Trump’s failure to assume ‘mantle’ of national leader has major effect

Incoming Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the former presidential candidate, has issued a sharp criticism of President Trump.

“A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity,” he wrote, “and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.” Romney concluded that the “president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”

Romney may be questioned for his shortcomings as presidential candidate or for taking on the president of his own party. But he also praised major actions of the first two years of the Trump presidency.

He hit on key concerns about Trump’s presidency. The president frequently does not speak truthfully and repeats untruths even after correction, making them intentional lies. He does not treat others with respect.

He bolsters his supporters, but seems unwilling to reach out for compromises. How he can brutally attack and belittle Democratic leaders and expect them to make concessions to him, which he will surely claim as his victories over them, is hard to understand.

The issue behind Romney’s complaint is far more significant than what kind of a president Trump is turning out to be. He and Sen. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell have raised deep doubts about the American political system.

The U.S. has been called “an experiment” as the first real national democracy in modern history. Its form of government, established by the Constitution, is unique.

It is a manual for the functioning of the federal government and of federalism itself. Office holders pledge to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution for good reason. It is new, fragile and subject to attack.

No group of people could devise a manual that would cover all possible concerns, present and future. Beyond the document itself, there must be a set of common understandings about how it would be applied in practice.

Admittedly, these understandings were those of a group of men, most formerly British, who shared a common view of how government would work. They recognized there would be partisan splits, but they believed they would take place within the limits of the Constitution and their common understandings.

They knew the Constitution would need to be amended to deal with new challenges or unresolved questions. Now it has become impossible to adopt almost any amendment for fear that, once the process is opened, radicals could use it to roll back longstanding guarantees of freedom.

They agreed that the president would make Supreme Court appointments with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. The understanding was that the Senate will either give its consent or refuse it. But, for President Obama’s last nominee, McConnell allowed the Senate to do neither, violating that historic understanding.

The Constitution requires a simple majority vote on most matters. The original understanding was that honorable people would voluntarily end debate. When southern senators wanted to block votes on civil rights, they refused to stop talking. The Senate imposed a supermajority vote to end debate. It now covers all important bills.

Congress is supposed to be the top lawmaking body in the federal government. With members’ highest priority being reelection, which leads them to avoid tough issues, Congress has shifted much of its constitutional responsibility to the executive.

Trump does not like the special Senate majority, which protects the minority party, because it prevents his Wall. Democrats regret all the legislative power they have given to Trump, including declaring a national emergency. Neither was a constitutional understanding.

The “mantle of the office” cited by Romney is part of this web of common understandings, essential to the success of the American system of government.

In the U.K., the queen or king is the head of the country and the prime minister is the head of the government. The royal is a symbolic leader for all people, while the prime minister is a political leader.

In the U.S., the president is both head of the country and head of government. As a political figure, the president is accepted as a partisan, the leader of his or her political party.

As head of the country, the president is expected to show that he or she represents the national interest and can separate partisanship and national leadership.

Trump’s extreme attacks on Democrats, loyal Americans like him, and his attempt to politicize the armed forces are threats to common understandings and historic practices essential to our system of government.

Is Romney now the only Republican senator who sees these threats? Where is Susan Collins?

Trump’s time in office is constitutionally limited, but the harm to common understandings may last.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.