We are often told that presidential campaigns should be about "the issues." But voters will not be enacting laws in November. They will select a president who may well face unexpected dangers or opportunities over the next four years. Voters need to know how candidates might respond to both. They need to know what kind of person a candidate is as way of guessing what kind of president they might become.
How can we judge the character of a presidential candidate? Honesty and basic decency are a good start along with the strength to do what is right rather than what is popular. Moreover, a candidate must not confuse appearance and reality on the character issue. They must truly possess the virtues needed for the presidency.
McCain might seem to have an advantage on the character question. His experience in Vietnam has not been depreciated by credible critics. He was a real war hero and not a little of that past informs how most voters see McCain today.
In recent weeks, he seemed to show courage in electoral battle. He said "it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers."
McCain visited the poor and did not promise his presidency would magically make them rich. He has persisted in supporting the Iraq War and in promising to cut spending. In 2008, both positions run counter to the preferences of a majority of Americans.
But McCain has lately come up short on the character question. He now proposes to bail out borrowers and is calling for the suspension of the gas tax for the summer. What contempt a man who endured torture must have for voters who cannot bear a little pain at the pump. And yet he feels their pain for fear of failure in November.
Barack Obama is more complex case, in part because he is unknown. He has not been tested in important ways. True, Obama seemed willing to listen to people who disagreed with him. He refused to demonize his opponents, thereby putting aside a potential advantage for his campaign. Obama also appeared to be straightforward and honest, a man you could respect even though you disagreed with everything he said and did.
For all that, Obama's great rhetorical talent always threw a shadow on his character. Was he really what he seemed to be or just what everyone wanted him to be? Perhaps he was just better than anyone else at faking sincerity.
Obama's difficulties in recent primaries have not enhanced his character. He has pandered to voters in stagnant states, not least on protectionism. His economic advisor apparently told Canadian officials to dismiss Obama's statements about NAFTA.
Rev. Wright matters most on the character question, and not just to Obama's detriment. Looking back on the Philadelphia speech, Obama's unwillingness to part ways with his pastor could suggest character. After all, the easiest thing would have been for Obama to simply denounce Wright and his views.
Obama tried to do the latter while refusing to do the former. Perhaps Obama was refusing to sacrifice a friend in a moment of greatest need, even when that friend could not be defended and everything was on the line. One could respect that. Now Wright hardly seems like a friend anyone would defend.
Wright also raised a troubling question about Obama's character. Why had the Senator and his family stayed with and supported Wright's church for so long? Because he stayed, it was hard to believe that Obama disapproved of Wright's radicalism. But who believed that the Obama we had come to know would not disapprove of Wright?
His pastor has posed the character question about Obama in ways the senator has not answered. One senses the question now cannot be answered, at least beyond all doubt.
Character may not be the only issue in November. Obama may be rescued by a recession or by revelations that credibly disparage McCain's conduct. Perhaps Obama will find a way out of the Wright mess that restores his good standing with voters. But for now a question of character has been asked long after it could have been answered.
More than a few people — not all of them liberals — would like to believe in Obama's character if not his program. The candidate has disappointed such people. Their discontent may disappoint Democrats come November.