Telework Journal: What we have learned

Whether out of productive curiosity or an early onset of ennui bureaucratique, the people leading teleconferences and remote-by-video meetings I’ve been on in the past week are kicking the responsibility for meeting content over to the crowd.  The most common kick-off lately, as we finished our first four weeks of special circumstances, has been the question, “what have you learned so far from teleworking” that could conceivably be of value to others.

If that’s value to others who are teleworking, I don’t have too much to offer besides “get a comfortable chair.”  I think my biggest problem with teleworking is figuring out a new routine for how and when things are to be done, and that routine is going to be particular to me.  Whatever I finally figure out for myself is unlikely to be of too much help to you…I’m kinda quirky in how I work, and I don’t want to visit that on you.

The great philosopher Lawrence P. Berra once noted (or probably, more than once), “You can observe a lot by just watching.”  What I’ve been watching in the past week seems to be something of a steadying of our reaction to this great disruption in our lives.  Not that Americans are happy about being asked to put their lives on hold and stay inside; I think we get why that’s necessary, and we’ve started to look to the next level and the one after that, to try to make sense of this whole situation.  It appears that what more and more people are coming to realize is that America’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak could have been so much better.  And to identify those responsible.

That the pandemic occurred is not [Donald] Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault. The loss of stockpiled respirators to breakage because the federal government let maintenance contracts lapse in 2018 is Trump’s fault. The failure to store sufficient protective medical gear in the national arsenal is Trump’s fault. That states are bidding against other states for equipment, paying many multiples of the precrisis price for ventilators, is Trump’s fault. Air travelers summoned home and forced to stand for hours in dense airport crowds alongside infected people? That was Trump’s fault too. Ten weeks of insisting that the coronavirus is a harmless flu that would miraculously go away on its own? Trump’s fault again. The refusal of red-state governors to act promptly, the failure to close Florida and Gulf Coast beaches until late March? That fault is more widely shared, but again, responsibility rests with Trump: He could have stopped it, and he did not.

The lying about the coronavirus by hosts on Fox News and conservative talk radio is Trump’s fault: They did it to protect him. The false hope of instant cures and nonexistent vaccines is Trump’s fault, because he told those lies to cover up his failure to act in time. The severity of the economic crisis is Trump’s fault; things would have been less bad if he had acted faster instead of sending out his chief economic adviser and his son Eric to assure Americans that the first stock-market dips were buying opportunities. The firing of a Navy captain for speaking truthfully about the virus’s threat to his crew? Trump’s fault. The fact that so many key government jobs were either empty or filled by mediocrities? Trump’s fault. The insertion of Trump’s arrogant and incompetent son-in-law as commander in chief of the national medical supply chain? Trump’s fault.

For three years, Trump has blathered and bluffed and bullied his way through an office for which he is utterly inadequate. But sooner or later, every president must face a supreme test, a test that cannot be evaded by blather and bluff and bullying. That test has overwhelmed Trump.

Trump failed. He is failing. He will continue to fail. And Americans are paying for his failures.

If you’re sitting at home trying to get smarter about how we got here—more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths from the disease than any other country in the world, still not enough testing capability to truly get a handle on how and where the virus is spreading so we can marshal our efforts to fight it more effectively, sending our first-line medical care providers into the fight without enough of the right weapons—David Frum’s article is a very good place to start.   David Remnick’s story in The New Yorker is another.

And here we are, playing a tragic game of catch-up against a virus that has killed thousands and left millions unemployed. At Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4th, he pledged, “My Administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” Three weeks later, Kayleigh McEnany, a loud promoter of birtherism and of Trump talking points during the 2016 campaign, cheerfully told the Fox Business audience, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful Presidency of President Obama?” Now McEnany is the President’s press secretary.

The coronavirus has inflicted a level of pain that is deep and global. And yet many nations, from South Korea to Germany, have done far better at responding to it than the United States has. The reasons for the American failing include a lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel. The Administration, from its start, has waged war on science and expertise and on what Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon called “the administrative state.” The results are all around us. Trump has made sure that a great nation is peculiarly vulnerable to a foreseeable public-health calamity.

Just how deeply and profoundly does Trump not get it?  His smug response to criticism that he’s not doing all he could is to point out that the TV ratings of the daily White House briefings—the ones he commandeered from his vice president after seeing that people were paying attention but not to him—are so very high.  Even a lot of Trump’s loyal defenders can’t sit still for that level off ignorance.

