It’s not all about Trump

…even if he thinks it is.  It’s not.  And I ran across an interesting column in today’s Washington Post which offers just six quotations as evidence that the weird-ass dysfunctionality of our politics, if not our society in general, is seen in more than just the batshit-crazy emanations from the Toddler in Chief.

He’s there on the list, of course, at #1, but not quite in the way I would have expected.  Writer James Hohmann turns to this week’s budget submission document from our “I’m all about business and will shrink the deficit and take care of the budget” president for the quote that shows there are still some adults standing watch in Washington who are trying to send a signal to the brainwashed (folks wearing red ball caps, to protect their very clean brains) about what this administration is doing to our economy:

“Even with high levels of economic growth, excessive deficits continue to threaten the Nation’s progress, and any unforeseen shocks to the economy could make deficits unsustainable,” it says. “If financial obligations continue to grow at the current pace, the Nation’s creditors may demand higher interest rates to compensate, potentially leading to lower private investment and a smaller capital stock, harming both American businesses and workers.”

It’s not that this budget submission is going to become law as is; Congress hardly ever passes the budget that any president proposes.  This one came from the man whose most significant achievement of his first year in office (just in under the wire) was to pass a giant tax cut that is already swelling the debt and the deficit.  I’ll admit that my federal income taxes were down for 2018 as compared to 2017 so I’m benefitting, at least in the short term.  I don’t know that any of us benefits in the long haul in an economy in which, as the White House itself warns, deficits are going to stay above a trillion dollars a year “for the foreseeable future” and that the national debt “will soon surpass a percent of GDP not seen since 1947.”  Hohmann notes, “The White House projects that the government will need to spend $482 billion on interest payments for the debt next year alone.  That’s more than the entire budget for Medicare.”  Good allocation of resources, Donnie.

Second quote, from the noted not-Trump hater Dick Cheney, who was talking tough with VP Pence about the administration’s foreign policy at a conservative function in Georgia last weekend:

“We’re getting into a situation when our friends and allies around the world that we depend upon are going to lack confidence in us. … I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”

I first thought the next thing to say here was to marvel that this Republican administration is frightening the previous Republican administration when it comes to dealing with our allies, but I decided that was wrong: it’s not fair to Republicans—the mass of good, not-crazy ones—to label Trump a Republican, and it’s no surprise that former diplomats and officials and the defense hierarchy disagree with Trump’s attitude of telling our allies to just shut up and be grateful we deign to be on their side.

Pence, unprepared for tough questions, mostly shrugged off Cheney’s concerns and praised Trump as a transformational leader. Reading the transcript shows what a total loyalist Pence has become to Trump. He staked out several positions that are at odds with the posture he took as a congressman and governor.

Moreover, the conversation between the two men who have held the No. 2 job underscored the deep fissures that remain inside the GOP over Trump’s foreign policy. It’s the same tension that led to Jim Mattis’s resignation in December as defense secretary after Trump abruptly announced the complete withdrawal of troops from Syria. The president eventually relented under pressure from hawks on the Hill. Some troops will stay.

Consider the other quotes: Nancy Pelosi thinks impeaching Trump is “not worth it” because it’s so divisive, Paul Ryan predicts Trump will lose in 202o if the race turns out to be “about Donald Trump and his personality,” Tucker Carlson doesn’t deny and doesn’t “bow to the mob—ever.  No matter what.” when he’s exposed for hateful comments made more than ten years ago (which should not to be confused with the hateful comments he makes on his Fox News Channel show these days with regularity).   They all offer us a chance to think, if we choose to.

Oh, wait, there was one more quote.  It was reported by people who were in attendance at a GOP fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, and was flatly not denied by the president’s press secretary:

“The Democrats hate Jewish people.”

Said Donald Trump.  No further discourse required.

Wait, you don’t suppose it really is all about Trump after all?  Do you?

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Turning mourning in America into the dawn of a better day

George Bush himself would not countenance that we grieve so long or loudly for him, just another citizen on the same journey as the rest of us.  But I sense he wouldn’t disagree with those who use the occasion of his death to grieve for the temporary loss of that which his life symbolized.  Leonard Pitts catches that well in his column in the Miami Herald today, in which he jumps off from Bush’s efforts to inspire with calls for a kinder, gentler country that could generate a thousand points of light

Presidents – and those who want to be president – have always sought to weave poetry from the prose of our daily lives, to ennoble our strivings and speak to what another Republican once called “the better angels of our nature.”

