Last Thursday’s Republican debate featured a prime instance of one of the most pernicious movements in modern American politics — the attempt to divorce the private and public lives of politicians and to make the former illegitimate fodder for voter scrutiny. Americans, and conservatives in particular, should resist this folly.
For those of you who have been buried under mounds of reading that you are just now starting to realize you are obliged to complete (alas, the downside of the illusory freedom of shopping period), a brief explanation is perhaps in order. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich cheated on two of his wives, and his second wife, Marianne Ginther, alleged in a Jan. 19 ABC Nightline interview that Gingrich had suggested an open marriage to her.
That evening, CNN anchor John King asked Gingrich if he wanted to respond to the situation. Gingrich’s response: “To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before a primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Wrong, Newt. Personal morality is one of the most relevant issues during a presidential campaign. In the American system, we don’t vote directly on policies but on people. Presidents make all sorts of decisions in secret or with little accountability. The field of national security is perhaps the best example; because of the need for secrecy in security, ordinary Americans cannot have a great deal of oversight. Decisions about drone programs, shadow courts authorizing assassinations and terrorist holdings are left to the discretion of our commander-in-chief.
We cannot possibly predict everything the president will run up against, so we are left to choose someone we think has the best judgments and morals that conform to ours. Analysis of policy track records can only take you so far because campaign promises and the policies someone fought for as a senator or governor are never really binding.
Consider the hypothetical example of a female conservative candidate who loudly proclaimed that she absolutely believed abortion was murder and planned to overturn Roe v. Wade — and turned out to have had five or six abortions over the course of her life, including one during the campaign. It would be a bizarre spot of cognitive dissonance to just ignore that fact because it concerns her private life, wouldn’t it?
Examination of private life lends insight into the character and nature of a candidate. Shockingly, someone who cheats on two ailing wives may not in fact be the best leader for a new moral majority based in part on the sanctity of marriage. Herman Cain’s campaign fell apart under the same logic of personal accountability in politics — it wasn’t that he advocated misogynistic federal policies, but his private behavior seemed to indicate that his morals did not sufficiently conform to our collective expectations for us to choose him as our national figurehead.
There is the added element of international prestige to consider. Diplomacy is a game conducted largely according to established rituals and admittedly petty practices. How long a president meets with someone or whether he bows or shakes hands the right way — all these things have an impact on foreign relations. Buffoonery is generally perceived very poorly by foreign dignitaries. An elected official with serious ideas can make critical missteps. Candidates’ characteristic failings in judgment might warn us about those potential future political missteps. The Italians just got rid of their philandering egomaniacal leader. Let’s not install our own.
Of course, personal life should not be the only characteristic voters consider — charisma can blind people to policy flaws, for sure. But it should certainly be balanced against other considerations, not considered too sacred to touch in a campaign. The presidency is the most important job in America and perhaps still the world. It should be subject to the ultimate scrutiny. If that is unpleasant for the candidates, that’s unfortunate — but the practice remains necessary.
Michael Magdzik is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.