“We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new bookConscience of a Conservative.
Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.
Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.
Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.
Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.
The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.
“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”
The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”
In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.
Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of Conscience. Flake is hitting similar notes.
In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.
Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.
In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.
New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.
He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.
In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.
Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’
“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”
It is not complicated really. This situation is easily explained. Donald Trump is jerk. A bully. A man sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States who clearly has no regard for the role of the Department of Justice or the quaint (and nearly out of fashion) notion that the attorney general isn’t the president’s personal lawyer. Rule of law. What’s that?
Trump is belittling Jeff Sessions because, as the New York TimesMaggie Haberman put it recently, “he can.” Trump Tweeting and fuming about the man he picked to be attorney general is just Trump being Trump. This is who he is and what he does. We’ve all known this now for months.
Our president is a supremely unfit man in the most important position in the world. He’s also awful at the job and likely to face months and years of legal and political trial. His first six months have been a disaster of Franklin Pierce-like proportions. And like the textbook narcissistic sociopath he is, Trump never accept a thimble full of responsibility for his actions and failures. Hs is never going to get any better. Never.
Donald Trump turning on Jeff Sessions, the first member of the U.S. Senate to endorse him, is therefore textbook Trump. Trump demands complete loyalty and offers perverse Tweets in return. President Ingrate is a serial bully who has demeaned John McCain, the Khans, a Miss Universe contestant, Jeb Bush, Mika Brzezinski, Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father, Ted Cruz’s wife, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, congressmen, senators, Rosie O’Donnell, oh hell, the list is too long to even remember all the garbage he has dished.
Trump being Trump…
No, the question isn’t why Trump is berating Jeff Sessions (and Reince Priebus). The question is why anyone, including the pixie from Selma, would put up with this nonsense?
The fact that Jeff Session, who is now reportedly not on speaking terms with the president – not a good situation when the next domestic terror crisis erupts – is willing to absorb daily public ridicule from a deeply disturbed man tells us as much about our politics as it tells us about the already cringe worthy Jeff Sessions.
Principle and honor have largely disappeared from our politics. We are now in an ethical free fall zone where clinging to power or lurking in the vicinity of power is all that matters. Donald Trump has brought us this low and we are surely going lower.
Asked about the free fire zone Sessions now occupies, the always accommodating House Speaker Paul Ryan basically said “so what.” Ryan, who has suffered his own humiliations at the small hands of the president said, “Look, the president gets to decide what his personnel is, you all know that. He’s the executive branch, we’re the legislative branch, he determines who gets hired and fired in the executive branch, that’s his prerogative.”
It is apparently of no consequence to the Speaker that Trump is miffed at his attorney general for following the law and properly recusing himself from the ongoing Russian investigation and for not engaging in what would be a real “witch hunt” of again litigating Hillary Clinton’s emails.
For more evidence of Trump’s malevolence consider the case of now fired White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a minor entity of even more minor integrity, who has reportedly whispered to the man-child in the Oval that he should be allowed to hover around the edges of power because he alone is able to shakedown big GOP donors for contributions to a White House legal defense fund. The little man from Kenosha makes John Ehrlichman – look him up – appear to have been a paragon of moral superiority.
With Trump’s blessing the new White House communication director Anthony Scaramucci – The Mooch – launched a public feud with Priebus, accusing the chief of staff of leaking state secrets and being something we won’t discuss with our families over dinner. Next to dysfunction in the dictionary you’ll find a group photo of this administration. All this drama was simply about humiliating the little man from Wisconsin before firing him on the airport tarmac.
Some Republican lawmakers have stirred themselves to come to Sessions’ defense, but few – or none – seem able, and then only obliquely, to actually take on the Abuser-in-Chief. Perhaps these spineless characters fear a Trumpian Twitter barrage of a type the president has rained down on his debased attorney general or maybe they fear the fickle rightwing media will train its fire on anyone who really pushes back on Trump.
Why Do They Put Up With It…
There is a remedy for the dysfunction, a remedy that should be more deeply rooted in American political principles than it has been since, well, William Jennings Bryan quit the State Department. But the remedy requires a backbone, a body part rarely seen any longer in Washington, D.C.
The remedy for a Session or a Priebus is simply to quit, resign as a matter of principle or as a point of honor. Don’t buy the garbage that Sessions needs to stay in order to head off the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller. If Trump ordered a Justice Department purge under a new attorney general there would be holy hell to pay. It would make Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like an office Christmas party.
With some degree of his integrity left, Sessions could resign on the basis that the president has made it impossible for him to do his job. That would be honest. It would be principled. He’s already given up a seat in the United States Senate to serve Trump, climbing down as attorney general can’t be a much bigger step. Sessions will go down in history either way. He might as well go down as a person with some tiny amount of principle, among the first to draw the line on what is unacceptable behavior by a president of the United States. I’m not holding my breath.
The irony in all of this is that the first Republican who really, really breaks with Trump will be widely proclaimed a person of real principle, putting country above partisanship and reason above politics. Certainly those who break with Trump – really break – will engender the hatred of the Trumpian hard core and may even risk political defeat or exile, but what kind of person tolerates degradation by a tinhorn autocrat?
Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter reports that from the beginning of his tenure Trump derisively referred to his chief of staff as “Reincey” or “my genius Reince.” The Washington Post says Trump once told his top staffer to fetch a fly swatter and dispatch a pesky insect that was buzzing the swamp around the president of the United States. He might have just told Reincey to check his manhood before entering White House grounds.
Even better given this environment, a few Congressional Republicans might find a backbone and say directly to the man-child: “The conduct of the president of the United States has made him unfit for public office. He should resign.”
Imagine the cascade of praise – and of course fury – that would come down on the first elected Republican to actually say it is beneath me to associate with such a tiny, ignorant, incapable man. Epic story. History books. Cable TV gigs. The Op-Ed opportunities abound.
Resigning on Principle: What a Concept…
In 1980, in the wake of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned after having failed to persuade President Jimmy Carter not to use military force in an attempt to end the hostage crisis. Vance feared the research mission would fail and diplomatic efforts to end the standoff would then suffer. He was right. The rescue effort degenerated into a mess – eight U.S. servicemen died – and Carter’s already troubled presidency was further burdened with the searing image of burning American aircraft in the Iranian desert.
Vance’s resignation, not surprisingly, was referenced in the first paragraph of his obituary where it was noted, correctly, that a principled man had resigned as a matter of principle. [William Jennings Bryan is the other American secretary of state to resign out of a matter or principle. He did so in 1915 when the president was Woodrow Wilson. And, yes, I wonder whether Trump would recognize either name.]
The tradition of the principled resignation is deeply embedded in the political culture of most every western democracy – except the United States. Here, unlike the U.K., Canada, France, Germany and many other countries, acquiring and maintaining political power supersedes all other considerations, particularly including honor and a sense of right and wrong.
That Cy Vance is remembered as the exception to this rule is worth contemplating as the swamp of Donald Trump’s government oozes and seethes with a level of vulgarity and impairment that makes a sub-Saharan dictatorship look pretty good by comparison. Vance resigned over a policy difference of great import. The Trumpians knowingly hunker down in service to an incompetent who can’t control his basest instincts. It is a case of dumbing stupidity down.
The real message here for Republicans with any sense of decency is actually pretty simple: distance yourself from this fiasco and establish yourself as a person of principle. Honor a long tradition of American political norms and decency and step away, not slowly but with a stutter step and a sprint to daylight.
The option is to stay and grovel and become, well, become Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus. Everything this president touches will eventually turn to dust and dishonor. History, if we survive this mess, will judge harshly those who stayed. It will richly reward those who go. And if you think incoming chief of staff John Kelly can make this mess of a White House function with some degree of normalcy I’ve got a bridge you might buy in Brooklyn. Trump will never change and sooner or later Kelly will have his fly swatter moment.