That’s what statesmen did once upon a time. But America has seldom seemed further from statesmanship – or from the vision Bush articulated – than it does now as the 41st president passes from the scene.

He died just days after the United States used teargas against asylum seekers, including children in diapers, after a handful of boys and men threw rocks at a border checkpoint in San Diego.

He was eulogized in Washington as lame duck Republican legislator[s] in Wisconsin brazenly strong-armed democracy and lifted a middle finger to the will of the people, voting to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.

He was memorialized in Texas as investigators in North Carolina probed an alleged scheme in which an operative working for a GOP candidate collected absentee ballots from voters in Democratic areas and diverted them from the ballot box.

These are the kinds of things that seem to happen every day in the thugocracy America has become. And that speaks to how thoroughly America rejected the vision of itself Bush offered 30 years ago.

(snip)

…the successes and failures of his public life have little to do with the very particular sense of loss some of us feel as the last president of the Greatest Generation takes his leave. There is always a sense of moment when a president dies. But the death of this president, this decent man, seems to close one of the few remaining doors between us and that time when presidents made poetry of our prose and you didn’t wake up every day to some new thugocratic outrage.

“Some have said this is an end of an era,” Bush’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Russell Jones Levenson, Jr., said during his eulogy in Washington. “But it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps this is an invitation to fill the void that has been left behind.”

No, it doesn’t have to be the end, and we don’t have to give up hope that the system Bush cherished and served will revive, and survive.

There’s other news today that I choose to take as a positive sign that the body politic’s natural antibodies are turning the tide in the on-going fight against the invaders: in court papers filed in the cases against Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, federal prosecutors reveal evidence of legal violations they claim were committed by Donald Trump.  And with hints of more to come.  As Democrats are poised to take control from Republicans in one house of Congress with the hope that they will fulfill the constitutional mandate of checks and balances that Paul Ryan’s House never did.

A thousand points of light are just the beginnings of a new dawn.

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.

First the good news, then the better news, then the bad news

The good news is this: Congress has reached a budget deal.  Yes, the U.S. Congress.  And not when facing a deadline.  America’s guests have done a thing that is rare in this day—their jobs.  Here are the details; I’m most enthused at the idea that enough members showed enough maturity and leadership to actually work out some agreement, one which means we and the world can go two years without having to fret about a government shutdown.

Now to the better news, which I would actually classify as a Christmas miracle if I were given to assuming that God takes sides in American politics (or sports): the mainstream Republican Party is showing signs of finally standing up to the conservative extremists.  Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first to publicly, honestly, express his exasperation with the tea partyish crowd that has pushed the GOP so far to the edge of American politics that they have to stand on each other’s shoulders a mile high in order to see the center.  He reportedly got even more “honest” in private:

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

The conservatives of course defended themselves, which is perfectly fine; I hope the center and the far right keep this back-and-forth going ad infinitum (we’re already well past ad nauseum).  For however long they fight with each other—and these things don’t last as long as you might wish them to—it keeps them from concentrating their fire outside the circle; maybe that keeps the extremists from winning more elections and coming into real power to remake America in their own frightening image.

One more politics thing: did you see who was cited by PolitiFact for the Lie of the Year?  Yep, our president.  Selected by a reader poll from among ten finalists, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” was chosen by 59%, the winner going away and embarassingly ahead of popular favorites like “Congress is exempt from the healthcare law” (Ted Cruz), “No U.S.-trained doctors will accept Obamacare” (Ann Coulter) and “Muslims are exempt from Obamacare” (chain email).  President Obama’s catchy little reassurance actually worked its way up over the years from “half true” to “pants on fire” and now Lie of the Year.  Congratulations, Mr. President, for finding a way to help the self-defeating conservatives survive the circular firing squad.

Just like a little love, campaign truth is hard to find

You hold your breath…you make a wish…and you’re disappointed when it doesn’t come true.  And then you remember that things don’t happen just because you wish them to.  Such is the case, not very surprisingly, with the level of discussion this week in the race for president.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan (no relation) as his running mate last Saturday was greeted as good news by some people positioned all along the political spectrum, from those tea party members and fiscal conservatives who love his budget plans to those more liberal folks who believed his serious interest in issues would spark a real debate.  How long did that last?

