Mansfield, Supreme Court, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Decline of National Governance…

     “We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster.” 

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


One wonders what some of the great figures in U.S. Senate history would make of the events of the last several days. And what would they make of the hypocrisy?

Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

Think about Robert A. Taft, a Republican conservative of the old school, shaking his head in disbelief at senators in both parties again ignoring their political and moral responsibilities, while genuflecting in praise of Donald Trump’s arguably unconstitutional missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is the same Senate that refused to authorize military action in 2013 after Barack Obama insisted that Congress debate and vote on launching a strike against yet another Middle Eastern nation.

Oh, the Hypocrisy…

To read the justifications for stiffing the president in 2013 and to compare those words to the cheerleading for Trump’s action now is to see (again) in the starkest terms the intellectual bankruptcy – not to mention the hypocrisy – of the modern Republican Party. And now they have pulled the United States Senate down to a new low.

Republican after Republican has rushed in front of the cameras to praise a president who could scarcely find Syria on a map last year and who most serious people know will be unable to fashion a coherent strategy in the wake of his hair trigger launch order. But, no matter. Donald Trump may be a fool, but he’s a Republican fool and we support our president – at least while he remains popular with the Tea Party base.

The ugly little truth is that Congress has systematically frittered away, at least since the early 1950s, its solemn responsibility to provide checks on a president in matters of foreign policy, especially a president’s power to launch a war. This has happened as

White House released photo of Syrian airbase hit by U.S. missiles

Republicans regularly pledge fidelity to a Constitution they simply ignore when it proves politically convenient to do so. Never mind that only Congress can declare war. Forget the hypocrisy of dismissing his predecessor as “feckless,” while offering a blank check to a guy who had to fire his National Security Advisor less than a month into office, who has dismissed the intelligence committee as “Nazi-like, and who can’t get organized enough to appoint key deputies all across the national security apparatus.

Never has the abdication of Congressional responsibility in the area of foreign affairs seemed more serious than now. Never have checks on a dangerous president been more in the national interest.

In a nutshell senators, and I don’t confine this critique exclusively to Republicans, want to praise a one-off missile strike as amounting to tough action, but still provide themselves, for purely political reasons, plausible deniability that they had anything to do with the decision. Make no mistake we have opened a new war in Syria and not a war directed at the stated enemy – ISIS. The target of the missile strike was the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. We didn’t destroy ISIS aircraft with 59 missiles. It was the Syrian air force we were after and perhaps for very sound reasons. If so, Congress must get involved.

If, and almost certainly when, things take a turn for the worse with increasing American involvement in Syria the sunshine patriots in Congress won’t have to justify a difficult vote. That is their real aim. Their hands will be clean if not their conscience. It is a shameless posture and it is not what the Constitution demands, but it works – at least for the moment – to tighten the grip on power of the Senate majority leader and the man in the White House that he further enables.

Mitch McConnell is the perfect leader for the modern Senate. In the same week he is able to protect his caucus from having to make a tough vote on Syria and he manages the Senate rules to placate the 40 percent of Americans who want the Supreme Court to revisit everything from the New Deal to Roe v. Wade.

The Senate Changes…Forever

Imagine the reaction of Mike Mansfield of Montana, perhaps the greatest majority leader in Senate history, to the Senate changing its rules merely to put a very, very conservative judge on the Supreme Court. And the majority set about changing the rules after refusing for nearly a year to even consider the nomination of a moderate jurist, a judge appointed by a president of the opposing party.

The Senate as a political institution, while never close to perfect, has frequently in our history transcended the petty partisanship of the moment in order to provide genuine leadership that reflected the broad public interest. Not any more.

One day historians will look back on this period and find fault, I suspect, with small-minded leadership in both political parties, but they will reserve their greatest contempt for the Senator from Kentucky.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows, hardly a blind partisan, but a long-term and nuanced observer of American politics, recently did his own Twitter summation of what I’ll call the Reign of the Partisan. Fallows said we would look back on the current time and mark the “decline in national governance” to Mitch McConnell’s actions beginning in 2006.

