Character in Politics?

05/05/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Is there anyone alive who could honestly answer "no" to the question "Have you ever in your life lied?"

Of course, if the answer is "no," they are most likely lying, or they are deficient in their memory process (which raises its own doubts about them).

The portrait of politicians as "congenital liars" is deeply ingrained in our political consciousness, part stereotype, part cliché, part the hook for a million stand-up routines. So why do or should voters care? The answer is that there are various characteristics (derived, you will note, from the word "character") which are essential to leadership in general and particularly in politics. And basic character is, of course, truly the mother of all characteristics.

Other important characteristics include: intelligence, education, experience, temperament, judgment, humor, energy, ambition, and common sense.

If someone is well equipped with most of the characteristics in that list but is believed to lack character, should they ever be seen as qualified for a serious leadership role, including President of the U.S.?

The answer to that question most surely is, or should be, "NO."

Today polls show that two-thirds of Americans distrust Hillary Clinton for lack of character over a long public history. The same polls show that two-thirds of Americans see Hillary as qualified to be president.

That apparent disconnect gives rise to questions about Americans' view of the importance of character.

A somewhat similar disconnect was evident in 1984 when two-thirds of America polled said they loved Reagan but disagreed with most of his important policies. He was easily reelected, and Americans got what they asked for but did not want.

Perhaps the type, extent and continuous nature of examples of distrust are the crucial factors in judging a person. One puff of a joint at age sixteen, perhaps later denied but ultimately proven, is not by itself a basis for disqualification as a serious character deficiency.

On the other hand if someone is known to have been a regular expense account fiddler, to have received significant freebies in connection with their many positions in a long public life, to have lied openly in conflict with matters of public record to the contrary and taken clear and obvious steps to hide matters of obvious public interest--are they someone whose character suggests that they can/should be trusted always to put the public interest ahead of their own?

Most folks would easily answer NO!

I am not suggesting that Hillary Clinton does not pass this test at this moment in time.

But polling and common sense suggest that there is sufficient evidence for some serious concern. Democrats should demand a more extensive vetting process of her--now--to either put to rest assertions that will surely be raised extensively by Republicans through election day in 2016, and/or while there is still time to find and put forward an alternative candidate.

The worst possible outcome for most Democrats in 2016 would be for Clinton to fail to be elected because these issues had been dismissed as history or not worthy of concern.

There are far too many serious issues awaiting the next president to take anything for granted. The make-up of the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important, with our political system on the verge of a crisis from the tsunami of cash flooding the campaign system in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

The message today is Democrats, YES DEMOCRATS, should put Clinton through the wringer--to either clear the record or clear the field for another candidate. Perhaps the best way for that to happen would be for Hillary herself to ask for a group of elder Democratic statespersons, well beyond fear or favor, to create a task force to review her whole history and opine on her fitness for the presidency.

While some say it's already too late to entertain possibilities other than the ordination of the first female nominee for president, there are many well-qualified people who could step into the breach. John Kerry, Joe Biden, and many others are seasoned politicians with broad networks and strong public recognition. Neither would be starting from scratch.

There are lots of reasons why Clinton appears to be poised to cruise through the nomination untouched. But, unless enough people can be persuaded that she is trustworthy (in the true meaning of that word) the risk that Democrats and the country might fall into the wrong hands remains unacceptably high.