Until Tuesday.

If we can all agree that Joe Biden is to oratory what Spam is to steak, we can agree that his inelegant comment to a mixed-race audience in Virginia was not meant to invoke the specter of slavery.  Yet that was all Romney and Ryan had to say—that the Democrats were running a campaign of hate—even before that evening’s newscasts hit the air.  (I do give them credit, though, for how well they can operate with the threshold set so low on such a finely-tuned sense of outrage.)

Tuesday also featured some well-prepared interviewers catching Romney surrogates on their indefensible claim about Medicare cuts under Obamacare.  This piece on Mediate has all the links to both occasions: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien with John Sununu, and Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume with Ryan himself, as each of them tried to pass off the latest Republican mischaracterization (to be kind) of the impact to Medicare funding under the Affordable Care Act.  Just nailed them, which was amusing; watch the clips.  The partisan noisemakers can’t really slough this off with the standard allegation of liberal media bias—we’re talking BRIT HUME here!  If FOX NEWS was schooling your VP, you got to make allowances that just maybe CNN was playing it down the middle, too.

But the best thing I saw on Tuesday, from the perspective of trying to keep the facts straight, was an interview on Slate with the author of The New New Deal.  Journalist Michael Grunwald went looking for the truth about the impact of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in early 2009, designed to help get the country’s economy rolling again.  His conclusion: the stimulus bill worked.

Not that everything in it worked, or worked perfectly, not that there weren’t problems or some waste and fraud.  But mostly, the stimulus bill did what it was designed to do; it can be argued that the economy hasn’t done better because the stimulus was too small, although Obama could never have gotten Congress to go for more.

…the stimulus was supposed to create jobs at a time when jobs were vanishing at a terrifying rate. Nonpartisan economists agree that it helped stop the free fall; job losses peaked the month before it passed, and the economy dramatically improved once it kicked into gear. But even after the dramatic improvements, the unemployment rate was still sky-high and rising; an economy can do a lot better than losing 800,000 jobs a month without doing well. Ultimately, the stimulus was a 2.5 million-job solution to an 8 million-job problem.

To the extent that Obama’s opponents will argue that Grunwald’s story is biased, he replies:

I don’t think my book portrays the Republicans as “vicious,” but I do show—thanks to a lot of in-depth interviews with GOP sources—how they plotted to obstruct Obama before he even took office. I show how the stimulus was chock full of stuff they claimed to support until Jan. 20, 2009—not just things like health IT and the smart grid and energy efficiency and scientific research, but the very idea of Keynesian stimulus. Every presidential candidate in 2008 proposed a stimulus package, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. So I do spend a fair amount of time chronicling Republican stimulus hypocrisies. (Readers might enjoy the backstory of Sen. Judd Gregg’s short-lived nomination to be Obama’s commerce secretary.) In general, I’d have to say my reporting backs up the Norm Ornstein-Thomas Mann thesis that the Republicans have gone off the policy deep end—denying global warming, denying Keynesian economics (except when it comes to business tax cuts and defense spending!), trashing Obama’s government takeover of health care and also his Medicare cuts, drumming stimulus supporters like Crist and Specter out of the party.

Read the interview; the book is just coming out this week.  I want to hear this story—we should all want to hear this story, and other stories—from someone who hasn’t already sold out to one party or one candidate.

We’ve debated a bizarro-world stimulus that does not exist. And I think that’s true about Obama, too. I don’t think he comes across as “brilliant.” I think he comes across as a pragmatic left-of-center technocrat who wasn’t interested in pursuing lost causes, but basically tried to do what he said he would do during the campaign. He wasn’t a policy entrepreneur with new policy ideas, but he did his best to get 60 votes for old policy ideas that made sense, and then pushed his administration to put them into action as cleanly and competently as possible. And I did a lot of reporting in the bowels of the bureaucracy and around the country to show how change has been playing out.

I tried to tell the story as fairly and honestly as I could. But I didn’t try to be balanced for the sake of balance. When politicians were full of shit, I tried to point that out.

That’s what we need more of from reporters.  Dutifully transcribing the opinion of the spokeshuman from one party and then the opinion of the spokeshuman from a second party doesn’t get us the truth; what the political parties have to say is designed to benefit the parties, not to promote truth.