Thursday, July 30, 2015

OMG, he is us.

Donald Trump is surging in New Hampshire polls.  Okay America, what is it that you want?  I don’t think Trump has any real chance of gaining the Republican nomination, but that doesn’t mean his candidacy and early poll performance is irrelevant.  In a different time, someone like that might never have entered the fray, much less been taken at all seriously.  But this is now, not then.  The ugliness that Trump spews tokens what has happened to the GOP but also, as the seasoned journalist Howard Fineman recently suggested in the Huffington Post, to America.  The only difference is that The Donald says things out loud that others only think or have found a way to convey in more “correct” language codes.   Of course, when he disses the heroism of John McCain, the other presidential wannabes express outrage.  How quickly and conveniently they forget their collective delight when John Kerry, another war hero, was maliciously swift boated in 2004.  Trump insults immigrants and draws heat, but Republican members of the House and Senate push what are in effect anti-immigrant bills.   Trump’s mass-market persona was born on reality TV, the kind millions watch more religiously than they go to church.  His presidential campaign is just its latest iteration, this one staged without network sponsorship.  But, not to worry, the media are along for the ride, milking every last drop of controversy for their own financial benefit.

There is a sad irony in all of this.  At a time of blatant income inequality, many of the 99% still seem to adore the Trumps of this world, never connecting them with their own economic decline.  But perhaps more importantly, we should look at the allure of his loose tongue as another expression of citizen disillusionment.  He is his own tea party and not surprisingly has gained some traction among its fellow travelers.  If Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton are tapping into Democratic populism, it’s because across the land, right and left, there is a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the American dream.  The dysfunction of Congress, the continuing VA ineptness, or the tyranny of big money and lobbyists drives most of us to despair and even cynicism.  Add to that a parade of high profile officeholder corruption cases being prosecuted and conversely the fact that the executive level bankers and manipulators who nearly took our economy down — they are making more money than ever — have gone scot free.  Taken together, the public trust has been badly undermined.  Candidates tell us in almost every election cycle that our best days still lie ahead, but we have come see those claimants as the proverbial “criers of wolf” in reverse.

Confidence — consumer and every other kind — is low, especially with regard to governments and institutions.  The economy is vastly better on paper, but the majority of people, regardless of how they have faired, feel untouched by it.  In 2001 we were given a new century "Pearl Harbor" shock, this time on the “homeland”.   Fourteen years later, much spilled blood, incalculable trauma among battle survivors and trillions of dollars spent, the world seems less stable, less safe than ever.  If bin Laden’s band was a threat, ISIS seems geometrically more so.  Sunni and Shia are locked in mortal combat, but what concerns some (myself included) is that ultimately we could have a revival of the age-old Muslim-Christian conflict, hints of which can be seen in tensions across Europe, even in progressive countries like Denmark.  Cries of “death to the United States” probably should be taken as a placeholder for what more accurately is “death to the West” or "to non-Muslims".

While some of his comments seem calculated, Trump often appears to speak before he thinks.  He is only interested in the moment when the cameras are rolling or an audience is at hand.  He has no real plans but promises outcomes without even hinting at how they will be achieved.  He is boastful, exaggerating his successes, his popularity and, most certainly, his net worth.  What’s so unnerving is that, in doing so, he reflects our collective way: limited attention span, a focus on the short term, a lack of (and sometimes disdain for) deep thinking and, yes, a boasting — “the greatest country on earth”.  We see this reflected in our financial markets with their fickle devotion to quarterly results, in our need for instant gratification, and in our public policy and governance where continuing resolutions or very short term funding for essential programs increasingly rule the day.  Any kind of introspection or, horror of horrors, self-criticism is seen as un-American, always symbolized to me in those silly flag buttons that both Obama and Biden still seem compelled to wear on their lapels. 

