Crumbling Foundations

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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?

 

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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.

Foggy with Occasional Showers

 

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The one point that Americans seem to agree on in the aftermath of the stunning 2016 election is that the country is deeply divided. Almost every other issue reflects that division.

In face to face conversations, on social media and in the quiet recesses of our minds, a lot of questions are being asked. How did Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of candidates, end up winning the presidency? What does his succession to the highest office in the land mean for the future of the country? And what do those who did not support him do next?

You also see frequent references to the stage of grief, groups marching under the banner “Not My President”, and already an increase in racial incidents.  As the soon-to-be Trump Administration goes through the early and inevitably chaotic days of the transition to power, there’s lots of speculation about what each announcement or tweet means for the country.

I want to pick through a few of the questions that I have been wrestling with, some more successfully than others. Despite Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote, I don’t question the finality of Trump’s victory. Had the rules been different, the campaigns would have been different and we have no way of knowing who would have received the most popular votes under different circumstances.

As to the Electoral College, signing a petition to abolish it might make you feel good, but is a political non-starter. The very same dynamics that prevailed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, giving small states added weight through equal representation in the Senate in exchange for their approving the constitution, apply to the Electoral College. There is no reasonable shot at an amendment that would require the consent of those same states.

It is noteworthy, however, that two of the four times in our history that the winner of the popular vote has lost in the Electoral College have come in this century. Despite our concerns about how the Constitution  works for a country so different from the one for which it was written, it’s  hard to see the path to a better system. What we need to concentrate on is not changing the Electoral College, but instead making sure that we preserve and protect the rights and liberties that are enshrined in the Constitution.

Some people are demonstrating against the Trump presidency.  Most of those marches have been peaceful, with a few unfortunate exceptions.  My personal instinct is to demonstrate for causes–preserving Roe v. Wade, protecting the planet’s environment–rather than against an administration that has not yet taken office.  Still, the right to assembly is constitutionally protected and is a legitimate form of political expression.

How Trump won and Clinton lost, two deeply interrelated questions, will get and deserve lots more attention.  I am struck, as I listen to the commentary, that one important factor, one of many, was that Clinton did not make a sufficient effort to listen to and speak to the angry white working class.  Trump’s supporters certainly included racists, but broadly tarring his backers with that label was a significant error.  The history of campaigning includes few terms that backfired more dramatically than her “basket of deplorables” comment.

The media needs to engage in a serious autopsy of its performance.  Until late in the campaign, too much of the coverage treated Trump as entertainment and ratings rather than a potential president.  He received a huge amount of free airtime.  There was little to no analysis of how skillful his manipulation of the media was and what a sharp instinct he had for the mood of parts of the country.

Where each of our major political parties stand today may be the most fascinating question for the future of democracy in the United States.  Republicans who opposed Trump for very clear reasons now must decide whether to let him take over the party.  Are there core values or are parties merely vehicles for winning elections? Does the Republican Party stand for something?

The dilemma for Democrats depends on how they interpret the results of the election.  Will they concentrate on Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, the unseemly intervention by James Comey and a series of strategic blunders by the campaign?  That line of thought might lead to the conclusion that little needs to be changed and that merely doing a better job with the same game plan will lead to success the next time.

The alternative is to see Republican control of both houses of Congress, the presidency and the overwhelming proportion of state legislatures and governorships and conclude that a major readjustment is in order.  Even those who greatly admire Barack Obama ought to recognize that the Democratic Party as an organization declined significantly during his presidency.

If, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have argued, income and wealth inequality is the fundamental challenge facing this nation, why has the Democratic Party failed so dramatically to connect with working class voters who have suffered the most?  How did Hillary Clinton –  rather than her billionaire opponent –  end up being seen as the tool of Wall Street ?

At this point, I have all the worries about Donald Trump that I did during the election.  Designating Steve Bannon as his chief strategist in the White House is a scary and ominous but not surprising decision.  Moreover, many of his campaign pledges would create even deeper divisions and wounds in this country.

And that doesn’t even get us to the issues of national security and foreign affairs.  Secretary of State Rudy Guiliani?  He has neither the experience nor the temperament, but of course that’s what we said about Trump.

