Idaho Politics, Reapportionment

A Short History of Reapportionment

“The past is never dead,” the great novelist William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” 

In the spirit of Faulkner the Idaho Legislature often seems to be the political equivalent of the Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” constantly reliving its flawed past, recycling old notions and re-igniting controversies once consigned to the political ash heap.

The legislature may have dodged a bullet pointed at its own foot this week when apparently cooler heads prevailed and Republican leaders pulled back, at least temporarily, from forcing a vote on a revamping of the state’s approach to reapportionment. The task of redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries needs to be done after every census. Done the old way, with intense partisan log rolling and insider deals, reapportionment is about the most political act imaginable. 

The Idaho House of Representatives

On the face of it, the recent reapportionment proposal, pushed by Representative Steven Harris, a Meridian Republican, is a blatant attempt to put the partisan back in redistricting. Harris hasn’t been around long enough to know – he’s in his third term – and like most replacement level Idaho legislators he clearly doesn’t remember what a mess reapportionment was when it was a blatant cutthroat partisan contest, a self-interested slugfest that ultimately reflected poorly on both political parties. 

Harris’s proposal, pulled back from a vote in the House early in the week, but still alive and thrashing about would have added a seventh vote to the existing constitutionally mandated citizen’s commission that is designed to force compromise and prevent either party from automatically having the upper hand when it comes to legislators picking their voters instead of the other way around. Voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state constitution in 1994 to, as much as possible, take partisan politics out of redrawing legislative district lines. As things now stand the citizen’s commission is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic appointees. It’s a setup requiring accommodation and mandate fair dealing. 

Under Harris’s proposal the new member would be selected by a vote of the state’s top elected officials – at the moment all Republicans, of course. That seventh member, beholden to elected Republicans, would automatically become the commission’s decider, the partisan legislative line drawing czar. Such power no person should want or have. 

The scheme would be, as the Idaho Falls Post Registerpointed out in an editorial, a license to gerrymander and to what end, carving up Ada County to thwart recent Democratic gains there? Prevent growing Boise districts from encroaching on traditionally Republican Canyon County? Punish Democrats for having the audacity to hold a whopping 21 of the 105 seats in the state legislature? 

A bit of history is informative. In 1982 a lanky, laconic, litigious lawyer from Coeur d’ Alene by the name of Ray Givens tied the Idaho Legislature in knots with his legal challenges to Republican inspired reapportionment plans. Three different Givens-inspired cases went to the state Supreme Court challenging plans the legislature crafted. Givens won, at least in part because partisan lawmakers put their own interests before the interests of their voters. Givens was awarded substantial legal fees, which for a time the legislature refused to pay, so the crafty litigator slapped a lien on the furniture in legislative hearing rooms. It was a first class mess, but none of the current legislative crowd was around to remember the turmoil. 

More trouble followed in the early 1990s when again partisanship trumped the basic democratic necessity of drawing fair and just boundaries. I’ve long thought that legislative Democrats that year put parochial, and often petty concerns about protecting a handful of incumbents ahead of attempting to create a number of new, genuinely competitive districts. It was, I am convinced, a turning point for Democratic fortunes in the legislature. 

By 1994 legislators and voters had enough of the partisan games and endless lawsuits and largely took lawmakers out of the line drawing business. The current system is far from perfect and it could be reasonably and responsibly tweaked, but the adjustments require a fine tool, not the partisan sledgehammer Harris, House Speaker Scott Bedke and no doubt most GOP lawmakers came to Boise to pass this year. 

Some Republicans have complained that redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries should be left to lawmakers who, as former GOP Representative Tom Loertscher said in 2018, “know our districts better than anyone else.” Exactly. And that’s the problem. 

Legislators know enough to add a precinct to their districts that would be helpful in the next election or shed one that might be problematic. They know enough to carve up an opponent’s district or to draw boundaries to punish a foe. It’s not unheard of to intentionally put two incumbents in the same district, particularly if those incumbents are in a party opposite yours. 

Only two things are really necessary for Idaho’s citizen-based reapportionment system to work properly. The first is to have the Republicans and Democrats who appoint the members of the commission select people who will genuinely act in good faith, without a partisan agenda. At a time when political cynicism oozes out of every voter, when elected officials have about as much credibility as aluminum siding salesmen, treating the business of reapportionment as a task above petty partisanship could not be more important. 

Appoint good, honest, fair-minded people to do the job and let them draw lines that respect voters more than protect politicians. 

The second requirement is for Idaho legislators to go find some other long dead bad idea and waste their time on that. Reapportionment isn’t broken, but only legislators can break it. 

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GOP, Immigration, Trump

A State of Emergency…

The only conceivable path Donald Trump has to re-election next year is to continue to fire up faithful fans by invoking his dystopian view of a nation threatened by an immigrant horde determined to storm the southern border and wreck havoc on America. It is the one constant theme of his presidency and the overriding theme of his State of the Union speech this week, a speech laced with words like bloodthirsty, sadistic, venomous and chilling.

