“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
Republicans believe they hold the patent on character. I have a friend who, discussing the rightward trajectory of his parents’ politics, related their view that at least Romney and running mate Congressman Paul Ryan are “decent” men while the incumbent president is a “liar.” Among other, less exuberant factions of the electorate, the perception is growing that the opposite is true. Whatever are the deficiencies of the president having to do with competence or communication or ideology or raw skill as it has to do with the levers of power, rank dishonesty of the sort that distinguishes most pols isn’t among them. The conspicuous case of Guantánamo aside, the president has set about fulfilling most of his campaign pledges over the past four years: If you didn’t hear him state fairly explicitly in 2008 his intent to up the ante in Afghanistan as well as to pursue al-Qaeda into Pakistan, then you weren’t really paying attention, or you duped yourself into believing otherwise as, in fact, many on both right and left did. In the ‘08 Democratic primary, Barack Obama got a fair amount of grief from Senator Hillary Clinton on one or both of these points. Obama also said he would wind down the Iraq War, which he did; reform health care, which he did; sign equal-pay-for-equal-work, which he did; support cap-and-trade legislation to curb carbon emissions, which he did; and pursue the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," which he did. It can reasonably be argued that some or all of these things might have been accomplished more completely or punctually or artfully, but it can’t be argued that any constitutes a betrayal of anything proposed in Obama’s campaign.
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