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Once upon a time, we punished leaders who lied, thought they were above the law, or deflected responsibility. Nixon felt the brunt of that standard, Reagan skirted by on Iran-Contra, Bush 41 was ousted for lying about raising taxes, and Bill Clinton was impeached for deceit under oath.

Comparatively, the 2016 presidential election seems like a race to the bottom.

Despite the popularity most recent presidents enjoyed, the public held them accountable. But today, we won’t apply the most basic standards to presidential hopefuls, who should receive more intense scrutiny.

Our standards for vetting a presidential candidate have plummeted even as the power granted to the executive office has grown almost immeasurably.

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic debate and increased her support to 49 percent. That’s despite having possibly violated the Espionage Act as a sitting Secretary of State, and perhaps criminally mismanaging Benghazi. She’s also short on substance, assuming she doesn’t need it since she leads the pack.

Donald Trump comfortably leads the GOP field, sounding more like a right-wing Bernie Sanders than a free-market conservative, as he barks unilateral intentions, ungrounded in reality, for if he becomes president.

The candidates carry different credentials, but both are highly questionable choices for an office that wields the most significant — and ever-expanding — power in the free world.

It seems the country has adopted a fascination with the personality of the presidency, encouraging bombastic politicking that lacks substance and truthfulness, while simultaneously questioning why the federal government has so much power to begin with.

At just 43 percent, trust in the executive is at an eight-year low, according to the long-running Gallup Poll, just 3 percent above the historical low of 40 percent in April 1974, during Watergate.

Meanwhile, for the third year in a row, 60 percent of Americans think the federal government has too much power, up from 39 percent in 2002 and 51 percent in 2009.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.”

Americans aren’t enthused with President Obama’s administration, as polling indicates. But with Clinton and Trump directing the presidential wannabe circus, it’s increasingly certain they’ll like future administrations even less.

That’s because as the power of the federal government and its executive grows, the kind of person attracted to the office is increasingly unscrupulous.

Gene Healy, author of Cult of the Presidency, calls today’s presidential campaigns “a Darwinian contest regarding bottomless ambition and moral flexibility … likely to deter well-adjusted, principled men and women from seeking the office.”

In that light, it’s no wonder the growing independent vote has been ignored, and that voter turnout is consistently low.

Beyond its implications for the American Republic, empowering deceitful behavior in the executive office serves neither party long-term.

“You tend to give [presidents of you own party] a pass, but one thing that’s certain is the presidency is going to change hands,” Healy said. “So your position should really be trust, but verify … or, don’t trust, verify.”

kbuss@detroitnews.com

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