Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Eight years is not a whiteboard.

“For the most part”, writes William Leuchtenburg of the American presidency, “scholars have presented the chronicle as a continuous tale, with each succeeding administration adding another chapter.  By contrast, I perceive a great divide – with the twentieth century markedly different from what preceded it.”  The presidency may not be a “continuous tale”, but one does have a sense that within periods like post World War II, we’ve seen a definable build, enabled by institutional memory, precedent and norms that contribute to purposeful and reasonable continuity.  We couldn’t function without that.  Donald Trump, the Twitter in Chief, seems bent on breaking with that build, ignoring institutional memory, precedent, norms and, most especially, continuity.  There are probably multiple reasons for that, but I think foremost among them is his egotistical personality.  Trump rejects anything not invented here (by him) or not subject to his claiming full credit in the future.

Working mostly with startup companies these days brings me in regular contact with a terrific generation of tech-savvy women and men.  They lean heavily on everything digital.  Even so, when sitting in a meeting someone usually gets up and starts writing on a whiteboard; writing and then erasing before we leave the room.  Left behind is a blank slate.  It’s like we were never there, never met.  Eight years is not a whiteboard, but it’s quite clear that’s exactly how Donald Trump sees Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House.  A whiteboard to be erased, sooner rather than later, ideally on day one.

His often inflammatory talk of some better earlier time notwithstanding, Trump has evidenced no sense of, or respect for, history.  His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is not really about restoring a mythical past glory but boils down to undoing the pre-Trump era, most immediately the presidency of Barack Obama.  First on his (and fellow Republicans) hit list is Obamacare, but the NY Times has identified 20 items ripe for erasure.  Pulling the plug on the ACA won’t be easy if for no other reason that 20 Million Americans are now covered by it, including Paul Krugman estimates, 5 Million Trump voters.  “Repeal it” they shout at rallies, but do they really mean “take mine away” or will they be happy when or if that happens?

There are practical challenges attendant to undoing existing programs – “easier said than done”.  And Mr. Trump will discover there are also political considerations and consequences.  The United States is not a privately held business.  You can’t cover up or recoup mistakes by declaring bankruptcy, you can’t write-off losses or refuse to pay your bills or people.  Where government is involved, initiated or abandoned activities/programs (including wars) generally produce meaningful intended but also unintended consequences.  But the practical difficulties are not what concerns me most, should concern us all.  It is that Donald Trump is intent on “whiteboarding” the entire presidency of our first African American chief executive.  Is that what his white male voter base was all about?  Is that why White Supremacists are celebrating?

There is a great difference between carefully evolving policy/programs and simply applying an eraser to wipe clean an imaginary whiteboard.  There is reason to build on a foundation already in place.  Institutional memory is informative; indeed, it is essential in carrying forth foreign policy where other nations are looking for consistency in the relationship.  Precedent and norms, at the very least, should always be considered.  Continuity is something upon which we citizens rely. Think of what would happen if all the rules of the road were suddenly abandoned or changed, just because they were invented by others, many others?  Accidents, some fatal, would be sure to happen, havoc on the highways and streets.  In the real world, the one where we all live and function, populism of the whiteboard kind, is a slogan, a myth not a practical roadmap.  It is destabilizing with no other purpose than to reject reality, at its worst to express hatred of self and others, in this case for what we have become in the years since the founding and will most assuredly be in the future.

Donald Trump won his presidency with about 46% of the votes cast; a majority voted for someone else.  With the country divided, elections tend to be close, even when we expect them to be decisive.  Consequently, none of our presidents can claim a decisive mandate.  That they regularly act as if they had one explains in part why they often lose support two years later.  Clinton and Obama lost control of Congress.  Considering the nature of Trump’s win, are we to believe that the American public want everything that has happened in the last eight years to be reversed?  I don’t think so.  Sixteen million Americans found employment in those years and twenty million got health insurance, many for the first time.  Would the auto workers, even those who voted for Trump, have preferred for GM and Chrysler to go under?  Would we be happier to see banks functioning without restriction or not having a consumer protection agency?  Do we really think our Cuba policy was working either for us or for the citizens of that nearby country?  Would we be happier if Iran had joined the nuclear club or alternatively that military action had been taken to stop it likely further destabilizing Mideast?

