Where we go from here

We’ve endured the Democratic and Republican parties’ conventions, which spit out the nominees for president that we’ve been expecting for many many weeks.  What are we faced with, looking at the 100 days left before the general election?

Donald Trump is not well known, perhaps in his inconsistencies unknowable, but what he has shown us, or what we’ve been able to learn despite him, troubles many people–including some leaders of the Republican Party, who even now refuse to endorse him.  Hillary Clinton is not an unknown, and what we know isn’t especially inspiring. She is not well liked by many Democrats and has been demonized for so long by her enemies on the right that it’s hard to imagine her being able to work with Republicans in Congress and get much done.

Ezra Klein on Vox.com makes the case that we have a choice between normal and not normal.  It seems to me that, given today’s dysfunctional dynamic between Republicans and Democrats, making a “not normal” choice could be a good thing, and I guess many of those who support Trump feel the same way.  But let’s agree that while something better than what we have would be welcomed, simply being different doesn’t automatically make a thing better.  A Trump presidency would not be better.  Not by a long shot.

The Washington Post calls Trump “a unique threat to American democracy”:

He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions. Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.

Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril.

Frank Bruni in The New York Times finds that Trump’s simple patriotism “doesn’t add up.”:

But there’s nothing simple about a patriotism that allows someone to brag, as Trump has done, about paying as little in taxes as he can possibly get away with, and that permits him to flout an important political tradition of candidates’ releasing their tax returns.

There’s nothing simple about a patriotism that advocates torture, as Trump has also done, when our conduct in waging war is ideally what sets us apart from less principled countries and earns us the respect of the world.

And there’s nothing simple about a patriotism that’s really an amalgam of nativism, racism, isolationism and xenophobia and that denies this country’s distinction as a land of fresh starts, its arms open to a diverse world.

The specter of Trump was enough for Mr. Republican, George Will, to decide to terminate his membership in the Republican Party, for former GOP congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to urge Republican candidates to keep their distance from the top of the ticket, and for Republican political pro Mark Salter to deliver a clear and concise list of reasons why Republicans with any sense of integrity or shame should avoid him, including:

He’s an ignoramus whose knowledge of public issues is more superficial than an occasional newspaper reader’s. He casts his intellectual laziness as a choice, a deliberate avoidance of expert views that might contaminate his ill-informed opinions.

(snip)

He’s a charlatan, preposterously posing as a business genius while cheating investors, subcontractors, and his own customers. He’s rich because his father left him a great deal of money. He couldn’t turn a profit with a casino, for crying out loud.

(snip)

He possesses the emotional maturity of a 6-year-old. He can’t let go of any slight, real or imagined, from taunts about the length of his fingers to skepticism about his portfolio.

(snip)

He doesn’t appeal to a single honorable quality or instinct in our society. He exploits fear and incites hatred. They are the emotions that impel him. He wants us to make our way in the world as he does: selfish, insecure, angry, scapegoating, small.

Do we want change for the better?  Sure we do.  But do we want to change to someone who is radically outside of the norms of political activity as we’ve known it, and as it’s developed in this country over hundreds of years?  If this is the available choice, I don’t think so, and I’m not alone.  Today Houston’s Leading Information Source joined the group of publications that are already endorsing Clinton because Trump is so damn terrible!

An election between the Democrat Clinton and, let’s say, the Republican Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio, even the hyper-ideological Ted Cruz, would spark a much-needed debate about the role of government and the nation’s future, about each candidate’s experience and abilities. But those Republican hopefuls have been vanquished. To choose the candidate who defeated them – fairly and decisively, we should point out – is to repudiate the most basic notions of competence and capability.

Any one of Trump’s less-than-sterling qualities – his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance – is enough to be disqualifying. His convention-speech comment, “I alone can fix it,” should make every American shudder. He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.