There are, to be fair, some potentially more positive signs.  I strongly hope Trump follows through on his promises about protecting Social Security and Medicare.   Engaging in massive infrastructure improvement could have an immediate positive impact on jobs and the economy if he can get the approval of a wary Republican Congress.

President Obama and others are urging us to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.  I’m more inclined to follow Ronald Reagan’s Cold War admonition: trust but verify.

 

 

Adjusting to an Unrecognizable Country

new-york-post

It was cloudy and gloomy this morning.  The sun did not come out.

For slightly more than half the voters of the United States, the unimaginable happened on Election Day. I certainly never believed Donald Trump could be elected president until the moment on Tuesday night when the outcome was beyond doubt. Neither did the editorial writers of  the nation’s leading newspapers, any of the major pollsters or the overwhelming preponderance of political pundits.

There will be torrents of analysis of why it happened. My mind is reeling trying to sort out what actually mattered and what was just noise. Single factor explanations won’t suffice but there is also the risk that  the election of Trump was so anomalous that there are no lessons which will be learned.

Everyone agrees that it was unlike any other election we’ve ever had in this country.  However, that observation doesn’t get us very far. Certainly there were warning signs: the appearance of the Tea Party, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the rise of right-wing nationalism in multiple European countries. The strength of the Republican Party–controlling both houses of Congress and a large portion of state governments– might have warned us that the Republican candidate would garner a heavy turnout.

Prior to the election, there was lots of commentary about the rapidly shifting demographics of the country and how that was likely to favor Democrats.  It turns out that the backlash to the changing complexion of the United States was more powerful, at least for this election, than the influx of new voters.

Much will also be made, correctly in my view, of the media’s struggle to figure out how to cover so totally unconventional a candidate.  Similarly, we will debate what impact FBI Director James Comey’s inept handling of the Clinton email investigation had on voters.  Whether a significant number of Americans were simply unwilling to vote for a woman is another important question totally separate from any shortcomings of the  candidate herself.

However these various questions are answered, the reality is that we face a remarkably transformed political landscape.  Many see the very real possibility of assaults on our basic constitutional rights, the rolling back of advances in social welfare programs, the brushing aside of the reality of climate change and an increasingly hostile environment for minorities of all sorts.

Internationally,  Trump’s comments about judging the value of NATO in terms of the financial contributions of the other members, his apparent openness to trade wars and his lack of understanding of the complexities of the Middle East have much of the world nervous.

It is incredibly disconcerting to think that I’m in the one who lives in a bubble rather than Trump supporters who had seemed to me so out of touch with reality.   The challenge facing many of us is how to adjust in both our personal and our political lives.

Make no mistake, those of us on the losing side Tuesday face emotional and psychological challenges to regain our equilibrium.  My wife’s first response was to go to her yoga class.  Mine was to head for the keyboard.

A message from my best friend in graduate school reminded me that we had survived what we regarded as a politically unhinged world in the late 1960s.  I wish I shared his optimism about our resiliency, but I agree that it’s a better approach than despair.

Lots of people, including my daughter, are agonizing about how to explain to their children that a man who spewed hatred and bigotry throughout his campaign is now the president-elect of the United States.  A close friend from high school shared a text he sent to his family about the importance of supporting each other.  Many texts, emails and phone calls have echoed that theme.

Most of us will find ways to adjust personally, clinging to family and close friends, taking a break from the intensity of politics that has consumed us for more than a year, throwing ourselves into other causes.

Ultimately, however, the big question is how we respond to a political landscape that seems so hostile to the values that we hold dear.  A lesson that liberals might learn from conservatives is that in politics neither victories nor defeats are permanent.

Doing a much more effective job of getting like-minded candidates elected to state and local offices is one essential step.  Another is resisting the worst instincts of the new governing coalition in Washington.  Some friends have urged that Democrats not resort to the same kind of obstructionism that Republicans engaged in throughout the Obama Administration, but I’m not so sure.   As some Republicans have asked, do we really need nine justices on the Supreme Court?  In addition, it’s not too early to start planning and organizing for national elections in 2018 and 2020.

