Mar.8 (Dow Jones) -- We are supposedly days away from the conclusion of Robert Mueller抯 investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. No one knows whether Mr. Mueller will allege criminal conduct by the president or any (more) of his close associates. Yet we can be reasonably confident that the report will not present a flattering portrait of the 45th president. But if there抯 no crime, his supporters will say, 揥ho cares?

It may be intended rhetorically, but it抯 a serious question. Does it matter if the president did bad things as long as he抯 not a criminal? Should presidential character count?

It抯 an age-old topic whose saliency ebbs and flows with changing private and public mores and the nation抯 shifting political priorities. In the modern age it seems to have been completely subsumed into the cant of hyper-partisanship. Republicans denounced Bill Clinton as a sleazy huckster whose behavior spoke to a larger disqualifying character flaw. But they dismiss Donald Trump抯 transgressions as peccadilloes that shouldn抰 be allowed to detract from a record of achievement. Hillary Clinton fans, who now say that a woman who accuses a powerful man of sexual impropriety must be believed, spent a good deal of time trashing the reputations of her husband抯 many accusers.

In some ways we have come full circle when it comes to character. Once, the true timber of a president抯 personality was concealed by a kind of omert between the media and the politicians, so the moral flaws of an FDR or a JFK were never made public. After a few decades in which candidates and public officials were then subjected to an excruciating examination of potentially disqualifying character traits, we now seem back to an age when a president can be a moral monster because there will always be enough partisan support to sustain him.

Yet there are surely still issues of honesty, probity, truthfulness梣ualities that determine the ability of the chief executive to channel and represent the core virtues of American society. Recent history tells us that there have been important moments when character has counted.

慍ould character be the Democrats trump card in 2020?

Jimmy Carter won in 1976 in large part because of his perceived character. After the calamity of Watergate and what we came to learn of Richard Nixon抯 behavior, Carter抯 artful self-presentation as the straight guy who 搘ill not lie to you was probably the difference that helped him to defeat Gerald Ford.

Less widely recognized is that in 2000, George W. Bush pitched a similar case. The country may not have wanted President Clinton impeached, but by 2000 it was sick of the endless tawdry spool of the Clinton years. I covered Bush in that campaign and remember vividly how he often ended his political rallies: 揥hen I put my hand on the Bible I will swear not only to uphold the Constitution of the United States but the honor and integrity of the office of president.

It was a subtle and welcome promise to many voters that, whatever else he might do in the Oval Office, it would not involve blue dresses and cigars. The impression he gave of decent character played a critical part in his narrow victory.

Could character be the Democrats trump card in 2020? The economy is strong, jobs are plentiful, the nation is at peace梐t least overseas. President Trump is doing some unorthodox but not necessarily ineffective things in foreign policy. His approval ratings are roughly where those of his predecessors were at this stage before they went on to win re-election.

Democratic strategy to unseat him seems based on a twin track of criminal investigation and ideological warfare. But might not a better tack for them simply be to focus on character?

Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that even many of those who support President Trump are tired of his offenses against simple decency. There抯 a weariness with the daily verbal journey through the sewers of political rhetoric; the vanity, the incidental connection with truthfulness; and the gathering evidence of the cascading cataracts of cupidity that have coursed through the man抯 career.

Perhaps Democrats are themselves nervous about making character an issue, given the abundant ethical frailties on their own side. But is it not at least possible that their most effective message might be a simple promise to restore good character to the office?

Copyright 2019, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.                    


Fecha de publicación: 08/03/2019