Late last month, while U.S. President Donald Trump was in Japan, some Democrats spoke openly of impeaching him. At the same time, the President cited a statement from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un suggesting former vice-president Joe Biden was hobbled by a low IQ. “He probably is, based on his record,” Mr. Trump said. “I think I agree with him on that.”
In yet another departure from U.S. civic life in the Age of Trump – and yet another example of the coarsening of public life south of the 49th parallel – American politics no longer stops at the water’s edge.
With Mr. Trump beginning a European trip Monday, Washington is bracing for another series of toxic exchanges between the President and his Democratic critics and still more violations of what was, for nearly three-quarters of a century, an inviolate custom that morphed into a virtual rule of politics and became a revered emblem of civility: Americans don’t criticize the President when he is abroad and the chief executive refrains from partisan politics when he is out of the country.
“Historically, that has been a rule,” said John Sununu, who was White House chief of staff for president George H.W. Bush.
That rule persisted in periods of American politics that were, by some measures, just as contentious as the Trump era. It has been abandoned by both parties, however, in recent years.
“Our leader is at fault and the opposition is at fault,” said Andrew Card, who was White House chief of staff for president George W. Bush. “It starts at the top, but the President isn’t the only one who violates this rule.”
The leading student of the presidency in the middle of the last century, Richard Neustadt – a storied professor who taught at Cornell, Columbia and Harvard – described the “water’s edge” notion as president Harry Truman’s “own injunction.”
It was swiftly adopted across party lines. As long ago as 1950, senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan serving during the Democratic administration of Mr. Truman, employed the phrase as a boundary for partisan pugilism.
The New York Times journalist Arthur Krock, at the time regarded as the arbiter of conventional American political practice, quoted Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson saying partisan politics stopped “at the water’s edge.” Mr. Johnson repeated that notion, and that precise phrase, in 1964, when as president he expected special respect while travelling abroad.
The water’s-edge rule persisted while a bipartisan foreign policy, aimed primarily at opposing Soviet Communism, prevailed in Washington. Without a single target of American national-security policy, the rule evolved into an expression of civility rather than of strategy.
But in the Trump era, where civility is scarce and national-security strategy difficult to discern, the water’s edge does not seem to be as formidable a barrier of partisan warfare. And with fewer impulses at home toward bipartisanship – and seemingly fewer rewards for the practice – there are fewer impediments to wading into the water’s edge.
“There just isn’t the instinct for bipartisanship right now,” said Richard Norton Smith, who has been director of the Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan presidential libraries. “This was a doctrine that dictated that politicians subordinated short-term or clearly partisan gain for the longer, larger pursuit of the national interest.”
In a contemporary if futile bow to that tradition, a veteran Republican lawmaker, 14-term Representative Peter King of New York, criticized Mr. Trump for his remarks overseas about Mr. Biden. “Wrong for @POTUS Trump to criticize @JoeBiden in Japan and to agree with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. King said in a tweet. “Politics stops at water’s edge. Never right to side with murderous dictator vs. fellow American.”
The water’s-edge nostrum will be severely tested this week, when Mr. Trump opens his trip with visits with Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Minister Theresa May, then meets French President Emmanuel Macron and visits the Normandy landing beaches to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
“Trump wants to burnish his international credentials to look bigger at home, thinking no one would want to impeach a president who had tea with the Queen and stands at the Normandy beaches,” said Lawrence Goldman, a prominent British historian who taught American history at Oxford for two decades. “If he goes on the attack, it would be foolish. He’s wanted an invitation to London and he should behave in a gentlemanly fashion.”
That restful setting at Normandy, once the site of brutal combat, has produced some of the most stirring moments in the pageant of the American presidency.
It was there, at the Normandy beaches, where at the 40th anniversary of the invasion president Ronald Reagan gave one of his most unforgettable speeches.
“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
A decade later, president Bill Clinton pointed to the surviving veterans of the invasion gathered for the 50th anniversary and said, “When they were young, these men saved the world.”
That is a high bar for Mr. Trump, who himself will be standing at the water’s edge.