Use Actions, not Words, To Evaluate a Presidential Candidate’s Character

Candidates running for president will stretch the truth or even lie. In 1987, candidate Joe Biden said he graduated in the top half of his law school class when he only ranked 76th out of 85, and that is not the only untruth he’s told. In the case of Donald Trump, where are we to begin?

Candidates must be fit for the office they want. As the 18th century writer Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, said, “Of all things, we ought to be the most concerned, who and what sort of men they are that hold the trust of everything that is dear to us.” Fitness for office is composed of many components, including character (moral fiber), good health (mental and physical), political acumen, courage, wisdom, prudence, temperance, vision, and judgment.

What do we learn about candidates’ fitness for office when they lie, especially when they lie so much?

Ramaswamy goes over the top

For example, I was still taken aback by Vivek Ramaswamy’s over-the-top assertions that the government is holding back information on what happened on 9/11. He specifically wants to know “how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers.” He seems to be implying that 9/11 was really some sort of inside job perpetrated by the federal government.

Why are such bewildering statements coming from someone so brilliant, accomplished, and who obviously knows better? He understands that if he wants to win the 2024 Republican nomination for president, he must deal in conspiracy theories. His main competitor, Donald Trump, has no problem whipping up the base with such theories — there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to his conspiracy theories.

“Say Anything” is Not a Fatal Flaw

The willingness to adopt a “say anything” campaign strategy appears most applicable to understanding the character of a candidate.  It demonstrates that the candidate is willing to engage in self-interested behavior when necessary. This is very disconcerting.  However, the willingness of a candidate to adopt such a strategy may not be a fatal character flaw. After all, they are only words, and words do not necessarily translate into action. As Burke said, “Nothing, indeed, but the possession of some power can with any certainty discover what at the bottom is the true character of any man.”

That is why it is so critical for a presidential candidate to have governance experience, especially at the level of president, vice president, or governor, where his or her character can be evaluated.  As stated by Burke, “Before men are put forward into the great trusts of the State, they ought by their conduct to have obtained such a degree of estimation in their country as may be some sort of pledge and security to the public that they will not abuse those trusts.”

A candidate’s governance experience provides voters, especially those who are most concerned about maintaining the individual freedoms that we have come to expect in our country, with concrete examples of a candidate’s moral fiber.  For Burke, “liberty does not exist in the absence of morality.” If so, when morality is absent in a candidate’s character, we risk authoritarianism.  This is especially true when we talk about a potential holder of the most powerful office in the land.  As Burke said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

It is a slam dunk for me to say that Donald Trump, based on an evaluation of his governance experience, does not have the right character to be President.  It is not because he may eventually be found guilty of crimes, but because of a pattern of Presidential behavior where he willingly put his own needs and desires above the interests of our country.  For example, his willingness to hold up congressionally-mandated military aid to Ukraine unless Ukraine could provide him with dirt on Joe Biden.  Or, his reckless possession of hundreds of classified and national defense documents after he left office.  Or, his actions to subvert the results of the 2020 Presidential election because “he” lost.  Or, his willingness to continue to claim, without evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from him, no matter how much it has helped to further polarize our country.  These actions demonstrate a significant lack of moral fiber in his character.

Cicero, the great Roman statesman and political philosopher said that “A serious and courageous citizen worthy of preeminence in the commonwealth will surrender himself completely to the commonwealth.” This is something that Trump did not do, not even close.

On the other hand, then Vice President Mike Pence, when asked to choose between his loyalty to then President Donald Trump or the Constitution, chose the Constitution. While not an endorsement of his candidacy, his one significant governance action is enough for me to conclude that he meets the minimum requirements in terms of character.

Going to the other extreme, candidates with no governance experience, such as Ramaswamy and Marianne Williamson, provide nothing for voters to evaluate, making them high risk candidates in terms of understanding the kind of character they would exhibit as President. This risk was realized when we elected Donald Trump as President in 2016. Hopefully, the majority of voters have learned their lesson and will not vote for candidates who have zero governance experience.