Are political civility and respect for law making a comeback as Republican values?

During the debt ceiling negotiations, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said something surprising that surely did not endear him to the Freedom Caucus. He actually complimented the White House negotiators. 

“And I do want to thank the president’s team,” he said. “Very professional, very smart. Very strong beliefs that are different than ours.” 

Biden returned the compliment , no doubt to the annoyance of the Progressive Caucus, saying that McCarthy had “negotiated in good faith” and “kept his word.” And this even came after McCarthy had nastily mocked Biden’s age by offering to bring some “soft food ” to a debt ceiling negotiation at the White House. 

After Trump’s years of vile political attacks, such as calling Democrats “un-American” and “treasonous ” because they did not applaud him during a State of the Union address, the exchange of  compliments was a breath of fresh air that evoked an earlier, more civil era.  Recall President Ronald Reagan’s graceful tribute to his longtime adversary House Speaker Tip O’ Neill (D-Mass.) for his “years of dedication and devotion to country…You make us proud as well, my friend.”

Political civility is important because, from its origin, America has always been about debating what America is about. How the debates are conducted can sometimes be as important as the outcome — see, for example, the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, which was a violent, lawless extension of the debate over the legitimacy of 2020 election.

Contrast the vigorous, sometimes heated, but dignified debates in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, with the debates in the French Revolution, where the guillotine cast the deciding vote.

Equally striking, 60 Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives, which invariably promotes a conservative agenda , voted to impeach Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, even though he is a national “MAGA” hero and had Trump’s strong backing in the impeachment battle.

Compare these Republicans’ principled stand with the 147  Republican Senators and Congressmen who, on the basis of incendiary lies that dozens of courts had rejected , voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Or, for that matter, compare it to Trump’s vow to pardon the convicted January 6 defendants and even to apologize  to them. 

The Paxton impeachment again brings to mind another era, such as the Watergate impeachment proceeding, when leading Republican Senators and Congressmen, putting the rule of law first, told Republican President Nixon that he had no choice but to resign.

Paxton, who is also under criminal indictment for securities fraud, could yet be acquitted at his impeachment trial in the Texas State Senate. One of the 20 impeachment charges against Paxton alleges a bribery scheme in which Paxton issued favorable legal opinions to a Texas real estate developer named Nate Paul, who reciprocated by giving a job to a woman with whom Paxton had allegedly been having an affair.

But in a twist worthy of Dallas or Yellowstone, one of the 31 Texas Senators who would sit and vote as jury on impeachment charges (21 are needed to convict) happens to be Paxton’s wife, State Sen. Angela Paxton (R). 

In the normal legal world, husbands and wives do not sit on juries in cases where their spouses are defendants. But Texas is Texas, and Sen. Paxton has yet to state whether she will recuse herself. The mind boggles at the prospect of her casting the decisive vote acquitting her husband. It would serve only to vindicate legendary journalist H.L. Mencken’s observation that “the Storm Center of lawlessness in every state is the State Capitol.”

While these are baby steps, political civility and respect for the law could yet re-emerge as nationally held values.  Wouldn’t that be something?

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six U.S. House members of bribery. His newest book, Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia , is due out in December.

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