The argument for the president
On a recent Sunday in Carpinteria, I debated County Supervisor Das Williams on the question: Should President Donald Trump be re-elected?
Not surprisingly, Das came out of the gate with guns blazing, citing one MSNBC talking point after the other in an attempt to portray Mr. Trump as the most corrupt man to ever occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
More surprising to me was Das’s criticism of the president’s Middle East isolationism. Das has become a neo-hawk in his old age. Who knew?
I refrained from turning the debate into an exchange resembling something you might hear between Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, and instead focused my main points on actual policies that, when put in the context of recent presidential history, suggests the answer is a resounding yes.
I referenced the often-repeated metrics including lowest overall unemployment in 50 years and the lowest Black, Hispanic and female unemployment in history. Add to that a booming stock market, low interest rates and low inflation, as well as relative peace around the world. On paper, this looks pretty good.
But I did spend more than a few minutes addressing Das’s vocal concerns about Mr. Trump’s supposed bad character. I suggested that while ethically challenged politicians can seem to act corruptly on occasion, their public policies can be wholly moral. Conversely, ethical politicians can seem to conduct themselves with the utmost personal integrity, while their public policies can often be unjust at best, and immoral at worst.
Case in point: Jimmy Carter was an ethical man but whose policies hurt the U.S. economy, causing energy prices to spike, gas rationing, double-digit inflation, 18% interest rates and high unemployment — especially for blacks, Hispanics and women, saying nothing about our American hostages in Iran.
Bill Clinton was, by all accounts, a seriously flawed, ethically challenged man, and a notoriously slippery and if not amoral, immoral person. President Clinton’s policies, on the other hand, were morally sound, resulting in lower tax rates on saving, investing and working.
Working cooperatively across the political aisle, Mr. Clinton, a rascal for sure, presided over an economy with low interest rates, low inflation, a balanced budget and the creation of millions of new, good-paying private-sector jobs.
Of course, he was also lucky enough to be president a few years after Al Gore invented the internet.
Mr. Clinton also used American military power to remove Slobodan Milosevic, the monstrous president of Serbia, who was engaged in some of the most horrific “ethnic cleansing” the world had seen in almost 50 years.
Mr. Clinton, often referred to as Slick Willy, while behaving dishonorably in his personal life, and arguably in his public life, too — don’t forget John Huang, Charlie Trie and Webb Hubbell — his administration advanced public policies that were just. Meaning they improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans, including and perhaps especially working families.
Mr. Carter was by all measures and reputation a virtuous and morally upright man; his administration, on the other hand, advanced policies that were economically destructive and unfair, especially to the working poor.
If given a choice, which would you prefer?
When a man behaves in ways that are personally corrupt, bordering on immoral, it’s often only he, and maybe one or a few others, that end up being negatively impacted.
When a righteous man implements well-intentioned policies that prove to be corrupting economically or internationally, tens of millions of people feel the negative results that are often devastating, including loss of jobs, financial bankruptcy, divorce, addiction, homelessness and even war.
The point is, men can be corrupt, obviously, but so can public policies. And very often, that can be a lot worse.
None of us is perfect, and America has certainly had its share of morally flawed presidents — Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Mr. Clinton … and undoubtedly Mr. Trump.
The ideal is, of course, for America to elect moral and decent leaders with sound and just public policies. Indeed, that should be the standard we seek as a nation. But in the end, as Mr. Spock was fond of saying, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.
Joe Armendariz is the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association.