2020 Election, Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Trump

The Senate on Trial…

You may have heard a number of references this week to the Senate impeachment trials of two former presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom, given the long verdict of history, likely deserved to be convicted. Neither was, of course, and Donald Trump almost certainly will not be convicted either. 

“The proceedings there look like a flimsy excuse for a trial,” David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “and they are. But under the surface, a series of real trials is going on. Vulnerable senators sit in the dock, the jurors are voters, and the verdicts won’t come back until November.” 

“A flimsy accuse for a trial…”

While the serially lying president is technically on trial for abuse of power and his corrupt obstruction of Congress, additionally it is the Senate itself and individual senators on trial and among the accused are Idaho’s get-along by going-along Trumpians, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. 

Neither Idahoan did anything this week to warrant the high public trust that voters have repeatedly bestowed upon them and their craven political opportunism may yet bite them. By repeatedly rejecting the notion that the Senate should actually conduct a trial of the president as the Constitution demands, Crapo and Risch have put the interests of the Republican Party – not to mention their own interests – ahead of the truth. 

Both men voted over and over again not to seek witnesses or documents that the Trump White House has systematically refused to produce. This knowing disregard for information that could either convict or exonerate Trump may prove to be an effective strategy to prevent the truth from catching up immediately with the president, but the known unknowns of what is to come, a steady drip, drip of harmful revelations, should bring shivers to what is left of the spines of Crapo and Risch. 

Risch also unintentionally provided what will both be a lasting image of Trump’s impeachment and a metaphor for his own bootlicking in service to the president. Since still cameras are not allowed in the Senate chamber an old-school sketch artist for the New York Times captured Risch in pen and ink, head buried in hand snoozing at length during the trial’s opening day.  

New York Times artist sketch of Idaho Senator Jim Risch sleeping during the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate

Ironically, Risch’s afternoon nap came at the precise moment the Senate was debating whether to require the production of documents from the State Department, the agency of the federal government that Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to oversee. It is worth noting that not once in the first year of his chairmanship has the napping Risch required an appearance before his committee of the Secretary of State who is positioned squarely at the center of the Ukraine scandal that engulfs Trump’s presidency. So, Risch’s sleeping is more than a metaphor it is a pattern.  

But set aside the comparisons to the racist, bullying Johnson in 1865 and the womanizing, dissembling Clinton in 1999, the true historical analog to the current Trump trial happened in 1954. In December of that long ago year of the Eisenhower presidency the United States Senate actually acquitted itself very well by condemning the outrageous conduct of one its own – the junior senator from Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy. 

As much as Trump’s presidency reminds us of Richard Nixon, another vulgar Republican who at least had the good grace to confine his bigotry to private conversations and eventually had the decency to resign the presidency short of being impeached, Joe McCarthy is Trump’s true political ancestor

McCarthy, as the superb new documentary in the PBS American Experience series makes clear, based what became his celebrity and his Republican power on a lie. McCarthy rode the fiction of widespread communist infiltration of the federal government all the way to the top much as Trump rode the lie about Barack Obama’s citizenship to his own takeover of the GOP. Both men are bigots: McCarthy an abuser of homosexuals and “elites” in the entertainment world, while Trump attacks any critic, but particularly immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans like the black listed athlete Colin Kaepernick or Congressman John Lewis

McCarthy was a bully. Trump is, too. Both count the repulsive Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s Senate aide and Trump’s long-time lawyer, as a godfather. Each attacked and skillfully manipulated the press and intimidated fellow Republicans into support or silence. Each tapped into something dark and sinister in the American psyche, the uncommon willingness to embrace the paranoid and ego driven impulses of a blustering demagogue. But there the parallels end because in 1954 the Senate, unlike today’s Senate, did something about McCarthy

Utah Republican Arthur Watkins’ investigation led to McCarthy’s 1954 censure by the Senate. Naturally McCarthy attacked him

Led by Republicans who had had enough of McCarthy’s nonsense – a hero of the story was Utah Republican Arthur Watkins whose role in bringing down McCarthy featured in the first paragraph of his obituary twenty years later – 67 senators condemned McCarthy, as one biographer has noted, “for obstructing the business of the Senate, impairing its dignity, and bring the entire body into dishonor and disrepute.” 

Yet with Trump Senate Republicans can’t muster the guts to even seek let alone confront the truth. As journalist Susan Glaser wrote the Trump defense team, much like the president, is “loud, intemperate, personally nasty, ad hominem, factually challenged, and often not even bothering to have a tenuous connection to the case at all.” The word “Ukraine” did not pass their lips. 