My goodness, Sean Spicer of all people is suddenly looking like a genius. Despite all of his, well, shading of the truth and his White House briefing inspired spoofs on Saturday Night Live Spicer bucked himself up and quit rather than abide Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci in the office down the hall.
Now, in a development totally consistent with the ongoing White House circus, Spicer may end up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Talk about a way to save your reputation.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” the president of the United States said a while back. And he said that after promising during the last campaign that every American would have health care coverage and that the wallet impact of paying for health insurance will be a “lot less expensive” for everyone – taxpayers, consumers and providers. Who knew?
That the Republican health care plan is almost completely disconnected from reality should be no great surprise. Republicans have been making political hay out of trashing Barack Obama’s signature legislative initiative for eight years, while never proposing any rational plan to replace what they succeeded in convincing their political base was nothing short of a socialist plot. It was a ruse. A big con.
Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey provided a textbook example of a Washington political gaffe – defined as what happens when a politician stumbles and speaks the truth. “Look, I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win,” Toomey told voters this week. “I think most of my colleagues didn’t, so we didn’t expect to be in this situation.” In other words, demonizing the other party’s health care approach was really all about politics never about policy.
History will record, even if few Republicans acknowledge the fact, that the broad outlines of Obama’s Affordable Care Act were once the basis of conservative health care policy. I know its old news, but a guy named Mitt Romney implemented essentially the same policies as governor of Massachusetts and then spent the 2012 election trying to deny he had ever heard of the coverage mandate. But, admittedly that was way back when conservatives actually cared about policy. Or cared about something as basic as trying to get as many Americans as possible insured against the vagaries we all face regarding health and wellness.
Just a reminder: For health insurance to work, both in terms of actuarial soundness and individual affordability, you need to have the greatest possible number of people covered by an insurance plan. The whole idea of insurance is to spread the risk, flatten out the cost to everyone and control costs both for consumers and providers of care. This is why every state in the nation mandates that when you license your automobile you must provide proof of insurance. We don’t allow an individual motorist to avoid coverage that serves to protect their interest as well as the interests of the rest of us simply because some yahoo in a pick-up truck hates a “government mandate.” You either buy the auto insurance or you don’t drive, at least not legally.
Insurance isn’t about “freedom” to chose. It is about sharing risk and spreading cost. It is a responsible we are all in this together way to broadly address a greater public good, which is why the ACA mandated coverage and provided subsidies for the millions of Americans who would otherwise be priced out of the insurance market. At the same time, Obama’s health insurance plan expanded the existing government program called Medicaid in order to address the needs of millions of Americans – including many, many children – struggling to make ends meet on low incomes, living with disabilities or closing out their days in a nursing home.
The End of Medicaid as We Know It…
The legislation Republicans are attempting to advance in Washington, D.C. would end the individual mandate requirement and dramatically reduce the national commitment to Medicaid to the tune of $750 billion over the next decade.
As Thomas Edsall wrote recently in the New York Times, “Since its inception in 1965, Medicaid has become an integral and major part of the American safety net. Not only does it cover health care for the poor, it prevents millions of members of the working and middle classes from losing all their savings and falling into bankruptcy when they or their family members become too old, sick or disabled to work. Medicaid also provides essential help in family planning, preventing premature births and supporting infant and child health.”
Edsall correctly notes that a significant majority of Medicaid beneficiaries are the very people who elected Donald J. Trump last year and gave Republicans control of Congress. “In McConnell’s Kentucky,” Edsall wrote, a recent Georgetown University “study found that Medicaid has become a crucial source of coverage for adults. Before the passage of Obamacare in 2010, 13 percent of adult Kentuckians were covered; after passage, in 2013-14, the percentage more than doubled to 28 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of uninsured adults in Kentucky fell from 26 to 10 percent.”
The dog’s breakfast that is the GOP health insurance plan is in the sorry shape it’s in – polling indicates a tiny fraction of Americans support it – because Republicans have, despite what House Speaker Paul Ryan might contend, abandoned real policy for almost any mishmash of gobbledygook that seems to resemble a “fix” to Obamacare. So desperate are Republicans to have a political “win” that they willfully misrepresent what their proposals will accomplish, a strategy that increasingly appears to have caught up with them back home. With this approach – say pretty much anything and hope to get past the 2018 mid-terms – McConnell and Company have essentially embraced a Trump strategy – promise big change, fudge (or lie) about the details and hope against hope that the entire spectacle will make numb all but the most ardent and partisan believers.
It Will be Great, But If It Isn’t That’s OK…
One of the rich stories of the recent charade involved a made-for-television meeting at the White House where Trump invited all 52 Senate Republicans downtown for a chat about health care legislation. Trump, positioned with two of the most skeptical senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – on either side of him, promised that a great, great bill would emerge from McConnell’s log rolling. Then he stepped all over that message by suggesting that if it all fell apart, well, that would be all right, too.
As the Timesreported in a story that Trump immediately decried as “fake news,” one supportive senator “left the meeting at the White House with a sense that the president did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan—and seemed especially confused when a moderate Republican complained that opponents of the bill would cast it as a massive tax break for the wealthy.”
But, of course, the president displays next to no interest in the complicated, life-and-death details involved in these issues and is in fact almost certainly unable, thanks to intellect and disposition, to learn anything that might help fashion a path forward. He reportedly told lawmakers earlier this year that they should focus on the “big picture” and “forget about the little shit.” Essentially that is what Republicans have been doing for eight years.
Over the last eight years Democrats made a fundamental political mistake by never adequately and compellingly explaining what they were attempting to accomplish with the Affordable Care Act. There was no clear message from supporters of the Act beyond wanting to bring down the number of uninsured Americans. Little sustained effort was made to explain why more people being covered meant a better system and Democrats compounded their message mismanagement when they made Faustian bargains with drug and device manufacturers in order to pass legislation. Those bargains have clearly exacerbated the job of controlling costs.
The Republican message can be summed up succulently, if incorrectly: Democrats were putting us on the road to socialism. What American health care required, Republicans said again and again, was more competition. “We’ve got to do something to reinject free-market forces into this environment,” Utah Senator Mike Lee said recently on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can bring free-market forces to bear, we can bring down costs for middle Americans.”
That is, of course, another pipe dream and ignores the way the American system of health care actually works. Republicans seem to embrace, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, a health care economy that they wish existed rather than the one that actually does exist.
Vice President Mike Pence recently touted the “market based” system as the country’s only solution to a broken health care system, while in reality it is a major cause of the American health care mess. Pence and many embracing the market ignore all the vast data that proves the American system with its wacky incentives and general lack of accountability is wildly more expensive and delivers worse results than any county in the rest of the developed world.
Data compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, shows that “the United States spends close to 20 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, nearly $10,000 per person [annually], roughly twice as much as countries like Britain, which has a nationalized health service. Americans, as a whole, pay more to get less.”
Costs More, Produces Less…
In an important new book on what’s wrong with American health care Elisabeth Rosenthal, the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News made an observation that most of us can identify with.
“Who among us,” Rosenthal writes in An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, “hasn’t opened a medical bill or an explanation of benefits statement and stared in disbelief at terrifying numbers? Who hasn’t puzzled over an insurance policy’s rules of copayments, deductibles, ‘in-network’ and ‘out-of-network’ payments—only to surrender in frustration and write a check, perhaps under threat of collection?”
Rosenthal argues that the health care market simply doesn’t work the way Home Depot or Safeway works.
“More competitors vying for business doesn’t mean better prices; it can drive prices up, not down…. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more…. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.”
As the New York Review of Books noted in a recent review of the book: “Rosenthal’s indictment extends well beyond insurance companies. She looks carefully at hospitals, and the reader learns how they have been transformed by marketing consultants and administrators with business degrees to generate large profits, though many still enjoy a tax-exempt status as ‘nonprofit institutions’—meaning that they pay ‘almost no US property or payroll taxes.’ Instead of profit, tax-exempt hospitals call it ‘operating surplus.’ In 2011, the US government calculated that hospitals were getting an annual tax advantage of $24.6 billion. Steven Brill, who highlighted the predatory pricing that occurs in calculating costs of care in America’s Bitter Pill (2015), recently listed the yearly pay of the CEOs of large hospital systems, which often amounts to many millions of dollars. Rosenthal points out that ‘total cash compensation for hospital CEOs grew an average of 24 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone.’”
