Staff Columnist

America's race to the (almost) bottom

It's a contest to be just a little bit less terrible and corrupt than the other team

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Florida from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Florida from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Mention any one of President Donald Trump’s many scandals to a Republican politician, and you will find they have a rebuttal already cued up.

The president’s supporters often point to other politicians’ errors as a way to distract from whatever crisis Trump has cast upon himself that day. They will cite a laundry list of their opponents’ misdeeds, as if that makes their own team’s mistakes more palatable.

Joe Biden’s friends and family have been unduly enriched by his status as a government figure.

Yesterday’s sins don’t absolve us of today’s.

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The origins of the Trump-Russia investigation and the infamous “Steele dossier” are highly suspect.

Hillary Clinton and her associates handled classified information in a reckless manner.

Barack Obama waged an indefensible war against whistleblowers and prosecuted innocent people.

Take your pick from the list, and I agree with you: Those are all bad things, and the people responsible should be held accountable. But none of that makes Trump’s wrongdoing acceptable.

Politicians are engaged in a race to the almost-bottom, a contest to be just a little bit less terrible and corrupt than the rival team. As long as those other guys have their own scandals, we don’t have to worry about ours.

If you grew up with siblings, you might recognize this form of argument. Your brother rats you out for playing with matches, so you rat him out for sneaking cookies after bedtime.

If your mom was like my mom, this tactic was not effective. We both got scolded for our missteps, plus a little extra for tattling. It turns out my mom is better at adjudicating misconduct accusations than most politicians and partisan activists.

As another diversion, Trump and his defenders often dismiss investigations by saying they would rather focus on the important public policy questions facing the federal government.

“The Republicans never did this to President Barack Obama, there would be no time left to run government,” Trump wrote in a February Twitter post.

In fact, however, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. During the Obama administration, Republicans controlling one or both chambers of Congress had enough time and attention to conduct high-profile investigations over bad renewable energy investments, Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state, political bias in the Internal Revenue Service and more.

Those issues dominated political talking points. Concurrently, there was plenty of time to hold important Congressional votes on a wide range of policy priorities. As one notable example, the U.S. House voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than 60 times.

Now that my fellow Republicans control the presidency and the Senate, they have suddenly discovered they can’t do investigations and policymaking at the same time? I don’t buy it.

I’m not sure if Trump’s latest stunt — asking the president of a foreign nation to investigate a political foe — rises to the level of impeachment, but it’s a question that demands thorough examination by our elected officials in Washington, D.C. The authors of our the U.S. Constitution offered very little explicit guidance about what kinds of behavior could reasonably be considered impeachable. It is inherently a political process, not a criminal trial.

Every president in my short lifetime so far — George H.W. Bush to Trump — has done things that could be construed as impeachable: Illegal military actions, executive overreach, administrative misconduct, lying to the public or some combination thereof.

Yesterday’s sins, however, don’t absolve us of today’s.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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