In short, it is not only that Donald Trump is so bad, but also that in some disturbing ways he is us.  Absolutely not, you’ll say (and I want to say), but he is the epitome of “only in America”.  Not your America, not mine?  We wish.  It is the America of I, of me, of selfies.  It’s the place of “I’m okay” so I assume you’re okay and, even if not, it’s not really of my concern or business.  It is the America of blogs and self-proclaimed pundits (this one included) — Frank Rich rightly calls us bloviators.  Exercising, and often abusing, our right of free expression,  we say what we want with no real responsibility to verify, much less to do.  I try hard to think before I write, to add substantiation links to claims, but carry no responsibility of delivering on policies that I might suggest or support.   It’s the world of Twitter, where we often tweet before we think, not to mention say outlandish things within the required shorthand characters.  You get the point.

When things seem at their worst, some of us like to employ the cliché, “we get the best government money can buy”.   That rings especially true in the post Citizens United world, but like most clichés, it misses the real point.  Most of us are not buyers.  We are just plain old voters or, maddingly, non-voters.  Yes advertising can influence opinion (probably less that those who make their living from it would suggest) and turnout can be impacted by money spent on the ground.  But ultimately we get the government, certainly the president, whom we (or the majority) have elected.  Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama reflected us at a moment in time.  Donald Trump’s current poll standing, the “surge” may reflect name recognition and deft marketing of the moment more than anything else.  It’s unlikely to stand the test of time.  But the idea that “he is us” shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.  It’s something about which we all should be concerned.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Born on the 14th of July

We’ve seen so much focus on war and killing, that it’s more than refreshing to see a major step toward future peace.  It’s also a relief.  Barack Obama and John Kerry (who did the heavy lifting) along with Iran’s negotiators have rendered us a great service in securing a deal.  Combined with ending our ineffective fifty-year isolation of Cuba, the president perhaps more than any other recent White House occupant, is taking us forward rather than keeping us mired in the past.  He is thinking of and for the next generation.  It is a great day for the world and for the United States of American.  It is also, I firmly believe, a great day for the Mideast and especially so for Israel and its security.

Unsurprisingly, Bibi Netanyahu who traffics in fear not peace has loudly denounced the deal.  He even made a desperate and comical 11th hour appeal in Farsi to the Iranian people, effectively siding with their hardliners.  Not so strange bedfellows.  I don’t really get this man.  He seems so consistently to be working against his country’s best and even vital interests.   Thinking in the context of our own politics, I see Bibi as a combination of the angry John McCain with the staged bluster of Donald Trump.  Aside from the occasional disingenuous smile, his trademark demeanor is best described by the Yiddish word “verbissen” — embittered doesn’t quite do it justice.  With regard to Iran, Netanyahu’s hand in the negotiations has always been weak starting with Israel’s being the region’s only nuclear state.  But his real weakness stems directly from his part in the failure of John Kerry’s earlier marathon effort to bring peace between Israel and Palestine.   Bibi is no Begin, no Rabin.  Potential and real enemies may surround Israel, but neither Egypt nor Jordan with whom they made peace are among them.  The real existential threat Israel faces is far more from not having made peace with the Palestinians than from hostile Arab states or Iran.

The occupation of Palestine has been used as an excuse for, and rallying point of, often-hyped hostility and hate pointed toward Israel.  Ending the occupation and finally seeing a Palestinian State would take the wind out of that sail.  Sadly, Bibi and his hardline rightist cohort use the same excuse in reverse.  It was employed disgracefully before our Congress and in drumming up fear in Israel’s last election.  As he pontificates to the cheers of the Aipac crowd or his conservative GOP soul mates, the marketing of fear as a must-have consumer product is palpable.  Forget the moral need to end the occupation or making peace with Israel’s closest neighbor and potential economic partner.   Completing the deal upon which Kerry worked so hard would have put Israel in a totally different position.  Beyond, lowering hostility it in the region, Bibi could have been an active partner in the Iran negotiations.  That Israel was left on the sidelines rests totally on his shoulders.  Indeed, just as I believe George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq increased the treat to our national security, I believe Bibi’s showmanship has undermined Israel’s.

