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. 

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GOP, Idaho Politics

Delusional…

Idaho Republican elected officials, with a couple of notable exceptions, seem unable to control, let alone influence their party. In political terms, the inmates have taken over, once and apparently forever, the GOP asylum.

The GOP state central committee elected a new party chairman last week and the rank and file chose as their new leader the guy who lost the Republican nomination for governor last year to Brad Little. At the 2018 convention, he refused to explicitly endorse the man who is now governor. “We should unite as a party behind the nominees, but we should never forget that 63 percent of our party voted for change,” Raul Labrador said.

Labrador: Called Trump a “whiner” and questioned his temperament, but that was before it became impossible for a Republican to speak the truth about their leader.

Actually, fewer than 33 percent of GOP primary voters voted for Labrador in 2018, but now he is the change the party has apparently been waiting for, as well as the organizational face of Idaho Republicans just a year after one of the most divisive primary fights in recent Idaho history.

Memorably, former Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said of the GOP primary in 2018: “I’ve been around elections for 45 years, and this is the most negative gubernatorial primary I’ve ever seen.”

Well, Ben, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

And also memorably, Labrador said, as he is wont to do, something nonsensical after his two-vote victory over former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. “It’s amazing how close it was, and it tells us how our party is divided and united,” he said.

Divided and united.

And as Labrador famously said in Lewiston a couple of years ago,“Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,” either.

Here’s the best evidence of division: Gov. Little was nowhere in sight for the GOP summer confab and had no candidate in the hunt for the chairmanship of the party. It was undoubtedly wise of the governor to avoid all this party business. He had no chance to win and a big chance to lose and lose embarrassingly. Still it’s just short of astounding that a guy elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote seven months ago hardly gets a mention while his party elects his chief rival.

Other prominent non-entities: Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and the one routinely adult member of the Idaho delegation, Congressman Mike Simpson.

As Boise State Public Radio’s James Dawson noted, Congressman Russ Fulcher, the latest darling of the far out right, received a standing ovation from central committee members, as did the militia-endorsed, white supremacy flirting Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, while five-term Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and House Speaker Scott Bedke did not.

Idaho’s Lt. Governor: the symbol of the GOP’s cozy embrace of the alt right fringe

It’s clear the rank and file of the Idaho GOP has consumed the Kool-Aid of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party and no one dares — at least publicly — to take issue with the Emperor and his lack of clothes. In the modern GOP, up is down, objective reality is unreliable, all news is fake and a lie is just an alternative fact.

Labrador campaigned for chairman by showing off a photo of himself with Trump, while Bonneville County Republican Party Chairman Mark Fuller, re-writing history on the fly, claimed that “Raul unapologetically supported President Trump while others were waffling or outright hiding.”

That ignores the by now historic mash-up tape of Labrador trashing Trump during the GOP primaries in 2016 while the then-congressman was supporting first Sen. Rand Paul and then Sen. Ted Cruz. Labrador called Trump “a whiner,” questioned his temperament and wondered “is that the kind of person that we want running the United States of America?”

That tape, you may recall, made its way — perhaps at Little’s behest — to the Trump White House where it seemed to have headed off a Trump primary endorsement for the man who now chairs the Idaho party.

In fairness to the new chairman, he did stick with Trump during the “Access Hollywood” tape expose and ultimately fell in smartly behind the man he once didn’t think was suitable to run the country. It took Labrador a while to get bought, but once there, he stays bought.

Poor Tom Luna. The best he could do in his pre-election pitch to central committee members was to feature a photo of himself with Donald Trump Jr.

The modern Republican movement — it’s no longer correct to call it conservative — is a fact-free personality cult, where if you profess loyalty to all Trumpian values, you can stay square with the GOP base. Not even a tiny bit of deviation is permissible.

You can trace all this, including the embrace of a would-be autocrat who has shredded virtually every long-established Republican value, to the culture that has been created in the party by all the whoppers Republican leaders have been telling their base for a generation or more.

Tax cuts for the wealthy strengthen the economy.

Affordable health care is a socialist plot.

Labor unions are evil.

Paying teachers a decent wage is unaffordable.

Or, this one repeated by Labrador last weekend: The party has to be united to defeat Democrats, or as he said “the real enemy.”