As for his insistence that the blame lies with the way things were left for him by the Obama Administration…

…or the hearty chestnut that the whole thing is a hoax:

What have we learned after four weeks of national semi-lockdown?  Doctors and nurses in a pandemic, and the people who keep their hospitals and offices running including the people who keep them supplied with the vital materials that make me better when I’m sick, are as brave or braver than anyone.  TV broadcasts that traffic in easy emotional manipulation and call it “news” should always be shunned.  Those who insist that human activity is not impacting global climate should have a quick look at the images taken from space that show dramatic changes on the planet—changes for the better—after just a few weeks of reduced driving and factory operations.  When working from home it takes longer to do things than it does when we’re at the office, at least until we figure out how to do things when we’re working from home.

And, we’ve done a sufficient job of coming to grips with a very necessary and dramatic change in our way of life, in a comparatively short period of just weeks, that we’re starting to be able to shift focus from our individual needs and see the bigger picture.  To assess the reasons why we are where we are.  To make rational choices about what we should do next.

It matters

Today the U.S. House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States.  Even though the chances are vanishingly small that the United States Senate will remove this president from office over these two articles of impeachment, that matters.

Read the Mueller Report.  Read the House Intelligence Committee report.  Read the House Judiciary Committee report.  Read the summaries of any of those documents.  Or just think about all the incredible stories of the goings on of the president ever since Donald Trump was sworn into office.  There is more than enough evidence for a clear-eyed observer to conclude that Trump has committed impeachable offenses…so many, and so blatantly, in fact, that to not impeach him would have been the grossest example of the House ignoring its responsibility to perform checks and balances of the Executive Branch.  Any president who had done what this one has done would deserve to be impeached, too, to be shamed and held up to the ridicule of history, and have the Senate vote to remove him or her from office for the good of the country.

But wait: the place is swarming with Republicans who say there is no proof that Trump did anything illegal, or even improper, or impeachable at all.  Many of them are actually screaming it, and then insisting Trump is the best president ever—not just better than Obama or Clinton or Bush (either one) but better than Washington or any of those other dudes.  It’s fascinating.

I get it that party loyalty is important, if you’re a member of a party, and I get that there are more members of Congress than I would like to admit who actually love what Trump is doing and won’t do anything to get in his way.  That includes so many who were seemingly appalled by Candidate Trump, who saw him as a threat to the country; now they have his back without question.

Why in the world are all these people so servile to Trump?  Why in the hell don’t these men and women, who in most other circumstances behave as though they are the highest expression of God’s own creation, act the part of members of Congress and assert their authority as a co-equal branch of the government?  They may be loyal to a president of their own party, or to the president of our country, but they don’t work for him and they aren’t there to do his bidding.  They may agree with the president’s policies and support his goals, but they have a responsibility to their constituents, and the Constitution, and to the rest of us, too, to be a restraint against a president who oversteps his bounds.  They have taken the art of deluding themselves to the zenith, and achieved a new nadir when it comes to supporting their party at any cost.  Hard to understand how they don’t see that their own reputations and honor and place in history are at risk, each and every one of them.

As troubling as it is…as confusing as it is…to see so many apparently intelligent and well-educated people publicly forsake the evidence of their own senses to support a president who has so clearly demonstrated his utter contempt for the rule of law and the oversight role of the Congress in American government, it’s even worse to see those among them who are abdicating their own part in this government, apparently without a fight.

The Constitution gives the House the responsibility to impeach a president or other government official, and the Senate the role of jury in a trial of the president presided over by the chief justice of the United States.  So how, in the name of all that’s right and moral and legal and American, can the man who leads the majority in the U.S. Senate say he will work with the White House counsel to arrange the details of the trial?  And do it like it’s no big deal?!  We know that the chances of the Senate convicting Trump are microscopic, but what are we supposed to think now about the fairness of this proceeding, or the honesty with which the senators will consider the evidence, when the jury foreman announced in advance that his team will work hand-in-hand with the defense lawyers?

If anything, Mitch McConnell should be coordinating trial details with the Democratic leader in the Senate.  On Monday came the news that Charles Schumer wrote to McConnell proposing a framework for the trial, including the names of a handful of witnesses who never testified to the House investigators, people he would like to hear from in the Senate trial.  McConnell dismissed the idea; he even said there would be no witnesses.  We can, and should, speculate about the reason for that stance; I think he’s worried that his members might not be able to countenance their support of Trump if they heard what Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton would say under oath.

