It Keeps Getting Worse

 

Admit it.  As horrible as the Trump Administration has been, you never really thought they would resort to separating children from their parents in a cynical ploy to …. Actually, what is it exactly that they are trying to accomplish?

There’s little to indicate that the new “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Session has anything to do with either national security or immigration policy.  What I hear in the defense of the “policy” and the rationalizations and excuses is that Trump and his fellow America Firsters are primarily concerned with keeping his political base in a state of frenzy.  He hasn’t been able to build a wall.  He has no chance in the world of getting Mexico to pay for it.  His Muslim ban keeps getting shot down by the courts because of the small inconvenience of abridging constitutional safeguards.  Trump has to show he is still their champion.

Administration supporters are all over the place in trying to justify what they are doing at the southern border of the United States. In some cases, they are just denying anything is happening there.  As an old friend used to be fond of saying, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Trump has blamed Democrats although it is his Administration interpreting an existing law differently than any previous administration has.  Numerous reports suggest he views the border arrests as a way to pressure members of Congress to fund his wall.  His Secretary of Homeland Security, Kristjen Nielsen, gave a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” press conference that may have been one of worst disasters since the sinking of the Titanic.

Back in the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson observed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  There are constant examples which Johnson would recognize from members of the Trump Administration.  NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem should “leave the country” according to Trump.  Democrats who refuse to support his idiotic wall are “jeopardizing national security”.

And now the Trump gang has updated Johnson.  The most recent refuge for heartless, cynical scoundrels is the Bible.  Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders used cherry-picked passages to support tearing children from their parents.  If they had read just a bit further, they might have found words that support keeping families together and treating others as you would hope they would treat you.  Just saying.

The right-wing media has done its best to support the president.  Tucker Carlson on Fox urged viewers not to trust any other news outlet, confident that his station would not show any footage that might make supporters uncomfortable with video of crying children.  Ann Coulter went even farther, dragging out what has become a conservative trope that the kids in the heartbreaking photos were really just “child actors.”

All  those responses were disgusting but predictable.  This really is the “Stepford Presidency.”  While some Republicans have at last criticized the President’s approach to dealing with immigrants seeking asylum–which, it’s worth noting, is not illegal–most of them have remained silent.

If you spend time on the pages of Facebook and other outposts of the Internet, you’ll also find Trump sycophants offering vigorous, unqualified support for the new border policy.  That their comments are often filled with factual inaccuracies doesn’t diminish the intensity of their views.  I assume many of them would assert a belief in “Christian values” or some equivalent, but how is it “Christian” to turn away the poor, the suffering?

There is, at the core of this disgusting episode, a second factor that explains much of the reaction.  The first, as I noted above, is a pure political calculation designed to appeal to a nativist political constituency.  In addition, and even more disturbing, the President and his supporters are able to duck any reference to family values or humanitarian concerns because those individuals seeking asylum in the United States are the wrong color.   Call it nativism if you wish, but it’s really more accurately described as racism.

We are at a low point in this country’s history.  There are so many other actions of the Trump presidency that deeply disturb me and are doing great damage to both public welfare and national security, but the decision to use young children as political pawns is beneath contempt.  If we really are better than that–a refrain you hear fairly often–we need to stop this abomination now.

 

 

After two devastating floods, questions that need answers

 

Whatever else happens during his tenure as Howard County Executive, Allan Kittleman may be most remembered for holding office when large portions of Historic Ellicott City were twice destroyed by raging flood waters.  Although he was Chief Executive at the time of the two floods, the blame certainly does not fall on him alone. There are many factors that contributed to the horrific damage and lots of responsibility to share over many years.

Kittleman does, however, face a particularly disturbing question that is his alone to answer: After the 2016 flood, did he do everything possible to prevent a repetition of the disaster?  He has been quoted as saying that the County had completed about one-third of the storm water remediation work from 2016 at the time that the latest downpour hit the system.  Kittleman also noted that two years is not a very long time in terms of major projects of this magnitude.

In political terms, which is the way we hold elected officials accountable for their actions and inactions, these judgments are not his to make.  I don’t know the answer to the question that I just posed, but I do know that it’s critical that it be asked and answered.  Absent a thorough and objective assessment, it’s going to be impossible to persuade people to invest their time, energy and money to rebuild Ellicott City.  And more broadly, trust in local government is going to be at jeopardy until there are answers.

Even before anyone looks closely at the response to the 2016 flood, Kittleman has to deal with a major issue of political optics.  As a candidate and as County Executive, he was one of many Republicans, including Governor Larry Hogan, who led the charge against a state-mandated storm water remediation fee.  Kittleman and Hogan ginned up opposition by referring to the fee as a “rain tax”, a bit of gleeful demagoguery that is going to be hard to explain away in the contemporary environment.

An honest look at the flooding would get rid of phrases like “natural disaster” or “1000 year flood.”  While it is true that Ellicott City has long been flood prone, it was always the result of waters  rising from the bottom of Main Street.  The 2016 and 2018 disasters all saw waters racing down Main Street and overwhelming the existing storm water infrastructure.