The ultimate question, of course, is what will Chairman Labrador do with his new position atop a united and divided Republican Party? It’s hard to see him as a uniter. He’s more a bomb thrower from the fringe. Will he pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the job or seek the spotlight on hot button issues that play to the Tea Party base of the party? Will he support the conservative pragmatism of Little and Simpson or will he use his new position to prepare another run for governor?

There was a certain crazy symmetry that Idaho Republicans anointed as their leader the loser of a GOP primary who spent his time in Congress trashing the national party leadership, often warring with Simpson and itching to take on a mainstream conservative such as Little. Meanwhile, the president – the only real thing other than a casual dance with white supremacy that unites Idaho Republicans — was off in Asia creating, as Bloomberg noted, a few good days for authoritarian leaders.

A Republican Party able to embrace Raul Labrador, Vladimir Putin, a murderous Saudi prince, a brutal North Korean dictator, crippling tariffs whacking major elements of the Idaho economy and the daily antics of a reality show presidency really isn’t both divided and united, whatever in the world that means.

The word that comes first to mind is delusional.

Idaho Politics, Mueller, Russia

A Nothing Burger…

Nine days ago Robert Mueller III, the decorated former Marine Corps officer, the former assistant attorney general who prosecuted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and helped put crime boss John Gotti in jail, the former FBI director, the life-long Republican finally spoke

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments,” Mueller said at the conclusion of his less than 10 minutes in front of the cameras, “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.” 

The former special counsel Robert Mueller III

During a Boise TV interview a few days later Idaho Sen. Jim Risch dismissed Mueller’s statement as – he actually said this – “a nothing burger.” 

Near as I can tell Risch, or for that matter no other member of the Idaho congressional delegation, has said anything about the substance of Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference or the efforts by the president to obstruct the investigation. They’re all like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes television show – they see nothing, nothing

Yet, if you actually read Mueller’s report you’ll understand his detailed analysis of ten different and very specific instances when Trump sought to impede the Russia investigation. First by firing the FBI director and then ordering Mueller’s firing, a decision he lied about and told others to lie about. 

Then, as the report says, “the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.”

And here is Mueller from his “nothing burger” statement: “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”

Risch leads the thoroughly effete Idaho delegation in his unrelenting effort to minimize Russian electoral interference and Trump obstruction. In February, as reported by the Idaho Press, Risch said he was not worried about any threat from Russia, calling it “the most overrated country on the face of the planet.”

In March Risch dismissed the attorney general’s initial summary of Mueller’s report – we now know that summary was highly misleading and designed to confuse and minimize the findings – by saying: “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report.” Later in his statement, Risch criticized Democrats and the media, calling claims against the president a “charade.”

When it was first disclosed that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had talked about sanctions with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration Risch’s only comment: “I have thoughts, but I’m keeping them to myself.” Flynn, of course, later admitted to lying about his Russian contacts and still faces jail time. The former Ada County prosecutor has been silent as obstruction – denying subpoenas, resisting court orders, hiding documents – continues across the Trump Administration.

Idaho Senator Jim Risch with Florida Senator Marco Rubio

In his rare public statements addressing specific presidential acts, from North Korea to tariffs to Russia, Risch always toes the Trump line and dismisses any inconvenient truth. “I really don’t believe Trump acts in ways that help Russia,” he told the PBS NewsHour

When questioning former FBI director James Comey, who was fired, by Trump’s own admission to “take the heat off” the Russian investigation, Risch dismissed the president’s statement that Comey just “let Flynn go” as nothing more than a “hope” by Trump.  

For the record, the Mueller’s report lists Trump’s “let Flynn go” comment as its very first example of presidential obstruction. 

Conservative columnist George Will compares the “supine behavior” of Republicans like Risch and the rest of the Idaho delegation to “fragrant memories” of pre-World War II American communists who performed amazing mental gymnastics to keep on the right side of Josef Stalin. 

Or perhaps the more apt comparison is to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recently repeatedly refused to admit that Trump’s “birther” attacks on Barack Obama were racist. This is the awkward reality of Trump’s enablers, the partisan promoters like Sen. Risch: if you admit the truth you risk earning the president’s ire (or that of his all-accepting base) or you can, as the senator choses, find a way to repeatedly justify and dismiss any damaging evidence of Trump’s actions, even when that evidence is accumulated by a Republican former director of the FBI

After all, who you gonna believe? A president who uses lies as a governing model or your own eyes? 