More painful but also more imperative is the need to rethink the Democrat Party’s appeal to Americans voters across the board.  Without compromising basic values, it’s critical that Democrats find ways to connect with working Americans who were once the backbone of the Party. It now appears that they have moved decisively toward the Republican Party, which strongly suggests that  Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is the wrong question.

Some may take solace in the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, but the reality is that all of the political trends have been going in the wrong direction.  The Party desperately needs new energetic leadership.  There have been too many examples of party leadership anointing candidates–Anthony Brown for Governor in Maryland in 2014, Katie McGinty for the Senate in Pennsylvania in 2016 and perhaps even Clinton this year –who lacked the ability to win the popular approval necessary for success.

In a perverse sense, I’m quite sure President-elect Trump–wow, that was really difficult to write–will give us lots of material to focus our attention.  Can we respond in a thoughtful and strategic way?   Today is the beginning of our new political lives.  Are we up to the task?

 

No Way to Run a Democracy

 

voting-machines

There’s been so much wrong with this election. Far and away the biggest problem is that an unqualified, uniformed and ultimately dangerous candidate has a chance to be elected President of the United States.  All the other problems pale in comparison to that threat.

The factors that have led to Donald Trump being a viable candidate, the reality that both he and Hillary Clinton are disliked and not trusted by significant portions of the electorate, the ugly and vitriolic nature of the race and the ominous possibilities of real instability after November 8 together make 2016 a singular time in the history of the United States.

How did we get to this point?  And more importantly, how do we break the pattern of hyper partisanship, the politics of revenge and demonization of political opponents and the lack of regard for the common welfare of the nation and its citizens?

In many ways, contemporary politics in the United States feels more like the endless animosity of the Middle East or, not so long ago, of Northern Ireland.  A blood feud.  The Hatfields and McCoys.

Our infrastructure is crumbling, many of our schools are failing to educate students for the global economy, generations of poverty go unaddressed, climate change becomes more real by the day yet is denied by an entire political party and racial relations are more on edge today than a decade ago.  Yet, media coverage of the campaign focuses on a Clinton’s email “scandal” that has been investigated for years without discovering any incriminating evidence.

Americans are anxious about the threat of terrorism without being able to devise a rational response.  It’s easier to stigmatize anyone for has a different religion or a different appearance than to figure out what the real dangers are.  Trump offers uninformed simplistic solutions that might well leave us more vulnerable, alienates our allies who are so important to any concerted effort and demonstrates a temperament that would overreact to a perceived slight from a foreign leader.

Meanwhile, reporters have stopped asking about Trump’s emails and his tangled relationship with Russia, issues that do directly impact his fitness for the presidency.  The head of CBS acknowledges that Trump may not be good for the country, but that he is certainly good for the network’s ratings.

In the aftermath of a misguided Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, Republican states are actively working to disenfranchise voters, reduce the number of polling places and construct obstacles to voting not seen since the days of Jim Crow.  Meanwhile, Trump encourages his supporters to become vigilante poll watchers in “certain communities”, his most recent racist dog whistler.

Politicians insist on wearing flag pins, calling on God to bless the United States of America, lining up for tickets to “Hamilton” and declaring that they venerate the Constitution.  Yet, Republicans are already taking about refusing to approve any Supreme Court nominee proposed by Clinton, hinting ominously about impeaching her as soon as she takes office and creating all sorts of rationalizations for ignoring Trump’s lack of qualifications.

Rome did not last forever.  Neither did Alexander’s empire or any of the Chinese dynasties.  Are we losing our capacity for self-governance?  Are we so much focused on the things that divide us that we are unable to appreciate those things that could unite us?

To those who ask why we don’t have a better choice for president this year, consider the viciousness of politics today.  Many smart and capable people would never enter politics because of the personal cost to them and their families.  Whether they have made mistakes or not, they will be subject to lies, innuendos and smears on their character and their reputation.  To run for president today, you either have to be incredibly tough and thick-skinned or you have to be a colossal narcissist.

The outsized role of money and the resulting television ads have certainly contributed mightily to the toxic atmosphere.  For example, as we approach the final weekend before the election, more than $100 million of outside money has poured into the senate election in Pennsylvania.  That doesn’t count the money spent by the candidate’s own campaigns.  As a result, the airwaves are filled with attack ads suggesting that each of the candidates is a corrupt schemer who will undermine the nation’s future if elected.