While in the minority then McConnell “routinized the filibuster in [an] unprecedented way.” It is a modern myth that the filibuster, the need for a super majority of 60 senators to cut off debate and bring an issue to a vote, has always and routinely been invoked in the Senate. It hasn’t. McConnell made the filibuster routine.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Now in one of the rawest displays of partisan political power in the history of the Senate McConnell engineered a change of the filibuster rules in order to push through Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick. And, of course, the action was taken in the wake of McConnell unilaterally refusing to consider any Court nominee from Obama.

I know, I know, Democrats earlier changed filibuster rules for other judicial positions and a guy named Chuck Schumer has used the filibuster on judicial nominees for purely partisan reasons. As lamentable as that action was when Democrats did it McConnell’s action now is of an entirely different degree of seriousness and partisanship. Invoking the so called “nuclear option” will change the Senate permanently and for the worse – and yes it can get worse – will deepen tribal partisanship and has finally settled the question of whether the Supreme Court has become just another partisan branch of the government. It has.

U.S. Senate chamber

Yet changing the Senate rules is hardly all that McConnell hath wrought. After Obama’s election in 2008 McConnell said his own “measure of success,” as Jim Fallows says, “would be denying [Obama] a second term.” From day one he was all about obstruction by any means in order to thwart the Obama presidency. The idea of compromise, any notion of working together on national priorities was cast to the winds in favor of raw partisanship and a GOP majority.

[McConnell, we now know, was also the main hold out in Congress that prevented an earlier and stronger pre-election response to Russian interference in the presidential election. You have to ask why he was reluctant to send a strong signal about all that, but I think you know the answer.]

I listened closely to the arguments advanced by both sides in the run up to the change in Senate rules that paved the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch to slip comfortably into Antonin Scalia’s old seat on the high court. I came away stunned by the shallowness of the logic on both sides. What neither side could say, but what is demonstrably true is that there is simply no middle ground left in American – or Senate – politics. Partisanship rules on absolutely everything. If our guy does it that’s fine. If the other guy does it, well that’s an outrage.

The filibuster, or more correctly the idea of “unlimited debate,” exists for two basic reasons: to protect the rights of the minority and to force compromise and political accommodation on contentious issues. Was the practice abused before McConnell weaponized it? Of course it was, but until relatively recently the idea of seeking some degree of political consensus on something as serious as going to war or giving lifetime tenure to a Supreme Court judge wasn’t as unthinkable as it has now become. If you are looking for someone to blame for this disgusting toxicity you can start with Mitch McConnell.

As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it: “By rights, McConnell’s tombstone should say that he presided over the end of the Senate. And I’d add a second line: ‘He broke America.’ No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power.”

Trump and McConnell: The Clueless and the Cynical

The cynicism of McConnell and his commitment to raw power is actually most clearly on display in his response to Donald Trump as president. McConnell is not stupid and he is certainly smarter than the current occupant of the White House. McConnell knows Trump is an arrogant fool, not a conservative and clueless on anything like real policy. But Trump is also, to use the old Communist putdown, “a useful idiot,” a means to an end for the Senate leader.

McConnell enables and encourages a man he knows to be unfit because Trump means power, particularly to remake the Court. And, of course, McConnell’s wife is in the Cabinet in a useful position at the Transportation Department where, should there be a big infrastructure bill in the future, the money will flow. McConnell is deeply cynical, but he knows an opportunity when he sees it. He’s going to make the most the Trump presidency for as long as it lasts.

Ironically, McConnell’s final wrecking of the Senate as a functioning institution fits perfectly with the near complete destruction of the old conservative Republican Party that Trump has engineered. This point was well made by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in a recent piece in Rolling Stone. That article dissected Trump’s obvious and extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder, but also touched on the political crisis that McConnell and Trump have created and now preside over.