Trump has perfected the politics of resentment, fear and scapegoating that Republicans have been shoveling ever more aggressively toward their “base” since Barry Goldwater invoked “extremism in defense of liberty” more than fifty years ago. 

Donald J. Trump delivers the State of the Union address.

That the image of the “lawless state of our southern border” is at odds with the facts hardly seemed to bother cheering Republicans in the House chamber Tuesday night. Republicans have largely embraced Trump’s resentment theory of politics, which is exemplified by his demonization of refugees and immigrants, while they have simultaneously tied the party’s future to Trump’s frayed coattails. 

The overheated rhetoric about border threats, of course, also clashes with Trump’s claims about the strength of the American economy and his calls for unity, the issue that members of Idaho’s congressional delegation chose to emphasize in their reaction. 

By general consensus of fact checkers the biggest whooper in Trump’s speech was his claim that a border wall built during the George W. Bush administration had reduced violent crime in El Paso, Texas. But, the actual statistics show that violent crime in El Paso – one of the safest larger cities in America – had actually plummeted before the barrier was constructed. Such twisting of reality helps explain why those who represent the border, Texas Republican Will Hurd for example, reject Trump’s wall as a waste of money, an ineffective simplistic symbolic fix for a complex problem. 

The U.S.-Mexican border at El Paso, Texas

While Trump did attempt the rhetoric of bipartisanship in the face of another looming government shutdown over funding the wall he offered no path out of the political dead end he himself has created. He avoided mention of the declaration of a national emergency, a tactic likely illegal and surely to be immediately challenged, but he left that explosive option on the table. 

That Republicans actually tolerate talk of a declaration of national emergency over Trump’s failure to secure a policy objective that he could not accomplished when his party controlled Congress is Exhibit A in how completely the GOP has abandoned common sense, old fashioned conservatism and the Constitution. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently actually said Trump “must” invoke emergency powers to construct a border wall “if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal.” 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch also seems resigned to a Trump strategy that will include a national emergency. Risch predicted recently to KBOI radio’s Nate Shelman that the president’s Constitutional overreach was likely to happen, and apparently that is just fine with him. 

“I think that the President has figured out that (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) is not going to give the President a dime for the wall,” Risch said. “They hate this president so badly, that they won’t do anything for him, or give him anything that makes it look like a victory, so they are not going to vote for it. They’re happy with the shutdown.”

That is typical of Risch’s constant partisan gaslighting – the super partisan blaming others for partisanship – as well as his acquiescence to all things Trump and it begs the question conservative columnist George Will asked recently about Graham and could have asked about Risch. 

“Why do they come to Congress, these people such as Graham,” Will wrote recently. “These people who, affirmatively or by their complicity of silence, trifle with our constitutional architecture, and exhort the president to eclipse the legislative branch, to which they have no loyalty comparable to their party allegiance?”

Once again history provides some perspective if we’re willing to understand what is at stake. In the early 1970s, in a true bipartisan effort, Senators Frank Church of Idaho, a Democrat, and Charles Mathias of Maryland, a Republican, worked for months to craft legislation – the National Emergencies Act – ensuring that Congress and not a president will define and supervise a true national emergency. The two senators co-chaired a Special Committee on the Termination of National Emergencies, determined to unwind generations of presidential emergency declarations dating back to the Great Depression. In their view such open-ended exercise of one-person power created vast opportunities for Constitutional overreach by the kind of president the nation now suffers. Their subsequent legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate. 

Senators Frank Church of Idaho

Church and Mathias, apropos of the current moment, were, as constitutional scholar Gerald S. Dickinson wrote recently, “acutely aware of and sought to prohibit a future president from taking advantage of the emergency powers for partisan and policy purposes.”

In testimony before a Senate committee in 1976, Church said the president “should not be allowed to invoke emergency authorities or in any way utilize the provision of [the National Emergencies Act] for frivolous or partisan matters, nor for that matter in cases where important but not ‘essential’ problems are at stake.” He might have been talking about “the wall.” 

Church, as his biographers note, believed containing a president’s ability to invoke a national emergency was one of the Idahoan’s proudest moments, an affirmation that Congress, armed with the Constitution, can and should stand against the overreach of a would be autocrat. 

We shall see where all this is headed, but make no mistake Congress can halt the national emergency nonsense and doing so would be a profoundly “conservative,” not to mention Constitutional thing to do. 

As for Risch and others like him in Congress don’t expect them to protect congressional prerogatives or stand up to a demagogue. When he recently became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a position Church once held, he proudly proclaimed that he would be no Frank Church. On that much, at least, his is absolutely correct. 

(Note: This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)

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Economy, Federal Budget, Taxes

Old GOP Con Runs out of Steam…

When Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden went to Bend, Oregon recently for his first town hall meeting there in two years he came armed with what he must have thought were two sure fire applause lines. 

Walden, a widely respected Republican and until Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives last November the chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee, is a lot like Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. They were among a tiny handful of Republican House members who split with their party and the president on the issue of the recent government shutdown. When Walden reminded 400 of his constituents gathered in a central Oregon high school auditorium that he had voted with Democrats to reopen the government he got a healthy round of applause. 