Let me clear: I am voting for Hillary Clinton, not merely against Donald Trump.  She is certainly a candidate with flaws, but I’m hard pressed to think of any candidate in the history of the Republic who was flawless.  But, even if you really don’t like her, her shortcomings pale in comparison to Trump’s.

The fact that he might win is the most disturbing indicator of how troubled our democracy is.  He is not a rational choice, yet many in this country are willing to cast aside common sense and take a risk so dangerous that it makes you doubt their commitment to the fundamental values of our constitutional system.

Still, buoyed by the Chicago Cubs’ victory in the World Series, I remain cautiously optimistic about next Tuesday’s election, but incredibly anxious at the same time.  I’m afraid that anxiety won’t disappear next Wednesday.

 

 

What’s Next?

 

james-comey

How many times in this strangest of political years have you said: It can’t get any stranger? And then, of course, something even more unimaginable happens.

The latest. but unlikely the last, development was FBI Director James Comey’s unprecedented intrusion into the presidential election.  Last week, he announced that his agency would be looking into the possibility, without having seen any of the materials, that there might be evidence related to the previously closed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails on a computer owned by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner.  His decision was made in the face of contrary advise by the Department of Justice, longstanding procedures in the department and all common sense.

While there is lots of speculation about Comey’s motives, the only thing we know for certain is that he has involved himself in the closing stages of an election in a way that no senior governmental official should ever do.

Partisan politics?  Comey is a Republican.  Caving to pressure from Republican members of Congress?  There’s certainly been a constant drumbeat.  Remarkably bad judgment?  He already demonstrated that in his earlier comments on the investigation, so this latest episode is totally in character.  Whatever the reason, history will certainly remember his name .  Discussions about presidential campaigns in the future will all include this act of reckless irresponsibility.

Given the highly polarized electorate, few votes will be changed by Comey’s action.  Trump supporters will see it as further confirmation of Clinton’s dishonesty even though we know nothing at this point that we didn’t know before last week.  Clinton voters may well be motivated to work even harder between now and election day in response to this thumb on the election scale.  Whether it impacts down ballot races may be the even more significant question.

However, as we enter the last week of the campaign, it’s hard to imagine that there are no more revelations or surprises to come, even ones that are  totally fictitious.

Will there be more disclosures from Russian hackers and from Wikileaks?  Almost certainly.

Will there be more women who come forward to describe being groped by Donald Trump?  Seems likely.

What won’t happen, unless the Russian hackers change sides, is that we will learn anything about Donald Trump’s taxes.  And that’s actually quite amazing given the potential conflict of interest issues, the questions about his business dealings in Russian and the doubts about how much in taxes he has paid.

The other question, of whether he has given anything near the amounts to charity that he has publicly claimed, has already been answered with a resounding “no” as the result of outstanding reporting by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold.

If the Clinton campaign has been saving any particularly damaging information about Trump, this will be the week in which it gets revealed.  And, as has been the modus operandi of his entire campaign, Trump is likely to make some assertions about Clinton for which he supplies no supporting evidence at all.

And if all of these prospects weren’t bad enough, the ugly contentious mood is certain to extend well past Election Day.  Republicans are already talking about not confirming any Supreme Court nominee proposed by Clinton as well as planning a torrent of investigations.  Trump has encouraged his followers to question the legitimacy of the election.  What actions that might provoke is anyone’s guess, but most of the scenarios are not good.

I’ve been taking a course on Latin American politics and am dismayed by the examples of military coups, impeachment of public officials on highly partisan grounds and the general instability of many of those political systems.  We have always held ourselves out as a model for the rest of the world, the longest functioning democracy.  Right now, our politics seems to be fraying at the edges and it’s not at all clear that there is a center any longer.  As difficult and trying as the next week is likely to be, what follows may be even worse.

 

Trump for Dictator

 

three-branches-of-govt

Last week, I asserted that the traditional tools of political analysis are not adequate for this year’s presidential election. I want to elaborate on that point because I believe it leads to a significant observation about the 2016  campaign that has not received sufficient attention.