A Senate on trial and found wanting may well have even longer-term consequences for the increasingly fragile American experiment than ignoring the crimes of an individual president. Once the sideboards of Constitutional constraint where the legislative branch holds to account the executive are chopped into kindling the whole structure weakens and slides toward collapse. Have no doubt that is happening. 

In 1954 when Senate was on trial along with Joe McCarthy, Idaho’s then Republican senators, like Crapo and Risch today, took the path of party loyalty rather than institutional honor. Herman Welker, a one-term Idaho senator who if he is remembered at all is remembered as “an unflagging supporter” of his pal McCarthy, was one of 22 Senate Republicans – Idahoan Henry Dworshak was another – who refused to sanction McCarthy. 

“I wonder,” Welker said after the McCarthy censure, “if we did not injure the reputation of the Senate more than we could have in any other way.” Welker’s prediction was blindingly wrong and history honors not him, but those like Arthur Watkins who defended the honor of the institution. 

For Crapo and Risch it’s one thing to be a knee-jerk partisan, but an altogether more serious matter to be a wrecker of great institutions in service to a criminal president. 

—–0—–

2020 Election, Campaign Finance

The Scandal of Political Money…

(NOTE: This is the first of two parts on political spending by independent expenditure committees and how this practice has perverted American politics.)

———-

If you were looking to identify a single date in recent history where American democracy made a sharp swerve in the wrong direction, you could do worse than fingering Friday, Jan. 30, 1976. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned significant parts of the federal campaign finance law put in place in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

To the lasting detriment of rational politics in America, the court held that groups and individuals could raise and spend unlimited amounts on so-called “independent expenditure” campaigns so long as the “independent” groups did not coordinate with a candidate or another campaign.

Not many Americans knew at the time that the decision handed down on that long ago Friday would begin a tumbling of political dominos that would severely distort politics, vastly expand the role of money in politics, breed widespread voter cynicism and lead to a handful of other judicial decisions — the outrageous Citizens United, for instance — that have created a profoundly corrupt system.

If you have come to hate the barrage of “negative” political commercials, the slick mailers and the almost always distorted rhetoric of modern campaigns, you have Buckley v. Valeo to blame. The decision was the foundation stone of modern sleazy campaigns conducted by shadowy groups who employ every measure of deception to hide their donors and their motives.

A landmark 1976 decision

The plaintiffs in the Buckley case were an odd collection of interests, as diverse as the decision was consequential. The Buckley was James L. Buckley, brother of the conservative writer and magazine editor William F. Buckley. Jim Buckley, a Yale Law grad, was a genuine political fluke, elected to the U.S. Senate from New York on the Conservative Party ticket in 1970 with just 39 percent of the vote.

Buckley’s political fluke is owed to his defeat of a Senate incumbent, moderate Republican Charles Goodell, father of current National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell had been appointed to replace Robert Kennedy by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller following Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

Buckley was a one-term senator and later Reagan administration official and federal judge. His name remains, however, most firmly identified with the 1976 court decision.

James L. Buckley a plaintiff in a case challenging federal election law in 1976 that legalized the “independent expenditure” campaign

Two of Buckley’s fellow plaintiffs in suing the Federal Election Commission were liberal Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had made his reputation as the poetry-writing contrarian who helped force Lyndon Johnson out of the presidential race in 1968, and Stewart R. Mott, an eccentric multimillionaire who pumped thousands of dollars into McCarthy’s campaign and other liberal causes. Mott’s support for what a Richard Nixon aide called “radic-lib candidates” earned him a spot on Nixon’s “enemies list.”

McCarthy and Mott had nothing in common ideologically with Buckley, but they all shared an interest in spending lots of money on politics, preferably with as little regulation as possible. The Supreme Court largely sided with them in Buckley, a landmark that one legal analyst called “an exceptional case — a 143-page … behemoth with 178 footnotes, five separate opinions of the eight justices involved, writing eighty-three more pages, which with appendices yielded a 294-page reported decision.”

By the time the Supreme Court decided the subsequent Citizens United case in 2010 — that decision overturned 100 years of settled law by declaring that unlimited corporate and labor union political spending is protected as free speech — Buckley had been cited in more than 2,500 legal cases relating to campaign spending.

To read the decision or listen to the now available tapes of oral arguments is to realize how confused the justices were about the nexus between political money and political corruption. Justice Byron White did understand the linkage and argued that Congress had been correct in identifying a compelling need to limit political money.

