It’s been a bad week for political apologies. Bill Clinton kicked things off with his bumbling answer to a #MeToo-inspired question. Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to take responsibility for misleading the press about a story regarding President Trump and Russia. And that was just through Thursday. It could still get worse.
Then again, when it comes to political apologies, every week is a bad week.
To those of us who consider ourselves normal people, this is perplexing: Why can’t people in Washington say “I’m sorry”? After all, if you’ve ever been in an argument (or Googled relationship advice) you know how much good an unconditional apology can do. They make us feel better. They actually tend to work. You would think politicians and their staff would have learned the same lesson. Maybe they’re just worse than the rest of us.
Well, no. Or at least not necessarily. Public servants ought to take responsibility for their actions. But they operate in a system that all to often punishes them when they do.
The first reason politicians rarely apologize is simple: all too often, their profession rewards the egotistical at the expense self-aware. Elected officials—good and bad, competent and not—tend to be relentlessly forward looking. They make tough decisions, decisions have a high chance of turning out poorly even if they’re great at their jobs. If you’re the kind of person who gets hung up on your mistakes, you simply can’t function in that kind of environment. One thing almost all political figures have in common is the ability to put the past behind them and move on. The easiest way to move on is from mistakes is to convince yourself you never made them.
Of course, not every political leader has such a massive blind spot. I was lucky enough to work for President Obama, the rare chief executive capable of genuine reflection. Even in a best-case scenario, however, effective public servants tend to analyze errors the way NFL quarterbacks analyze interceptions. They run the tape. They try to learn for next time. But they always look forward, not back. (This may explain why Sen. John McCain was only recently able to admit he felt invading Iraq was a bad decision. Only in the final chapter of a career do leaders feel allowed to be reflective.)
And when public servants do apologize, it rarely does them much good. Keep in mind, a huge percentage of our politicians are also lawyers, or have at some point retained one. By training and temperament, their instinct is to avoid admitting guilt. Even when no one’s in legal jeopardy, that attitude trickles down to staff. When I was mid-level speechwriter in the White House, I became very good at promising to correct mistakes without ever formally acknowledging I’d made them. The reason was simple: in a high-stress environment, when something goes wrong, you don’t want to play the blame game. But neither do you want to be the only person welcoming blame.
What’s true on a private email thread is even more true in the public sphere. It’s one of the unwritten rules of political coverage: A story disputed by one side is a controversy; a story agreed upon by both sides is a scandal. So long as there is no consensus over whether wrongdoing was committed, reporters feel uncomfortable taking sides. Denials are reprinted, no matter how ludicrous or dodgy. But once an apology is issued, the apologizer loses control of the story entirely. “I’m sorry” is treated not as coming clean, but as a guilty plea. In theory, a public mea culpa gives the press a chance to move on to the next controversy, and in the past perhaps that was sometimes true. But at a moment when we already bounce from story to story Twitter speed, politicians who admit fault get all the downside with almost none of the benefits.
So, does this mean politicians are always right to obfuscate and deny wrongdoing? No. Of course not. When Sarah Sanders refuses to admit an obviously false claim, she’s not a victim of the system. She’s playing the system. President Trump and his staff understand that apologies in politics are valued in theory but not in practice. That’s why, even when they’re caught red handed, they refuse to admit it. Given the lack of consequences, it’s likely other candidates will follow their lead.
Which is why, if we want our leaders to behave more like decent human beings, we should start giving them an incentive to do so. Blind self-confidence has too long been considered a leadership quality; voters should start prioritizing self-awareness instead. When candidates own up to bad decisions, and make sincere efforts to correct them, we should reward them with the credit they deserve. And when evidence of wrongdoing is truly overwhelming, political journalists should be willing to recognize the objective truth even if the wrongdoer in question does not.
Washington’s unwillingness to apologize is a symptom of a larger problem. We have a system that too often rewards bad faith and punishes decent behavior, the kind of political environment where a dishonest president fabricating a lie about FBI campaign spies is treated as less of a scandal than an honest one wearing a tan suit.
Want better behavior from our leaders? Let’s build a smarter system. I’m fairly certain it would make a bigger difference than many of us think. And if I’m wrong, I apologize.