Is character really an issue?

Is character really an issue?

: It’s accepted wisdom that character is an issue in elections, especially Presidential elections. Let’s examine that assumption.

Sure, if you know with good evidence that a candidate is a lying, thieving, stealing, sliming, philadering, cheating, insane idiot and louse — well, then, yes, character is an issue.

But when is any human being really so one-dimensionally flawed (and when — since 1933 — are every one of his backers so hypnotized or stupid or corrupt to allow him to get this far in life)?

Now I know what some of you are going to say: Aha! You have a problem with character because Kerry’s character is being attacked and you’re likely to vote for him; how friggin’ convenient for you! Think what you will; you will anyway. I had the exact same problem with Michael Moore going after Bush’s character and even went on CNN to defend Bush against Moore. I am equal-opportunity on this topic: I hate both sides’ muck. So try to rise up out of the primordial ooze of political mud and mire for a moment and consider the question of the real value of debate over a candidate’s — any candidate’s — character.

I find that I have many problems with character as a campaign issue:

1. Character is not a measure of competence. And what I really want in a President is competence. Jimmy Carter had character; he was a terrible President. Jerry Ford was his Republican counterpart: good guy, nothing President. Bill Clinton ended up with a cracked character but I say he was a good President. Richard Nixon had the character of a cockroach, yet he was, in many ways, quite competent.

2. Character is used mostly as an excuse for good old-fashioned political mudslinging: Dig and sling some dirt at a candidate and then hide behind the oh-so-noble notion that you’re just trying to reveal the candidate’s character when all you’re really doing is running a dirty campaign.

3. Character is the argument that will never end. If you don’t like the candidate, you’ll say he has crappy character. If you like the candidate, you’ll defend his character and say that the other side is just a bunch of character assassins. Wheels spin, mud spurts, and we don’t get anywhere. It’s mean-spirited. It’s unproductive.

4. Character cannot truly be measured until it is tested. You won’t know whether someone has the character to face the Presidency until he or she faces it. You won’t likely know whether they’ll step up to the plate or steal it until you watch them faced with the choice.

5. Character is a distraction from the issues that really matter, the issues a President can influence that, in turn, affect our lives. Look at this campaign in many blogs and certainly on TV: We’re not arguing the important issues that supposedly divide us; we’re sniping instead. Once again, it’s unproductive. Worse, it’s divisive and destructive.

6. Character is a proxy for morality and morality is a proxy for religion and religion mixed with government always scares me. We hear candidates attacked because of their character and values and what that too often really means is that the snipers disagree with the candidate’s stand on abortion or gay marriage or school voucher or even the environment and development. Slippery, that slope.

None of this is to say that we will not or should not vote on character. At the end of the day, unless a candidate has a stand or stands we simply abhor, each of us will inevitably end up judging whether to vote for candidates based on whether we trust or admire or like them. That’s as it should be.

But when we start arguing over such intangible and personal criteria — when we start yelling at other people that they should or should not trust or admire or like someone the way we do — then the argument reaches often absurd and usually useless depths.

This election, its issues, and its choices are too important to let that happen.

Is character an issue or a distraction? Is character and issue or a weapon?