Testing Evan McMullin

I did something for the first time last week: I went to hear an independent presidential candidate speak. The venue was the ballroom at the historic Provo Library. The candidate was Evan McMullin.

evan mcmullin
Evan McMullin

The crowd ranged in age from infants to senior citizens, but it was dominated by people who looked like college students, including lots of couples. Many of them looked quite married, which accounts for the infants. We were mere blocks from BYU, after all.

I’ve heard actual US presidents speak, at the White House and elsewhere, and I’ve always been closer to them than I was to the podium tonight, even though it’s not a large ballroom. And there was a pillar blocking my view. But that was okay.

Before I arrived, and while I waited for the event to begin, I fashioned a series of tests for the candidate. I’ll tell you what they were and how he did. But first . . .

First Impressions

It’s worth noting that I was not there as a McMullin partisan — if I can even use that word with an independent candidate — and I didn’t know him. My first three impressions of him came prior to that evening, and they were mixed.

My first impression was some press coverage about his candidacy. He sounded like a decent, sensible guy, except that he was running for president. He didn’t sound capable of being a national candidate and running a national campaign. (In truth, hardly anyone is, which is why so many otherwise likable candidates fizzle, and why a relatively small group of consultants is so much in demand.)

My second impression was the news that he didn’t have his running mate picked in time to get on some states’ ballots, and that the name he submitted was merely a placeholder. It looked bush league. (He has since picked a running mate, Mindy Finn.)

My third impression came when someone I know well and whose judgment I trust spoke in superlatives about Mr. McMullin’s mother, an old acquaintance.

My fourth impression was fresh. I had no great difficulty finding parking near the library that evening, and saw no campaign signs outside it — and no protesters either, not that I expected any of those. I began to wonder if he’d even fill the room. And it’s not that big a room.

With that, we’ve come to my tests.

The Fill a Room Test

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.

Result: pass. 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

Some unfortunate things have happened at political gatherings in this election cycle, including a lot of 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 these little signs in the large windowsills were scrupulously obeyed:

window sign

The audience mostly just listened, while Mr. McMullin 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 during the candidate’s speech, and one of them was particularly loud. He could have used a friendly, well-placed 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.

Before the event began, and long after the few hundred chairs were fully occupied, someone went to the podium and announced that there were several people in the audience 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, which we did, gladly and in an orderly manner. I smiled and said to the person next to me, “I hope one of them isn’t the fire marshal.”

Result: pass.

The Audience Sophistication Test

I couldn’t hear and overhear conversations before and after the event as well as I like to, because the music was a tad loud. But what I did hear and see suggested that these folks were not of 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 these shallow-plow folks, but seems to attract them.

Result: pass.

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 spend much time trashing the front-runners. He spoke of principles, not personalities.

True, he didn’t need to take the low road; we’re all up to our ears in the low road. But I still give him great credit for resisting the temptation.

Result: pass.

The Résumé Test

Mr. McMullin has an undergraduate degree from BYU and an MBA from Wharton. (They’re the big time.) He received CIA covert operations training and worked undercover in the Middle East and elsewhere, 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 was part of a group seeking a conservative independent presidential candidate among national leaders in Washington. Dozens refused, so the others asked him. 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, but I don’t think he expects one. He’s trying to jump-start a movement: “a new generation of conservative leadership.”

Result: pass. Impressively.

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 attention to ideologically poisoned zealots who run for city council or state legislature with a copy of the Declaration of Independence in one hand and the United States Constitution in the other. (I revere both documents.) These unfortunate candidates have scarcely a thought in their heads about how state or local government works, including the office they seek. Most of the time, at the local level, the primary or caucus weeds them out, but sometimes we’re stuck with one. And they manage to land themselves in the Utah Legislature with disturbing frequency.

These are the folks who think every political compromise is a moral compromise — as in, a sin. And too many of them think that their duty before God is to codify their personal religious principles in civil law.

I wanted to know if Mr. McMullin is such a kook. So I tuned up my kook detector and pointed it at the audience he attracted (see above). Then I adjusted it to its most sensitive setting and pointed it at him for half an hour.

Result: pass.

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

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 sense of the American historical tradition and a healthy, proximate sense of what tyranny looks like.

