The Sanctuary Debate Comes to Howard County

 

Sanctuary is a concept that has been around for a long time but has taken on  fresh urgency in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s incredibly ugly 2016 presidential campaign. A bill recently introduced in the Howard County Council (CB-9) has provoked a local debate about an issue that is already getting increased attention across the country.

Even though the idea of providing a safe place for people fleeing oppression goes back centuries, it still doesn’t have an entirely clear definition. Perhaps the best known example has been churches that offered shelter to refugees. That was certainly the origin of the modern sanctuary movement in the United States.

As immigration has become a hot button political issue in the United States in the 21st century, other forms of sanctuary have evolved, including sanctuary cities, states and campuses.  Most frequently, these entities take some formal action to indicate that they will not assist federal authorities in enforcing national immigration laws.

A specific point of controversy involves requests by federal authorities to local government to detain someone who has been arrested on an unrelated matter for an extended period until immigration officials can step in.  In 2016, a federal judge  ruled against the legality of that process.  Another contentious question is whether universities will voluntarily turn over student records to law enforcement authorities.

The case against assisting federal immigration officials has several bases.  The first, straight out of federalism, is that it’s not the job of local officials to enforce federal laws.  Proponents of this position argue that engaging in those activities detracts from the ability of the locals to enforce their own laws.  It is for exactly  that reason that so many police chiefs have supported the idea of sanctuary cities.

There is, of course, another factor that goes back to the more historical notion of sanctuary.  Protecting vulnerable people is seen by some as a moral imperative.  In the wake of Trump’s demagogic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, refugees fleeing from the horrors of the war in Syria and immigrants in general, sanctuary is a way to stand in opposition to policies that are seen as betraying American values.

Opponents of sanctuary usually start with some version of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?”  Given the unwillingness of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, this argument wildly oversimplifies the issue.

They also often complain about immigrants taking jobs from Americans even though there is little or no evidence to support that assertion.  In fact, most studies conclude that immigrants, legal and illegal, contribute positively to the U.S. economy.

The arguments get more emotional when Trump and others cite examples of people in the country illegally who commit crimes.  Certainly there have been some incidents but the actual numbers are relatively few.  This position makes no more sense than advocating that all white nationalists be arrested because some of them have committed violent crimes.

Recently, much of the outcry against immigrants has arisen from a calculated political campaign by Republicans to distract members of their base from realizing that the party has done little to create jobs for them and cannot bring back the 1950s.  Finding a scapegoat is so much easier than confronting real issues.

It is not hard to find hundreds of examples of sanctuary cities and campuses in the United States.  Both Baltimore and Philadelphia are included as is the University of Pennsylvania but not Penn State.  Active discussions are underway in the University System of Maryland in the aftermath of the election.

The Howard County bill was introduced by Council President Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa and is scheduled for a hearing on January 17.  The preamble of the bill states the case of its sponsors very explicitly:

WHEREAS, Howard County is comprised of immigrants from   throughout the world who contribute to our community’s social vitality, cultural richness, and economic strength; and

WHEREAS, Howard County has a strong tradition of leadership on issues of human rights, respecting the rights of and providing equal services to all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status; and

WHEREAS, the recent national political climate has galvanized support for xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist sentiments within certain portions of the population, resulting in increased incidents of hate speech and violence; and

WHEREAS, unfortunate statements made by our nation’s President-elect have bolstered such dangerous sentiments and caused many residents throughout our country and within Howard County to fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberties; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to ensure that all residents of Howard County, regardless of nationality or citizenship, shall have fair and equal access to County benefits, opportunities, and services; and

WHEREAS, we must act now and always to uphold our commitment to be a community free of prejudice, bigotry, and hate; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to affirm that commitment by declaring Howard County a sanctuary county…

Make no mistake, this bill is a principled commentary about the direction in which the country is going.  It is a striking example of local elected officials having the courage to stand up to the hatred and prejudice that have been so much a part of Trump’s appeal.

The political dynamics going forward are likely to be complicated.  Supporters and opponents are organizing, mobilizing and making public appeals.  On Thursday, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced that he would veto the bill if it passed County Council.  In his statement, he first asserted that he is a supporter of diversity, inclusion and civility, but then called the bill a “hollow political statement.”

With the only Republican on County Council, Greg Fox, already on record opposing  CB-9, an override of a veto would need all four Democratic Council members to support the effort.  That could definitely happen.

The debate in Howard County has echoes in other parts of the state.  Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has already stated that his county will not assist in any immigration enforcement efforts.  By contrast, the man he may challenge in 2018, Governor Hogan, announced in 2015 that the State of Maryland would cooperate with federal officials.

With some Congressional Republicans threatening to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, states and campuses, this debate is likely to get even more heated in the coming year.  How it plays out in Howard County could be an early indicator of the larger battle.

Will the Media Do Better in 2017?

 

With relatively few exceptions, the national media failed us badly during the 2016 presidential election.  As the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States fast approaches, it’s far from clear that the press will be able to do a better job covering his presidency than it did his candidacy.

To be sure, there’s been some agonizing, self-reflection and calls to rethink their approach to covering a highly unconventional figure in an age when traditional media faces such significant competition.  The ability of the press to inform the public about candidates, elected officials and the activities of government is one of the essential pillars of a democracy.  As some observers already worry that under a Trump presidency our democracy is at risk, the question is of central importance.

How did the media fail in 2016?  Let me count the ways.

For one, television gave Candidate Trump hours of unfiltered and unexamined coverage worth millions of dollars.  The apparent motivation was that he was good for ratings.

An unfortunate corollary was the paucity of coverage of issues during the presidential campaign.  Numerous studies of network television news have shown that policy issues–as opposed to political controversies, assertions by the candidates and personality stories–received almost no attention.

Similarly, until much too late in the General Election, media coverage failed to point out Trump’s lies, contradictions and inconsistencies.  Some apologists for that practice argue that it’s up to the public to figure out whether a candidate is telling the truth and that the only job of the press is to report on what is said.

