The decisive issue

Obama's pastor row provided ironic gloss to Martin Luther King's vision.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
OPINION I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. - Martin Luther King, Jr. The recent flap over the racial attitudes of Barrack Obama's pastor provided an ironic gloss to Martin Luther King's vision that issues of race would become irrelevant and only issues of character would be important. In attacking Obama for his association with a pastor who expressed disturbing racial attitudes, the issues of race and character came to the forefront as two issues that could help decide the selection of the Democratic presidential candidate, and possibly the election. While race may not survive as a principal issue, it is inevitable that the quality of the candidate's character will prevail as a central issue. Discussions over racial attitudes in America should continue in contexts other than this election campaign, as racial issues are still unsettled in America, and need to be addressed and resolved. But an election campaign, where the focus is on the selection of a candidate, is not an effective forum to resolve hundred year-old injustices. The issue of character will, however, linger. It is relevant here not only with regard to Obama's judgment in the past in his association with the controversial pastor, but also in how he reacted and dealt with a difficult challenge that tested his loyalty. In this context, Obama's handling of the situation - by repudiating the message more than its messenger - might augur well for his ability to face the myriad challenges that face any candidate, and ultimately, a president. More than judging the candidate's stand on any particular issue, the voter looks to determine the nature and quality of a candidate's character to see if he/she is suited to meet the challenges of the presidency. Debates over the issues of the day, whether Iraq, or health care, or whatever, are important not only because these issues require current solution, but also because they are useful in gauging whether the candidate is capable of resolving future problems properly. The candidate must possess good mettle and good values and demonstrate the ability to keep the American ship of state steady and on its course. The issue of character is particularly important in the context of American elections where the independent vote is so important. The number of voters who decline to identify with either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party has been steadily rising. In the 1950s and '60s, about 25% of the voters defined themselves as independents. By 2004, the number had climbed to 39% - about 4 in 10 voters. In order to win, both the Democratic and the Republican candidates must appeal to the vast number of independents whose politics are closer to the center of the political spectrum. If the Democratic candidate, who generally approaches the center from the left side, supports issues that are deemed to be too liberal, then he/she will lose the support of voters in the center: both independents and moderate Republicans. Similarly, Republican candidates who approach the center from the right cannot present issues that are too conservative, for fear of driving off the independents and the moderate Democrats. As such, particularly as we approach Election Day in November, both candidates will tend to moderate their presentation of the issues of the day and will sound almost the same, perhaps with only a difference of emphasis. The key distinction between the candidates will be the judgment of their character: does the candidate possess the character and values that will guide him or her to properly deal with the challenges that lie in the future? Does he/she possess the right vision for America's future, and the courage to make the difficult choices needed to achieve that vision? It is for this reason, that when candidates test this analysis by presenting real issues that are close to his ideological agenda - such as the conservative Goldwater in 1964 and the liberal McGovern in 1972 - they fail abominably in the general election. This is also why so much of the political campaign often degenerates into attacks on character and even on character assassination. How will the future Democratic candidate be chosen? With 5 months to go before the Democratic National Convention, it is anyone's guess. The decision might be made by either Obama or Clinton having a strong run in the remaining few primaries. This might guide the superdelegates to select the candidate who best represents the will of the people as expressed in the primaries. What is more likely is that both candidates will undergo serious scrutiny in the coming months, with deeper examinations of their values and character, and with the nod going to the person who best represents the type of values that America wants in its leader. Both Democratic candidates are unconventional by their departure from the traditional sex and race of previous candidates. The Martin Luther King dream, that these superficial differences will be dismissed as irrelevant, may indeed come true in this election. The Democratic candidate will be chosen despite these superficial variances from the past norms, but that candidate will prevail in the general election only if the voters perceive that the candidate possesses a high standard of inner worth. All candidates, Democratic and Republican, will be evaluated on the basis of the content of their character.