Both parties – but Republicans more than Democrats – have over promised and under delivered on the matter of health care insurance. But now the GOP faces the stark reality that the dozens of votes to “repeal” Obamacare were, as Senator Toomey has now admitted, just so much political rhetoric designed to gin up confused consumers and build a partisan advantage in Congress. Republicans have never had anything like a “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act and that policy failure is now wrapped around Mitch McConnell like one of those flimsy hospital gowns with the ties in the back. Anyone who has donned one of those garments knows it doesn’t cover much. Now the majority leader’s inadequacies are all too visible.
Fact Free, Hyper-Partisan…
The debate over health insurance policy has tripped into the same fact free zone of hyper-partisanship that dominates virtually every public policy discussion these days. Yet, the real news for millions of Americans is both obvious and frightening. Millions of Americans are still without health insurance and Republican plans will only make things worse, with many folks just a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.
The “system” is hugely inefficient and rewards many of the wrong things such as paying providers for performing procedures rather than improving health. Costs for everything from a hospital stay to a blood test are often widely out of whack with what the service actually costs. Primary care doctors are overworked and under loved, while the local orthopedic surgeon – you can look it up – is doing very, very well thank you.
I have long felt that the mess of policy known as Obamacare was ironically both a political loser for Democrats and a vehicle to move health care policy in a better direction. In a real working political system, unlike our broken system, lawmakers would keep the best features – an insurance mandate that provides basic coverage centered on preventive care, for example – and work to put in place real incentives that actually bend the cost curve and improve affordability. But such pragmatism is another pipe dream and in the current political environment nearly impossible to contemplate.
It has also been clear to me that the ultimate “fix” for American health care will eventually lead to what exists in most of the rest of the western world – a single payer system that some have started to call “Medicare for All.”
It is generally the American way of politics to gradually chip away at the margins of a problem hoping to slowly, incrementally change things for the better. This approach has given us Obamacare as well as Mitch McConnell’s approach and left us with the most expensive health care in the world and some very marginal outcomes. This truly is not sustainable.
Better to vastly simplify the system with a program that covers basic and preventive care, regulates expensive medical procedures and drug costs the way we regulate public utilities and let insurance companies figure out how to offer gold plated supplemental plans for those who can afford them. We certainly have enough money in our health care “system” to do these things. What we have is problem of how the money is allocated across the health care landscape and, of course, we have a surplus of partisan political posturing that makes real solutions nearly impossible to craft.
This much is true: whatever happens with Republican plans to “repeal and replace” what Barack Obama helped create, the GOP will own the fallout for what comes next. It is not a huge surprise, in fact it’s quite obvious, that both parties have an interest in fashioning health care policy that insures coverage for millions, reduces costs and improves outcomes. The problem is that not enough people in either party are willing to admit the obvious.
Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law] and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
“I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
“European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.”
How do we explain the reality of the president of the United States?
At his core he is a reality television host with a string of real estate bankruptcies and a host of conflicts of interest. He’s had three wives. He settled hundreds of claims for operating a fraudulent “university.” His long, long record of mendacity about everything from the number of floors in his Manhattan high rise to the size of his inaugural crowds has now carried over to his presidency where he continues to change positions like the rest of us change socks. The man clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder that requires constant affirmation of all that he does, but simultaneously seems to prevent him from exhibiting even a sliver of empathy, self-reflection or sense of remorse.
That he is a deeply flawed individual is obvious even to many who voted for him and yet millions continue to pretend there is nothing to see here. On one level you can understand that Trump voters made a commitment last year and, unlike their hero, they find it difficult – even impossible – to shed a commitment.
Yet, how to explain the political loyalty on the part of elected Republicans to a man who hijacked their party and by all accounts has never exhibited any loyalty to anyone? Most elected Republicans came only reluctantly to Donald J. Trump after trying out other alternatives. Meanwhile Trump stormed his way through the GOP field with an outrageous helping of bombast, hyperbole and insult, while his chief competitors largely attacked one another hoping to be the last man standing against a huckster. The last campaign may go down in political history as the first where virtually everyone abandoned the classic strategy of attacking the front-runner, while the frontrunner attacked everyone. Republican failure to see Trump for what he is and campaign accordingly was a fatal mistake compounded by even more fatal mistakes from Democrats.
And, now again we confront an astoundingly chaotic and dispiriting few days that only accumulate the sins of the president against American democracy.
Bear with me while I recount and know that this accounting leaves for another day the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe and the new revelations about his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Russians in the Oval…
The director of the FBI, leading a national security investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and the Russian government, was fired. The handling of the firing and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the deputy attorney general and many of the White House staff, not to mention the president himself.
Then the day after James Comey’s dismissal the president invited the Russian foreign minister – described by one foreign policy official as “a complete asshole” – into the Oval Office in the company of the Russian ambassador, a man implicated in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The optics alone were awful, including the fact that U.S. journalists were barred from photographing the meeting, but Russian cameras recorded the event and the Russians released the pictures for the world to digest.
During the meeting the president shared some of the deepest secrets from within the United States government with Vladimir Putin’s principle deputy in his mission to discredit western style democracy and weaken the NATO alliance. No wonder the photos show a smiling Sergei Lavrov.
The president’s defense of the indefensible was simple and simply incredible: I can do it and I did, he said. It is true that a president can declassify information whenever he wants, but that crazy and ludicrous justification came only after the administration’s national security advisor attempted to mislead the country about the substance of what his boss had done.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who you may remember authored a splendid book called Dereliction of Duty about why people who knew better failed stand up to another flawed president in an earlier generation. General McMaster is now an object lesson in what duty actually requires. Hint: duty is not covering for a nitwit.
It was also widely reported in the midst of all this chaos, and without contradiction, that the president of the United States leaned on the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to support his contention that the Trump campaign has not colluded with Russia. Both men refused and apparently considered the request completely inappropriate.
Remember all of this happened in the space of a few days, hours really.
Next a senior American official shared with the New York Times the specific words Donald J. Trump shared with those crafty Russians. Trump said he fired the “nut job” FBI director in order to take the heat off the investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. Think about that for a moment.
A senior staffer to the president of the United States is sharing the most damning information possible about his boss with newspaper reporters. You have to wonder why. There is only one plausible explanation: some on the White House staff have concluded what the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not tumbled to – the president is reckless and ignorant about national security matters or even more seriously a genuine danger to the country and the world.
Just for good measure add this context: amid the wringing of hands about what was said in the Oval Office and how damaging it might be, Vladimir Putin smilingly offered to provide a Russian account of the meeting. That could only have been a threat to expose what some on the White House staff immediately rushed to expose themselves. Slap your forehead in disbelief. This is not fake news. This is the Republic of Trump.
The many and constantly shifting explanations of why we have Donald J. Trump in the White House are mostly inadequate to explain why a manifestly unfit individual has his finger on the nuclear button. Disdain for “elites” doesn’t explain it, nor does the economic condition of too many white working class Americans. The strange attraction of Americans to the simple and often wrong answers of a “strong man” who acts “decisively” remains inadequate to explain this weird moment in our history. The only real explanation is the simple one on display daily in the Republican controlled Congress. Twenty-plus years of Republican intellectual rot and ultra-partisanship have combined to give us Donald Trump.
I’m a member of the old school. I learned my journalism and politics generations ago in the school of, if not perfect objectivity, then at least rigorous fairness. In those days there was a rough equivalence between the major political parties. No one group or faction had a lock on wisdom or truth. You could report the position of a Republican and a Democrat with a sense that each point of view had a large measure of value and intellectual honesty. But something changed.
