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Imbeciles Amok
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Imbeciles Amok

On public morality, the sides police each other but not themselves.

It’s no wonder why there’s such public delight at Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) getting cut to ribbons like a manatee in a speedboat propeller. The guy has made his career arrogantly trafficking in casual lies and cruel slander, and here he is laid low. 

Not exactly a complicated tale. John Bunyan’s warning at the entry to Vanity Fair could be written over Gaetz’s congressional photograph: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” But many are mixing up the very straightforward point of this morality play. As is usually the case in Washington scandals, we hear that it’s the hypocrisy that is the real problem. 

Maureen Dowd, who aptly calls Gaetz “the Beavis to Donald Trump’s Butt-Head” recounts how Gaetz was among those leading the charge against the wreck that is Hunter Biden despite Gaetz’s own allegedly lurid lifestyle. Or how about this twofer? Gaetz, now said to be under investigation for taking a minor across state lines for sex, once taunted the pitifully ambitious Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) who was apparently the target of a female Chinese spy, by invoking a former congressman busted for sexting a teen. Sneered Gaetz: “Keeping Eric Swalwell on the Intelligence Committee is like putting Anthony Weiner on the Ethics Committee.” Whoops.

Gaetz, who mocked and exploited the failures of others, now demands understanding and forbearance amid an unfolding scandal so seamy, sad, weird, and, well, Floridian, that Carl Hiaasen would have discarded the idea as too wacky for a novel. As Dowd puts it: ‘The moment crystallizes Republican hypocrisy. Trump and Gaetz viciously beat up on Hunter Biden, undeterred by their own vices.” Certainly, the hypocrisy charge is easy to make. But hypocrisy is not the biggest problem here. The matter is moral imbecility. 

Dana Perino asked Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week whether he would hold Gaetz to the same standard McCarthy loudly, repeatedly had applied to Swalwell during l’affaire de Fang Fang—that the congressman be stripped of his relevant committee position at least until the issue was resolved. McCarthy said Gaetz would be bounced from the Judiciary Committee if the feds nailed him. McCarthy said “we would remove” Gaetz if he was shown to have committed a federal sex crime. Save that guy a seat at the next “Profiles in Courage” award ceremony …

It’s not like anybody thought McCarthy was playing it straight when he was hounding Swalwell, though. A party elder who has made a point of protecting a QAnon crank isn’t exactly the custodian of the virtue of the House. But one day, McCarthy will probably ditch Gaetz completely as political consequences shift. This is in keeping with the current thinking on public morality: The sides police each other but not themselves. But under this partisan moral relativism, who becomes the arbiter of right and wrong? 

When Democrats were preparing to nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016, she was embroiled in two scandals. First was her flagrant mishandling of state secrets during her tenure as secretary of state—the wiped hard drive, missing emails, bathroom server, etc. Second was the shameless buckraking in which she and her family engaged after leaving the White House in 2001. The hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed to the House of Clinton either as tribute for their foundation or just straight into her pocketbook was obviously payola for a woman of influence who was expected to obtain the highest office in the land.

And yet we kept hearing about how there was no “smoking gun” in either case. Republicans and Democrats alike followed the progress of the investigations into her actions wondering if she might be charged with a crime. When then-FBI Director James Comey pronounced her a liar but a liar who could not be prosecuted, her campaign pronounced the candidate absolved of wrongdoing. The same goes for the payola stuff. Trump hyped a purported criminal investigation into the Clinton foundation on the eve of the election—a “likely indictment” that never materialized. No smoking gun, Democrats said again. 

But why should we need a federal conviction to tell us obvious truths about Clinton, who already has a long track record of ethically dubious conduct? Fitness for office is not a pass-fail test measured by a criminal conviction.

The same went for Trump. Before the Robert Mueller probe ever began, we knew that Trump’s campaign had tried to collude with the Kremlin to get dirt on Clinton. Not only did Trump admit it after first getting caught lying about it, he bragged about the sleazy play. One could argue that they felt this behavior was not disqualifying, but not that Trump was innocent. Yet still, everyone was hanging on the Mueller report as if we were awaiting the verdict in a murder case. Duh.

The case in Trump’s first impeachment was even less ambiguous. He abused his vast executive foreign policy powers for his own personal advantage—on tape, in front of other officials and then bragged about having done so. Less ambiguous still was Trump’s second impeachment. He tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power by attempting to subvert the constitutional order. He threatened reprisals against those who did not disobey their own constitutional oaths. Yet again, the parties fell back into courtroom mode. What was the phrasing of the article? Had it been filed in time? Did his public attacks on the Congress and the Constitution meet the legal standard for incitement? 

Maybe you didn’t think he should have been convicted for it, but no honest person could say that Trump hadn’t again and again violated his oath for his own gain or presented a credible threat to the transfer of power. Given the chance, he surely would have blocked the succession. As citizens we can make reasonable, objective judgments about conduct by Trump, Clinton and, yes, Gaetz. We didn’t need the FBI to decide whether Clinton was an ethical albatross with a wingspan of Ron Burkle’s 747 or whether Trump was a blessedly bumbling aspiring authoritarian.

No matter what prosecutors find, we already know Gaetz’s conduct in office was unacceptable. The time for McCarthy and House leaders to have made that decision was back when Gaetz was trying to help steal the 2020 election. Or how about menacing a congressional witness? Maybe when he pushed past Capitol Police to barge into a secure room for a publicity stunt? McCarthy and other Republican leaders should have shunned Gaetz long ago . Instead, they joined him for fear of a loss of their own power.

The real problem isn’t hypocrisy. The real problem is the moral imbecility of our national leaders who need the members of a federal grand jury to tell them basic right from wrong.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.