June 10th, 2008
08:52 PM ET

A code of ethics for politicians

Bruce Weinstein
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek

The campaign for the White House, which seems to have been going on forever, still has five months to go, and it’s possible that the nastiness, squabbling, and irrelevancies that have characterized this campaign – and too many before it – will get worse. This isn’t just unpleasant or unfortunate; it’s unethical, because such pettiness detracts from a meaningful debate about the issues that truly matter to the public.

I therefore propose a code of ethics for the candidates to follow. Everyone – we citizens, the political parties, the democratic process, and the candidates themselves—will win if the candidates follow this code.

The proposed guidelines are rooted in the five fundamental principles of ethics:
Do No Harm

Make Things Better
Respect Others
Be Fair, and
Be Loving , which are the bedrock not just of our democracy, but of all civilized societies, cultures, and religions. This code, therefore, makes sense not just for this election, but for all future ones as well.

1. TELL THE TRUTH. Warren Beatty’s 1998 film “Bulworth” was a satire based on the apparently ridiculous idea that a candidate would suddenly decide to be completely honest. But why should this be the stuff of comedy and fiction? Shouldn’t we demand honesty from the people who are vying for the most powerful political position in the country, and possibly the world? Perhaps we’re so accustomed to hearing distortions of the truth, and politicians are so used to saying whatever it takes to get elected, that no one cares about the truth any longer.

But the truth still matters. When a candidate is asked a question, and the public has a right to know the answer, the candidate should tell the truth. Period. If the candidate doesn’t have an answer, he (or, in future elections, she) should be forthright about this fact. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to admit that one doesn’t always have all the answers at the ready.

2. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have each said things that weren’t true. Whether these statements were based on faulty memory or the intent to mislead, voters rightly expect each candidate to take responsibility for his or her mistakes. Saying “I misspoke” does just the opposite. The same goes for errors of judgment. Using the passive voice—“mistakes were made”—rather than saying “I made a mistake”—dodges personal responsibility. We rightly expect the buck to stop with the President.

3. RISE ABOVE THE FRAY. Yes, the public should know about the blunders that each candidate makes, but it is the media’s job to inform, and the candidates should avoid the temptation to pile on or prolong the story. When a reporter asks for a comment on an opponent’s latest gaffe, the candidate should refuse and instead focus on his proposed policies.

4. CRITICIZE THE ARGUMENT, NOT THE PERSON. Personal attacks are not only disrespectful; they’re self-defeating. Polls show that voters are fed up with negative campaigning. What people want is a clear and straightforward account of what the candidates are going to do about our flagging economy, a public school system in disrepair, the lack of affordable health insurance, a housing crisis that shows no signs of abating, and the other issues of real significance.

5. LISTEN. The energy that candidates devote to refining their message, giving speech after speech, and analyzing what the competition is doing will grow more intense as we get closer to election day. It is more important than ever to do the opposite, too: listen. Not just to what the pundits are saying, or what the polls claim, or what the campaign team suggests, or what the party is demanding, but to what citizens are saying, too. Very few people ever say, “Thanks for talking to me.” They do say, however, “Thank you for listening.” Leadership is, to a large degree, listenership. A side benefit, of course, is that voters who feel a candidate who truly hears what they’re saying tend to vote for that candidate.

6. DON’T MAKE PROMISES YOU CAN’T KEEP. Candidates usually promise the world to get elected and then quickly abandon those promises once in office. But it doesn’t have to be like this, and in our information-saturated era, where every utterance is recorded and preserved forever, it is not in a candidate’s own political interests—or the country’s–to make a pledge that will eventually become fodder for Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. From now until November, candidates should avoid making promises they aren’t likely to keep.

7. SPEND FAIRLY. There is a saying, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Spending campaign cash judiciously is both fair to donors and indicative of how a candidate will treat the federal budget. Besides, most of the campaign cash isn’t even the candidate’s to begin with. It’s all other people’s money, and the way a candidate regards his or her campaign purse speaks volumes about what voters can expect for the economy if that candidate becomes President. The allocation of scarce resources is a matter of fairness and thus ultimately an ethical issue, not merely a legal or political one.

8. REMEMBER WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT. The race is not about acquiring power for its own sake, or becoming famous, or being ensured of a lasting place in history. It is about making a difference in the lives of others. I can’t recall a time when so many people in this country have been in so much pain, and it behooves all of the candidates to avoid what former Senator J. William Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” It’s worth remembering that the word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” so the successful candidate will keep in mind that the highest purpose of the presidency is to ease the suffering of human beings.

9. TAKE A BREAK. Ethics isn’t just about how we treat other people, but how we treat ourselves, too. Going for months without a single day off shows a profound lack of respect for oneself and is not something to be worn as a badge of honor. How can we trust that a candidate will look after the country properly if he doesn’t look after himself?

10. LOSE WELL. One man will lose the election. How he loses will say much more about his character than winning ever could. Will he accept defeat graciously? Will he be generous of spirit to the victor? Will he continue to devote his time, energy, and considerable resources to making a difference in the lives of others, as he has pledged to do if elected? Anyone can win well. It takes a person of great moral character to lose well.

