Ignore Trump’s Distractions

Even as the Trump Administration is doing great damage to this country, entirely too much attention is being paid to events that are irrelevant or trivial. Is there any significance to the President having had dinner at the White House with three ignorant redneck blowhards? Was anyone surprised that he catered to the fringes of his base with that invitation or that Sarah Palin, Ted Nugget and Kid Rock acted like immature adolescents while they were there?

Those kind of stunts don’t matter. Similarly, it really should be of no concern to anyone how many members of the New England Patriots showed up for a photo-op with Trump. Why is that a story that gets some people on the Internet all excited?

The list of these kinds of distractions is a long one. Trump constantly boasts about having the largest crowds, the greatest first 100 days, the smartest cabinet. The fact that none of those claims are true should now be seen as old hat, not worth comment.

Similarly, pointing out that Trump lies constantly and that he is a total hypocrite is not a revelation.  While we shouldn’t accept that behavior as normal or reasonable, acting startled at the most recent example is a waste of time and energy.

Trump and his appointees are doing so many things that warrant outrage, resistance and comment.  As Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said in a very different context, watch what he does, not what he says.  It’s going to take a lot of committed and sustained effort by those who worry about the threat to our democracy, our civil rights and the fabric of our community to resist and fight back.  There’s no room for wasting time and energy on distractions.

In fact, it’s becoming increasing clear that in many respects Trump himself is merely a sideshow.  He signs Executive Orders that will only matter if his administration figures out how to implement them.  He revels in photo ops which mostly underscore the white, male composition of his administration.  He blusters about what Congress must do and then either suffers a humiliating defeat, as with the Health Care bill, or backs down, as he did this week about funding the Wall for which he insisted as a candidate Mexico was going to pay.

Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, is right in the middle of some of the worst things being done in Trump’s name.  He is making every effort to undercut the Justice Department’s historical role as defender of the poor and disadvantaged.  The threat Sessions poses to voting rights, criminal justice reform and our confidence in the fairness of law enforcement is truly frightening.

Yet, again, a lot of ink and airtime was devoted to his ignorant comments about a federal judge on an island in the middle of the Pacific.   That comments reinforces an image of Sessions as a narrow-minded ideologue, but it is not central to the damaging policies he is pursuing.

The anti-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, may be doing the most long-term damage of anyone in the Trump Administration.  He is pulling back regulations that were intended to keep air breathable and water drinkable.  He is signaling directly to corporate polluters that he has little or no interest in enforcing environment standards.  It won’t be long before this Administration formally withdraws from the international climate accords that were championed by Barack Obama.

Pruitt is a rabid anti-environmentalist.  The best shot at minimizing the damage he is intent on will come as the result of law suits filed by environmental groups.  That effort is worthy of our attention, not the carnival acts produced by this Administration to distract us from what’s really going on.

Another area in which the interplay between words and actions is not entirely clear is foreign affairs.  Trump blusters an awful lot.  He tells us it’s time to start winning wars ago.  He’s taken a couple of largely symbolic actions with the Tomahawk missile attack in Syria and the dropping of a BIG bomb in Afghanistan.  Neither of those steps constituted a policy; what may follow is anyone’s guess.

Trump has threatened unilateral action North Korea.  You have to hope “his” generals–widely regarded as the only adults in the room–will insist on a more measured approach.  He has reversed himself on so many positions that he took while a candidate that you are once again forced to conclude that his words are largely meaningless.

Activist citizens have generally done a good job of focusing on the important issues, such as preserving the Affordable Care Act and fighting for a sensible approach to climate change and respect for science.  While the media’s coverage of Trump has gotten more skeptical and more critical since the campaign, they still find the chasing of shiny objects to be irresistible at times.

Fawning over the notion that Trump had become “presidential” by ordering a missile strike in Syria was utter nonsense.  Falling for the narrative that dropping the “Mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan was a significant step in that war was irresponsible.  Getting obsessed about so-called power struggles within the West Wing and being breathless about the alleged moderating influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, despite no supporting evidence, take the focus off the important issues.

Trump is abnormal, but that fact was established a long time ago.  We need to avoid treating him as entertainment and focus on what he is doing to our country.  That enterprise is more than enough to keep concerned citizens busy for the next four years.

Can a Democrat win the Maryland Race for Governor in 2018?

Sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it?  In normal political times, the answer would be “Of course, why is there any doubt?”

