Here’s Your Debate Scorecard for Presidential Character

Use this guide to judge each candidate’s character.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

Most voters watch the debates for one of two reasons: (1) to cheer on the candidate that they already support; (2) to get a sense of the person behind the manufactured candidate image as portrayed in political ads and the media.

While there are a number of ways to score the debates (e.g., who “won” on a particular question or topic; who made the more “forceful” presentation; who was more “charismatic”), we are going to focus on presidential character. Who has the traits that best represents a leader or president of high character?

A good (and very old) model for leader character can be derived from the writings of Aristotle. This focuses on a leader’s core, or cardinal, virtues. So, here is what we should look for in order to determine a presidential candidate’s character:

Prudence. Prudence is often associated with wisdom. It involves the candidate’s ability to see all sides of an issue, and to weigh the pros and cons of each before making a decision. The prudent person does not make rash decisions or hold onto an opinion when faced with disconfirming information.

What suggests a lack of prudence? 

Does the candidate hold to his opinion regardless of the evidence? (“I don’t care about statistics/facts/evidence…this is what I believe!”)

Does the candidate seem unable to see things from the other candidate’s perspective? (“You’re just completely wrong!” “You don’t have a leg to stand on!”)

Temperance. Temperance is the ability to control emotions, and it's related to humility. A temperate leader controls impulses and “appetites” (think of the many leaders who have gotten themselves in trouble due to lack of temperance). Temperate leaders are willing to admit making mistakes and strive to learn from them.

Does the candidate have difficulty controlling emotions? Is the candidate unwilling (or unable) to admit to mistakes and the lessons learned from them?

Fortitude. The virtue of fortitude can be equated to courage.

Does the candidate suggest bold new directions and innovations, or does he want to simply "stay the course." Is the candidate able and willing to outline his plan, present it straightforwardly, and be willing to take risks, or is the candidate “playing it safe.” 

Justice. This is the fourth cardinal virtue and deals with fairness.

Does the candidate treat everyone fairly, or does he play favorites? Does the candidate seem to have a sense of fairness and fair play?

For leaders of nations, it is critical that he or she be a leader of character, possessing the cardinal virtues. It leads to ethical leader behavior and good (as opposed to merely “effective”) leadership.

Use this virtue guide to evaluate the candidates in Thursday’s debate.

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