Is “R” the New Scarlet Letter?

 

If you are a Republican running for public office in November 2018, you are in trouble.

Let me count the ways. Donald Trump, the leader of your party, is the least popular president at this point in a first term of anyone in modern history. The Congressional members of your party are, with few exceptions, marching in lock-step support of the least qualified person  ever to hold the office.  And they are even less popular than Trump.

If you are a state or local office holder, you might run, but you can’t hide. You will still have “R” plastered over your name on the ballot.

Both history and math are against you. The party of the incumbent president almost without exception loses seats in Congress in the first off-year election of the presidential term. Add to that the enormous number of “voluntary” retirements by incumbent Republican members of Congress who have seen the handwriting on the voting booth wall.

Republicans are likely to lose as many as 50 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, with them, control of the chamber. In the Senate, where many more Democrats are defending seats in 2018 than Republicans, your task should be much easier, but  probably won’t be.

Republicans in both houses voted for an incredibly unpopular tax bill whose primary beneficiaries are the very rich. They also tried mightily to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care coverage from millions of Americans. While they didn’t succeed directly, working in concert with Trump, they managed to badly cripple the law. Running on those two “accomplishments” is the challenge Republican incumbents have as a weight around their necks in this election.  And that was before a government shutdown that most Americans see as the fault of Republicans.

The early warning signs–the canaries–are already in.  2107 elections in New Jersey, Virginia and that special one in Alabama all should have Republicans quaking in their boots.  While most of the media attention has focused on the prospects of a Democratic takeover in Congress, Republican office holders at the state and local level should also be worried – very worried.

Look at Pennsylvania and Maryland, adjoining states with striking political differences.   A Democratic tsunami is barreling toward  Republicans who mistakenly think they are safe.  Local races in the suburban counties around Philadelphia in 2017 produced Democratic winners in offices that had been Republican for decades.  The trend is almost certain to continue in state legislative races in those counties in 2018.  While Republicans hold significant majorities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, expect those gaps to shrink dramatically  this year and disappear altogether in 2020.

Meanwhile, the two statewide Democratic office holders, Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who both looked vulnerable at one point, now seem well positioned to win re-election.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, in which Republicans have benefited enormously through a combination of Democratic concentration in cities and some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country, is likely to see changes in 2018.  Three districts in the Philadelphia suburbs are being targeted by Democrats.  Moreover, a suit before the State’s Supreme Court could result in a redrawing of the congressional districts in time for the 2018 election.  Stay tuned.

Maryland, widely known as a Blue state, could see a reversal of recent Republican gains.  In 2014, Larry Hogan upset the Democratic candidate, Anthony Brown.  In 2018, the circumstances will be dramatically different.

First of all, Brown ran a truly dreadful campaign.  Second, Hogan was largely unknown and managed to portray himself as a moderate Republican back when people still believed such a person existed.  Unicorns were in fashion that year as well.  Finally, Donald Trump was not the president.

This year, Democratic turnout  will almost certainly be significantly higher than it was in 2014.  The party’s large registration advantage means that Hogan will be facing strong head winds no matter what he does.  So far, he has tried to walk a difficult tightrope, paying lip service to bipartisanship but relishing attacks on the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership and on Baltimore.  His record of accomplishments is thin and all of his vetoes have been overridden.

As the recent Gonzales survey shows, Hogan continues to be very popular in public opinion polls, but that has not translated into support for his re-election.  While the Democratic field running for the nomination is large and the outcome is far from settled, any of the leading candidates is likely to be a formidable opponent for Hogan in the fall.  In fact, if you have an opportunity to wager on the outcome, bet on Hogan being a one-term governor.

How will these political forces play out in other state elections?  Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both legislative bodies and picking up additional seats is probably a stretch.  On the other hand, incumbents who might normally be considered vulnerable are much more likely to be re-elected in the political climate that will surround the November election.

If you think of suburban counties in Maryland as the best opportunity for Democrats to pick up offices currently held by Republicans, the jurisdiction that looks most like the Philadelphia suburbs is Howard County.  In the Democratic debacle of 2014, Republican Allan Kittleman was elected County Executive.  While he remains popular, he will face a strong challenger in County Council member Calvin Ball.  Regardless of how county voters see Kittleman’s record, he is going to have a really tough struggle to retain his office in a year in which Democrats have so much going for them.