What was different these two times?  Republicans refuse to acknowledge climate change so let’s give them a temporary pass on that issue and focus on other factors.  It is clear, for example, that years of development that failed to take adequate account of the dramatic increase in impervious surface–that is, covering water absorbing ground with paved and built areas–contributed to the two floods.  Responsibility for decades of those decisions  certainly should be widely shared.

When the 2016 epic flood hit, it should have been clear that it would be less than 1000 years till the next big one.  One piece of the response should have been to prohibit any new development that would worsen the problem.  Was greater attention paid to development approvals after 2016?  Another question that needs to be answered.

Beyond that, however, the harder question is what was done to remediate a clearly continuing risk.   Smarter people than I can articulate options, whether a much larger storm drain coming down Main Street or storm water ponds to reduce the rush of water to the pipes or something else.   Would this flood have been prevented if the County had already finished the other two-thirds of the projects that Kittleman referenced?  And was there an adequate sense of urgency about the timetable for the work?

Some have questioned whether it even makes sense to rebuild where Historic Ellicott City sits today.  Given that  a significant portion of the root causes of the flooding seem to be man-made, we have to ask what can be done to make it an environment that is not so much at risk to flooding.

The response to the 2018 flood is going to require real leadership, not photo ops or press conferences.  Some have contended it’s too early to talk about such issues, but it’s hard to imagine a better time to talk about them.  A plan that creates long-term stability in Ellicott City may take longer to develop and implement and will surely cost more than some would like, but the costs of not taking that approach should be readily apparent to all.

The losses–financial, emotional, time and effort–of so many people who had worked so hard to rebuild Ellicott City are absolutely heart-breaking.  Public officials must be honest about the response to the 2016 flood and  make sure they get it right this time. They will have to be candid about costs and uncertainties and provide major financial support through the process.

Will Howard County leaders be up to the challenge?

 

 

 

Death and Taxes

As sure as we are that the sun will appear each morning, we are just as certain that the next mass shooting is coming soon.  And in what may be the perfect symmetry of irresponsibility, many of the very same people who have prevented a rational response to our public health crisis of gun violence are also leading the charge to undermine the sysyem of taxation that has provided the funds to make America great.  Irony intended.

The common thread through these two self-defeating approaches to important public policy issues is a narrow focus on self-interest and a rejection of any sense of the common good.  A proto-typical Second Amendment advocate argues some version of: “My God-given right to own and carry whatever weapon of deadly violence I choose is more important than any right you may assert.  As far as I’m concerned, the Second Amendment is the only section of the U.S. Constitution that matters.  And it is the only clause that should be seen as absolute without any limits or qualifications.”

A non-Muslim, non-foreign terrorist with a gun unleashed the most recent round of carnage in Santa Fe, Texas on Friday.  The same can be said about Parkland, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina and lots of other mass shootings.   The Texas assassin didn’t need to climb over or dig under a wall.  He didn’t need to take advantage of some loophole in the immigration sysyem.  All he needed to do—and it was incredibly easy—was to grab the guns that his father had purchased legally but had failed to secure in a safe place.  Shouldn’t people who are so careless with guns be criminally liable?

What is stupid, irresponsible and stunning is that we have a clear list of things we could do to reduce gun violence in this country if  only we had the courage to act.  There are no perfect solutions, no fail-safe remedies, but we sure could do better.  It is a national disgrace, though apparently not an embarrassment to Second Amendment absolutists, that we don’t.

The Republican Party in almost its entirety is a group of craven cowards.  They are petrified by the fear of the NRA’s supposed political might and indebted to its campaign contributions.  Since rational discourse is totally ineffective, the only appropriate response is to vote as many of them out of office as possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump can’t even muster an ounce of genuine sympathy for the victims of gun violence.  He moves onto the next subject so quickly that you’re not even sure he has uttered pious words about “thoughts and prayers” for the families.  Trump deserves the same fate as the congressional members of what once was a party of honorable and decent people.

Trump is trying to destroy American government as if it was an alien being. If you’ve haven’t read it yet, take a look at Evan Osnos’ recent article in The New Yorker, “Only the Best People.”  He describes in chilling detail how Trump is dismantling one agency after another and driving loyal American civil servants away.   Similarly, his executive order attacking Planned Parenthood and his rejection of scientific research about climate change are at their base efforts to prevent people from speaking the truth.

Trump’s attack on the role of government builds on the foundation of those who have been arguing for years about the evils of taxation.  Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said a century ago that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.  Government funds allowed us to build the massive infrastructure that has been the literal backbone of the country as well as the catalyst for much of our economic growth.  Do you remember the debate during the 2012 presidential campaign about whether captains of industry built their fortunes entirely on their own?  Barack Obama was correct then and he still is that it requires a partnership.

Much of the anti-tax movement is about greed, pure and simple.  And it’s been working incredibly effectively, as the increased concentration of wealth at the very top vividly demonstrates.  But accumulation of riches by the 1% apparently hasn’t been enough as the unseemly rush to enact another Republican tax law earlier this year attests.