Result: pass.

The Would You 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.

Result: pass.

The Credible Intellect Test

Let’s call this one purely subjective, so I don’t have to bore both of us with a voluminous attempt to account for my impressions.

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 — meshed with my own observations.

The impression was a steady one: this is an intelligent man. (Except that he’s running for president. But I’m partly kidding when I add that.)

Result: pass.

The Grip on Reality Test

This overlaps several other tests, but let’s call it a test on its own, anyway.

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 presidential candidates, even the unlikely ones. But I found him eminently reasonable on several levels.

Here is a more or less random collection of bullet points on that theme:

  • 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 threw no raw meat to the rabid right, who didn’t seem to be in attendance anyway.
  • 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 — but the wrong ideology. And Mr. McMullin doesn’t defend crony capitalism just because one of those words is “capitalism.”
  • He spoke with intelligence, compassion, and a minimum of ideology about debt, poverty, and race. (I was about to list education, but he and I part ways there, at least for now. Notably, he wants to reform accreditation to allow for more innovation in education, but I don’t think that’s a proper subject for federal legislation.)
  • 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 connects things intelligently. 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 spoke of the tyranny of regulation without representation, and the structural importance of federalism, 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 talks both of keeping commitments and insuring solvency. (I thought his view was incomplete. He spoke seriously of the national debt, which is important. But entitlements are also the lion’s share of a larger, rarely mentioned problem, 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.

All of that said, I don’t think his idea of giving colleges a stake in repaying their students’ loans — for example, if a graduate can’t find a job in his field — is practical, even if it makes logical sense.

Result: pass.

mindy finn
Running mate Mindy Finn

The Eye Roll Test

This is a simple, factual test. Did I roll my eyes at him during his speech, or was I sorely tempted to do so?

In a word, no. However. I pursed my lips once at the aforementioned yelling doofus. I don’t blame Mr. McMullin for that.

Result: pass.

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 world. This is a substantial weakness, and it can lead to struggles with the Credible Intellect Test, the Grip on Reality Test, and even the Not a Kook Test, if they stubbornly defend their inability to communicate with the world outside their 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.

In any case, 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 scriptures which only Mormons recognize. But he didn’t go theological here. He said we Americans recognize basic, universal truths, and he referred to 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 ding him for speaking of “honest and wise leadership.” That’s entirely accessible to non-Mormons, not to mention almost universally desired.

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised.

Result: pass.

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 they’re having a particularly good day.

Result: pass.

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, deep practical knowledge of government, and other good things.

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.

Result: pass.

The It’s about Freedom Test

This is a big one for me. He talked some about freedom. He talked sense about freedom. He seems to know what freedom is, and what freedoms matter, and how institutions contribute to their preservation. (Other candidates, not so much.)

Result: pass.

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 Senator by far, and easily one of my favorites ever. (Yes, he had a learning curve. You’d 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 — and win. Which he did.

The Mike Lee Test in this case is, did I feel so energized by Evan McMullin?

I did not.

Result: fail.

The Joseph Smith Test

This is really another angle on the Mike Lee test — not that I’m comparing the two.

Speaking of Mormons, there are abundant stories of people going to hear Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr., preach, when he visited large cities and small towns. They’d go just to see a curiosity, but in many cases they’d emerge converted.

One of my major motives for attending the McMullin speech was quite similar: He is a curiosity. And I was curious.

When I say . . .

Result: fail

. . . I’m saying I left the event with a healthy admiration for Evan McMullin; that still lingers. But I was not sufficiently converted that I joined his campaign or donated money, as I have done with fine and also merely decent candidates at times in the past. That said, he does get this blog post out of me, and it is largely favorable. And there’s one more coming.

And you’ll want to see what I say below about voting.

The Charisma Test

This is my measure of his capacity to energize and motivate an audience — and if you’re running for president, it needs to be a large, diverse audience. Granted, one front-runner seems to have this only when it’s drilled into her for days in advance of a speech, and the other seems to have a dark charisma which enlivens disproportionate percentages of thugs, bullies, and misogynists, and other less toxic people who are nonetheless vulnerable to a shallow and dangerous populism.

Mr. McMullin is not inherently charismatic. This doesn’t make him a bad person, but it’s a handicap for a candidate.