The change in politics we are now living with came at first gradually. It was a trickle in the beginning, but then a dam gave way. And we all find ourselves engaged in a running and increasingly destructive national argument that is about little more than tribal partisanship where facts disappear and lying multiplies.
The explanation for “why Trump” is actually quite simple and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have described it with great precision in their important book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,” Mann and Ornstein note,“one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That explanation was written in 2012, long before we could envision the Age of Trump.
Here is a more current assessment from Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s top strategist in 2008, who says the “rotten, fetid and corrupt culture that has metastasized around an intellectually bankrupt GOP” is horrible for the country and will take years to correct.
Or put yet another way: national Republicans have now for some years advanced an often internally incoherent and essentially dishonest set of policy ideas that have debased the intellectual rationale of a once genuine conservative – and responsible – party. Tax cuts trump deficit reduction under GOP presidents, but are ruining the country when the other party is in power. A “feckless” foreign policy is to be condemned under Barack Obama, but Trump trashing NATO, cooing with dictators and praising Putin is now somehow just fine under a Republican.
Republican leaders are now facing the consequence of such a craven and opportunistic approach to politics. The consequences of misleading, misinforming and misusing their followers now sits in the White House, which brings me to the junior Senator from Idaho, James E. Risch.
Idaho’s Dubious Claims to Political Fame…
Idaho, a state I called home for nearly 40 years and where I worked in and around the state’s politics for all of that period, has a decidedly mixed political history. The state has produced a small collection of truly impressive political leaders, including William E. Borah, an old-style progressive Republican, and Frank Church, an old-style western liberal. Borah chaired the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920s and was a major power in Washington. Church chaired the same committee in the 1970s and investigated the excesses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, probed foreign corruption by American businesses, passed important conservation legislation and stood up to a president of his own party on the issue of a disastrous war. Jim McClure, a Reagan conservative who served in both the House and Senate, could be a tough partisan, but was also known as a serious legislative workhorse. After those three Idahoans of national prominence the state’s Congressional gruel gets pretty thin.
Take George V. Hansen for example. A lumbering six foot, six inch 300 pound ultra-conservative, Hansen in a way symbolizes Idaho on the national stage. As a congressman Big George made a showboating trip to Iran in 1979 to negotiate the release of the American embassy hostages. The move failed, of course, but it generated a lot of news coverage that Hansen milked for all its worth. He was anti-IRS, anti-OSHA and anti-EPA. He voted against civil rights and never passed a piece of legislation even remotely important to his constituents. Twice convicted of various financial shenanigans, a judge actually said Hansen wasn’t really an evil man just a stupid one. Look it up.
The first line of Hansen’s 2014 New York Times obituary captured the essence of his wacky career. Hansen was, the Times noted, “a Republican politician whose open disdain for federal authority made him a popular figure in Idaho, where he was elected to Congress seven times, and who twice landed in federal prison.”
More recently one-time Senator Larry Craig became a laugh line for every late night comedian when his “wide stance” in a men’s restroom in the Minneapolis airport resulted in an arrest by an undercover cop who charged the senator with lewd conduct. Craig plead guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, quickly said he would resign from the Senate, then reneged and spent months fighting his own admission of wrongdoing using campaign funds to finance his legal action. The Federal Election Commission sued Craig for misusing campaign funds. He lost on appeal.
When a sex scandal involving House members and pages erupted in the early 1980s, Craig denied any involvement even though no one had accused him of wrongdoing. Many Idahoans just shrugged and elected Craig to the Senate where he warmed a seat and engineered earmarks from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Beyond the sex scandals Larry Craig’s main claim to Senate fame was to champion a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that his own party never supported and to carry reservoirs of water for the National Rifle Association. Although he served in the Senate for 18 years and six years in the House you can search long and hard to find a significant legislative accomplishment with Craig’s name attached.
The Junior Senator from Idaho…
Although never touched by the kind of personal scandal that came to define the careers of Hansen and Craig, current Senator Risch, a wealthy trial lawyer who prides himself on being the most conservative senator, is every bit as much a non-entity. Risch, a senior member of both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, has been among the most outspoken defenders of Donald Trump. Risch wears his extreme partisanship and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy on his sleeve.
Without knowing the full extent of Trump’s remarkable sharing of super-sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, Risch hurriedly regurgitated White House talking points on three different news programs – CNN, Fox and the PBS NewsHour – declaring that the bumbling president did nothing wrong when he shared state secrets. The real offense, Risch insisted, came from “the weasels” within the White House and the administration that leaked the details of Trump’s crazy actions.
“The real story here is there’s a weasel here,” Risch told The NewsHours John Yang. “They betrayed their own country, they betrayed their families and their neighbors, and when you disclose classified information … it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified, but he or she should be identified and treated as any treasonous person would be.” In another interview Risch said it was time to question the Washington Post about the sources of the leaks.
As a senior member on the two most important committees assessing the extent of Russian interference in the last election, and with extensive access to information and sources in the intelligence community Risch might have chosen to play the role of truth seeker or even wise skeptic. Instead he’s gone full partisan calling Trump’s disclosure “a good act.” You can’t find a person in the intelligence community who agrees with such sophistry. No serious person thinks Trump acted out of anything other than ignorance or arrogance.
“It’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around. This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did,” Risch said on PBS.
Risch has found no words to express even mild concern that a president under investigation has fired his investigator. When asked a few months back about Russian interference in the election Risch brushed off any concern. “I don’t think they interfered. I think they attempted to interfere,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
The CNN host felt it necessary to remind Risch that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies came to a different conclusion.
These are simply astounding statements by a U.S. Senator with broad access to intelligence and foreign policy knowledge. So astounding in fact that former Idaho attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Jim Jones, a Republican who once harbored his own Senate aspirations, observed in a recent newspaper column that he was “having a hard time understanding the Republican Party that I joined back in the early 1960s.”
With Risch no doubt in mind, Jones, now retired, asked “Has the Republican Party turned into such a hyper-partisan entity that it is not willing to get to the bottom of this alarming mess? Seems so.”
The glaring reality of the “intellectually bankrupt GOP” is clearly on display with politicians like Jim Risch. His knee jerk defense of Trump stands in stark contrast to his knee jerk denunciations of the previous president. He excuses behavior today that he would have condemned as treasonous a year ago. It is the behavior of a political hack, not a serious senator.
Risch’s behavior and hyper-partisanship conjure up memories of another Idaho Republican senator from the 1950s. Herman Welker was another political non-entity with no legislative accomplishments who nonetheless drove fear of Communism into a single, forgettable Senate term. To the extent Welker is remembered at all today relates to his slavish devotion to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, an earlier demagogue not infrequently compared to our current American demagogue. Welker defended McCarthy to the bitter, bitter end, condemned McCarthy’s “unfair” treatment by the press, berated McCarthy’s critics and voted against McCarthy’s censure. History has treated Welker harshly – there are no monuments to the man in Idaho – and will, I suspect, treat Republicans like Risch just as roughly.
The party that once made it an article of faith to abhor almost any coziness with a dictator in the Kremlin now regularly apologizes for a president who acts more and more in the interest of Putin and at the expense of America’s standing around the world. It is simply a remarkable transformation and unlike anything we have witnessed in politics of our lifetimes.
Pause and review for a moment the developments of the last two weeks, including former CIA director John Brennan’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a portion of which is quoted above. Then ask yourself what being a United States senator really entails?
Is independence part of the job? Maybe embracing a penchant for facts over rank partisan obfuscation is what the founders had in mind when they gave the Senate power to check the excesses of a reckless chief executive. Maybe the guts to stand up to a clown is part of the job even if it puts a senator in the uncomfortable position of bucking the prevailing sentiment of his party. Perhaps country really should come before partisanship.
The unprecedented leaking from the White House and the intelligence community might well be a reason for concern if the president of the United States were even remotely capable of exercising his responsibilities. But that is not the state of play in American politics. Jim Risch would shut down the “weasels” that are helping all of us understand the dangers of a president both intellectually unprepared for the job and too ignorant to know what he doesn’t know.
