For all the policy blueprints churned out by presidential campaigns, there is this indisputable fact: People care less about issues than they do about a candidate's character.
A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll says 55 percent of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate.
Just one-third look first to candidates' stances on issues; even fewer focus foremost on leadership traits, experience or intelligence.
Now this might not be such a big deal if it were actually possible to know the character of candidates. In theory, it seems that our leaders ought to be men and women of character. Perhaps this is not the most important quality, but it is worth something.
The problem is that a presidential candidate's "character" is the creation of PR and marketing specialists. If people actually knew George Bush's character (and, according to a poll cited in the above article, a whopping 44% think Bush is honest as of January; I didn't realize such a large percentage of the population was mentally challenged), he never would have come close enough to steal the 2000 election in the first place.
But speaking more generally, look at the types of people who are attracted to politics. Do any of them have the least bit of character? I think we've forgotten one of the fundamental premises of our form of government, as Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly pointed out. Power corrupts, politicians are not to be trusted. This is why we have check and balances, separation of powers and all that.
Now granted that some politicians are bigger crooks than others, but we should never just trust them, regardless of their party affiliation. Since the media has essentially forfeited its role as watchdog, and is selective about which facets of individual character it reveals, we should always be at least initially suspicious of the claims to good character that we hear from the candidates, or bad character from their opponents (recently, it came out that Obama was late in paying some parking tickets at Harvard--is this "character"?).
By what criteria should we judge our candidates? I'm inclined to say not his character, but whether I could have a beer with the guy is what really matters. But seriously, anyone who can honestly say "I voted for/against candidate X because s/he seems like a [insert trait here] person" has essentially abdicated their responsibility as a democratic citizen.
Numerous other qualities, like, say, oh, I don't know, what they plan on doing when elected are more responsible criteria for decision. In truth, though, the entire system of presidential elections almost ensures that no one can make a good decision about whom to vote for, and that that decision is in favor of the lesser of two evils.
In summary: character is a dumb way to decide who should be president, not because it doesn't matter, but because it's nigh impossible to discern who has the least awful character.