Oregon GOP Congressman Greg Walden at a town hall in Bend in January. (OPB photo)

But when Walden tried to pivot to a key GOP talking point it didn’t go so well. “So, tax cuts,” Walden said, ”It is no secret I’ve supported them. And I think they’ve had a strong effect on the economy—” but here the crowd took over, interrupting the congressman, as Oregon Public Broadcasting recorded, with “a chorus of boos and heckles.”

Walden, in Congress since 1998, was left to say: “OK, let’s try and be respectful.” The old, sure fire GOP applause line of “every tax cut is good for you” may finally have reached its sell by date. It just doesn’t seem to be working for Republicans in part because they have handed huge windfalls – again – to the super wealthy and big corporations, windfalls that have directly contributed to skyrocketing deficits and deepened worry about the strength of the economy. 

The prediction by virtually every Republican elected official that the $1.5 trillion tax cut would spur investment, job growth and wages has turned out to be just a political talking point rather than some kind of economic miracle. “There hasn’t been a huge surge in response to tax reform,” said Eric Zwick, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. What did boom were corporate stock buy backs. 

Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, told CNN Business, that he saw “no evidence at all” that the tax cuts have lifted business spending above what would have happened anyway.

A survey of American businesses published this week by the National Association of Business Economics(NABE) found that 84 percent of businesses surveyed indicated that the big tax cuts had “not caused their firms to change hiring or investment plans.” 

Meanwhile, the deficit grows and, no, the tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates a $900 billion deficit this year, growing soon to $1 trillion and reaching that number faster than CBO had been predicting. 

Financial writer Jim Tankersley put an exclamation point on the trend recently when he noted, “If growth fades in the coming years — as many economists believe it will — the cuts could exacerbate the deficit even more.”

It is a complicated and at times very cynical story about how cutting taxes, particularly for the most wealthy, became a bedrock principle of Republican politics. Republicans have beaten Democrats over the head with “tax and spend” labels at least since the 1970s, but it wasn’t always so. Dwight Eisenhower actually believed in rather than just talked about balancing budgets and he insisted that the government had to have the revenue to keep the public books in the black. 

More recently rank and file Republicans – the Idaho delegation comes to mind – has mastered the political jujitsu of advocating huge tax cuts for those at the top of the economy, while preaching the need for balancing the budget. And now that the GOP has a president who seems to care less about fiscal responsibility and has lost control of one house of Congress Republicans are against talking about balanced budget amendments. 

Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa, both of whom voted for the tax cuts, actually had the hutzpah to introduce balanced budget legislation recently. Lee said, presumably with a straight face, “As our federal debt continues to rise at an alarming rate, the least we can do is require the federal government to not spend more money than it has at its disposal.”

One reason the old tax cut then deficit handwringing game has worked so well for Republicans is that the tax code is complicated, indeed downright eye glazing to many. It’s even difficult for many CPAs to navigate the exemptions and loopholes, but the simple language of cutting taxes is easily understood, except perhaps when the fuzzy logic and dodgy math finally loses its political power. 

Before last November’s mid-term election Republicans knew from their own polling that they had lost the messaging battle over their tax cut. Bloomberg News obtained internal GOP survey results that confirmed – by a 2-to-1 margin — 61 percent to 30 percent — that voters saw through the hype and knew that “large corporations and rich Americans” benefited over  “middle class families.” That explains why Greg Walden got hooted down at his town hall recently and why you no longer hear Mike Crapo, Jim Risch or Simpson say much about the “signature” accomplishment of the first two years of the Trump Administration.

Graphic: Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy

More and more the tax debate in American politics is going to be shaped by fundamental issues that voters do seem to understand. Economic policy, including repeated tax cutting for the very wealthy, has for the last generation contributed to a hollowing out of the middle class, a flat lining of income growth, creating vast and growing disparity in wealth and stifling opportunity.

In another recent survey a sizeable majority of Americans now say that “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” is a bigger problem than “over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity” Among young Americans that belief is even more surely held. 

Ironically, by embracing a candidate who refused to release his own tax returns and gleefully oversold his tax cut, Republicans may have finally lost the political advantage they’ve held on tax issues since the Reagan years. It was quite a con while it lasted. 

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Borah, Church, Foreign Policy, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Risch Doctrine…

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

UNITED STATES – APRIL 8: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, questions Secretary of State John Kerry, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

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Uncategorized

The Trump Swamp…

My weekly column from the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke slinks away next week from the big building on C Street in Washington, D.C., he will have, in the space of less than two years, placed himself in the history books along side Albert Bacon Fall.

For a guy who once claimed to be a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” committed to conservation and protection of public lands, to leave office under an ominous ethical cloud and compared to Warren Harding’s Interior secretary who went to jail over the Teapot Dome scandal is a stunning come down. Once a rising Republican star, the former Montana congressman, now seems certain to be dogged by a host of investigations and forever tainted by association with the administration of Donald J. Trump.

So-to-be former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke .

When Zinke was named to the Interior post – Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rogers and Idaho’s Raul Labrador were contenders, but passed over – he was widely praised even by conservation groups. Zinke had crafted a bipartisan image in Congress, “the only Republican to support a Democratic amendment to permanently authorize the so-called Land and Water Conservation Fund,” as Politico noted. But proving the truism that absolutely everyone who works for Trump is tainted by the proximity, Zinke will be remembered, perhaps even beyond his grifting ethics, for rolling back national monument designations and generally trashing the conservation legacy of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

The two Idahoans who have served as Secretary of the Interior – Democrat Cecil Andrus in the 1970s and Republican Dirk Kempthorne for the last three years of the George W. Bush administration – were polar opposites in political ideology, but each understood that serving as the chief steward of all the people’s land carries a solemn obligation. While Kempthorne will likely be best remembered for the six-figure remodel of the secretary’s office bathroom, he did bring a genuine spirit of collaboration to the job. Andrus’ legacy as one of the nation’s great Interior secretaries is secure, in part, because he engineered the largest conservation initiative in history by protecting vast swaths of the last frontier – Alaska.

Zinke, despite the conservation rhetoric that temporarily assuaged some skeptics, attempted to transform the Interior Department into an extension of the oil, gas, mining and grazing industries. Zinke did his best to make true the old joke that the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, is actually the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. This, of course, was Trump’s aim in the first place.

The president, who one assumes has never spent a night under the stars, never fished a Western trout stream or devoted a second to thinking about conserving America’s most special places for future generations, turned stewardship of the environment over to fraudsters. Ethical shenanigans forced Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency – remember the $50 a night condo he rented from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist and his $3 million a year security detail? And Zinke now leaves subject to a potential criminal investigation involving the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton and some land Zinke owns and wants to develop in western Montana.

Trump appears poised to name as Zinke’s replacement an oil and gas lobbyist, the current No. 2 at the department, who literally has to carry a card with him delineating all his potential conflicts of interest. Into this swamp Labrador and soon-to-be-ex-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter have stuck a toe. Each has been mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior. Labrador needs a job and seems to be campaigning for the position. He tweeted fulsome praise toward Trump last week for – wait for it – signing an executive order, something Trump does over and over again in lieu of having a real agenda. Otter doesn’t need a job and should trust his gut and hang out at his ranch.

Vast acreage of the federal government during the Trump administration has become an ethics-free zone. A former Trump national security adviser may yet go to jail, three cabinet secretaries have resigned amid swirling scandals and the president himself is buffeted by a persistent special counsel, involvement in a campaign finance scandal that paid off a porn star, a corrupt family foundation and lord knows what else.

Remember draining the swamp? Zinke’s imminent departure reminds us that promise was as phony as Mexico paying for a wall.

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran, who leaves after issuing a withering indictment of the president’s abandonment of allies and leadership on the international stage, should also give any Interior aspirant ample reason for pause.

If Trump comes calling on Labrador or Otter, they should remember the words of the conservative scholar Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor to Condoleezza Rice during the second Bush administration.

Writing last week after Mattis’ resignation over a matter of principle, Cohen said in The Atlantic: “Henceforth, the senior ranks of government can be filled only by invertebrates and opportunists, schemers and careerists. If they had policy convictions, they will meekly accept their evisceration. If they know a choice is a disaster, they will swallow hard and go along. They may try to manipulate the president, or make some feeble efforts to subvert him, but in the end they will follow him. And although patriotism may motivate some of them, the truth is that it will be the title, the office, the car and the chance to be in the policy game that will keep them there.”

But, it’s not worth it. Anyone who gets close to this chaotic mess will get stained, or even destroyed. The evidence is in plain sight. The swamp devours the swamp’s own creatures.

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Editor’s Note: My biography of Montana New Deal-Era Senator Burton K. Wheeler has an official release date – March 21, 2019. The book, a look at a genuine political maverick, as well as a much different U.S. Senate, is available for pre-order at Amazon or the University of Oklahoma Press.

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Foreign Policy, GOP, Trump

Two Things About the Mattis Resignation…

  Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

–Resignation letter of General James Mattis

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The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is being seen, as it should be seen, as not merely a senior Cabinet member leaving after losing a policy battle, but rather as a fundamental repudiation of the worldview of an American president. 

The resignation has stunned Washington, shaken our allies and, for the first time in the first two years of his chaotic presidency, caused significant numbers of elected Republicans to stir themselves to something approaching opposition.

The push back comes too late however. The damage is done. The work to re-establish American moral and political leadership across the globe will take a generation to repaired, if in fact it can be repaired.

Two things about Mattis’s resignation strike me as historically significant. 

Mattis and Trump

First, a principled resignation from public service has rarely, in fact hardly ever, been a feature of our politics. The only resignation in modern times that comes close to what Secretary Mattis did yesterday was the resignation of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages held in Iran. That resignation, quietly made before, but not publicly announced until after the ill-fated rescue mission failed, was mentioned in the first three graphs of every Vance obituary when he died in 2002.

