Presidential Campaigns Always Concern Character

Presidential Campaigns Always Concern Character

By David Paul Kuhn - May 23, 2012

There were the "Meet the Press" panelists discussing character attacks. Gasp, the general election is getting personal! Any student of history would predict it. Newark Mayor Cory Booker was nonetheless disgusted. "It's either going to be a small campaign about this crap," Booker said, "or it’s going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about."

Americans do care. The public wags its finger at dirty politics. But voters do not filter out the dirt. Most campaign events do not actually make a president. Yet when events do matter, they often matter more for what they say, in aggregate, about the inner man than the issues themselves.

The presidential campaign is always personal. Americans judge incumbent presidents by the tenor of the times. They vote for candidates who share their values. Yet they also seek candidates who embody what they value in the presidency. 

So we watch the two sides spar over who will better serve America’s economy: chief executive Barack Obama or onetime Bain Capital executive Mitt Romney. They debate the stimulus package, unemployment, whether certain species of capitalism are more vampire than virtue. They are ultimately debating who better embodies the office: Who is the better manager? The better man? Who can help you do better?

This is a famously personal vote. The public judges whether candidates meet the stature of the office. Despite frequent disappointments, Americans still want a president as large as that office. What they’ll settle for is another matter.

It’s an intriguing matter in 2012. Neither Obama nor Romney owns this presidential character. Both men appear outwardly directed. It’s difficult to name a maxim that guides either candidate. The public does not view Obama or Romney as an especially strong leader. And while character is not electoral destiny, voters’ impression matters.

In springtime 2007, the Gallup organization asked Americans to delineate the most important quality they sought in a presidential candidate. One-third of the public said honest and straightforward. Leadership ranked second. Tied for third: integrity and the ability to govern. Gallup went on to ask what qualities were “essential” in a presidential candidate. The top three: strong and decisive leader (78 percent), good moral character (68 percent) and an effective manager (63 percent).

That same spring, Ipsos-Associated Press pollsters asked an open-ended question: name the “most important qualities or characteristics you look for in a presidential candidate.” One-third selected a specific policy issue. Six in 10, however, selected traits that testify to good character. In respective order: honesty, integrity, and someone who follows through on what they say. About a fifth selected leadership. Other qualities -- experience, compassion, intelligence -- ranked in the low teens. Notably, two-thirds of independents cited character traits above all else.

The search for these traits underlies our policy debates. Consider Obama’s recent expression of support for gay marriage. Even liberal activists questioned their standard-bearer’s spine. Obama had a chance to show he has principles that supersede politics. Yet the timing conveyed the opposite. Two-thirds of Americans decided, according to a CBS News-New York Times poll, that Obama made his announcement “mostly for political reasons.”  Only one-quarter said he did it “mostly because he thinks it is right.”

So we see why a controversial advertising proposal immediately rallied both sides. Last week, The New York Times reported that a conservative group (tellingly named Character Matters), proposed tying Obama to the incendiary comments of his onetime spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

The content was meant to radicalize Obama’s character. But the proposal was so off-color that it backfired. Pundits predictably asked: What does this say about Romney’s character? He’s seen as a man afraid of his base. Romney had a chance to chip away at this conception of his character. So Romney soon said he “repudiates” such ads. He deemed certain attacks out-of-bounds. But Romney also sought to set future boundaries. He doesn’t want his Mormonism in bounds.

Obama’s and Romney’s staffs may avoid religion and race (we’ll see about other groups). This campaign will, however, remain personal. A re-election campaign is not either a referendum or a choice. It is primarily a referendum. The alternative cannot be easily disqualified. But, in tough times, incumbents will try.

Romney can complain, as he recently did, that he is “disappointed with the president’s campaign” of “character assassination.” Romney, though, dishes the same. His campaign biography is titled “No Apology.” On the trail, Romney tells voters that “our campaign is about more than just replacing a president; it’s about restoring America’s promise.” Obama is framed as a president who apologizes for America, who has even dishonored America. That hits the core of presidential character.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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