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How to Pick a President: Why Virtue Trumps Policy

Discussion in 'Political Debate & Discussion' started by KenH, Jun 22, 2008.

  1. KenH

    KenH Active Member

    May 18, 2002
    Likes Received:
    An interesting article that I read most of while waiting for a doctor appointment last week.

    " ...

    We make the same mistake as one recent grumpy CNN commentator: "What we need from these candidates are details of how they are going to solve our problems. How are they going to stop the slide of the dollar? How are they going to get the troops home from Iraq? How are they going to fix Social Security? That's what we need to know." Grumpy and wrong. There's value in hearing a candidate's plans and proposals, but it's of secondary or even lesser importance. Few if any of those plans and proposals will survive the political process intact. Voting for Obama's health plan or Hillary's economic scheme or McCain's immigration policy is virtual-reality voting, positing an intriguing alternate world, but having little to do with this one. When it comes to picking a President, Gandhi had it right: "The obligation of accepting a position of power is to be, above all else, a good human being."

    "You've got to be kidding," one hears our CNN commentator saying. "'Good human being'? Who's to say what constitutes a 'good human being'? I want someone competent to run the country." Wrong again. Competence without virtue is poisonous. It simply makes one more effective at doing wrong. Furthermore, being virtuous is, in itself, an expression of competence. Since virtue is a requirement for leadership, a lack of virtue in a leader is a sign of incompetence and grounds enough for rejecting that leadership. Virtue is a personal matter, but it is never wholly a private one, certainly not in a President.


    So how does any of this help in choosing a President?

    From courage to temperance

    Let's start with the virtue perhaps most universally acknowledged and admired: courage. In premodern times, the courage of a leader often had to be physical. In the last 500 years it is more often moral. Moral courage is the ability to do what's right even when it is deeply unpopular, even dangerous. Courage is only found where there is the genuine possibility of loss—loss of friends, reputation, status, power, possessions, or, at the extremes, freedom or life.

    It does not require courage to do what is popular or safe. Political leaders in a democracy must, by definition, be popular at election time or they will no longer be leaders. So it is even more difficult for a President, whose choices are not masked by being one vote among many, to be morally courageous than it is for other politicians. Ironically, to be morally courageous, a politician must be willing to forfeit the very position that gives him or her the power to make the morally courageous decision in the first place. Fail to be courageous and your country will suffer and history will criticize you; make the unpopular but morally courageous decision and we may well remove you from office.


    Virtue trumps policies and ideology

    It would of course be a false dichotomy to suggest that one must choose between assessing virtue and assessing policy or ideology. Virtue and character can and should express themselves in both policy and ideology. One's virtue as a leader is inescapably revealed by ideological stances and policy decisions on, for instance, partial-birth abortion or the need for health care for all citizens. If so, why not let policy be the objective index to personal qualities and focus on such concrete things, rather than get into the messy subjectivity of virtue and character?

    Chief among the many reasons is that many crucial political decisions of the future will revolve around unpredictable events and issues. No candidate's "policy" on terrorism foresaw or was adequate for 9/11. No candidate had a policy or ideology that would have made Hurricane Katrina greatly less painful (would even the most compassionate and competent President in 2004 have chosen, from all other needs, to spend many millions of dollars to reinforce the dikes in New Orleans?). No one in the 1970s was prepared for AIDS in the 1980s and '90s. Few people clearly foresaw the collapse of Communism, or the rise thereafter of Islamic fundamentalism. A political leader must be able to respond to ever-changing and unprecedented situations. We should vote for a person whom we believe has the qualities—the virtues, the character—to decide wisely in situations where policies, positions, and ideologies will be of little help.


    The issue is not that candidates have failures, but how they have dealt with those failures. For they are certain to have public failures while in office. If in private life they run from failure or cover it up or rationalize it, are they not likely to do the same in public life? The goal of seeking virtuous people for high office is not to find perfect people, but to find people with the greatest potential to provide, despite their acknowledged limitations (humility being a prudent quality in a leader), the kind of leadership a community needs to flourish. We are not looking for saints to lead us, but we should be looking for people trying to live virtuously and largely succeeding.

    It matters little that people will not agree exactly on a list of key virtues. The question of what virtues are most important, and how they should be defined and expressed, should be a fruitful part of an ongoing discussion. But it matters greatly that such a discussion take place. Recent polls indicate a broad recognition that we have a virtue deficit in this country and in its leaders that makes budget deficits pale in importance.

    When we are choosing someone to lead us, we do best to look for a "good human being." Such a person is not likely to be moralistic or pious or politically correct. But he or she needs to be virtuous. Because, over time, nations flourish only to the degree that their collective virtue sustains.

    - rest at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/17.22.html