E.J. Dionne Jr.: The cost of our war on public life
NEW YORK — We didn't fully realize just how hard it was to be president until we had one with no idea of what it takes to do the job.
We didn't appreciate having a government that was relatively honest and free of venality until we had one riddled with corruption.
And we didn't know how wildly irresponsible Republican criticisms of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were until the GOP fell silent in the face of abuse after abuse from President Trump. Obama was "not presidential" for wearing a tan suit? Benghazi? Really?
Let's start there. When the current administration finally reaches the end of the line, we will need some serious rethinking about how to grapple with the asymmetry in the behavior of our two parties. Republicans — and particularly the party's dominant right wing in the House of Representatives — have kicked away a lot of credibility in a very short time.
A prime example of their partisanship-above-everything attitude: The leaking to Fox News by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee of a private text message between Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and a Russia-connected lawyer. Let's not have amnesia a few months or a few years from now about how political warfare took priority over the nation's security or how double standards became the rule for a large part of the GOP.
To their credit, Warner's Republican colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee were outraged over the behavior of their House counterparts whose primary interest is in protecting Trump and disrupting any serious investigation of Russian collusion. Warner had disclosed the contact to his colleagues months before, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had said it had "zero impact on our work."
Both Warner and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., complained to House Speaker Paul Ryan about the irresponsibility of their House counterparts, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. Ryan said he did not run the committee, thus pushing away an obligation to act. Imagine that: A House speaker who uses all of his prerogatives to push through his own priorities claims utter powerlessness in the face of a runaway committee chairman.
Good for Burr and Rubio, and may more Republicans stand against the madness.
The larger lesson from this shameful interlude is about what self-government demands. Aspects of governing we regard as boring and pay little attention to are important to making it function well.
For the last week or so, an avalanche of commentary about the chaos of the Trump regime has pointed to how key appointees are rushing toward the exits; how Trump springs new policies with little preparation and changes his views news cycle to news cycle; how ill-prepared Trump and many of his aides were for the rigors of the White House; and how recklessly they cast aside norms and rules aimed at preventing conflicts of interest and sleaze.
How did we get a government of this sort? For decades, our country has been witness to a war on public life. Legitimate dissatisfaction with government has turned into contempt for government itself and a denial of the indispensability of politics.
We value expertise from our doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists. But when it comes to government, there is a popular assumption that those who spend their lives mastering the arts of administration, politics and policymaking must be up to no good. This inclination, by the way, is prevalent in other democracies, too.
It is an attitude that leads voters to mistake inexperience for purity and outsider status (often, as in Trump's case, a feigned outsiderism) for an exceptional understanding of the people's wishes.
It has turned the word "politician" into an epithet, even though most of our best presidents (Lincoln and FDR especially) have been politicians through and through. The cliched and supposedly high-minded distinction between "a politician" and "a statesman" was always wrong. It's coming back to haunt us.
And viewing our civil servants as mere time-serving "bureaucrats" fails to appreciate the contributions they make and the extent to which our government, in comparison with so many others, has been remarkably light on corruption.
The danger is that we will suffer all the costs the Trump era imposes without learning any of the lessons it teaches.
Yes, democracy can be frustrating. Our leaders have made big mistakes. Power and wealth are concentrated into too few hands. But repairing our problems requires citizens willing to engage in public life, not shun it, and people in government who respect the work they are asked to undertake.
— E.J. Dionne's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.