Supreme Court Justice Byron White warned against “a mortal danger” involving politics and money

“The act of giving money to political candidates,” White wrote in a dissent, “may have illegal or other undesirable consequences: it may be used to secure the express or tacit understanding that the giver will enjoy political favor if the candidate is elected. Both Congress and this court’s cases have recognized this as a mortal danger against which effective preventive and curative steps must be taken.”

White’s argument did not prevail and, as the Congressional Research Service noted in a 1981 report (updated in 1984) about the subsequent rise of “independent” political action committees, “By lifting the limits on (independent) expenditures, while leaving intact those on direct contributions to candidates, the court’s ruling created a major avenue for individuals and groups seeking to influence elections beyond the level permitted under” federal law.

Before Buckley political action committees (PACs) played a minor role in American politics. Now they are American politics.

For example, one estimate holds that $55 million, much of it from out-of-state interests shielded from disclosure, will be spent on television advertising during the Maine U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger.

Maine Republican Susan Collins’ Senate re-election campaign will likely see more than $50 million in spending

Maine is, of course, a key battleground that will help determine which party controls the Senate after 2020. But even given that significance, the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy calls the $55 million “an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets.” Duffy notes that a year before the election, “Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.”

Outside money, much of it impossible to track, is flooding Iowa’s Senate race and the Republican incumbent, Joni Ernst, has been trying to swat away allegations that an “independent” group helping her and run by some of her former aides has violated the law prohibiting coordination between the candidate and an outside PAC.

Politico reported recently that President Donald Trump is being victimized by an array of groups raising money in his name, but doing with the money God knows what. In an 18 month period, “$46.7 million flowed into close to 20 Trump booster organizations, structured as PACs or political nonprofits and with names like Latinos for the President and MAGA Coalition.”

All this money, of course, is virtually impossible to trace or track, which is after all why we have disclosure. Voters are supposed to be able to see who is supporting a candidate and evaluate for themselves where the money is coming from. But the practical ability to do that is a rude fiction, as is the myth that “independent” committees don’t collude — often very openly — with candidates.

Every Senate race in the country this year will have similar stories to what we’ve already seen in Maine and Iowa because the political money system is broken, unaccountable and, yes, corrupt.

And sadly the corruption is coming to a city hall near you, which is a story for next week.
 

2020 Election, Russia, Trump

A Bad Time for Truth…

I came of age in politics when it was considered a sin – a near mortal sin – to be caught in a lie or to be deemed guilty of a flip-flop. Now shameless lying and blatant position shifting are at the center of American politics. 

It is a bad, awful, distressing time for facts. Everywhere you look politicians are shading and shifting or more often bald faced lying and changing positions for political advantage. 

America’s chief dissembler.

Nowhere is this denial of facts more obvious than Republican efforts to shuffle off the extent to which Russian influence has come to rest at the center of American politics. Republican senators and members of Congress regularly repeat Kremlin talking points on national television. The attorney general dismisses his own Justice Department inspector general’s report that concluded that the 2016 counter intelligence investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign was justified. And on the very day articles of impeachment are prepared against the president, Trump invites the Russian foreign minister to the Oval Office, a blatant display either of the president’s hubris or proof that he really is under Vladimir Putin’s thrall. 

It is worth remembering, which is difficult to do amid the chaos that has marked American politics for the last three years, that the trail that leads to Trump’s seemingly inevitable impeachment by the House of Representatives always arcs back to Moscow, and not the one on the Palouse. 

Trump will be impeached, of course, if not convicted for his efforts to bribe the president of Ukraine into announcing an investigation into a political rival. The operative word here is “announcing” since Trump could care less about political corruption in Ukraine. He merely wants a Twitter bat to swing repeatedly at Joe Biden, an outcome he has perhaps already succeeded in achieving. The mere announcement of investigations could be used, in the absence of real facts, to bludgeon a political opponent in the same way Hillary Clinton’s emails drove the narrative for Trump in 2016. 

But the real connecting tissue here is Russia. Let’s review.

In 2014, Russia “annexed” Crimea, a part of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Subsequently pro-Russian forces invaded eastern Ukraine. The Obama Administration led a unanimous Europe in condemning these actions, forced Russia out of the bloc of leading economic nations and imposed the first of a series of sanctions. Obama later sanctioned Russia for election interference.

Putin rebuilds the Russian Empire with an assist from the White House and Republicans

For Putin these moves against the old Ukrainian Soviet republic, as Konstantin Skorkin wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, “signaled Russia’s rebirth as a great power, ready to ignore world opinion in the pursuit of its national interests.” 