Meanwhile, basic services of government at the state and local levels are stretched to the breaking point—decaying infrastructure, out-of-date school textbooks, potholes that go unrepaired.  Federal officials, citing inadequate revenues—the direct consequence of tax cuts—increase the rent of people in public housing, hollow out the State Department, drive up the cost of health insurance even as many lose their coverage and talk ominously of needing to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to “balance the budget.”

The ugly truth is that the American social contract is unraveling before our eyes. Even though we can’t yet see the full extent of the damage being done by Trump and his co-conspirators,  “We the People” is turning into Us and Them.  A refusal to tax ourselves for the things that will make us a better country and will enable everyone to have a share, if only a small one, is both a cause and a symptom.  The unwillingness to enact obvious remedies to the epidemic of gun violence that every other civilized nation in the world has seen as unacceptable is the other bookend of our malaise.

Those aren’t our only serious problems and, in fact, should be easier to deal with than some of  our other challenges such as race relations.  As one of the songs in the hit musical “Hamilton” puts it, “Oceans rise, Empires fall.”  That about says it all.

Sights and Sounds from a Funeral

“We shouldn’t be here.” “This shouldn’t be happening.” That  message was voiced by all the speakers at the funeral last Friday for Kevin Kamenetz.  It had to be the thought going through the mind of everyone at the service as well.

Kamenetz, the Baltimore County Executive and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, died suddenly at age 60 the day before.  I’m sure that all the people who received the early morning news of his passing couldn’t quite comprehend it.  There must be a mistake.  That can’t possibly be.

Yet, by the day after his death, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was packed with mourners who rearranged their schedules without a second’s hesitation.  Despite his relatively young age, Kamenetz had been on the political scene in Baltimore County for decades, first as a member of the County Council, then as Executive, and more recently as an aspiring statewide figure.  That record certainly contributed to the overflow crowd.

Family and friends.  County employees.  Other elected officials.  Lots of officials.  People there to pay their respects who may never have met Kamenetz in person.   All of them in a state of shock.

The service itself was direct and  unadorned, much as some would have described the County Executive.  Only one elected official, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, spoke.  That was a well-advised decision for at least two reasons.  First, Cardin was eloquent, personal and appropriate.  His remarks were never about himself, but focused exclusively on paying tribute.

But second, if there had been more speakers than the one who nobody could have disputed, the list would have been endless.  The reality is that funerals for public figures are, in part, political events as well.  Some people show up to be seen regardless of what sort of relationship they had with the deceased.  Just as John McCain has made it clear that he doesn’t want Donald Trump speaking at his funeral, you might well surmise that if Kamenetz had had the choice, he might have placed some of the attendees from Friday way back in the balcony.

Still, most of the political figures had  good reason to be there.  It was, in part, a gathering of Maryland’s governmental leadership, a coming together that Kevin Kamenetz would surely have appreciated.  The four current and former U.S. Senators present have among them nearly three-quarters of a century of service in that august body.

I counted five former Baltimore County Executives in the crowd going all the way back to 1974.  That group was uniquely qualified to understand the challenges and stresses that Kamenetz had faced in office.

The speakers, however, devoted most of their remarks not to his public life but to his qualities as an ordinary person. They recounted his humor, his passion, his love for his family.  His wife, Jill; his oldest son, Carter; two long-time friends.  Jill’s comments demonstrated an incredible bravery in being willing to speak publicly the day after Kevin’s death.  They also reflected a pain that felt almost too personal to be shared.

There has been constant media coverage of Kamenetz’ death as well as of the funeral.  I was only able to see some of the people there and some of what transpired during the afternoon service.  There were a few things that caught my attention beyond the profound sadness of being there.

Senator Cardin in his remarks repeated a story that Kamenetz had told a lot of people.  I know that because he told it to me.  As a very young man, he had been a driver for the legendary former mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, and credited his career in public service at least in part to that experience.  One manifestation of the link with Schaefer was that Kamenetz was always a supporter of regional cooperation and of assistance to the City.

When I looked around the room on Friday, I was struck by how many lives and careers had intersected with Governor Schaefer’s.  There was Ted Venetoulis, former County Executive, who had been deeply involved in Schaefer’s first campaign for mayor.  There was U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who worked in the Washington office when Schaefer was governor.  There was former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, whose first term on the Baltimore City Council coincided with Schaefer’s first term as Mayor.  And I’ve scarcely begun.

While we were waiting for the service to begin, Ben Jealous, one of Kamenetz’ rivals for the Democratic nomination, sat down in the row in front of us.  I couldn’t see everyone in the room, but I have it from a reliable source that other candidates were also there.

I want to end with one more sighting.  Don Mohler, chief of staff to Kamenetz for his entire time as County Executive, was serving as a kind of unofficial greeter for all the elected officials who filed in.  Given his closeness to Kamenetz, I know that he was carrying out those duties despite being numb and still in a state of shock.  The loyalty and dedication of so many people like Don Mohler is one more proof of the warmth and leadership qualities that Kevin Kamenetz brought to public service which will be so sorely missed.