Set aside, if you prefer, clear and compelling evidence that the president of the United States tried repeatedly to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, lied about it and influenced others to lie. One thousand former Justice Department officials are on the record saying he did. 

Set aside, as Mueller’s report says that the Russian government’s interference was clearly designed to help “presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” 

Set aside that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” the help. Set aside that the Russian “social media campaign” and the Russian military’s computer hacking operations “coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government.”

And set aside one of the most politically intriguing details of this whole spectacularly un-American affair, that the Trump campaign shared with Russian operatives its own polling information before the election. Mueller’s investigation was unable to figure out what happened to this information because the special counsel “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”

Paul Manafort, the guy who apparently shared the polling information, is in jail and isn’t talking

Set all that aside and consider again what Mueller left us with: “There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.” 

Then ask yourself: What has Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee) done about that? The only possible answer is nothing. Then ask yourself why? 

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(This piece first appeared in the June 7, 2019 edition of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)

Idaho Politics

Operating at the Fringe

My father used to joke that every little town has its town character; an odd, interesting or off-the-wall person who everyone in town understood to be, well, a half bubble off plum. But, the place he grew up, so my father said, was different — the characters had a town.

Increasingly it seems that Idaho’s political characters now inhabit their own state. Perhaps it’s in the water or more likely it’s a function of a state dominated by one political party that with some regularity produces a dyed-in-the-wool crackpot and elevates that fringe candidate to high public office.

Idaho Representative George Hansen, “he just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

I’m remembering, for example, the lumbering 6 feet 6 inches of rightwing nut jobbery that for seven terms represented Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District. George Hansen was a member of the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. Hansen was the mayor of Alameda, an eastern Idaho community, before he went to Congress in the mid-1960s just in time to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and everything else that smacked of progress. Somehow it seems fitting that Hansen, whose legislative accomplishments could easily be recorded on the back of postage stamp, was the mayor of a town that no longer exists.

Hansen made a career in the federal government by opposing everything the federal government does. He hated the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and opposed all forms of “federal intrusion into all our lives.” Hansen was so opposed to regulation that he just ignored regulation when it applied to him.

“There was a certain naivete about George,” his lawyer once said. “He never lawyered up. He just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

A Republican appointed federal judge eventually sentenced Hansen to four years in prison and a big fine for defrauding a bank and 200 individuals of $30 million in a wacky investment scheme, better described as old-fashioned check kiting.

But you had to hand it to Big George; he was once and always a salesman — he sold life insurance before turning to political snake oil — and nearly 100 of the people he defrauded so believed in him that they sent the sentencing judge affidavits attesting to their continuing faith in the fallen congressman. Hansen’s “victims are offended that the court would take them as victims,” the judge said, marveling at “that kind of blind allegiance.”

Hansen had barely gone to prison before Idaho was blessed with his worthy successor in Congress, the archconservative Helen Chenoweth-Hage who represented the 1st District for three high-profile, zero-accomplishment terms. Like Hansen, Chenoweth-Hage had a knack for generating headlines, the kind of headlines that often makes out-of-staters wonder just what is wrong with Idaho.

Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage

Chenoweth-Hage was an early adopter of the “states’ rights” cause of the Civil War, and she said Idaho salmon couldn’t possibly be endangered since you could buy salmon in a can at Albertsons. Her idea of good government was to eliminate the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development — not for any particular reason, just because it made a good applause line.

She infamously condemned the “black helicopters” of the evil U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for harassing Idaho ranchers, even though Chenoweth-Hage eventually admitted there was little evidence that such a thing ever happened.

When Chenoweth-Hage tragically died in an auto accident, her obituary mentioned the helicopters, but there was nary a word about any legislative accomplishment.

Idaho has had more than its share of political characters.

Sen. Herman Welker was Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate before Frank Church made him a one-term wonder.

Congressman Bill Sali was another one-termer best — or worst — remembered for linking breast cancer to abortion. Sali once wondered out loud about why he had trouble following what was happening in congressional hearings. Few who knew him were surprised.