Enter the whole Trump-Russia thing, which is explicitly connected to Ukraine in a dozen very specific ways. 

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump told an interviewer in 2016 as he echoed Kremlin talking points. Earlier this year Trump bizarrely claimed Crimea “was sort of taken away from President Obama,” effectively absolving Putin of his obvious responsibility for an invasion and the resulting deaths of 10,000 Ukrainians. 

The Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election makes clear – you really should read it – that Russia broadly and blatantly interference with the election to assist Trump and that he encouraged and welcomed the helped. Putin has admitted he was happy to see Trump elected knowing he would be a soft touch for continued Russian interference in Ukraine and elsewhere.  

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 aimed at signaling the incoming administration would work to ease Obama’s sanctions related to Ukraine. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in jail for, among other things, money laundering related to work he did for pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. 

Trump yucks it up with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the day after he fired the FBI director as part of the “whole Trump-Russia thing”

When Trump first met with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office shortly after he had fired the FBI director, he boasted that James Comey’s dismissal took the heat off him. For good measure Trump then disclosed national security secrets to his Russian friends. That information was subsequently leaked to the Washington Post and Idaho’s Jim Risch – bizarrely is the word here too – blamed the leakers and said Trump was within his rights to cavalierly declassify secret information. Risch was correct that Trump has that right, but doing so doesn’t make it right. 

In the summer of 2018 Trump met face-to-face with Putin in Helsinki and when asked if he believed Russia had interfered in the election the American president sided with the former KGB operative over the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence officials. He then spun a word salad of misdirection and lies about the FBI, “the server” and Clinton’s emails, a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump eventually connected back to… Ukraine.   

This chain of events, a Manchurian Candidate-like screenplay, rolls off the backs of Putin Republicans like water off a duck. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor: Russian disinformation clings to these Trumpian disciples like breadcrumbs on Chicken Kiev. 

Now we daily confront the systemic lying by Republican elected officials who join Trump in advancing a totally fanciful narrative that Ukraine, the country Putin continues to war with, was really responsible for American election interference. Congressman Russ Fulcher has been sipping this crazy conspiracy Kool Aid lately, suggesting without a thimble of evidence, that former vice president Joe Biden is corrupt and that’s why Trump was justified in pressuring the Ukrainian government. 

Trump meets with Putin in Helsinki and sides with the Russian dictator rather than U.S. intelligence agencies

You’re left asking – and every member of Congress should be forced to answer – who really benefits from this embrace of Russian propaganda inserted into the American political bloodstream? Who benefits from advancing a false narrative about Ukraine and working to weaken a new pro-western government there? Who benefits from efforts to delegitimize career diplomatic officials, intelligence agencies and the press that has uncovered much of this sordid mess? Who benefits when Republicans like Fulcher side with Russia over the Constitution and labels an impeachment inquiry, one obstructed from the get go by the president, as a “shameful, sham of a coup.”

How did the Republican Party get from Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “the evil empire” – the Soviet Union in the 1980s – to the embrace of a president who has courted, praised and enabled a Russian president who was once an intelligence agent of that evil empire and today seeks to rebuild it? 

The times are ripe with irony. The party that once prided itself on tough-minded reality in opposition to brutal authoritarians now celebrates a homegrown con man who embodies the kind of lawless thuggery Reagan once condemned. 

Congressman Mike Simpson, the last Republican I would expect to embrace Russian fables, lamented Trump’s looming impeachment by saying, “today is a dark day for our country.” Simpson is right, but for all the wrong reasons. 

—–0—–

2020 Election, Carter, Trump

Political Crazy…

The cowboy humorist Will Rogers famously said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party . . . I’m a Democrat.”

I celebrated Will’s 140th birthday recently by remembering that my dad like to quote him saying things like: “A politician is not as narrow-minded as he forces himself to be.” Or this classic: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously, and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice versa.”

The humorist and social commentator Will Rogers

Which brings us to the absurdity of modern American politics, an unprecedentedly divisive president and those who would replace him. 

Donald Trump has, as one-time GOP strategist and John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt said recently, “completely remade the American presidency through his debasements of its traditions.” Trump is the first president in any of our lifetimes who has consistently sought “to incite and divide as opposed to unifying around core principles.” 

Yet, Trump is betting that he can avoid, despite ever mounting evidence of abuse of power, being forced from office and that he can again thread the Electoral College needle next year, while losing the popular vote. Trump’s only path to victory is to become ever more shrill and demagogic in bashing his opponents. “Our radical Democrat opponents,” Trump said recently, “are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” 

That is palpable nonsense, but it’s all he has. Donald Trump wants the coming election to be about anything but him and Democrats will make a historic – hopefully not also tragic – mistake if they allow the election to be anything but a referendum on Trump and his presidency. 

