In 1998, William Bennett published a book on the importance of character in American leadership and public life. Writing amid the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, the former education secretary bemoaned the rise of “situational ethics” and the reluctance to condemn Clinton’s behavior in black-and-white terms.
“A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president,” Bennett flatly declared in “The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals.”
Earlier this week, newly elected Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, published a Washington Post oped saying pretty much the same thing. “With the nation so divided, resentful, and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable,” Romney wrote. “And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.”
But the incumbent now is Republican Donald Trump, of course, not Democrat Bill Clinton. And in this situation, apparently, ethics don’t matter so much to Bennett and his fellow Republicans.
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“Has Mitt Romney played team sports?” Bennett asked on Fox News, where he is a contributor. “Does he understand anything about the situation that his Republican colleague, Donald Trump, is in now?”
Romney does. As the partial government shutdown over Trump’s proposed border wall enters its third week, the president must now contend with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. But Romney has backed the border wall, promising to stand with his Republican colleagues on the shutdown as well.
And on most other political matters, too, Romney is likely to support Trump. His oped praised Trump for cutting corporate taxes and regulations, cracking down on China’s trade practices and appointing conservative judges.
These are all issues about which reasonable and decent people can disagree. Yet reasonable and decent people do not call their opponents psychos, losers or lightweights. They do not compare their own intelligence services to Nazis. They don’t malign a large group of immigrants as rapists. And they don’t dismiss an entire continent as a s—hole.
It’s about how you act, not how you vote
Trump has done all of that, and much more. To conduct politics in a reasonable manner, we need agreement on a few basic rules of decency. And Donald Trump has flouted them at every turn, eroding the essential norms of democracy itself.
That was Romney’s point, and you’d think that Republicans — who used to see themselves as the party of morality — would be the first to endorse it. But you’d be wrong. Some Republicans questioned Romney’s own character, noting that he had twice sought and received Trump’s endorsement. But others seemed to question whether character mattered at all.
In a blistering tweet, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., charged that Romney was attempting to “signal how virtuous he is in comparison to the President.” Excuse me? Romney is more virtuous than the President. And so are you, if you treat the people around you with honesty, dignity and respect.
That’s a matter of behavior, not politics; it’s about how you act, not how you vote. But even Trump’s Democratic opponents seem to have lost sight of the distinction. Praising Romney for “speaking some truth” about Trump, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., added a note of caution. “I just hope he isn’t another Jeff Flake who says one thing and votes the other way,” Lieu tweeted.
Some values must transcend partisanship
Like Romney, outgoing GOP Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona indeed has condemned Trump’s character while supporting his policies. But there’s nothing inconsistent about that. “We’re all on the same team,” Flake noted, in his own tweet about the Romney oped. “There are good people on both sides of the aisle.”
That’s a very different philosophy from the one embraced by William Bennett, who reminded Romney that he plays for the Republican team. And in politics, of course, he does. But there are some values and practices that should transcend our partisan squabbles, as Bennett himself wrote just two decades ago. And we all need to rally to their defense, no matter how we vote on election day.
“In a self-governing and law-abiding nation, we must never allow ourselves to be lulled into passive disgust or indifference, the civic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders,” Bennett warned. “We must never lose our sense, when appropriate, of outrage.”
Mitt Romney hasn’t lost that sense, and neither should you. We can argue until the cows come home about taxes, immigration and everything else. Once Donald Trump’s behavior becomes the new normal, however, it’s game over. Shame on us if we shrug our shoulders at that.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”