Chris Powell: When is character overrated in U.S. politics?


How much does character matter in an elected official? And how broadly is character constituted?

The suggestion of the recent turmoil in Washington, with members of Congress and congressional candidates being accused, investigated, resigning or urged to resign or withdraw, is that character is nearly everything in an elected official but it is narrowly constituted, mainly a matter of sexual conduct rather than worldview.

These premises may be prevailing because most of the politicians accused are representing or seeking to represent districts or states that are safe for their parties. The presumption is that one Democrat or Republican is as good as another.

But would people feel that way if great policy decisions hung on any particular resignation or withdrawal?

Suppose that upon his resignation liberal Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, accused of buffoonish sexual advances during his career as a comedian before his election, was to be replaced not by another Democrat but by a Republican because his state had a Republican governor who would appoint an interim successor. Suppose also that Franken was to be replaced while the Senate was deciding whether to go to war against North Korea or whether to approve President Trump's nomination of a Supreme Court justice pledged to reverse the court's decision in Roe v. Wade.

How troublesome would a little butt or breast squeezing seem then, and how compelling Franken's would removal from the Senate seem, at least to people opposing such a war or reversal in abortion policy? Surely Franken's misconduct and removal would seem much more compelling to those who favored war and undoing Roe.

Of course, people's politics tempers their moral judgments. They are more likely to forgive their political allies than their political adversaries. Misconduct by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., left  a young woman to die in a car that he had driven off a bridge but he was instantly forgiven by his political allies and never forgiven by his political adversaries.

This tempering of judgments often becomes hypocrisy, of which the country is full these days, what with Republicans, usually advocates of states' rights, advancing federal legislation to force states to yield to the gun regulations of other states, and Democrats, usually opponents of states' rights, defending "sanctuary cities" and thereby advocating nullification of federal immigration law.

Sexual harassment and exploitation are big problems, and stopping them requires complaining about particular incidents contemporaneously in public. But satisfying as it may be to topple the powerful, sexual misconduct is not the country's only problem. Often the country has to choose among its problems, and its characters.

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HAPLESS ON TRANSPORTATION: Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy never looked as hapless as he did last week bemoaning the likely exhaustion of Connecticut's special transportation fund and the suspension of many projects. It was as if he had nothing to do with the problem.

But somehow in his two terms he found hundreds of millions of dollars for projects of no urgency, like the bus highway between Hartford and New Britain and the commuter railroad between New Haven and Springfield. With Hartford on the verge of bankruptcy, he failed to stop the city from building a baseball stadium and a few weeks ago even reimbursed the city for half the stadium's cost.

Big changes in policy long have been required to save Connecticut. The governor has failed to make them.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.