The American, Israeli and Iranian publics don’t want the war that might have broken out absent a nuclear deal.   Iran is a country of sophistication with a rich tradition and a substantial educated middleclass.  It was the first nation (albeit under the Shah) to recognize the State of Israel with whom it had good relations.  Iran would make a better partner than adversary.  That’s true for us and equally true for countries in the region including Israel.  Yes, they have a theocratic society and only limited democracy, but so too do many of the nations whom we count as allies, most notably the Saudis.  They can be repressive, but so too can China and Egypt.   You get the point.

Today was an important step toward a Mideast reset, but at least one more is needed.   The urgency of ending the stalemate between Israel and Palestine has never been greater, nor the moment with more promise.  Removing the nuclear threat from the table is a very big deal.  Removing the time bomb threatening the Holy Land would be equally so.  It would be wonderful if Kerry could return to that work, but time is running out on this administration.  Peace in the Mideast will likely be part of the coming presidential debate, another reason to fear that one of the now fifteen wannabes will take charge of the White House.  We don’t want Bibi or his thinking pulling strings in the Oval.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Bernie Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination, won’t even get close.  In fact, I’d argue that rather than representing a real challenge, a real alternative, to Hillary, he assures her win, earlier rather than later.  He is the wrong challenger and disappointingly so.  Let me explain.

Before going any further, I like and greatly respect Bernie.  I agree with much, perhaps most, of what he says.  Sanders is absolutely right to focus on issues like income inequality and has the record to do so credibly.  I share his view that it perhaps the most significant economic issue of our age and have written about it in earlier posts.  Until and including now, no one has meaningfully taken up that cause, and most importantly no ones — plural — have done so.  While millions of Americans are personally and directly impacted by inequality, there has been no popular uprising.   That continues to mystify me.  A few demonstrations here and there don’t stimulate change. Politicians and the public at large simply don’t take efforts that quickly peter out seriously.  That’s especially true post Citizen United when elected officials are so disturbingly dependent on the 1% to finance super expensive campaigns.

It is also true that many Democrats, myself included, still harbor doubts about or lack real enthusiasm for Hillary.  But equally true is that it seems no expected contender — a sitting popular senator or governor, for example — has even hinted that she or he might consider a run.  Yes, Sanders is a sitting senator, but again he has long claimed to be an independent not a Democrat.  So far the only other candidates are two ex-governors (one a former Republican) and a former one-term senator.  None of them is risking their day job for a candidacy as Clinton, Obama, Biden and others did in ‘08.

Don’t misread this.  I have long hoped for and advocated a strong challenge to Ms. Clinton both because of my doubts but more importantly to give her a real test, make her a better candidate if she gets the nomination.  She did a great favor to Obama in that regard.  Bernie Sanders won’t do the same for her.  Does he have the capacity to turn the conversation and perhaps push her further to the left?  To some degree that may happen but, in my view, only at the margin and probably with minimal substance.  As I’ve written before Hillary in 2016 is not Bill in 1990.  Thanks to the hard right shift of Republicans, Democrats (including Clinton) have generally moved more left, though I doubt very far left.  One could actually argue that the GOP’s rightist turn may ultimately keep Democrats in the center aiming to fill the vacuum left when moderates like Lincoln Chaffee abandoned their party.  The common truism that most Americans are in the center may be overly simplistic and overblown, but so too is any idea that they have substantively shifted to the left.  Any candidate in either party must win among so-called independents many of whom pride themselves in not being too ideological.

I saw a photo of an enthusiastic group of young people cheering at a Sanders rally.  I’m not surprised since, just at in 2008, they hunger for something new.  Understanding that, one of Mark Rubio’s major arguments is that Hillary (and by extension Jeb!) represent yesterday not tomorrow.  Leaving aside his overall message, I think he touches on one of her challenges and perceived weaknesses.  But moving beyond a rally of cheering young people or even a series of them, does Bernie Sanders really represent tomorrow in a time where optics are so very important.  More pointedly, if you really want the next president to enter office at age 75, wouldn’t you rather have someone with the national experience of a Joe Biden at 73?  I would.  Just as it will be difficult for a multi-millionaire and friend of the super rich to argue the income inequality case, so too will it be difficult for Bernie Sanders to argue the “tomorrow not yesterday” case.