A final example.  There are areas in Howard County where Republicans have almost always done well.  One is the state legislative seat currently held by Bob Flanagan, a long-time office holder who was Transportation Secretary under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. Flanagan has not been particularly visible and has little or no impact as a member of the minority in the House of Delegates.  Don’t be surprised if he loses his re-election bid to Courtney Watson who ran against Kittleman in the bad Democratic year of 2014.

While there are several months left until the November election and all sorts of things could happen in the meantime, just about every political indicator now points to a highly motivated and energized Democratic electorate going to the polls and sweeping large numbers of Republicans out of office.  Carrying the burden of Donald Trump as their party leader will be more than they can overcome.

The Silence of the Lemmings

Donald Trump is an awful excuse for a human being. He finds new ways to demonstrate that irrefutable truth every day.

Trump is a racist, something that was evident to anyone paying attention long before his most recent outburst. He is a pathological liar whose lies sometime have a purpose and other times seem more like reflex actions, his natural state of being.

The President is uninformed, lacking a scintilla of curiosity. He doesn’t read. His attention span is so short that briefing him on an important topic is almost impossible.

Psychiatrists should be reluctant to go on the public record. However, it doesn’t take medical training to recognize that he is a narcissist, might well fit the definition of a sociopath and offers a textbook’s worth of material for studying abnormal personality traits.

And yet, almost all the members of one of this country’s two major political parties act as if they are deaf, dumb and blind to these obvious characteristics.  The Emperor has no clothes on, but Republicans are still committed to admiring his non-existent outfit.

Every once in a while, but remarkably infrequently, one of them offers tepid criticism of something that Trump said, but so weakly as to lack any impact.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the master of the mealy-mouthed non-comment, but he certainly has lots of company.

A new version of “Profiles in Courage” focused on Republican Members of Congress would be nothing but blank pages.  When Trump bragged during the presidential campaign that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care, did we realize that he was including Congressional Republicans in that assertion?

At this point in the Trump era, he may continue to shock us, but he no longer surprises us.  There is no bottom to what he is capable of doing, no act too outrageous, no assertion beyond his imagination.  He is, he tells us, “the least racist person in the world”, the individual who “understands the health care system better than anyone else,” “the best deal maker ever.”  The rest of us shake our heads in dismay while Republicans act as if what he is doing and saying is normal.

The crazy–is there really another word for it?–meeting in the White House to discuss immigration legislation last week is the latest example.  Trump was reported to be furious that a bipartisan proposal included special provisions for refugees from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries.

According to the one Democrat in the room, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, Trump fumed about letting people into this country from “shithole” places such as those.  Two Republican Senators who were also in the meeting first claimed that they could not remember what he said and later denied that Trump used those precise words.  Trump himself offered a weasely explanation that his words had been “rough” but not what Durbin claimed.  He and his minions have not provided their version of what Trump  said.

On Monday, the extent of Republican complicity in covering for his racist language became clear.  Multiple sources assert the word Trump used was “shithouse” rather than “shithole.”  Based on that very narrow distinction, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia defended Trump.

I don’t know to what circle of Hell Dante would assign Cotton, Perdue and Trump’s other Republican enablers, but it would certainly be one of the hotter ones.

For Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other Republicans, Trump is a “useful idiot.”  While it’s clear that he had little understanding of the provisions of the tax bill and made all sorts of dishonest assertions about it, his presence in the White House allowed a group of hardline conservatives to pass legislation that they have salivated about for years.  Despite his wildly exaggerated opinion of himself, the movie version of this story would have Trump played by Charlie McCarthy, the dummy manipulated by Edgar Bergen.

Is there any action that Trump might take that would go too far for Congressional Republicans?  They are clearly unconcerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Will they continue to be indifferent to future meddling?  Trump’s administration has taken no actions to prevent future cyber-penetration and Republicans have shown no willingness to acknowledge that America’s security is at risk.

Similarly, they seem untroubled by Trump’s assertions–totally without merit–that there was widespread voter fraud in 2016.  In fact, the party that once had Lincoln as its standard-bearer fully supports a wide assortment of voter suppression schemes.  Efforts to undermine our democratic system don’t set off any alarm bells for Republicans.

