2016 Election, Brexit, Britain, Churchill, Great Britain, Trump

Stop, Think and Ask “What If…”

 

According to the Financial Times, Michael Gove, a champion of Britain’s exit from the European Union and now a candidate for prime minister, refused during the recent Brexit campaign to name any economists who back exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” 

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It can be difficult, when watching politics unfold in real time, to identify and see clearly the larger currents and fault lines that define where we are and where we might be headed. This reality – not always being able to comprehend the present – is why history matters and why, regrettably, so many Americans – and Brits apparently – have forgotten lessons from the past.

Americans face an obesity crisis and a epidemic of gun violence, but perhaps just as seriously we face the plague of historical amnesia. Increasingly we cannot connect the dots of the past with the issues of the moment. That can be a fatal disease in a democracy.

Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos
Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos

The recent decision by voters in the United Kingdom to abandon more than 40 years of increasing interconnection with Europe, and in the process turning their backs on the last century of European history, and the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump illustrate how we forget our history at our peril. Two striking examples make my case.

Europe in 1940…

Imagine the world, and particularly Europe, in the spring of 1940. Nazi armies have overrun Poland and Norway, invaded the Low Countries and are pressing toward Paris. Hitler’s Panzers and Stuka dive-bombers have terrorized Warsaw, Krakow, Brussels and Antwerp. The Wehrmacht – perhaps the greatest offensive army the world had ever seen – was routing the French army, thought at the time to be the best fighting force in the world, and guns booming on the front lines could be heard at the Eiffel Tower. Would France fight on, resist the awful weight of invasion or would defeatists in the French government and military surrender?

A German tank in France in 1940
A German tank in France in 1940

The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a Francophile who loved Champagne and the ships of the French Navy among other things, was desperate to keep France in the war – and the French Navy out of German hands – and he embraced an audacious plan to buck up the faltering and besieged government in Paris.

At the suggestion of several French diplomats serving in London – among the group was Jean Monnet, considered the founding father of the European Union, and the junior French General Charles De Gaulle – Churchill pitched to the French Premier Paul Reynaud a “declaration of indissoluble union.

The formal proposal declared, “The two governments declare France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union…every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain and every British subject will become a citizen of France.” Once united the two countries would have a formal association of Parliaments, joint management of defense and finance and a single war cabinet to direct the defense of western Europe. “Its all embracing character,”as one historian has written, “went further than anything before in the history of war-time alliances. Even in the subsequent history of European unity, no Government ever proposed a more radical and far-reaching plan for supernatural integration.”

Astounding.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

Great Britain and France would, symbolically and practically, become one and fight on against Hitler’s armies. We know how the story turned out. Reynaud could not sell the idea to his government, most members of whom had already indicated a willingness to throw in the towel and surrender. The World War I hero Marshall Henri Petain, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis and was later found guilty of treason, rejected Churchill’s proposal out of hand saying it would be better to become “a Nazi colony” than to unite with Britain. Reynaud resigned as prime minister without a formal vote on the British proposal and later said the failure of Churchill’s idea was the greatest disappointment of his political career.

As for becoming a Nazi colony, France certainly did, to the enduring shame of many who advocated capitulation rather than embrace new and radical thinking. The name of Petain is forever stained, while De Gaulle is celebrated as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th Century.

I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own Brexit takeaway from this little historic tableau from 75 years ago, but one lesson seems clear: when faced with the greatest threat in modern times Winston Churchill was prepared to join his nation’s fate in the most fundamental ways with France, indeed with all of Europe. His imagination was equal to the moment.

Reed Smoot is Smiling…

The presumptive nominee of the Republican for the presidency is, on the other hand, beyond imagination. Donald Trump spent the week, with a few Trumpian deviations, outlining his remarkable views on trade. Reed Smoot must be smiling.

Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time
Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time

To the extent that Smoot, an austere apostle of the Mormon Church and a Republican senator from Utah, is remembered at all today it is for being the architect of the 1930 tariff legislation that bears his name. The Smoot-Hawley tariff – Hawley was Willis Hawley, an Oregon lawyer and educator who became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – dramatically increased tariffs, led to a stifling of American exports just as the Great Depression took hold and sparked an international trade war against the United States.

As historian Douglas A. Irwin points out in his history of the tariff legislation, Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner in 1930, immediately retaliated with its own trade sanctions, while other countries formed “preferential trading blocs that discriminated against the United States” shifting world trade away from the U.S.

Saddled with the political, not to mention financial cost of protectionist trade policies after Smoot-Hawley, Republicans generally became “free-traders,” adopting a fundamentally conservative view that goods and services should move freely in the global economy, largely unhindered by artificial controls. Trade wars were to be avoided, exports encouraged and imports not feared. Trump’s approach – a trade war with China and mostly incoherent, but clearly protectionist measures regarding U.S. imports – as much as any policy he proposes, upends long-established Republican orthodoxy and flies in the face of historical experience.

Smoot-Hawley was largely designed to protect American farmers. It didn’t and many voices, including hundreds of economists, warned against its passage. The widely respected columnist Walter Lippmann called the protectionist legislation “a wretched and mischievous product of stupidity and greed.” You wonder if he knew Trump? And one advisor to the Republican president who signed the controversial legislation said, “I almost went down on my knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff. That Act intensified nationalism all over the world.”

America in the Great Depression
America in the Great Depression

Donald Trump’s rhetoric about trade, in addition to doing violence to a deeply held Republican tradition dating to the Great Depression, would almost certainly cost rather than protect American jobs. Other nations would surely retaliate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out this reality in what amounted to a stunning rebuke by American business of the GOP nominee. Even some of those who developed the economic analysis Trump relies upon for his position on trade repudiate his approach. Experts, of course, are so out of fashion, just like facts and history.

Meanwhile, across the pond, after more than 40 years spent embracing European integration the United Kingdom is certain to discover in the days ahead that the cost of isolation from Europe will be great and painful. In both cases – Brexit and Trump – opportunistic politicians, feeding on the fears of worried citizens, peddle fanciful ideas that simply can’t withstand careful evaluation. But, unfortunately our collective historical amnesia leaves us susceptible to the crude charms of charlatans.

Historical analogies are never perfect, of course, but history can help illuminate enduring truths, one being that simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong.

Another lesson taught by history is simply to stop, think and ask “what if”? What if the French government in 1940 had had more courage and imagination? What if Herbert Hoover would have listened to his advisers? What if?

 

Great Britain, High Speed Rail

The Brits Know How to Have an Election

downingYou Want Change…

Put me down as an Anglophile. London is a great city. Winston Churchill was, and I know I’ll get an argument, the indispensable man of the 20th Century. Theater, music, literature, quirky humor, lukewarm beer, whiskey from Scotland – I really like the mother country.

The British have their challenges, needless to say, but the recent election there is a reminder of how much Great Britain has to teach us about conducting a spirited and quick national election, making a decisive change in leadership – again quickly – and doing it all with a fair amount of style and class.

Gordon Brown, the just ousted prime minister, will never be confused for Churchill, but it was hard not to admire the way he left Downing Street yesterday in route to hand his resignation to the Queen. Stiff upper lip and all that.

At the same time, David Cameron, the 43-year-old leader of the Conservatives immediately became the youngest prime minister in 200 years. You win an election in Great Britain and poof – you move in at No. 10. You wonder if they had time to change the sheets.

You must also admire the speed and decisiveness with which Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg closed a deal to forge the first genuine coalition government in Britain since World War II. Clegg will be the deputy prime minister and several of his Lib Dem colleagues will get spots in the Cabinet, Britain gets a fresh start with two attractive younger leaders and it all happened in a matter of days.

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted, the British system worked beautiful and now the Tories confront the nation’s economic troubles in full partnership with the left of center Liberal Democrats. Each party has a stake in working on the details and fixing the economy. It may not work in the end, but some how all the players seem to have been trying to find the best path for the country once the voters had spoken, and not very decisively at that.