But, as we all know, these are not normal political times.  In 2014, Larry Hogan shocked the Democratic Party establishment by upsetting its hand-picked candidate, Anthony Brown.  Since then, the incumbent Governor has convinced some observers that he is invulnerable because of his very high approval ratings in public polls.  His approval level of 65% in the most recent survey places Hogan as the most popular Republican governor in the country.

While Hogan has certainly demonstrated political skills, his standing in the polls is not purely a result of how he has governed.  His widely admired personal fight against cancer has definitely given him a boost in the polls.

More to the point, however, the “approve/disapprove” question is the wrong one to rely on.  Recently a Washington Post/University of Maryland survey asked voters whether they would support Hogan for reelection in 2018.  That number–41%–suggests that he is less a political behemoth than a normal Republican running in heavily Democratic Maryland.

In 2014, Democratic candidate Brown underperformed Martin O’Malley’s 2006 campaign in all but three counties in Maryland.  Even in counties that O’Malley lost, his losing margins were considerably less than Brown’s.  To take a couple of examples, in Allegany County, Brown won 23% of the vote while O’Malley had 42%.  In Calvert, the comparative figures were 29% and 42%.

In the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s, Brown won by a larger margin in his home county and had about the same advantage in the other two.  However, in the two next largest jurisdictions, O’Malley outperformed Brown by significant amounts:  Anne Arundel, 42% to 32%; and Baltimore County, 48% to 39%.

If you split the difference in the percentages for Brown and O’Malley and assumed a 2014 turnout, Hogan would lose in 2018.  Obviously, elections are more complicated than just the manipulations of numbers, but these calculations remind us that Hogan will be running uphill in Democratic Maryland in 2018.

Moreover, other factors would also seem to  be working against his reelection bid.  The first is turnout.  Fewer voters went to the polls in the 2014 election than in 2006.   Brown tallied 124,000 fewer votes than O’Malley.   It’s hard to imagine any Democratic candidate in 2018 running a worse campaign than Brown did in 2014.

And that may be the least of Hogan’s problems.  The level of Democratic activism since the election of Donald Trump as president strongly suggests that turnout in next year’s elections, nationwide as well as in Maryland, is likely to surge.

The other widely discussed narrative about Hogan’s 2014 win was his ability to appeal to white working class voters, many of whom had traditionally voted for Democrats.  Was Hogan an early indicator of Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election?

This will certainly be one of the keys to next year’s race, but Hogan’s path is far from assured.  Other than reducing highway tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore, his record is a really thin one.  His legislative victories have been claims rather than reality; he has failed to impose his will on the budget; his vetoes have all been overridden; and his crossover attempts, such as supporting a ban on fracking, aren’t going to persuade many Democrats to vote for him.

Hogan is trying to walk a delicate balance between keeping his base happy and broadening his appeal.  He can’t win with just Republican voters, but his ability to attract Democrats and independents may have waned.

And, as already referenced, there will be the looming presence of Donald Trump in the 2018 race.  Hogan’s posture up to now has been to keep his distance from the president and to avoid commenting on what is going on in Washington whenever possible.  At times, the approach has required convoluted verbal gymnastics.

If Congressional Republicans had passed their version of health care, Hogan would be dealing with the very negative impact of the new law on Maryland.  That possibility is still on the table.  There’s a long list of other Trump initiatives that could come into play by next year, but the most significant impact will arise from whatever budget is passed in 2017.  Given Maryland’s historical reliance on federal funding, there’s no version of a Trump budget that is good for the State.

Hogan won’t be able to keep dancing around the impact of actions taken by Trump and Congressional Republicans.  He will be faced with the difficult choice of which voters to upset by whatever positions he takes.  And whoever is the Democratic candidate should make this issue a centerpiece of a campaign against Hogan.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of who the Democratic candidate will be.  The current list of prospects is eight, but it’s hard to know how many of them are serious.  One interpretation is that the presumptive frontrunners, Rushern Baker and Kevin Kamenetz, have not scared off other contenders.  Another view is that Hogan hasn’t scared them off either.

There are some outsider candidates, non-politicians if you will, as well as  one candidate from 2014 giving it a second try, Doug Gansler.  In the next few months, starting in June, we’ll start seeing what advantages and disadvantages each of these candidates brings to the race.

The conventional wisdom is that a bruising primary would damage the winner and complicate the efforts to raise enough money for the General Election.  A contrary view is that a contested race will stimulate turnout and help in the November election.

Will Democrats show up at the polls and will they unite behind the winner of the primary?  The answers to those questions will have a major impact on calculating Hogan’s chances of reelection.  At this point, despite Hogan appearing as the favorite before the race really began, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

 

The Consequences of Trump Being Trump

Even for those not paying close attention during the Presidential election, Donald Trump’s fundamental characteristics have become vividly clear  in his first 100 days.