In other words, Vance, like Mattis, told the president of the United States that he was so fundamentally opposed to an administration’s policy that he could no longer serve. 

This kind of resignation (as I have noted before) occur with some regularity in other western democracies. Key officials, for example, have been fleeing Theresa May’s government – 19 high profile resignations so far this year – over the British prime minister’s handling the Brexit mess.

Anthony Eden, then the British foreign secretary, resigned in February 1938 after a dispute with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over the best approaching to dealing with Benito Mussolini.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently suffered the resignations of several high ranking officials in his government, one of whom spoke publicly of Macron’s “lack of humanity,” a line that could just as well apply to Trump.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that the Mattis resignation over a serious matter of principle – of course, Donald Trump broadly ignored Mattis’s advice on a range of issues, not just Syrian policy – begins a new phase in American politics where serious people quit rather than work in an environment that debases their judgment and their sense of patriotism.

As for the argument that Mattis has provided what little adult supervision exists in the Trump Administration, and that he stayed so long in the face of so much chaos in order to protect the military and the world from the worst of Trump, I just don’t buy it.

You only provide the kind of supervision Trump needs (but won’t accept) if you are effective. In the main, the retired Marine Corps general, was not all that effective when it comes to policy. He opposed the decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway. He opposed the senseless and constant Trump criticism of NATO allies. Trump kept it up. He even lost on the question of who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Trump rejected his favored nominee. Even when Trump refused to acknowledge the importance of the late Senator John McCain’s career, Mattis publicly did so, but without offering even a mild rebuke to the president’s petty meanness.

The best outcome of Mattis’s resignation could be that the impact of his action will jar Washington Republicans out of their get-along/go-along Trump stupor and cause, at least some of them, to provide real oversight and substantive checks on the president. Mattis presumably could have stimulated this outcome months ago. Now, at last, he has. Maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned in the reality TV series that the American presidency has become. 

Mattis resignation letter

The second takeaway for me from this historic moment is simply the head spinning reality that this foreign policy and national security chaos is taking place in a Republican Administration. The laws of politics and the orientation of our political parties has been turned completely upside down. The same Republicans who lamented, often with good reason, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign and defense policy now own the most dysfunctional presidency in modern times. 

Republicans were once able to savage Democrats as “weak” on national security and eager to retreat from world responsibilities. That story line is now completely reversed thanks to Donald Trump.

Republicans who once based a good part of their brand on a clear-eyed reality about America’s role in the world have now embraced an ignorant, uninformed foreign policy that has trashed the post-war international order, facilitated the ambitions of China to further dominate the Pacific, emboldened authoritarian dictators, faked its way through North Korean talks about nuclear weapons and made Vladimir Putin the happiest man to occupy the Kremlin in a long, long time. 

Historians will write about this Republican collapse of rationality for generations to come, as well as those who aided and abetted it. While I suspect General Mattis will be mostly a footnote to this history, remembered more for his resignation than his accomplishments, one phrase in his resignation letter should be the jumping off point to assess why the GOP has fallen so far so fast. A fundamental reason for this debacle is simply the wholesale abandonment of fact-based competency in favor of the ranting and ignorance of a man totally unfit for the office he holds.

“Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies … Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” 

Associated Press coverage of Trump’s Syrian decision.

The key phrase in Mattis’s letter came as he explained his belief in the importance of international alliances and the need to oppose the evil intent of what he called “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis based his opinion, he said, on insight gained, and this is the key phrase, “over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

In their hearts and minds most elected Republicans know that Donald Trump is an ignorant buffoon totally out of his depth. They must pray every night that he will not have to confront a real international crisis.

To allow Trump to get and keep the job he has many Republicans have suspended belief in the importance of “immersion” in reality. The GOP has traded competency and rationality for power and party. And that train wreck continues to unfold in real time.

Many Republicans have been relying on a guy like Jim Mattis to keep this careening locomotive on the tracks. Now, what do they do?

GOP, Idaho Politics, Russia, Trump

Moral Rot…

My weekly column from the Lewiston Tribune 

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In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.  

The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.” 

The new GOP brand: moral relativism. 

Senator John Thune

South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says. 

Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”

You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”

Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.

Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch 

Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests. 

In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”

Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.

Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”

We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all. 

When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution. 

Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.” 

Bush, Politics, Trump

The Last Non-Despised President…

          “The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the Republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.” – Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker

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Former President George H.W. Bush is being fondly remembered as a man of character and kindness, a president who certainly made serious mistakes (don’t they all), but one who also exercised power with – to use one of his favorite words – “prudence.” The remembrances make the contrast between the late president and the current one all the more stark.

George H.W. Bush – 41

Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a fierce critic of Donald Trump and author of a scathing critique of the modern Republican Party called The Corrosion of Conservatism, wonders “how, in the space of a quarter-century, did we go from President Bush to President Trump?” The answer is complicated, as one suspects Bush 41 understood. He could be a self-reflective president, unlike the current one.

Mr. Rogers and John Wayne…

The comedian Dana Carvey made a mini-career of impersonating Bush on Saturday Night Live, exaggerating the preppy president’s gestures and speech for comic effect.