For example, his speech 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, 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 idealistic but politely revolutionary, and to bear 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 . . .

Result: fail.

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 speech is over, will Mr. McMullin feel — still feel — like a breath of fresh air?

This test may not be completely subjective, but it is largely so. For an explanation I refer you to much of what I’ve said above. Not that the bar for fresh air is set very high in this election.

Result: pass.

With this, he passed 16 tests and failed 3 — and 2 of the failures were essentially the same test. Not bad for a newbie.

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 it may mean — or mean to you — I was glad to hear this.

The candidate himself explained that they are trying to usher in “a new era of leadership” and “a new area of civic engagement” — to help start a discussion that will get the country back on the right track. We need that.

“Principles for New American Leadership”

Mr. McMullin spoke of a one-page document his campaign is distributing, called “Principles for New American Leadership.” I’ll write more of this soon. It’s not perfect or scintillating, but it’s mostly solid and encouraging.

If you want to get to it before I get back to it, it’s here. It’s not the unfortunate, rambling manifesto we see in right- and left-wing circles all too frequently. It’s less ideological than that, and it’s more sensible and inclusive. It’s a credible attempt to begin, as Mr. McMullin said, 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.

We were exhorted to have five conversations about it with our friends and report back at the hashtag #letstalkprinciples. If you’d like to have some of that conversation here, I’d welcome comments or even well-written guest posts here at the blog or at the Freedom Habit Facebook page.

For my part, I’ll blog about it soon.

evan mcmullin

Vote Your Conscience?

Let’s talk about voting your 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 — we will always vote for the lesser of two evils.

Even if the lesser evil seems much greater than usual, there is still a moral argument for voting for the candidate you believe has a chance to win and will do less damage than the other (or slower or more repairable damage) to our nation’s freedom, families, morals, economy, and essential institutions. It is a grim choice, but you would not be immoral for making it — unless God (not Facebook) somehow tells you otherwise.

That said, for the first time ever in a presidential race, I have no idea which is the lesser of the front-running evils. Every time I think I might have stumbled upon a clue, something new and disheartening happens to push against it. Accordingly, I have granted my personal amnesty to all my friends, acquaintances, family, and readers for their vote or lack thereof in the 2016 presidential election, and for the thoughts, feelings, and motives behind it. (I doubt that any have worried about my disapproval, but still.) 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 simply pick a different number in this ugly crap shoot, I hope we all win somehow.

I think my point was about to be this: 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 very interested to see him (please, not Gary Johnson) deny both major party candidates a majority of electoral votes and throw 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.

The Bottom Line

I will say this, and I think it’s saying quite a lot. In fact, as far as my decidedly obscure opinion is concerned, it’s probably the best possible outcome Mr. McMullin could draw from my evening with him in Provo.

Evan McMullin is a sufficiently credible candidate that a vote for him would be a reasonable act.

This is also saying something: I’m not sure I’ll vote for him. But now I’m not entirely sure that I won’t.

3 thoughts on “Testing Evan McMullin”

  1. Wendy Hickman says:

    Good post. I listened to an interview with Evan McMullin a week or so ago and was pretty impressed with how he handled hard questions and topics. As I vote my conscience, my internal gauge is primarily set to whether the candidate is honest and wise. Yes, no one is perfect. However, there are certainly general trends that a candidate demonstrates. I’m afraid to say that neither main party candidate is able to pass my test. So, I’m happy to have some 3rd party choices this year.

    1. David Rodeback says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Honest and wise is the best gauge, I think. In those terms, and considering candidates at every level over a period of years, I’ve probably dinged more for not being wise than for not being honest.

  2. Alison says:

    So funny–Mr. McMullin just came onto my radar this week, I read over his platform, and now you post this. I too don’t agree with everything he stands for, but it seems like he is experienced and thoughtful. I too will vote my conscience (though I appreciate your amnesty, David!) and may very well vote for this man. I appreciate the quiet(er) voice, the aim for discussion, reason as opposed to extremism. I was very interested to read your impressions after hearing from this man in person, and it has strengthened my leanings toward a vote for McMullin. Here is hope for another option, a growing collection of reason in future elections.

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