Trump is certainly a narcissist. He lies constantly, often for no apparent reason. He has incredibly thin skin and lashes out at any comment he views as critical of him, even if the remark is clearly accurate.

Trump may well be the least well-read person ever to occupy the White House. He has no knowledge of  basic historical facts.

The President relies almost exclusively on his instincts and often doubles down on them if faced with evidence that he has made a mistake. Trump fosters chaos around him but doesn’t use it for strategic purpose.

Moreover, despite his bluster, Trump is clearly an insecure person.  His dependence on family members who lack qualifications for the high level positions  they have been given in the White House is unprecedented.  His constant monitoring of cable tv shows, particularly on Fox News, reveals a person with no core beliefs or values.

If you were  paying attention during the campaign, none of these observations comes as a surprise to you.  All of Trump’s warts were in plain sight.  What we are now coming to grips with is the impact of Trump’s deficiencies on his approach to governing.

Trump asserts that his unpredictability is a virtue.  The implication is that he makes deliberate calculations to confuse possible adversaries.  One byproduct is that he leaves allies and friends scratching their heads as well.  Moreover, the “mad man” theory of foreign relations requires you to have strategic objectives that you are pursuing.  Trump shows no evidence that he understands the complexities of the rest of the world. More significantly, it is unclear what he hopes to accomplish.

After seeing pictures of children who were victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, he ordered retaliatory bombing.  According to some sources, Ivanka Trump played a key role in convincing him to take that step.  But pictures of dying refugee children have evoked no similar sympathies so it’s hard to know what his true motivation was.

Even more importantly, however, there’s no indication of what he hoped to achieved with the bombing or of what steps 2 and 3 might be.   You half expect him to observe that “no one knew the Middle East would be so complicated.”

The world, which he promised us he was uniquely qualified to get under control, is getting more dangerous by the day.  Trump just announced that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is at an all time low despite his campaign rhetoric that it would reach new levels of friendship.  The comment also demonstrates his lack of historical context–the Cold War, in which nuclear war was a real threat, was much more dangerous.

Trump’s blustering about taking care of the threats from North Korea is similarly unhinged.  What leverage does he think he has if he, the master deal maker, can’t convince the Chinese to rein in their neighbors?

Trump’s lack of qualification for the presidency is showing up in the sputtering start to his administration.  His sole success has been getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed by the Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court.  The President’s lack of engagement and understanding of the complexities involved contributed substantially to the failure to pass the Republican health care plan.  Trump seems no more ready to move forward on tax reform, which will be equally difficult politically.

The fiasco that has played out over the Administration’s attempts to impose a Muslim travel ban shows a similar failure to comprehend Constitutional and political reality.  As in so many other areas, Trump seems content with a flashy photo-op and fiery political rhetoric to stir up his base.

A growing number of promises that Trump made in his campaign are rapidly being exposed as just plans lies or figurative rather than literal intentions or hyperbole that he wasn’t serious about.  Did anyone really believe he could bring back manufacturing and coal jobs?  What a fun joke he told about reducing the budget deficit.  Or even better, his claim that Bureau of Labor Statistics reports are now credible where once they were phony.

Trump governs by lies, distraction, chaos and ignorance.  While early evidence suggests that many of his supporters are just fine with that approach, the consequences for the country are not so sanguine.  We have a foreign policy that is without direction, without any grounding in national interest, without an appreciation of the complex interrelationship among different foreign entanglements.  The President seems oblivious to the risk of stumbling into a war or a foreign commitment for which neither the goals nor the means of achieving success exist.

In domestic affairs, Trump has so far been willing to leave decision-making to the most extreme ideologues in his administration–Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Mick Mulvaney, Scott Pruitt and, of course, Steve Bannon.  His lack of interest as well as of understanding of the policies they are instituting has ushered in an era of great damage that will take years to recover from.  Attacks on women’s health, on basic civil rights, on government help for the poor and disadvantaged, on protection of the environment and on the very idea of a “United” States are already creating a legacy on which history will not look favorably .

Americans on a daily basis are astonished at the inept performance of Sean Spicer, at the latest wild conspiracies that the President asserts, at the sense that we are watching a reality television show rather than our government at work.  Meanwhile, there are grave consequences to having as president a man who is temperamentally, intellectually and by lack of experience unfit for the job.

If you think we’ve seen the worst from this president, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just when you think he’s hit the bottom and can’t sink any lower, he outdoes himself.  There is no bottom with this presidency.