“It’s a sign, actually, of how severely we need functioning parties,” Wilentz said. “Because when they work, they are in fact a check on the emergence of this kind of character [Trump]. You can’t get where Trump is now in a functioning party system. It took this particular political crisis, which was a political crisis, to produce a president who has this trait. Normally, we can weed them out.”

Mitch McConnell has consistently played to the worst instincts of the Republican base. He’s never missed a chance to deepen the partisan divide. His strategy is all about the next election, never about the next generation. McConnell – and Trump for that matter – are the perfect characters to stand at center stage while national governance disappears faster than factory jobs in the Rust Belt.

Bob Taft and Mike Mansfield would not recognize the place we inhabit or the Senate Mitch McConnell has made. In fact one suspects they would be appalled. But no matter. McConnell is winning even if the country isn’t.

GOP, Health Care, Medicaid, Trump

The Art of the Miscalculation

“Hello, Bob. So, we just pulled it.”

        Donald J. Trump phones Washington Post reporter Robert Costa to report on the art of his failed deal.

————

Congressional Republicans spent seven years – and 60-plus repeal votes in the House of Representatives – promising their most fervent supporters that if they ever got all the political power in Washington, D.C. they would wipe away the hated Obamacare on Day One.

On Day Sixty-four they ran head long into an old political reality – don’t believe your own press releases.

What could go wrong?

In the end, the collapse of the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act – was based on a huge miscalculation, a miscalculation that is now the signature reality of the Grand Old Party. The politics of opposition met the realism of substance. Given seven years to come up with a genuine alternative to what virtually everyone concedes is a flawed national health policy, Republicans, particularly the vacuous leader of their party, punted on substance.

Just consider what President-elect Trump told the Washington Post a week before taking office. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law, he said, “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

Perhaps even he can’t spin this one…

The Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein reported in that January interview that Trump – wait for it – declined to discuss specifics. Big surprise. There were no specifics short of a massive tax cut for the most well to do and a butchering of Medicaid.

The intellectual bankruptcy of Donald Trump’s GOP, the total triumph of puffy rhetoric over hard reality, was on full display during the Republican art of the fail. The empty suit in the Oval Office met the empty heads in Congress. Of course, Trump predictably blamed Democrats for failing to undo the legislation that they bled over and that cost the party many seats in Congress. It won’t wash. Democrats actually believe in what they have done, while Republicans now fully embrace the smoke and mirrors that surround Trump and the party he now owns, if cannot control. Not surprisingly the post mortem’s have been, and brutally so, all about Trump’s failure and that of the once and never again policy wonk Paul Ryan.

“It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the Day 64 defeat,” wrote Axios’ Mike Allen, a D.C. access journalist who rarely misses a chance to curry favor with the powerful. “President Trump, who made repeal-and-replace a central theme of his campaign, and House Republicans, who made it the central theme of every campaign since 2010, lost in a publicly humiliating way despite controlling every branch of government and enjoying margins in the House rarely seen in the past century.”

The Miami Herald – Trump won Florida just four months ago you may recall – was just as critical. Republicans “made a huge political miscalculation,” the Herald’s editorial said. “They were vociferous. They were resolute. Ultimately, they were clueless. Well, their constituents, many getting preventive care for the first time, or prenatal care, or cancer treatments clued them in: Obamacare, for all its faults, was working for them.

“Ryan finally — finally — stated the obvious: ‘Doing big things is hard.’ (We’re suppressing a ‘Duh!’) And it’s especially difficult when you leave out preparation and inclusiveness to meet a long-touted promise.

And it hasn’t just been the “opposition” press delivering harsh judgments about the Republican debacle. Right wing websites savaged Congressional Republicans with The Drudge Report featuring a photo of the German airship Hindenburg bursting into flames over the headline: Republican Catastrophe.