 

Is there a new “normal” in politics?

 

Critics of Donald Trump frequently react to some particularly outrageous behavior by describing it as “not normal.” Constant lying. Personal insults to political opponents. Tweeting as his primary means of communicating. Spewing racist comments. Governing by sudden, inconsistent pronouncement. And the list goes on.

At a more analytical level, it has been argued that Trump is defying long-held political norms which have reinforced the institutions that preserve democracy. The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asserts that this undermining of political norms is a most serious threat to the stability of our political system.

The authors of “How Democracies Die” point to two norms as historically having been critical: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.  Today, they seem to have given way to demonizing the opposition and doing whatever it takes to win the immediate battle.  Exhibit A: the cries of “lock her up” at Trump rallies.  Exhibit B: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Some people argue that Trump is an aberration, an outlier, a temporary phenomenon. They assert that those norms or guardrails will reassert themselves a bit like a gyroscope bringing us back to level. I fear that view may be a bit too optimistic.

It’s clear that Trump didn’t all by himself create the chaos, instability and polarization that characterizes today’s politics. To employ a different metaphor, American politics have been oscillating wildly for at least two decades, probably more. Consider Newt Gingrich’s total warfare approach of the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s playing fast and loose with presidential morality and George Bush’s lying us into an unnecessary war in Iraq as all helping pave the way for Trump’s presidency.

While some will be quick to argue an equivalency in Democratic and Republican behavior, numerous academic studies all come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has contributed far more to the current state of dysfunctional politics than have the Democrats.  Wherever you allocate the blame, however, the result is a political system seriously out of balance– and with no auto-correct mechanism available.

Americans have lost confidence in the major institutions of society, not just of government.  We are deeply divided on many of the major issues facing the country.  Liberals and conservatives rely on different sources of news and often have differing perspectives on facts.  Discontent takes at least two forms: not voting and voting for changes that promise to tear the system down.

Will we get back to “normal” in the next election cycle or two?  Let me start by making the case that it’s far from a sure thing.  Trump ran a campaign for the presidency that defied every norm and every rule of politics.  Experts kept saying that his most recent incendiary remark would surely be the end of his campaign.  And yet he won.

Since becoming president, he has continued to throw away the traditional playbook.  This week, he acknowledged knowing about a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels after repeatedly denying any awareness of it.  His cabinet of “the very best people” has been a revolving door with scandals shadowing a number of them.

And the only thing we can say for sure about the future is that his actions will continue to be unpredictable and well outside the norms of traditional politics.

And yet, Trump’s base is unfazed by his behavior in office; in fact, they seem to relish it.  He has created a cult of personality in which his supporters follow him regardless of what he does, even as he fails to fulfill promises that he made to them.   Moreover, they seem unconcerned that his presidency is damaging the very democracy that has been the essence of “American exceptionalism.”

Reestablishing those “guardrails of democracy” will take a concerted effort by active citizens.  We are unlikely to get back to the exact same normal that we have had in the past, but we may be able to create a new democratic reality.  There are, in my judgment, three crucial tests that we face in the near future.

One is the election of 2018.  Signs of Democratic energy and activism are everywhere and they need to be sustained through the November election.  If Democrats don’t recapture at least one of the houses of Congress, the situation is going to get much worse.  Similarly, the efforts to win state and local elections are crucial to both sending a message and insuring that the new round of legislative redistricting is not abused in the way that the last one was.

The presidential election of 2020 is obviously the second big hurdle.  Finding a Democrat who stands for restoration of the norms and values that have preserved American democracy and can defeat Trump’s run for re-election is crucial.  Similarly, winning both houses of Congress and continuing to win elections in the states are necessary to beat back the corrosive impact of Trumpism throughout the country.

But, most ominously, there may be one more test to be endured.  There have been at least some signs that Trump and his backers might not accept the results of an election.  In 2016, he constantly railed about the system being rigged.  Republicans in many states are in fact trying to put their collective thumbs on the electoral scales by implementing voter ID laws, changing polling place locations and hours and erecting other barriers to participation.

A failure to accept the voter’s will would be the most serious norm to fall, but it could happen.  The best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the Democratic wave in 2018 is gigantic.  Winning that election by large margins will be the most effective way to start rebuilding the political norms that Donald Trump has been attacking.

 

No, It’s not the economy, stupid!

 

Those who oppose Donald Trump keep missing a major point. Whether during the Republican primaries, in the General Election against Hillary Clinton, or since he became president, critics have misunderstood the basis for Trump’s appeal to his supporters.

Given that our current president is the most unconventional politician of modern times, getting a clear handle on him is not easy. He has defied all the norms, broken quite a few rules and seems to lack any fixed set of beliefs. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to what he says at any given moment because he doesn’t. Trump lies, changes his position and backpedals and restates.  He also is masterful at creating distractions.

It is conventional wisdom that Trump won the presidency in 2016 by connecting with white working class Americans who had been left behind in the new global economy.  Books like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” provided support for that view by arguing that poor working people had been  ignored by traditional politicians.  Trump, it was said by many, spoke to their concerns and promised solutions to their problems.

