In the last week, two things happened in America that remind us of the criteria the public uses to evaluate candidates — namely, none. Mid-week, Vice President Joe Biden made more rumblings about trying for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020. And on Friday, Chappaquiddick: The Movie was released in theaters.
It is not much of a spoiler to disclose that the movie is about the U.S. Senator who drove an Olds Delmont off a wooden bridge into a tidal basin. In the following ten hours, he would sober up and family and advisors would plan the rehabilitation of his political persona (Hint: Bring the neck brace!), while his passenger finished consuming the oxygen in the diminishing air bubble in the submerged car. This Profile in Courage was re-elected six more times, and his death fed the emotional argument to enact Obama-care.
Obviously, the American public’s standard for candidates is not cast in stone, and is re-invented every biennium explicitly to fit the fallible mortals running for office. Does character matter? Ask me again after the primary.
I used to think the frequent epithet “hypocrite” meant that a person has a double standard, but the dictionary says it means he doesn’t truly believe what he is espousing. This is a much less useful concept; we are taught early in politics not to deal in unknowables, such as your adversary’s state of mind and true beliefs. (It seemed amazingly amateurish and unlawyerly when Hillary Clinton, seeking Trump’s tax forms to go on a fishing expedition, said in a national debate, “We don’t know what he’s hiding!”) But double standards are overt and provable by setting current positions against past positions, especially when there have been no new facts in the meantime. The American electorate is a hypocrite! A brief review of key data points:
In 1987, Judge Ginsburg (Douglas, not Ruth Bader G.) was nominated to the Supreme Court by Reagan, but had to withdraw amid a firestorm over smoking dope at Harvard. By 1992, Bill Clinton had the same problem, but offered an unbelievable line that he “never inhaled.” (Let alone his brother comparing his nose to a vacuum cleaner.) President for 8 years. The next one, from the other party, was a family man with a distinguished education, intertwined with chronic drunkenness, about which all George W. Bush ever said is, “When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.” Eight years for him too. By 2008, the other party gave us a candidate whose own autobiography said that the only limit on his own use of cocaine was its availability. Eight years for him too. Doug Ginsburg is 71, but perhaps the nation should give him a brief sit on the Supreme Court just to say, “Never mind!”
Senator Robert Packwood, co-author of the 1986 law that gave America a nearly flat-rate income tax, was forced from office in 1995 after many women complained of his unwanted touching and kissing of coworkers at the Capitol. President Clinton had failings as well, muted by Hillary in a similarly unbelievable television interview about problems internal to their marriage. The American public, though, was swept off its feet, and dealt with a series of sexual harassment of women subordinates by rationalizing, including a national debate on whether oral sex is or isn’t sex, crowding out any thinking about whether Clinton was likely to be telling the truth that the Lewinsky affair was only oral sex. Against President Trump, game is back on. He has a past as a womanizer, potentially extending to the present, as we only had to go back 11 years to hear him brag to a reporter on an open mike that he is so famous as to be able to grab women “by the pussy” with impunity. No matter.
High crimes and misdemeanors
Robert Mueller’s year-long formal investigation of Trump, which will not find evidence of collusion with Vladimir Putin to steal the election from Hillary, will eventually find something “troubling,” especially if it compels him to produce his tax records, and daily leaks to the East Coast newspapers by James Comey and anonymous others will dominate the headlines. But nothing will approach vehicular homicide. Which didn’t matter anyway.
None of the above is surprising, except how completely the electorate has no fixed standards at all. Currently, owing to having a President with the possible vulnerability of being a sleazy horndog, we are in the #MeToo craze, where a teenage athlete or actress tickled by a creepy man in a position of power does not simply mean that the man should be barred from that power but that he should be shunned for life, and (with teary testimony that lives have been ruined) everyone who could have, but didn’t, prevent that assault must be fired. Sen. Al Franken was a casualty for the Democrats, but only because the choir believed that focus on the issue could derail candidate Roy Moore (it did) and injure Donald Trump (it didn’t). In the past week, a Democrat Congresswoman from Wisconsin has quit, for not reacting strongly enough to a subordinate who sent suggestive emails to another subordinate; and a Republican Congressman from Texas, whose character flaws are an open secret, has decided that merely declining to run for re-election won’t be fast enough, and has also quit.
Now, with the gathering Presidential campaign of Gropin’ Joe Biden, a man who everyone knows has the exact same character flaw that rendered Bob Packwood unfit for government service, it will be fascinating to see how gracefully the Democrats can snuff out all traces of the #MeToo witch hunt, and how long they can stand on their heads to get the nation to focus on anything else — and whether Republicans can get any traction on this issue, and whether they even dare to try, considering the pig in the Oval Office.