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Gerson: To what circle of hell are Republicans about to consign themselves?


At our political costume ball, it is definitely ‘90s nostalgia night. A president obsessed with attacking all things Clinton stands accused of serial sexual harassment, sends out underlings to dismiss the accusers as liars, condemns a federal investigation as a politically motivated fraud and is attempting to destroy the reputation of the leader of that investigation. Hillary Clinton may be Donald Trump’s continuing target, but the Clinton years are clearly his inspiration.

It worked the first time around. In Bill Clinton’s case, the Democratic Party almost uniformly honored tribal loyalties above legal or moral principle. Even the feminist left generally fell into line for partisan reasons. “American women,” said columnist Nina Burleigh, “should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” What is a little sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice among friends when legal abortion is at stake?

Now Trump appeals to the same type of team solidarity, this time on the right. “The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics,” tweeted Trump, “but the R’s are now fighting back like never before.” Note how a federal investigation of Russian influence on American democracy has become “the Dems.” Note also that it is not the president and his lawyers fighting this investigation but the “R’s.” Trump is conditioning Republicans and conservatives to view his upcoming legal defense entirely through the lens of partisanship. With the broad cooperation of conservative media, there is every reason to think he might succeed.

Trump’s ultimate objective in all this matters greatly. If he wants to recruit Republicans into a defense of the shady political and business dealings of Paul Manafort and the rest of the president’s political circle—now exposed by federal indictment—it will be discrediting and humiliating. A party that rallies to the defense of corruption will eventually be seen as a swamp in need of clearing.

But if Trump’s goal is to escape a tightening legal investigation by firing special counsel Robert Mueller and issuing a string of self-protective pardons, the participation of the Republican Party takes on a different meaning. In this case, Trump would be turning his authoritarian pose into authoritarian practice, removing an essential check on the abuse of power. Liberal democracy itself would be under attack from an American Putinism. And elected Republicans who enabled this would be complicit in a crime against the Constitution and violate the oath they took to defend it.

As the indictments begin to come down, Republicans need to ponder what legal and ethical lines, if any, they are willing to draw. Continuing the attacks on Hillary Clinton’s own dishonest dealings is all fun and games (except to Clinton, I suppose). Joining the defense of slimy political figures such as Manafort makes one, ceteris paribus, into a slimy political figure. Obscuring or excusing Russian influence on the American political process is a dangerous disservice to the country. Supporting Trump in a power play against the special counsel and his investigation would be an attack on the stability and legitimacy of the Republic—a source of infamy in American history.

To what circle of hell are Republican officials about to consign themselves? It would be useful for members of Congress to declare that they will never enter the fourth circle—the demolition of the integrity and independence of the FBI—if only to deter Trump from forcing a constitutional crisis. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has done so, arguing such an action would be “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.” But it is hard to imagine such courage written broadly in today’s GOP—and even harder to imagine such courage exhibited pre-emptively.

It is worth making clear that every conservative media voice—including, recently, the editorial voice of The Wall Street Journal—that attacks the objectivity and legitimacy of Mueller is giving Trump cover and encouragement to move against him. They are dropping lit matches in the dry tinder of American politics. And they would be responsible, in part, for the resulting wildfire.

Do Republicans and conservatives really want to be remembered as a bodyguard of enablers for this man? For this cause? Few enter the fray of political ideas, or make the considerable sacrifices of entering public life, to defend corruption and the abuse of power. That is now the calling of the Republican partisan, and the downward path of dishonor.

Your Views: Congress should leave 401(k)s alone

Simplifying the federal tax code is long overdue.

But Congress won’t accomplish that goal by increasing taxes on retirement savings.

Wisconsin’s two U.S. senators are right: Our leaders in Washington should reject any proposal that hikes taxes on 401(k) contributions.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, correctly noted last week that Social Security is already facing a major shortfall in funding by 2034, as the ranks of retirees continue to grow. So doing anything that might discourage workers from saving money on their own would be a mistake.

Johnson said last week he “wouldn’t touch” 401(k) plans as Congress considers changes as part of a larger tax code overhaul.

“This would be the worst time to dis-incentivize people from saving for their retirement,” Johnson said.

He’s right.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who leads the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed Wednesday he’s considering changes to 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts as part of a sweeping tax reform bill he’s close to unveiling.

News reports suggest Brady and his Republican colleagues who run Congress are considering a plan to sharply reduce the amount of tax-deferred income American workers can put in 401(k) accounts. The accounts delay taxation until retirement—when presumably rates will be lower—and often include a contribution from employers.

Instead of workers putting as much as $18,500 tax-free into their 401(k) accounts next year—with workers age 50 and older allowed to save as much as $24,000—the GOP tax bill could dramatically reduce the allowable amount to just $2,400 annually.

