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Today's Leaders Are Not Living Up to Constitutional Norms

Michael Barone on

How are America's leaders measuring up against the standards set by the Constitution and the examples of the Founding Fathers? It's a question I've been asking as I seek refuge from contemporary politics in reading and occasionally writing, in my 2023 book "Mental Maps of the Founders," about the early years of the republic.

One answer is that neither former President Donald Trump nor President Joe Biden measures up well -- but not necessarily in the ways their critics think.

For example, many people, including me, are dismayed by Trump's trash-talking his opponents: his disparagement of recent Republican presidents and nominees, his insulting nicknames for opponents of both parties, his unfair but successful diminishment of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.).

Others, including me, are put off by Biden's dismissal of "MAGA Republicans" and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's dismissal of "deplorables" as beyond the pale of decent citizens.

Such trash-talking is against the political norms of the middle and late 20th century. President John F. Kennedy didn't disparage fellow Democrats or President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Presidents who defeated incumbents -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton -- didn't whine about the messes their predecessors left behind.

The Founders were not so prim. George Washington complained about Jeffersonian "self-created societies." Thomas Jefferson called Alexander Hamilton a "monarchist," and Hamilton wrote of the "great and intrinsic" defects in the character of John Adams. Much of the name-calling came in pamphlets either anonymously or under pseudonyms that everyone saw through.

 

However, when it came to obeying the Constitution's rules, the Founders did. The transfer of power from Adams to Jefferson in 1801 was grudging but peaceful -- a defining moment not just in American history but in world history.

This was in obvious contrast to the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. This wasn't an "insurrection" like the secession proclamations of 1860-61, and it could have been prevented if Capitol authorities had sufficient forces on hand.

As I wrote at the time, "While President Trump's exact words to the crowd on the Ellipse didn't constitute a criminal incitement, they were uttered with a reckless disregard for the possibility that they would provoke violence, which any reasonable person could find impeachable."

In fact, many reasonable members of Congress, all Democrats and some Republicans, found Trump's conduct contrary to the president's constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws, and they voted to impeach. A majority, 57 of 100, of senators voted for conviction, short of the two-thirds required by the framers of the Constitution for the dire penalties of removal and disqualification from office.

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