In 2016, Republicans foolishly talked themselves into dispensing with character or qualifications as a consideration for presidents. Since the election they've felt compelled to defend President Trump and his horrible words and actions, no matter how racist, cruel, dishonest, narrow-minded, stubborn, narcissistic, disloyal, thin-skinned or vulgar. If nothing else, the country collectively, aside from Republican dead-enders, should have come to appreciate that nothing matters more than character in a president. In this, we mean public character - the actions one displays in public office and in the community. (Private conduct, though, can help illuminate public character: A habitual philanderer . . . well, you get the point.)
How, then, do we examine presidential character in the 2020 contenders? For one thing, we can demand they talk about it. The press also needs to dig not for petty foibles, but for episodes and traits that will impact a president. As Michelle Obama put it, the presidency doesn't change who you are; it reveals who you are. This time around we'd be better off if the revealing came before the election.
I'd suggest that these are the sorts of things we should ask a candidate and look for in the candidate's background:
- Have the people who worked for you at the beginning of your career stuck with you? Do you go through staff like tissues, or do people stick with you through ups and downs? Are the people you hire themselves regarded as decent, honorable and competent?
- What have you done that furthers equal treatment under the law for all Americans? When you have encountered objections, how did you react?
- What views have you changed over the course of your adult life? Why did they change and who influenced you to change? When have you tried to work with people with whom you had fundamental disagreements? How did that affect your view of them?
- Have you attacked or criticized people publicly and later regretted it? What did you do about it? If you could revisit some decision in public life, what would you do differently?
- What are instances in which you let others take credit, or conversely accepted responsibility for actions of those working for you?
- Have you been transparent about your finances? Have you done the bare minimum, or have you gone beyond what was legally required?
- When you have been unfairly attacked, what did you do?
- What have you done to expand your interaction with people who do not look like, think like or come from the same socioeconomic background as you?
- When have you gone out of your way to extend a private kindness that was of no benefit to yourself?
- Who are your heroes, and which people had the greatest influence on your life?
- When have you failed? What did you do about it? What did you learn?
- What areas of policy are you least familiar with, and what have you done or what will you do to increase your proficiency?
These sorts of questions, I'd argue, are much better indicators of presidential preparedness than a white paper on energy or child care, although positions on issues certainly matter. What we've seen over the last two years is precisely what Trump critics warned: If the president is temperamentally, intellectually and morally unfit, nothing else matters. It seems that at least some of the campaign for president should aim toward avoiding another disastrous choice.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.