Yet, Democrats like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are playing directly into Trump’s small hands with their own crazy divisiveness. It comes in a vastly expensive and vastly controversial “Medicare for All” plan. Trump will re-brand this as “socialism” in a New York minute. 

Every American with the possible exception of a few hospital administrators, medical device manufactures, insurance company CEOs or orthopedic surgeons knows that our “system” of health care is an ultra-expensive joke. We spend more money for worse outcomes than almost any other developed country. Yet our political leaders go into partisan lock down mode to prevent sensible efforts that could make things better. Mitt Romney once proudly embraced – you can look it up – what essentially became Obamacare, but when Romney’s reforms became identified with a Democrat open political warfare ensued. And Republicans effectively conceded the entire issue to Democrats. 

Remember Trump promised, “I am going to take care of everybody … Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.” Right. The only policy the GOP has is repeal of Obamacare and they haven’t done that. 

So with all this running room to maneuver on a fundamentally important issue for millions of Americans Democrats are debating who can raise taxes the most to fund “Medicare for All.” The plan is not only unrealistic because it can’t been enacted, but also because it cedes the health care issue to a president who can’t remotely articulate a true policy but can say “socialism.” 

It turns out that the worst president in modern times, even one who is a narcissistic sociopath, will beat a socialist every time. 

Meanwhile, Democrats are focused on macro contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the least representative states in the nation, as the means of winnowing their gang of potential candidates. 

Jimmy Carter, who most Americans now regard as a not particularly skillful president, but a remarkable former president, needs to share some of the blame for why we place such outsized importance on Iowa. Democratic presidential candidates who couldn’t find Dubuque on a map two years ago can now not only locate the river town on the Mississippi but also name the local party chair in Osceola County, population 6,040. 

Jimmy Carter made the Iowa caucus what it is today.

Former vice president Walter Mondale once disavowed any presidential ambitions – it was fake news – when he said, “Life is too short to be spent in Holiday Inns,” but that’s what you do in Iowa. 

Until Carter in 1976 made the curious, which is say insane Iowa caucus process central to selecting presidential nominees the quaint local tradition was, well, a quaint local tradition. Now the political universe turns on the latest Iowa Poll and whether Biden is slipping or Mayor Pete surging. 

I like Iowa. I worked there years ago at a small radio station where I interviewed Rosalyn Carter late in 1975. But I’m still not sure a few thousand people gathered at a school gymnasium in Waukon or at a Lutheran Church in Corning is the best method to select the next Democratic candidate who has a minor charge: save the country. 

For one thing the logistics of getting people out from in front of the television on a Monday night in February in Iowa is a daunting challenge. As one organizer recently told the Des Moines Register, “It’s like … trying to plan a wedding reception at the same time at 86 locations and you don’t know who’s going to show up.” 

No sane political party – at least no organized one – would select candidates this way. And no organized party confronted with one overriding objective in less than a year would flirt with let alone adopt some of the positions Democrats are espousing. 

“Medicare for All” may be the undoing of some Democratic primary candidates and, if so, they deserve the undoing. Come on, Iowa! 

Democrats, at least some of them, seem to have forgotten that they don’t need a policy prescription for every single issue confronting the world. They just need to not scare a lot of Americans who are dog-tired of Trumpian nonsense and incompetence and are looking for a change, but not a scary change. 

Democrats need to remember their task is to defeat a historically unpopular president by realistic appeals to women, young people and Latino and African-American voters who are repulsed by Trump’s chaos, lying and corruption. The old white guy crowd is lost to Democrats, but the right Democrat can appeal to the remaining genuine swing voters who will take a dim view of a plan that eradicates 150 million private health insurance plans and raises taxes to do it.  

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics, Trump

Leadership Failure

The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days: 

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit. 

Trump wanted to buy Greenland, the Danish prime minister said that was “absurd” and he got mad.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.  

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed. 

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer. 

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions. 

A president who disses our allies and coddles the world’s dictators

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7. 

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right. 

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome. 

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal. 

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” 

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7. 

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.” 

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Jim Risch of Idaho, the completely self-assured and totally ineffectual chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders. 

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda. 

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket? 

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy. 

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job. 

2020 Election, Politics, Trump

Have We No Decency…

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968. 

An inflection point. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same. 

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy. 