At a moment when history demands political leaders who stand for something bigger than their own party and who believe in something more important than the next election, the junior senator from Idaho is playing a role that has become all too common. It may be politically safe, at least for a while longer, to cozy up to Trump, but excusing his behavior has absolutely nothing to do with duty, honor and country.
There will be a day of reckoning with all the nonsense and incompetence and possibly worse that Republicans have embraced in their subservience to Trump. Some in safe seats will survive the ultimate blowback, while others will be shown the door. All will live and die with the taint – or the stink – of a kind of immoral collaboration that already has them being labeled “Vichy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, looking at the conduct of craven politicians like Jim Risch I almost find myself longing for a politician who was just a stupid crook. Ol’ George Hansen suddenly doesn’t look so bad.
“I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
In February 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the U.S. government to forcibly remove the entire Japanese-American population of the west coast. Within months 110,000 men, women and children were moved to concentration camps in the interior of the country, including Idaho the state I called home for more than 40 years. History records this unconstitutional treatment of thousands of people, the vast majority of them American citizens, as one of the worst violations of civil liberties in our history.
Driven by fear, racial prejudice, national security hysteria and even economic considerations, then-Idaho Governor Chase Clark, a Democrat, and most every other political leader in the country willingly embraced the politically popular notion that citizens of Japanese ancestry represented a security threat. They “act like rats,” Clark said in a scathing indictment of all of Japanese ancestry. If they where to be brought to Idaho, Clark maintained, they must be kept under military guard in “concentration camps.” A better solution to the “Jap Problem” was to “send them all back to Japan, then sink the island.”
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act authorizing modest compensation for the Japanese-American citizens incarcerated by their own government a half-century earlier. Reagan remarked that the government’s “action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race.”
Now, history repeats with a new dark chapter.
Seventy-five year after Roosevelt’s grievous violation of civil liberties another American president is using an un-American standard – religion – to discriminate and persecute American citizens, foreign citizens legally in the United States and desperate refugees, primarily women and children, seeking to flee mayhem in Syria and elsewhere.
As with the events of 1942, Donald Trump’s recent sweeping Executive Order is driven by fear, misinformation about threats to national security and apparently by a misguided belief that all Muslims, even those who have put their own lives at risk to add American military efforts in the Middle East, present a danger.
So far the response of Idaho elected officials to the arguably unconstitutional Executive Order has been faint-hearted acquiesce. This capitulation to fear and bigotry, particularly given Idaho’s troubled history of racial and religious discrimination, including battles against the Aryan Nations and anti-Mormon bigotry, deserves the strongest possible condemnation. This is an Idaho fight.
Racial and religious intolerance has been stoked recently in south central Idaho by the alt-right website Breitbart, not coincidentally the same region where thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated 75 years ago. Major political leaders have been silent, while Breitbart’s former CEO, Stephen Bannon, becomes the top political strategist to the president with a seat on the National Security Council. Breitbart’s immigration policy is now America’s.
As the late Dr. Bob Sims, a Boise State University historian of the Japanese-American internment, wrote of Governor Clark’s position in the 1940s, that it “may have seemed fearless and patriotic, but in retrospect it appears to have been nothing more, or less, than a combination of xenophobia and racism.” Sims acknowledged that Clark, who later become a respected federal judge, deserved to be remembered for the totality of his career, but also for “his shortcomings in World War II, for they were not his alone but America’s.”
In the life of every politician there comes a moment when moral reality presents a stark choice between principle and party, between what is momentarily popular and what is consistent with American values. This is such a moment and the timid, spineless response from Idaho leaders is truly reprehensible.
If you oppose the president’s action as an un-American, unconstitutional religious test targeting one vulnerable group then adopt the all-American response – oppose it, loudly and consistently.
And a footnote: Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 never mentioned Japanese-Americans, but the order was clearly directed at that population. The Trump Administration says its order is “not a Muslim ban.” History does repeat.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
President Donald J. Trump, January 20, 2017
As surreal as it was to watch Donald J. Trump place his hand on the Lincoln Bible and assume the presidency, that image was hardly the most unsettling of the unsettling start to his administration. An even more surreal scene played out immediately after the inaugural ceremony inside the U.S. Capitol. Those moments indicate with a starkness that is both surreal and stunning the degree to which the old, conservative Republican Party has become, like Trump, a nativist, nationalistic, anti-trade, immigrant bashing, truth free zone of opportunism and incompetence.
Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt has called what has happened to the GOP “intellectual rot” – the inability or unwillingness to stand on genuine principle rather than cave to the craven charlatan who has now come to completely define the Republican Party. As Schmidt said in October, Republicans in embracing Donald Trump have repeatedly and consciously placed “their party ahead of their country, denying what is so obviously clear to anybody who’s watching about [Trump’s] complete and total, manifest unfitness for this office.”
“The magnitude of its disgrace to the country is almost impossible, I think, to articulate,” Schmidt said while speaking real truth to the power hungry. “But it has exposed the intellectual rot in the Republican Party. It has exposed at a massive level the hypocrisy, the modern day money changers in the temple like Jerry Falwell Jr. And, so this party to go forward, and to represent a conservative vision for America, has great soul searching to do.”
After January 20, 2017 the intellectual rot only grows.
As tradition dictates, the new president was feted at a post-swearing in luncheon hosted by the Congressional leadership, the same bipartisan group of “elite insiders” whom Trump just spent significant parts of his speech lambasting.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” President Trump fumed. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
Who was he talking about? All the people sitting behind him glumly thinking their country was committing suicide in slow motion, that’s who. Was Trump talking about Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush? Barack Obama and Joe Biden? Maybe Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? As the New York Times’Frank Bruni wrote Trump “stood just feet from four of the last six presidents [and] he trashed them, talking about a Washington establishment blind and deaf to the struggles of less fortunate Americans.”
Later Trump lumped all these losers together and said, “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.” There he might have been referring to McConnell, the king of obstruction, the prince of delay, the guy who singlehandedly established the new precedent that no Supreme Court vacancy can be filled in the last year of a president’s term, the senator who made it his only job to oppose – everything.
But just moments later McConnell was offering a toast to the new president, the same man McConnell reportedly told fellow GOP senators back in February of 2016 that they could “drop like a hot rock” if he started hurting their re-election prospects.
The Trump he toasted on Friday, McConnell said, has now become “big, bold, energetic, resilient, always looking to the next horizon.” This is the guy who has repudiated virtually everything Republicans have stood for since Dwight Eisenhower, but he won and they won so let’s go big and bold, embrace intolerance and Putin and dismiss any criticism. The Age of Trump means never having to say or believe anything coherent. Power is enough.
It was also enough, had you any sense of shame, to make you choke on your lobster, but the Republican politicians who know in their hearts that this man is a fraud, dangerous, unprincipled and ignorant nevertheless smiled and toasted and embraced our national disaster.
While McConnell’s smarmy embrace of Trump is, at least for him, par for the course – he’s a political game player of the first order who undoubtedly thinks he can mold the new president to his aim, and besides his wife got a seat at the Cabinet table – the near total party capitulation to a bumbling incompetent with an authoritarian mean streak is still an amazing thing to observe.
In the life of any politician there comes a moment when the decision is to risk popularity and position in the interest of principle. Do you place party first or country? The GOP stormed through that moment without breaking stride. The GOP establishment has decided that power is what counts and is determined, and here I paraphrase their leader, to protect itself and not the citizens of the country.
“I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine. My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” Chaffetz punctuated his statement with “I’m out.”
Obviously, he found his way back in.
The intellectual rot displays in other ways, as well. The party that has defined itself by an emphasis on national security now condones a man ready to cast off NATO and facilitate Russian dominance of Europe. The free traders in the GOP stand in the corner while their leader embraces the elixir of protectionism, a concoction that “will lead to great prosperity and strength.” The party that spent eight years and four elections demonizing an effort to make health insurance available to millions more Americans now prepares to repeal that law with absolutely no notion of what will replace it. The intellectual rot is deep and deadly.