No administration is perfect, Obama’s included.  Clearly many of those who voted for Trump were dissatisfied with the state of their own lives eight years after the Great Recession.  Some simply don’t like the president, many were profoundly opposed to Secretary Clinton but not necessarily or only because she was likely to continue Obama’s initiatives.  Some change is to be expected, but erasing all that was done in the past eight years?  Truth is that humans are mostly change resistant.  Obama quickly discovered that and so too have many of his predecessors.  Even when we talk about change, claim we’re voting for it, we want it to be incremental not disruptive.  No matter how much we may deny it, we opt in large measure for, and excuse the cliché, “the devil we know” principle.  Obama has been sharply criticized for not being aggressive enough in Syria, for the Obama Doctrine described in Jeffrey Goldberg’s April 2016 Atlantic article.  Some may disdain his “don’t do stupid stuff” but most Americans don’t want “boots on the ground”, certainly not body bags coming home.  That doesn’t mean that some new incremental approach to policy won’t be accepted.  Most certainly any weakening or destruction (if that’s really possible) of ISIS will be welcomed.  Will getting into bed with Putin and Assad?  Maybe not so much.  We shall see.

In the end, after all the campaign rhetoric fades into a dim memory, most of us want a steady hand on the till.  Republicans and their new leader may really want to wipe the board clean, but most citizens don’t share their, or any, extreme partisan ardor.  The vast majority of us have not suffered in the past eight years.  We’re eating three square, share in the joys and, yes, on occasion the sorrows, of our lives.  Do we want things to be better, even if marginally so?  Absolutely.  But to read the election as an unfettered license, the obliteration of our history, even our recent history, would be a mistake.  Donald Trump does so at his peril and, sadly, at ours as well.

Friday, December 2, 2016

All politics is local.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in November – by 2.5 Million and counting – but Donald Trump won the presidency, besting her in the Electoral College.  Constitutionally built into our system is localism, if not always its supremacy then certainly its critical importance.  The Electoral College – always loved by winners and questioned by losers – should serve as a reminder that what happens at the state level impacts the national direction.  House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously contended “all politics is local”.  On a profound, and perhaps more important expansive, level he was right.  O’Neil was a hero of the party, but Democrats who so admired him seemingly were not paying attention.  In contrast, Republicans were and they are winning.

The big shift began in 1994 (Clinton’s second year) when Republicans took over the Senate and House after decades of largely Democratic domination.  Perhaps more important, they won 10 gubernatorial contests and some state legislatures.  The turnaround – some called a bloodbath – came as a shock to Bill Clinton who, despite ups and downs, would end his presidency six years later with better approval ratings than Ronald Reagan.  To digress a moment, the visceral hatred that Republicans had for the Clintons explains a lot about the deep-seated (strategically magnified) “trust problem” that plagued Hillary up to and through the 2016 election.  It is also a hatred that, to some considerable degree, gave birth to our current poisonous political environment.

Returning to politics is local, when I moved to North Carolina in 2006, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature.  In 2010 (Obama’s second year) Republicans took what would become veto-proof control of that legislature followed two years later with the governor’s mansion. In one of the few bright spots of 2016, he is likely to be replaced by Democrat Roy Cooper.  What’s happened to Democrats in North Carolina only reflects what has been repeated across the land in the post-Clinton era.  That’s no accident but the result of a focused Republican effort and, an often hapless Democratic response.

As of January 2017, Republicans will control both the governor's mansion and legislature in 26 states, they hold 31 governor’s seats and many state senates or houses across the country.  Dominating state legislatures translates into controlling redistricting.  That has resulted in both fewer competitive districts, an almost iron clad Republican controlled House and an overall GOP tilt at all levels of government, local and national.  In 2016, some large Republican donors withheld financial support from Trump, while redoubling their efforts at the local state level.  They have been “investing”, playing a long term game.  Democrats, on the other hand, seem to have no such systematic effort.  Beyond the control and influence matter, the GOP’s local focus has resulted in providing them with a deep bench of future leaders.  One can question the quality of those who contended for their presidential nomination, but for the most part all were credible contenders and there were 17 of them.  In contrast only three (really two) vied for the Democratic nomination.  Perhaps that was because Clinton started as the presumed winner, but to buy into that explanation would be to close our eyes to a really serious problem.  Democrats have a small and aging bench.  Hillary is 69; Bernie 75.