Many observers, including me, have been mystified that Donald Trump’s supporters seem so unfazed by his lack of knowledge and understanding of world affairs, his constant lies and his lack of presidential temperament.  A variety of explanations have been offered.

One is that his backers have been left behind by the economy and are swayed by his promises to bring back coal, manufacturing and a 1950s way of life.  While this may explain some of his support, numerous studies suggest  that many of his supporters are not really suffering economically.

Another interpretation is that his anti-immigrant stance, his racist “dog whistles” and his more recent allusions to an international conspiracy of bankers and elites resonate with citizens who feel threatened by a rapidly changing country in which they will no longer be the majority.  Overt racist signs and language at some of his rallies reinforce this perception as does Trump’s long history of denying that Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate short-hand reference to this group as “deplorable” may overshadow the basic truth that some Trump supporters are motivated by  factors such as these.  For them, the important issue is not Trump’s qualifications for office, but that he identifies the cause of their problems, the reason America is not great right now.

A third explanation is that Trump has tapped into a strong anti-government, anti-Washington sentiment in the country.  Polls have for years shown a declining confidence in the basic institutions of this country, not just government.  That Republicans have willfully created a state of gridlock at the federal level only reinforces the frustration.

When Trump promises “to drain the swamp in Washington,” that’s music to the ears of many of his followers.  Those who believe “government doesn’t work” may mean different things by that expression, but they are united in their wish for change, however undefined.

Yet, the polls,  a growing number of Republican leaders and most media commentators other than on Fox and the extreme right view the election moving away from Trump and decisively toward Hillary Clinton.  States that have voted Republican for years are either toss-ups or starting to lean toward the Democrats.

How can that possibly be if Trump has all the answers?    Why can’t everyone see what they see so clearly?

In a world view which Trump has articulated in a way never before seen in this country’s national politics, the only explanation for his losing the election must be a conspiracy of massive proportions.  Democracy isn’t working if their man doesn’t become president.  For people with as much anger and frustration as I’ve described, the logical conclusion offered by their candidate is that the election is rigged.

This circular reasoning as well as all the contradictions underlying Trump’s support can be explained by a simple, but frightening, proposition.  Trump is not running for president; he is running to become  dictator–and some of his followers are fine with that.  The thread that unites these disparate groups of aggrieved supporters is an openness to undemocratic remedies.

We’ve had statements from him throughout the campaign that demonstrate an autocratic approach.  If newspapers are critical of him, they need to be shut down or sued.  Or they need to be threatened by Trump supporters.

If the national debt is getting too large, he’ll default, declare bankruptcy in the same way he did as a businessman and leave other stuck with the bills.  If international treaties and agreements aren’t sufficiently advantageous, Trump will “renegotiate” or just walk away from them.

Laws against torture?  The Geneva Convention?  No problem.  He’ll make America great again by wringing confessions out of prisoners, going after the families of terrorists and obliterating parts of the Middle East that oppose us.  Nuclear weapons?  If we have them, why shouldn’t we use them?

Yet, none of these statements have convinced Trump’s supporters to abandon him.  Indeed, it may well be that  assertions like these are exactly what define his  appeal.

Some, although certainly not all, of Trump’s legions, are really looking for a dictator, not a president.  They may pretend to revere the constitution, but, like Trump, they neither understand it nor is it likely that they’ve ever read it.  In addition to believing that Christianity is enshrined as the official religion of the United States, they see the 2nd Amendment as the only important part of the document.

Unfortunately, there is a historical precedent for a dictator being popularly elected.  Without extending the comparison beyond that one point, it is true that Adolf Hitler initially took power through a democratic election even as he talked of wanting to establish a dictatorship, restore Germany to greatness, and deal with the country’s “Jewish problem.”

Hitler references are always perilous and invariably provoke backlash.  On the other hand, the naivety as well as unwillingness to stand up to him in the early 1930s bear a striking resemblance to how the Republican Party has responded to Trump.  Whether or not you’re comfortable with the historical analogy, Donald Trump is a risk no democracy can afford to take.