By Mel Harkrader Pine
The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan
I’m not an issues voter in presidential elections. I vote for character.
That’s because I’ve noticed, in the dozen elections I’ve voted in, that platforms have little to do with what a president does in office. They’re written for their voter appeal, but a perhaps greater reason why they’re close to meaningless is that nothing can prepare presidents for what they’ll face once they take office.
Take George W. Bush as an example. His July 31, 2000, party platform spoke of peace and prosperity, But his character mattered much more over the next eight years. He will be defined in history by how he reacted to the shock he and the rest of us felt on September 11, 2001, less than nine months after his inauguration.
A vivid example among Democrats was Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam. LBJ’s 1964 platform even included this noble-sounding line: “Peace should be the first concern of all governments as it is the prayer of all men.” We know how that worked out.
Because I’m a religious liberal, my circle of friends is largely politically liberal and progressive. They just doesn’t get my disdain for political parties and my preference for voting based on character. I didn’t fully understand why until I read Bret Stephens’ op-ed article below, which includes the quote from Moynihan above.
I believe that change comes from the governed, not those who govern. And I vote for those who by their character seem to best understand that.
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine
I’m somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, but there are certain issues that are deal breakers for me, even if the character of the politician is someone I respect overall. I also find it easier to understand and judge issues than people. I’m not a great judge of character, especially if I don’t really know a person and have to make that assessment based on what I read and see on television. I feel like voting based on “character” runs the risk of being too driven by emotions and/or personality. But issues are emotion driven too, so you can’t really get away from it.
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I’ve been wrong a few times, but I’ll never know if I would have been wronger the other way. I think I just don’t trust politicians.
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The problem was that the character of the alternative, her fallopian tubes notwithstanding, was horrible too. Faced with two bad characters, people naturally choose the one they think will do more or less what they want a President to do.
Oddly enough, what I find comforting about Trump is that everyone knows who Trump is. It is who he has always been, (very well-documented!) and no one really pretends otherwise. I talk to a lot of Trump voters/supporters. None deny his many, many flaws. This, in marked contrast to Obama supporters and then Hillary supporters, who essentially insisted their guy/gal was flawless. (I was one of the former, big time, so I know.)
I think one of the difficulties with the Obama presidency was that all of us— with very few exceptions—wanted so badly for BHO to be more than he was capable of being. I, for one, was completely convinced that here was a charming, intelligent, witty, sensible, rational, cultured, trustworthy man who could do anything. Character! And, as for most people my age and up, it was a marvelous miracle to have been present at the inauguration of the first black president. Oh, and he had a beautiful family! Adorable daughters! It was…
Too good to be true. But even now, I don’t like knowing what I know, namely that Obama failed on some really serious, important issues. Members of his administration have done things that were deeply corrupt. Race riots exploded in America’s inner cities and optimism about the state of race relations in America declined precipitously on his watch. His character was almost certainly far more flawed than any of us want to recognize. Well, of course it was! He was a politician. And yet, he was virtually canonized —awarded a Nobel Prize before, as he admitted himself, he had even done anything!
But if Obama was so great…why did we end up with Trump? Surely Trump’s election tells us something about Obama? Eight years of the much-vilified GWB yielded an America so optimistic, we elected Barack Hussein Obama. Eight years of Obama… gave us Trump. A unified, happy, prosperous America would not have rolled the dice on this guy. A decent, reasonable Democratic candidate endorsed and supported by a popular Obama would not have lost to Trump. (I mean, seriously. Donald Trump!?!?!?)
The fact that we don’t (yet) see it that way says much about the willingness of the mainstream media…well, and all of us, really…to Not See what we really, really didn’t want to see. We didn’t want Obama to have failed. We don’t want to acknowledge that Occupy and #BLM would not have arisen in a happy, healthy climate; we don’t want to see all the ways in which the Middle East went to pieces; we make so many excuses for Obama because we believe…want so badly to believe…that he actually was a Man of Character.
That yearning is far more about us, and what we project upon the merely mortal than it is about the mortal himself. That yearning is dangerous…and it is almost wholly absent when it comes to Trump.
That Trump faces an overwhelmingly hostile media and a—to put it mildly—skeptical public is, to my way of thinking, an overdue blessing. Americans are re-discovering the advantages of a divided government, extolling the forgotten virtues of a weak executive; American progressives are vowing (with no sense of irony) to focus less on forcing change through the Supreme Court and instead persuading…you know…voters to actually change their minds and thus the country. This is good.
Presidents ought not to be “light bearers” (in one “reporter’s” memorable phrase about Obama) and they ought not to make us feel quite so good about ourselves. The president ought to be regarded skeptically. He or she is our employee for 4-8 years. He or she isn’t the King, or the Celebrity in Chief or our National Savior.
A friend of mine said this of Trump: “We could have had better than Trump as a candidate, although not one who would win.” I think that’s true. We—by which I mean Democrats and progressives—need to get our act together and see whether we can offer someone better…and have her win. (Hint: being female isn’t enough. Though I’d be thrilled to see Nicki Haley and Elizabeth Warren square off… )
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