In selecting candidates, both parties have become obsessed with ideology and their checklists of positions to the detriment of considerations of character and competency. Arguably more of the latter would do both Democrats and Republicans some good, and actually ameliorate the stark policy differences between the parties and improve our political culture.
The Democrats are learning the hard way that neither candor nor competence is a strong suit in this administration. It was one thing to mislead or stonewall on a host of scandals (e.g. the IRS, Fast and Furious, Benghazi) – for those were Republicans’ issues. It is another to botch the party’s “historic” accomplishment. It is one thing, from the left’s perspective, to vacillate and turn tail on Syria or even to get caught exaggerating wildly on the sequester. After all, the left doesn’t want to act in Syria and the sequester is its bete noir. But mangling Obamacare and being caught in blatant mischaracterizations — well, that is maddening. Around now, supporters might have wished for less ideological rigidity and more straightforwardness and rudimentary executive experience.
Republicans are not immune, of course, from investing hopes in ideological standard-bearers whose public conduct should be a warning light. And indeed the most troubling behavior of late is not merely (or even) ideology but deficits in judgment and honesty. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) led his party into the shutdown disaster with false hopes of defunding Obamacare. He then dishonestly blamed fellow Republicans as it was going on and now engages in revisionist history both to blame the GOP and argue it wasn’t a disaster. Some personal restraint, honesty and willingness to put the interests of the country and party over blinding personal ambition would have gone a long way.
Then there is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Certainly he’s out of step with some in the country and even his own party on matters of policy, but where he has gotten in a bind is on matters, again, of character. He hired the neo-Confederate “Southern Avenger” and failed to acknowledge there was any problem. Even when the staffer was forced to leave, Rand Paul could not fathom why his noxious views and rhetoric were so far beyond the bounds of civil intercourse that (I am certain) no other lawmaker on the Hill would have hired him knowing his background. And now he is caught in serial plagiarism. What started as a single “borrowed” Wikipedia entry is now, according to Politico, an endemic pattern of lifting material for his speeches. His alter-ego and closest staffer denies this was a problem. But Paul will be more careful. Neither one of them knows this is wrong? (VP Joe Biden didn’t have any problem lifting a biographical speech about Neil Kinnock’s life, which was not only wrong but laughable.)
We have ideology hall monitors in both parties probing for fidelity to a list of positions and taking blood samples to test for ideological purity. But perhaps both sides would do better to probe character, public character. (I will leave sexual morality and other aspects of very personal conduct aside.) Among public officials there are certain traits we want to check for and certain failings we want to be on the lookout for. Is this person honest, does he put the public good above his own advancement, is he respectful of others and is he diligent? You’d insist on such qualities in an entry-level employee. Certainly we should demand such qualities in our leaders. And in leaders you want to consider their propensity to abuse power, their degree of humility (not a common trait among pols), their reliability and their simple decency, the kindness they show to others when no one is looking.
And then there is the competence problem. Listen, the presidency is hard and even the better ones mess up, especially in their second terms. But, again, both sides would do themselves and the country some good if they examined the likelihood that the candidates would be competent executives or legislators. What’s their track record? What have they done in life that is comparable? Do they surround themselves with quality people? Do they work well with others?
Neither character or competence is easily evaluated, but both arguably deserve much more attention in the political context than we give them. They are the foundation of everything else an elected official will do. And when they are absent or in low supply, we get some of the most debilitating scandals and public ordeals. A good way to begin is to focus less on what candidates say and more on what they’ve done; that is a much better predictor of future behavior.