That begs the question of how the public is supposed to make such a judgment unless they are informed by the press.  It also relates to one of the most troubling aspects of the election, that so many of his supporters knew but didn’t care that many of his assertions were false.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the press largely failed to  pursue such important issues as the non-release of his tax returns, his business dealings with Russia and his stunning lack of knowledge about foreign affairs.  The notable exception was David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, whose coverage of Trump’s foundation and “charitable donations” is likely to win him the Pulitzer Prize.

Moreover, the media comes out of the 2016 campaign structurally weakened.  Trump used the press as a prop for his anti-establishment rants and succeeded in undercutting their credibility with a significant portion of the electorate.  Alternative media, not just Fox News, offered a view of the world that many of those voters eagerly accepted.

The most dangerous development of all may have been the advent of what has been called “fake news.”   For both partisan and commercial reasons, there were people out there in cyberspace inventing stories that some voters believed, reposted on social media and used to reinforce their views of the candidates and the “facts.”

If I had to pick a metaphor to describe how the press covered Donald Trump in 2016, the most apt would probably be a dog on a walk who keeps getting distracted by squirrels.  Donald Trump’s tweets are the squirrels that keep the press chasing after much that is irrelevant.

The early 2017 signs are not encouraging.  Trump keeps tweeting and the press keeps chasing.  He keeps lying and the media keeps reporting on just what he says.  He hasn’t held a press conference in months and may not during his presidency.  If he does, it will likely again be to  use reporters as a foil to stir up his angry supporters.

The president-elect has already stated that he didn’t really mean much of what he said during the campaign.  He has appointed individuals to key positions in the new administration who have a much more ideological agenda than he ever suggested while a candidate.

Moreover, many of his promises, whether or not he meant them, are unachievable.  Coal is not coming back.  Manufacturing jobs in large numbers for people without significant education are not going to happen either.  There’s no signs of any swamp being drained.

How will the press cover what he does and what he fails to do?  Will reporters make the effort to put his actions into a broader context or will they just continue to react to his latest words and tweets?  Will they finally escape the trap of false equivalency, of insisting on finding parallels between his actions and those of Democratic critics?

I have another concern as well.  Trump’s supporters have gone after anyone who criticizes him, often threatening and engaging in personal attacks.  There are early indications that some Congressional Republicans are hesitant to voice opposition because they fear the wrath of his backers.

Will the press also be vulnerable to intimidation by Trump?  He certainly tried to do that during the campaign, including threatening to change the nation’s libel laws to make it easier to sue reporters.  It’s clear that his version of “fair” coverage means only favorable reporting.

I actually don’t know the answer to the question I posed at the start of this blog.  I do know, however, that maintaining some semblance of our traditional democratic norms and practices depends on the ability of the media to play its historic role as a watchdog and as the means by which the public is informed.

The political environment is unlike any that the media has ever seen before.  How well it can adapt and respond may well be the single most important factor in whether American democracy survives the Trump years.  Unfortunately, we are not going to know the answer to that question for some time.

 

Get Over It? I Don’t Think So.

 

Donald Trump has been elected president. There, I’ve said it, acknowledged it, realized that it’s the political reality we have to deal with for the next four years.

What I am unwilling to do, however, is passively accept actions that threaten the foundations of our democracy or look the other way when his administration tramples the basic rights of Americans because of the color of their skin, their religion, their national origin or personal lifestyle. I haven’t–and won’t–change my opinion that Trump is totally unqualified by temperament, experience and values to be president. I won’t forget his appeals to prejudice and to the worst instincts of people.  Nor will I forget those voters who supported him despite his ugly campaign.

I will also recall the trashing by the Republican Party of a long history of political norms that treated the opposition party as legitimate.  In the past, election victors exercised some degree of self-restraint when in office because majority status was unlikely to be a permanent condition.

The unprecedented decision by Senate Republicans to take no action for nearly a year on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court reduces politics to total warfare and doesn’t bode well for the future.  That Trump will take office with over 100 federal court vacancies, twice the number which existed when Obama took office, demonstrates the same intransigence.

In a series of actions even more extreme, North Carolina Republicans rejected the will of voters in that state by stripping away many of the executive powers of the incoming Democratic Governor.  That was just the latest example of increasingly tyrannical measures by Republican majorities following the enactment of laws to disenfranchise minorities and the extreme gerrymandering of legislative districts.

Before the Trump Administration is sworn in, it’s worth remembering how Congressional Republicans strategized from before Day One of the Obama Presidency to thwart his agenda.  Even when he offered proposals that had long been supported by Republicans, that party turned to total unrelenting opposition.  Republicans were willing to paralyze the functioning of government rather than see the Obama administration succeed at anything.  In that vein, it will be instructive to see how they deal with deficits under a Republican president.

We hear a lot of pious admonitions that Trump is president of all the American people, that we should all wish him to succeed, that we should give him a chance before criticizing him.  Let’s for argument’s sake ignore the rank hypocrisy of those calls.

At this point, we already know several things about the new president.  First, and of particular significance, we know that we can’t rely on anything he says.  Trump lied constantly during the campaign.  He has already contradicted and repudiated many of his promises and has made clear that they were said just for political effect.

His staff is frequently clarifying his remarks and tweets.  And in the most outrageous explanation for his failure to communicate clearly or honestly, we are told that it’s our fault for not understanding what he really means and for taking him literally.

That pattern has continued during the transition.  In fact, it’s become increasingly clear that many of his tweets are intended to distract and confuse, not to clarify or explain.

We also know that his appointees include a large number of extreme ideologues.  For voters who were skeptical about Trump’s candidacy but were willing to look for hopeful signs, two of his expressed positions–safeguarding Medicare and Social Security and plans for major infrastructure projects–were encouraging.  Based on the people he has selected for key positions, those promises are looking a lot like empty campaign rhetoric.

