The Imperfection Election

It’s fascinating to see candidates dance the line between virtue and authenticity. They’re good people, the pitch goes—but they’re also people. Rudy Giuliani constantly reiterates that he is but human: “I’m not a perfect candidate,” he told an audience in September. “I’m not a perfect person—you may have heard. But we need a candidate who can win in all 50 states.” Barack Obama also tried to downplay expectations: “I don’t pretend to be a perfect man,” he said a few weeks ago. Mitt Romney has even been called “too perfect”—a charge he rebutted by debating with slightly mussed-up hair

So Obama’s decision to come out and talk about his past drug use —something he alluded to in his book, Dreams From My Father , but hasn’t discussed on the campaign trail until now—shouldn’t surprise anyone. “You know, I made some bad decisions that I’ve actually written about,” he told a group of high schoolers in Manchester. “You know, got into drinking. I experimented with drugs. There was a whole stretch of time that I didn’t really apply myself a lot. It wasn’t until I got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, ‘Man, I wasted a lot of time.’ ”

One reason Obama can admit to doing drugs without paying a political price (so far, at least) is that he has staked his campaign on candor. He’s the guy who tells car makers to cut emissions. The guy who promises Wall Street execs he’ll raise their hikes. He leads the field of Democratic front-runners in “honesty and directness.” But it’s also possible because of who the rest of the candidates are. Is Obama’s drug use really more offensive than Rudy Giuliani’s serial bigamy? More than his willingness to defend corrupt officials? More than Bill Clinton’s philandering? It’s illegal , certainly, but most voters can probably relate to it more closely than they can to other candidates’ (and their spouses’) vices. And among young voters, to whom Obama is making particularly strong overtures, it’s unlikely anyone will hold his past against him.  

We’ve come a long way since “I didn’t inhale.”