Candidates And Character: The Election Of Denial?

candidate-and-character-2Last month my stepmom, a lifelong Democrat who no longer trusts the Clintons, asked how my feminism and support of Hillary squared with the fact that she covered for Bill's sexual misconduct.  

During President Clinton’s 1990’s sex scandals I didn’t know much about the aggressive damage control Hillary did on Bill’s behalf. What I noticed about my First Lady was a front and center President’s wife who under huge criticism, adopted more than soft issues and White House décor.

But when my stepmom (who’s voting for Hillary but isn’t happy about it) asked how I’d reconcile Woman’s Rights Hillary with the person who discredited her husband’s victims, I Googled the issue and groaned.    

When a woman, any woman, shames victims to protect her lying cheating man despite the vast complex personal and political reasons for doing so, this doesn't sit well with my feminist ideals.

But when the GOP turned the issue into election year ammo and proclaimed Hillary’s “War on Women,” I laughed. Mrs. Clinton’s impressive record of fighting for girl’s and women’s rights around the world outweighs, at least for me, her self-serving war on Bill’s women.

And so I made myself make peace with the fact that my favorite First Lady threw Bill’s women under the bus.

I admit Hillary’s private email server usage was stupid and reckless but it wasn’t criminal or sinister. And if there’s even a hint of “pay to play” around the Clinton Foundation, I’ll take the punch and groan again.

Still, Hillary’s poor judgment on a few issues over 30 years of untarnished public service doesn’t reflect the entirety of her character. I’d give this half blind-eye leeway to any politician with a long resume of good works.

Hillary-haters will of course tell me I’m in convenient denial about her character because to them The Clintons represent the epitome of bought and paid political establishment, corruption, hypocrisy and lies.

Maybe I have sort of stuck my fingers in my ears about HRC because like most voters I don’t want the pedestal to wobble for my chosen one. Still, at least I’m willing to admit the few places where she screwed up.

Hard core Trump loyalists on the other hand, seem tone deaf about his never-ending string of past and present horrible. Some actually applaud the worst in Trump which means they applaud the worst in themselves. I find this deeply unsettling.

Personal traits rank high in my view of private and public relationships, with friends, with family, with professional athletes (stats be damned, how does the quarterback treat his teammates, wife and kids?) and with my President.

It seems I’m a dying breed of voter.

In 2016 political scientist Martin P. Wattenberg looked at 60 years of data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) and found voters no longer consider character traits as heavily as they did in the past. Between 1952 and 1980, 80 percent of respondents mentioned personal attributes as a factor in elections. In the 2008 and 2012 elections that figure dropped to 60 percent.

And in a 2016 Quinnipiac poll surveyors found only 16 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans rated honesty and trustworthiness as most important when asked to rate those traits next to others.

The findings reflect what political scientists and authors of Candidate Character Traits in Presidential Elections David Holian and Charles Prysby found when they looked at the ANES data. In recent elections, presidential candidates perceived as most honest didn’t often win.

 Wattenberg suggests that voters, young people in particular, are less likely to consider character traits due to “having grown up in an era in which candidates have to make strong and distinct policy appeals to get the nomination.”  Candidate traits are “now more tied to partisan identification and have less of an independent impact on voting behavior.”

Voters want a candidate who will get the job done, the job voters rank as most important. For me, that’s women’s rights and social justice.  

“We don’t expect politicians to be good people. We don’t need them to be good people. What we still need is for them to be good representatives,” says Michael G. Miller, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.

Maybe. But I still need my politicians to be good people, or mostly good. And until this election I thought character ranked up there with policy and partisanship.

When Trump first appeared on the political scene, the world expected him to quickly fall on his sword. No candidate that outrageous, unpresidential or overflowing with character flaws could appeal to enough people to win the primary.

And yet somewhere in the collective shock a tipping point of disgruntled angry nationalist-leaning voters decided Trump’s character was exactly what the country needed. And in that creeping shift away from conscience when millions cheered an unhinged bully, demagoguery won and character took a disappointing back seat.   

We’re at a time in election history where I hope we’ll look back with deep regret. Because despite the go-to explanation that Trump’s rise stems from mass voter frustration with insider politics, the sad truth is too many people agreed to lower the bar for themselves and the nation.

Or in the words of Joseph R Murray II, “As a gay Republican who supported the America First message of *Pat Buchanan, I was told for years to suck it up and support the GOP nominee. I did.”

But I’m pretty sure “sucking up” our identity and compromising our moral conscience to save the party isn’t what America is about.

Candidates must always be held accountable not only for their issues and actions but for every word out of their mouth. Because words reflect not only future policy but who that President intends to be for the people, who that President is at his very core.

*In his reference to the AIDS outbreak, Buchanan said gays brought it on themselves because they “declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution."


laura-g-owens-profile-picLaura G Owens is a freelance writer and blogger. Her focus is wellness, psychology and social commentary. You can find her work in a number of print and online publications including: Huffington Post Psych Central  and Whole Life Times.