We’re told that the Clinton campaign is taking the Sanders candidacy seriously and they should.  He may gain some traction in Iowa and in his neighboring state of New Hampshire.  I welcome any influence he might have on pushing her further from the center.  Nevertheless, risking making a forward prediction (always precarious) and admitting that I may be totally wrong, my sense is that there is a good chance she will dispatch his candidacy early and often.  Would that be the case had Elizabeth Warren decided to run?  Perhaps, but she would have been a much stronger contender.

Bernie Sanders is an excellent human being and senator.  The senate and we are better for having him in the room, but I suspect also only marginally so.  He is getting a fair amount of attention, as he should.  Some of it I fear is because the press desperately wants to attract eyeballs and, as such, seeks to invent a hot contest even if one hardly exists.  Is that too harsh, not on the press but on Bernie’s effort?  Well, I didn’t mean it that way, but perhaps it reflects my frustration that we still seem to have but one viable option, as Frank Rich has put it, “no Plan B”.  Bernie Sanders candidacy hasn’t changed that at all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Church/State again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.   The First Amendment

It’s highly significant that the Establishment Clause launches the very first amendment to our Constitution.  While most of the Founders believed in God and were personally affiliated they wanted it clearly understood that the United States is not a “religious country” — it has no state religion.  So, contrary to the claims of some of today’s conservatives, this is not a Christian nation and never was.  The founders may have been overwhelmingly Christian, but they separated their personal affiliations from the secular state.  To use a contemporary analogy, that founder Mark Zukerberg is Jewish does not make Facebook a Jewish company.

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson reaffirmed their intention by pointing to a “wall of separation between church and state”.  Ever since, that wall has been the source of ongoing contention, challenge and often-purposeful distortion.  Indeed, over the years defining what Jefferson meant by “a wall” has repeatedly been to sail murky waters — is it solid, does it have doors or it is made entirely out of cheesecloth?  How we respond, is often governed by who we are and what we might believe — what we’d like it to mean.  So it’s unsurprising that the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage decision was met with talk of religious freedom and, by extension, church/state separation.

While a recent CNN/ORC poll suggests 63% of Americans overall (73% under 50) favor marriage equality, about one third still oppose it.  Many of those opponents are unlikely to change their view.  That’s because it reflects their strong held religious beliefs rather than any opposition to institutional change per se.  They see marriage between a man and woman as dictated by God, not subject to amendment.  That opposition cuts across faiths coming mostly from the more orthodox or fundamentalist side whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.  Regardless of what next steps they take to thwart the decision may be, their challenges are are likely to be based on religious arguments, ones that question, if not the Establishment Clause, then certainly its interpretation.  For many on the right, the Court has crossed a divinely drawn line.

In this disturbingly early presidential election cycle, the decision is having an immediate political impact.  And it again divides the parties.  Polls suggest that a majority of Republicans at large, though in smaller numbers, support marriage equality.  Not so for the party’s hard core primary voting base.  This poses a huge problem/dilemma for the candidates, especially for the few who are modestly less hard right.  In the face of a primary where socially conservative voters loom large, most of the contenders, even the few who grudgingly accept the decision as final, publically lament it.  Several want a Constitutional Amendment that would cede authority to the states.  The chances of that happening are probably less than zero — we can’t seem to get even ordinary bills through the Congress.  But leaving aside the difficulty of amending our Federal Constitution, history is on the side the Court’s majority, especially for those under fifty who will be running things in the near future.