What about the risk that Trump will initiate or provoke a war with North Korea?  Or that his bellicose rhetoric and hostility to diplomacy will lead to renewed fighting in the Middle East?  Whatever your favorite metaphor for indifference–fiddling while Rome burns or whistling past the graveyard– Republicans refuse to take seriously the dangers that this unhinged president poses to world peace.

Last, but certainly not least, how will Republicans respond as Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, his family and his co-conspirators?  If Trump tries to fire Mueller, the early indications are that his party will excuse his action as a legitimate response to a partisan witch hunt.

We are in scary territory.  Politics has never been, as the old saying goes, beanbag, but there has usually been an assumption that, when push comes to shove, country does come before party.  Right now, it’s hard to argue such a principle is alive in the Republican Party.

At long last, have they no sense of decency?

Oprah for President?

 

A lot of people got very excited during the Golden Globe Awards to hear a thoughtful and articulate celebrity discuss important public issues. It’s hard not to see the reaction as in part a backlash against the incoherent ramblings of the “very stable genius” in the White House. In addition, however, Oprah Winfrey’s remarks addressed in a direct, no-nonsense fashion the long-standing cloud of sexual harassment and unequal treatment of women that has characterized the entertainment industry forever.

It’s definitely a talk that people should hear and share. Winfrey’s use of a public platform with millions of viewers to deliver her message was a brilliant choice on her part. She accomplished her task with style, eloquence and inspiration.

Should her Golden Globes speech be seen as the kickoff for a presidential campaign? Winfrey is certainly among the best known and most admired people in the country. Those are assets that any candidate would love to have in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. Are they enough to make her a serious and credible contender for the presidency in 2020?

That question has already generated a national debate.  For many, the stunning contrast to the crass narcissism of Donald Trump makes her a very appealing choice.  Compare a man who apparently doesn’t read at all to a woman who has made books a central part of her public identity.  Trump’s persona is one of conflict and division while Winfrey seems to be much more about building bridges and making connections.

Yet, even many of her strongest admirers question whether her status as a celebrity, not a person who has experience in government, public service or leadership in a large organization, is the right profile for a presidential candidate.  Any evaluation of her qualifications has to look at more that whether she is a better person than Donald Trump.  That’s way too low a bar.

My guess is that the Winfrey “boomlet” will probably fade fairly quickly.  To be a serious presidential candidate, she would have to do more that make great speeches.  She would have to raise money–which she probably would have no difficulty in doing.  She would have to take positions on important issues of the day and have some depth of understanding about them.  The fact that Trump has mastered none of the understanding is not a sufficient measure.  The anti-Trump has to be better, more knowledgable, more thoughtful, able to effectively deliver a coherent message.

Winfrey would also have to start meeting with political leaders, donors, the media and regular voters.  She certainly seems to have the skills to handle the human interactions, but whether she has the temperament, patience and endurance remains to be seen.  To seek the presidency, a person has to really desperately want the office and be willing to put up with a long, hard process that often makes little sense at the moment.

I am less concerned that she is a celebrity than that she is, in political terms, an amateur.  You may think professional politicians have not always served us well and you would certainly be correct.  But many have.  Trump’s non-existent public resume is unique in presidential history.  Our least successful chief executives have struggled because they came unprepared for the job.

There are great risks to turning the levers of power over to people who have neither  experience with, nor understanding of, how government works, what the constraints–formal and informal–are, and the realization that getting things done is more about persuasion than the exercise of formal authority.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has to be seen as an anomaly.  Moreover, his lack of deference to the Constitution, his stunning ignorance about the most basic features of our government system and his lack of perspective, historical and otherwise, should convince all thoughtful voters  never to go down the celebrity path again.

We are at a perilous moment in our history.  If we are successfully to overcome the threat the Trump presidency poses to our most basic values and institutions, we must have leaders who understand and appreciate those values and institutions.

I have no idea whether Oprah Winfrey has those qualities.  I loved her speech and how it inspired many Americans.  If she really wants to be taken seriously as a prospective leader of this country, however, she has a lot of learning and a lot of very hard work to do.  I don’t preclude the possibility that she could do it, but we have too little to go on at this point to judge her as anything other than a smart, articulate individual.

That she gave all of us a moment of hope and inspiration is something we should all cherish.   Let’s not, however, get ahead of ourselves.