Republican Catastrophe (Photo by Sam Shere/Getty Images)

Politico’s Tim Alberta relayed this little bit of color from a critical meeting Trump had last Thursday with the self-righteous egotists of the hard right House Freedom Caucus. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump told those who taught the new president his painful lesson about the art of the Washington deal. “Let’s focus on the big picture here,” the Closer-in-Chief opined. Trump’s message, of course, was that substance doesn’t matter. Don’t sweat the details. The art of the flim-flam got him elected, after all. Who would have thought governing could be so hard?

Trump’s constant use of shape shifting lies notwithstanding, Republicans own this colossal mess and for one principle reason: they have abandoned governing, which is to say substance, in favor of once again trotting out the old hackneyed rightwing clichés and policy inconsistency. Trump’s promise of “health care for all” that would lower costs was always nonsense and internally inconsistent, about as intellectually honest as a sales pitch for Trump University.

This defeat was so big and so obvious that perhaps even Donald Trump can’t spin it away. And Congressional Republicans are going to have difficulty escaping the reality that they fumed against Obamacare for seven politically productive years, but when given a real chance to change the law – or repeal it outright – the GOP quarterbacks took a knee.

Stipulate the obvious: Obamacare has problems. Premiums are too high for many working poor, some states have opted out of the Medicaid portion of the program and the whole scheme remains complicated and confusing. Blame Democrats for some of the confusion. They have never been able to articulate a consistent message about the benefits and there have been real benefits, including insurance coverage for millions of Americans who had not been covered before. Also blame Republicans for the confusion because they have repeatedly misrepresented the negatives impacts of a program that impacts less than 10% of the entire health care marketplace.

Still, Obamacare needs work just like the defense budget or Trump’s golf game needs work, but the constant GOP mantra that the Affordable Care Act is imploding or cratering the economy is just as nonsensical as the tweets from the West Wing. But having ridden the “Obamacare is killing America” hobby horse to electoral success Republicans, as the New York Times pointed out, went searching for a solution to a problem they invented. The problem was invented, of course, because of a burning desire to continue to exploit the issue politically rather than actually work to improve health care. The approach clearly worked. What was missing, as the Times noted, was a “coherent idea or shared vision of what [Republicans] want to achieve and what problem they mean to solve.”

The one and never again policy wonk. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As one wag noted Republicans might have had a better chance to push their plan if they could have pointed to any place in the world were their ideas about enhancing “competition” in health care is working. Americans pay more, have worse outcomes and see more of their fellow citizen’s uninsured than any other major industrialized country. And no country does health care the way we do. The Republican approach wasn’t in any way a fix for a still fractured American approach to health care, but instead would have doubled down on the only strategy the GOP has known in the last two decades: cut taxes for the wealthiest and tell the poor to get a job.

Obama, in pushing the legislation in 2009, sought to reduce the number of uninsured and encourage more preventive care. He succeeded and would have succeeded even more broadly had Republicans not spent every day of both his terms attempting to delegitimize his presidency and with it his legislation. When Republicans got their chance to show the country what they value – should I mention they have more control over the government than they have enjoyed since the 1920s – they opted to advance a plan that would have ended coverage for 24 million Americans over the next decade and gutted the Medicaid safety net for many of the same working class Americans who, against their own best interests, put Donald Trump in the White House.

To the moral bankruptcy that has accompanied the Congressional Republican embrace of the very idea of Donald Trump as their leader, now you may add the intellectual bankruptcy of treating actual governance the way Trump treats the presidency – with contempt and arrogance.

The Atlantic’s Russell Berman had one of the best summaries of the Republican health care fiasco and one of the best quotes. “I’ve been in this job eight years,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida told Berman, “and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening. We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”

Now, that is a perceptive politician.

Andrus, Idaho Politics

Remembering Mike…

The Lewiston Tribune this week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart. 


Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.

Mike Mitchell – Political Workhorse. Lewiston Tribune photo

Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.

I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.

During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.

It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.

Then-Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus with then-State Senator Mike Mitchell. Tribune photo by Barry Keough

Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.

I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.

When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.

There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.

Law and Justice, Politics, Refugees, Religion, Trump

History Repeats…

        “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.” 

Franklin Roosevelt Executive Order 9066

———-

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.