Or is McConnell kidding himself when he thinks he’s going to be in charge? In Slate, Bruce Ackerman argues that the Senate can’t bar any witness, that it’s up to the House and the president—the prosecution and the defense—to decide those things.  And most importantly, that it will be the presiding judge—Chief Justice John Roberts—who will run the court.

Once John Roberts replaces Vice President Mike Pence as the Senate’s presiding officer, McConnell’s attempt to change the rules would generate a constitutional crisis. As I have noted, the rules explicitly give Roberts, and nobody else, the power to “direct all forms of the proceedings.” If McConnell tried to seize control, Roberts could refuse to allow the Senate to vote on his initiative, especially if McConnell proposed rule changes that were inconsistent with Roberts’ pledge “to do impartial justice.”

(snip)

The chief justice is a serious jurist, dedicated to sustaining the Supreme Court’s central position in our system of checks and balances. His impartial conduct of the trial is especially crucial in the aftermath of the blatant partisanship displayed by McConnell and the Senate during the confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh. With this episode vividly in the public mind, it is imperative for Roberts to demonstrate, by his actions, that he takes the Constitution seriously and is not merely serving as a pawn in McConnell’s scheme to guarantee an acquittal.

If the majority leader did make an effort to change the rules midstream, this would serve as Roberts’ moment of truth: Will he demonstrate to the tens of millions of viewers that he is determined to put the Constitution above bitter partisan conflict?

Given Roberts’ repeated efforts to sustain the court’s legitimacy in the past, there is every reason to expect him to stand his ground and refuse to allow McConnell’s motion to be considered on the floor. If McConnell continued to defy Roberts and insisted that his colleagues back him up, it seems highly unlikely that his fellow Republicans would provide him with the bare majority needed to provide appropriate window dressing for his attempted constitutional coup.

This week began with news that 750 historians believe Trump should be impeached, and that a Fox News poll found half the country thinks Trump should be impeached.  This poll also finds Trump would lose the popular vote in November to Biden, or Warren, or Sanders, or Buttigieg, or even Bloomberg.  But for me, the best part of that story was seeing the Fox & Friends contingent so thoroughly gobsmacked to have to learn that their own network’s poll had such bad news for their guy…it revealed at least a little of the subconscious understanding on their part that their company’s preferred role is pimping Trump rather than doing journalism.  Another interesting consideration was raised by Charles P. Pierce, who makes the case that the Republican Party is the only organization—anywhere—that has a chance to save the republic.

What if, I think to myself, what if the Republicans have a plan: what if they’ve lulled Trump in with their obsequiousness and shameless praise—the kind of stuff that Trump so clearly loves and encourages—and when it comes right down to a vote, what if they surprise the crap out of all of us and vote to remove him from office?  Can we rely on a sudden tsunami of personal conscience, or love of country, or just plain old fear for how they will be remembered by history, to save the day?  Maybe they will see just one too many examples of Trump’s childish temperament, like his unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi yesterday, and decide they’ve had enough.

They could just finally get fed up with the president’s obstruction of justice, and obstruction of Congress.  Of them.  No other president I can think of has ever so publicly dissed Congress, and thumbed his nose at the law, as has this one.  (On this point, Trump may accurately claim to be the best in history.)  Congress has a right to ask for, and receive, cooperation from the Executive Branch in its investigations.  Though there are exceptions for withholding some information—executive privilege—the people who get Congressional subpoenas have a duty to honor them.  Maybe they refuse to answer questions when they get there, but they have a duty to answer the call of the Congress.  In ordering the people in his administration not to do so, Trump effectively said to Congress: uh, f*** you losers, make me if you can.  And yet, most of the Republican members of Congress still stand up for him, rather than stand up to him.  Go figure.

Anyhow, the House vote to impeach Trump is important.  It matters that we have members of Congress who are standing up to the bully, reminding him and us that abiding by the rules and laws and traditions of this country is expected.  The oath those members took was to defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and they should be faithful to that promise.  And if Trump is not removed by the Senate, there are still options.  One is that the House could delay sending the impeachment to the Senate until senators agree to conduct a fair trial: this would keep McConnell from fixing the outcome of the trial while the House keeps the focus on Trump’s bad deeds, which could keep pressure on Republicans to abandon Trump as the Republicans of 1974 finally abandoned Richard Nixon.

Another option is pouring everything into defeating Trump at the polls in 2020.  This week a group of Republicans announced the Lincoln Project dedicated to defeating “Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.”  The organizers wrote about their effort in the New York Times, and didn’t sugarcoat the fact that Trump is not the only name they are targeting for defeat:

Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics. As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character.