After more than a year of campaigning–a hell of a slog for us voters to endure, if you ask me–this campaign still has more than three months to go, and there’s a danger that we may become inured to the outrageousness of Trump’s actions and words.  Let me warn again: please, do not let the craziness of Trumpism become normal; don’t let yourself come to believe that what he’s doing and saying isn’t so bad because we’ve been hearing it for so long.  They are far from normal, and we need to still be able to see that when election day finally gets here.

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Fight the normalization of Trumpism

A year ago the Republican establishment felt pretty good about its prospects, crowed about the outstanding group of people who were running for president, and acted confident about the party’s chances of winning back control of the executive branch of the national government.  Today we see party leaders trudge to the microphone with all the cheer of a condemned man on the way to the gallows to endorse He Who Has All But Won the Party’s Presidential Nomination, while a growing Greek chorus is warming up a “not so fast” refrain for an electorate faced with two bad choices.

Stepping out from the chorus today, in National Review, Charles Murray issues an important challenge to what he calls the conservative establishment: go on the record—now; right now—with your view of Donald Trump.  It’s not good enough for Republicans or conservatives to shrug their shoulders and side with Trump because they disagree with Hillary Clinton on the issues and think she’d make a worse, or much worse, president, he argues.  Although voters often have to pick from among two or more bad choices, Murray calls on those who make politics their livelihood to assess Trump as a candidate for president without comparing him to the presumed Democratic nominee or any other particular candidate.  Tell us, does the man meet your standards as a potential president; what’s your real opinion.

Murray answers his own challenge: “Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history.”  OK.  It is not, he says, just that Trump is greedy and venal and narcissistic, or even that he’s a liar…anyone could miss a few facts:

Then it gets a little more important, as when [Trump] says Paul Ryan called to congratulate him after his victory in the New York primary, announcing a significant political event that in fact did not happen. Then the fictions touch on facts about policy. No, Wisconsin does not have an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, nor does the federal government impose Common Core standards on the states — to take just two examples plucked at random from among his continual misrepresentations of reality. That he deals so heedlessly in those misrepresentations makes it impossible for an opponent to conduct an authentic policy debate with him.

It’s one thing when a candidate knowingly deceives the public on a few specific topics. Hillary Clinton has knowingly tried to deceive the public about her flip-flop on gay marriage and her misuse of her e-mail server. That’s bad. It should be condemned. This aspect of her character should affect one’s deliberations about whether to vote for her. It’s another thing entirely when a candidate blithely rejects Pat Moynihan’s (attributed) dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

Murray links to other writers who have made their own contributions to the growing collection of reasons why Trump is unfit, and it turns out they are some of the very same pieces I’ve been saving for future reference: Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, among others.  They have identified aspects of the candidate’s character that should make any reasonable person nervous at the prospect of a President Trump: the bullying, the unreconstructed pandering to voter fear and racial prejudice, the threats against journalists who dare ask pointed questions, the unrealistic view of the modern world and America’s place in it.

I am told that it is unfair to speak in such harsh terms of a person I don’t know personally: Look how nice his kids seem to be. Look at all his friends who say that he’s really a pleasant fellow in private. Sorry. I don’t need any secondary sources. Donald Trump makes the case for David Brooks’s assessment in every public appearance. When a man deliberately inflames the antagonism of one American ethnic group toward another, takes pleasure in labeling people “losers,” and openly promises to use the powers of the presidency to punish people who get in his way, there is nothing that person can do or say in private that should alter my opinion of whether he is fit to be the president of the United States.

I know that I am unlikely to persuade any of my fellow Establishmentarians to change their minds. But I cannot end without urging you to resist that sin to which people with high IQs (which most of you have) are unusually prone: Using your intellectual powers to convince yourself of something despite the evidence plainly before you. Just watch and listen to the man. Don’t concoct elaborate rationalizations. Just watch and listen. [emphasis added]

That’s important.  His ability to (apparently) win the nomination of one of the two major political parties for president of our country, as stunning as it is, shouldn’t be our excuse to relax and think, well, if the GOP thinks he’s fine then I guess he must be; I must’ve misunderstood some of what he said (or the media reported it wrong!).  It will be tough to do, but don’t let the sheer lunacy of what he says wear off—don’t just get used to the outrageousness and let it become normal, become just another opinion.