As the incisive Michael Gerson – George W. Bush’s speechwriter – observed Trump’s inaugural speech was really a “funeral oration at the death of Reaganism, and of conservatism more broadly.” Stoke the funeral pyre. Mitch McConnell and Jason Chaffetz are holding the gas can.
Donald Trump’s “base” will undoubtedly love the antics of his first moments in office – his dark, dystopian, nativist disavowal of U.S. leadership in the world, including proclaiming “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” his fact free fights with reporters about the size of his crowds and his dismissal of the millions who peacefully protested his presidency over the weekend. The man Mitch McConnell considers “big” and “bold” stood before the wall of honor at CIA headquarters where Americans who have died in service to their country are commemorated and riffed – inaccurately – on the number of times he has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. This is the new Republican Party.
The Republicans “elites” have found comfort in their own echo chamber consisting of carefully gerrymandered Congressional districts, a compliant propaganda operation led by Fox, Breitbart and now the White House, an embrace of misinformation and a disdain for facts. As Steven Waldman pointed out recently in the Washington Monthly, “Trump’s waning popularity with the general electorate doesn’t matter to [Congressional Republicans] as long as conservative Republicans still like him.”
Yet even the enabling Republicans, at least most of them, must quietly be stressing over a president who they continue to know is manifestly unfit and even dangerous. They are playing a risky, high stakes political game, gambling all the nation’s chips on the long shot chance that Donald Trump won’t eventually implode taking them down with him. In the meantime, all who draw close to this disaster will be tainted by their proximity.
At the expense of placating an overwhelmingly white, nationalist, anti-immigrant base that yearns for a strong man to disrupt and destroy the “elites,” the leaders of the Republican Party find that they have embraced their own destroyer. They deserve their fate even if the country doesn’t.
“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”
If you want to set off a spirited discussion at a family dinner or spark a debate around the office water cooler you need not go to the trouble of mentioning a Trump presidency, just mention Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest banks.
The big bank’s apparent wide spread embrace of various scams to create two million phony accounts in order to secretly squeeze bucks out of its unsuspecting customers is just the most recent example of the financial industry’s disconnect from the most basic notion of ethical behavior. It is a scandal that perfectly illustrates the great decline in public confidence in American institutions.
Wells Fargo has taken a public relations beating as a result of the fiasco, but the former CEO still walked away with a $130 million dollar golden parachute even as 5,300 bank employees lost their jobs. The bank’s stock price has recovered nicely. Members of Congress are making noise while demanding more information from Wells Fargo about its response to what might safely be called fraud, but there seems little chance that any senior person at the bank will suffer much. Wells Fargo, like many of the big banks who contributed to the economic meltdown in 2008, will probably skate by paying a fine – de minimis likely compared to bank profits – but no individual is likely to get nailed for the flagrant misconduct.
Oh, by the way, only 27 percent of Americans according to a June Gallup survey have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks.
You can set off other kind of outrage by mentioning the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals that went on for years while various senior leaders of the Church did little or nothing to stop or hold accountable those guilty. Even worse in a way was how some bishops covered the tracks of their own culpability. Catholics – I’m one – are particularly outraged because so little accountability has been doled out. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston during the worst of the scandals, was publicly shamed but still trucked off to comfortable retirement in a cozy villa at the Vatican. Presumably the Cardinal’s judgment day will come in another more decisive form.
Only 41 percent of those surveyed by Gallup expressed confidence in churches or organized religion.
Pick any of a dozen or a hundred other scandals: the revolving door that spins the former congressman from lawmaker to lobbyist to multi-millionaire, or the EpiPen manufacturer accused of gouging those who need the lifesaving medicine, or the recent story that Sinclair Broadcasting – the largest owner of television stations in the country and therefor a massive owner of the public’s airwaves – gave favorable and disproportionate coverage to Donald Trump during the campaign.
I could go on, but I also suspect you can easily come up with your own list of outrages. It does all accumulate. The confidence numbers for health care institutions, for example, are south of 40 percent, the media confidence numbers are in the very low 20s and Congress, well, Congress is in used car salesman territory checking in at a robust nine percent on the public confidence scale.
The verdict is clearly in: America suffers a crisis of confidence in basic institutions and it has been going on and getting worse for some time. The Gallup survey six months ago reported that only the U.S. military and the police have public approval numbers above 50 percent. Other institutions, political and social, that one could easily argue have long been at the center of American life are held in such low esteem as to call into question the essential institutional framework of our democracy.
But, wait just a minute. Institutions by themselves did not create this crisis of confidence. Institutions don’t either have or lack credibility. Institutions depend on people and we’ve been failing our institutions through neglect, ignorance and hubris. We are experiencing a crisis of institutional confidence, at least in part, because we are accepting standards from those institutions that cannot possible instill confidence.
I think this reality may go some distance in explaining the next president of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the disrupter-in-chief, has merely accelerated the deterioration – or out and out destruction – of long established norms, which I would argue has contributed over a long period of time to this erosion of confidence in a whole host of American institutions.
There is a myth that American institutions, political or societal, are “sturdy” and “resilient” all by themselves. They are not. Survival of institutions, particularly in a political system like ours that features both defused power and built in rivalries, not to mention considerable opportunity for corruption, requires more than rules. It requires adherence to a broad collection of often-unwritten requirements – norms – that function to uphold tradition, while reflecting common sense and well-established time tested approaches.
It has been a norm for more than 40 years, for example, for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their income tax returns. It’s not the law, but rather a function of how we once expected candidates to behave in a vital democracy. The norm was to reinforce transparency and discourage self dealing by folks in high public office. Until this year it was normal for all of us to see and evaluate for ourselves those revealing documents.
But the president-elect will sail into office next month having violated that norm and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems on the verge of considering a multi-millionaire oil executive to become secretary of state without forcing more than a cursory review of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. An institutional framework is thereby weakened and a long-time precedent set aside. It will be hard to get it back.
There is no absolute requirement that the United States Senate consider a president’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. They should. That would be normal, but Senate Republicans have exploited for months now all the possible wiggle room in the Constitution in order to deny even a hearing on the nomination of federal Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, a demonstrably qualified candidate.
They had the power to do it, so they did, while shamelessly arguing it was just business as usual. But don’t believe for a second that it is normal – or right. Stiffing a president – any president – on a Supreme Court nominee has now become the new normal.
American public schools, it is said over and over, are failing. But are they? There is wide discrepancy in performance from state-to-state or city-to-city, but the blanket indictment of “failing schools” often masks a fierce partisan battle over resources and governance. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, only 30 percent of American express “confidence” in public schools.
Republican legislators in North Carolina recently used a post-election special session to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many powers traditionally exercised in that state, including the power to appoint members of the governing board of the state’s university system. This was after North Carolina lawmakers aggressively suppressed or minimized minority voter participation in various ways. North Carolina legislators had the power to run roughshod over voters and political opponents so they did it, but it is not normal. It violates a basic sense of fair play and abuses the system’s unwritten rules about responsible political behavior. The situation in North Carolina is so far out of control that the academic and nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project classifies the state as no longer “democratic.” North Carolina’s scores for how it handles elections and registers voters compares, shockingly, to Iran and Venezuela. Meanwhile protesters objecting to the power grab were arrested.
In the flush of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 many congressional Republicans vowed to make him a one-term president and then proceeded to oppose virtually every move he made. That is not how the system is supposed to work. Of course there will always be bitter and passionate partisan debates about all kinds of things. Its fine to favor your candidate over the other guy’s candidate, but not OK to obstruct. We only have one president at a time and the norms of American politics require for partisans to work for solutions to big problems like, for example, a shocking lack of health insurance among millions of Americans. Politics involves resolving or mitigating the differences. Compromise has been the norm. The kind of blind obstruction Obama has typically faced is simply not normal.
