Ken Connor

It has been called the perpetual campaign. Even before the new Congress was sworn in, the nation's attention had shifted to the 2008 presidential elections. Every bill that the Democrats bring to the floor is discussed in terms of 2008. Strategists from both parties are already working overtime to either continue their momentum or regain lost ground.

Every eligible American has a responsibility to vote and an obligation to make an informed choice about which candidate to support. Few decisions are more important than deciding who will lead the country. Therefore, as men and women start throwing their hats into the ring for president, it is time to consider the criteria against which we can measure whether or not a candidate deserves our support. Here are five important points worth considering:

Substance Versus Style. In today's age of television and internet video, candidates often worry more about style than substance. All too often, time and money are spent developing a candidate's wardrobe or hairstyle while substantive policy proposals languish. This trend is especially obvious when watching party conventions (which are little more than Hollywood extravaganzas), or presidential debates (which are little more than a collection of "soundbites"), or political commercials (which often involve little more than character assassination). The emphasis on image often comes at the expense of thoughtful and sober democratic debate. The American public should step up and demand substance over style. Hard questions should be asked about a candidate's position on substantive issues, and the public should insist on clear, incisive answers rather than vague generalities. Voters must commit to hol ding candidates to a higher standard when it comes to substantial policy positions.

Promoting for the Common Good. The preamble to the United States Constitution declares that the charter's purpose is to promote "...the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." These themes are often ignored by candidates who try to buy constituencies with promises beneficial only to them, and without regard to the cost to future generations. How refreshing it would be if, when asked by a particular interest group, "What are you going to do for us?" the candidate responded, "Nothing. The greater good of the country requires something else." People should be voting for the common good, not just for that which meets their individual needs. Sometimes in life we need to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of others so that the community will flourish. We desperately need leaders who will put the public interest ahead of that o f the special interests.

Voting for Virtues. We should also keep a candidate's personal virtues in mind when voting for a president. The outcome of the last congressional election demonstrates that "virtue" is not a four-letter word. Presidents wield great power, and before entrusting a man or woman with that power, we should be sure that they are honorable, just, courageous, humble, thrifty, prudent and wise. The virtues that candidates have cultivated in their private lives will often determine how they govern in their public lives. What virtues have characterized the lives of the candidates before this campaign? The American public has a duty to inquire and a right to know.

Pragmatism and Principle. In politics, many of the day-to-day issues boil down to a matter of pragmatics. There are, after all, lots of different ways to skin the cat. People of good will can, and often will, disagree on the best way to address a large number of problems. Some issues, however, beg for a principled approach. Abortion is one example. Euthanasia is another. Embryonic stem cell research is a third. These issues involve profound questions about human rights and human dignity. The right to life should not be subject to being negotiated away in a backroom deal. Unless the right to life is protected, all other rights are meaningless. The rights to worship, speak, or assemble as one pleases means nothing to a corpse. Sizing up one's stand on the right to life should be an important consideration in the assessment of any candidate.

The Role of Religion. Article VI of the Constitution provides that, "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States." That does not mean, however, that a candidate's religious beliefs are irrelevant. Because religion is so fundamental to a person's character, it is an important factor to consider when evaluating a candidate. Religious faith affords a source of strength that transcends one's own resources. It can be an anchor that keeps one grounded through the difficult and depressing days that face any president. A solid foundation in Christian thought may have other positive effects. The Christian religion has been at the heart of Western culture and political thought for hundreds of years. Self-evident truths, equal protection under the law, separation of powers--all are grounded in the teaching of the Christian religion. Christian thought teaches that we have obligations not to just ourselves, but others also--including the weak and defenseless. While one's religion is relevant, we must keep in mind that we are electing a president, not a preacher. There is a difference--and we should not forget it. In the coming days, much discussion will center on the religious beliefs of candidates. The differences between Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam will be under scrutiny. Ideas really do have consequences, and belief impacts behavior. Therefore, the discussion of religion in public life is not only appropriate, but necessary. One can only hope that the discussion will be thoughtful and civil rather than rancorous and inflammatory.

These are just a few of the criteria that Americans will do well to consider in selecting their next president. It's an important choice. Nothing less than the future of our country and the fate of the free world is at stake.


Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.