With so many indications that the words of his campaign can only be understood as metaphorical suggestions about how he will govern, there is one constant, one unaltered piece of the puzzle.  Trump is the same undisciplined, shoot from the lip person he showed himself to be before November 8.  He has demonstrated little interest in educating himself, avoids complexity and nuance in favor of bumper sticker solutions and continues to reveal that he is incredibly thin-skinned and self-absorbed.  His obsession with Alec Baldwin’s SNL’s skits shows a remarkably insecure person.

The picture of the coming Trump presidency that has emerged so far leaves me wondering exactly what I should be getting over.  Everything he has done so far convinces me that I need to be incredibly vigilant, that I need to be even more politically active and that I need to encourage others to do the same.  I only hope that there are enough other people in this country who feel the same way so that we can together keep the lights burning brightly  in what looks like it could be a very dark time.

Tom Perez, Paul Ryan and the End of 2016

 

For all of you who view 2016 as one of the worst years in memory, hold onto your hats because 2017 is likely to be even worse. After all, this year Barack Obama is still president, but that will come to an end January 20. Today we are still speculating about what kind of president Donald Trump will be; next year we will actually have to face the reality of a Trump presidency.

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to listen more carefully to people with different political views, an approach the leadership of the Democratic Party might try as well. Not all Trump supporters come off the pages of “Hillbilly Elegy”, are in desperate financial straits or are overdosing on opiates.

Most of them are not racists or xenophobic though they do tend to have very different views about the role of government than I do and different values about the balance between community and the individual. And however much quiet discussions might add to the nation’s sense of civility, the early indications are that neither the Trump circle nor Republican Party leaders are in any mood for either compromise or conversation.

In North Carolina, the outgoing Republican Governor, defeated in his reelection bid, is conniving with the Republican dominated legislature to erode the executive powers of his successor.  You can dress that up anyway you want, but in essence it’s a coup d’etat.  Respect for the outcome of an election and for the legitimacy of the opposition party are foundations of our political system.  Since George Washington chose to leave office after two terms, the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another has been a  touchstone of American democracy.

Let me say clearly that I disagreed with the efforts to pressure electors to change their votes and not support Trump for president.  While an argument about the strengths and weaknesses of the Electoral College is a worthy debate topic, you don’t change the rules during an election.

Moreover, the proponents failed to recognize that in the absence of one candidate receiving a majority in the Electoral College, the winner would be selected by a vote of states in the House of Representatives.  Same outcome with a lot of bitterness in the process.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the contours of the Trump Administration are steadily being filled out.  As the appointments are announced, a different picture of the President-elect has emerged.

Trump has already stepped away from many of his campaign promises and assertions.  His proclaimed lack of interest in intelligence briefings, his short attention span and his proud insistence that he doesn’t read much all add up to a president who is not terribly engaged on most matters.

The risk of his blundering into a foreign policy crisis from ignorance, lack of interest or impatience has been widely noted.  Another, more likely product of his approach has not, on the other hand, received much attention.  Trump, who never served in the military, likes associating with generals.  He’s already selected three of them for high level positions.  It’s hard not to conclude that a significant factor in picking James Mattis to head up the Department of Defense was that Trump likes referring to him as “Mad Dog Mattis.”  You also wonder if his comparing Mattis to General George Patton is based only on having watched the George C. Scott movie since Trump doesn’t read books.

Then there are the very rich financial and business sector people who donated large amounts to Trump’s campaign.  These appointments have more the look of rewards for services rendered than picking a team to carry out a Trump agenda.

The appointees who are neither generals nor wealthy seem to come from an entirely different pipeline.  Most of them are people Trump doesn’t know personally, including several from the U.S. House of Representatives.  For example, he just named an extreme budget cutter to head up OMB, which won’t be easily reconciled with Trump’s announced plans for major infrastructure spending.

All roads seem to lead back to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.  Ryan, with a big assist from Trump Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, is stocking the new Administration with loyalists to himself who share a radical agenda.  So far, in addition to OMB, the list includes the head of the CIA and the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Interior.

Ryan, when he finally endorsed Trump during the campaign, spoke of his confidence that Trump would support the House Republican agenda if elected.  The Speaker apparently saw a more compliant candidate than most other observers did and realized that Trump would have little interest in the details of governing.

Paul Ryan has cultivated an image as the brains of the Republican Party as well as of a reasonable person.  He may, however, be more dangerous than even Donald Trump because he has a very ambitious agenda while Trump is a purely transactional figure.

Before I leave you with that gloomy prognosis for 2017, I want to end on a more encouraging note.  Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has announced his candidacy to head the Democratic National Committee.

Perez is a true progressive: smart, passionate about issues of equality, access and opportunity, and knowledgable about the working class voters who the Clinton campaign largely ignored in 2016.  I first met Perez in 2006 when he was a candidate  for Attorney General in Maryland.  He was ruled ineligible to run though a debatable interpretation of the State Constitution, but rebounded brilliantly.  After serving as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, he moved to the Obama Administration, first as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and then Secretary of Labor.

In every office that he has held, Perez has been a champion for the disadvantaged in our society, whether it was voting rights, benefits for workers or fairness for citizens of all categories.  He is tireless in his advocacy, relentless in his commitment.

It’s hard to imagine an individual who better personifies what the Democratic Party can and should be than Tom Perez.  His record of achievement built upon an amazing life story makes him an ideal choice to head the Democratic Party’s efforts to rebuild itself.  Finally, a bit of positive news.

The Case for Democratic Obstructionism

The next four years are going to be awful.  Even if you aren’t worried about Donald Trump and his incoming administration undermining democracy in this country–a threat I see as real–you should expect substantial cuts in the role of government in this country.  The 1% may cheer that development, but many others will suffer.

By 2020, the rich are likely to be richer, the poor to be poorer and much of the safety net to be only a vague memory.  There will be more impediments to voting, fewer protections for minorities of every definition  and our commitment to saving the planet will have been shunted aside.

