Yes, character counts in politics, but it matters more in some elections than in others.
That's the right answer for both conservatives and liberals who face challenges from friends and family members about backing some wildly imperfect candidates in the upcoming congressional elections. Democrats love to focus on embarrassing, decade-old TV appearances by Delaware Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, or the odd habit of Ohio congressional contender Rich Iott dressing up in Nazi uniforms for World War II re-enactments, or the 20 speeding tickets compiled by South Dakota's GOP House nominee Kristi Noem, or the admitted visits to prostitutes by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter.
For their part, Republicans could concentrate on the puzzling incoherence of the unemployed Alvin Greene, the Democratic nominee for the Senate from South Carolina who was indicted on a sex offense; or the fatuous boasts about nonexistent Vietnam service by Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal; or the long-ago gay prostitution ring operated from the apartment of Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.
These various scandals, embarrassments and imperfections may count as lurid and compelling, but they shouldn't play a major role in swaying voters in the upcoming elections. All the candidates mentioned above have won their party nominations in campaigns for the House and Senate. When the electorate decides their fate in November, the only significant factor involves choosing a direction for Congress and the country.
Those who back troubled nominees for legislative office aren't endorsing them as role models: They're hoping for one more vote to sway crucial decisions in Washington. In a closely divided legislature, an additional Senate vote to repeal Obamacare, for instance, or a key House vote against new tax hikes on wealthy Americans doesn't become less meaningful because the individual casting that vote cheated on his wife or puffed up his resume.
Personal issues deserve far more attention, however, in elections for executive office than in legislative races. A president, governor or mayor must respond to unexpected challenges and crises, inspire and reassure the public as a symbol of authority, and judge the ability and integrity of others for scores of crucial appointments.
In this context, character matters enormously and voters will appropriately judge candidates on a personal basis. In New York, for instance, GOP nominee Carl Paladino has all but ruined his chances for the governorship with displays of uncontrolled temper and exploitative opportunism; he hardly seems like a credible choice to cope with a gigantic state bureaucracy and to "clean up the mess in Albany."
In primary elections, voters should also give full weight to issues of personal biography and ability. A scandal-plagued contender will represent the party poorly and a candidate with troubled character or no communication skills stands little chance of advancing his or her agenda. In the Delaware Republican primary, for instance, questions about O'Donnell's eccentricities and shabby record of personal failures should have drawn more attention than they did, but those shortcomings shouldn't determine the outcome of her race in November. Delaware voters now face a stark choice: another voice for Democrats to continue their domination of the Senate, or a reliable vote for a new direction. If the GOP manages to gain the 10 Senate seats it needs to take control, it's absurd to suggest that each of the winning candidates must be a paragon of virtue -- just as Democrats should recognize that the 233 winning House candidates who gave them their majority in 2006 didn't all count as noble, honorable and capable public servants.
In this election, those Americans who seek representatives who'll vote to shrink deficits, block tax hikes, roll back Obamacare and stop relentless growth in government should vote Republican, regardless of the imperfections of specific candidates.
Meanwhile, citizens who want immediate action on climate change or more rigorous regulation of the private sector should back Democratic legislative candidates, in spite of their quirks or dubious qualifications.
When the choice before the nation is a new congressional majority and a new direction for America, or continued support for President Barack Obama's sweeping "change" agenda, personal peccadilloes rightly begin to fade toward irrelevance.