 

 

2017: A Year Out of Focus

 

Year-end reviews usually seek to offer perspective on events of the prior 12 months.  As I thought about how to approach that task for 2017, I realized that this past year had been a bit off from the start, never quite in focus, not fitting in with any standards by which we usually make comparisons.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to summon the means to make sense of what has admittedly been a jarring period and maybe even learn some lessons from the experience?  If not, we run the risk of repeating a history that seems to many of us to be bending its arc in the wrong direction.  That version of “Groundhog Day” would be more horror show than comedy.

The presidency of Donald Trump and its assault on long-standing traditions and norms of our political system is certainly not the only important story of 2017, but it is in many respects the central one.  Yet, even as we were living through the first 12 months of an administration unprecedented in American history, it was incredibly difficult to stay focused on the most significant developments and not be distracted by the numerous sideshows, some deliberate and some just “Trump being Trump.”

As much as I am appalled by many of the policy decisions made by the President and the Republican Congress in 2017–the tax bill, the relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of alliances and international agreements—all of those actions and more were the inevitable byproducts of the 2016 election results.

We have to hope that future elections will produce public officials who reverse many of those actions and move the country in a different direction.  Great damage is being done in the meantime to the  nation as well as to individuals, but, as both voters and non-voters must realize, elections have consequences.

My greatest concern is with the very real threat—and I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole—to our democratic system of government.  Trump has trashed long-standing political norms—not releasing his tax returns, not divesting his business and financial holdings, appointing relatives to senior White House positions, trying to delegitimize the media, calling into question the validity of election results, treating truth as a plaything to be disregarded at his whim.  Whether those norms and standards can be re-established after the Trump Presidency is far from certain.

The future may be even worse.  His Justice Department is supporting efforts in multiple states to disenfranchise voters.  His commission on voter fraud is a transparent gimmick to limit access to the ballot box.  His rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2016 election could foreshadow moves in 2018 and 2020 to nullify votes and even election results.  Preventing that possibility requires public vigilance, legal challenges and electing officials who will oppose his efforts rather than blindly following his lead.

My review of what is significant about Trump’s first year in office has no room for his tweets, for Ivanka and Jared, for the greed and lack of ethical standards of members of his cabinet or for his generally crass behavior.  I’ll leave those topics to the re-energized media as well as to late night comics.

On the other hand, there are a number of areas in which Trump’s failure to act has had enormous significance.  His administration’s refusal to take seriously Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its continuing cyber-attacks on this country is a serious dereliction of duty in not protecting our national security.  His indifference to the impact of growing inequality in the United States poses a serious risk to the country’s long-term stability.  Is there a point at which the economic imbalance becomes so great that it threatens the relative political stability that has endured since 1789?

Two additional trends from 2017–both relevant to the Trump Presidency but neither merely the product of it—also make my review.  2017 unearthed a level of tension in race relations in this country that had been submerged for many years.  This hostility became more visible partly as a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama but also in response to the overt encouragement and racial “dog whistles” of his successor.

There were many moments during the year that illustrated those patterns, but none so vivid as Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As if that weren’t enough encouragement for undercover racists, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, often described as the only adult in the room, offered his own revisionist interpretation of the Civil War in which he downplayed the role of slavery.  The “good people on both sides”line was a much clearer signal than any wink or nod might have been.

The other major development of the year, celebrated by Time magazine, was the “#MeToo” movement.  Demonstrating that all roads in 2017 led back to Trump, the accusations of sexual harassment and worse that led to the ousting and resignations of many powerful males in the last few months generally paled in comparison to the list of those making similar claims about Trump.  Yet, he remains in office vigorously defended by his base supporters including many Evangelical Christians.

As awful as much of 2017 was, there were a few encouraging signs of a willingness to fight back against Trump.  Elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama have been seen by some as the precursors of a Democratic tsunami in 2018.  Unprecedented numbers of women running for public office are starting to break up the old patterns of traditional politics.  High turnout in the normally low turnout off-year election of 2017 offers the hope that sleepy Democrats may finally be waking up.

If you were paying attention only to day-to-day events, to the seemingly endless stream of distractions and outrages, 2017 was a truly depressing year.  There were, in addition, some dreadful policy outcomes.  However, if you are looking for any glimmers of hope, the new activism, particularly among women—and specifically, in Alabama, African-American women—gives you something to hold on to.

Fighting back against the darkness requires having hope that change can be achieved if we all work hard enough at it.  That needs to be the theme of 2018.