This set of concerns doesn’t even touch national security and American policy toward the rest of the world.  A new round of foreign intervention?  Trade wars with former partners?  Stumbling into conflicts because no one listened to a briefing on the history of a region?  A convoluted relationship with Russia that mistakes their interests for our own?

The intensity of speculation about fundamental changes in the direction of American policy is in some ways astonishing given that the country is incredibly and almost equally divided on many of the important issues of the day.  Nevertheless, the early indications are that the President-elect and the Republican leadership in Congress are intent on pushing radical changes.

Hillary Clinton’s significant lead in the popular vote does not give her a claim to the presidency but it does undercut any argument that Donald Trump has a mandate from the American public. The reports by many of the country’s intelligence agencies that Russia deliberately intervened on behalf of Trump’s candidacy underscores political and moral arguments for a cautious and deliberative approach to change.

In the 20th Century, three presidents–Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan–won the kind of landslide victories that gave them a justifiable claim to a mandate.  Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College as the result of close outcomes in a handful of states.  He ran a campaign that included few specific policy positions and, as we have learned since the election, he didn’t even mean many of those.

As his transition unfolds, we are seeing evidence that Trump’s Administration may take a highly conservative Republican approach to the Federal Government in some areas.  Those who hoped that he would be pragmatic and non-ideological may be sorely disappointed.  A number of his appointees come from the hard-line anti-government wing of the party.  Cabinet secretaries at Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Education and the Environmental Protection Agency give every indication of being fundamentally opposed to the  missions of their departments.

Moreover, and while this should be disturbing to many of his backers but probably won’t be, Trump has looked increasingly to the financial sector,  particularly Goldman Sachs, for filling high level positions.  Where once those people were demonized in his campaign, now they are the insiders.  In the same vein, there has never been an administration with so many former generals.

Another sign that the Republicans have an ambitious agenda comes from the Congressional side, particularly the ideas that House Speaker Paul Ryan has advocated over the years.  Repealing the Affordable Care Act is the advertised first move but how to replace it is far from obvious. Any plan offered by the Republicans could create both real hardship and chaos in health care.

Despite Trump’s promises during the campaign to safeguard Medicare and Social Security, those programs seems to be directly in Ryan’s crosshairs.  Other programs in danger, and this is far from a complete inventory, include environmental standards, trade agreements, the safety net for the poor, women’s healthcare, voting rights, LGBTQ protection, and  … this list could get really long.

What are Democrats to do?  While there may be some areas in which a cooperative approach can produce positive results–rebuilding the country’s infrastructure is frequently cited, although Congressional Republican support is far from certain–Congressional Democrats are really left with two options, neither of which is ideal, and which are in some respects contradictory.

One is to obstruct, to find every means of parliamentary and legislative resistance to the Trump agenda.  Many of those efforts are likely to fail, but a few may succeed.

Meanwhile, it is essential that the Democrats leave no doubt with the voting public –especially those who supported the new president –that Trump and the Republicans are responsible for enacting the changes that harm Americans.  For example, it’s already not too early to push the message that his cabinet is filled with former partners at Goldman Sachs and billionaires from businesses which profited off the backs of their workers.

For many years, Republicans have been far more effective than Democrats at winning the messaging wars.  It’s time for Democrats to pay serious attention to the importance of communicating with voters in language that resonates with them.  That was one of the keys to Trump’s victory.  Opposing his agenda will require a greatly improved outreach effort.

Given the intransigent Republican opposition to everything Barack Obama tried to do during his presidency, that party has totally sacrificed the moral high ground on political obstruction.  Add to that the refusal to even consider, let alone confirm, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee–and to hear some Republican Senators, who at the time assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election, assert that eight justices are enough–Democrats have a lot of public relations ammunition for resisting Republican measures.

Parallel efforts–beginning immediately to focus on the 2018 and 2020 elections in the states as well as for Congress, citizen activism including mass demonstrations, and support for organizations that can lead the legal fight against a radical agenda–are also critical.

The passive view, that things have always turned out okay in the past, is just too dangerous with a president who is as unqualified, erratic and demagogic as Trump.  As the American patriot Thomas Paine said during the Revolutionary War, these are the times that try men’s souls.

Writing today, Paine would certainly have included women as well.  These next four years will test everyone who cares about democracy and the values that have been fundamental to this country since its founding.

 

Crumbling Foundations

public-trust-in-government

Much of the analysis of the 2016 Presidential election has focused on the specifics of the campaign: Donald Trump’s ability to appeal to angry white working class voters; Hillary Clinton’s “baggage” as a candidate; the oddities of the Electoral College system.  However, these issues may miss the larger point altogether.

Trump’s victory may be less a portent of transformation of the political system and more the product of factors long preceding his candidacy. For those who worry that our democratic system is at peril, this risk goes far beyond Trump himself.

The election was so jarring because none of the normal expectations of electoral politics seemed to apply.  Trump won despite disregarding long-standing political norms, overcoming personal disclosures that would have sunk any traditional candidate and giving little indication of how he would govern.  His candidacy seemed in many respects more an assault on the political system itself than a forecast for what his presidency would be like.

In fact, the political system was already incredibly wobbly although we have been largely blind to that reality.  And, more significantly, the weakness of our basic institutions is, if you reflect, the result of years, even decades, of undermining by well-organized political forces.

The decline in trust in government, reflected in the chart above, can be traced to events such as Watergate and the Vietnam War, as well as to the slowdown in economic growth in this country.  Another significant factor has been the demonizing of government by politicians.  Ronald Reagan’s critique of government as “the problem” opened the floodgates for that era.  The drumbeat of attacks on Washington, on bureaucrats, on government overreach, has taken its toll on American voters.

The campaign against government  has also been furthered by conservatives arguing that all taxes are bad, that they should always be reduced and never increased. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that government is not capable of responding to the needs of the country.  Infrastructure is crumbling, schools are in decline, the safety net is being shredded.

