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February 1, 2016

Questions of Character Haunt the Presidential Hopefuls

By John Carr

As this is written, the Iowa caucuses are finally moving the presidential campaign into the hands, heads and hearts of voters. Pundits who have been consistently wrong are offering new explanations and projections. Here is a crazy prediction for a crazy campaign. A Republican demolition derby results in a brokered convention and a Democratic meltdown from an indicted or severely damaged frontrunner lead to a Paul Ryan vs. Joe Biden race in the fall. Far more likely, voters will have to choose from the candidates we have.

They offer polarizing appeals to a polarized nation. Leading Republicans blame foreigners and President Obama for all our troubles. Democrats blame billionaires and embrace Planned Parenthood. (What happened to safe, legal and rare?) Ronald Reagan’s optimism and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” have been replaced by dark visions of “a crippled America” and a search for scapegoats. Mr. Obama’s “hope and change” have been overtaken by Democratic frustration that there’s too little change and not enough hope in many places. The Republican campaign is driven by anger, insisting “we want our country back.” Democrats are also mad, “we want the economy back.” There is a difference; the rich can defend themselves, but immigrants cannot.

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship the U.S. Catholic Bishops lift up moral issues of human life and dignity, justice and peace, immigration and religious freedom, but also outline other crucial moral criteria: “These decisions [on voting] should take into account a candidate's commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.”

These questions are not particularly about the religious beliefs or practices of candidates, which I discussed in an earlier column, but matters of character, honesty and virtue. President Reagan talked often of God, rarely went to church and had grandchildren he barely knew. President Clinton went to church regularly, but apparently forgot about a couple of the Ten Commandments. This is not about whether candidates are faithful religious believers, but whether they have the qualities and virtues necessary to lead the nation with integrity and purpose.

Questions of character haunt the campaigns of leading candidates. We hear Donald Trump is “a jerk”and a “narcissist,” talking constantly about himself, his polls and “stupid” leaders. He first challenged Barack Obama’s citizenship and now Ted Cruz’s. Ted Cruz is called a “nasty guy…a maniac” and he “will say or do anything to get votes.” Marco Rubio is attacked as an inexperienced “opportunist” who “cut and ran” from immigration reform when the politics changed. These indictments are assessments of Republicans, not Democrats.

A voter asks Hillary Clinton on CNN why young people think she is “dishonest.” They are not alone. More than 60 percent tell pollsters she is neither honest nor trustworthy as they consider her private email arrangement and roles in past Clinton controversies and scandals. Rachel Maddow of all people worried “whether all the old 90s-era Clinton warriors [Mark Penn, Sid Blumenthal, etc.] are gonna come back again, with all their baggage.” Will another Clinton administration be consumed by sideshows and scandals because of the Clintons’behaviors and judgements as well as the excesses and obsessions of their adversaries? A Trump administration might make a Clinton administration look tame if he brings his bravado, arrogance, disdain for others and impulsive actions to the White House. Crude attacks on women, demonizing immigrants and refugees and making fun of persons with disabilities are not offences against political correctness, but signs of disrespect for the dignity of all.

The disrespect and hostility towards Ted Cruz from colleagues, past and present, reminds me of a Mark Shields’story where Newt Gingrich asked “why do people take an instant dislike to me?” and Bob Dole allegedly responded, “it saves them time.” Beyond his harsh policy positions, Mr. Cruz’s self-righteousness, confusion of ends and means and inability to work with others are not simply personal flaws, but raise questions of character and capacity to lead.

How did we get to this place where three candidates for president who draw the most support for their other qualities and positions are also widely seen as untrustworthy, narcissistic or insufferable? What does it say about our society, culture, media and politics?

There are other candidates and questions. What values, beyond a passion against inequality, would Bernie Sanders bring to the White House? Does he have the capacity to enact his sweeping agenda? Who is Marco Rubio, an optimistic son of immigrants campaigning to extend the American dream or a pessimistic culture warrior complaining “I don’t recognize America?”

Voters face major moral questions of life and death, war and peace and who moves ahead and who gets left behind in our economy in this election year. We also face fundamental choices about who has the character, integrity and capacity to lead our nation…and who does not.