Last week, Wednesday evening found me in the ballroom at the historic Provo City Library at Academy Square, doing something I had never done before: listening to an independent presidential candidate speak. The candidate was Evan McMullin.
The crowd included infants, children, youth, middle-agers like me, senior citizens, and countless late millennials and early post-millennials, that is, college students. We were only a few blocks from BYU, after all.
I already had a mixed bag of first impressions. In press appearances, Mr. McMullin sounded like an intelligent guy with a fine résumé, but his campaign has missed deadlines, so he won’t be on some states’ ballots, and in some other states he’ll be on the ballot with a running mate whose name was meant to be a placeholder. And he hasn’t been vetted by a long campaign process.
Then again, we’ve long known more than enough about both major parties’ nominees to disqualify them, yet their parties nominated them anyway. And it just keeps getting worse.
To Mr. McMullin’s credit, a person I know and trust tells me that Mr. McMullin’s mother is an absolute saint.
I’ve been evaluating political candidates for decades, on whatever evidence I could gather, then watching what sort of leaders and representatives they make if they win. I watch and listen for various indicators of who they are and how they think and operate, in an effort to make some sense of a candidate and a race even with relatively brief exposure.
I made a list of tests for this candidate earlier in the day, so I wouldn’t miss any. The tests themselves aren’t new, but I hadn’t named them all before.
I’ll tell you what they are and how he fared.
The Fill a Room Test
This test is exactly as it sounds. It’s an early indicator of a candidate’s organization and his voter appeal.
All the chairs were filled before I got there, ten minutes or so before it started. There was ample standing room around the edges of the ballroom, and a hundred or so people were already there. I didn’t have a good vantage point for counting heads, but by the time we started, there were obviously several hundred people in attendance.
Filling the room is not a huge triumph, but not filling it is a deal-breaker (unless you’re a Democratic nominee with a friendly press).
The Audience Behavior Test
Political gatherings in this election cycle have seen some deplorable behavior — and not just by the candidates.
This was not that. It was like an unusually well-dressed air show audience: friendly, civilized, well-mannered. If there had been litter, they’d have picked it up.
In fact, given that half the crowd had to stand, I think it says something about the audience that the little signs in the large, inviting windowsills, telling people not to sit in them, were scrupulously obeyed.
Before it began, we were told that there were several people present who were physically unable to stand for the event. Would some who had seats be willing to surrender them?
They had more volunteers than they needed.
As Mr. McMullin began to speak, he noted that about a hundred people were still trying to get in, and asked those of us who were standing to try to make room.
I smiled and said to the person next to me, “I hope one of them isn’t the fire marshal.” We all gladly made room for them.
The audience mostly just listened while the candidate spoke. There was a scattering of applause lines, but it was a measured, serious speech, not a red-meat rabble-rouser. Occasionally some doofus or other yelled a supportive word or two or five during the candidate’s speech, and one such doofus was particularly loud. He could have used a friendly, well-placed, conservative elbow just below the sternum, I thought — but otherwise, the audience was exemplary in its attention and responsible in its enthusiasm.
A well-mannered audience is more of a novelty than it should be.
The Audience Sophistication Test
I watched and listened to the audience before and after the event. I heard some intelligent conversation on relevant themes. Nothing suggested that these folks were the sort who give the Tea Party a dubious reputation, who set their plow about half an inch deep and get their political theory from talk radio. For example, I didn’t hear any zealous preaching about what a republic is, by people who don’t actually know, and I didn’t see any well-read copies of The Five Thousand Year Leap in the audience’s hands.
This test is important to me, but it’s not a deal breaker. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so fond of Senator Mike Lee, who is not one of those shallow-plow folks, but seems to attract them.
The Ability to Take the High Road Test
In no significant way did this event resemble one of the Clinton-Trump debates, or even a conventional rally and stump speech.
Mr. McMullin spoke of “leadership that has been subpar for quite some time,” and “bleak leadership,” but did not waste time trashing the front-runners personally. He spoke of policies and principles, not personalities.
