Evaluating the Democratic Candidates: the Importance of Integrity

On March 3, Democrats in the 15 Super Tuesday states (including Democrats Abroad) will have up to 15 (or more) presidential candidates on the Democratic ballots from which to choose. With so many choices, a voter may ask: “how should I decide?” The most obvious criteria are politics (policy positions), electability and personal integrity. Among those three, integrity should be foremost.

In the Democratic presidential debates over the past months, we’ve have heard much from the candidates about the policies they propose and how they would implement them.  Yet there has been scant focus on the qualification that should be sine qua non for selecting the next President of the United States: personal integrity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.”  The word may also be defined by qualities not found in the current incumbent: honesty, decency, respect for others and civility.  A White House that spews untruths while punishing immigrants and minorities, brings shame to the nation.

There’s no single litmus test for assessing integrity.  For example, one might ask whether the candidate’s past inspires confidence that the vote-seeker means what he or she says.  Does the candidate endorse easy, politically correct positions, when a moral choice would entail political risk? For example, does the candidate support continued unconditional military assistance to a country that violates human rights?  If the country in question is Israel, the politically correct answer would be yes, while the moral answer is no. Voters should review the political ads and listen to the candidate’s speeches and tweets.  If they are peppered with lies and half-truths or show personal disrespect for opponents, integrity is lacking.

Candidates who pass the personal integrity test, can then be evaluated for the policies they propose. Each of the Democratic candidates has advocated important policy initiatives on a range of issues, including health care, immigration, the economy and foreign affairs. Since reasonable minds may differ on which policies will yield the best results, voters must rely on their own research and judgment. Unsurprisingly, most attention is given to domestic policies, especially those that affect the U.S. economy, wages and jobs.  Yet foreign policy includes military, diplomacy and international trade issues that affect the lives of every American.  Voters need to decide which candidate offers (and is most likely to implement) the best policy package. They need to judge how a particular candidate would solve the national problems that affect both self and the broader society.

Another judgment issue is electability. With the Democratic party mostly split between center and left, which candidate on either side of the divide is most electable?  Since it’s impossible to predict with any certainty whether a moderate or a progressive voice will have the best chance of winning in November, why not go with the candidate who best meets the other two of the above three criteria?

The Democratic nominee should be a candidate who advocates worthy and achievable policies and offers the best chance of defeating President Trump.  It should also be a person who acts in accord with his or her moral compass.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.