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May 22, 2019

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OPINION:

President hasn’t erased our values

Eventually — and I earnestly hope the day comes soon — true conservatives will get fed up with the hot mess that Washington’s current leadership has dumped upon our beloved constitutional system. They will grasp for alternatives more aligned to traditional American values than what President Donald Trump and his cynical enablers are delivering.

Fortunately for those of us who believe that democracy is sustained by a healthy contest of viewpoints, there is more than one clear path out of today’s turmoil.

It’s hard for some of us to imagine that anybody who looks clear-eyed at Trump doesn’t wish for a better option. He can’t stop himself from dishing up flat-out falsehoods — claiming credit in his State of the Union address, for example, for “the biggest tax cuts and reform in history,” when, in fact, the new tax law is no more than the eighth-largest cut since 1918. His assault on the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities, obviously with the intent of covering up Russian influence in the 2016 election, must be an embarrassment to Republicans who have long prided themselves as champions of law and order. His assault on the First Amendment to discredit unfavorable press coverage is nothing short of unpatriotic.

And the president’s dubious personal integrity — from routinely reneging on business debts to that secret $130,000 payment to a porn star just before the election — are at odds with the behavior we have a right to demand of our leaders.

No wonder, then, that many conservatives already are looking beyond the Trump presidency. Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor who was an early dropout from the 2016 Republican presidential contest, offered a view of our post-Trump future in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, warning that Trump’s electoral success is more that of a man than a movement, which “may leave behind millions of frustrated, voiceless people” and two parties that won’t have changed much.

Some people hope for better.

Last month, I heard a thoughtful conservative agenda pushed forward by a local voice who many of the 100 or so people in the room at the Hearst Media Center surely hope can reach a bigger audience. It was Chris Gibson, the Republican who represented part of our community for three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, talking about his book, “Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream.”

Gibson was an Army colonel, a decorated brigade commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, before his brief political career. He is now teaching at Williams College. That’s not a political payoff, by the way: Gibson earned a doctorate at Cornell while in the Army, and taught at West Point.

It’s easier to speak your mind, of course, when your name isn’t on the ballot and you don’t need to raise money for a campaign. But Gibson has never been a predictable partisan, and both his talk and his book set him in a rare place.

He chastises both George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being too quick to use military force (in Iraq and Libya, respectively), noting that a militarized foreign policy has yielded a $20 trillion debt that “threatens the republic.” He applauds courts that held up Trump’s Muslim-focused travel bans, which Gibson says epitomize a decades-long executive branch incursion into realms that our Constitution reserved for Congress. To diminish the perversion of democracy by Big Money, he wants a constitutional amendment to give Congress power to regulate federal election campaigns.

It would be a mistake to look at those stances and conclude that Gibson is a liberal Republican. That’s an extinct species, in any case, though it was last sighted in New York, about a quarter-century ago. No, the arguments in “Rally Point” are solidly based on conservative values: peace through strength, religious liberty, local empowerment and home rule over an authoritarian federal government, and free markets for commerce.

But the fact that values-based conservatism bordering on libertarianism — my characterization of Gibson’s views, not his — can be confused with progressive or liberal stances suggests that Americans may not be as divided as our political parties these days practically force us to be. Imagine if the Republicans who control Congress lived up to the conservative values that supposedly undergird their party: Today’s dysfunctional White House might matter less.

There’s an argument for a progressive path out of this morass, too, but that’s for another time. Today, let’s seize on the hope generated by the fact that there’s a genuine conservative option to heal our wounded democracy.

Rex Smith is editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.