To add to that perspective, many in the Democratic Party argued that the Party needed to refine its message to reach out to those forgotten voters.  The hand-wringing about the need for a more inclusive approach continues to this day.

The problem is that working class whites really aren’t drawn to Trump because of his economic message.  They may wish that coal was coming back or that the president would create new manufacturing jobs, but his continued failure to achieve either of those objectives hasn’t led to a significant drop in support among that key portion of his base.

It’s actually not clear that white working class voters ever took Trump’s economic promises very seriously, either literally or figuratively.  While his rallies always included assurances that he alone could remedy their economic woes, those were never the main applause lines.

Those who believed early on that Trump couldn’t possibly be elected relied on the faulty assumption that he was too erratic and too lacking in the most basic qualifications and knowledge ever to win the support of thoughtful Republicans.  On Election Day, 90% of voters who identified with the Party voted for Trump.

That phenomenon goes far toward explaining why Trump won despite not having a believable economic message.  Our highly polarized politics led many Republicans to vote for him solely because he carried the Party’s label.  Many, if not most, of them will continue to support him in the future regardless of his record.

It is true that a portion of his support did come from voters who anticipated economic gain for themselves if Trump captured the White House and Republicans retained control of Congress.  That group was not, however, the economically disadvantaged.  It was the wealthy segment of the Republican Party who received their reward through the GOP tax cut that was passed in 2017.

Vance’s hillbillies may see marginal benefits from legislation that poured millions into the pockets of the richest Americans, but those few extra dollars won’t change their lives.  My argument here is that getting the short end of the tax cut stick won’t at all diminish their support for Trump.

Why, then, do they cling to a billionaire president who is doing nothing to provide materials benefits to them?  Will they rebel as they discover it is their health benefits that have been taken away or made more expensive?  Probably not.

Understanding Trump’s hold on America’s economically disadvantaged requires looking in a different direction.  The answer, it turns out, is staring us in the face.

As a candidate and even more openly since he took office, Trump has played on a different anxiety than economics.  Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white.  So is the Republican Party.  His consistent message, which supporters do take both literally and figuratively, is that he will protect them from the encroachment on their way of life from minorities and immigrants.  The theme is neither subtle nor indirect.

Take the two moments that best characterize Trump’s appeal.  One is the promise to build a wall.  Many observers thought that the assertion that Mexico would pay for the wall was a critical ingredient in the popularity of the promise, but his total and complete failure to get Mexican compliance hasn’t diminished his supporters’ enthusiasm.  You can see the same thing about his proposed Muslim ban which keeps falling afoul of legal and constitutional objections.

The other Trump “highlight” was his observation that there were”good people on both sides” of the events in Charlottesville last year.  What most decent Americans saw as a rally of racists chanting ugly slogans and intent on violence was used by Trump as a dog whistle for racist supporters.

“Make America Great Again” is nothing more than a veiled reference to an era of unquestioned white privilege and minorities who “knew their place.” Trump is presenting himself to those who are threatened and anxious about the changing demographics of the United States as the person who can hold back the tide.  Whether he can is largely beside the point.  Trump holds out hope at the very time that a portion of the population is losing it.

We are at an incredibly ugly time in our history.  Trump will not change his stripes; we have not yet seen the worst from him.  Appeals to reason won’t dissuade many of his supporters.  Neither will a better economic message by Democrats.  Saving the country from the worst features of Trumpism will require a clear rejection  of the racist and nativist views bellowed by this demagogue and an overwhelming turnout in November by those who believe that America is better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us

 

Maybe this time really will be different. After so many mass murders by guns in recent years yielded only “thoughts and prayers”, it feels for the first time that there is momentum building for real change. It’s not that I expect that significant gun legislation will pass this Republican controlled Congress. Rather, a budding political movement recognizes that the path to change requires replacing the current group of do-nothing, indifferent, in-bed-with-the NRA elected officials. We need to support candidates who listen to the overwhelming majority in this country who favor common sense regulations on deadly firearms.

There is already growing evidence that 2018 will see the election of a lot of Democrats at the federal, state and local levels. The new activism and passion around gun violence, so vividly and dramatically demonstrated on Saturday by 800,000 marchers in Washington and at 854 other locations around the world, could provide the impetus for the tsunami to grow even larger.  If the younger generation that sparked the March for Our Lives stays engaged in politics and continues to inspire in the way that they did last weekend, it really could be different this time.

Allow me a few personal observations from having attended the Washington March.  Of course, there was no actual marching because the streets were filled to overflowing.  It was as well-organized a political rally as I have ever attended, and my own experiences date back to the 1960s.  Speakers and Jumbotrons along the route guaranteed that everyone could see and hear what was happening on the main stage.  And what we saw and heard was remarkable.

Moreover, the crowd looked like America.  Political rallies are not always known for their diversity.  This one was.   Age, race, gender–everyone came and many of them brought their signs.

