Political Leadership in a Divided Electorate: Assessing Character Issues in the 2000 Presidential Campaign

By Stanley Renshon

A paper by Stanley Renshon, spring 2000 fellow, considers the role of character in the 2000 presidential campaign. Renshon states that “character issues” tell citizens something important about prospective leaders. Honesty, integrity and trustworthiness may well be virtues in themselves, but they are important for the nation’s political life. This is primarily so because they are a key resource of leadership capital. That, in turn, affects the president’s capacity to govern and lead. This paper first examines the impact of the Clinton presidency in helping to set the frame within which character issues are being considered, then turns to the question of the broader cultural and political contexts in which the search for leadership takes place. Renshon argues that the public’s experiences and leadership preferences have an important effect on the kinds of leadership that develop and are supported in a society. Renshon also distinguishes between two models of leadership in contemporary American society. One, the heroic, has become traditional. The other, reflective leadership, is emerging in response to structure and psychological changes in the American public. The paper concludes by suggesting how each of these two models of leadership affected the 2000 presidential campaign.

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