Comedian Dana Carvey performs his imitation of President George Bush in 1992.

After hearing of Bush’s death, I watched Carvey’s surprise White House appearance toward the very end of his presidency – H.W. had just lost to Bill Clinton – and came away thinking it takes a comedian to begin to understand the ying and yang of Bush. The 41st president was a genuinely brave Naval aviator, an aristocratic New Englander remade into a Texas oil man, a failed Senate candidate, a fierce partisan, a CIA director, a loyal vice president and a man who ruined his presidency by doing the right thing.

Perhaps Bush should have known that a new breed of Republican disrupters – read Newt Gingrich – would never cut him slack for raising taxes in service of reducing the deficit. Unlike the rest of the GOP, Bush never forgot that cutting taxes almost always leads to bigger deficits. Voodoo economics is not fake news. The moment marked a turning point away from responsible, bipartisan governing.

Carvey said his Bush voice was a mixture of Mr. Rogers – “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” – and John Wayne, a certain clipped, confident shorthand that often saw Bush mangle a phrase, but still convey his essential meaning. In a way Bush governed – evidence of his better angels – like Fred Rogers. He was prudent, careful and kind. He signed the Americans with Disability Act, a landmark piece of legislation that showed the country and its politics at its best. Bush, surrounded by adults like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, presided over a peaceful end of the Cold War, a moment we now take for granted that might have gone horribly wrong. Bush knew that an international coalition was needed to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and also knew that a contained Saddam, as thuggishly brutal as his regime was, was better for the region than the decades of turmoil his son unleashed by engaging in regime change.

Prudent isn’t a bad epitaph.

But, if Bush governed like the essentially decent, pragmatic, mostly moderate Republican he was, he campaigned as something else. After losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bush embraced, or at least accepted, the sharp, divisive, negative style that came out of the election cycle. We remember the Reagan landslide (with Bush as his vice president) as a major turning point in American politics, but that election also featured the first widespread use of the independent expenditure campaign. Exploiting the liberalization of campaign finance limits, independent campaigns went on the attack in a major way in 1980. Reagan benefited, but so did a new generation of political operatives, including Paul Manafort, Roger Ailes, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater. Their essential negative tactics, constructed of fear, division and, yes, racism, continue to shape GOP campaigns, conservative media and the current occupant of the White House.

When Bush got his own shot at the White House in 1988 he campaigned like John Wayne, all American flag factories, assaults on the ACLU and race baiting with the infamous Willie Horton references. Horton, an African-American convicted of murder, raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while on prison furlough, a program in place in Massachusetts when Bush’s opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, was in office.

The ad…

Technically the Bush campaign didn’t run the “Willie Horton ad,” but left that dirty work to something called the National Security Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure campaign supposedly independent of the Bush campaign. Bush did, however, repeatedly invoke Horton on the stump and Atwater, his campaign manager, really did say: “If we can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.”

Bush insisted to his biographer Jon Meacham that the references to Horton and the furlough issue were about Dukakis being soft on crime and none of it was meant as a race-based “dog whistle” to fire up the increasingly white base of the Republican Party. Yet as Meacham notes, “In truth, in the tangled politics of that difficult year, as so often in American life, [the references] ended up being about both.”

Bush and Dukakis, 1988

Dukakis, of course, was a perfectly awful candidate – remember him riding around in a tank with a funny looking helmet – and Bush won that election decisively, if not altogether honorably. Bush recorded in his diary, as Meacham reports, that critics would long complain that he had taken the low road to the White House. Bush, ever the pragmatist, wrote simply: “I don’t know what we could do differently. We had to define this guy [Dukakis].”

When the pragmatic Bush tried to compromise with a tax and budget deal his “prudent” approach was rejected by many in his party, none less than Gingrich, who cared less about governing and the nation’s future than he did about a generation of political power for the political right. It’s ironic that while people across the political spectrum praise Bush’s style and basic decency, one of his signature accomplishments – the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – is daily trashed by the current non-governing Republican Party. In the end, Bush – Willie Horton and all – was too much the pragmatist, too much a pro, too much a policy wonk for a party owned now for a man as far removed from Bush as decency is removed from vulgarity.

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          “How different is Trump’s Republican party from Bush 41’s? George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disability Act in 1991. Donald Trump mocks the disabled. George H. W. Bush summoned a coalition of 35 countries for the first Gulf War. Donald Trump attacks even our closest allies, England and Canada, and talks about NATO like it was a deadbeat tenant. President Bush negotiated the original North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and brags he has ordered armed U.S. troops to respond with deadly force to brown people throwing rocks at the border. George H. W. Bush celebrated charity and kindness. Donald Trump mocks a ‘thousand points of light.’ George H. W. Bush enlisted at 18, the Navy’s youngest pilot, in civilization’s last great battle against tyranny. Donald Trump dodged military service multiple times, celebrates tyrants and defends Nazi’s as ‘good people on both sides.’”