Additionally, Republicans who controlled Congress for most of Barack Obama’s term as president demonstrated a single-minded determination to prevent him from accomplishing anything.  Voters saw gridlock and stalemate in Washington and attributed it to inherent failings of the political system rather than to a deliberate strategy to incapacitate a political opponent.

As a result, when Trump promised to “drain the swamp”, he was plowing ground that had been made fertile by years of systematic attacks on the very concept of government.

Another institution under assault is the media.  The president-elect didn’t invent press bashing, but he certainly made an art form of it.  While the press has always had its faults, the founders of our constitutional system still saw an independent media as an essential safeguard for a democratic system.

That institution is under siege from three directions and what its future in our political system will be is far from clear.  One challenge is the rapidly shifting economics of the media.  The Internet has undercut the traditional revenues streams and forced the press to reconfigure itself in ways that are still evolving.  As a consequence, the press is left with significantly fewer resources and less capacity than it once had.

A second challenge is the proliferation of media outlets and disagreement about the very definition of news.  Multiple web sites, bloggers and the appearance of “fake news” have created a cluttered environment for news consumers.  Where once we could confidently describe Walter Cronkite as the “most trusted man in America”, no one can claim that mantel today.  The phenomenon, well-documented, of people relying primarily on sources that reinforce their own views has altered the role of the media in this country in ways that diminish its ability to be the watchdog of democracy.

Finally, and perhaps most distressing, the credibility of the media has been seriously damaged.  Some of that is self-inflicted but most results from constant criticism.  Trump made the media a prop for his campaign and urged his supporters to disparage reporters at every opportunity.

The logical, or illogical if you prefer, conclusion of these trends, has been the assertion that we are in a post-factual era.  Certainly, fact-checking of Trump during the campaign seemed to have minimal impact on his supporters.  Now, some of his advocates are claiming that there is no such thing as facts, only perceptions and opinions.

My conclusion, based on these observations, is that safeguarding democracy in this country and avoiding the more ominous dangers of a Trump presidency will require more than the steps that have been generally discussed so far.  The foundations, the basic institutions of our political system, have been under sustained and systematic attack for years.   Without a common understanding of what is essential for a democratic system, we get the kind of destructive actions that characterized the election of 2016.

Finding ways to rebuild trust in our most cherished institutions is going to be essential if the United States is to have any chance of preserving the basic values of the constitutional system.  Ben Franklin, after the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, was asked what sort of government the delegates had established.  His answer, very much relevant today, was: A Republic if you can keep it.

 

Did You Really Think There ‘d Be A Different Donald Trump After November 8?

 

baldwin-and-trump

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump showed himself to be a thin-skinned narcissist with little or no understanding of the demands of the presidency or the challenges he would face if elected. Some saw his comments and behavior as reminiscent of fascist leaders of the past. Others noted his tolerance for, if not active encouragement of, supporters who were racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. Rather than someone who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, Trump gave every indication of not caring what he doesn’t know.

Many people have spent  time since the election passing through the various stages of grief as well as trying to understand what factors led to the outcome.  Wherever those assessments lead, the reality remains that on January 20, 2017, Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

If words like “surrealistic”, “unprecedented” and “scary” were used to describe his campaign, those impressions have all been reinforced and underscored by his activities during this transition period.  The hope that he would become more “presidential” after the election and that the impending responsibilities of the office would moderate his behavior have proved illusory up to now.

The most significant lesson so far is that Trump’s words can’t be taken literally.  Many of his senior advisors have criticized the press for reporting his words directly when he “clearly” meant them figuratively.  Trump gives every indication that he doesn’t feel bound by anything that he said during the campaign.  Moreover, as with the campaign speech about making sure the Carrier plant in Indiana wouldn’t move to Mexico, he feels free to deny ever having said that.

How well that will play with the large crowds at his rallies who heard him talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry remains to be seen.  Perhaps the opportunity to shout “Build the wall” and “Lock her up” was all they wanted out of the campaign.  Frankly, however, that won’t be just their problem.  It will also be the problem of all those working class whites who will make up the bulk of the military if Trump or one of his belligerent generals involves us in a war in the Middle East or elsewhere just to show how tough they are.

As to Trump’s words during the transition and once he takes office, I hope the press and the public will remember the lesson that we can’t take anything he says literally.  As Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said during the Watergate hearings, watch what they do, not what they say.

There are at least three other patterns from the campaign that have reemerged during the transition.  First, and it should surprise no one, Trump is continuing to tweet at all hours and primarily on subjects that annoy him personally.  It’s astonishing that the incoming leader of the free world feels the need to critique Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live.  Did I mention thin-skinned?  I actually wonder how stable the man is.  Unfortunately, we may not find out for sure until he has created incredible damage somewhere.

The second issue with his tweets is what it shows about his values.  Has he tweeted about the right-wing group that shouted “Heil Trump” at a meeting in Washington?  Has he weighed in on the upsurge in hate acts aimed at minorities and Muslims?  No, but he did get upset about the cast of Hamilton offering a plea for tolerance to Mike Pence after a performance.

Trump has bragged in the past about not reading books.  Apparently his short attention span and impatience apply to sitting through briefings as well.  However big he thinks his brain is, there are lots of important subjects about which he knows almost nothing.  In skipping briefings from American intelligence agencies, he is demonstrating  a level of either arrogance or indifference that jeopardizes his ability to do the job for which he was elected.

This pattern has already had adverse consequences.  It was troubling when, during the campaign, Trump diminished the importance of America’s alliances with other nations.  Now, however, he seems intent on  treating long-time friends like Britain and Germany with disdain and indifference.  Whether he is aware of the potential impact of his amateurish actions is besides the point; he is running the risk of undermining the international security system that has served the United States incredibly well since the end of World War II.

Conducting telephone calls with foreign leaders without bothering to learn about and understand the intricacies of the relationships with their countries is fundamentally an act of gross irresponsibility.  Conversations with the leaders of Pakistan and Taiwan have already caused unnecessary confusion.  Trump may look upon himself as a deal maker, but he certainly is no diplomat.

