Monday, November 08, 2010

"Would You Have Done Anything Differently"

A question frequently posed to politicians who are out of office, most notably to those who lost reelection: "Would you have done anything differently if you could do it over again?" It's not a question worthy of much attention, really, as there's no reset button - what's done is done.

But it's interesting to me how many politicians say "No".

If we're simply rewinding the tape - going back in time to a period when we had no idea what the future would hold - that's reasonable. If you don't know the consequences of your actions, odds are you would do the same thing over again. But the question implies knowledge - that you'll be making your choices with full awareness of how your decisions turned out.

As I see it, there are two appropriate responses to that question:
  1. Yes, of course in retrospect I would have done things differently.

  2. No. Even though I made mistakes I like the way my life has turned out.

The response that's not appropriate, even from a politician that is viewed as successful? "No, I would have done everything in exactly the same way." The "I made no mistakes, and it was my evil opponents or capricious voters who did me in" response. I'll grant, perhaps even out of office a politician can remain a bit hubristic, so some might not be answering the question truthfully. They may in fact have lots of things they would do differently, but be unwilling to publicly admit that they are imperfect. Perhaps such a person is not the most suited for public office, but at least they're capable of some degree of honesty with themselves.

But if that's their honest answer - they truly would not do things differently - it's probably for the best that they're out of office. The conceit of, "I didn't make mistakes, and all bad outcomes resulted from the actions of others," suggests a disconcerting combination of narcissism and of an external locus of responsibility. That's true even if the politician means well - even if he thought his policies were the best for the people he represented. Actually it may be worse if the politician means well because, in retrospect, it should be easy for him to identify mistakes in his approach to the issues, his opponents and his constituents that, if corrected, might have resulted in greater success for his policies.


  1. A better question is "What would you have done differently?" As phrased, it's more of a gotcha; "anything" is so broad that clearly anyone who answers no is either lying or an egomaniac, but saying yes implies "I made some serious mistakes."

  2. You're right, that's a much better question. Although no experienced politician would treat a "yes or no" question as actually requiring a one-word answer. ;)


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