Now it would appear Idaho has a new political character vying for a star on the boardwalk of crazy, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. Like Sali, Chenoweth-Hage and Hansen, McGeachin is a product of a one-party state where it’s often enough to win an election by merely ending up on the ballot with a “R” next to your name.

In each of her five elections for the Legislature, McGeachin ran unopposed in the Republican primary and four times ran unopposed in the general election.

Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin with some of her Real 3 Percenter followers.

After 10 years in the Legislature distinguished only by her prominent perch on the outer fringe of the Tea Party right of the Idaho Republican Party, McGeachin ran last year to become Gov. Brad Little’s understudy. She won a five-way GOP primary with less than 29 percent of the vote. Next thing you know, she’s a heartbeat away.

McGeachin has made two big splashes in her first four months in office, on each occasion being photographed fraternizing with Real 3 Percenters, members of a fringe, frequently gun-toting, anti-immigrant, militia-like group. McGeachin, while acting governor, administered “an oath,” the same oath applied to the National Guard, to some of these armed jokers near the Statehouse in Boise. McGeachin had earlier shown solidarity with one of the anti-government types jailed for his role in the Bundy standoff in Nevada.

On the one hand McGeachin’s regular flirtations with anti-government, militia-like groups resembles earlier Idaho fringe politicians who embraced the John Birch Society or the Posse Comitatus movement. But her associations and lack of judgment are also different.

The lieutenant governor isn’t just some legislative backbencher. That she is comfortable with very public associations with the militia movement and its borderline connections to violence and domestic terrorism means McGeachin isn’t really embracing Little’s pragmatic — which is to say serious — agenda. Rather she has gone where too much of the GOP has gone — the radical fringe.

There have been reports of Little’s dismay over his No. 2’s wing-nut behavior, but the governor still recently gave McGeachin a high-profile role chairing a review of state agency services. Here’s betting the governor can’t long have it both ways. Serious politicians shouldn’t long tolerate what can only be described as outlandish behavior, even if being a crackpot has long been a feature of Idaho Republican politics.

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Idaho Politics, Medicaid

The Tyranny of One Party Rule…

In his brilliant little book, On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder offers citizens in a modern democracy 20 lessons from 20th century history. Snyder, a scholar of European history and totalitarianism, wrote the book in 2017 as a kind of “how too” guide for living in troubled times.

Some of the lessons — “believe in truth,” “contribute to good causes” and “defend institutions” — seem self-evident and universal.

A handbook for our times.

But, one of Snyder’s lessons, particularly in light of the debacle that has unfolded over the past few weeks in Boise as the Legislature stumbles from one outrage to the next, seems downright urgent: “Beware the one-party state.”

The historian was writing with modern despots in mind, but he might have been thinking about the arrogant supermajority Idaho voters send to the Statehouse every January to tend to the public’s business. “The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start,” Snyder writes. “They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.”

The speaker of the House, Scott Bedke, or the Senate president pro tem, Brent Hill, would never, of course, admit to using their overwhelming majority to make “life impossible for their opponents.” But consider what they and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have been doing in the name of democracy.

The voters of Idaho passed by an overwhelming majority an initiative to improve the health care of tens of thousands of Idahoans. The voters acted, as their constitution provides, by the time-honored democratic process of advancing a measure directly to the ballot box, bypassing the Legislature. The process was ridiculously transparent. No one in the state who was paying the least bit of attention could have missed the effort to gather the signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive effort, well-documented every step of the way. The policy merits of the idea — expanding Medicaid coverage to more poor Idahoans — was debated right along with the signature gathering.

A remarkable grassroots campaign put Medicaid expansion on the Idaho ballot in 2018, then a GOP super-majority in the legislature set about to thwart that effort…and mostly succeeded.

Nearly every politician in Idaho was forced to take a position on the issue. On his way out the door, former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter endorsed the idea. His successor, Gov. Brad Little, promised to implement “the will of the people.” The voters spoke to the tune of nearly 61 percent approval.

Rarely in recent Idaho history has such a significant policy decision enjoyed such widespread public support. And it is important to remember that all this voter-driven activity came only after the Legislature repeatedly failed to act.

Then came the push back, including a frivolous lawsuit from a shadowy ultra-right “think tank” that the Idaho Supreme Court laughed out of existence. Legislative Republicans devised every possible means to contain the scope of the policy voters approved, insisting on work and other requirements that have already been struck down by courts in other states.

