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Morality and Presidential Elections

by Stephen A. Allen on Apr 27, 2000

Are you sick of hearing about presidential scandals? If so, then this will not be your election year. George W. Bush and Patrick Buchanan have both campaigned on the issue of moral leadership, Al Gore has been trying to distance himself from the scandals of the Clinton White House, and Jerry Falwell recently announced his intention to register 10 million Christian voters in the hope of bringing morality back to government.

But how important will the candidates' morality be in this year's election? Judging from the past, not very. The moral character of the candidates has never been the sole deciding factor in any American presidential election, and it has been a major element in only a few cases. Jimmy Carter's victory in the 1976 election, for example, can be partly attributed to his emphasis on rebuilding the public trust after Watergate and his appeal as an uncorrupted Washington outsider.

Morality played a more dubious role in Herbert Hoover's defeat of Al Smith in 1928. Smith was not a moral reprobate, but he was a Roman Catholic. Conservative, mainly rural, Protestant voters worried that the cosmopolitan, Catholic Smith would not be sympathetic to their version of the American way of life. The fact that Smith seemed "soft" on Prohibition — which was a moral cause
more than anything else — also contributed to his defeat.

Being morally upright has not necessarily helped candidates. By the same token, severe moral failings have not necessarily hurt. Bill Clinton's two terms in office serve as concrete proof of this. Admittedly, some social critics claim that Clinton's election and reelection demonstrate a general decay in public morality. If the country as a whole were more righteous, their argument goes, we would elect less sinful candidates.

Unfortunately for this argument, Bill Clinton is not the first president with shaky ethics this country has elected. Our supposedly more moral forefathers elected a president who was accused of cohabiting with one of his slaves (Jefferson), one whose marriage was of questionable legality (Jackson), and one who publicly admitted to fathering an illegitimate child (Cleveland). In fact, all three of these
presidents — like Clinton — served two terms.

It is true that American voters in the past have reacted to scandals by choosing subsequent presidents who were perceived as more moral. Thus, the corrupt Harding administration was followed by that of Coolidge, a model of rectitude who first ascended to office after Harding's death but who later won reelection on his own. And certainly Carter in 1976 benefited from the public perception of scandal in Ford's pardon of Nixon. In this respect, the scandals of the Clinton administration may have some effect on voter behavior this fall.

But not necessarily. Ironically enough, one of the results of the Watergate fiasco and subsequent presidential scandals (Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky) appears to be a growing cynicism among American voters.

This cynicism has been expressed in part in the ever-decreasing voter turnouts of the last few decades. It has also resulted in a more pragmatic definition of the presidency. People expect that the president will be dishonest, and they are thus less concerned with his moral character and more concerned with his performance.

This in part explains why Bill Clinton has been able to survive as president and was even reelected despite a persistent cloud of scandal. The economy is good, people are working and Clinton can act as a strong leader when necessary. He may be
dishonest, but that doesn't seem to affect his performance as president, and so he gets high approval ratings even while being impeached by Congress. Those who claim that his moral failings should disqualify him from running the country find themselves in the minority.

Still, it is entirely possible that the American voting public will rise up this year and express its revulsion at the scandals of the Clinton administration by electing George W. Bush over Al Gore. It's possible, but history suggests that it's not likely. And even if this does happen, the presidency of Jimmy Carter reminds us of one other fact: running against the failings of the previous administration may be enough to win an election, but it does not guarantee a second term.


Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail: Stephen.A.Allen2@nd.edu]