Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama literally opened a door that a Democrat should better leave closed. The door is the character issue and it has mortally damaged Democratic presidential contenders every time. The instant Obama pounded McCain for his let them eat cake rich man's memory lapse on the number of homes he owned, McCain quickly fired back and dredged up Obama's long term, and some say murky dealings with convicted financial wheeler and dealer Tony Rezko. McCain charged that Obama got a million dollar mansion way under market value with the connivance of Rezko.
McCain's Rezko hit in itself wouldn't mean very much since there is absolutely no evidence of any wrong doing in Obama's purchase of the home, or that Obama actively sought and got Rezko to help him swing the property deal.
But the house flap gave McCain another attack point, the guilt by association even if long past and meaningless hit on character. This does mean something. The overwhelming majority of voters wallow in the delusion that presidential candidates should be pure as Caesar's wife. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in March 2007 found that more than half of Americans said that they considered honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate. Barely one-third said that they looked at a candidate's stance on the issues; and less than that said that leadership traits, experience, and intelligence meant more to them than a candidate's character. Voters get high on their moral horse and expect a lot, in fact much to much, from candidates. Yet the hard reality is that any hint of sexual scandal or corruption will sink a candidate faster than a cast iron balloon.
The day after Obama and McCain's one-upmanship sparring match over faith and values at the Reverend Rick Warren's mega Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, Warren implored the flock in his sermon to take a long, hard look at the candidate's on the character question. This was not a subtle endorsement of McCain, or knock at Obama. But it did reinforce the message among the one group that Obama has spent a lot of time, energy and effort courting, that's Christian evangelicals, that he is just as much a man of faith, belief and personal integrity as any GOP presidential candidate or president.
This alone won't do much to convince legions of voters that he is every bit if not more a man of character as McCain. Obama is simply bucking to much history for that to happen. That history is the GOP's standard use of the character issue to hammer Democrats. It has worked magnificently. In fact, it's been the trump card that smoothed the path to the White House for W. Bush twice, and Bush Sr. Bush Sr. tarred Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis in 1988 as a soft on crime, card-carrying member of the ACLU. W. Bush branded Democratic opponent Al Gore in 2000 as a serial exaggerator (read: liar).
He retooled the character attack line four years later with Democratic opponent John Kerry. He tagged him a flip-flopper (read: unprincipled and weak). The GOP script is written to drill home the notion that Democratic presidential candidates are hopelessly flawed and if they can't be trusted to manage their own affairs, how can they be trusted to manage the country?
Democrats have time and again been stymied by this line of attack. Hitting back in kind seems too dirty, underhanded and low brow, and in an even worse twist on political logic, is seen as the sort of thing that the GOP stoops too, but Democrats would never resort to. The few times that Democrats hit back, the GOP counters with a quick, punchy broadside accusing them of dealing dirt. That's more than enough to make sure a Democratic presidential candidate doesn't turn the tables and mount a sustained attack on his Republican rival on the character question.
If presidential elections show nothing else they show that people vote their heart more than their head. In other words politics are personal not political and that voters rely far more on instinct and intuition than what a candidate has to say about policy issues. If that wasn't the case and voters measured a candidate strictly on their positions on health, education and the economy, Gore and Kerry would have routed Bush, and McCain would be eating Obama's dust in the polls. Take the 2004 election, a Pew Research Center Poll just before the election found more than sixty percent of voters applauded Bush for taking a stand, even an unpopular one, less than thirty percent said the same about Kerry.
The moral of the story of presidential races is that a candidate's memory lapse on how many houses he owns mean far less to voters than the perception that a candidate wheels and deals to get the one house he owns. The term is character and GOP presidential candidates sink their Democratic rivals on it every time.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).