Idaho Governor Chase Clark

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.”

The Minidoka camp in south central Idaho

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.

Top White House political advisor Stephen Bannon, former Breitbart CEO

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.”

Protesters at Seattle’s airport over the weekend

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.

 

Politics, Trump

Intellectual Rot…

           “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.

The GOP embraces its destroyer

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.

Big, Bold…Always Looking to the Next Horizon

“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.

Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan toast…or are they, toast?

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.

Chaffetz: He was against him before he was for him…

Case in point: Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz ofUtah, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who represents one of the safest Republican districts in the nation. In a few short hours Chaffetz – who at one point disowned Donald Trump as a legitimate candidate – pledged to continue to investigate Hillary Clinton and her email, tried to intimidate the head of the independent Office of Government Ethics and said he would not engaging in “a fishing expedition” to explore the serious question of Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and likely violations of the Constitution.

Since Chaffetz’s memory is so short let’s remember what he said in the wake of the infamous Billy Bush “grab their….” video last fall:

“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.

2016 Election, Trump

John Lewis is Right…

       “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia

———-

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, was beaten, bloodied, bullied and might have been killed while marching for voting rights toward the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. He knows a thing or two about standing up to evil.

John Lewis beaten by Alabama state troopers while marching for voting rights in 1965

When John Lewis said the other day that he did not consider the soon-to-be president of the United State “legitimate” he both stretched the bounds of political discourse and he spoke the truth. I’ll explain.

The comment from Lewis, delivered in his typically low-key, but straight forward way predictably teed up a good deal of outrage including, predictably, the kind of vitriol we have come to consider normal behavior on the part of the man who will be president in a few days.

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the Tweeter-in-Chief said in a pair of Twitter posts.

“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” he added. “Sad!”

           The man who will be president

Where to begin?

Well, how about beginning with pointing out that the original birther – our soon-to-be commander-in-chief – rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, not once or twice but repeatedly over many years. It was a monumental lie that he personally perpetuated.

             An extremely credible source…

Or we could begin with the fact that the nation’s intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia participated in widespread cyber crimes, as well as a propaganda and disinformation campaign and may have colluded with the GOP candidate’s campaign to assist with his election. To deny that this Russian activity influenced the election is to ignore that the beneficiary of the Russian help repeatedly cited information – by one count 164 times during the campaign – from Wikileaks documents, leaks undoubtedly facilitated by the Russians, to advance his campaign. You can check the videotape.

Or we could examine the fact that the president-elect mounted, as his tweets aimed at John Lewis make crystal clear, a race-based campaign that mobilized and gave voice to the nation’s white supremacist, immigrants hating alt-right elements in a manner unseen in American politics since at least 1968.

The next time you hear an apologist for the man who will be president say that a major element of his appeal was not about emphasizing race and social division, just reflect on the fact that he explicitly said, two months after his election, that a black congressman could only represent a district “in horrible shape and failing apart (not to mention crime infested).” Like his attacks on an American judge of Mexican heritage or a Gold Star mother and father who are Muslim, failing to see the attacks on John Lewis as profoundly racist is to look the other way at the hate and bigotry this man has put in the center of American politics.

John Lewis, by the way, represents the Fifth District of Georgia, most of Atlanta and home to the toney Buckhead neighborhood with a real luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, as well as the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the campuses of Emory and Georgia Tech Universities and the corporate headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. Nearly 60 percent of the district population is African-America, but as the Atlanta Journal points out if the president-elect “believes Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is ‘falling apart,’ then he believes Atlanta is falling apart.”

And, of course, it isn’t.

Emory University in the heart of district John Lewis represents

And then think about this: a truly legitimate president dedicated to the job of leading the nation and representing all its citizens might have devoted a few minutes of the last two months to a real effort to tone down the volume of division that he has placed front and center in our politics and our culture. But, of course, he’s not capable of such moral leadership. It’s almost enough to conclude that he is not, to coin a phrase, a legitimate president.