Tactically, resting their case on religious freedom is a natural argument.  After all who can be against religious freedom?  One of the most critical questions posed in that regard is who is required to issue a marriage license or to act as officiant at a same-sex wedding?  In this, those who want to distort church-state separation happily conflate the role of government officials with that of the clergy.  Of course, in signing marriage certificates, clergy do act as nominal in-the-moment state agents, but significantly they can’t initiate the license.  Their agent role ends at the “church” door.  The First Amendment protects clergy as religious functionaries.  In their “house”, religious practice and teachings prevail and supersede secular considerations.  Many rabbis, even liberal ones, will not officiate at a religiously mixed marriage and priests may not bless a remarriage of the divorced.   Whether, and if so how, similar religious freedom pertains to taxpayer employed clerks and magistrates carrying out their public chores may be the subject of future litigation.  It certainly is already being tested.

Justice Kennedy assumed as much and incorporated language relating to religious freedom in his opinion.  He wrote:
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered… The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

From the start, marriage equality opponents based their primary argument on religious grounds.  At another time that might, and likely would, have prevailed.  Today even the religious view is split with fundamentalists holding absolutist views on what they brand “traditional marriage” while a now majority supports change, a redefinition.  Liberal clergy have been among the first to support equality and to officiate over such unions.  Perhaps more important in the long run is that, despite claims to the contrary, religion and its influence on personal decisions is in decline, especially in the West.  That is likely to impact on future public policy.  The widely popular Pope Francis is visiting South America where his once overwhelmingly dominant church is facing the same empty pew problem that challenges all but a few churches here.  One third of American Millennials have left religion behind.

Back in the days of Ronald Reagan activist social conservatives emerged as a significant power on the American political scene.  Much of the homage to God and faith still heard in our public square can be attributed to that time, but much of it has now become merely lip service paid.  Certainly, many of the listeners and not only the young, hear it that way.  “God bless the United…” has become a pro-forma conclusion to presidential and other political speeches.  In the second decade of this century, the invocation of God or the attribution of public policy to divine-will just doesn’t fly the way it once did.  Assumptions are being challenged and questions are being asked.  Beyond the obvious civil rights issues at hand in the marriage decision, I’m sure the Justices were acutely aware of that shift.

And it is a shift that is posing a real challenge to the Republican hopefuls.  Without exception, they seem behind the curve, unaware of that bending “arc” to which Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to point.   They find themselves on the wrong side of the marriage issue in and of itself but also because “it’s the traditional way” is tied to religion.  The fact is that even among those identify as religious, many and probably the majority, say, “opposition to marriage equality is not my religion, not my belief”.  In what seems like an act of desperation, a few on the right now suggest Christianity and Christians are being persecuted.  Most of us know, nothing could be more patently absurd.  And marriage is their only problem.  The ACA, a now seemingly settled issue, continues to be in their crosshairs.  That’s a losing proposition because history tells us that Americans are loath to give up benefits (or even potential benefits). Once experienced, they quickly transform themselves into a birthright — think Medicare.  Finally, there is The Donald and his nativist comments about Mexicans.  Even the few candidates like Jeb! and Mike Huckabee who criticized them, did so days after the fact.  Most of the others remain silent; some support if not the words, then the sentiment.  Hostility toward immigration reform, close to the heart of Latinos (who are now a majority in California), will not be a plus for the GOP.

It may be that today’s huge class of GOP candidates just aren’t seasoned enough.  Few have played on the national stage of presidential politics.  But in running for president, lack of experience is not easily excused.   The eventual nominee will have to explain both their primary rhetoric and silences along with the positions they espouse when they move on to the general election.  In the era of social media and fact checking the luxury of amnesia is something of the past.  The marriage equality decision, among the most liberal of the Roberts years, reflected where the country is headed.  That probably cannot be said for most of the Roberts Court’s decade long conservative decisions.  The Court won’t be on the ballot, but its future and ours will certainly be a stake in November 2016.  Republicans have much explaining to do.  Among the issues at hand will be how we all perceive religious liberty and the separation of church and state in a changing landscape.