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man. 

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it. 

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized. 

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won? 

A litany of high crimes and misdemeanors

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few. 

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road. 

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along. 

A history of the GOP over the last decade: internal strife, power politics and willingness to accept Donald Trump

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.) 

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made. 

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions. 

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.” 

2020 Election

Plead for the Future…

You wouldn’t know it from watching the cable television food fights that masquerade as Democratic presidential debates, but the 2020 presidential election will not be about “socialism” or “Medicare for all,” or “climate change” or even the great Democratic unifier Donald J. Trump. 

No, the next presidential election will be about what all presidential elections are about: a choice. 

Elections are about a choice

A choice between two people: a racist, polarizing, pugilistic incumbent with the power of Twitter and a reptile brain understanding of how to always put himself at the center of everything, and a Democrat. How that Democrat frames the contest and how Trump has already framed it will determine the outcome. 

Democrats better make the frame a simple and forward-looking one. The election is, after all, about what kind of country we want. Trump has made his vision clear. He wants a racially polarized country where fear and resentment constitute policy. Trump is betting, and Republicans on the ballot next year are meekly going along, that he can channel George Wallace one more time and draw an inside straight in the Electoral College and repeat his narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If he wins again he will almost certainly do so without again winning the popular vote. 

It is a risky strategy, but it’s all he’s got. Pre-Trump, American politics was always about addition. He’s made it about subtraction. He’s done nothing – less than nothing, really – to grow support. His only possible political path is to further divide, while insulting and demeaning his way to a second term on the strength of an angry, resentful, mostly white middle class. 

There are clear signs that this approach will fail. The Associated Press recently went to suburbs in Michigan, Colorado and Pennsylvania, three states critical to Trump’s re-election or a Democrats chance to win, and found that many women – often swing voters – have grown weary of Trump and his tactics. 

“I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is — definitely narcissism and sexism, but I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is,” said Kathy Barnes while shopping in the Denver suburb of conservative-leaning Lone Tree. “I am just ashamed to be an American right now.”

Ms. Barnes just framed the election for whomever wins the Democratic nomination. What kind of America do you want? What kind of place will this American experiment produce? What the future for your kids and grandkids? 

Having sorted through all the post-mortems on the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and believe me that is a lot of sorting, I conclude that Trump won for two fundamental reasons. 

Trump v. Clinton: The 2016 choice that left many Americans cold

First, Trump was – and is – a disrupter, a bull in the political china closet, throwing fits and smashing the place settings. I thought it odd back in 2015 when a friend in his 70s told me he thought Trump was a joke, but would vote for him because “things couldn’t get any worse.” He was willing to burn the house down, throw the dice and elect a con man simply to shake things up. 

Second, and because every election is a choice, Trump won because of who his opponent was in 2016. Clinton was – and remains – every bit as polarizing, if better mannered, than Trump. When Barack Obama said during his 2008 contest with Clinton that she was “likeable enough” he understated that factor by half. In a contest with a superbly unlikable guy she came in second. 

I haven’t a clue at this point who will emerge from the bloated Democratic field, and since two news cycles in our politics is now a lifetime absolutely anything can happen in the next 15 months. However, I am pretty sure Elizabeth Warren’s plan for everything or Joe Biden’s record on forced busing won’t matter much in the fall of next year. 

Plans and proposals and platforms won’t beat a guy who is all about fear and fights and fiction. You don’t beat a demagogue with a five-point plan. You need what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.” 

“I am pleading for the future,” the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow once said. “I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

That’s a vision. 

Another of those suburban women, Yael Telgheder, 36, of Novi, Michigan, told the AP she was a reluctant Hillary voter in 2016, unhappy with her either/or choice. Yet, she can’t imagine a 2020 vote for Trump. “To be honest, there are certain things that — he’s a businessman — so I understand the reasons behind them. But all of the disrespect and lies and stuff like that, it’s just too much for me.”

Maybe Trump wins again. Incumbent presidents usually do, but then again he is no typical politician. To counter a president who has hastened America’s decline, who has embraced a political strategy of division and discord, whose appeal is increasingly only to a white nationalist America you need to offer an optimistic vision of America for Americans. 

Trump’s “American carnage” was both a warning and a prediction. Democrats need to plead for the future. 

—–0—–

2020 Election, Higher Education, Idaho Politics, Trump

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

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

It is hardly news that in the space of less than a week 28 hard right Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives publicly went after diversity programs at the state’s largest university, while their moral and spiritual leader once again confirmed his racism in all its shameful detail. 