Ohio Tim Ryan’s challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader points directly to the age problem.  He is 43, she is 76. More to the point, the other two members of Democratic leadership team are also in the later 70s.  Much as I respect Pelosi and company, it’s a shame he lost.  Republican Speaker Paul Ryan is 46, his team in their early 50s.  The Speaker didn’t serve locally but he is a product of a system that actively recruits young officeholders, in his case for the House.  Add this to a local-focused approach and you have a party that may not (yet) be the numerical (popular vote) majority but has clearly become the ruling majority.  Democrats won’t reverse the trend, and equally important their age problem, until they return to the basics – politics is local. Real and sustained power, we should have learned by now, comes not from just electing a president every odd eight years, but by winning state and local legislatures, mayoralty and gubernatorial races.  These are the keys to the House, Senate and beyond.  They are a resource for tomorrow’s leaders.  If Democrats take control at the local level, the chances of them taking and keeping control on the Capital Hill will only improve.  The next Democratic president might actually be able to turn more of her promises into reality.

But winning elections, bringing up younger officeholders and shoring up the bench are only part of the reason for a local focus.  Statistics can make for strong slogans and looking at them today verses eight years ago, Barack Obama has had an impressive economic record.  GDP, job growth, unemployment, house prices, and the stock market all look good.  But in the final analysis, individuals – as with everything in their lives – look not at statistics but what’s happening to them, or in all honesty, what’s in it for them.  A serious focus on the local level would tell leaders how their policies are impacting on individual lives, especially on what wasn’t working or what frustrations and disappointments prevail.  That prosperity had not reached a large part of the population, or that so many people were locked into low paying often subsistence jobs, didn’t come as a surprise to mayors, state legislators and governors.  It isn’t merely that all politics is local.  All life is local.  And it isn’t only winning elections that are at stake; it’s knowing the people and being responsive to their needs.  I may and do disagree profoundly with their ideology and solutions, but my guess is that Republicans may currently have a better sense of real people.  Sure misinformation, Hillary’s trust problem and sexism were at play, but Donald Trump would not have won in November were that not the case.

Looking at what Republicans have accomplished, it is truly mystifying that Democrats have been so asleep at the switch.  How long will it take and how many defeats for the Democratic National Committee to refocus their efforts?  One thing is sure, they had better do so and now not later.  And by the way, I think they need a full time chair who can focus entirely on building the party.  Democrats will have to  have to change their approach, keep Tip O’Neil’s dictum in mind – not only in election season but constantly.  I don’t think liberalism is dead or that conservatism is the solution to the problems faced at the local or national level.  But unless attention is paid and a real effort is made, Democrats might be out of power for years to come.  What’s sobering is that, in having such a talented and charismatic president in the White House, we lived under the illusion of power held when in fact it was slipping ever further from our hands.  As the late Robin Williams once shouted into a cinematic microphone, Good Morning!  Are, we awake, are we listening?  Hello, all politics is local.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Here we go again.

He considered any publicity good.  He “spun one narrative after another that was palpably untrue, [finding it] …next to impossible to say anything that is not in some crucial way untrue.”  “He [didn’t] let anybody get too close.  …Those who worked with him found him curiously elusive.”  He had no interest in briefing books.  “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed.”  Sound familiar?  This is how the distinguished historian and UNC Professor Emeritus William Leuchtenburg described Ronald Reagan in his 2015 book, The American President.  So what Gerald Ford might have aptly called our current “Nightmare” isn’t entirely new.  Here we go again.

I couldn’t help being struck by the similarities between the Gipper and the Donald.  Reagan was sworn in at age seventy, so too will Trump.  Being six months older he will be the oldest ever.  Both disregarded facts on the stump and beyond.  Periodic fabrication and outright lying is something Reagan took all the way through his tenure.  It reached its peak late in his second term when he denied both selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras.  Leuchtenburg contends that his actions – trading with an enemy and unauthorized arming – constituted impeachable offences.  Only because Democrats (who controlled Congress) feared having to face George HW Bush as an incumbent in the upcoming election did he escape prosecution.  Reagan represented the then radical right of his party much as Trump represents an extreme today.  We Americans have a short memory and may have forgotten how ominous we thought the Reagan presidency would be.  We survived.

Survived, but Reagan, the GOP mythical icon, had a profound and lasting impact on the country’s direction.  So much so that twelve years on, Bill Clinton, despite liberal inclinations, determined his only path to the presidency lay in pulling his party to the right of center, to govern as a New Democrat.  That produced, among others, “an end of welfare as we know it”, (after pushback from the military) “don’t ask don’t tell” and “three strikes”.  It wasn’t enough for the opposition.  Tokened by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract” the right never lost its focus on regaining power and extending Reagan’s conservative “revolution”.  Barack Obama moved further left but met bitter resistance from the start.  His progressive legislative initiatives had no Republican support and others had to be accomplished by Executive Orders, many of which can – probably will – be reversed by Trump.  Democrats are said to be the majority party – Hilary Clinton outpolled him in November’s election – but that “majority” has proved ephemeral.  Republicans, dominated by the hard right, hold the executive mansion in a majority of states and beginning in January will control all three branches of the federal government.   We will survive Donald Trump, but not without paying a significant price.  The Supreme Court, especially, is likely to skew conservative for decades to come.

