Policy can’t compensate

Last week I asserted that a baseline of human decency is not optional in the world’s most powerful office. I know that many people consider that a ridiculous demand because they believe that no politicians possess decent moral character. While I can hardly blame anyone for that kind that of cynicism, let me point out that cynicism and naiveté are opposites of the same coin: both are logically and demonstrably false views of human nature.

Instead, let’s try to be realists. We have every right to know whether a leader will govern lawfully and justly and honestly. But we don’t get those sort of guarantees. Primarily that is because the very power we are endowing them with will tend to have a corrupting influence. The other is that our perception of them may differ markedly from reality. So, the best we can do is seek to discern the person’s moral character before we grant them that power through our votes.

But let us not mistake a candidate’s proposed policies for character. We all do this. He is against such-and-such proposal, therefore he doesn’t care about______ (our military/the poor/the deficit). Or, she favors such-and-such bill, so she is ______ (sold out/heartless/pandering). He wants to increase spending on _______, so he truly has a compassion.

So if, as I am arguing, character is indispensable, the error we must avoid here is to mistake policy positions for virtue. Last week I said, in effect, Demand character. This week I am saying, Policy is not character.

This is a more difficult proposition to convince people of in these polarized times. The other side, with their policies, are not just wrong, they are evil. The corollary to that is, My side, with our policies, is not just right, we are the righteous. When you think someone is wrong, that is, incorrect, you argue with them. But when you believe they are evil, or agents of evil, you go to war with them – with words, and sometimes with weapons. In this context policy is seen as virtue – or vice.

This is also difficult to see because we expect an alignment between a person’s values and the policies they favor. And that is often the case. For example, Barack Obama demonstrated the value he placed on health care reform by not only making it his signature achievement by also expending nearly every bit of his political capital on it. Ronald Reagan committed to winning the Cold war, and focused a good deal of his two terms on hammering away at Soviet vulnerabilities.

But strictly speaking, values are not character, either. Esteeming marriage is a value, but devoutly keeping one’s vows requires character. Many married people who held their marriages dear have fallen to a breach of personal resolve. Policies may reflect what one values, or not, but neither policy nor values constitute character.

When the Atlantic article came out earlier this month, and then was confirmed in part by several other news outlets (The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Fox News), it revealed aspects of the president’s character that no one wants to see in their Commander-in-Chief. He reportedly spoke of military personnel in the most contemptuous manner. Instead of indicating admiration for their sacrifices, he called them losers and suckers. Insiders expressed that the president cannot comprehend self-sacrifice or commitment to a higher cause.

“According to sources with knowledge of the president’s views, he seems to genuinely not understand why Americans treat former prisoners of war with respect. Nor does he understand why pilots who are shot down in combat are honored by the military.”

For this 74-year-old person to not have a working understanding of heroism, self-sacrifice, and the kind of patriotic sensibility that leads young people to wear the uniform for their country is not a cognitive failure, it’s a moral one. It is another serious deficiency of character, and one that should be considered disqualifying for the official who commands our troops.

Predictably, the president denied the story completely. But, having no way to prove that he never said any of the things that were reported, the White House fell back on policy to show that he isn’t a moral black hole:

“The White House did not return earlier calls for comment, but Alyssa Farah, a White House spokesperson, emailed me this statement shortly after this story was posted: “This report is false. President Trump holds the military in the highest regard. He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veterans reforms, and supporting military spouses. This has no basis in fact.” “

See? The president loves the troops: he spent money on them. (No doubt his wives and children found that convincing.) In other words, his true character is proven not by his candid words, but by his policies.

And like others of the president’s policies, some would have been enacted by any president, and certainly by any Republican president. But these are touted to show he could never think or say anything shocking, unfeeling, petty, mean, or morally depraved. Because, God knows, he has never made any other statements that were shocking, unfeeling, petty, mean, or morally depraved. Oh, wait.

This illustrates my point. Throwing some money at the Pentagon doesn’t prove love or respect for our men and women in uniform any more than his judicial appointments or de-funding of Planned Parenthood makes him pro-life, or any more than Bill Clinton’s pro-choice positions showed he had respect for women.

Because policy isn’t character. And no matter how much you like a given policy, it can’t make up for moral bankruptcy. An expected answer to this would be that for our elected offices we are voting for policy, and that is our primary concern. We don’t need saints. As I said last week, we don’t need a saint as president. But we do need in our candidate both the person who stands for what we want and the character to maintain their integrity and the lawful and moral exercise of their office.

We need both.

So if you are a voter who decides whether a man or woman standing for office will advance the political agenda you favor, by all means look at the policies they endorse and articulate. They are bound to keep some of their promises, or at least try to. But if you are trying to discern their moral fitness by the laws and programs they want to enact or rescind, please bear in mind: this is politics, in which a politician first and foremost seeks to gain and keep their office, and policies are chosen and crafted with many factors in view, including lobbying, popularity, salability, feasibility, cost, and support in Congress and in one’s own party. They may mirror a politician’s values — but his character?


Not always, but sometimes… Such as when it’s your policy – when you know the severity of a growing pandemic – to pretend to the American people there is nothing to be concerned about. That reflects what our president values (the sham appearance that all is well on his watch) and it also reflects his habitual attempts to hide the truth when he’s afraid it will make him look bad. This is the root – in his character – of most of the lies he tells: they are his knee-jerk response to facts he doesn’t like (which is also why he hates the press). So it makes sense to look beyond the policies to the character of the person making them.