This is the modern Republican Party: embracing white supremacy, attacking any notion that diversity in a nation of immigrants is to be celebrated and trotting out once again the age-old chestnut that Americans outside the dominant white culture really aren’t Americans. 

Chants of “send her back” erupted at the president’s rally in North Carolina where he continued his attacks on four women members of Congress.
(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump doesn’t bother with dog whistles or code words; he’s an open and unapologetic hater. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said of four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, all American citizens.

“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, whose book on the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. “The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago — clichés like black neighborhoods ‘on fire’ — and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labeled as unwelcome in America.”

The wing nut caucus of the Idaho House at least tried to dandy up the language of its racism, even if the intent shines like a beacon. “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture [at Boise State University] becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students,” the legislators said in a letter to new BSU president Marlene Tromp.

The Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls and including many members of the Education Committee (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Eagle, have some how concluded that creating a welcoming, inclusive campus is driving tuition increases. Someone needs to tell these experts in higher education that puny state financial support for colleges and universities is what is driving tuition increases. 

Boise State’s efforts, it’s worth noting, have the laudable objective of trying to expand the diversity of both students and faculty, a goal that ought to be embraced not condemned. The university remains overwhelmingly white, with Hispanic students making up about 13% of the student body. Every major employer in Idaho, including Micron, Hewlett-Packard, the state’s largest hospitals, the Idaho National Laboratory and on and on will tell you of the vital importance to attracting and retaining a diverse work force. These businesses can’t have that work force unless the state’s universities are working to attract diverse students. 

Yet, if your idea of politics and public policy is to always find new ways to divide and incite anger, while scratching the old itch of resentment against “others,” you can willingly ignore the real world, as Trump and his Idaho acolytes do. After all, racial resentment is valuable red meat for “the base.”  

Some political analysts have suggested there is a cunning re-election strategy behind Trump’s latest racist comments. By playing on white nationalist themes, fear of immigrants and resentment against women of color, so the theory goes, he stokes the fever swamp of the Republican base, the only possible path Trump has to re-election. It’s a good theory and if it is true that Trump is both a racist and a cynic then what he is doing is even more reprehensible. The arrogant white privilege exhibited by the gang of 28 Idaho Republicans is no better. 

Diversity and social justice: Not GOP values in Idaho.

Was the letter to the new BSU president really intended for her or was the real audience the alt right fringe that increasingly defines the Idaho Republican Party? It’s hardly a coincidence that the mendacious Idaho Freedom Foundation, a “dark money” funded collection of anti-government cranks with a remarkable record of losing lawsuits, has been peddling the same anti-diversity story. The Freedom Foundation’s president, Wayne Hoffman, wrote recently that he found Marlene Tromp’s commitment to “social justice” alarming. Only in Trump’s America would a commitment to social justice be anything other than normal. 

“The agenda of Republicans has always favored white people,” says Kurt Bardella, a former top aide to California Republican Darrell Issa, “and now for the first time in contemporary times they have a leader who is willing to ascribe words to that agenda.” 

Trump’s Republican Party, and that of his Idaho followers, is increasingly not really conservative, but reactionary in the same way that Barry Goldwater and his followers in the 1960s wanted to turn back the clock. It’s a new “America, love it or leave it” moment. And for good measure Trump and his reactionary enablers salt in a bit of Joe McCarthy nostalgia, invoking a fear of “socialists” and “communists” and equating dissent with a lack of patriotism.

The casual Idaho Republican embrace of racism and nativism embodied in the BSU affair amounts, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says, “to collaboration — perhaps ‘collusion’ is a better word — with the president’s assault on diversity and pluralism.” And, of course, the Idaho congressional delegation fully accepts the collusion, a particularly shameful display of gutlessness given the state’s long struggles with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“Go back where you came from” is among the oldest and worst racist tropes, a leap beyond questioning a president’s birth certificate or condemning a Mexican-American judge because of his ethnicity. Almost as old is the trick of condemning your opponents as un-American. Dividing Americans by their skin color, their heritage, their religion, and their beliefs is from the playbook of a demagogue. Trump owns that playbook now and Republicans have handed their party to a hateful, petty, racist leader who they follow blindly and meekly. 

Trump was asked this week if he was concerned that he was using the language of white supremacy. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. The president doesn’t say much that is true, but he’s correct about that. Unfortunately a bunch of those people serve in the legislature and represent Idaho in Congress. 

—–0—–

2020 Election

Order, Order…

“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the cowboy comic Will Rogers famously said. “I am a Democrat.”