          –  Republican strategist Stewart Stevens

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Thinking about George H.W. Bush I’m reminded of the words of the great British historian Julian Jackson, author of a marvelous biography of “le grand Charles” De Gaulle. “All biographers,” Jackson writes, “must guard against the temptation to impose excessive coherence on their subject.” And so it is with the 41stAmerican president.

A Man in Full…

Let’s remember Bush then as a man in full, a Mr. Rogers with a John Wayne side.

Bush was furious about this cover…and now we know it was wrong

By all accounts Bush loved being president and he was at his best when making friends. As the greatest political journalist of our age, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote in one of the best political books of our age, What It TakesBush was once asked what made him think he could be President? The answer: “Well, I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends.” Indeed he did and I for one won’t quibble with the statement that his was the most successful one-term presidency in American history. It would be prudent.

But the man also badly, badly wanted a second term in 1992 and was willing, as Cramer wrote to do what he had to do to win. Bush actually told interviewer David Frost that he would, in fact, do anything – whatever it took – to win again. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot had different ideas and Bush lost.

Richard Ben Cramer’s landmark book on the 1988 presidential race

And we are left to wonder how we got from the man with all those friends, the guy who wrote the thousands of thank you notes and befriended, of all people, his old opponent Bill Clinton, the prudent guy, how we got from that guy to this guy.

Part of the answer has to be that leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the conservative media echo chamber created by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, have been telling their supporters, at least since Bush 41, that compromise is bad, moderation is capitulation, Democrats are evil and that fear tactics in the service of winning elections are acceptable, indeed necessary. Part of the answer is also that the Republican Party has now fully bought the Trumpian notion that politics is about “feeding the angriest instincts of his base.

So much for Mr. Rogers.

It is a complicated story and the man being remembered this week was, too.

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Climate Change, Trump

Truth Decay…

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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In his famous Harper’s magazine essay about American politics, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen.”

Hofstadter wrote about what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” in 1964 when another Republican, Barry Goldwater, was threatening to destroy his party with fanciful notions about winning nuclear wars and staging for adoring crowds at his rallies what the journalist Richard Rovere called “great carnivals of white supremacy.”

The politically paranoid, the eminent historian argued, is a victim of his own lack of awareness where eversion to facts and his circumstances and experiences “deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him – and in any case he resists enlightenment.”

A week ago, while many Americans were still in a turkey and dressing induced post-Thanksgiving food coma (or perhaps shopping at a big box store on Black Friday), thirteen agencies of the federal government released a 1,600-page report on our changing climate. The first sentence of the report stated its most important conclusion in clear and unusually stark terms: “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.”

The report was purposely released on a holiday Friday in order to minimize the exposure of facts like this one: “Since the first National Climate Assessment was released (in 2000), the United States has endured 16 of the 17 warmest years on record, and the latest assessment paints a bleak picture of the future.”

Donald Trump, of course, dismissed the careful, factual work of scientists in four words. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

Such idiocy led Trevor Noah, the host of television’s Comedy Central, to ask: “How can one man possess all the stupidity of mankind. It’s like they edited his genes to give him superhuman stupidity.”

In order to agree with our scientist-in-chief you need to consciously discount the serious, detailed, principled work of 300 government and university scientists who drew upon the work of thousands of other scientists who have studied, analyzed and calculated what is happening to the climate.

This group includes two scientists I talked with this week who wrote chapters of the National Climate Assessment dealing with the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Philip Mote is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. He earned his PhD at the University of Washington. Another author is Dr. Scott Lowe, the associate dean of the graduate school at Boise State University, a professor of environmental studies and a researcher on resource economics. He has his PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Both scientists told me a key takeaway from the new climate report – the fourth such effort since 2000 – is that Pacific Northwest resource industries, including particularly timber, agricultural and fisheries, best get ready for an unpredictable new era of climate variability. More variability in stream flows. More low snowpack conditions. Reduction in irrigation capability. More variability in growing seasons.

Here are just three sentences from the report on climate impacts in the Northwest:

  • “Forests in the interior Northwest are changing rapidly because of increasing wildfireand insect and disease damage,attributed largely to a changing climate.”
  • “Impacts to the quality and quantity of forage will also likely impact farmers’ economic viability as they may need to buy additional feed or wait longer for their livestock to put on weight, which affects the total price they receive per animal.”
  • “Decreases in low- and mid-elevation snowpack and accompanying decreases in summer streamflow are projected to impact snow- and water-based recreation, such as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, boating, rafting, and fishing.”

Dr. Mote, the Oregon State climate scientist, told me he recently went back and looked at the first national climate assessment. He described that effort as “educated speculation,” but now he says we know in detail what has been happening to the climate over the last two decades and the conclusions to be drawn are more certain and more emphatic. As the report says, “observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations” for the amount of warming taking place “instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause.”

Trump is not alone, of course, in his denial of evidence starring us in the face. And while the dismissal of decades of science is an insult to the very notion of truth – Dr. Mote calls it a “raw denial of knowledge” – it is also flat out dangerous. The scientists stress that we do have the ability to adapt and deal with much of the impact of climate change, but denying the existence of what is happening – the dangerous part – paralyzes any meaningful action and the longer we wait the less likely we’ll adapt well or at all.