True, he didn’t need to take the low road; we’re already up to our ears in low-quality asphalt. But I still give him great credit for resisting the temptation.
The Résumé Test
Here I want to see legitimate work in both real life and policy.
Mr. McMullin has an undergraduate degree from BYU and an MBA from Wharton. He was on the ground for the CIA, undercover, in the Middle East in wartime. He worked for Goldman Sachs in San Francisco.
He was a senior national security adviser for House Republicans in Washington; then he was their Chief Policy Director. (He may have burned those bridges for a while by running against a GOP nominee.)
He was part of a group seeking a conservative independent presidential candidate among national leaders in Washington. Dozens refused them, so the others asked him to run. He said it was the hardest ten days of his life, “trying to make a logical decision and coming up short.” There were too many variables, and the odds were very low. But he agreed.
I’m sure he’d take a win in this election, but I don’t think he expects one. He’s trying to jump-start a movement: “a new generation of conservative leadership.”
But I digress.
The Not a Kook Test
I vividly remember kooky national or regional candidates from Bo Gritz to Ross Perot. And my wing nut detector is well honed by decades of ideologically poisoned zealots who run for city council, school board, other local offices, and even state legislatures.
You know the type. They have a copy of the Declaration of Independence in one hand and the United States Constitution in the other. (I revere both documents.) But they have scarcely a thought in their heads about how state or local government works, including the offices they seek. They think their principles are enough. At the local level, primaries and conventions usually weed them out. But they’re elected to the Utah Legislature with disturbing frequency.
These folks tend to think every political compromise is a moral compromise — as in, a sin. Too many of them believe that their duty before God is to codify their personal religious principles in civil law – a perversion they sometimes call “religious freedom.”
I wanted to know if Mr. McMullin is such a kook. So I tuned up my kook detector, dialed up its most sensitive setting, and pointed it at him for half an hour.
I don’t share all his views, and you probably don’t either, and he’s not a very polished politician. His organization follows suit, so far. But there was no whiff of kook.
The Genealogy Test
I’m not looking for a particular ethnic background or national origin, or a passion for genealogy. I just want a candidate who knows whence he came. And it’s nice if that’s interesting.
His father’s family came from Ireland in the 17th century. His mother’s family fled Poland ahead of the Nazis in the 20th century. Conclusion: there are two valuable things here, a personal stake in the American historical tradition and a healthy, proximate sense of what tyranny looks like.
The Would I Have a Root Beer with This Man Test
He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and intelligent. He navigates policy and principle with relative ease. He has a wealth of interesting and diverse experience.
Make it two or three root beers.
The Credible Intellect Test
Mr. McMullin struck me as intelligent, reasonable, and not given to zealous excess. He connected policies and principles rationally, and what he said of how government works — and could work – generally meshed with my own observations.
The Grip on Reality Test
This overlaps several other tests, but let’s call it a test on its own anyway, and also use it as an excuse to slip in some bullet points.
Mr. McMullin has a credible sense of political, historical, economic, and international reality. I had my doubts when he was introduced as “the next President of the United States,” even though I know that’s how we introduce even the most unlikely presidential candidates. But I found him eminently reasonable on several levels.
His thoughts on many subjects seemed realistic, even if I didn’t agree with everything.
- He doesn’t begrudge those who wouldn’t run, so he had to — because running for office, especially president, is “a deeply personal decision.”
- He doesn’t defend crony capitalism just because one of those words is “capitalism.” He speaks of Congress helping big corporations to thrive, while small businesses suffer, without sounding like a socialist. In other words, Bernie Sanders has a point or two, but the wrong ideology.
- He spoke with intelligence, compassion, and (for me) a minimum of partisan boilerplate about debt, poverty, and race.
- He emphasized “respecting civil rights for all Americans.”
- He spoke intelligently of the need to return much federal power to the states.
- He’s not an isolationist.
- He navigates causes and effects rationally. For example, he explained that when international good will suffers, alliances suffer. When alliances suffer, trade deals are more difficult and less favorable, and all manner of other chaos is more likely, including armed conflict. (Eastern Europe and the Middle East, anyone?)