Once he becomes president, his tendency to act without thinking and preparation, to react to the moment, to want to make whoever he’s talking to happy raise gigantic risks for American national interests and for world stability.  Trump the businessman sees every relationship as a transaction.  In diplomacy, being able to think and act for long-term goals is essential, but it’s increasingly questionable whether he is capable of taking that perspective.

The third pattern of the Trump transition, the one that has received by far the most attention, is his appointments to key positions.  During the campaign, he went through three campaign managers, had a constant swirl of people trying to influence him and brought into his closest circle individuals from the extreme fringes of US politics.  As a candidate, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and end politics as usual. He also strongly criticized Wall Street for its influence on policy makers.

However, some of his initial appointees looks like those of a very traditional Republican.  A Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs.  A Transportation Secretary who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  A Chief of Staff who headed the Republican National Committee.  That looks more like bringing additional alligators to the swamp  than draining it.

Many of the others are even more controversial and raise serious questions about the direction of a Trump Administration.  Senator Jeff Sessions, who was turned down for a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his racist connections, will head the Department of Justice.  It’s hard to think of a worse choice short of picking David Duke.

One of my biggest concerns is that Trump will not be interested enough to pay attention to what Sessions does as Attorney General and will give him almost unlimited latitude.  In many respects, Sessions may well be the most dangerous person so far named to the new administration.

Given the overt attacks on voting rights in many states even before this and in light of the dreadful Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, Sessions could do great harm to what should be a constitutionally sacred right.  Stopping him will take concerted efforts by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, other groups and concerned citizens.

The national security team is not yet in place.  Whoever is selected to be Secretary of State may well play  a pivotal role given the current configuration.  Mike Flynn, the National Security Advisor, has a history of erratic and confrontational behavior and will certainly not be a brake on any rash tendencies that Trump may bring to the Oval Office.

By all accounts, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense designee, is a thoughtful, well-read strategic thinker who could be a counter-weight to the tendency to precipitous action.  The announcement by some Congressional Democrats of their intention to fight the waiver that Mattis needs to take the job looks like it’s picking the wrong guy to fight.

I haven’t yet mentioned Steve Bannon in part because it’s not at all clear what his job is.  Chief strategist could mean anything.  His history in the alt.right movement is deeply disturbing, however, and should make all of us very wary of whatever role he plays.

The upshot of these observations is that, at this point, President-elect Trump looks an awful lot like candidate Trump.  It’s hard to see any mellowing, any willingness to be more reflective, any instinct to broaden his circle of advisors. Worse, he is still resisting guidance from individuals with any experience in government. Unless we see a real change after January 20, we are in for a very dark period in this country.

What’s Next for Maryland Democrats?

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Despite its reputation as a deep blue state, a status apparently reconfirmed by Hillary Clinton’s decisive victory in this month’s Presidential Election, there are some ominous signs for the party that has long dominated Maryland politics.

Clinton’s win, large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, holding nine of ten seats in Congress and a big advantage in voter registration might lead some to the conclusion that everything is really okay.  As tempting and comfortable as avoiding reality often is, the risks could be significant as we move into the 2018 election season.

Was Larry Hogan’s victory in the 2014 Gubernatorial race just an anomaly, the result of a weak opponent who failed to energize the party base?  That’s certainly a partial explanation, but it fails to take into account Hogan’s appeal to more conservative working class Democrats and his considerable political skills.  The incumbent will be a formidable candidate for reelection regardless of who runs against him.

The last time there was a Republican governor, two strong challengers, Martin O’Malley and Doug Duncan, were campaigning well before the 2006 election.  While there are several Democratic names in the mix this time, it’s not yet apparent that any of them has support beyond their geographical base.  That could change, but until someone emerges as a clear frontrunner, Hogan can continue to pick fights with the leadership of the General Assembly.  That’s a public relations battle that he, or any governor, wins every time.

The election of Donald Trump as this country’s next president has been seen by some analysts as creating a more difficult political environment for Hogan’s reelection bid.  That view assumes that Trump will be highly unpopular by 2018 and that there will be a backlash against Republicans as a result.  Although that could happen, it disregards another Trump phenomenon.

Just like Hogan, Trump appealed to voters that the Democratic Party has failed to attract or, quite honestly, hasn’t even tried to reach.  As a number of states showed during the presidential election, party registration is not a reliable indicator of how people will actually vote.  Will Maryland revert to an earlier norm in the 2018 Gubernatorial election or is the state in the process of realigning?

One challenge for Democrats figuring out how to respond to a political environment in flux is a leadership cadre that has been in place for a long time.  The Washington Post, among others, recently noted that the three top Democratic officials in the House of Representatives are all in their mid to late 70s.  Regardless of their policy positions or their political skills, they have presided over a loss of majority status, posed a bottleneck to the advancement of younger members and are seen, fairly or unfairly, as highly partisan.

While it will be uncomfortable for many Maryland Democrats, the same questions need to be asked about the leadership in the General Assembly.  It’s hard to imagine two leaders more skilled or more successful in passing legislation that had the support of large majorities of Marylanders than Mike Miller and Mike Busch.  They truly deserve widespread thanks, applause and praise.

However, their longevity in office and their control over their respective chambers have hampered the rise of younger members who would bring  different perspectives to the legislature.  Moreover, some of the committee chairs, hand selected by the presiding officers, have held their positions beyond the “Best if used by___” date.

You can certainly argue that you shouldn’t try to fix something that isn’t clearly broken.  At a superficial level, everything looks just fine in the world of Maryland Democrats, particularly when compared to the loss of hundreds of Democratic legislative seats and governors’ offices in other states.  The outcome of the presidential election, however, suggest that we are entering a new and uncertain period in politics in this country.

To win back control of the Federal Government and of state governments, the Democratic Party is going to need to revitalize its message, its outreach to constituencies that it has ignored and its leadership. Just because the situation in Maryland does not seem dire is no excuse for ignoring warning signs that are everywhere on the horizon.

