Character in politicians

In light of some of the recent meltdowns by politicans, I would like to urge moderates, lefties, and pundits to let go of the belief that voting based on character, as opposed to or in addition to policy positions, is for either silly, uneducated dolts or evangelical Christians. What has made these people melt down is not flaws in policy positions, but flaws in character.

One's policy positions of a given moment say a little bit about how one reacts to upcoming unknown events, but not all that much. For example, the biggest issues of Bush's presidency (arguably the war on terror and Katrina) were completely unknown before his terms began (and remember his exhortations against nation-building?). Even when no big surprises come up, there is still the fact that one must deal with other branches of government and other people in government, and cannot simply enact one's policy preferences by fiat. Obama may have certain policy preferences, but he's got to work with a Congress who does not agree with him. Remember the endless goings-on in the primary about the difference between Obama and Hillary on a mandate for health insurance?

I don't think having an affair immediately rules someone out, or that that's the only character issue that matters. One can imagine a very unhappy marriage, or other circumstances which would make the affair, if not excusable, than at least as not providing a reason for the person not to hold office. But the specific circumstances of the affair might well indicate something about the politician's fitness for office. In the case of Sanford, that he was willing to go dark for days, and then return only to make grandiose statements in biblical terms, indicates something negative about his priorities and self-assessment. Eliot Spitzer's dalliance with a prostitute showed his indifference to laws when it came to himself, and showed that he was indeed corruptible. Bill Clinton's Lewinsky affair showed he was emotionally immature and willing to lie to the country (and under oath). All of these people betrayed their voters and supporters not by supporting the wrong bill, but by having weak characters.

Even without an affair, one's intellect, emotional and mental stability, and values are all relevant to the actions they will take as our leaders.

As a woman currently in her third trimester of her second pregnancy, I can't tell you how bizarre is Palin's report of taking a 10-hour plane ride after her amniotic sac had already broken so that the baby might be born in Alaska. It is argued that this is a personal issue that should be left out discussions of her fitness of her office. But her behavior in her personal life does indicate fitness for office. If your water breaks, you go to the hospital. That's it. Forget Andrew Sullivan's conspiracy theories that Trig is not her baby. If one takes her at her word, she put her child's life at risk for a ridiculously frivolous reason. This is not a sign of emotional maturity. The other possibilities are that a) she is lying or exaggerating about what happened during that labor to seem more dramatic or heroic, or b) she acted with indiffernce to her fetus, either consciously or unconsciously, because she felt ambivalent or negative about its existence. Neither a) nor b) is reassuring about her maturity and ability to deal with adversity. This then should be relevant to deciding her fitness to govern.

Without the baby story, of course, we also have her incoherence and inability to give a plausible reason for her actions or policiy positions. This is also indicative of a character unsuited for office.

One should not apologize, or be labeled stupid or a right-wing crazy, for looking for a candidate who behaves with care, consideration, maturity, and morality in their private life, as it does indicate something about the wisdom and resoluteness they will bring to public life. One should not look only at what a person believes currently, but the kinds of things they are likely to support, their intellectual breadth, whether they trust scientists and economists, their steadiness, the intensity of their self-regard, their ability to take criticism, etc. All affect governance.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree--the only problem, in my view, is that there aren't any politicians with real character. It's practically a job prerequisite.