Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Trump

It Will Get Harder…

The Trump defending Idaho congressional delegation was reminded yet again this week of the dangers involved in shielding a president who can’t tell the truth and won’t let most of his subordinates even try. 

Spoiler alert: Defending the president is only going to get more difficult; more difficult by the minute. 

An unlikely villain with Pacific Northwest roots emerged fully this week to vastly complicate the calculus for Trump defenders and expand the abuse of power allegations that ensnarl the White House. A widening cast of characters ranging from the Secretary of State to Rudy Giuliani to Roger Stone, a guy who went on trial this week for lying the Congress about interactions with WikiLeaks and Russians in 2016, is now involved in scandal and cover-up. 

Gordon Sondland, the Northwestern at the center of the Ukraine extortion scheme

The old Sopranos television series offered a no less motley collection of mountebanks, grifters, crooks and sycophants. 

A star witness this week turned out to be a guy named Gordon Sondland, owner of a chain of boutique hotels in Portland and Seattle, who, clearly afraid that he was starring down a perjury charge, told House investigators that he had “refreshed my memory” since first testifying in the Trump impeachment inquiry in October. Sondland is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

As Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss wrote, Sondland’s “recollection needed help: The transcript of his initial, October 17 testimony shows Sondland used the phrase ‘I don’t remember’ 36 times and ‘I don’t recall’ another nine times.” 

On November 4 Sondland’s memory recovered and he produced revised testimony confirming there was a quid pro quo – better descriptions might include the word extortion – that connected Ukrainian aid to Donald Trump’s desire to see a political opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, investigated by a foreign government. What’s more Sondland admitted he personally delivered the extortion promise.

Ukraine: So much trouble for Trump, the GOP … and Ukraine.

Republicans will continue to use the “angels on the head of pin” approach to all this by saying Sondland did not specifically connect the quid pro quo to Trump personally. Stay tuned others will make the connection. And make no mistake this is the very definition of abuse of power.

It turns out Sondland is a classic character in Trump World, a transactional namedropper with a fondness for the gaudy and grandiose. Mostly a financial supporter of Republicans, Sondland has also made significant contributions to Democrats, including the Portland mayor who just decided to hand over the $16,000 Sondland gave him to non-profit groups, including ironically one pushing for impeachment.

Sondland originally supported Jeb Bush for president in 2016, but when Trump won the Republican nomination he scrambled to get on the right side. Sondland was scheduled to host a Trump fundraiser in Seattle during the campaign but abruptly pulled out when Trump trashed the family of a Muslim soldier who died in Iraq. It was a momentary speed bump in his plans. 

After Trump won Sondland donated a cool $1 million to the inaugural committee and angled for an ambassadorial job and finally landed the plush position at the European Union. The job comes with a nice house in Brussels that Sondland immediately began to redecorate using $1 million of U.S. taxpayer money. 

Sondland had, of course, no previous government or diplomatic experience and is demonstrably unqualified for the post he holds. Nevertheless, the Senate confirmed him on a voice vote after a pro forma hearing. It turns out $1 million buys a lot in politics, both prestige and, in Sondland’s case, big trouble. 

Since Ukraine is not part of the EU, Sondland’s involvement in the Ukraine affair is almost certainly due to his having expressed undying loyalty to Trump and a willingness to implement the president’s basest desires.

“His behavior in all this tracks perfectly with his personality,” an Oregonian who knows Sondland told me. “He wanted to be relevant to Trump so he made himself useful to Trump and Rudy. He is 100% transactional with no scruples. This all fits.”

Now that Sondland his rolled his quid pro quo hand grenade into the middle of the impeachment investigation, Politico reports that, “Republicans are starting to turn on him.” After speaking to a host of Republican lawmakers about Sondland, Politico said he was variously described as “a lackey, a chest-thumper and a rube. Of course, perhaps that’s because he turned on the president.” 

Of course none of this will move the most loyal of Trump defenders, the faction of the Republican Party that former Florida GOP congressman David Jolly calls “spineless politicians rotten to the core without virtue, without any level of human integrity, devoid of self respect … Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence.” 