- He mentioned the tyranny of regulation without representation, and the structural importance of the states and the separation of powers.
- He’s not a Libertarian. He acknowledges the need for regulation — but not overregulation.
- When speaking of entitlement reform, he emphasized both keeping commitments and ensuring solvency. (That’s good, but I’m still looking for candidates who discuss a problem much larger than the national debt: our unfunded obligations, which dwarf our trillions of dollars of actual debt.)
- He speaks of needing programs to help people transcend poverty, not just survive it.
I was less impressed by his thoughts on higher education, notably reforming accreditation and student loans, but I don’t expect candidates to please me on every issue.
The Eye Roll Test
This is a simple, wide-ranging, impressionistic test. Did I roll my eyes at him during his speech, or was I sorely tempted to do so?
In a word, no. I did purse my lips once at the aforementioned yelling doofus. I don’t blame the candidate for that.
The Not Too Mormon Test
Mr. McMullin is a Mormon (a Latter-day Saint), as am I. Many Mormons struggle to discuss or evaluate politics and political principles in ways which are accessible to the rest of the English-speaking world. This is a substantial handicap, and it can lead to struggles with the some of my other tests, especially if a candidate denies or defends his inability to communicate beyond the bubble.
It’s difficult to win a political race in some places in Utah, let alone nationally if you fail this test — though it’s probably difficult to win in some other Utah locales if you pass it.
This one was dicey for a minute. He spoke of the United States of America as “a land that is choice above all others,” which Mormons recognize as language from a book of scripture which only Mormons recognize. But he didn’t go theological here. He said we Americans recognize basic, universal truths, and he cited the Declaration of Independence, not Mormon scripture.
Mormon scripture also exhorts us to seek and uphold good, wise, and honest men (meaning men and women) in public office, but I didn’t penalize him for speaking of “honest and wise leadership.” That’s entirely accessible to non-Mormons, not to mention almost universally desired.
The Sincerity Test
He seemed sincere about important American things like freedom, separation of powers, public service, and more. This distinguishes him somewhat from the front-runners, except when things go particularly well with their teleprompters.
The Not a Reincarnation of the Tea Party Test
This is a variation on the Not a Kook Test and the Grip on Reality Test. And I don’t mean to offend the entire Tea Party, only some of which is (was?) shallow, dogmatic, and stubbornly knowledge-resistant.
I detected no sign of ideological poisoning. I’m not saying he doesn’t have an ideology; I’m just saying it’s not a radical one, and it’s accompanied by common sense and deep practical knowledge of government.
He did not go all pharisaic on us about “principled conservatives.” (See also the Breath of Fresh Air Test.) In fact, he seems to be casting a wide net, trying to attract a broad range of good people, not seeking a narrow cohort of the ideologically pure.
The It’s about Freedom Test
This is a big one for me. He talked some about freedom. He talked sense about freedom. I’d like to hear more, but he seems to know what freedom is, and which freedoms matter, and how institutions contribute to their preservation. (Some other candidates, not so much.)
The Mike Lee Test
Senator Mike Lee is not exactly who the Tea Party thinks (thought?) he is. His plow is set very deep indeed. Nor is he precisely who the big media acronyms say he is. But that’s a subject for another day. For the moment, let’s just note that he’s my favorite current US Senator by far, and easily one of my favorites ever. (Yes, he had a learning curve. You and I would have one too.)
I heard him speak before he ever announced that he was running for office, and I immediately began to hope he’d run for something and win. Which he did.
The Mike Lee Test here is, did I feel so energized by Evan McMullin?
I did not. But this might have been a test more of me than of him.
The Charisma Test
This is my measure of a candidate’s capacity to energize and motivate an audience – and if you’re running for president, it needs to be a large, diverse audience. Granted, one presidential front-runner doesn’t have much of this, and the other wields a dark charisma which enlivens bullies and misogynists, and other people who are less toxic but still vulnerable to shallow and dangerous populism.
