The definition of character is the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. I would suggest that character is the mental and moral qualities that DEFINE an individual.
We discover our character and the character of others when we are faced with hard choices.
Character is aspirational. It is not something that you are born with. It is something that you acquire through a lifetime of making difficult choices.
David Brooks just wrote an entire book that digs into the subject in some detail.
Our hope is that the primary season will give us an opportunity to discover more of the character of our potential candidates. That will give us a better understanding of how they will behave when they are inevitably faced with the hard choices that happen in every Presidency.
Here are two good examples.
The financial collapse of 2008 happened during the campaign for President. Obama reacted with a cool confidence the belied the political implications. He was willing to look at the best available solutions regardless of their party affiliation. He also was able to prioritize those things that were most important to do now, and those things that were most likely to have bipartisan support. McCain on the other hand seemed to panic. He was overwhelmed by the potential for failure as well as the huge risks this posed to his presidential candidacy.
The public’s perception of the difference in their reactions led to Obama’s victory. Some of Obama’s critics claim that the electorate didn’t know who they were voting for and would have made a different choice if they were better informed. I strongly disagree. This public test of character led those voters who hadn’t already made up their minds to choose Obama.
There are certainly some who will view Obama’s presidency as a failure, but he will leave office with an historic set of big achievements that will secure his place in history. Those including saving the country in general and the domestic auto industry in particular from the financial collapse, dramatically reducing the deficit through economic growth rather than wholesale cost cutting, successfully reforming healthcare, extracting us from two wars, refusing to engage our troops in new ones, and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iraq. None of those choices were a slam dunk. All had significant political risks and encountered significant opposition. In each case, he stayed the course. That’s character.
Bush won one of the closest elections in recent history. Unfortunately his “character” moment came early in his Presidency when he was informed of the 9/11 attacks while reading stories to school children. The “deer-in-the-headlights” look that came over his face at that point spoke volumes of his ability to perform under pressure. While he spoke of leadership, his administration was awash in cronyism and infighting. This came to full flower in the disaster that was Iraq, the deceptions regarding torture and domestic spying, the Valerie Plame coverup, and the tragedy of Katrina. Katrina has since become shorthand for one of these moments of failed leadership.
Let’s look at the character of a few of the current crop of wanna-be Presidents.
Trump is a narcissistic bully. In his case, he isn’t claiming to be anything else, so in some ways he passes the character test. He is going to do what is best for him. Those who don’t agree with him are losers. Those that he may harm in the process are losers. Losers in his opinion deserve their fate and he is not going to worry about them. If he manages to become President, I suspect we will all be losers.
Chris Christie’s claim to the office is also based on his tough-guy get it done narrative. But when you look at his character moments, something else comes into clear view. He is vengeful bully with “Bridge-gate” as only one example. His state is in terrible financial shape (though he claims otherwise), and now he is being “out-bullied” by Trump.
The Jeb Bush narrative was that he was a seasoned, smart, effective leader. We had a hint of his issues when he fumbled an obvious question about his brother’s failures in Iraq. The answer that he wanted to give was that he loves and respects his brother and is not going to criticize him in public. Then he could have laid out his plan for dealing with today’s Middle East realities. He didn’t have the character to give that sort of brave answer. Now, he can’t seem to find a way to respond to a bully who calling him, his wife, and his children names. Trump even challenged Jeb’s manhood by calling his campaign “low energy”. The result is that those who thought of Bush as a front runner are now questioning why he is even in the race. Turns out that the smart, effective, self-aware, self-confident leader story was fiction.
How about Walker? He was the bright shining star of the conservative movement. His character moment came when he was caught scrambling to get to the right of Trump on immigration. When one of his financial backers suggested that perhaps he had gone too far in opposing birthright citizenship, Walker quickly hustled back to safer ground.
Oh, and you remember that guy that at the start of the summer was reminding all of this Republican peers of the 11th commandment not to criticize another Republican. Now that he is no longer leading the pack, he’s decided that the 11th commandment no longer works for him.
Turns out that Walker wasn’t the star everyone thought he was. Instead he is a political opportunist who is being exposed and out-maneuvered by a political neophyte. In Trump terms, a loser.
How about Rubio? When he had an opportunity to reveal that there was substance behind his youthful good looks, we discovered that there was not much there. His strongest issue should be immigration, but every time that he has been challenged on that issue, he retreated to the safety of right wing conformity. Much like Romney, Rubio’s desire to be elected overwhelms the basic values he talks about in his speeches.
I’ve already outlined the character flaws in Rick Santorum who chose politics over religion.
What about Hillary? Her character appears to be tested on almost a daily basis. It also appears to be wanting because of choices she made during her stint as Secretary of State. Now as some of the “inside baseball” emails come out, it appears that there was considerable “Obama envy” among some of her staff. She obviously at least tolerated, if not encouraged this attitude. I don’t think that there is any doubt that she is tough. The doubt is whether or not she has the character to be able to make decisions based on what is best for the country versus what is best for her. Her front-runner status is again eroding as Bernie Sanders attacks her from the left.
Bernie has had his character moments too. But he has learned from them. Now his greatest assets are his passion and authenticity. One look at him will tell you that he is not the product of a focus group. His positions are consistent and provocative. It is unclear whether or not he will win the nomination, but in the character wars he is FAR ahead.
I could go on, but I think that it is clear that character-building is a process rather than a destination.
What is troubling in this race so far is that those with the best character appear to be those with the least chance of winning the nomination.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next several months.