Still the Sondland memory refresh this week vastly complicates the Republican defense of Trump. They’ve tried the argument that the process is unfair, they’ve tried smearing career foreign service officers and career military people, but to defend the president now they must admit that demanding a quid pro quo from a foreign leader in order to influence domestic politics does not constitute corruption and abuse of power. Trouble is it does.

It will get harder to defend Trump.

Some Republicans – I’m thinking of Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Russ Fulcher – will have little trouble justifying such presidential behavior, but what of Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson? Are they really willing to go there? Are they willing to sanction presidential behavior they would completely reject if the other party had done it? 

Crapo, after all, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about consensual sex. Simpson is a pragmatic institutionalist who you know in your heart of hearts loathes Donald Trump for a host of reasons. Simpson serves in Congress because he wants to do important things not because he enjoys covering for a charlatan who looks more and more like a common crook. 

And there will be more, including public testimony soon from William Taylor, a career foreign service officer who has been the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and whose earlier testimony (under oath) confirmed the quid pro quo. 

The day is fast approaching when Idaho’s members of Congress will need to reflect profoundly on the oath they took, hand on the Bible. That oath was to protect and defend the Constitution, not to protect and defend Donald Trump. 

—–0—–

Idaho Politics, Trump

Where Will They Find Their Souls

Idaho has had its share of political scandals and usually they involve money or sex — or, not infrequently, stupidity. The state’s politicians have gone to jail for various money capers related to wrongly reported campaign finances, kiting checks or misusing public funds. Others have been publicly shamed for activities in airport bathrooms and various bedrooms. But those scandals have generally been personal, related to an individual failing or a purely human transgression.

Now we have entered a land where a new type of scandal will test the American system, a challenge to moral, ethical and political decency that confronts the four men who represent Idaho in Congress with decisions that few of the state’s politicians have ever handled before.

The initial signs of how the leaders will respond are not gratifying, but hope for political redemption springs eternal, particularly as the impeachable behavior of the man in the White House finally becomes obvious to most Americans.

Trump and the president of Ukraine

In a little more than a week, we have learned that the president of the United States pressured a foreign leader to manufacture dirt on his principal political opponent and then took extraordinary steps to conceal his conversation from others in the government. When a government whistleblower revealed the unprecedented action, the president attacked the whistleblower and said a member of Congress should be locked up for treason for investigating the matter.

We subsequently learned that the secretary of state and attorney general were involved in various ways in soliciting foreign political help from Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Australia; that the president’s personal lawyer has been subpoenaed to produce documents related to his unprecedented role in fanning conspiracy theories and operating a one-man State Department and that other whistleblowers — one relating to the president’s tax returns — are bubbling to the surface.

The essential charge against the president is pretty simple: He pressured a foreign leader from a country known both for its corruption and for needing U.S. military assistance to help him win reelection. If irony were not dead, we might marvel that the Ukrainian telephone call in question was placed by Donald Trump exactly one day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s defense in the face of this avalanche of malfeasance has been to take to Twitter to attack members of Congress and news organizations, while spinning a steadily more bizarre collection of conspiracy theories, personal grievances and genuine craziness. If a president using the awesome power of his office to advance his own political fortunes at the expense of American foreign policy isn’t impeachment worthy, nothing is.

The entire Republican Party, morally and ethically rotten as a result of the Trump takeover, is poised to tumble. The only question for members of Idaho’s Republican congressional delegation is whether they will muster the courage and integrity to separate themselves from the cancer that grows on this presidency. So far they have chosen to blindly follow a mendacious, incompetent, self-possessed, ethically devoid character whose capture of their party was broadly, if ineffectively resisted. Now they are left clinging to the wreckage as the price of avoiding a primary.

Take it to the bank — all this will get worse.

The most interesting response so far to the president’s behavior has come from Sen. Mike Crapo, a veteran of the Clinton impeachment in 1999 who perhaps understands the current stakes. Crapo, of course, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sex with a White House intern. Now he has adopted the most measured approach of anyone in the Idaho delegation; in essence saying, wait and see what the evidence produces.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, who voted to impeach Bill Clinton

It’s illustrative to review what Crapo said about Clinton two decades ago. “Our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth,” Crapo said. “That is why perjury and obstruction of justice are crimes. The offenses are even worse when committed against the poor or powerless by the wealthy and the powerful.”