Dr. Lowe, the Boise State researcher, says the rejection of fact-based science is frequently tied up with weird notions of a conspiracy theory that university and government scientists “have an agenda that is funded by someone.” This is pure nonsense. They are scientists seeking facts. They volunteer there expertise.

In the Trump Era the very idea of truth is taking a beating, “truth decay” one recent report called it. Meanwhile, debasing expertise and knowledge gets us an administration stocked with a knucklehead who blames California wildfires on “radical environmentalists” and puts the president’s son-in-law, a trust fund baby and New York real estate developer, in charge of crafting a Middle East peace plan. Such folks not only seek no enlightenment, they are supremely comfortable in their ignorance.

As you shift the competing “truth” about climate change ask yourself a simple question. Who are you going to believe: a bunch of scientists who have been studying an issue for decades and have their work double and triple checked by other scientists or a guy who bankrupted his casino?

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Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics

The Myth of the Saudi Special Relationship

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

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On June 9, 1979 Molly Ivins, the brilliant and still widely mourned reporter – she had a rare knack for simultaneously turning a phrase and twisting a knife with her journalism – had an Idaho datelined story in the New York Times.

“Confrontation over Mideast Policies Apparently Taking Shape in Idaho ’80 Race for Senate,” was the headline over Ivins’ story where she explored the fallout from a speech then-Senator Frank Church had given that was deemed to be highly critical of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Church, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, actually had criticized both the Carter Administration and the Saudis in his widely reported speech. Both were guilty, Church said, of undercutting efforts for a comprehensive Mideast peace. The U.S. was “pinning our policy to false assumptions,” Church said, much as the U.S. had placed a losing bet on the “a rotting regime” in Iran when for decades presidents of both parties made apologies for the Shah.

Jimmy Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Church, predictably, was accused of undermining a vital strategic relationship when he criticized the Saudi regime, which was then as now, an often violent and repressive dictatorship. But the Idahoan did it anyway, taking on both a president of his own party and Idaho economic interests. The Boise-based construction firm Morrison-Knudsen had a huge contract in 1979 to build a new city in Saudi Arabia and Church’s eventual 1980 opponent, Steve Symms, was calling for accommodation with the region’s dictators in the interest of selling both American weapons and Idaho wheat.

Some things never change.

Amid the broad international condemnation of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a gruesome, barbarous hit almost certainly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS to his “friends” – the current president can only focus on what Time magazine calls a “cold financial calculation: Saudi money for U.S.-made weaponry” that results in American jobs. Or as Donald Trump put it recently, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”

Murdered journalist – and U.S. resident – Jamal Khashoggi

It is a brutal and cynical calculation and, like so many other “myths” which have long been the foundation of American foreign policy, it will be self-defeating. Frank Church knew that 40 years ago, Trump and his congressional enablers never will.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship is a veritable case study of how money, influence and delusion come together in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post recently outlined how the “sophisticated Saudi influence machine” has lavished millions on lobbyists, consultants, law firms and think tanks in order to prop up the myth that the Saudi dictatorship is a vital U.S. ally. The kingdom spent more than $27 million on such influence buying last year.

Robert Kagan, a veteran of the George W. Bush State Department and now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, has argued that America has long harbored a fantasy about “reforming” dictators like MBS. Fanciful as it now seems, some Americans once thought Mussolini or the Shah of Iran would “reform” and we placed naïve bets on such fiction.

“Today, the Saudi crown prince’s U.S. supporters are asking how he could have been so foolish if he, as it appears, ordered the murder of Khashoggi,” Kagan wrote recently. “But who are the fools here? Dictators do what dictators do. We are the ones living in a self-serving fantasy of our own devising, and one that may ultimately come back to bite us.”

Which brings us to the Idaho politician currently in a position to influence U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. You might be excused for forgetting that Senator Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, has such power. But the man who will almost certainly be the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t, near as I can tell, spoken a syllable about the Saudis. No statement of concern or condemnation over the Khashoggi murder. No thought or threat about sanctions. Risch, who never tired of slamming one aspect or another of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is now a sphinx as a feckless president makes excuses for the inexcusable.

Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, will soon chair the Foreign Relations Committee

Some argue, and perhaps Risch believes this too, that American interests are served well enough by the Saudi regime’s effort to create “stability” in the Middle East, while using our weapons and help to churn up more chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.

The real Saudi objective and the overriding objective of every despot – this has been the case since Franklin Roosevelt’s historic tete-a-tete with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 – is the preservation of the wealth and power of the ruling monarchy.

When Frank Church called out the Saudis in 1979 he was at the height of his influence and he used his platform to try to redirect U.S. policy. As his biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have noted Church “thought it was time for somebody with some stature in American politics to speak plainly to the Saudis.”

It’s well past time for that to happen again. If only there were a courageous Idahoan in a position of authority in the Senate. But guts and the perspective to take on a woefully ignorant president and a Washington influence machine in the service of a corrupt foreign government is not something you’ll find in Jim Risch.