Gov. Little all but admitting that this mess will cost the state a bundle to defend in court, then joined fellow Republicans in defying the clear will of the 61 percent who voted to expand access to health care for thousands of Idahoans. This is not honoring the will of the voters; it’s thumbing your nose at them.

Idaho Gov.Brad Little promised to implement “the will of the people” and then didn’t.

Little displayed real political courage just days earlier when he killed the Republican affront to citizen-driven democracy that all but eliminated the ability to put an issue on the ballot. Little’s logic: A judge would ultimately decide the issue was both prudent and sound. He might have applied the same logic, and respected the voter’s will, by killing the Medicaid work requirement legislation. That would certainly have further prolonged an already egregiously long session, but it might also have forced fellow Republicans to send him a “clean” bill that implemented what voters approved at the polls just five months ago.

During this session of political dry rot, Republican lawmakers also sought to create a partisan advantage on the state’s independent redistricting commission, grabbed office space that has historically belonged to the full-time state treasurer so they can create additional offices for themselves, prevented photographs of a House session that would have allowed reporters to identify lawmakers who wouldn’t otherwise have their votes recorded and had the state police mark off a public meeting room as off limits to the public.

As this was written, some GOP lawmakers were scheming to resurrect their anti-initiative revenge on voters’ legislation. In an absolutely unprecedented move, they sliced the measure Little vetoed just days earlier into four separate bills, hoping apparently that they might force the governor’s hand a second time.

The juvenile games may have reached the height of absurdity even by the standards of this legislative session when a majority of Republicans on the House Education Committee refused to attend a meeting where their chairman wanted to introduce legislation dealing with the school funding formula. Such are the antics of a one-party state where most legislators rarely face political accountability. They behave as they do because they can. It seems hardly a stretch to say this has been the worst legislative session in memory.

The overwhelming Republican Legislature is no longer content to marginalize the often-beleaguered Democratic minority — the redistricting move was clearly designed to target the growing legislative advantage Democrats have accumulated in Ada County — and they openly and blatantly work to punish their constituents.

This binge of partisan nonsense should be placed squarely at the doorstep of Bedke and Hill. They have either lost control of the mechanics of legislative operations or they have been content to stand by as the inmates took over the asylum. Either way, the GOP majority has demonstrated unmitigated disdain for governing and flaunted their responsibility to citizens.

And this is all a piece of one-party rule, an arrogance bred of entrenched, concentrated power, a hubris drawn from the privilege of majority.

The lesson of this legislative session is simple: One party rule isn’t democracy, but it surely is a license to abuse democracy. Left unchecked, the one-party state will treat its voters even worse next time.

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on April 12, 2019.)

Visit my author website for information and events related to my new book – Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana.

Idaho Politics

Utter Disdain…

On July 7, 1938, three avid Idaho outdoorsmen — R.G. Cole, Homer Martin and Dan McGrath — walked into the Idaho Secretary of State’s office in Boise. They were packing petitions containing the signatures of more than 24,000 Idahoans who were fed up with inaction from the Legislature.

The three hook and bullet enthusiasts used a statewide grassroots organization and old-fashioned shoe leather to accomplish what the Legislature had repeatedly failed to deliver — professional management of Idaho’s wildlife resources.

Idaho’s independent Fish and Game Commission was created by citizen initiative in 1937

When their initiative went before the voters in November 1938, it passed with 76 percent of the vote. That’s how Idaho got its independent Fish and Game Commission 81 years ago.

The volunteers who cared about hunting and fishing would not have had to force the issue and voters would not have had to call the Legislature’s bluff, of course, if lawmakers had been listening. But they weren’t listening. The state Senate twice voted down proposals to create a fish and game department in the 1930s. And as far back as 1915, the otherwise commendable Gov. Moses Alexander vetoed a proposal to remove wildlife management from partisan politics. Ultimately the voters got a belly full and took action just as the Idaho Constitution envisioned.

Voters did the same thing in the 1950s when they limited dredge mining of the state’s rivers and in 1970s when they created the state’s Sunshine Law, mandating disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. Voters bypassed the Legislature in 1978 and passed a property tax limitation. They did so again in 1982 when they created the homeowner’s tax exemption.

In every case citizen action came after the Legislature diddled.