And, one more thing from Murray:

…contemplate this fact about history: We have had presidents whose competence once in office was better than we could have anticipated. Truman, for example. We have had presidents whose characters were subsequently revealed to be worse than they had seemed during the campaign. Kennedy, for example. We have never had a president whose character proved to be more admirable once he was in office than it had appeared during the campaign. What you see on your television screen every day from Donald Trump the candidate is the best that you can expect from Donald Trump the president. “Hillary is even worse” doesn’t cut it.

At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left

This has been swirling around in the vast empty expanses of the inside of my head for a few weeks now; it comes up again whenever I hear another story about members of Congress not doing one of their basic jobs, providing for the smooth operation of our federal government.

The House and Senate are supposed to pass a budget to fund operations of the federal government, but they haven’t done so in years.  They’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, which essentially renew the previous spending plan for government departments.  Today is the last day of the federal government’s fiscal year, the day the previous budget plans expire.  You’d think Congress would take care of that, right?  In fairness, most members of Congress want to pass new spending legislation, but they’re being stymied by extremist Republican/Tea Party members who are still fighting the fight over the Affordable Care Act.  Obamacare.

The president’s signature piece of legislation overhauling the way we provide and pay for health care insurance in this country was approved by Congress after a terrific fight; the law has since been found by the Supreme Court of the United States to be constitutional.  Like a lot of laws, this one doesn’t enjoy the full support of everyone in the country, but it did win support of a majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and that’s what it needs to become the law of the land.  It’s a big victory for President Obama, maybe his biggest.

So, why…why, why why, in the wide wide world of sports, do the extremist Republicans think they can convince the president to just give it up?  Because that’s’ what they’re doing right now.

It is Congress’ responsibility to pass the spending legislation, no one else can do it for them; but the extremist Republicans in the House (to this point) will only pass a spending plan that specifically cuts out funding for the new health care insurance law.  Surprise, surprise: the Democrats in the Senate refuse to accept that, and they pass legislation that funds Obamacare and send it back to the House.  Stalemate.

So the extremist Republicans offer a compromise, promising to pass a bill to fund the government if the president and the Senate will agree to delay implementation of the ACA.  And I ask, again: why the hell would they agree to that?

I get it, extremist conservatives don’t like the new law.  Why they’re so vehemently opposed to it is not the point right now; the point, I believe, is that it’s insane for them to think that threatening to hold their breathes until they turn collectively blue is a viable strategy to either force or persuade their political opponents to hand over the marbles they won fair and square.

In a negotiation, in an attempt to come to a compromise solution, one side offers the other something it wants in return for a concession, and they trade offers back and forth until they (hopefully) come to an agreement.  Here, the extremist Republicans aren’t offering the other side something it wants in an effort to come to an agreement…in fact, the thing the other side wants in this case—a new spending plan—is something the Congress is bound by law to provide, no negotiation required.  Instead, the extremist Republicans are threatening to take action (or more accurately for this case, inaction) that will hurt EVERYBODY if they don’t get their way.

I ran across a very interesting short blog post by James Fallows at The Atlantic this morning, in which he distills important points that I think we should all keep in mind as we consider the on-going dysfunction in our government and our politics in the last generation or so: the only fight that really matters today is the one within the Republican Party, and that we are cruelly disserved by any alleged “journalism“ that doesn’t see that and report it plainly.

…the fight that matters is within the Republican party, and that fight is over whether compromise itself is legitimate.** Outsiders to this struggle — the president and his administration, Democratic legislators as a group, voters or “opinion leaders” outside the generally safe districts that elected the new House majority — have essentially no leverage over the outcome. I can’t recall any situation like this in my own experience, and the only even-approximate historic parallel (with obvious differences) is the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward. Nor is there a conceivable “compromise” the Democrats could offer that would placate the other side.