Because there is certainly more trouble where they came from.

Power demands character

In the 90s, opponents of Bill Clinton asserted to his many defenders, “Character matters.” They argued that whatever professional or political skills he brought to the job, his obvious moral failings disqualified him from the office of the president.

The people making this argument were mostly Republicans. Clinton’s defenders, who dismissed many credible charges of adultery, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, were Democrats. Claiming a man’s ‘private life’ has no bearing on his public office (even when they were one and the same), they stood by as the women who accused him were attacked and maligned. They were silent, or they joined in.

Two decades later, these two parties have swapped philosophies: a remarkable development, no less astonishing or disappointing than it was in the 1990s. Now the president’s defenders (Republicans, mostly) want to deny or ignore his private life, and his opponents (of every political stripe) want to question his moral fitness.

Is there plenty of hypocrisy to go around? Sure. But that does not mean it is impossible to make the case for one viewpoint over the other: that once Republicans – even if some politicians were insincere – were right lo these many years ago and the Democrats were not. And that means that the people who now defend our current president with the claim that his moral emptiness poses no detraction from his exercise of power are dead wrong. They could not be more wrong.

The US President is the most powerful office in the world. The military might at his disposal, and the economic power of the nation grant much of this power. And the US, because of its stature and democratic institutions also wields moral influence in the world – a waning influence, to be sure. The concentration of powers in a single office – so consequential at home and around the world – demands a degree of moral character of its occupants.

This seems to me self-evident – and proven by well-known and recent negative examples. Last week The Atlantic reported on numerous demeaning remarks the president made about our military personnel. This week we heard recorded comments from him which make it clear he deliberately lied to us about the threat posed by Covid-19.

The checks and balances afforded by the Constitution are there precisely because the Framers recognized the dangers inherent in the concentration and arrogation of power. But even these safeguards will not prevent or redress the dangers posed by a president who doesn’t respect them, or know what or why they are.

No law can save us from a president who is morally bankrupt. No Article or Amendment can head off the destructive influence of a president who lies habitually; denies or ignores the Constitutional limitations on his power; derides and undermines crucial institutions like a free and independent press or free elections; or flouts the rule of law by, for example, ordering subordinates to defy congressional subpoenas.

The only thing that guards against such contempt for our political, institutional, and constitutional norms is a moral baseline in the one who holds the office. He or she must care enough about our republic and its democratic structures to respect them even when wielded by their political opponents. This respect is a character trait. It must abide within the person. And it is up to us to elect a president with character in mind.

And let me be clear: our presidents have all been flawed – none were perfect, few were paragons of virtue. It does not require magnificent moral character but rather a baseline of decency. That’s all. But when a man, like our current president, telegraphs his contempt, his disrespect, his self-absorbed fixations, he should be taken at face value. When he tells obvious lies habitually, when he ridicules, calls names, and bullies; when he whines and complains with regularity; when he ignores the cries for justice, he is daily revealing his moral character. And he could be given credit for transparency if he was not also turning around and denying the things he has said and done in public – and on the record.

The fact that he is always applauded by himself and his following does not alter the character he is revealing. And yes, these flaws do have a direct relation the the exercise of his office.

Consider for an example what I see as perhaps the most consequential instance of character revelation: his betrayal of the Kurds. On the president’s orders, US forces were withdrawn a year ago from their bases in Syria near the Turkish border. This left the Kurds, who had suffered 11,000 dead in the successful fight against ISIS (versus 6 Americans), exposed to the onslaught of the Turks, who wished to crush the forces that had long fought for a Kurdish homeland. Soon after the US pulled out, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the massacre of the Kurds began. They had been our allies for decades, but they were stabbed in the back to please the Turks and help the Russians, who moved in and took hold of the abandoned bases, and were left with (given) a trove of US intelligence.

There is no law or constitutional article or regulation that can prevent this kind immoral policy decision. Only a modest degree of decency in the man could do that – and it isn’t there.

A supporter may object that such harsh moral judgments are being made against their man. But the real question is not whether he is truly subject to my assessment or anybody else’s. I freely admit I cannot see into the man’s heart. The real question for me is not, ‘Is he good or bad?’ The question is, ‘What has he revealed through his words and actions about his moral fitness for the most powerful office in the world?’ In that sense I am not judging him as a human being, but rather his words and actions – documented and indisputable – as character witnesses. The witnesses all testify, as they have for more than 30 years, that he has never had – and still does not – the kind of character that so much power demands.

This is one character deficiency – only one: a man who by all accounts demands unyielding loyalty has acted in a most disloyal manner toward his wives, his employees and subordinates, his contractors, his party, military personnel, the Constitution, and yes, our allies. The Kurds were allies and he betrayed them to genocidal enemies in your name and mine.

His past record of disloyalty makes his betrayal of the Kurds no surprise. Disloyalty is part of his character, and character matters. Wedded to power, it’s a matter of life and death.

A man who betrays his friends and allies does not deserve the kind of loyalty he enjoys from his following, and if you support him, he does not deserve yours, either. The best and final safeguard left to us against a morally destitute president is the ballot.