Mr. McMullin is not inherently charismatic. This doesn’t make him a bad person, but it’s a handicap, especially for a candidate who needs to command attention quickly.
His speech reflected this. It was measured and intelligent, but it ended rather abruptly, almost without rhetorical warning, with a measured but clunky and uncharismatic expression of hope that we will “take this country to a much higher future than we might otherwise achieve.” The audience was happy enough already, but a candidate with charisma could have had them over the moon.
Maybe Mr. McMullin’s is the rational, intelligent voice which grown-ups outside the chattering classes have been yearning to hear. And perhaps this is a good year to be idealistically but politely revolutionary, and to welcome comparison to the uncharismatic but solid Governor Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s running mate. And the crowd did briefly chant, “USA! USA!” at the end of the speech. But . . .
The Breath of Fresh Air Test
When I made my list of tests, I wrote beside this one, “What will I think at the end?”
In other words, by the time the evening is over, will Mr. McMullin feel – still feel — like a breath of fresh air?
This test seeks a single, general impression based on many things, including much of what I’ve said above. Not that the bar for fresh air is set very high in this election.
With this, he passed 16 tests and failed 2. That’s not bad for a rookie candidate.
I made a few notes beyond test results.
A Movement, not Just a Race
Brian Henderson, the campaign’s National Finance Chair, said: “This is the vanguard of a new conservative movement. This does not end on Election Day.”
Whatever that may mean — or mean to you — I was glad to hear it.
The candidate himself explained that he and others are trying to usher in “a new era of leadership” and “a new era of civic engagement,” to help start a discussion that will get the country back on the right track. We need that — though I wouldn’t say the right track is entirely “back.”
“Principles for New American Leadership”
Mr. McMullin spoke of a one-page document his campaign is distributing, called “Principles for New American Leadership.” It’s not perfect or scintillating, but it’s mostly solid and encouraging. You can find it here.
It’s not the unfortunate, rambling manifesto we see in right- and left-wing circles all too frequently. It’s shorter and less ideological than that, and it’s more sensible and inclusive. It’s a credible attempt to begin, as the candidate, a national conversation that is not driven by the media, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. Tell me that doesn’t sound pretty good just now.
Supporters were urged to have five conversations about it with our friends and report back at the hashtag #letstalkprinciples.
Vote Your Conscience?
Let’s talk about voting our conscience.
We all should do that.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils, because even that would supposedly be evil. Unless Jesus Christ himself is running — and he’s not eligible for office in the United States — the lesser of two evils (or the least of three or more) will be our best choice.
Even if the lesser evil seems much greater than usual, there is still a moral argument to be made for the major candidate you believe will do less damage than the other (or slower or more repairable damage) to our nation’s freedom, families, morals, economy, alliances, and essential institutions. It is a particularly grim choice this year, but you would not be immoral for making it — unless God (not his Facebook caricature) somehow tells you otherwise.
That said, for the first time in my life, I have no idea which is the lesser of the front-running evils in a US presidential race. If you have some light that is denied me, and you see by it some clearer path, that’s wonderful. Thank God and follow it. If you and I simply pick different numbers in this ugly crap shoot, I hope we all win somehow in the end.
I do not see a moral imperative to vote for a long-shot candidate just because he’s a better person than the two front-runners. I do think Mr. McMullin is a better person. I would be riveted by the sight of him denying both major party candidates a majority of electoral votes and throwing the election to the House of Representatives, which is Mr. McMullin’s only (and almost invisibly narrow) chance. But I will not say it is immoral of you to vote for Mr. Trump, Mrs. Clinton, or someone else, if you think that is best for the country.
The Bottom Line
I will say this, and I think it’s quite a lot. In fact, as far as swaying my opinion is concerned, Mr. McMullin could not have hoped for much more than this to come from our evening together in Provo.
Evan McMullin is a sufficiently credible candidate that a vote for him, this year, would be a reasonable act.
I’m not sure I’ll vote for him. But now I’m not entirely sure that I won’t.
Originally posted at FreedomHabit.com. Reposted with permission.