As the campaign grinds relentlessly on, it will be come ever more tempting for candidates to narrow their focus on what it takes to win the election. Winning, of course, is the objective. But what is the goal? If it is to turn this economy around, to help people afford homes of their own, to improve the quality of education, and to ensure that everyone who needs health care will be able to afford it, then campaign ethics must be a primary concern, not an afterthought.

Still, it would be cynical to view ethical behavior merely as strategy for getting elected. A better way to think about ethics comes from Wilford Brimley’s famous pitch for Quaker Oatmeal: “It’s the right thing to do.”

The article appeared in a slightly different version originally on BusinessWeek.com. To learn more about the author, visit TheEthicsGuy.com.

Program note: Bruce Weinstein will discuss this article on CNN’s American Morning on Wednesday, June 11, at 6a ET.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Raw Politics
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Monica for Obama in Indiana

    Great code of ethics. If practiced, then more of us who have been in the struggle would say too " for the first time in our adult lifes, we are proud of our country" and believe me before now, for 'Black Americans' it has not been easy to say.

    June 11, 2008 at 8:45 am |
  2. John

    No Republicans in office. Heh bloggers none of our politicians have good ethics. Look at this GREAT nation. Have your life been better since Republicans had control. Look at hillary supporters and government supporters. They say they would not support Obama, thats selfish people. You are not doing anything to help yourself or this country. Thats what the Republicans want. BUSH ethics, he and other republicans are WAR mungers and OIL hungry. Thats why we are over there protecting there oil fields in iraq. Ive been there and done that. I was in the marine corps for 7 years and been to Iraq twice I know. The Republican party says we are not occupying Iraq, Why are we building bases there. Dont be nieve like they want you to be americans. Ethics our government has none. Look how much they ly to us.

    June 11, 2008 at 6:16 am |
  3. Delphine, Netherlands.EU

    A code of ethics for CNN too; no wonder Obama wins the elections if McCain cannot finish his speech on TV properly.Vieuwers are not respected that way, shame on you CNN.

    June 11, 2008 at 6:14 am |
  4. Alex

    A politician being ethical...are you kidding me!!!!!! Politicians may come into the arena with a dream to do good, but so many leave just being another useless "representative of the people" who became power hungry and a complete waste of time who only enhanced his or her own ego and wallet.

    June 11, 2008 at 12:28 am |
  5. Laura

    I agree with most of the comments; politicians have proven their inability to be trusted with even the most minor things. I think that tonights Impeachment hearing from the House of Respresentatives should be spotlighted to this fact. It's unfortunate to see that articles are being posted online by other countries about this monumentous event, yet not one single major US newspaper or news organization has reported on it as of almost midnight EST.

    We need to bring back ethical behavior and we as voters should not be left to voting on the "lesser of two evils" during elections.

    June 10, 2008 at 11:45 pm |
  6. JC- Los Angeles

    Although I live by solid principles and practice them daily, your suggestion that the candidates heed your advice is downright hilarious. It's one of the funniest suggestions I've heard in years. If a candidate with no practical experience, no foreign policy experience, no military background, questional associates and downright racist spiritual advisors were to run on a platform of truth, he'd be laughed off the stage. Try this: how did you become friends with Rezko? How did you buy that house? You weren't in Rev. Wright's church when he made imflamatory statements? Twenty years worth? You never met with Muslim extremists at a Chicago party? Let's try McCain: could you outline your wife's tax returns? How about shedding some light on the Keating Five? The American people have been let down time and time again by our leaders. So much so that they had to implement Sarbanes Oxley. How about Bush, Cheney, Greenspan, Mozillo, Prince, O'Neil, Ebbers, Lay, Rigas, Olympic athletes, the New England Partiots; I could go on. Our society has shown us that it's fine to cut corners, write off losses, lie through your teeth and do whatever it takes to get ahead. No politician would attain office if they lived by said tenants. The honarable public can sleep well at night while we have $4.50 gas to look forward to in the morning.

    June 10, 2008 at 11:23 pm |
  7. Marla OK

    After at least 12 years of politicing without ethics by Senator Obama, what makes anyone think he will begin now to be honest, take responsibility and not make bogus promises, etc. That would be teaching an old dog (corrupt politician) new tricks. Don't think it will happen.
    Maybe if they swore on a bible in front of a judge with the knowledge that they go to jail if they lie-maybe.

    June 10, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  8. Janet,American via Canada

    These codes are for everyone not only politicans!

    Beliefs in Truth – Honesty – Dignity – Responsibility
    etc....on the form Respect – Self & Others. ........Is the Path

    June 10, 2008 at 10:16 pm |
  9. Annie Kate


    I love your code of ethics for politicians. I only wish they would embrace it and practice it. With a few adjustments though this could be a code of ethics for all of us – something that we all need. The only thing I would add is to "honor diversity". Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 10, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  10. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    Good luck with that.

    June 10, 2008 at 9:56 pm |
  11. Cindy

    UMM..you mean politicians actually have a code of ethics!? Looking at all of them I can't see it! I mean look at the things that they all do!


    June 10, 2008 at 9:36 pm |
  12. Larry

    LMAO!! The title for this blog is an oxymoron 🙂

    June 10, 2008 at 9:34 pm |
  13. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX

    Hi Bruce!
    Ok~ I'm with ya on the ten commandments of politics. . sort of.
    That tell the truth for politicians? Now, that's a nice fairytale 😀

    June 10, 2008 at 9:31 pm |