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John M. Crisp: How does your favorite presidential candidate feel about hitting children?

Few commentators give South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott much hope of overtaking Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination for president — or of even polling above single digits.

They’re probably right. But it might be a mistake to discount too quickly the articulate passion that Scott displayed last week during his formal announcement of his presidential run. Like Trump, Scott knows instinctively how to connect with, flatter and rev up his audience, essential political skills that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, struggles with.

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Much of Scott’s speech was traditional political boilerplate, short on substance but customary for a campaign launch: We live in a “land of opportunity”; “There is dignity in all work”; “America is the greatest nation on God’s green earth”; and so on.

Scott brought his mother onto the stage — “Thank God for a good mama!” — and praised her for raising him and his brother under difficult circumstances, enabling his successful rise from poverty to the U.S. Senate, which is a fine backstory for a potential president.

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But one line from his speech made me cringe a bit: Scott believes in hitting children.

When Scott was a freshman in high school, he failed four subjects: Spanish and English, world geography and civics. He said that his mother was a “tireless encourager,” but when she saw his report card, “she introduced me to a different form of encouragement.”

Scott turned profile to the audience and, indicating his posterior, said, “It was applied from right about here … all the way down to here,” indicating his ankles. Scott says that he never failed another course.

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Scott’s spanking riff reinforced his connection with his audience, which responded with a knowing laugh, as if the virtues of spanking are a punchline to a joke known by all adults but kept hidden from the children.

But spanking, in any form, is actually a terrible way to discipline children. The results of many studies are echoed in a 2018 position taken by the 67,000 pediatric experts who make up the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP strongly recommends the abolishment of all corporal punishment for children, arguing that not only is it ineffective, but it contributes to other long-term problems, such as fearfulness, aggression and various other undesirable behaviors.

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Some countries have banned corporal punishment for children, and in America the trend is toward less spanking. But we’re still a country where just about the only citizens we can strike with impunity are mixed martial artists, boxers and children.

Americans are fairly committed spankers, however, and if 67,000 pediatric specialists are unable to sway our views much on spanking, this column is unlikely to.

But Scott’s speech got me thinking about the connection between the ordinary business of the presidency — budget, law enforcement, foreign affairs — and the personal attitudes and character of the president.

Is it important that a significant political figure is able to stoke his campaign by describing an act that even spanking’s apologists would say goes too far?

Scott wasn’t a nonverbal toddler; he was a freshman in high school. And since no “spanking” from backside to ankles is administered with an open palm, is Scott giving American parents permission to use a switch or belt? Isn’t that what “good mamas” do? And isn’t he also blurring the dubious distinction between a spanking and a beating?

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All presidential candidates’ attitudes toward children are relevant to their presidencies. And since these days all Republican politics point toward Donald Trump, one wonders if we should have paid less attention to his hazy, ill-defined policies and more to his attitudes toward children, women, Muslims and the inhabitants of certain types of undeveloped countries.

As recently as his May 10 CNN town hall, Trump said that he is still willing to submit frightened children to the traumatic experience of forced separation from their parents in order to stem illegal immigration. There’s only one word for this policy: cruelty.

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In the presidency, character matters as much as policy. And there’s no better index on our character than how we treat children.

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