“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
Republicans believe they hold the patent on character. I have a friend who, discussing the rightward trajectory of his parents’ politics, related their view that at least Romney and running mate Congressman Paul Ryan are “decent” men while the incumbent president is a “liar.” Among other, less exuberant factions of the electorate, the perception is growing that the opposite is true. Whatever are the deficiencies of the president having to do with competence or communication or ideology or raw skill as it has to do with the levers of power, rank dishonesty of the sort that distinguishes most pols isn’t among them. The conspicuous case of Guantánamo aside, the president has set about fulfilling most of his campaign pledges over the past four years: If you didn’t hear him state fairly explicitly in 2008 his intent to up the ante in Afghanistan as well as to pursue al-Qaeda into Pakistan, then you weren’t really paying attention, or you duped yourself into believing otherwise as, in fact, many on both right and left did. In the ‘08 Democratic primary, Barack Obama got a fair amount of grief from Senator Hillary Clinton on one or both of these points. Obama also said he would wind down the Iraq War, which he did; reform health care, which he did; sign equal-pay-for-equal-work, which he did; support cap-and-trade legislation to curb carbon emissions, which he did; and pursue the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," which he did. It can reasonably be argued that some or all of these things might have been accomplished more completely or punctually or artfully, but it can’t be argued that any constitutes a betrayal of anything proposed in Obama’s campaign.
To the “liar” Obama, the more eminently decent Romney and Ryan present themselves as a Trojan-horse alternative—wheel them into the gates of the city and see what emerges under cover of darkness—having been persuaded by the knuckle-headed dialectic of campaign professionals and political commentators alike that an election is either a referendum or a choice. Elections are both. A 14-year-old (one lives in my house) could tell you this. In the referendum race, the president is at a tipping point; a majority of Americans don’t believe he’s handling the struggling recovery well. By a greater margin—20 points—a majority of Americans believe the recent recession was the fault of not the incumbent but his predecessor and, more pointedly, Republican economic policies as they were practiced and implemented for the first eight years of this century. One of the virtues of character is holding oneself to account, and when right-wing mouthpieces claim this is a “gimme” election, it’s tantamount to self-deception at best and at worst a failure to account for what brought the country to the financial precipice at the end of ‘08, a precipice from which objective economists agree that Obama pulled the country in ‘09—without, it might be noted, any assistance whatsoever from the culpable opposition.
Romney’s current troubles don’t stem from miscalculation or even a duff convention in Tampa but are manifestations of his own political character as heard and witnessed over the past half-decade. This is a man who has altered his positions—not modified, not tailored, not hedged, but utterly transformed—on every single issue from abortion to climate change to the health-care reform that he signed as governor in Massachusetts. Now he runs a campaign that doesn’t want to talk about his record as governor or as a financier and that refuses to put forth an economic alternative of any detail beyond building the Alaska pipeline and lowering taxes for people like himself, even as at the same time he won’t show us what he pays in taxes now or whether he pays taxes at all. His adamant hostility to revealing anything that resembles an authentic belief or credible strategy for accelerating the recovery is not only losing Romney the choice part of the election but the referendum part as well, as the Democrats succeed in making this a referendum on Romney, not Obama. Romney’s selection of Ryan was meant both to reassure the party’s base and bathe the presidential candidate in the glow of the vice-presidential candidate’s reputation as a man of integrity and candor. As evinced by the ticket’s appearances on this past Sunday morning’s news programs and Ryan’s speech at the Republican Convention, when he blamed Obama for a plant that closed during his predecessor’s term and for a Medicare cut that Ryan himself supports and for not embracing a debt-commission report that Ryan himself opposed and for the country’s credit downgrading that Ryan himself brought about as much as any single individual, it is truth-teller Ryan who bathes in the glow of Romney’s irrefutable standing as the phoniest nominee of our lifetime.
It quickly became clear following the Democratic Convention of last week, marked by the first lady’s passion, President Clinton’s persuasion, and President Obama’s acceptance address (savvier than credited by a typically whipped media that’s been frantic for years to call an Obama speech a failure), that barring something unforeseen, the evening of October 3 is now the single most important hour of the rest of this campaign. Of course that will be when the president and his challenger—the liar and the decent man—stand side by side in the first televised debate and Americans assess not only the talking but the walking, which is to say whom they trust, for which the whole much-blathered matter of “likability” is really code. Americans won’t decide whom they would rather have a beer with or whom they would rather have dinner with but whom they could count on to help change their flat tire when the car is stranded by the roadside and they’re standing in the middle of the highway waving their arms for help. Here comes Barack in his hybrid Fusion. He stops and tries to fix the tire, and pretty soon it’s obvious maybe he’s not that great at fixing tires, so while he fusses they try to wave down someone else. Here comes Mitt in his Cadillac. He’s great at fixing tires … on Cadillacs. He claims he’s great at fixing other tires too but gives no indication of such, and in fact gives no indication that he would know another other tire if he saw it. It doesn’t matter anyway because not only isn’t Mitt going to stop, it’s not certain he even sees anyone in the middle of the highway waving their arms or that he won’t run them over if he does.
If Romney loses, Republicans and the political right will act as if Romney was something that happened to them, when the truth is that Romney is something the Republicans did to themselves. Romney is the final outcome of a party that subjects its prospective nominees to one increasingly unhinged litmus test after another, that will not abide anyone who would accept a single dollar of raised tax revenue for ten dollars of spending cuts, anyone who would acknowledge that deporting twelve million Latinos is impractical if not wrong, anyone who would recognize that the weather has gotten just a bit peculiar lately if not freakish, anyone who would condemn the furor over the president’s birthplace as racist at its sanest and insane at its insanest, anyone who would concede that God really might have taken longer than seven days to create the world. A Jeb Bush—the closest thing to a slam-dunk candidate that the GOP could have nominated this year—declined to offer himself not only because of his last name but because he didn’t want to run that gauntlet, and may never want to. The first test of character, and the one that counts most, is taking responsibility not only for what one says and does but who and what one is.