I’ve had a running debate with my much better half for years over the relative merits of the British and American systems. As our politics have become ever more polarized – can you imagine Barack Obama and John McCain negotiating a power-sharing arrangement – and voters feeling like Washington is less and less accountable, I find the parliamentary system to have more and more appeal. Key members of the ruling party in Britain actually run departments of government. They must propose and defend their own budgets and plans. They must stand weekly for questions from the opposition.

Its not any fun to lose an election in Britain, I know, but its not often an occasion for prolonged transitions and public agonizing. Tradition demands a certain pace and, after all, the Queen is waiting.

What would our system be like, in a variation on the Brits’ approach, if the president drew his cabinet from the leading members of his party in the Congress? Hillary Clinton could still be in the Senate and Secretary of State. Ken Salazar could run Interior and still be the Senator from Colorado. How about Barney Frank running the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission? OK, maybe not. But, you get the point. Separation of powers problems aside, with a hybrid American-British system we’d have more accountability and if the president lost a key vote in Congress – bam – national election. It wouldn’t hurt us to shorten up our transition, either. In the modern age, from election day to January 20th is an eternity. The British do it better.

I know, as my better half says, what are you thinking, or smoking? Still the British, with all their problems and challenges, have something to teach us about four-week long campaigns, the ability to quickly and effectively form coalition governments and a chance to provide real change and accountability for those running the government.

After all, it’s not like we have the perfect system. We could learn some things. Might do us good.

Baseball, Governors, Great Britain, Politics

Second Acts

brownBeen There, Done That

You have to wonder why Jerry Brown would want the job. California, among the biggest economies in the world, is flat broke; $20 billion – with a B – in debt. The state has spent the last few years dismantling a world-class higher education system and the politics in Sacramento are nearly as toxic as Washington, D.C. Still, Brown is one of five former governors – Maryland’s Bob Ehrlich is the latest – who are seeking to get their old jobs back.

The Oregonian’s political reporter Jeff Mapes had a piece yesterday on the phenomenon – he was nice enough to call and visit about my experience – of just what it is about the governorship that appeals to people who have been there, done that.

The king of the northwest comeback, Cecil Andrus, has always said being governor is the best political job in the world. Andrus is the only Idahoan to be elected four times and in three decades – the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

If one wants to work hard, push an agenda, be totally accountable, and available to the press and the public 24/7, then being governor is the best job around. But like most high quality jobs, being the chief of a state also involves serious heavy lifting and major responsibility. A United States senator is always one of a committee. He can hide behind a staff and only faces the voters every six years. A Congressman is part of a circus with 434 other, er, performers. Unless you reach a serious leadership position, the job is often conducted in relative anonymity. Not so a governor.

The job is about power when all is said and done. You can appoint people. In Idaho a governor appoints county commissioners when a vacancy occurs, they also appoint judges, department heads and hundreds of members of boards and commissions. In good times and bad, they run the budget and call out the National Guard. CQ’s Bob Berenson points out that governors elected this year will have a lot to say about reapportionment. And as for Governor Moonbeam; Jerry Brown sounds genuine when he says California’s mess is his opportunity.

What he doesn’t say is how difficult any second act can be. Comebacks are harder than they look. The successful Andrus second go round, for example, followed an extremely close election. In Oregon, John Kitzhaber’s comeback has drawn primary foes and memories of his comments when he went out the door the first time. Brown’s sometimes quirky previous tenure is sure to be sliced and diced on TV and everywhere else in California before November.

Still, given all the complication inherent in a comeback, it must seem worth it to those willing to put themselves through the process knowing full well what is really involved.

It has been said – the quote is attributed to Jay Leno – “that politics is just show business for ugly people.” Using that analogy then, there is always the possibility of another big role, even for the star who seems to have faded into the twilight. At least five “formers” are getting ready for another close up.