I reach back to Reagan’s election and our survival as a reassurance, but that doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about the immediate future.  Quite the contrary.  The fact that there are similarities between Trump and Reagan doesn’t mean they are the same.  I ran into Bill Leuchtenburg here in Chapel Hill a few days before the election and we shared our dismay in watching the 2016 campaign.  I said that to my knowledge, there had never been anything like it, never a candidate like Trump.  He concurred, and of course from the perspective of a scholar who, unlike an opinion blogger like myself, actually can back up his assessment with a lifetime study of the presidency.  I’m privileged to live in the same community and to have him as an acquaintance.

In significant ways, Donald Trump is very different than Ronald Reagan.  Professor Leuchtenburg describes Reagan’s politics as “divisive”; Trump’s are polarizing.  While being “grossly ill informed” relative to earlier presidents, Reagan had served as governor of our largest state.  Trump has zero government experience, which makes him not merely ill informed but inexperienced and totally unprepared.  Like Reagan, Trump is a performer who knows how to move and indeed manipulate a crowed, but unlike him he has shown himself to be an obsessive misogynistic and xenophobic narcissist.  Also, while Reagan worked within a clear ideological framework and surrounded himself with experienced people, Trump seems to function with no such compass, relying on loyalists, some with no credentials for carrying out their assigned job.  Perhaps most important, Reagan may have been a rightist ideologue, but was never mean spirited.  His persona didn’t give license to the kind of audience hate speech that often was heard at Trump rallies nor did he give an essential White House role to the likes of the alt-right Steve Bannon.  We know what Reagan did as president, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once he is sworn in on January 20.  His actions since November 8 are hardly reassuring, in fact they point to our worst fears not our best hopes.  His continued use of tweets, the latest to claim that absent millions of fraudulent ballots he would have won the popular are frightening.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Our first and still relatively primitive car “GPS” systems offered us less than perfect turn by turn directions from here to there. To say that the resulting trips were often circuitous, even torturous, would be an understatement.  Following such directions once took me on an hour long drive to a destination I discovered upon arrival was just fifteen minutes away.  The American story is very much like those circuitous road trips; the opposite of a straight line.  More often than not, that means two steps forward and one back or even one step forward, two back.  President Obama likes to refer to our democracy as “messy”.  It can be very frustrating, even unnerving.  Mirroring the human condition, it is complex not simple.  We should keep that in mind when characterizing this past (or any) election and those who drove its perplexing outcome.

Trump voters, and indeed voters in general, are not a monolith.  One vote can reflect current views and emotions, but long term it can’t change fundamental facts.  For some, this election represented a white person’s rebellion against a change in our racial and ethnic balance – of who is in control – but it can’t alter demographics.  Some voters may have expressed discomfort with growing secularization or marriage equality.  That won’t alter the views or practices of the upcoming generation.  Some – more than would admit – simply didn’t want a woman in the Oval Office.  But that will come to pass, must come to pass.  Some, as evidenced by a rise of hateful speech and actions, are simply bigots.  They represent not only something reprehensible but also a real danger that dare not be underestimated or overlooked.  It will present a test for the new president’s own identity and intent.  Much, perhaps most, of the vote expressed frustration about the economic and social stalemate that has come to characterize their lives and, worse, spell a dismal outlook for their children’s future.

One thing is for certain.  None of us, regardless of how we affiliate or how we voted, should either over read or under read the results.  Warning signs were and are present for both Republicans and Democrats, for the right and the left.  Whoever is up at bat, should understand that at present “all is not well in Mudville”.  Victory parties and loss wakes should not be read as more than they are, another fleeting moment in time.  Work will be required to repair our still imperfect union, step by often painful step.  We’ve seen much in the past, ups and downs.  Here we go again on another roller-coaster ride, but let’s not allow ourselves to be either complacent or cynical.  What comes after this is not inevitable, but rather lies in our hands.  If many like myself were deeply disappointed, indeed shocked, by the election results, I believe many of those who voted for Trump, who believed his unrealistic promises, are destined to be deeply disappointed by what is to come, what is not to come.  We’ll have to find a way of coming together if we want to move forward.