That’s why we are announcing the Lincoln Project, an effort to highlight our country’s story and values, and its people’s sacrifices and obligations. This effort transcends partisanship and is dedicated to nothing less than preservation of the principles that so many have fought for, on battlefields far from home and within their own communities.

This effort asks all Americans of all places, creeds and ways of life to join in the seminal task of our generation: restoring to this nation leadership and governance that respects the rule of law, recognizes the dignity of all people and defends the Constitution and American values at home and abroad.

(snip)

…national Republicans have done far worse than simply march along to Mr. Trump’s beat. Their defense of him is imbued with an ugliness, a meanness and a willingness to attack and slander those who have shed blood for our country, who have dedicated their lives and careers to its defense and its security, and whose job is to preserve the nation’s status as a beacon of hope.

Congressional Republicans have embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption. Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced it with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.

(snip)

Mr. Trump and his fellow travelers daily undermine the proposition we as a people have a responsibility and an obligation to continually bend the arc of history toward justice. They mock our belief in America as something more meaningful than lines on a map.

(snip)

We look to [Abraham] Lincoln as our guide and inspiration. He understood the necessity of not just saving the Union, but also of knitting the nation back together spiritually as well as politically. But those wounds can be bound up only once the threat has been defeated. So, too, will our country have to knit itself back together after the scourge of Trumpism has been overcome.

A seemingly well organized effort, with some serious money already committed: Republicans out to convince other Republicans to fight Trump and those of their own party who enable him.  They expect that will mean Republican losses in the next election, but believe that to be preferable to another four years of Trumpism.  The polls indicate that most Americans agree, if not most Republicans.

I’ve never been prouder

It should be exquisitely clear to all of us by now that our president will never understand.  He thinks he was elected king of America, and that we owe him fealty.  We do not.  We owe respect to the office and to the person who holds it, when that person’s actions show he or she is deserving of that respect (just ask any of the Obama haters!), but we are allowed to disagree with the opinions and positions held or expressed by that person without fear of government retribution.  In fact, as free people we have a duty and responsibility to stand up for our rights, and for what’s right.

Most people understand that the athletes who have knelt or otherwise protested during the national anthem at their games have NOT been protesting the national anthem; they have chosen a high-visibility opportunity to express their opinion on other issues, and done so with the understanding that they could suffer adverse opinion of some of their fellow citizens, which many have.  But that’s the deal: the First Amendment gives each of us the right to speak our minds, and to react and respond to the opinions of others as we choose.  The government doesn’t have to like what we say, but it cannot take action to stop us from speaking our piece.

Most people understand this…not all.

So, from this…fertilizer…spread by the president this weekend–

…arose these blooms, among many:

https://twitter.com/Robert_K_Kraft/status/911940868944343040

Thank you, my fellow Americans, for speaking up.

Eyes open, moving ahead

To be an American and believe in the American system is to respect the outcome of elections, especially when your side loses or, in this case, when the side you especially fear and detest wins.  The right to vote does not come with a guarantee that the majority will make a good decision, but I believe we have to give the winners their chance.

Let’s start by giving the Donald Trump voters the benefit of the doubt, and assume that most of them are people with legitimate concerns about how our government has operated in recent years, who have worries about the dysfunctionality of our system that many of us share; that they are people who voted their conscience for a positive change.  You may feel, as I do, that they made a poor choice of candidate, but the truth is they won and they get their turn at bat.

Trump won the election fair and square; there was no rigging, or at least, none beyond the whole Electoral College thing for which we have the founders themselves to thank.  Congratulations, Mr. President-elect; I join with President Obama’s sentiment that “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”  To me, that means starting with whatever common ground we share and all working together to make changes we agree on; next, we discuss the issues where we do not agree, and work toward a resolution we can all stand behind.  I’m not saying that Trump deserves to be immune to criticism or opposition to his statements or actions, but that we judge him on his actions as president and president-elect; give him a chance in the new job.

He started on Thursday with a pretty low-key trip to Washington to start the transition of power, and I got the impression that he was a little in awe with the realization that this all is real.  Right after that he reminded us of his proclivity to a lack of restraint when it comes to any criticism.  In light of the large protests of his victory the past couple of days, the “real” Trump returned to Twitter Thursday evening:

Of course the best part of this is that the protests we’ve seen this week are exactly the thing Trump called for four years ago:

The totally unsurprising irony, though, is that Trump himself called for a march on Washington in the wake of President Obama’s 2012 win.