(snip)

This isn’t “gridlock.” It is a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions, with results that unfortunately can harm all the rest of us — and, should there be a debt default, could harm the rest of the world too.

Check out his post for links to some of the journalists Fallows believes are reporting the real heart of the problem…I plan to do that tomorrow if the furlough begins and I find myself with extra time on my hands.

It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to praise Congress for doing its job

The Senate took action first, agreeing on spending authorizations to keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year; the House did the same the next day. Thing is, they both did what needed to be done more than a week before the drop-dead-line that would have seen the government start to shut down for lack of operating funds. How uncharacteristic of them.

In the past few years the American Congress has never missed an opportunity to run right up to the brink of any fiscal catastrophe; like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, it safely came to a screeching standstill in a cloud of dust just on the edge of the abyss (beep beep). To what do we owe this unusual display of fiscal responsibility? I don’t know, but I’d like to order another round.

It had become too easy and too predictable for the thousands and thousands of voices online and on air and in print to chastise House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, for failing/refusing to take care of business. I’d begun to think it was ultimately ineffective as well, but maybe–just maybe–there was still some shard of humanness left deep inside our elected representatives that was tired of being ridiculed and abused, that knew that the voices raised in criticism had a point. It’s not that I’m pleased with the details of the budget the government will operate under for the next six months, but that I’m pleased “the government” got off of its ass and made a decision with something less than the usual quotient of bluster and drama…the “sound and fury” that, as is often the case in our politics, signifies nothing.

So, good on ’em for what they done (there, I said it; are you happy?). And fine, let them go ahead and propose future budgets, have debates and secret meetings and public hearings and horse-trading and try to persuade us all of the virtue of their ideas; that’s the way we’re supposed to try to come to a consensus on public issues. Just because I don’t have the heart or the stomach for this circus right now doesn’t mean the rest of you should miss out on the fun.

The only “real” reality show is just too depressing to watch

Americans today “are turned off and tuned out of the sequestration mess in Washington. To a person, they are sick of the antics of those to whom they have entrusted enormous power.”  So begins David Gergen in his column today, and I can’t find anything in his argument with which to disagree.

The clowns we elected to represent us in Washington—and in many many cases, re-elected…shame on us—have failed to take care of one of the most fundamental things we send them to Washington to do: set a budget for the operation of our government.  Actually, as Gergen correctly notes, they have failed to do that one thing for four years running—so far.  Back in the summer of 2011 they set a trap to force themselves to act, promising across the board budget cuts at the end of 2012 at such a severe level that it was inconceivable they wouldn’t act to stop them from going into effect; when they still couldn’t beat that deadline they passed a law giving themselves two more months to wrap it up.  Well, here we are, two months later, but this time there doesn’t even seem to be the possibility that they can get together to give themselves more time.  The ineptitude is astounding!

It’s not unusual to have the legislative and executive branches of government  disagree about taxes or spending or any other policy issue; historically, someone on one side or the other finds a way to force a resolution.  But as Gergen points out, “we have a rare moment when both Congress and the president are retreating from their responsibilities. It’s hard to recall a time when we were so leaderless.”  The Republicans and the Democrats, the president and Congress, everyone is busy running from microphone to microphone insisting that there’s nothing they can do about it.  And the whole argument has become so tiresome that even in the face of budget cuts that threaten basic services, things we can all pretty much agree that government should be taking care of, a lot of Americans are just yawning and looking the other way.  How many times can the boy cry “wolf” before the villagers ignore the call?

Let’s hope we haven’t thrown in the towel yet, because this sequestration circle jerk isn’t the end of the line: whether these cuts go into effect this Friday or not, there’s a potential government shutdown only four weeks down the road if there’s no agreement on new spending authorization.  If we don’t dig up some leadership somewhere, what’s been going around for the last few years is going to come around again and again and again.  No winners here, America, not if we aren’t willing to find a compromise that keeps the whole thing from crashing down on our heads.