If a sports analogy helps to make the point, think about the baseball team that holds onto its aging stars too long,  doesn’t invest in its farm system, and fails to recognize the need for a transition until it’s too late.

What Maryland Democrats need now is a healthy debate about the future.  They don’t need anointed candidates for office, but instead should encourage vigorous competition for its nominations.  Younger office holders need to be given leadership opportunities.  The search for the next generation of candidates needs to be open and inclusive.  The party needs to focus on addressing and solving problems, not on cobbling together voter groups.

Or Maryland Democrats can keep doing what they have in the past and hope for the best.

What if the Worst Case Scenario is the Only One?

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The early indications are that President Donald Trump will be pretty much  the same as candidate Donald Trump. He’s still on Twitter, he’s still incredibly thin-skinned and sensitive and he’s still fighting with the media. The notion that once elected he would become more pragmatic and less volatile seems like a fantasy just now, a desperate coping mechanism by those dispirited by the outcome of the election.

Trump promised that he would be “presidential” after the campaign was over, but we’ve never seen this version of “presidential” in the history of the Republic.  Some of that disconnect is fed by the optics of a billionaire holding court in his downtown New York City tower/castle as office seekers march past cameras next to the elevators in Trump Tower.

On the other hand, the actual decisions that he has announced so far, almost all about appointments to his administration, trigger reminders of what alarmed so many people about his candidacy.  Rather than considering the “best minds”, Trump has chosen a group of policy hard-liners, many on the fringes of American politics.

Most attention has been paid to chief strategist Steve Bannon of Breitbart News and the alt.right, promoters of fake news, conspiracy theories and racial division.  No one is really sure how much influence Bannon actually has with Trump, but the image of him whispering in the ear of the new president is not a reassuring one.  At very least, and the reality will likely be much worse, Bannon’s appointment sends a signal that tolerance and sensitivity to anyone not in the Trump inner circle is unlikely.

To me, the scariest selection is that of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to be the next Attorney General.  Sessions was rejected by the U.S. Senate in the 1980s for a federal judgeship because of his racist ties in Alabama.  His most recent stances as a Senator from that same state have been virulently anti-immigrant.

As Attorney General, Sessions will wield considerable institutional power on his own.  Voting rights, already imperiled by the Supreme Court’s decision rolling back the 1965 landmark law that gave real protections to those arguing voter intimidation, are likely to be even more under siege with Sessions heading the Justice Department.

Do you remember the perverse glee that conservatives took in referring to our current president as Barack Hussein Obama?  They were trying to imply that he was connected or at least sympathetic to Islamic terrorists.  Sessions, by contrast, is named for two people who actually participated in armed rebellion against the United States.   I won’t use the reference again, but I did want to emphasize how sophomoric any such labelling is.

Reince Preibus has been appointed as Trump’s chief of staff and looks like a moderate compared to the others in the first round of selections.  Whether he can actually manage Trump or will even try and whether he can restrain his worst impulses remain to be seen.  What I find most troubling about Preibus is his close connection to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a link that many see as a positive attribute.

Trump promised during the campaign to protect Social Security and Medicare.  Ryan has viewed those programs as a top priority to privatize and thereby reduce the cost to government.  I really doubt that most of Trump’s working class supporters would find that acceptable, but there’s a risk that Preibus will advocate to Trump for Ryan’s agenda with respect to those programs.

The National Security Advisor, General Mike Flynn, has been widely regarded as a top flight military officer who has become increasingly bellicose in recent years. Given free rein, he sounds like he might be eager to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts.  What his influence  will actually be remains to be seen since the rest of the national security team, including the Secretaries of State and Defense, has yet to be named.  A bad omen, however, is that the new CIA Director seems to share the same hard-line views as Flynn.

Personnel appointments are not the only indicator of what a Trump Presidency could be.  The President-elect’s disregard for standards, much less rules, of ethics and conflict of interest is ominous.  Trump apparently wants his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to serve in the White House despite an unambiguous law that bars nepotism.  The notion that Kushner’s not taking a salary would solve the problem shows an obliviousness to ethical standards that is stunning.

The problem with Kushner having a formal role is that it underscores just how insecure a person Trump really is.  Many have reported that he has few, if any,  real friends and seems to really trust only family members who give him absolute loyalty.  To be successful, it’s critical that a president be open to a variety of points of view and not be surrounded by an echo chamber.

Trump’s vast holdings and wealth, his plan to turn control of them over to his children in a trust that is anything but blind, and his continued business transactions while President-elect show not so much a blind spot as an attitude that the rules don’t apply to him.  Who will step in and remind him that this is a government of laws, not of individuals?

This is the moment at which you may remember that Trump has still not released his tax returns.  Even though the election is over, the American people are entitled to a reasonable expectation that their president is acting on their behalf, not in his own self-interest.  Making his tax returns public would be one important step in providing that reassurance.

We’ve also had several incidents that demonstrate that his temperament has not mellowed since November 8.  He still feels the need to criticize Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live.  Trump blasted out two days of angry tweets after the “Hamilton” cast took the opportunity to address Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended a performance.  Pence gave a classy and appropriate response; Trump went ballistic.

On a more encouraging note,  a spokesperson on Tuesday indicated that Trump does not plan to seek an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s activities despite “Lock her up” being a thunderous applause line during his campaign.  For those looking for slender reeds to grasp, that’s the best so far.

Then there’s the “off-the-record” meeting with media leaders at which Trump called them all liars and choose to inflame a feud rather than create a blank slate.  He followed that outburst by cancelling and then rescheduling a meeting with the New York Times, a paper that he has attacked relentlessly since the election as well as during the campaign.

Let’s not understate the issue: Trump is trying to intimidate the media.  During the campaign, he talked about his intention to change the country’s libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.  Trump has no tolerance for criticism and no respect for the historical role of the press as a watchdog for democracy.