“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

He also tweeted, “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!”

Trump finished the full hypocrisy circle nine hours later (degree of difficulty, apparently: zero):

And it took four more hours after that before he tweeted a perfunctory Veteran’s Day message.  S.E. Cupp summarizes:

…in Trumpland, there are no consequences for rank hypocrisy. This is the total lack of self-consciousness that was once disturbing and now only merely amusing. Remember, Hillary Clinton would make a great President, he once said, until she deserved to go to jail.

The Republican primary was rigged, until he won it. FBI director James Comey was a Clinton hack, until he was very fair and professional. Trump would contest the election results, unless he won. It’s impossible to keep up with Trump’s in-the-moment justifications and hyperactive moral relativism.

But, we must try.  It’s our job as Americans to participate in our own governance; that includes working together for common goals and the general welfare, and calling bullshit on our leaders when it’s deserved, and Trump needs to learn that.  Religion scholar William Martin put it this way in Texas Monthly in 2007: “Whether in Mormons or Methodists, prophets or presidents, distaste for dissent and opposition to open inquiry are not admirable qualities and do not foster freedom.”

Oh, for a little straight talk now that spring is in the air

The political reaction to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the clearest evidence I’ve seen lately of the sclerotic thinking that passes for wisdom and strategy in American politics.  Not saying I’m surprised, mind you, just saying.

Don’t get me wrong: every vacancy on the Supreme Court of the the United States, ever, has been the occasion for political plotting and pontificating…that’s the nature of the beast.  Maybe there was more lip service paid in the past to observing “a decent interval” before going public, but we know that one reason the successful professional political players are successful is that they don’t let an opportunity to gain advantage go to waste.  In this case, Scalia’s body hadn’t made it home to Virginia before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to block anyone nominated by President Obama in the hope that a Republican wins the presidency this November.

Why?  Because “The American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice”?  Excuse me, Mr. Majority Leader and avowed Obstructionist-of-Obama-in-Chief, but that’s not the way it’s done and we all know it.

There isn’t—or shouldn’t be—any disagreement on the facts: the Constitution gives this president the responsibility to nominate a new justice in this case, not the next president; many of the same Republican senators now insisting that the process must be put on hold for the good of the nation had very different opinions when the question came up during the last few months of George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Yes, plenty of Democrats have more than a passing acquaintance with hypocrisy as a political tool, too, starting with Chuck Schumer on this same topic eight years ago; I’m sure some of you have more examples.)  Also true is that the Constitution gives responsibility to the Senate to approve or reject that nominee, with no timetable or deadline for doing so.

There’s no question that McConnell and the Republican majority have no legal requirement to approve President Obama’s nominee, or even to put the nomination to a vote.  They may make the political calculation that stonewalling for a year is the better path: bet on winning the White House and holding the Senate so they can have their pick of ultraconservative judges, versus running the risk of losing both and allowing the Democrats to choose another Douglas or Brennan (if one can be found).  I wish they would just say so, instead of going to the well for another round of the Obama Apocalypse that (inexplicably) plays so well with a certain portion of the electorate.  Andrew Prokop at Vox.com wrote them a first draft of such a speech:

Justice Scalia was a strong, solid conservative. And whoever Barack Obama nominates to replace him is certain to be well to his left — and will likely be very, very, very far to his left.

This would upset a balance of power in the Court that has existed for decades. Instead of a five-vote majority that is generally conservative, a Scalia replacement appointed by President Obama would allow a new majority bloc of five solid liberals to form. On issues affecting free enterprise, the sanctity of human life, and federal power, sweeping new liberal rulings could reshape law and precedent across America.

I believe this would be a disaster for the country. Most members of my party believe this would be a disaster for the country. And most of my party’s voters believe it would be a disaster for the country.

So I’m going to do my best to stop it from happening.

(snip)

…in suggesting that President Obama shouldn’t appoint any replacement for Scalia, and that he should just leave it to the next president, I am rhetorically going further than others have in the past.

But really I’ve just hit the fast-forward button. We would have ended up opposing whomever Obama nominated, because that person would, of course, have had liberal views. And my party’s senators would never have approved any other Obama Supreme Court nominee anyway, because they’re terrified of losing their seats in primaries.

So maybe my “no nominees in the final year” position hasn’t explicitly been taken by anyone before, but it hardly means the death of our constitutional democracy. The near-term upshot is that one Supreme Court seat stays vacant for a year. Some closely divided cases will effectively remain unresolved for a bit. Big deal.