Democrats fight among themselves, argue about the future of their party and display a genuine affinity for forming a circular firing squadron whenever an election looms. Joe Biden is being attacked for saying he actually believes in bipartisanship. Bernie Sanders is too old and too socialist, but even he struggles to explain what his brand of socialism really looks like. Kamala Harris was a tough on crime prosecutor and that is somehow a liability. I could go on, but you get the drift. 

Will Rogers

The Twenty-three angry Democrats now running for president is all the proof required that the Democrats are no “organized political party.” 

So, since no one is asking, I offer a Democratic Manifesto for both national and Idaho Democrats to impose some order on the chaos. 

First, the basics: every election is about the future. Donald Trump made the 2016 election a referendum on his version of the future, which ironically – or cynically, or manipulatively – was actually about recreating a vision of the country that never existed. “Make America Great Again” was his slogan. It’s time for Democrats to make him eat those words. 

Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter squirm in 1980 by asking a question Democrats should be asking: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Trump partisans will point to a strong economy, but the micro answer to Reagan’s question is clearly: No. 

Karl Rove, the politically smart, but ethically challenged brains behind George W. Bush, always had a formula: attack your opponent at his point of greatest strength. John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran, while Bush arguably dodged the draft, so in Rove World the correct response was to “swift boat” Kerry with attacks on his military record and patriotism. Trump is oh so vulnerable to the same approach and best of all a Democrat need not distort the record as Rove had to in order to pin his ears back. 

Imagine a Democrat with this line of logic: Let’s talk about that Mexican funded wall. Is immigration better than four years ago? Trump will soon have been in office for three years, he had both houses of Congress for half his term – what’s he really done? Well, he tweets a lot. He thinks he’s tough on immigration, but he hasn’t fixed a thing and, if anything, it’s all much worse than when he started. Trump is a failure at the border. 

Trump was going to end our endless wars, but how is that going? He’s incompetent and hasn’t fixed a thing. He hasn’t Made America Great; he’s made the presidency all about himself. 

Biden may be making a major mistake, as he demonstrated this week, in questioning Trump’s intelligence and morals. That cake is baked. Only Trump’s die hard 40% think he’s anything approaching intelligent and as for morals, well just ask Sen. Mike Crapo who said he couldn’t support Trump after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and then supported him. There is little margin in emphasizing something everyone knows: Trump isn’t all that bright and everyone knows he’s sleazy, and he lies all the time.  

I’m not sure the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg will be or should be the Democratic nominee, but he certainly has demonstrated an understanding that elections are about the future. “We face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another,” Buttigieg said this week in a meaty speech on foreign policy. “I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and our world.”

Pete Buttigeig, one of 23 Democratic presidential candidates2020

Second, appeal to reason and understand that politics in a game of addition, not subtraction. There is not a person in the country today that voted for Hillary Clinton who is going to vote for a second Trump term. The president is defying a law of political gravity, a very simple law: expand your base, attract new supporters, and keep what you have. Trump has turned those ideas upside down. He’s hoping to win a second term by purposefully not expanding his base of support. The only way this strategy works is if Democrats fail to reach out to the few independent voters who remain or if Trump succeeds in depressing the large and, I would argue, growing anti-Trump vote. 

One way to appeal to these folks is to respond to Trump with a bumper sticker slogan, some variation on: “Time for an adult in the White House.” Even many of his supporters cringe at Trump’s rants, incoherent insults and non-stop lies. 

Third, understand that the modern Democratic Party is defined by its broad coalition, while what passes for the Republican Party is an older, white ideological movement that at the moment stands only for Trump. The Democratic future in the next election and the next is the demographic reality that younger Americans, people of color and women will increasingly decide American elections. 

This would be the place where I throw down the gauntlet to Idaho Democrats, a beleaguered, largely leaderless group that has been operating without a strategy for more than 20 years. Here’s the bumper sticker: Youth, Women and Hispanic Americans. Idaho Democrats don’t just need a strategy they need a long game strategy, one that strives for real political relevance in ten years. Younger Idahoans, people in high school and college today, should be the core of that strategy. Then organize, organize, organize and aggressively bring many more young people into the political process. It would not only be the right thing to do, but it offers a path out of the wilderness. 

It’s an old fashioned notion, I know, but I still believe most elections come down to a question of fear versus hope. Donald Trump won, as every Republican since Reagan has, by emphasizing division, despair and decline. Against a flat-footed, yesterday candidate like Hillary Clinton it worked. In the moment of reckoning coming soon we’ll see if it works again. 

—–0—–