Monday, May 9, 2016

Clarity, ugh!

Okay, I’m not getting paid to follow campaigns or prognosticate, but to use that as an excuse would be really lame.  I blew it, big time!  Donald Trump whom I refused to take seriously will be the GOP nominee.  The election is still almost six months away.  Buckle up; things are likely to get even more poisonous and ugly.

Paul Krugman suggested in a recent column that the emergence of Trumpism reflects the fact that the GOP simply hasn’t delivered for its base.  I don’t know if that’s really how they feel.  It doesn’t much matter because what began in 2010 as the anti-establishment Tea Party rebellion has now reached a new, albeit counter intuitive, height: the crowning of a billionaire demagogic whom they have convinced themselves is just like them: a “true outsider”.  Trump has been deft at understanding their frustration, at hitting all the right notes for his angry and frustrated prime audience.  As I’ve written before the real issue for them — many in the Republican base — is feeling a loss of power, of disenfranchisement.  Someone has usurped their rightful place and pushed them figuratively if not literally out of the homestead.  The future is being written and they aren’t, or more to the point feel they aren’t, part of it.   They aren’t responsible for the shift but feel individually and very personally victimized by it.   Whether that’s the case, doesn’t really matter.  They are mad as hell and are looking both for someone to blame — “the other” — and equally are desperate for someone to lead them back to their promised land.  “Making American Great Again” translates simply into “bring back their good old days.”

Blaming the “other” started long before Trump escalated down from on high in his flagship Fifth Avenue namesake building.   He played the “other card” to the hilt from his initial xenophobic portrayal of Mexicans through his suggesting on the eve of the Indiana vote that Cuban American Ted Cruz’s father was a JFK conspirator.  Over and over we’ve heard supporters tell interviewers that Trump had the honesty to say out loud what “we’re all thinking”.  If that’s the case, then a lot of Americans are having some terrible and distorted thoughts.  It’s not a sign of leadership that Trump is giving them voice.  Most assuredly, it’s not “honest”.   Far from it! While I may have underestimated him from the start, I have not changed my view that his rhetoric is purely manipulative and opportunistic.  There is nothing to suggest in either his record or utterances that he possesses an ounce of conviction other than seeking personal power and feeding his overblown ego.

In contrast to the GOP, Krugman suggests the Democrats have largely kept their promises.  While I agree with him, especially with regard to the President who has by and large delivered on his campaign promises (including the ACA), how do you explain the rise and appeal of Bernie Sanders?  Clearly the crowds who listen to him rail against the “millionaires and billionaires” seem to be expressing the same anti-establishment frustrations.  Perhaps, but I think it is totally wrong to conflate Trump and Sanders supporters.  Bernie’s followers are not so much opposed to the political establishment — they are more than likely to vote for Clinton in the fall — as they are frustrated by economic inequality.  They are the logical next step of the short-lived “Occupy” effort spotlighting the 1% but more generally growing inequality.  Their anger is decidedly not directed against others who, regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender, are suffering challenges equal to or greater than their own.  Rather it is against a system that seems, and largely is, rigged in favor of the wealth class.  It is unsurprising that so many of Sanders most dedicated supporters are young.  This is after all a generation, probably the first since the Great Depression in the 1930s, who legitimately wonder if they can surpass or even match the income and lifestyle of their own parents.  Many have pursued higher education and taken on massive debt with no guaranteed prospect for a return on their intellectual or financial investment.  Instead they see a work world that no longer cares about their success, much less well being.  The loyalty upon which their parents could count is gone; the prospect of doing better than living paycheck to paycheck is dimmed for the foreseeable future. 

Superficially the two constituencies — Trump and Sanders — may seem aligned, but nothing could be further than the truth.   Something fundamental separates them and that difference is profound.  Unlike the Trump followers, those attracted to Bernie don’t see themselves as losing out to “people not like me”.  Indeed, the very idea that any one is an “other” is alien to them.   Xenophobia and prejudice of any kind is just “so yesterday”, so meaningless.  They may be wary of trade, may attribute loss of jobs to manufacturing moving to Mexico or China, but they know that even if reopened today factories would employ only a fraction of their former pre-automation work forces.  Intellectually they know that we are in a period of economic transition.  What frustrates them is not that Pedro, Sally or Muhammad has taken “their” job, but like for them, good wage jobs remain in short supply.

