If this presidential campaign has been about anything, it has been about character -- which candidate has it, which candidate lacks it, and what we can learn from the extemporaneous remark, the slip of the tongue, the company they keep, or their wayward (or not-so-wayward) youths. Every four years, it seems, we forget that this is exactly what the last election was like, and the election before it. And every four years, advocates of better, cleaner, more nutritious elections lament that we're not talking enough about the issues.
And we aren't, of course, in no small part because the reporters who cover campaigns are experts on politics, not experts on issues. Give them a speech about a new energy policy, and instead of asking what impact the policy would have on the environment or job growth, they'll be much happier ruminating on what the effect will be on the candidate's poll numbers in the Rust Belt.
The problem certainly isn't that the issues are too complicated -- at least this year. You'd have to be truly deluded to think there aren't monumental -- and easy to understand -- differences on policy between John McCain and either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. One party's nominee will want an expeditious end to the war in Iraq, while the other will want to continue it indefinitely. One will want ambitious health-care reform to solve the problem of the uninsured, while the other will want to do nothing much at all. One will want economic policies aimed at bettering the fortunes of middle- and working-class Americans, the other will continue looking primarily to the current holders of wealth to pull the economy forward (provided we shower them with more tax cuts). But none of these will be the deciding factor come November.
No, when it comes to the final choice, character will be what matters, as it always has. John McCain certainly understands this -- witness his first general election television ad, which touts him, with great subtlety, as "the American president Americans have been waiting for." "What must we believe about that president?" asks narrator Powers Boothe, in his signature style (vocally, Boothe is weighty like Fred Thompson, but with a touch of mania and contempt for whomever he's speaking to -- no wonder he won an Emmy portraying Jim Jones). "What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?" This is followed by a film clip of McCain as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the character keystone of not just this campaign, but every campaign McCain has run since his first bid for Congress in 1982.
In the past, the typical Democratic response has been, "That's all well and good, but let's talk about the issues." This would inevitably be greeted by the press corps with a derisive snort. Their entire enterprise is a quest for the candidates' true character, as though they were FBI profilers trying to bore into the mind of a serial killer to figure out what he'll do next. In the abstract, this is a perfectly worthy endeavor. We do need to know just what makes the people who would be president tick. The problem is not the press' obsession with character, it's that the conclusions they make are so often wrong.
Just look at the last eight years. Nearly everything that has made the current presidency such a catastrophe could have been foreseen in 2000 with a clear look at the person of George W. Bush. Yet we were told at the time that what really mattered about George W. Bush was whether he was smart enough and had enough experience to handle the challenges of the Oval Office. That was the character pitfall our wise journalists saw, that the light of his intellect might shine a bit too dimly.
And his opponent, we were told, had a troubling problem with the truth, an argument they labored to make even to the lengths of inventing and repeating outright falsehoods about him (no, Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet or discovered Love Canal). As we now know, President Bush is far more dishonest than Gore ever was. Had reporters taken the time to consider the question, it was obvious even in 2000 that this was the case. And unlike the alleged lies Gore was tagged with, Bush's lies were not meaningless, self-aggrandizing tales. They were lies about what he had done and what he intended to do, about his own history and about his opponent.
We shouldn't have been surprised, then, when Bush's presidency was marked not just by consistent dishonesty, but by a particularly pernicious brand of dishonesty. Unlike some of his predecessors, Bush's most important lies have come not when he was in crisis or had been caught doing something he shouldn't have (as with Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, or Clinton and Monica Lewinsky), but as part of a carefully planned effort to overcome potential public opposition to a policy initiative. So he claimed that his tax plan would give most of its benefits to the middle class, and he claimed that Iraq was all but readying its invasion of the United States, not to mention the hundred little lies along the way.
So the reporters’ warnings that if there was anything to worry about when it came to Bush it was his smarts and job preparation, don’t look so good. After all, as of today, Bush has more experience being president than all but one American (that would be Bill Clinton, who has him beat by 10 months). Yet it would be hard to argue that the quality of Bush's judgment has improved as the years have gone by and his experience deepened. He makes the same mistakes now that he did early in his presidency, not because of gaps in his knowledge, but because his stubbornness, his Manichean worldview, and his messianic self-regard have if anything gotten worse over time. Bush surely would do better today on a current events quiz than he did in 2000, but he doesn't have much to show for it. If you really want to get depressed, go back and look at the praise Bush got from the press after September 11 for his "moral clarity."
What was missing in the story the press told back in 2000 was the connection between the alleged character flaws of the candidates and the actual duties and challenges a president faces. And they don't seem to be doing any better today. For instance, John McCain's recent statements about an imaginary alliance between Iran and Al Qaeda was important not because it raised the possibility that McCain has yet to get a handle on who's who in the Middle East (the best efforts of his media defenders to dismiss it as merely a slip of the tongue notwithstanding; as George Will noted, "people say it's a given that this man knows what he's talking about"). The real question is whether McCain suffers from an affliction we might call Bush Bad Guy Syndrome, wherein everyone who doesn't like America gets conflated together into an undifferentiated mass of malevolence; they're surely working together, because they're all Bad Guys. Unlike a simple lack of knowledge, this kind of worldview has real and consequential implications for the decisions that a President McCain might make. Is this incident reflective of McCain's perspective on the world? It's worth asking. And this isn't even to mention some of McCain's other character questions, like his volcanic temper and vindictive streak.
What we do get when pundits praise the soon-to-be Republican nominee is an inversion of the normal rules. As David Brock and I argue in our new book, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, while most politicians are defined in the press by their most glaring weakness or the worst thing they ever did, McCain is defined by the most virtuous parts of his personality and the most noble thing he ever did. Ask national reporters about the less savory aspects of McCain's character, and there's a good chance their response will begin with, "Hey, the guy was a POW in Vietnam?" What happened to McCain's 40 years ago is worth mentioning, but so is the rest of his history, much of which isn't so admirable.
The question for the press is whether, in the end, they've really helped the public understand what kind of president each candidate might be. If you say that the entirety of McCain's character can be summed up in the words "Hanoi Hilton," what does that mean for his prospective presidency? What are the implications for his ability to get legislation passed, the contours of his foreign policy, or the kind of executive branch he'd run? Character matters, but only because it affects the decisions a president makes. We're still waiting to hear the press tell that story.