 

 

Brexit, Donald Trump and the Cost of Dysfunctional Politics

 

Once upon a time I knew a lot about Britain’s relationship with the European Community.  More than 40 years ago, I studied that country’s efforts to join what was then referred to as the European Common Market. The history was a tortured one as Britain held on for too long to the belief that it was still a major world power, closer to the United States than to the continent just across the English Channel. Eventually, though, a deal was struck and Britain joined the European Community.

With that historical context in mind, the vote in last year’s referendum can be seen as not just a reaction to concerns about immigrants from the Middle East or bureaucrats in Brussels. The British have always been ambivalent about efforts to tie the countries of Europe more closely together and to reduce the autonomy of the individual nations.

With the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, the great experiment that has helped keep peace for over 70 years in a continent that almost destroyed itself in the 20th Century, is at jeopardy.  If the French elections at the end of April bring to power the extreme nationalist, Marine Le Pen, European collaboration could start coming apart.  And if that happens, the British referendum will be seen as the snowball that started the avalanche.

Whatever the outcome of the French vote, however, Britain will be less well off because of its decision to go it alone.  Prime Minister Theresa May has started the formal process of disengagement and the decision is irrevocable.  London will remain a delightful place to visit, but Britain’s influence in world finances will inevitably decline.  Its position in world trade will become much less significant and, ultimately, the economy of the nation will be weaker and more, rather than less, vulnerable to global influences.

May seems like she’s doing the best she can with a bad situation.  Her predecessor, David Cameron, is the real villain in the piece, a spineless “leader” who thought that the expedient of a referendum would spare him the need to stand up to political critics.

While most analyses have focused on the rise of populism in Britain to explain the vote to leave Europe, there are two other important lessons as well.  The first is that weak and inept political leadership can lead to disastrous results in a democratic system of government.   Democracy is largely defined by processes with no guarantee of particular outcomes.

Second, some decisions have more consequences than others.  Leaving the European Community will impact every aspect of British life and the impact will be both short and long-term.

Those lessons are being played out at this very moment in the United States.

Whatever the explanations for Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he is now the president.  So far, his administration has demonstrated a stunning mix of ignorance, incompetence and hard-line conservative greed.  Trump’s executive orders, tweets, public pronouncements and legislative initiatives have played well with his base supporters but are dismaying a growing portion of America and the world.

So far, the impact has merely been damaging.  Trump has ordered a rapid retreat from environmental protection and policies to reduce the impact of climate change.  His Attorney General is shifting the Justice Department’s position from protector of minorities and disadvantaged to ally of the rich and powerful.  His Secretary of Education is leading an attack on public education.  And the list goes on.

If any significant portion of his proposed budget is enacted, the consequences for the poor and struggling of this country will be even worse.  Trump is trying to shred what used euphemistically to be called the “safety net.”  By all appearance, his only serious priorities are increasing the defense budget and reducing taxes for the very wealthy.  In a nation that has seen the inequality gap grow dramatically in the past three decades, his efforts seem designed to accelerate that process.

Trump’s willful ignorance of history, science and the lives of most Americans is contributing to decisions that do great harm to the very fabric of the nation as well as to many who voted for him.  His lies, deceptions and blatant disregard for the most basic notions of ethical behavior have undermined the credibility of the office.

For some observers, however, all that bad news is not the greatest danger from the Trump Presidency.  Instead, the gravest danger may lie in his total incompetence.  So far, there have been no real emergencies, no national security threat, no moments that required quick and decisive action.  Trump blusters about ISIS, bellows about Mexicans and Muslims, talks irresponsibly about handling North Korea, but his performance so far provides no basis for any confidence in how he would actually respond.

David Cameron had a parliamentary majority and, under the British system, should have been able to govern.  He failed miserably.  Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the Executive Branch of Government.  Yet, he totally bungled his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cannot produce a travel ban that comes close to conforming to the Constitution and demonstrates on a daily basis that he has something to hide with respect to his dealings with Russia.

I have many smart friends who are confident that we will survive the horrors of the Trump Presidency.  They believe in the basic institutions of this country and look to our history to reassure themselves that we have always come through dark periods before.  I hope they are correct, but I am also quite sure that it won’t automatically turn out well merely because it has in the past.

Trump is harming not only the people of this country and our relationships with the rest of the world, but his administration is also seeking to undermine the basic safeguards of our democratic system.  That system has served us quite well for well over 200 years and shouldn’t be given up without a fight.  We may take some comfort in how incompetent he is, but that won’t stop him from doing great harm while he is still in office.