No speaker was over 21.  They were articulate, passionate and fearless.  Some of them will clearly become the public leaders of the future, but they are already proving leadership by their refusal to accept stale excuses and the status quo.  As powerful as their words were, the most dramatic moment of the day may well have been the “sounds of silence” from Emma Gonzales’ six minute and 20 second tribute to her fallen classmates.

The students knew, even before the event itself, that they would be attacked, ridiculed and demeaned.  They had already faced ugly attacks and made it clear in their remarks that they would not be intimidated and would not back down.

In the aftermath of the March, the world heard from the usual suspects, the apostles of hate, lies and inhumanity.  The students have obviously shaken and scared the gun lobby and the far right with their courage and determination.  Why else would the attacks be so vile, so filled with falsehoods and so lacking the dignity that those students keep showing?

If there is a poster child for all that is wrong with this country, Rick Santorum is surely a prime candidate for the role.  He dismissed the March as a waste of time and said the students would be better off learning CPR.  As ill-advised as the suggestion to arm teachers is, Santorum has come up with an idea even more stupid and irrelevant.  Once you’ve been shot even once by an AR-15 killing machine, there will be no need to administer CPR.

Santorum, of course, is only one example of right-wing ugliness.  The NRA spewed its usual mix of hatred and mockery.  Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a particularly craven politician who several speakers pointed out had received from the NRA the equivalent of $1.05 for every student in Florida, declared with his usual piety that many people were opposed to tighter gun regulations.  Rubio  makes weasels look good by his gutless performances.

While Santorum, Rubio and the NRA blathered, the students of Parkland told their personal stories.  They were joined by other students from Sandy Hook as well as by students from cities in which they face the threat of daily violence.  If there is any shred of conscience left in America, their pleas for action will surely be heard.

Some commentators tried to find comparisons with successful protest movements of the past.  Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’ ” to close the March surely was a bookend for those who were in Washington protesting the Vietnam War 50 years ago.

The measure of the impact of the March will begin to show in November when voters go to the polls and  decide whether candidates who accept NRA money are fit to serve, whether the excuse that “now is not the right time to consider gun legislation” is still acceptable, whether the lockstep opposition of Republicans to any effort to stop the epidemic of gun violence disqualifies that party from holding power.

As of this writing, Donald Trump himself has said nothing about the March.  Once again, he slipped out-of-town on Saturday to play golf in Florida.  He may pretend he didn’t hear the words of the students in Washington and around the world, but a lot of other people did.  When those  voters cast their ballots in November, Trump will most definitely learn what was being said on Saturday.

 

Peter Franchot and the Art of the Gimmick

When I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago, I stopped paying attention to  the “inside baseball” of Maryland politics.  Plenty of other commentators are doing a great job of giving readers behind-the-scenes analysis of the drama of Annapolis.  Josh Kurtz’ Maryland Matters is a recent and valuable addition to that roster.

On the other hand, having written about and been involved in Maryland government and politics for many years, I continue to see familiar patterns. And now I have the advantage of not getting stuck in the weeds of day-to-day dramas and pseudo-dramas.

Thus, it was with real interest that I noticed a flurry in the last few days of news reports and columns about the political fortunes of Maryland’s Comptroller, Peter Franchot.   I have known Peter for decades, have written frequently about him–he claimed to have put my piece, “Peter and the Wolves”, on the wall of his office–and, yet, I admit to being puzzled by his most recent political incarnation.

Franchot is about to be elected to his fourth term as State Comptroller after years in the House of Delegates.  He has a highly skilled political staff working for him and seems to be in constant campaign mode.  I don’t mean the latter comment as a criticism.  He’s built a strong following for himself and carved out a position on the right edge of the Democratic Party that would seem to ensure continued electoral success.  Franchot doesn’t even have an opponent in the Democratic Primary this year and will not face a serious challenge in the General Election.

The thing I have trouble understanding is why, after having made himself all but unbeatable electorally, Franchot has now decided to spend the preponderance of his efforts and his political capital engaged in fake populism.

Barry Rascovar, longtime observer of Maryland politics, recently wrote a column entitled “Comeuppance for Franchot” describing the overwhelming defeat in the Maryland General Assembly of his initiative to change the state laws on craft brewers.  The Comptroller has annoyed legislative leaders for years, but this most recent repudiation was more emphatic than usual.

I don’t know enough about the substance of the “beer wars” to have a clear opinion.  Franchot has positioned himself as the champion of small business owners, a populist looking out for the little guy.  From my perspective, even if he has the high ground on this issue, his approach to gathering support for it has been one of the most ham-handed I have ever seen in years of watching the General Assembly.  Franchot and his people insulted legislators, did little to make the case for his bill other than public rallies at breweries and, at the end, brought the supporters along on a fools’ errand.

Franchot is not dumb.  In the opinion of many, Len Foxwell , his chief of staff, is one of the smartest political operatives in Maryland.  Yet, they could hardly have done a worse job of trying to get his bill passed.  Viewing their actions from without, it looked like they were interested only in firing up brewers, drinking a lot of beer and burnishing Franchot’s populist credentials.