All of these are deeply disturbing signs for the country.  Trump won and gets to govern, but he doesn’t get to disregard the Constitution or the reality that our system is one of limited government.  Unless the remainder of the transition is very different from what the start has been, we are in for an extremely trying four years in which basic democratic values are genuinely at risk.

What’s the “Real” Reason Hillary Clinton Lost?

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By now, you’ve been inundated by analyses, explanations, speculation and excuses as to why the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election shocked so many observers. Although some people correctly predicted the outcome, most people, including within the Trump campaign, weren’t prepared for the result.

The examination of data, interviews, inside information and wild guesses will definitely go on for a while. There may never be a conclusion that draws universal acceptance but there are surely a number of most relevant factors.  Whatever consensus is reached within the Democratic Party is of great consequence because it will impact the immediate response to the election as well as election strategies in the future.

For Democrats, the most dangerous path is to focus on Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, point to a handful of anomalous events and conclude that nothing much needs to change.  The candidate gave support to this position by arguing that James Comey’s ill-considered and unprecedented intervention turned the tide against her.  Comey’s letter to Congressional leaders suggesting a reexamination of Clinton emails certainly had an impact, but was it decisive all by itself?  Moreover, was it an October surprise that could have, indeed should have, been overcome?

The electoral college backlash is fundamentally silly.  Everyone knew the rules for selecting presidents.  It’s easy to argue that her popular vote victory undercuts any claims that Trump has a “mandate” but, historically, mandates have turned out to be only whatever a president was able to make of them.

There are some more serious assertions to consider. One, which I certainly believe has a significant measure of truth to it, is that some portion of voters were unwilling to elect a woman to be president.  A related notion is that Clinton carried, fairly and unfairly, a lot of baggage from her long career in public life.  The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the behavior of some of his supporters at rallies certainly provide support for both of these propositions.

It’s true, however,  that both of these problems were known before the campaign began and should have been factored into the strategy for winning.  The degree of resistance to a woman candidate may have been greater than anticipated but was certainly apparent during the campaign.

As anyone who read my blogs during the campaign knows, I strongly supported Clinton.  I voted for her, contributed money and volunteered in her campaign.  In other words, I was a voter who was enthusiastic about the prospect of electing a woman to be president and I wasn’t troubled by the various allegations against her.

Still, I know lots of Democrats who either supported her reluctantly or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her.  If that problem existed within the Democratic base, it sharply underscores the difficulty her candidacy had in attracting independents and Republicans.

My point is that the campaign needed to have done a better job taking account of her negatives and the ambivalence that her candidacy provoked.  Instead, as best I could tell as an observer, the primary strategic focus was on turning out the base without providing compelling substantive arguments for why Clinton should be elected.

I know that the campaign produced lots of policy papers and that she frequently urged voters to read them at HillaryClinton.com.  That’s not really an effective outreach program. Moreover, in the early post-mortems, she has been widely criticized for not powerfully promoting an effective economic message.

The numbers, though still not fully in, suggest that the Trump campaign was much more effective at turning out infrequent voters than was Clinton.  He kept winning counties that had gone for Barack Obama in 2012.

In retrospect, almost everyone agrees that this was an election about change.  Trump’s labelling Clinton a Washington insider turned out to be an effective tactic.  Her supporters focused on the value of her experience and dismissed him as an unqualified neophyte.  However, for enough voters to make the difference in the election outcome, the opportunity for change was more compelling than the argument for experience.

Somehow, her campaign never fully caught the mood of the country.  Instead, it focused almost exclusively on demonizing Trump, which was music to the ears of committed Clinton supporters, but fell flat will most other groups.

There’s a lot of talk in the aftermath of the election about the extent to which this is a deeply divided country with everyone living in their own political and cultural bubble.   Experienced political professionals in Clinton’s campaign needed to see and hear beyond the bubble but  apparently failed to do that.

I’m one of many people currently reading JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” which describes the worldview and cultural environment of some of America’s white working class.  Trump understood their concerns intuitively while Clinton never tried to either listen or speak to them.  Whether she could have connected is a reasonable question but her base did not produce enough votes to win in swing states that had been blue in recent elections.

At one point in the campaign, Trump argued that African-Americans should support him because “they had nothing to lose.”  My strong suspicion is that that assertion actually resonated quite effectively with white working class voters and may have been one of the keys to his victory.

In the last few weeks of the campaign, prior to Comey’s involvement, the Clinton campaign seemed to get so confident that it was on its way to an easy victory that it started reallocating resources in an attempt to win long-shot states.  Thinking there might be a path to the electoral votes of states like Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, the campaign stopped paying attention to Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Clinton lost the first two and barely held on in Virginia despite the conventional wisdom that her running mate’s state was a slam dunk.  In a similar blunder, Clinton did not make a single campaign visit to Wisconsin after the Democratic Convention.

We’ll never know for sure if different strategies might have produced a different outcome.  Clinton entered the campaign trying to make history as the first woman president, had some pre-existing negatives, encountered surprises outside her control and bet that promising a “third” Obama Administration would be a winning argument.  Not all of Obama’s voters went to the polls and the prospect backfired with many voters desperate for change.

Maybe the Trump phenomenon, a totally unconventional candidate running at a time of swirling national anxiety, would have prevailed no matter what.  However, there’s a real case to be made that the campaign committed serious strategic and tactical blunders that took an election that could have been won and turned it into a debacle, albeit a relatively close one.

If this analysis is even partly correct,  a  status quo approach that tinkers at the margins will leave the Democratic Party falling farther and farther into minority status.  Demographics have not yet turned out  to be destiny. Groups of voters don’t fall neatly into line; they expect to be appealed to and wooed.

If the Democratic Party has any chance if being competitive in the next election cycles, addressing the reasons for its struggling fortunes and for a loss in a presidential election that most people expected to win needs to start immediately.  The same old answers by the same old party leaders are unlikely to produce different results.