The dictionary definition of “legitimate” says: “conforming to the law or to rules.” Synonyms include legal, lawful, licit, legalized, authorized, permitted, sanctioned and my favorite – constitutional.

By the measure of most of the nation’s most authoritative experts on the Constitution, include White House ethics watchdogs for Presidents Bush and Obama, the new guy will be violating the Constitution the moment he utters “so help me God.”

Or, as the majority of us who voted for someone else last  November might express it, “so help us all, God.”

The president-elect made a mockery of “conforming to the law or rules” last week in a circus of a news conference where he and his enabling lawyers flaunted the Constitution and the long history of bipartisan presidential efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Genuine commitment to financial disclosure, avoidance of conflict and adherence to the Constitution might have gone a good distance to legitimizing a president who will enter office later this week with the kind of unchecked ethical baggage that makes Warren Harding look like a candidate for sainthood.

Harding’s Interior Secretary went to jail and his attorney general resigned amid corruption allegations.

But the big-shot-in-chief can’t be bothered with such “legitimate,” “lawful,” “sanctioned” or “constitutional” actions and that, among much else, does make him less than legitimate.

The critics will say that John Lewis has a duty to recognize the duly elected president even in the face of policy differences and the violation of decades of political practice. But neither patriotism nor moral clarity requires anyone to accept the unacceptable.

Besides the duties of a citizen aren’t really any different than the duties of a president. To be legitimate you must display legitimacy and when you have given a majority of the country reason to question your commitment to the rules, laws and the Constitution you don’t automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. You can win an election under our bizarrely undemocratic rules, but you still need to earn your legitimacy.

John Lewis is right, if not politically correct in calling the man less than legitimate. And as our thin-skinned new leader has so often told us being right is always better than being politically correct. Or as he might say: Get over it.

He will take the oath, assume the office, have the power, but he has made himself less than legitimate to a vast number of Americans and most of our friends around the world. He did it himself through his actions, words, insults, crudeness, rudeness, and by defying the rules and defiling the norms. He did it by lying about everything big and small, important and petty. He did it by dividing us in ways that no president has in generations. All this is on him. He did it. His illegitimacy is his problem.

All the tweets in the world will not make that John Lewis’ fault.

2016 Election, Reagan, Russia, Trump

Explaining Trump and Putin…

      “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Intelligence community report on Russian activity to influence the U.S. election

————

WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.

On today’s front page of the New York Times 

———-

One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”

The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.

Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.

But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta in 1945

From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.

Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983

In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:

“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”

It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world. 

And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”

With Donald Trump one of the two most        powerful men in the world

Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.

And there is this tidy little summary of Russian efforts to destabilize western Europe as reported by Henry Porter in Vanity Fair:

“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region.   During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”

The next target – Germany’s Angela Merkel

There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.

 As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”

Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.

Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does. 

And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.

As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”

Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”

It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.

The young KGB agent

Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?

The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.

In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”

Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.

Books

Read…It’s Good for You…

      “About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”

Report of the Pew Research Center

———-

Who doesn’t read books? Doesn’t everyone read books? Everyday? Who doesn’t use a library? Who can get along without books? Or libraries?

I can scarcely imagine going a day without picking up something to read – the latest non-fiction title that is making me think differently about the legacies of The Great War, or the Jim Harrison novel resting on my bedside table, or the slim volume of William F. Buckley’s essays that has been just about the perfect companion to fill a pleasant and informative ten minutes.

Who doesn’t read book? Or frequent libraries? Turns out about a quarter of the American population did not crack a book in the last twelve months. A Pew Research Center survey, not surprisingly perhaps, says less educated, more financially insecure Americans don’t read books and the same group fails to take advantage of the wonders at the local library.

Here’s a paragraph from the Pew report: “Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year [26 percent according to the survey] it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.”