Sanders may reflect establishment wariness in the land, but Hillary Clinton’s record as a progressive (albeit more hawkish on foreign affairs) makes her acceptable.  Indeed, the Sanders success is seen as a positive nudge to the left that I remain confident she will take to heart and adopt as her own.  Indeed the best thing that’s happened to the Democrats and to her is Bernie’s full-throated campaign.  He has focused attention on the issues that a vast number of Americans, including Republicans, face in this period of extended and painful transition from the economy that was to the one that is still in formation.  What bothers many Democratic voters is not so much the so-called establishment per se, but that they have been unable to catch up to the economic change.

It is a transition that has concentrated wealth on the fewer than ever before and kept so many treading water or losing ground.  This process may simplistically be blamed on NAFTA and trade in general — and there are reasons to fault specifics in such agreements — but it has much more to do with technology and automation.  Moreover, low worker pay in a number of mostly Southern states that boast automobile plants (for among others Toyota and Nissan), has been impacted by Republican enacted “right to work” laws aimed at keeping unions out and worker rights at bay.  Today, you may be fortunate enough to work in an automobile factory, but it’s not the job or the security your father knew.  Workers who considered themselves highly skilled find themselves replaced by machine, out of sync and at sea.  Conversely, politicians whose jobs and incomes have not been even slightly impacted by this fundamental change, and who reside in a bubble of partisanship, posturing and safe districts, are mostly out of touch with this pain.  Is it any wonder that constituents in both parties have had it and are in an angry rebellious mood?

In his first and very thoughtful article for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes about the dangers we face in an election whose backdrop is wide scale discontent.  It has produced the unexpected strength of Sanders and the very alarming ascendency of Donald Trump.  Sullivan warns us not to underestimate the potential of this figure at a moment when our democracy is fragile.  While this general discontent is widespread, it is particularly strong among those, many of them blue collar workers, who feel themselves increasingly disenfranchised from what has largely become the American Pipe Dream.  Trump is capitalizing on this discontent, an unnerving mix of economic distress and loss of political power in the works.  He promises to protect them from both in part by keeping “the other” from taking their jobs and place at the table.   As the son of Hitler refugees, and an “anchor baby” to boot, I can’t help but be particularly unnerved by a sense of déjà vu.  In the 1930s, the man with the funny mustache was dismissed and looked on as a buffoon before manipulating his adopted country into a living hell.  This is said only to suggest is that the man who others and I dismissed as a blowhard theatrical act has emerged as a frightening potential that we dare not underestimate. 

And central to that danger of underestimation is the notion that the coming election will surely end in a Democratic landslide.  That won’t happen unless we vote.  In his Saturday Howard University’s commencement speech, President Obama pointedly told graduates:

Your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that…there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent.  Four out of five did not vote.  In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out.  You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?  What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country?  People try to make this political thing really complicated.  You know what, just vote.  It's math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.  It's not that complicated.  And you don’t have excuses.   So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired. It's your duty.

His message (excerpted with above) was to young people, but it was equally directed at all of us.  If we’re our usually lazy selves this November first we may wake up to a President Trump.  That will be on all of us, and we can’t let that nightmare day happen.  Could you have any greater clarity than that?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Oh, Bernie.

Bernie Sanders, coming off a series of primary victories, is feeling pretty good.  Who can blame him?  He’s also feeling more aggressive, and that isn’t necessarily a good path to take.   His recent assertions that Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be president are more than a stretch.  One may not agree with her on matters of policy past and present, even vigorously so, but objectively she remains the most qualified person running in either party.  There is likely no more difficult job in the world than being our president.  No one is fully prepared for what is in some ways the ultimate unknown.  It’s like being a parent for the first time multiplied a thousand fold.  Hillary has an unusual depth of experience beginning with her eight-year birds eye view inside the White House, another eight years in the senate and then four as secretary of state.   While not serving herself, she is as close to being an incumbent candidate as we have had since TR ran against Taft and Wilson.

For reasons expressed in February, I support and expect Hillary to win the nomination, but would certainly vote for Bernie if he accomplishes what would be an upset.  And that wouldn’t be a difficult vote since I agree with many of the things he says and in which he believes.  But one of my problems with Bernie is that he is an absolutist — his long held views are both admirable and potentially troubling.   For sure they strike a chord with many voters in this discordant and frustrating time, but such fervor may tip the balance between conviction and feeling possessed of “the” truth.  As I’ve often written, that’s bad in religion and equally so in politics — bad and potentially dangerous.    It is exactly what has put governance in virtual limbo these last years.  I’m sorry to say this, but Sanders’ assertion smacks of “she’s unqualified because she doesn’t think or act like me”.  Maybe he doesn’t mean it that way, and one hopes it’s only over-the-top campaign rhetoric, but to me it’s a red flag.  Presidential campaigning, especially with big adoring crowds and some success at the polls can be a huge ego boost.   It’s addictive.  I hope it hasn’t gone to his head.