Now comes the self-righteous Republican legislative supermajority to try — again – to make it virtually impossible for their constituents to put an issue on the ballot. The number of signatures required to make the ballot could increase by more than half and the time to collect those signatures could shrink from 18 months to six. Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill would also require a significant number of voters to sign petitions in 32 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

Hearings resume today on Grow’s abomination, a piece of legislation that can only properly be called an effort to create such sweeping impediments to citizen initiatives and referendums as to destroy what the Idaho Constitution promises. Here’s betting that the fix is in and GOP legislators will again blithely disenfranchise voters.

State Sen. Patti Ann Lodge of Huston, the Republican chairwoman of the State Affairs Committee, likely tipped her hand regarding the fate of Grow’s proposal when she cut off a hearing last week after just 45 minutes of testimony, while dozens of Idahoans opposed to the measure sat waiting to voice their disapproval.

Lodge defended her action by saying, “Everyone else who signed up is against the bill.”

Now, that’s democracy in action in Idaho.

It’s also telling that the only supportive testimony before Lodge’s committee came from the Idaho Farm Bureau, an outfit that exists primarily to put a rock on the NO button of Idaho politics, and the ill-named Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hard right-wing collection of anti-government zealots who sued unsuccessfully to stop the recent voter-approved expansion of Medicaid coverage for uninsured Idahoans.

Idaho’s state capitol

In the “irony is dead” department was the testimony of the Freedom Foundation’s lobbyist, who said draconian changes to the initiative process were necessary to ensure “transparency,” an interesting line of argument from an outfit that steadfastly refuses to disclose which right-wing billionaire bankrolls its propaganda.

As Mark Twain famously quipped: “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme,” and Michael Lanza, the Boise outdoor writer and photographer who led the successful fight to overturn the notorious “Luna Laws,” has seen it all before.

After then-Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna rammed controversial “education reform” measures through the Legislature in 2012 and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter eagerly signed them into law, Lanza and a coalition of parents, educators and business leaders got organized. They collected the signatures needed to put three measures to overturn Luna’s handiwork on the ballot. Each passed overwhelmingly, with one clearing 66.7 percent of the vote.

The effort was a huge victory for parents, teachers and public school students and a sharp rebuke of GOP lawmakers and Otter. As Lanza pointed out when I talked to him this week, the effort also had the desirable side benefit of “destroying Luna’s political career.”

The GOP Legislature, of course, immediately moved to make such effective and decisive citizen action much more difficult by upping the requirement to gain ballot access. Now they are at it again proposing even more drastic action.

“The state Legislature has demonstrated utter disdain for local control and citizen involvement,” Lanza told me. And, he says, the latest effort to destroy citizen involvement “is a direct response to the fact that voters decided to expand Medicaid” in the last election. “In a one-party system, especially with a supermajority, they feel no accountability to voters. They function like a Politburo or a mob family.”

In such an environment, Lanza correctly says, having the option for a citizen-initiated process to ensure accountability couldn’t be more important.

You don’t have to hang around the halls of the Idaho Legislature very long — 15 minutes should do it — before you hear some safely insulated right-wing Republican lawmaker voice the old trope that “the best government is that closest to the people.” That is one of the great myths of Idaho politics. Majority party lawmakers utterly abhor citizen involvement in their government.

They limit hearings all the time. They refuse to enact meaningful ethics legislation. They routinely strip local governments of basic decision-making authority. And barring a genuine citizen revolt or a veto from Gov. Brad Little, they will almost certainly gut the ability of Idaho citizens to put an issue on the ballot.

Republicans have now fully embraced autocracy in the White House, but they have long enjoyed pushing around their voters in the Statehouse. Stripping constituents of access to the ballot is nothing less than the ultimate insult to democracy.

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Human Rights, Idaho Politics

Wait. Wait.

By all appearances Idaho State Senator Brent Hill, the Rexburg Republican who is the president pro tem of the state senate, is a thoughtful, nice guy. He runs the state senate with a light tough, frequently invoking a “come let us reason together” demeanor. He seems far removed from the angry, fearful, resentful base of the Republican Party in the Era of Trump.