I’m tempted to make some sweeping social comment about the non-readers and the fate of the country – Donald J. Trump, a kind of rich guy with time to burn never reads books, either – but I’ll resist the social commentary and merely observe that I can’t imagine a life without books. Those who don’t read – or visit the library for that matter – are simply missing out on one of life’s most rewarding and pleasant experiences – getting lost in a book. It is simply part of what makes life worth living.

So…eleven – why stop at ten – of the best books, in no particular order, that I read in 2016:

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates. A defining book on the still defining American issue – race. Coates’ book is a must read for those of us in the dominant culture who want to begin to understand what it’s like to live as a person of color in a deeply divided American society.

Custer’s Trials – T.J. Stiles. I thought I had read everything there was to read or that I needed to read about the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer, but Stiles, who won the Pulitzer for this book, showed me plenty of new material. He puts Custer in his times in a way no other book on Custer has and he doesn’t even write about the Little Big Horn.

All the Truth is Out – Matt Bai. This book came out in 2014 and received a lot of attention (that is clearly deserved), but I only got to it last year. Bai, a superb reporter and writer now with Yahoo News, tells the old story of Senator Gary Hart’s fall from the next president to a laugh line. You might think you know the Hart story, but I guarantee you won’t until you read this book. It also tells us so much about why politics and the media have become what they have become.

Spain in Our Hearts – Adam Hochshield. Another great reporter and writer tells the story of Americans enmeshed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It is a compelling and often tragic story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay – Michael Chabon. Comic books, Nazis, Gotham and a rip snorting good read. I could not put it down.

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes. The talented Mr. Barnes imagines the life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich who produced great music while constantly wondering when the KGB would come knocking at his door. The book is in part a meditation on how people behave in an authoritarian society under the constant threat of violence. Somehow Shostakovich lived in such a world – making many tradeoffs – and wrote his Fifth Symphony, one of the great symphonic works of all time.

The Immortal Irishman – Timothy Egan. Read anything the intrepid Tim Egan produces, including his weekly column in The New York Times. This wonderfully told story resurrects the legacy of Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, Civil War hero and Montana legend and in the process tells us much about the Irish diaspora and why we are all Irish, or want to be.

Prisoners of Hope – Randall B. Woods. We’ll see how much of Lyndon Johnson’s world remains after a new president and GOP Congress get down to business, but since 1964 we have all been living in a world LBJ made. Woods tells this powerful story with color and skill. Johnson emerges as a political genius and a deeply flawed personality and therefore is fascinating.

Bobby Kennedy – Larry Tye. Another fascinating and very complicated politician is treated both critically and with affection.

Finale – Thomas Mallon. This book offers another of Thomas Mallon’s deeply researched fictional takes on American politics and the book puts us right in the middle of the Reagan presidency. You’ll never think of Ron and Nancy quite the same way after reading this.

Dark Money – Jane Mayer. This book may be the best thing ever written about the deeply corrosive effect of vast money on our politics. Deeply researched and objectively presented it is difficult to read Jane Mayer’s awarding winning book and not be worried about our political future.

Go pick up a book and happy reading in 2017.

2016 Election, Catholic Church, Congress, Politics

The Great Decline…

     “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.”

Gallup survey, June 2016

————

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.

OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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.

Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law

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.

Public confidence: Nine percent

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.

Romney, Trump

The Shaming of Mitt…

       “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country. My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”

Mitt Romney announcing the end of his campaign to be Secretary of State

———-

I have never had much truck for Mitt Romney. He always struck me as a stiff suit filed more with ambition than anything really important. Then a few months ago I took a second look at the chiseled millionaire and thought – briefly – that I had been wrong to write him off as an opportunistic lightweight. Turns out I was right the first time.

Romney’s essentially opportunistic nature led him to a run for the Senate in Massachusetts years ago against Ted Kennedy. Romney’s basic strategy was to shape his positions in order to get to the left of the man who was his generation’s paragon of liberalism. He failed. Kennedy humbled him.

Humbled…again

Undeterred Romney returned to capture the governorship of his adopted state and then governed as a genuine Northeastern moderate. What the hell, the guy was a Republican liberal back when we had such an endangered creature.