“Perjury and obstruction of justice are public crimes that strike at the heart of the rule of law — and therefore our freedom — in America,” Crapo said. “I concluded that these acts do constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under the impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”

The special counsel, of course, found substantial evidence that Trump had obstructed justice during the Russian investigation, but was precluded by Justice Department regulations from charging him.

But so far, Crapo has been alone in assuming a measured tone in light of the daily — even hourly — revelations of presidential misconduct. Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Russ Fulcher reacted with tried and true White House talking points, blaming “liberal” Democrats and a hostile news media rather than focusing on the substance of Trump’s trolling for a political lifeline from Ukraine. From them, you heard not a word of concern about the loose cannon Rudy Giuliani or the secretary of state stonewalling a legitimate congressional investigation.

And Congressman Mike Simpson, usually the sane and sober member of the delegation, actually sent out a Trumpian fundraising appeal seeking cash for himself, while blasting “leftist Democrats in Congress” for engaging in “a witch hunt against the President.” He knows better and he knows that he knows better.

The urgent business of the Congress of the United States is simply to get to the bottom of what the president has done and the damage it has caused to the country. Risch, Fulcher, Crapo and Simpson have a simple choice: They can conduct themselves as patriots and affirm the strength of American democracy or they can remain fractured, frightened, fevered partisans. Either way history will judge them and the judgment will, pardon the expression, trump everything else they have ever done.

“Tampering with the truth-seeking functions of the law undermines our justice system and the foundations on which our freedoms lie,” Crapo said in 1999 when a Democratic president was in the dock answering serious charges that nonetheless pale in comparison to the transgressions of Trump.

As former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake wrote to fellow Republicans this week in the Washington Post: “Trust me when I say that you can go elsewhere for a job. But you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”

These are surely times that try men’s souls. We’ll find out soon enough who among the state’s congressional delegation is willing to go all the way with this president — all the way over the cliff.

Campaign Finance, Idaho Politics

Sunshine…

The half-life of a failed political campaign is normally about 15 minutes. You lose and you’re forgotten pretty quickly even though the lessons of a losing campaign can sometimes be more enduring that what we learn from a winner. 

Last year’s losing Democratic campaign for governor of Idaho is such a case. Since political memories fade quickly – remember when Mexico was going to pay for the wall and a certain candidate was going to release his tax returns – let me offer a reminder. 

After a fairly brutal three-way Republican primary last year, Brad Little emerged from the GOP field to take on former state representative Paulette Jordan who had won a two-person Democratic primary. Little then cruised to a general election victory over Jordan, winning, to no great surprise, nearly 60% of the vote to Jordan’s 38%. Three other candidates divided the rest. 

Paulette Jordan and Brad Little debate during their 2018 campaign for Idaho governor.

Jordan began the post-primary campaign riding pretty high, stimulating a lot of national press interest in her personal story and seeming to have a chance to make it an interesting contest. Little, meanwhile, needed to re-unite a somewhat divided GOP. By the time summer rolled around Jordan’s campaign was floundering. The campaign manager quit, one of several staff departures, when it was revealed that Jordan had established a federal “super PAC,” a political action committee able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support or in opposition to candidates. And we then learned that the Jordan campaign had required Trumpian “non-disclosure” agreements with campaign staff.

Jordan’s campaign finance report covering the period from the primary to October 1 was unlike any I’ve seen in looking at those reports for nearly 40 years. She eventually raised and spent over $1.2 million on out-of-state consultants, lots of out-of-state travel and a variety of hard to understand shell corporations, including a one in Wyoming that drew particular attention. Almost nothing was spent on television. 

A lot of Jordan’s spending, as I and others wrote at the time, was just odd and seemed seriously disconnected from any real effort to convince 300,000 or so Idaho voters – the number Jordan needed to squeak to a win – to actually vote for her.

As the Associated Press wrote last October: “The company registered in Wyoming as Roughneck Steering Inc. drew attention among Jordan’s hundreds of expense entries because Wyoming’s laws don’t require the officers of a company to be made public with the initial filing. That made it impossible to know from the finance report who was behind the company and why Jordan sent it $20,000.”