Hillary Clinton is hardly a perfect candidate.   She continues to have high unfavorable ratings and has trust problems, some self-inflicted.  Just being a Clinton carries a lot of baggage.   Much of Donald Trump’s wealth, though most of his admirers are blind to it, comes from celebrity rather than business management.   And, like the political class described in Mark Leibovich’s book This Town, so does Clinton’s.   At the core, and unlike her husband, Clinton is also private person, not necessarily ideal on the stump.  But she’s no more private than Obama, though she considers him a more natural politician.  Understanding all these perceived deficits, I think Clinton is a true progressive.  She was onto expanding healthcare before Obama and has been a consistent advocate for women whether on choice or in the workplace.  She is a strong believer in climate change and its scientific underpinnings; a partner with Obama is seeking global partners in that regard.

Clinton is a progressive, but not an ideologue.  From some of us on the left, that’s a negative.   I don’t agree.  Ideologues claim possession of “the” truth, which stands in the way of getting anything done, of the compromise necessary not only in politics but in sharing the planet with others.  Whether in our family life, our friendships and acquaintances, or simply functioning on some reasonable level, accomplishments are generally more likely with some sense of modesty, even of some self-doubt.   This is not to argue against conviction or passion but to suggest that the other person might possibly have it right, or as right.  I think Hillary understands that.  Finally, unlike many of the Democratic candidates for office in 2014, she is not running away from either the person or the record of Barack Obama.  Rather she clearly hopes to build on what he has accomplished in his two terms.  She will be different, not the least being the first female president, but promises continuity.

Contested primaries are essential to the democratic process, if for no other reason than reminding us that we should always and do have options.  Bernie Sanders has brought excitement and a refreshing — I think essential — focus on both economic and political inequality.  He has pushed Clinton and the party to the left, demanding focus and conviction.  What he has done will hopefully endure impacting on the agenda of the next president and the country.  His meaningful and vigorous challenge has, as did that of Obama eight years ago, made her a better candidate.  That was evident in her speech yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University broadcast on C-Span.  The coming election, even if Donald Trump wins the  Republican nomination will not be a cakewalk.  The stakes as she said yesterday are high.  Of course, we hear that in every election cycle.  This time it may be an understatement.  Come November, I hope all Democrats will stand behind and work vigorously for the nominee.  I hope too that if Hillary prevails she will not only have benefited from Bernie's vigorous challenge, but that she will take his message to heart and make much of it part of her own. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Endless campaign's unspoken damage.

Admission 1: I’m a long-term political junkie, have been since elementary school.  Regardless of who is in office, I never miss a State-of-the-Union.  I’ve watched political conventions since they’ve been broadcast on TV, some years nearly gavel to gavel.  I watch presidential press conferences, major speeches/events on C-Span or YouTube including the funerals of, among others, Mario Cuomo and Antonin Scalia.  Needless to say, passing up a vote is never an option.

Admission 2: I haven’t seen a single presidential debate — Democratic or Republican — in this primary election cycle.  Why?  I could say watching them in this bizarre year is just too painful, and that would be true.  A lot of “ink” has been devoted to the vitriol in both the campaign and our current politics.  Some suggest how unprecedented the tone and outlandishness.  Perhaps we haven’t recently witnessed its like, but it has all happened before.  I’m reading historian William Leuchtenburg’s new book, The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.  At 93 he’s hard at work on the companion Washington to McKinley volume.  What strikes me in the reading is how rough and messy our politics has been throughout.  That impression was reinforced by a Charlie Rose interview with Ron Chernow, whose biography of our first Treasury Secretary inspired the hit show Hamilton.  The competitive mean-spiritedness of our idealized Founders would have made perfect fodder for today’s cable and Twitter. That doesn’t make what’s afoot today less disconcerting, less off putting.  But what’s keeping me less engaged isn’t nasty discourse, it's fatigue.

Back in April 2014 I posted a blog that began with these words, “The envelope was in my mailbox, the return address: “Ready for Hillary 2016”.  My immediate response: not so much — certainly not yet.  Beyond all else,” the post continued, “I am so not ready for two and a half protracted years of presidential politics.”  Indeed, the 2014 Congressional elections were still months away, ones that seemed of more immediate importance.  I saw the solicitation “as a distraction at the very moment when we can ill afford to avert our attention from the immediate task at hand.  Do her supporters", I asked, "not realize how important it is to hold the Senate; are they intentionally trying to undermine our sitting Democratic president?”  For Clinton, the campaign, albeit unannounced, was underway despite President Obama’s being barely in year two of his second term.  I’ll get back to that.   We all know the result of that lack of attention — that implied dismissal of a sitting majority elected president.