He wasn’t anti-environment, he supported Roe v. Wade and the health care plan Romney championed was essentially a state-level version of the Republican-hated Obamacare. But when the “savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics” ran for the White House he had to reverse course and move sharply to the right. He discovered the pro-life movement and had to spend most of his campaign explaining why his state level Affordable Care Act really wasn’t nearly identical to the ideas his opponent, Barack Obama, championed. Obama humbled him.

Romney might have run again this year, but probably knew that his time had come and gone. Nevertheless Romney emerged briefly – and facetiously it turns out – as a serious person, once again a political player. When he called come lately Republican Donald Trump exactly what he is, a dangerous man, Romney was back in the game. It turns out that was an act, too. Romney’s last act.

The man who will soon be president could not abide the Romney criticism and, of course, he struck back. Mitt had “choked like a dog,” Donald J. Trump said, and he was “stiff.” Well, I agree with Trump about that much.

Using his favorite attack tool – Twitter – Trump left no insult behind. “Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy.” That was after Romney called Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” unfit for the presidency and back when I was doing my own reassessment of Romney. I should have saved the energy.

“When Mitt Romney asked me for my endorsement last time around,” Trump Tweeted, “he was so awkward and goofy that we all should have known he could not win!”

With his forceful indictment of Trump earlier this year it seemed for a brief time that Mitt Romney was finally caving to principle. But for Mitt flirting with principle was both short term and an aberration. Romney, as so many others have, soon came to grovel before the most unqualified, ignorant and dangerous man to win the White House since, well, maybe since ever.

Romney said in June that he found Trump “so troubling, and I know a lot of folks are saying, ‘Mitt just get off your high horse on this and get behind the guy.’ But these things are personal. I love this country. I love the founders. I love what this country is built upon and its values and seeing this is breaking my heart.”

Romney was visibly emotional and appeared to tear up when making the remarks. But all that emotion soon enough gave way to enabling – Trump enabling.

A few days ago Romney tucked his political tail between his legs and slinked into Trump Tower to be interviewed to be The Great Man’s Secretary of State. The cringe worthy photo of the two men at dinner with Reince Priebus should be widely re-produced and mailed to every politician who cavalierly sells out principle in the name of ambition. That photo will be in the dictionary next to the definition of “humiliation.”

Frog legs and crow. Did it taste like ashes?

Romney later posted on his Facebook page that it had been a great honor to be considered for the top job in the Trump Cabinet, but of course it was all a sham and likely everyone knew it but Mitt. Trump was slapping Romney around in public said Roger Stone, a man almost as reprehensible as Trump, in order to “torture” him for daring to speak ill of the Authoritarian-in-Chief.

What a spectacle. Mitt participating in his own public humiliation. Sad. Shows what craven ambition can do to a person.

Mitt Romney, the guy who has always placed his aspiration above all else, might have ended his public life as one of the genuine truth tellers about Donald Trump. He might have been remembered as a person of principle with the guts to call out a charlatan. Instead he allowed the petty, little, mean guy who will become president play him like a fiddle. Trump humiliated him. It has become a pattern for Romney.

Once you surrender principle and put your character in hock to pursue a personal desires, particularly in the face of great evidence and despite your own words, there is no going back. When – not if – Donald Trump gives Mitt Romney cause again to speak  truth about our new president Romney will be silent. He will have no choice. He caved when character counted and got nothing to show beyond a very public lesson in dishonor. Anything he might ever say about the future of his party and the presidency will now be seen through the filter of the pained expression on Mitt’s face while Trump shamed him – publicly and repeatedly.

Mitt Romney had his moment and spent it on a dinner of frog legs with Donald Trump at a Michelin three star restaurant in Trump Tower. Romney went to that dinner to eat crow and surrender his pride. Then he said all that Trump demanded of him. Then he posted on Facebook what a great honor it had been – to be humiliated by a man he knows is unfit.

You almost wonder if Trump also stuck him with the dinner check.