Capitol commentary: Character matters

By Fred Benson

I have had the privilege of being related to, working with and knowing some pretty impressive human beings during my lifetime. As I reexamine those relationships, it becomes clear that those for whom I have the greatest respect are persons of extraordinarily high character. The key ingredients of that measure are integrity, honesty, respectfulness, humility, optimism, compassion for others, intellectual curiosity and physical or moral courage. A quick scan of the first 15 months of the current administration in Washington would find those values in short supply.

Vice presidential candidate Pence painted a much brighter picture for this administration during the campaign: “I’m old enough to remember back in the last Clinton administration where America really had a debate over whether character mattered to the presidency. We don’t need to have that debate again. Character matters to the presidency, and Donald Trump will bring the highest level of integrity to the highest office in the land. You can count on it.”

Pence’s comments suggested correctly that character matters to American voters. A recent Politico poll indicated that “91 percent of respondents believed honesty is ‘very important’ for elected officials to embody in their personal lives in order to carry out their official duties. Seventy-five percent said the same about morality.”

Trump critics express dismay at the president’s disregard for truth and for the disruptive personal behavior that has created an aura of confusion and fear among his own advisers as well as for a majority of the general public.

The most acidic critique was rendered by former CIA Director John Brennan, who recently said of the president, “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disregarded demagogue in the dustbin of history.”

Trump supporters, on the other hand, even those on the normally sanctimonious religious right, claim that his character issues are of no consequence. An excellent example of this thinking was an interview with a Trump devotee who claimed, “I didn’t vote for him to be my minister, and I wouldn’t vote for him to be my husband. I voted for him because he is a successful businessman who can get things done.” Interestingly, when asked if she would vote for Trump in 2020, she said, “I don’t know. I want to see who is running against him.”

With media headlines raising the possibility that the Russia probe is closing in on the White House, along with nonstop coverage of Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs, Pence’s pre-election promise seems excruciatingly hollow.

So why have those congressional Republicans who opposed Trump’s nomination for president, including 13 GOP senators, now united to protect their party’s leader?

Simply put, they’re frightened. Few among them are willing to distance themselves from the president, who enjoys nearly 80 percent support from Republican voters. Publically criticizing the president also would open the door to having party leaders encourage more conservative challengers to run in the primary elections. Further, introducing party divisiveness eight months before the midterm election could cause serious turnout problems for the GOP.

Given those concerns, it is difficult to disagree with political analyst Jamelle Bouie’s summary observation that: “after ceding control of the Republican Party to Trump, and investing themselves in the success of his presidency, Republican lawmakers may be in too deep to extricate themselves.”

Anyone who studies American history understands that the only real constant is change. While we now seem to be mired in an ethical swamp of Trump’s creation, it will end. It is only a matter of time, and it might be sooner than thought possible. The stronger political activism demonstrated by women, coupled with the vibrancy of student groups campaigning for safer schools, could make a difference in voter turnout this November. There is plenty of refreshing character evident in these movements.

So to the congressional Republican leadership, it must be said, “Head’s up. The times are a-changin’, and you will continue to condone unprincipled presidential behavior at your peril.”

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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