President Donald Trump likes to insist that he brings people together, and in at least one sense that is true. He gave me the unexpected gift of temporary political kinship with conservatives who are putting aside long held policy goals in the interest of a larger mission: rescuing American values, principles and democracy.
This group ranges from nationally known Republicans like John Kasich, Cindy and Meghan McCain, Carly Fiorina and Colin Powell, to conservative columnists like George Will, Michael Gerson and Bret Stephens, to the in-your-face Never-Trump strategists of the Lincoln Project, to the ordinary voters who say they made a mistake in 2016.
There is nothing like a common adversary to make people recognize what they have in common. Once there was consensus that civility, compassion, immigration, equal opportunity and foreign allies were good; that racism, misogyny, discrimination, voter suppression and foreign autocrats were bad; that respect for the U.S. military, the intelligence community, political leaders, science, the Constitution and the rule of law was a given; that the American promise was based on good faith, compromise and checks and balances; and that presidents should be role models.
Patriotic enough to switch sides
There will never be a liberal-conservative consensus on abortion or guns or how people should get health care, or even if the government should make sure they have insurance. And it’s hard to envision agreement on taxes, given the continuing grip of a conservative economic philosophy that aggravates inequality rather than trickling down to those who need help.
But that’s what makes it remarkable to me that people are willing to give up on these convictions for now, to vote for Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and cross their fingers that the new administration won’t find a way to enlarge the Supreme Court, launch "Medicare for All" and make Washington, D.C., a state — on Day One.
Would I be this honorable if our situations were reversed?
In 1998, when Bill Clinton was president and facing impeachment, the USA TODAY Editorial Board at the time urged him to resign. I was a news reporter back then and couldn’t express a public opinion. But in private, I had no mercy: I wanted him to step down, the sooner the better.
Yet what did I really have at stake? Al Gore would have stepped into the presidency, with less baggage, a similar policy agenda and a better chance to advance it (see: less baggage). He would have run in 2000 as the incumbent of a party that had proved its seriousness by dispatching a flawed president — instead of as a dutiful vice president who never really was able to separate himself from the character questions dogging Clinton. And that might have made all the difference in that election, when Gore won half a million votes more than Bush, but lost because a surreal Florida recount and Supreme Court decision handed George W. Bush a 537-vote victory and the presidency.
Compared with Clinton, who had an affair with an intern and tried to cover it up, the moral choice on Trump is glaringly obvious. But the political calculation is far more complicated.
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Whereas Clinton had decided to reinforce his own youth, centrism and Southern roots by choosing a running mate like him, Trump took the more traditional path of balancing the ticket with Mike Pence — religious, conservative and Midwestern, with a conventional political résumé. He’s no match for the personal or political force that is Trump.
The staid former Indiana governor has no hold on Trump voters who are fanatically loyal precisely because Trump breaks rules and annoys liberals, and who believe him when he says (falsely) that he has done a great job on COVID-19 and reducing the deficit. Meanwhile, Trump has kept many economic and social conservatives on his team by delivering the tax cuts and Supreme Court justices at the top of their wish lists, and keeping new gun restrictions off the table despite horrific mass shootings during his term.
Could I abandon my party for America?
I try to imagine Democrats nominating and electing a president as unfit as Trump. It’s unthinkable, but what if we did?
I try to imagine voting a top-to-bottom slate of Republicans in 2018, and that, too, is unthinkable. Yet my sparring partner on politics, libertarian conservative David Mastio, who opposes gun restrictions and legal abortion as strongly as I support them, voted a straight Democratic ticket that year in Virginia.
“ I never thought the day would come, but things more fundamental than policy were on the ballot, things like decency and democracy itself,” he told me.
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I try to imagine setting aside what keeps me awake at night: Our massively frustrating struggles to do what other countries consider the minimum for keeping their people healthy and productive. Child care, health care, paid family leave, a robust national public health response to a crisis like the coronavirus. And more fairness: Voting that’s easy and convenient for everyone, courts that reflect our country and its will as expressed in elections, and yes, statehood for my taxed but unrepresented home of D.C.
Would I accept that these imperatives, festering without results for decades, must be put on hold? That nothing is more important than saving an America in peril?
I hope I would. Now there is an admirable example to follow.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Never-Trump conservatives for Joe Biden are patriots and role models