Unfortunately, Beer Wars is hardly an isolated incident.  The Sun on Thursday editorialized about the challenge facing schools inundated by snow days this year.  As the result of Franchot and Governor Larry Hogan’s publicity stunt to force schools to begin their year after Labor Day and end by June 15, many counties are literally out of options to reach 180 days.  Hogan’s executive order, in support of Franchot’s idea, took no account of the educational needs of students or the administrative problems for schools, but, instead, ginned up a phony marketing slogan of “Let Summer be Summer” in order to help a few pizza parlors in Ocean City.

It will be easy to add to this list the ridiculous bit of theater about air conditioners in schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County or Franchot’s earlier meddling into Towson University’s decision to eliminate its baseball program.  That program, in fact, has been restored, and you can certainly argue about the merits of the original decision. What you can’t do, however, is come up with any sensible rationale for why it was an issue that merited the intervention of the State’s Comptroller.

Chickens are now coming home to roost.  The General Assembly is considering legislation to take control of Maryland’s school construction program away from the Board of Public Works, where Hogan and Franchot currently occupy two of the three seats.  Another bill would set up an inquiry as to whether oversight of the state liquor industry should be removed from the Comptroller’s Office.

And all of this comes before this year’s state election.  Franchot will be reelected but Hogan’s fate is far from secure.  In what is likely to be an enormous Democratic wave, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

What will Franchot do during the campaign?  Given his close relationship with Hogan, it’s hard to imagine the Comptroller supporting the Democratic candidate for governor, even if that person wanted his support, which is also far from certain.  And, if Hogan loses, Franchot is going to feel particularly isolated in Annapolis in 2019.  He’s burned a lot of bridges and has few friends left in the party of which he is still a nominal member.

And yet, had he chosen to use his popularity to advocate for issues like school funding, women’s health, rights of immigrants and environmental protection, Franchot might have actually had a record worth remembering.  He will, instead, be known for squandered opportunities regardless of how many terms he serves.

Where Do I Start?

 

Have things gotten even crazier recently?  It’s not just the horrible things Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are doing, although those are certainly enough to send you into a serious state of depression. No, it seems as if the world has slipped a few degrees more off kilter, that public figures are acting even more unhinged than usual, that signs of responsible behavior by the “adults” are getting really hard to find.

The horrific shooting in Florida last week led normal Americans to grieve and to wonder what could be done to stop the endless string of mass murders.  Many of us were heartened by the courage and resolve of student survivors who spoke out, who weren’t intimidated by the politicians who again offered nothing better than “thoughts and prayers” and who started organizing and mobilizing.

Having heard “never again” too many times to count, it’s hard not to be skeptical that this time will be different.  But maybe it will because we’ve never seen anything quite like the response of those Florida teenagers. They may actually succeed in moving us off our inertia.

What we have seen before is the mindless rhetoric, empty promises and phony empathy of politicians who seem only to care about NRA donations, see the Second Amendment as the only important section of the Constitution, and believe, based on past history, that this too shall pass. And it will, unless there is a sustained and wider spread adult response.

However, under much more public pressure than these praetorian guards of guns have faced before, some have lost their bearings and gone totally off the rails.  As you would expect, the most inane ramblings came out of the mouth of Donald Trump.

The President decided that it was important to his public image to meet with students and parents from the embattled high school.  His main task was to appear empathetic, but, as a photojournalist showed the world, Trump needed a cue card to remind him how to feel and what to say.  The leader of the free world wasn’t up to showing genuine human emotions.  In a presidency chocked full of low moments, this one was right down there.

Trump’s reaction to the shooting was dictated in large part by his determination to keep his base happy and  not disappoint the hand-that-feeds him, the NRA.  Pressed for a solution to the gun epidemic, he first tried to insist that the problem was primarily the product of people with mental health problems.  That he recently signed legislation allowing easier access to gun by everyone including the mentally disturbed did not seem to faze him nor did the fact that his position is not supported by facts or data.

He then danced around the edges of a couple of minor adjustments to gun laws, including looking at outlawing “bump stocks” and raising the age for purchase of rifles from 18 to 21.  The NRA looked on disapprovingly and Trump quickly moved on from these suggestions.

His silver bullet, if you pardon the expression, was to arm teachers.  The idiocy of this idea is beyond rational comprehension.  While gun advocates support any measure that increases gun sales and doesn’t put limits on their acquisition of firearms and ammunition, most of the sane world ridiculed the proposal through words, cartoons and withering explanations of all the supplies teachers do not have.

Arming teachers is not only stupid, it is breathtakingly cynical.  Trained marksman don’t always hit their targets.  The chaos of an active shooter situation has the potential for a wild west fiasco if multiple people are running around with guns.  And exactly where do the guns get stored while the school waits for the next attacker.  Trump at one point suggested “concealed carry.”  And the list of nightmarish possibilities is almost endless.

I have read some commentary that argues we should ignore the “arm teachers” proposal as merely a distraction.  I disagree.  Given that the NRA’s reaction to any shooting is more guns for everyone, conservative legislators may well take the proposal seriously and claim they are responding with a real “solution.”