Hiding details of a company registered in Wyoming is as easy as hiding the checkbook

Roughneck Steering registered with the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 26, 2018 as a for profit domestic corporation. Two $10,000 payments to the company from Jordan’s campaign followed, along with a confusing explanation from the campaign as to what was done for the money and who did it. The campaign said polling work was involved, undertaken apparently by Republicans who could not risk being exposed for helping a Democrat. Hence the shell company. 

Under the laws of the state of Wyoming, Roughneck Steering was required to file an annual report for the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 1, 2019. That first year report requires, unlike the initial corporate filing, more detail about officers of the company. Wyoming grants a 60-day grace period beyond the filing date so that a company has even more time to make its filing legal. 

On September 8, 2019, the Wyoming Secretary of State declared Roughneck Steering “inactive” and “administratively dissolved.” As a helpful employee in the office in Cheyenne told me this week the company has basically ceased to exist. 

Here’s why this ancient political history still matters. The purpose of Idaho’s campaign finance law is disclosure, real transparency. A run of the mill voter, a political rival, a supporter or opponent of a particular candidate is supposed to be able to look at a candidate’s reports and figure out where the campaign’s money came from and how and with whom it was spent. That’s why the reports are typically called “sunshine” reports. Sunshine is a disinfectant. 

If the Jordan campaign is able – and clearly they have been able to date – to get away with sending money to a shell corporation at a post office box in Wyoming in a way that intentionally hides the beneficiary of the payment and how the money was spent that’s not anyone’s definition of disclosure. 

Let’s assume for a moment the Jordan campaign really did pay some Idaho GOP operatives through this Wyoming shell company. We can assume it, because we’ll likely never know for sure. But where does such subterfuge stop? 

Imagine that some future campaign actually wanted to launder some campaign cash. Say a candidate collects a hundred grand from campaign contributors, but really wants to put that money in his or her own pocket. Just set up a shell corporation in Wyoming, a state notoriously sympathetic to corporate slight of hand, and report the $100,000 “expenditure” as “campaign consulting” or “research” or even “polling,” and then have your shell company hand the cash back to the money-laundering candidate. 

The Idaho Secretary of State is in charge of the state’s campaign finance law, but as a practical matter does little to see that the law is enforced

The state of Wyoming will be none the wiser. Idaho’s Secretary of State, even if there is suspicion of something untoward, has little ability to investigate. A loophole is created, or better yet has already been created. 

The remedy is simple: require under the Idaho campaign disclosure law not only identification of a company or individual that a campaign has spent money with, but also who owns the company and what specifically the company or individual did to warrant the expenditure. As with all campaign finance scandals from Nixon’s illegal contributions from the dairy industry in 1972 to Donald Trump’s apparent payments to silence various women prior to the 2016 election, when campaigns hide the source or destination of money it’s always because they can’t tolerate sunshine. 

By the way that super PAC Jordan established last year was also registered in Wyoming at the same address and under the same rules as Roughneck Steering. It, too, has been declared inactive and dissolved by the state of Wyoming. The PAC reported only one contribution to date – $25,000 from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe last year – and only one expenditure, $3,000 to an accountant in California. The Federal Election Commission’s records show no contribution from the PAC to any candidate. 

Idaho Politics, Oregon, Politics

Show Up, Ask a Question…

Republican Congressman Greg Walden represents a vast swath of Oregon in the House of Representatives. His huge district stretches from the Snake River canyon along the Idaho-Oregon border to the Nevada state line and then west to Medford, at the crest of the Cascades. 

Walden, who has been in Congress for 20 years and has never won re-election with less than 56% of the vote, represents an area more than eight times larger than the state of New Jersey. Walden spent August, euphemistically called “the district work period” for members of Congress, actually working, and driving. 

Republican Congressman Greg Walden at a town hall meeting 2017 in Hood River, Oregon

Walden held town hall meetings in such exotic places as Heppner and Burns; he met with constituents at the fire hall in Arlington and talked politics at Bob’s Texas T-Bone restaurant in Rufus. Maybe 250 Oregonians live in Rufus and I’m guessing most of them show up at Bob’s – the food was great and the waitress was “awesome” according to a recent Facebook review – with some regularity. 