Yet, Hill’s recent decision to shelve again for another year any legislation that would extend human rights protections to Idaho’s LGBT community is, sadly, very much in keeping with current GOP orthodoxy of marginalizing communities that fall outside the party’s fearful, overwhelmingly white, religiously conservative base. Hill is practicing, or more correctly allowing to continue, the old conservative politics that preach that “the time is not yet right” to bring full human rights protections to fellow citizens too often left in the dark shadows of discrimination and hatred. 

Protesters at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise pressing the legislature to “add the words” to protect LGBT citizens under the state’s human rights law.

In a recent op-ed calling for more talking and no legislative action again this year, Hill struck what seems on the surface to be a moderate, caring tone. No doubt he meant to strike such a tone, but his language is as disappointing as it is misleading. 

As Hill wrote the “only viable solution [to LGBT protection under Idaho’s human rights statute] is a balanced approach—one that will provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation while simultaneously safeguarding the right to fully exercise religious convictions.”

He called for more dialogue because, as Hill wrote, “it takes time … for people to better understand the concepts of this balanced approach and focus on the benefits it provides them.” It takes time, Hill said, time that Idaho’s overworked lawmakers just “do not have in the current legislative session.”

We just need more time. More time to talk. More time to reason. More time. More time. 

Brent Hill surely did not intend for his manifesto for more talking to echo the calls of many religious leaders of the 1960s who counseled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to go slow in the pursuit of civil rights for African-Americans. Hill perhaps didn’t intend to imitate those who counseled King to slow down, but he did just that. And King’s answer in 1963 remains today’s best answer to those, like Senator Hill, who counsel delay rather than provide moral leadership. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the time he wrote his “letter from the Birmingham jail” in 1963

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” King wrote from the Birmingham jail where he was imprisoned for demonstrating not for “a balanced approach,” but for immediate justice and equality. 

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed,’” King wrote to those who were critical of his aggressive efforts. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Currently the Idaho Human Rights Act provides statutory protection for someone with strongly held religious beliefs, but a LGBT citizen has no protection under the law from discrimination related to employment, housing, public accommodation, and education.

And Senator Hill must know the argument that someone’s religious beliefs should allow them to deny another person’s fundamental human rights is, unfortunately, as old as America’s long toleration of racial hatred and as wrong as segregation. 

As Dr. King knew – and died proving – rights are not merely granted they are won through demands and political action, including shaming the reluctant and those who counsel patience. Unfortunately, slow rolling before doing the right thing is part of Idaho history. Idaho was very late in adopting a day honoring Dr. King with some arguing as recently as 1990 that the country’s greatest civil rights warrior was a troublemaker unworthy of celebration. 

It took four tries to adopt legislation authorizing kindergarten in the 1970s and now the fearful, resentful caucus stalls legislation to begin to provide pre-K education. Republicans can’t even agree on a measure outlawing child marriage. 

Not liking that voters can actually put issues on the ballot and pass them into law Republican Senator C. Scott Grow of Eagle would make Idaho’s already extremely difficult initiative process next to impossible by adding new requirements for signature gathering. Grow talks about his proposed limitations on citizen political action as though it were a mere tweak of the law that implements what is embedded in the Idaho Constitution. His argument is flimsy and dishonest. Grow is proposing a fundamentally undemocratic measure designed not to empower citizens, but to diminish them. Other lawmakers would happily thwart the overwhelming will of Idaho voters by imposing conditions on access to medical care.  

Make no mistake, the Idaho Republican Party, the party that has embraced a leader who, as conservative columnist Michael Gerson has written, “has made the denial of dignity to certain people and groups a political rallying cry,” is acting true to form.  

Year after year, the party purposefully denies basic human rights to a sizeable group of Idaho citizens because they can’t get beyond their own intolerance. To give into such fear, resentment and old-fashioned bigotry, particularly in the guise of protecting religion, is an odious failure of moral leadership. 

It takes courage, an attribute often lacking particularly in a one-party state, to stand up and be counted on what simply amounts to doing the right thing. Imagine if Brent Hill, a widely acknowledged decent and intelligent politician, would put the moral weight of his powerful position behind pulling Idaho forward to the benefit of thousands of his fellow citizens? Would he catch some grief from the fear mongers and haters on the far right? Of course he would. He should wear that pushback as a badge of honor.

Delay can be comfortable for those who know no discrimination. 

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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, 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.” 

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.