Then, on Tuesday, Trump exceeded the worst expectations anyone could have possibly had for him.  After having called the security guard who didn’t go into the school during the shooting a “coward”, Trump–bone spurs and all–asserted that he would have gone into the school even if he hadn’t had a weapon.

In his long career as a public figure, it’s doubtful he has ever said anything more delusional than that.  A man with multiple deferments from the military who has never shown any signs of physical courage, Trump’s creation of this fantasy  in which  he plays a “superhero” suggests  self-delusion and self-aggrandizement on a grand scale.

Imagine then what will happen if he ends up testifying before Robert Mueller or, worse yet, a grand jury.  His make-believe world would come to a crashing end.  That his lawyers are trying to avoid that possibility because they are afraid it might be a “perjury trap” tells you yet again what a weak figure Trump really is.  The way to avoid a “perjury trap” is to tell the truth, but that’s clearly beyond Trump’s capacity.  As he just showed, he even lies to himself.

Don’t Expect Presidential Leadership on Guns

 

Given Donald Trump’s track record as president, no one should hope or think that he will play a meaningful role in getting new gun regulations enacted. Even though his office has signaled that he may be open to supporting a very limited bill on background checks that has been introduced in Congress, we should know by now that such a signal means nothing.

Start with the more general truths about Trump. First, he is not a leader; instead, he is almost exclusively a disruptor. Since he has neither a well-grounded understanding of government and public policy nor a fixed ideology, the president is best seen as a transactional figure. The public outcry about the most recent school shooting has provoked in Trump a desire to appear sympathetic. Past history strongly suggests that it is merely posturing and that he will end up doing nothing meaningful.

His presidency is primarily about the negative. Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement; he jettisoned U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership; his Interior Secretary and his EPA head are ravaging environmental regulations as quickly as they can.  His proposed budget focuses heavily on dismantling what is left of the safety net.

Neither is Trump’s legislative record one of leadership. On both the Affordable Care Act and  the Tax Bill, he deferred to Republican conservatives and wasn’t even an effective cheerleader. His contribution to the debate on immigration and DACA was to blow up any chance of an agreement by veering wildly from one position to the next.

Despite the fact that Trump in a much earlier version spoke in favor of more stringent gun regulations, he long ago abandoned that stance and has positioned himself squarely in the corner of the NRA.  For the most part, he has been stunningly silent during his time in office as deaths from handguns pile up.  Trump hasn’t even made much of an effort to take on the role of “Comforter-in-Chief.”

Over the coming days, we’re going to see a bit of performance art by Trump as he engages in a “listening” tour.  The most interesting question will be whether the students who have been invited to the White House will dutifully play the role of props for a “compassionate” president or will they show the rage at inaction by the adults that some have expressed in recent days.  If he allows questions or comments, he won’t have teleprompter responses available to him.

On the other hand, if the event is so tightly scripted that no meaningful role is left to the students, there will certainly be a backlash.  Trump, feeling pressure to do “something” in response to the Florida massacre, may have outsmarted himself.

Whichever way the event plays out, it won’t be decisive for determining Trump’s position in whatever debate on gun legislation may follow.  We already know that the NRA has unfettered access to him.  He is likely also to hold some sort of public event in which Second Amendment advocates bully him not to let their precious Constitutional rights be trampled by an angry mob.

After “thoughtful” consideration, Trump is likely to conclude that more attention needs to be given to the mental health dimensions of the problems.  That position will disregard his acceptance of cuts to funding for treatment programs, his recent decision to sign legislation allowing wider access to guns regardless of mental status and his divisive and often violent rhetoric as a candidate and a president.

The basic point is that no one should look to the president to make significant changes in this country’s approach to gun violence.  That does not mean, however, that despair and inaction are the only options.

If ever there was an issue that called for grassroots activism, this is it.  Unrelenting pressure on elected officials at all levels of government is essential.  The calls for student walkouts, strikes by teachers and students and national rallies are a good first step, but can’t be all that happens.

Fighting back against the influence of the NRA is an achievable objective.  Calling on every elected official to sign a pledge refusing to take political contributions from the NRA is another step.  You’ve seen the lists of how much money various Republican Senators have accepted.  Call them on it, shame them, make it clear that NRA money is “blood money” and that it disqualifies the recipient from public office.

Don’t limited the activism to members of Congress.  Make local and state officials pay a price for their silence on this issue and their support for members of their party who have refused to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

Pressure on businesses and corporations that contribute to and support officials who refuse to act on gun regulations and continue to accept NRA money is another avenue of grassroots activism.  Everyone who doesn’t take a stand is complicit in the deaths of those 17 Florida students and all the others that have been cut down before their time because the adults are cowards.

Trump’s outrageous behavior as president has stimulated unprecedented levels of political activism.  Most of it, correctly, is focused on the 2018 congressional as well as state and local elections.  Devoting time and energy to the battle for common sense gun regulations doesn’t detract from that goal; rather, it reinforces it. It is time to stand and be counted.