Walden, and for that matter the rest of the Oregon congressional delegation, are unlike most members of Congress. They regularly subject themselves to unscripted interaction with their constituents. Walden has held more than 15 town hall meetings since June, more than any other member of the House, and they are not always mild-mannered affairs. 

As Oregon Public Radio reported on Walden’s town hall in Burns: “Harney County resident Lynn McClintock told Walden ‘our economy is becoming weaker because of these [tariffs], farms are struggling and the immigration is being impacted, too, with visas to get them to come and work in these fields.’”

Walden tap danced on the immigration part of the question, but admitted the Trump tariffs were hurting wheat farmers and damaging trade with Japan, but he defended the administration’s tough stand against China. In other words he explained himself one-on-one without a filter, where people could read his body language and gauge for themselves whether he was waffling or leveling. 

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden – he has served in the Senate since 1996 and before that was a member of the House – is the king of town halls. After constituent meetings in August in Beaverton, Corvallis, Newport, Bend and east Portland, Wyden now counts 926 town hall meetings since he became a senator. He has long pledged – and actually does – visit every one of Oregon’s 36 counties for a town hall every year. 

Senator Ron Wyden has done more than 900 town hall meetings, including this one in a community college gymnasium in Albany, Oregon in 2017

I’ve attend a couple of Wyden’s meetings in Tillamook and Astoria, where the senator packed the local high school auditorium, made no speech, but instead took every question – many were pointed and specific – for more than an hour. 

At Wyden’s town hall in Tillamook County in January – it was a Saturday afternoon and 80 or so people were on hand – the very first question was about Wyden’s support for something called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a confusing piece of legislation dealing with third-party boycotts of Israel. The questioner was measured but firm: if Wyden continued to support the legislation he would never, ever get the guy’s vote again. 

Wyden explained his position, in no way satisfied his questioner and then took the next question, and so it went for an hour. There were questions about climate change, local fishing, the Mueller investigation and water quality in Rockaway. A couple of times Wyden reminded the crowd that anyone was welcome to ask a question and he appreciated all the questions, even when someone took issue with him. It was an afternoon of small-d “democracy.” 

“There is no better way to empower citizens than to throw open the doors,” Wyden told Politico last year. “The founding fathers never had in mind that this would just be a spectator sport.”

In many ways Oregon is the political flip side of Idaho. Greg Walden is the only Republican in the Congressional delegation and Democrats dominate state offices and the legislature. But, Oregon is different from Idaho in at least one other way. Federal elected officials in Oregon routinely engage with their constituents in wide-open, no-holds-bared encounters. 

That almost never happens in Idaho. You can search the official websites of Senator Jim Risch and Congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson and find no record of the kind of town hall that is routine in Oregon. 

Give Senator Mike Crapo credit for being all over Idaho in August with events from Cataldo to Corral, but it’s been a cold day in August since Crapo did an event like Walden and Wyden do almost every month. 

Of course Idahoans who live in smaller, rural communities deserve the attention of a United States senator, and Crapo deserves credit for going places where other politicians can’t be bothered, but a visit to the fire department in Cavendish isn’t quite like taking question from anyone who shows up in downtown Lewiston, the north end of Boise or the high school in Pocatello. 

Turns out the Idaho delegation are a lot more like the rest of Congress than is the Oregon delegation. There are politicians like Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican in the Senate, who makes a point of visiting every Iowa county – there are 99 of them – every year for a town hall. Grassley gets asked about his support for repealing Obamacare or rubber-stamping judicial nominees, yet he keeps showing up and has for 40 years. 

But Grassley, Wyden and Walden are exceptions. Risch, Fulcher and Simpson are the norm. 

I reached out to Walden recently to get a comment about all his town halls, but when his communications director realized I might compare Walden’s approach to that of his GOP colleagues in Idaho she demurred. “I do not think we are going to be able to provide a quote at this time for the article since the Idaho delegation are close friends of Greg’s,” she wrote in an email. 

In other words, Walden didn’t want to show up his pals, but it seems like he already has. 

It makes you wonder if respect for Congress and regard for our political system would improve if elected members of Congress just showed up once in a while and answered questions from people they theoretically work for. 

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, 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—–

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? 

—–0—–

(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.

—–0—–

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.

—–0—–

(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.