Help me here — two and a half years?  No other democracy in the world spends even a fraction of that time in campaign mode.  Indeed, some restrict national elections to a matter of weeks.   Campaigns are shorter and, yes, more citizens vote.  In an all time record year like 2008 only 57% of eligible voters cast ballots for president and that number declined to 54% in 2012; less than half of them vote in primaries.  For sure, money is a huge problem in our politics.  We spend far more on elections than anyone else on the globe.  Citizens United was a horrible decision, but I don’t think campaign spending is the primary problem.   The real killer is time; endless distracting and numbing months of speeches evoking largely manufactured “news”.  To be sure, time and money are related  — it takes bundles to sustain extended campaigning, but solve the time problem and fixing the money problem will follow.  The same is true, though clearly on a smaller scale, for congressional elections.  It’s no wonder that so little gets done in Washington when many Senators and Congresspersons are on the road not in their seats on the floor.  It’s sometimes hard to tell which is their primary job, carrying out legislative duties or campaigning.  All too often the two are indistinguishable.

It’s claimed that the current presidential campaign is evoking considerable interest.  Perhaps that’s the case, but I wonder how many Americans really know much about where candidates stand on substantive issues, or even if they have any coherent policy positions.  It should be instructive that Donald Trump with the fewest, a person given to what I’d call hour-long “tweet speeches” gets the most press.  Even if Americans had more than an infant’s attention span, and we don’t, there is just so long that anyone can honestly spend following these endless campaigns.  In fact, rather than enhancing they compromise democracy, which alone argues for a more humanly reasonable campaign season.

But what is the real and immediate damage of endless campaigning?  It undermines orderly governance and by extension all our interests.  A prime example can be found in the political charade surrounding the filling of a vital Supreme Court seat.  Returning to my April ’14 post and that independent (if you can believe that) solicitation by Hillary supporters.  I posed the question then about the appropriateness of the timing, only a year and a half into Obama’s four-year term.  In that context, isn’t it hard to question the Republican’s current position that effectively his presidency is over with less than a year to go?  I’m by no means suggesting that Hillary is to blame for the current situation, certainly not purposefully so.  But drawing the connection, inadvertent as it might be, is not too much of a stretch.  It is certainly a question that I would hope she and those who put that letter in my mailbox are asking of themselves.

Of course, what Clinton and others in both parties before her (including Obama) have done in reflects a systematic problem.  If they are guilty of anything it is following the “regular order of business” or of submitting to an unending campaign habit that has measurable and predictable consequences.   The nomination of Judge Merrick Garland is clearly falling victim to that order.  In most places — United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel and Canada, for example — campaigning would still be months away.  Contending that a president or prime minister who had been elected for, in our case, four years was no longer accorded his Constitutional power nine months early would be both untenable, even laughable.  It is also totally inconsistent.   Barack Obama can send American troops across the globe, he can fire (one of Trumps favorite prerogatives of office) cabinet and many other government employees, and he can hire without consent anyone who doesn’t require congressional approval.  He can declare emergencies and send aid to victims of all manor of disaster.  Of course he can order up and fly Air Force One to Cuba and beyond.  I could go on, but you get the point.  Rest assured, if the Kentucky River overflows its banks or some coalmine disaster occurs in the state, Senator McConnell will want, indeed demand, the sitting president to exercise those powers.

Endless presidential campaigns don’t only induce my and your fatigue, they work against exercising our civic responsibilities; they endanger a full functioning government.  While on the campaign trial, senators absent themselves from their sworn duties and governors from theirs for months on end.  They don’t do so without often high cost.  Once in campaign mode, which sadly these days means most of the time, every discussion and every decision is undertaken in a political context.  Will this advance my personal or my party’s interests?  Will it lead me/us to, or keep me/us in, power?  Will it damage the “other side”?  Lot’s of questions.  Note that “will it advance the public good” is not among them.

We’re going to slug through this endless election cycle and most probably others to follow.  What I wonder is when will we admit that it’s all too much, that the cost, not only financial, is far too high, the risk far too great.  My fatigue this year — and surely I’m not alone — should be a wake up call.  The endless campaign's impact on filling Scalia's seat should make us all awake in a cold sweat.  Time we start thinking about breaking this most stupid “norm”.  And please don’t tell be it’s the “new normal”, the ultimate copout cliché of our time.