Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Truthfulness Matters

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

November 8, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

America is engaged in a long-running debate about the role of morality in politics. What difference does character make to leadership? Does it matter if a politician used drugs as a youth? Or breaks a pledge of marital fidelity? The arguments run back and forth. 

But few will dispute the importance of truthfulness in politics – the most public of the virtues. 

This issue is, once again, in the news.  In making his argument to pass the Affordable Care Act, President Obama assured voters that they could keep their current health insurance plans. The pledge was made repeatedly and without qualification, becoming a centerpiece of Obama’s rhetoric on health reform.  It was not a slip, but a strategy. Now millions of insurance policy cancellations have gone out, and millions more are likely to follow. 

 It is possible, of course, for public officials to be very wrong on large things and to act on mistaken information. Their offense is poor judgment. But this case seems different. Any economist would know that raising the coverage requirements on insurance policies purchased in the individual market would result in serious dislocations. According to a number of news organizations, experts within the Obama administration were fully aware of this likely result. 

The administration has run through a variety of responses: at first denying any inconsistency, then blaming insurance companies, then dismissing cancelled policies as inferior products. Now the president has issued an apology. “I am sorry,” he told NBC News, “that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” 

This circumstance, of course, is not unique in politics. Most people tend to exaggerate the failures of leaders they generally oppose and to minimize the offenses of politicians they find more sympathetic. President Obama did not lie to a grand jury. He was not engaged in Nixonian cover up of criminal behavior. This matter, like every other, will be subject to partisan exaggeration. 

But it is not a partisan statement to say that truthfulness matters in a democracy. It is essential to strong leadership because we tend to follow those who we trust. Misleading statements that seem designed to gain partisan advantage – when exposed – actually increase partisan resentment, bitterness and division.  It is one thing to lose a political debate on an issue such as health care reform; it is another to feel the outcome was influenced by guile.  

The best response in a situation like this is transparency. President Obama has now promised “to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.” But if this requires legislative action, his previous tactics have made any future agreement less likely. And this demonstrates, once again, the very practical role of morality in politics.   


-  Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”