Nor is it normal for a president to regularly resort, as Obama has, to “executive action” to carry out a policy agenda. His excuse for doing so – that Republicans failed to function normally – is understandable, but still not normal and over time it will only become more corrosive to our concept of confidence in political institutions.
It is not normal for a president-elect to engage in foreign policy while he is waiting to assume the job. It’s not normal, as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has, to embrace as “terrific” the Russian hacking of American emails in order to permit a foreign power to meddle in a U.S. election in favor of its candidate.
There is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in the country, widespread or otherwise, yet candidates and political leaders routinely call into question the validity of elections in order to score debating or partisan points. No wonder more and more people think the system is rigged.
Every politician without exception has a beef with the media. I’ve got my own beef – or a side of it. It is a story as old as the republic to dislike the scribing classes, but there has also long been an expectation that a free and vigorous press, even one occasionally wrong or unfair, is an absolutely essential check on corruption or improper exercise of power. When a politician rides to power in part by declaring reporters who expose his inconsistencies or question his logic “dishonest,” while never engaging in the substance of the reporting you get what we have – a decline in confidence in the media. As a result a bedrock institution of the American system is further diminished.
We have experienced a decline in respect for American institutions – and it’s about to get worse – in large part because we have allowed a deterioration in what I’ll call “standards of normal behavior.” Institutions fail to hold individuals personally accountable for outrageous or unethical behavior. Traditional political norms that offer no immediate political payoff are eagerly cast aside in favor of securing a short-term advantage. Opinions are shifted and shaped and passed off as facts in order to win a news cycle or a Twitter confrontation. It is not normal.
We tend to take for granted that American “institutions,” including all the institutions that buttress a free society, can weather any storm. We’ve muddled through for nearly 250 years, after all. But perhaps we’ve just been both lucky and good and continued muddling depends on both factors continuing to favor us.
Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond authored a persuasive and sober piece in The Atlantic back in October – before the election – in which he argued that we have rarely had reason to doubt American resilience – until now.
“Democracies fail,” Diamond wrote, “when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”
Diamond recalled Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel – It Can’t Happen Here – published in 1935 just as Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and Huey Long promised to run for president. “For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here,” Diamond said. “If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.”
The first step in stepping back from the edge is to insist – individually and collectively – that long-established traditions of accountability, transparency, fair play and commitment to country over partisanship are again treated with the respect they deserve and the future of the country demand.
We have entered a period where American institutions of every type will be challenged as much as any in modern time by a political class with less respect for norms, traditions and facts than any since perhaps 1860. The challenges come at precisely the moment when those institutions are weaker and less respected than they have ever been.
Not a happy thought for the New Year, but I think patriots will fight back against this reality. At least I hope so. It will be the defining struggle of the next four years and beyond. Each of us will decide how – or whether – to engage in the struggle. No institution will save us.
“What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama—yet again—a central part of our own politics?”
― the late Christopher Hitchens in 2008
Both Republican and Democratic “elites” woke today with a headache. Perhaps they imbibed a bit too much last night, or perhaps they feel woozy because they sat on their duffs, passively watching during the last eight months as their parties were hijacked by “outsiders.”
Despite the big names in the Republican presidential field – governors, senators, a brain surgeon, another Bush – the GOP now confronts the political reality of the grand old party nominating a candidate, Donald Trump, who more closely resembles former Italian prime minister (and convicted procurer of sex with under age prostitutes) Silvio Berlusconi than any Republican candidate since the party nominated John C. Fremont in 1856.
At least both “successful businessmen” – the Italian stallion and the King of Queens – have very interesting hair and lots of former girlfriends.
Trump, a misogynist, a sociopath, a certifiable sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder – look it up – is the guy that the Parliament of our historically closest ally, Great Britain, recently considered banning from that sensible country. The venerable House of Commons really didn’t have the power to “ban Trump,” as nice as the ring of that sounds, but not a single member defended the necktie hocking, Muslim bashing, completely policy devoid real estate speculator.
I can almost hear the ghost of Churchill, the father of the “special relationship” talking to the ghost of FDR on that secret wartime telephone link from London to D.C. “Mr. President,” Winston asks, “what has happened to American politics?” The line goes dead.
The Republican frontrunner is a salesman who gives used car salesmen a bad name. Trump doesn’t really believe the garbage he spews (or maybe he is really an idiot and does), but he is really the guy who pulls up his sleeve, exposing the fake Rolodex watches, and sells what sells, at least to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.
The $64,000 question out of New Hampshire for Republicans is simply this: why did none of these smart guys, OK and Carly Fiorina, not go after the real estate developer when they might have stopped him? Hardly anyone took him seriously in July, me included, but that was not the case last October. All the signs were there – months ago – that Trump was hijacking a grand old party and no one, not Jeb, who he “emasculated,” or Cruz or Rubio or Christie who he insulted and dismissed called him out. No one, no one, has really taken on his checkered business record, his bankruptcies, his flip-flops, or his obvious mental and policy deficiencies.
I’m an aging political hack, but I think I could write the TV spot – something about four bankruptcies, three wives and two positions on every issue.
As Jennifer Rubin wrote of Trump in today’s Washington Post: “While his ceiling may be about 30 percent, the more traditional candidates will need to fight Trump not with conservative bromides but with bare-knuckle fighting and empathy for the working-class voters Trump attracts.”
But, enough of that. Let’s talk about Hillary. The Clinton Corps has been spinning a 20-point loss in New Hampshire, which Hillary won in 2008, as just an example of home field advantage by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. It’s not.
The reports this week that Bill and Hillary Clinton were contemplating a shake up in her campaign in the wake of what really amounts to two straight losses – Hillary won Iowa, but not really – is all the proof needed that the Clinton machine hasn’t received any meaningful re-tooling in eight years. When you’ve been involved in two presidential campaigns, well four counting Bill’s, and you think the campaign’s problems are just a staff issue, then Houston – or Brooklyn – you have a problem.
The problem is an awkward, uneasy candidate with no compelling message.
Clinton may still hang on and win the nomination in ugly fashion, but she will forever be dogged by her inability to answer a really simple question in the recent Democratic debate. Why did Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street excess, pay her, after her tenure as Secretary of State, more than $600,000 for three speeches? Her answer for the ages was: “It’s what they offered.”
I suspect, as some in her Goldman Sachs audiences have said, that she gave those investment bankers just what they wanted to hear, but the real question is why? Why take the risk, why make the calculation that the money is more important than the message, particularly if you want to run for the highest office in the land? To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the judgment, stupid.”
Clinton comes out of New Hampshire a limping candidate, her inevitability – haven’t we heard this before – not looking quite so inevitable. Deconstruct the New Hampshire vote and you’ll find Clinton lost in places where she cleaned Barack Obama’s clock in 2008. Bernie Sanders beat the inevitable by double digits in a state she won eight years ago. Could it be the magic is gone? Maybe she is, as Obama famously, said just likable enough.
This crazy season of American politics has produced as frontrunners a dangerous nationalistic buffoon and a 74-year old democratic socialist. This looks more like France than New Hampshire. The outsiders are now inside because the Republican “establishment” has produced a robotic Marco Rubio and a collection of current and former governors who act like they couldn’t win a county coroner’s race, while Democrats have recycled a deeply flawed, ethically challenged, self-entitled frontrunner who has no message beyond “I’m ready to be president.” Is Joe Biden doing deep knee bends, getting ready?
The ultimate irony of the presidential race, so far at least, is that the buffoon and the socialist have run the best campaigns. The so called political “experts” in the race can’t explain their speaking fees, their memorized speeches or their Super PAC’s. And the outsiders have a reality that a scripted Hillary or a calculating Ted Cruz will never match.
Trump isn’t really authentic, of course, but he fakes it better than any other Republican, while Sanders really is authentic and his only opponent isn’t.
