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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The state of the political system

Almost time for the president’s State of the Union address—oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Not really.  I’m feeling that I should watch/listen to the speech just because I like to think that I’m a good citizen, but I don’t expect that what we’ll hear from the House chamber in a few hours will be very uplifting or much of a surprise.

But what if…what if Mr. Obama dropped all political pretense and told us what was really on his mind?  Ezra Klein imagines he might remind us that we’re in a slow but steady economic recovery, although wages need to catch up with inflation and we need to invest in infrastructure; and that although there’s a lot to do, he would predict “The really bad news is we’re not going to do any of it.”

And that’s because even if the state of the union is strong, the state of the political system that governs the country is weak. We have made it weak. You have made it weak. And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, you need to know there’s a problem here.

The hard thing I have to say to you tonight is that I was wrong. When I ran for president, I believed that the political system could be repaired by people of goodwill, who genuinely wanted to agree, to reach out, to compromise. I ran for president telling you that the problems in American politics could be fixed through elections. But the problems run deeper than the people serving in Washington at any given moment, and the way all of us in this room are elected is making them worse.

The refrain I hear all around the country is, “why can’t you guys just agree?” It’s the right question. Families balancing their books need to agree on how to spend their money. Businesses trying to make payroll need to agree on which investments to make, which workers to give raises, which costs to cut.

(snip)

In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.

The government isn’t a business either. It doesn’t work towards a single goal. It can’t judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn’t built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there’s someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn’t built to find agreement the way a family is, but it’s built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.

You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game.

(snip)

The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.

(snip)

If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.

(snip)

This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.

Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country’s strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.

And here’s the thing. We can’t change the game. Politics has no place for conscientious objectors, either. Only you can change the game. Only you can change the rules. But right now, you’re just punishing the players. In 2008, you elected me and my party. But Washington still didn’t work. So in 2010, you elected the Republicans. And then Washington worked even worse. So in 2012, you gave us Democrats another try. We disappointed you again. In the most recent election, you turned back towards the Republicans. And they’re going to disappoint you again. Because you can’t change the game by changing the players. You can only change the game by changing the rules.

The good news is we’ve changed the rules before. When this country was founded, people who looked like me didn’t even count as a full person. People who looked like Minority Leader Pelosi couldn’t vote. All those senators out in the audience, they were elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. Speaking of those senators, most of the states they’re representing today didn’t exist. Nor did the filibuster, for what it’s worth.

The genius of this country is that it has continuously reinvented itself to handle new challenges, new problems, and new opportunities. The most honest thing I can tell you tonight is that we need to do it again, that you need to do it again. We need a political system as strong as this union, and right now, we don’t have it.

God bless you, and God bless America.

#JeSuisCharlie

What happened in Paris this morning?  Well, for starters, it’s not about cartoons:

…this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.

What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count.

Read Ezra Klein’s essay.  And this one by Joe Randazzo, a former editor of The Onion.

If it turns out that members of Al Qaeda or some other radical “Islamic” sect carried out this attack, the saddest, most profoundly ironic thing about it will have been that the satire worked. It did its job. It so threatened its target, cut so deeply at the truth, that it resorted to the most cowardly, most offensive and despicable form of lashing out.

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

It’s about freedom—of speech and of religion.  Yes, I know that the people who committed the murders in Paris today probably aren’t Americans with an American’s sense of those freedoms—more the reason why people who do have an American’s sense of freedom should be spreading the message.

You don’t give Mrs. O’Leary a forum to bad-mouth the firefighters, or let Capt. Hazelwood criticize how they clean up the oil spill

So extreme that they even scare Al Qaeda?  OK, you’ve got my attention.

What the hell is The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and how is it able to take over major Iraqi cities apart from the luck of only encountering feeble resistance from American-trained Iraqi government forces?  I don’t know, and it’s a little unsettling to read and hear the stories of these religious extremists blowing through city after city summarily executing those who don’t worship properly—as Sunni Muslims—and setting up their own governing authority.  The Iraqi government has asked the U.S. for help and our government is thinking it over.

In the meantime, because news networks have lots and lots of air time to fill, the punditocracy has cranked into gear to do what it does best: blow hot air.  Well, that’s just fine, I suppose, but…why, why, why, in the wide wide world of sports are they asking the opinions of the men who got us into the quagmire of Iraq in the first place for their opinions on what President Obama should do now?

Sargent Iraq arson

Thanks Ben Sargent and GoComics.com

Want to read some more—try here and here and here and here and here.  But as one might imagine, some of the best remember-what-these-nutballs-said-and-did-and-what-happened-because-of-it recollection has come from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  (click the pic to see what I mean)

wrong about iraq

Hey, talk show bookers and assignment editors: think, just for a minute, before you make your next move.  Looking for a good summary of what happened way back when–here’s one.

The totality of the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq is stunning. It is not simply that they failed to build the liberal democracy they wanted. It’s that they ended up strengthening theocracies they feared.

And it’s not simply that they failed to find the weapons of mass destruction that they worried could one day be passed onto terrorists. It’s that a terrorist organization now controls a territory about the size of Belgium, raising the possibility that America’s invasion and occupation inadvertently trained the fighters and created the vacuum that will lead to al Qaeda’s successor organization.

And all this cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.

(UPDATE: Yes, I did change the headline once I realized the error…I figure it’s never too late to get it right–PR)

Upon further review, we’ve determined that the deal isn’t really much of a deal

Well, everything turned out just swell after all the drama over the debt ceiling debate, didn’t it?  I mean, so long as you don’t mind that:

–the sorry spectacle of the political fight led one rating agency to drop America’s debt rating a notch below AAA anyway: it doesn’t doubt that the U.S. can pay its debts, but feels the political stalemate raised questions about the government’s willingness to pay its debts, and so lowered the rating as a warning to investors;

–the deal doesn’t actually reduce the nation’s debt, it just lowers the rate at which it is rising; and

–taking the nation’s financial health hostage in a political negotiation was shown to be an effective tactic, so we can expect to see it used again in the future.

Among the lessons learned:

–the deal assumes the elimination of the so-called Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012, meaning Republicans gave up the very thing they fought so hard for a year ago.

Plucking flaccid compromise from obstinacy should not be mistaken for victory, just as the smell emanating from Washington after this deal shouldn’t be mistaken for success.

82% of Americans are unhappy (disgusted?) with the performance of Congress on the debt issue, nearly half are unhappy with the president’s handling of the situation, and 40% view the Tea Party unfavorably.

More than four out of five people surveyed said that the recent debt-ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than about doing what is best for the country. Nearly three-quarters said that the debate had harmed the image of the United States in the world.

–the political system in Washington, D.C. is becoming more and more unproductive, and may not be able to help us with anything.

The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama’s sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

More real fun is going to come later in the year when a new federal fiscal commission tries to come up with a plan to solve the federal government’s money problems.  If it’s anything like the most recent such commissions, it will find that cutting the budget just can’t produce enough savings to right the ship and it will also look for equitable ways to increase revenue.  It could start by checking this week’s local paper: Ezra Klein outlines a plan for Democrats to boost revenue by negotiating like Republicans, and Charles Krauthammer offers a very rational outline for reforming and simplifying taxes so our representatives in Washington could have a fresh starting point on the coming negotiations on tax rates and entitlement reforms…and they are coming.