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Seeming normalization and conventional presidential success are rearing their heads for and despite Donald Trump.

The preposterous second-place president has now overseen a big income-tax cut for rich people and a little one for at least some regular people.

That's the most normal and conventionally successful thing a Republican president can do. It's reprising Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but not George H.W. Bush, who lost for re-election because he went along with the opposite.

The federal deficit will now explode, which is another normal effect of a Republican administration. But many people are starting to think deficits don't matter if debt is extended and serviced between codependent entities. And deficits certainly don't matter politically or in terms of partisan judgment.

The modern deficit-cutters have been Democrats--first Bill Clinton and then, after he had to run up the deficit in the beginning with stimulus spending to rescue George W.'s cratered economy, Barack Obama.

But conventional partisan rhetoric--which grows more fact-defying every year--still feeds off the bogus stereotype and narrative that Democrats are the fiscally irresponsible ones and Republicans the fiscally responsible.

Enter Bret Stephens, my new favorite national columnist, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator for the Wall Street Journal and now a better Ross Douthat than Ross Douthat--meaning conservative alternative--on the New York Times op-ed page.

A cerebral and responsible commentator whose conclusions coming from the right I find myself sharing as I sidle from the slight left, Stephens wrote last week that Republican friends were starting to urge him to get aboard the Trump train.

Their point, which he concedes, is that Trump suddenly has it all going for himself on a standard conservative agenda--a tax cut, repealing the individual health-insurance mandate, routing ISIS, supporting Israel, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, arming Ukraine, pulling out of the Paris climate accord and putting Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court.

What's a little insane tweeting when the country you want is being assembled before your very eyes?

Stephens wrote that he just couldn't do it--accept Trump. He wrote, in fact, that he'd still vote today precisely as he voted in November 2016--for Hillary Clinton, because, compared to Trump, she was the only responsible choice.

In a column last week, Stephens endeavored to explain why he's still "never Trump," and did so as effectively and compellingly as I've seen, both in defining Trump's lack of fitness for the presidency and exposing the raging conservative hypocrisy in embracing him.

Stephens quotes the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in saying culture is more important than politics, but that politics is vital in changing the culture. He cites the once-raging conservative mantra--which is all we heard during the Clinton years, and which I agreed with then as now--that "character matters."

Stephens points out that conservatives have long argued that you don't fix the welfare problem, for example, by throwing money at it, but that you fix it instead by what conservatives now contradict wholesale, meaning the insistence on, and nurturing of, a healthier culture through an example of strong character.

Yet Trump, he writes, provides, amid the relentless imposition of a conservative policy agenda, a personal behavioral example of "lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name-calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness."

Even if the Russia investigation is nothing, Stephens writes, Trump brought it on himself by making an improper overture to James Comey and then firing him.

Just consider, Stephens proposes, whom Trump hires and how he treats those he hires. One word: Scaramucci. One example: For his ego need or personal interest, he publicly ridicules entire classes of his own employees, such as the FBI, and publicly bullies a pitiable and eager acolyte like Jeff Sessions.

To work for Trump's White House, or in his Cabinet, or to be of his nominal party in Congress, is not, Stephens writes, to be elevated into and by public service. Instead, he says, it's to be reduced to mandatory public toadyism.

Stephens' secondary position, which I respect but do not share, is that the rising conservative culture is good. But his longer-term and thus prevailing position, which I respect and share and embrace and applaud and cheer, is that Republicans were right in the '90s that character counts and that Moynihan was right that culture is more important than politics except that politics can change the culture, including, as now, for the worse.

It's that too many of today's conservatives are choosing a temporary conservative shot of adrenaline while risking a longer-lasting and more damaging American cultural decline.

Trump is impressively compiling conservative political talking points even as he takes America culturally low--not by those talking points, but in defiance of their essence and heritage, and by his personal disgrace.

It's not just about winning. It's about an example of restraint, discretion, decency and high-mindedness. Or it surely needs to be.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/03/2018

Print Headline: Character matters

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