with terrorists who seek to destroy America's way of life. 11.) I chaired the External Advisory Board for the CIA. 12.) I'll work for tougher U.S. policy in dealing with terrorists and oppose the administration's policy to try terrorists in civilian court. 13.) If you're tired of partisan politics as usual then send a political outsider like me to Washington. 14.) I will work across party lines for real reform. 15.) Together we can take back our government; make it listen and work for each of us. I'm Carly Fiorina. 16.) I will take a fresh, new look at solving the problems facing America. 17.) We can actually make things better for a change. 18.) I'm working hard to earn your vote.

A Critique of Carly Fiorina's Statement

Without trying to be harsh, let me point out a few grammar, style and writing blunders:

In sentence 5, the opening clause is improperly written; the "[u]nless reversed" language refers to the subject of the sentence, "our children." Yet "our children" are not the thing(s) that need to be reversed -- instead, some troubling trends need to be reversed. Like the trend of not being able to write clearly.

In sentence 6, there needs to be a comma after "job creation." Otherwise, the reader does not know where to take a pause.

In sentence 7, we need either a "who" before the last clause ("are not interested in solving problems"), or a "that" before "old-line politicians" at the front end. Without either of these fixes, the sentence doesn't really work.

Sentence 13 (which could use a comma before the word "then") stresses the candidate's status as a "political outsider," whereas three sentences earlier (in sentence 11), the candidate touts her having chaired an advisory board for the CIA. (This comment might be thought of as focusing on substance, rather than writing quality, but good writing addresses glaring internal inconsistencies.)

Tom Torlakson's Statement

Superintendent of Public Instruction (Nonpartisan Office)

Tom Torlakson (D)

1.)Teaching has been my life—and my passion—for the past 37 years. 2.) As a classroom teacher, coach, legislator and parent, I know our policies must be based on a simple question: What is in the best interest of our children? 3.) Not bureaucrats and not politicians. 4.) It's time we had a teacher who will put children first and fundamentally reform our schools. 5.) First, I will demand real accountability through a comprehensive fiscal and performance audit to cut waste and mismanagement and put those savings into new textbooks and computers. 6.) Second, I'll make sure all our neighborhood schools are safe and expand after school, job training and mentorship programs. 7.) I'm proud to have received the endorsement of virtually every major public safety organization in California including the California Professional Fire fighters along with local classroom teachers. 8.) Third, we need involved parents to support teaching that character counts while promoting trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring and good citizenship. 9.) Fourth, I'll expand career technical education for high school students. 10.) Finally, I'll make the health and fitness of students a top priority. 11.) As Chair and Founder of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness, I led the effort to ban junk food from school campuses and expand physical education requirements. 12.) We can do this. 13.) We must do this. 14.) Our kids only get one chance at a good education. 15.) As a teacher, I have the experience, energy and ideas to transform our schools. 16.) Let's do this together. 17.) I'd be honored to earn your support.

A Critique of Tom Torlakson's Statement

Again, without being overly demanding, let me suggest some substantial room for grammatical and stylistic improvement:

Sentence 3 is vague. Are bureaucrats and politicians not in the best interest of our children? Or is the point (as I think it must be) that what is in the best interest of the children is not necessarily in the best interest of bureaucrats and politicians?

Sentence 6 is inartfully written (it could use a "will" before the word "expand") and in any event, it needs a dash between "after" and "school" to make the two-word phrase an adjective.

Sentence 7 needs a comma before the word "including" and another one before the word "along." Without these two commas, the reader does not know how to read the sentence.

Sentence 8 is vague: Are the parents promoting trustworthiness etc., or are they supporting teaching that promotes these things?

Sentence 14 misplaces the word "only"; kids don't only "get" one chance -- they could receive one chance, enjoy one chance, etc. But kids do get only one chance. Just as voters get only one chance (at best) to read the words of their candidates for high office.


Neither of these statements reflects well on the skills of the candidate who submitted it. Now, it very well might be that neither Carly Fiorina nor Tom Torlakson wrote the statement on his or her behalf that appeared in the pamphlet. Maybe the statements were written by lower-level staffers. But even such staffers -- who are presumably somewhat well-educated themselves -- should be rather chagrined at the low quality of the final products.

And, in the end, what does it say about our democracy when the candidates can't take the time -- or lack the basic ability -- to write clear, cogent 250-word essays introducing themselves to the people who are supposedly being served by our democratic form of government?

Vikram David Amar, a FindLaw columnist, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

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