Given a chance to dismiss this bad idea, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, wouldn’t rule out such a move last week as part of his party’s larger tax package. That’s disappointing.

Republican President Donald Trump initially and emphatically tweeted Monday that no changes will occur to 401(k)s. He even typed the word “NO” in all capital letters and used an exclamation point. But as often occurs with the erratic and untrustworthy president, his conviction didn’t last long. By Wednesday, he was saying he didn’t want the change to “go too far,” and that “maybe we’ll use it as negotiating.”

Johnson’s opposition is significant because the GOP Senate has few votes to spare, and Johnson has shown a lot more backbone on fiscal issues than Trump.

Moreover, opposition to scaling back retirement incentives for some 50 million Americans is bipartisan.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and others quickly opposed talk of dismantling the 401(k) system.

“The idea from Republicans to make it more expensive for Wisconsinites to save for retirement as a way to help pay for tax cuts for the top one percent is a bad deal,” Baldwin said.

She’s right that Trump and his party’s desire for a large tax cut shouldn’t be accomplished by taxing people more for saving money. Nor should it come at the risk of increasing the national debt.

The goal of tax reform should be to simplify a convoluted and unfair system. Ryan and the GOP-controlled Congress should leave middle-class 401(k) plans alone.

—Wisconsin State Journal

Sound Off for Wednesday, Nov. 1

On breast feeding in public: Why does everyone get so upset about breast feeding in public? If done discreetly, mind your own business. The nude breast does not need to be exposed. Coverage works well.

On pizza delivery drivers: We’re out here busting our tails to make a living, putting our cars through major traffic, maintenance and everything else, and you people can’t afford a decent tip to the drivers who deliver a hot pizza to them. That needs to stop. You need to think of us drivers as hard workers, too.

On handicap parking tags: A message to drivers, the handicap tag hanging from your inside mirror is to allow you preferred parking. It is not meant to remain hanging while you are driving to alert oncoming drivers that you have a problem. In fact, leaving it hanging while driving may be illegal.

On Janesville animal control funding: Until the citizens of Janesville take responsibility for their pets, the city council will have problems with dog and cat overpopulation. The humane society needs to be fully funded to deal with this. More pressure to promote licensing is needed. Feral cats are the biggest problem.

The humane society is just a million-dollar revolving door for excess pets. They would save millions and reduce excess pets by euthanizing those that are unclaimed or injured after two weeks. Their current process is ineffective and very costly and does not reduce the number taken in.

Councilman Jim Farrell and his colleagues just showed their ignorance. You don’t just throw up an animal shelter at the last minute to take care of animals for a city. It’s pretty disgusting that they’re playing games with the humane society’s budget.

On Nov. 7 Milton referendum: Milton voters should consider one more consequence of turning down the Nov. 7 school referendum. School employees have more open job opportunities in the state at this time. Referendum failure may lead them to move to more forward-thinking districts. Employee quality may fall to match the poor facility quality.

I am all for the addition at Milton East and some of the remodeling, but because it is $70 million that most people can’t afford, I am voting ‘no’ and will wait until the spring election when maybe they will bring the correct referendum to the people, and we can get these projects done.

On Sunday editorial, “Time to back a new Milton High School”: With all due respect, I must say that The Gazette editorial is extremely uninformed. Many citizens have repeatedly offered solutions that solve the district’s needs, allow our teachers to be highly compensated and appropriately staffed and improve the educational experience, including athletics and the arts while showing sensitivity to all the burdens placed on taxpayers.

The Gazette’s ringing endorsement must have been very easy for them to make since their taxes won’t rise dramatically as taxes of those of us who live in the Milton School District will. I urge a ‘no’ vote for the taxpayers.

On Milton High School pool’s alleged water loss: The Milton pool actually meets the acceptable range for water loss due to the normal process of evaporation based on pool dimensions. It’s no mystery where the water is going.

On Thursday guest editorial, “Voter fraud commission at dead end”: It was stated that it’s always a mistake to decide the outcome of an investigation before it has been completed. I thought I was reading about James Comey exonerating Hillary Clinton. What a farce.

On “Big Fish” musical: What a wonderful musical, ‘Big Fish,’ presented at U-Rock. The acting and music were outstanding; emotions ran high. I smiled at tenderness and laughed and cried at appropriate times. Best line for me in the play to be remembered, ‘It’s not over. Tomorrow begins today.’

On Wisconsin ranking No. 4: If they consider the Badgers the No. 4 team in the country, college football is at its demise. There are 25 teams in the top 25, and I would venture to say 24 of them would probably beat Wisconsin. They have played nobody to this point, and some of the nobodies they played gave them a good challenge.