News & Politics

Character Trumps Confidence: How to Pick a Presidential Winner

(AP Photo/Mic Smith, File)

In evaluating a presidential candidate, you can safely ignore virtually all of their policy promises, and everything their hacks say about the other guy.

It’s not that they’re always lying, it’s just that every candidate overestimates what he can accomplish in the cesspool of cronyism we call our nation’s capital. In addition, stuff will happen after the swearing-in that he/she could not have anticipated. So, the important issues of a presidency are likely to vary widely from those bandied about during a campaign.

Because many, if not most, of their promises will go unfulfilled, or only marginally fulfilled, what matters is character.

Character matters precisely because you can’t predict what a president will have to face. It matters because you will not witness most of what a president does in your name.

Character matters more than professed principles.

Although I could not vote for a candidate whose principles diverge widely from mine, I also don’t want to vote for one who can check every box on my issues and principles list, but whose character contains major flaws.

Character does not mean infallibility. Even a person of generally good character falls prey now and again to the failings inherent in sinful human nature. Our own judgements of another’s character are, likewise, susceptible to error and bias that blind us.

But character is visible, both in the way a candidate speaks about himself and about others, and in his track record of dealing with others in an honorable manner.

Unfortunately, far too many of us make our character evaluations based on mainstream media reports, that are often drawn from opponents’ attacks. It stuns me how often a conservative friend will blacklist a candidate based on a negative narrative, without investigating the details underlying the accusation.

When you get to a point of prominence in your career there will always be people who think you’re a scoundrel, and others who know that you’re not but who think that they can advance their own prospects by painting you as malevolent, corrupt, or deceptive.

When I ran for local office, there were people who started with me as raving fans, became vocal critics publicly attacking my character and, in a few cases, came back around to being raving fans. (Doubtless some still view me as a despicable traitor to the cause.)

In a season featuring multiple populist candidates, there’s another potential trap.

Many of my friends cling to a candidate primarily because the establishment, or the media, doesn’t like him. The thinking goes that he’s made the right kind of enemies. This, of course, is a non-falsifiable claim — which is the twisted beauty of it. It steps outside of the bounds of reason and, therefore, is not governed by logic. If one even attempts to suggest that there might be something to the accusations against a candidate, then you, too, have become part of the establishment who’s trying to take our man down because he’s a threat to their little cronied-up empire. Now, you’re a despicable traitor to the cause.

Confidence is no substitute for character.

There’s nothing easier than projecting confidence — the proverbial “fake it till you make it.” Oddly enough, there’s nothing more admired among men than the word-warrior who stands in the arena, jut-jawed, proclaiming boldly that which he wishes were true, and wishes you’d believe. We’re suckers for swagger and hubris.

Perhaps that’s because most of us wish we had the ability to stand before a throng and command their attention and enthusiasm. We are drawn to those endowed with a gift we crave for ourselves.

James Madison and other framers of the U.S. Constitution labored to construct a federal, republican government — with separation of powers, and checks and balances — precisely because they feared both monarchy and pure democracy. With the latter, they knew that the people are susceptible to a charismatic leader with a populist message. Both the demagogue and the monarch benefit from a commanding presence, undaunted courage, and bold speech. Both threaten individual liberty.

So, should a candidate with confidence raise a red flag in your mind?

No. Genuine confidence in one’s principles, vision and proven abilities is no character flaw. We shouldn’t scratch a candidate from the list merely because he/she projects it. But we should seek the character substance behind the confidence. Often this comes with a strong measure of humility. A man able to take an accurate measure of himself is rare. One able to frankly confess his limitations, rarer still.

All of this to say: presidential candidates are humans, and therefore, fallen creatures. Nevertheless, they’re also created in the image of God. They deserve our legitimate scrutiny, and they deserve our grace.

Lord, grant us the wisdom to discern good character, and the courage to act accordingly.