Whether we like it or not, Trump and Sanders have articulated ideas about the America they see in the future. We may not like their aspirations, but they have them. The rest of the field is playing a tactical game that is all about winning a news cycle rather than winning the White House. Clinton will now look increasingly desperate as she goes after Bernie and someone in the Republican field will have to find the gumption to confront Trump on his own artificial turf. More than ever in this crazy race anything is possible.
The always sane, sensible, sober South Carolina primary beckons. Hang on.
So, it turns out the old, tired rules of politics aren’t so old and tired after all.
Some Iowa caucus takeaways:
A message is better than a muddle: Bernie Sanders has one, a message, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t. The old rule for candidates is that when you begin to hate the very thought of giving your stump speech one more time you are at the point when the message is finally being heard. Whether one likes it or not, Sanders’ message about income inequality, economic unfairness and a rigged economy has been consistent for, well, thirty years. I follow this stuff pretty closely and I still can’t define why Clinton wants to be president and what she might do with the job if she gets there. Electability and experience isn’t a message.
An organization is better than a rally: Ted Cruz had the old-style ground game to identify voters and get them out to caucus on a cold February night and Donald Trump didn’t. The key metric here is that the allegedly brilliant real estate developer spent more money over the last few months on baseball caps than he did on data collection and analysis of the Republican caucus goer. Sounds like a loser to me.
Ideas are better than ideology: The Republican field comes out of Iowa more muddled and soon to be more vicious than ever and just as devoid of real political ideas as the party has been for the last eight years. The last two GOP candidates for president have made the mistake of thinking they could win an election by not being Barack Obama, now the Republican field seems to think it can win by not having an agenda. Ask yourself a simple question: what do the Republicans want to do? They seem only to want to be against things – immigrants, Obamacare, trade deals, climate change, same sex marriage, you complete the list. Where is the agenda – a conservative agenda – that talks of moving the country forward? Obama ran on hope and change and not being George W. Bush, but he was also about ending wars and doing something to address the uninsured. Republicans seem to want to run on gloom and doom and repealing Obamacare without offering a replacement. Still aren’t convinced? Consider this: a democratic socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a contest, not because of the label, but (so far at least) because of his agenda.
Substance trumps showbiz: This is, admittedly, a variation on the previous point, but (fearless prediction) even reality television shows grow old when they get into re-runs. Over the course of the next few weeks (months) the vetting of the next Commander-in-Chief will get ever more serious. Events in the world or the economy will give us all a taste for the future again and we’ll look to substance and seriousness, at least I hope we will. It’s easy now to see that the turning point in the last real presidential election we had, 2008 – Obama versus McCain, came with McCain’s theatrical suspension of his campaign during the near economic meltdown in the fall of the election year. McCain, with little to say about the economy, opted for the showbiz of suspending his candidacy and threatening to miss a scheduled debate. Obama, cool and collected, looked by contrast “presidential.” Game over.
Iowa is ridiculous: Not the state, but the caucus process. Both parties would be well served to put a stake in the charade that a couple of hundred thousand non-representative voters should have a critical role in beginning the presidential selection process. There has got to be a better way. There is: shorten the campaign (it can be done), rotate the opening primaries to involve a variety of states and regions and begin to act like a modern democracy rather than a what we have now – an almost completely non-representative process that produces endless debates and craziness.
I blame Jimmy Carter, well, actually Rosalynn Carter. For Iowa, I mean.
Fresh out of college in 1975, I landed my first radio reporting job at a 10,000 watt giant of an AM radio station in Oelwein, Iowa – The Hub of Northeastern Iowa. Oelwein, population today about 6,500, is named after a local farm family and was carved out of Iowa corn country right after the Civil War. It was, and is, an exciting place, as Iowa farm communities go.
Radio station KOEL – 950 on the dial – played country western music and I was the third man on a three man news staff. It is now completely amazing to me that a small market radio station in the middle of Iowa farm country had a three person news department, but in 1975 KOEL did. I had a job, an apartment above the TruValue hardware store and a shift from 10 am until 6 pm – no breaks, just radio.
My job had two major components, one that occupied virtually all my time and one that made me a star, well not really a star, but at least got me a listening audience.
Job One was to sit at a triangle shaped desk in the newsroom – the news director on one side of the triangle, me on another, the third side for the morning news guy – and work the phone. I dialed literally hundreds of calls every day drawn from phone numbers on cards in the largest Rolodex I have ever seen. Numbers for every county clerk in northeastern Iowa, every city hall, the fire and police departments, the schools, the VFW halls, every place that people gathered and news might be committed. I’d dial the numbers and ask the poor schmuck on the other end something clever, like “anything happening with the Decorah city council?” An overwhelming percentage of the time the answer was, “pretty quiet.” But, once in a while some city clerk or secretary to the county commission would say, “Well, last night we voted to upgrade the sewer treatment plant – is that news?” Yes, thank you; that is news.
I’d type up the details and KOEL would tell the world about the sewer upgrade. It wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize stuff, but it was news in northeastern Iowa, along with the pickup-tractor collisions, the deaths of prominent farmers, the broken water mains and the occasional armed robbery of a gas station or marijuana bust.
My fifteen minutes of fame came at 12:15 pm every week day when I settled into the news booth to deliver The Midday Market Report! For fifteen long, long, long minutes, I read the market reports from South Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, South St. Paul, etc. etc. I still envision those bib overall wearing Iowa farmers sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch and hanging on my every word. I didn’t – and still don’t – know a barrow from a gilt, but those farmers, I knew, were counting on my reporting.
Occasionally, just for color, I’d throw in an item from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or casually mention that Cargill had made news, but mostly it was numbers and vaguely familiar terms: bushels and futures, corn and soybeans, barrows and gilts. It wasn’t Ed Murrow reporting the London Blitz, but I had a microphone and an audience and my soybean futures.
Then, as if by salvation, I was delivered from yet another call to another city hall in another little Iowa town. Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein.
I had the bright idea to actually grab a tape recorder and go out of the station, leave my phone of all things, and interview her. Her mostly unknown husband, the former governor of Georgia, was spending a lot of time in Iowa in 1975 acting out a crazy strategy aimed at winning something called the Iowa Presidential Caucus.
The news director was dubious. It would mean time away from my calls and taped interviews were rare on KOEL, which placed a premium on important stuff like a two car collision, in which no one was injured, just outside of Strawberry Point. It must have been a slow news day because he finally said – OK, go do it.
I went to a senior citizens center or an Elks Club or some such place and asked clever questions of Rosalynn – “So, what brings you to Oelwein, Mrs. Carter?”
What brought her, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s strategy to go from unknown former governor – Jimmy Who? – to presidential contender by focusing, laser-like, on the first contest of the 1976 campaign, while pretty much every other candidate, better known figures like Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Morris Udall, weren’t paying attention, at least to Iowa.
The Iowa caucus had been around since, like, 1840 but until Carter – George McGovern gets a little credit in 1972 – no one paid much attention. Jimmy Carter changed all that.
As Julian Zelizer writes in The Atlantic, “From the start, the key to [Carter’s] strategy revolved around Iowa. Carter believed that if he could influence media coverage of his candidacy through a victory in Iowa, he would be treated as a serious candidate, making it easier for voters in subsequent contests, like New Hampshire, to vote for him. The actual delegate count from Iowa was less important than the kind of media coverage his victory would produce.”
Media coverage is exactly what I provided, well, provided to the candidate’s wife, but this was Oelwein, not Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. I still think it was neat that Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein, a town you need to want to visit. I remember she was very polite, reserved and generous with her time. A very rookie reporter remembers such things. I imagine another candidate in a different time – you know who I mean – would have thought the young guy with the Sony recorder was a sorry “loser,” but Mrs. Carter patiently answered my not-so-probing questions.
The rest is history. Carter launched his road to the White House in Iowa in 1975. I was in on the ground floor (well sort of).
If you are already tired of hearing about the next presidential election, just blame my first news director. He gave me a few minutes away from the phone to interview the next First Lady of the United States of America. Iowa has never been the same.