Good steps to serve congressional voters

The folks at the Post-Star had a couple of good ideas recently about covering the North Country’s congressional race, and we support them.

The Glens Falls newspaper has decided that it will no longer publish quotes from campaign staff on behalf of a candidate. Its reporters will continue, as before, to ask the campaign staffer to put the reporter in touch with the candidate directly — the outcome that’s better for readers — or else, less good, put the reporter’s questions to the candidate and get some kind of statement in reply.

If the candidate cannot or does not answer the questions, then the newspaper will say so. If a campaign staffer gives a comment instead, the paper’s position is to politely decline and say the question is for the candidate.

That is a good practice, and the Enterprise newsroom staff will adopt it as well.

Not that we will scorn campaign staff — we respect the roles they play, but a candidate has an important role, too, which cannot be properly filled by anyone else.

Voters ought to hear from the candidates themselves on what they would do if elected or what they think about a news development. A surrogate’s statement is mostly useless to voters. Furthermore, we know from experience that surrogates’ statements are often more about sounding good and being on message than about the candidate’s genuine thinking. That muddies the waters for voters. It is part of the fog journalists must cut through to serve their audiences with true news.

The Post-Star announced its other idea in an editorial published July 1, five days after the June 26 Democratic Party primary reduced the race from seven candidates to three. Our Opinion page carried that editorial July 3. It asked the candidates not to lie — not to the media, not to voters, not in advertisements or on social media — for the remaining four months until the Nov. 6 election.

We support that challenge, for obvious reasons. Lying is morally wrong. It’s also a sign of disrespect. It suggests that person looks down on you, considers you a sucker. It indicates that the person cares more about himself or herself than about you. If someone deceives you, you cannot trust that person, cannot rely on what he or she says.

We’re not naive. We know no one is perfect. Just as we expect others to forgive our failings, we know we must accept a certain amount of human frailty in our elected leaders. Still, we want to be represented in Congress by someone who is as honest and respectful and moral as possible. We can’t imagine most voters are so cynical that they don’t feel the same way.

We know campaign pledges are sometimes seen as gimmicks or traps. Conservative activist Grover Norquist famously urged Republicans to pledge never to raise taxes, for example, and while many people like that, it was also reasonable for legislators not to limit their options when unforeseen circumstances may arise. Sometimes the alternative to raising taxes is debt, or shifting of the tax burden, which not everyone sees as preferable.

But is it reasonable to not pledge not to lie? If one agrees to be honest and fails once or twice, well, that’s not great, but if one apologizes and seeks forgiveness, it’s probably better than never promising honesty in the first place.

So far, Democrat Tedra Cobb has made the commitment. Republican incumbent Rep. Elise Stefanik has not. The Post-Star has not yet reached out to Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn.

Skirmishing over Cobb’s pledge has already begun. The Republican National Campaign Committee, along with Stefanik’s campaign staff and allies, have publicized a video online that shows Cobb, in May, telling a teenager she agrees assault weapons should be banned but won’t take that position publicly because it would hurt her chances of getting elected. These Republicans say Cobb is disingenuous, breaking her no-lying pledge, hiding an intent to back a gun-control measure she knows North Country voters wouldn’t support. Cobb responded, in a statement to the Watertown Daily Times, that she’s not trying to pass an assault weapons ban because it would be impossible with the current Congress and president, so she’s instead focusing on gun-control measures more people agree on.

For voters who care about gun laws, this video is valuable in that it reveals some information about Cobb they wouldn’t otherwise know. That she won’t own up to it shows she could be more transparent — but she’s not really lying. Every candidate in this race must balance what she believes would be best with what her party and her constituents want her to do, and then form platform positions. Being fully transparent about that can confuse voters, however, so most politicians try to keep it simple by just offering their public stances. When the teenager in the video asked Cobb for her opinion on an assault weapons ban, Cobb gave it, but also tried to explain the complications of campaign stances. That’s real, and we’re glad to know it, even if it complicates her message.

Still, until Stefanik pledges not to lie, she and her crew have little standing to judge her opponent’s honesty.