Trump Unshackled

 

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He had me fooled.  Prior to Donald Trump proclaiming last week that he was now unshackled and free to run his campaign in the way that he really wanted to, I had thought he was the most undisciplined, most unfiltered, and least constrained political candidate I had ever seen.

Trump’s declaration of freedom seems to have been provoked by Paul Ryan, John McCain and some other prominent Republicans abandoning his campaign in the aftermath of two weeks of unravelling.  The high–no, low–point came with the revelation of a tape capturing Trump bragging about groping women whenever he felt like it.

The only surprising thing about the reactions to the tape was that some Republicans were surprised by it.  Trump throughout the campaign has demeaned women, African-Americans, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, a disable reporter and just about anyone who came within his sight.  His campaign has been nasty, coarse, filled with lies and intended to appeal to people’s worse instinct.  Despite that history, it apparently took language that was sexually explicit to put some former supporters over the edge.

Now Trump has a new group to attack, Republicans who refuse to fall in line.  In his attacks on the politically unfaithful, he is blasting holes in what remains of the Republican Party, creating what some observers have described as a civil war.  Even as it looks more likely that he will lose decisively in November, the aftershocks are likely to reverberate for months if not years.

Meantime we can speculate about what an unshackled Trump will do in the days between now and November 8.  Recognizing that he has run the most unconventional campaign in modern history, we can still be pretty confident about some of the coming attractions.  He will almost certainly continue to attack Bill Clinton, getting increasingly graphic over time. Count also on more stunts involving the four women allegedly harassed by the former president.

Trump has gotten enthusiastic response to his wildly irresponsible call to put Hillary Clinton in jail after he becomes president.  He is likely to hammer that theme with more claims about her unproven transgressions.  This particular spectacle puts a lie to the claim by Trump and his supporters that they venerate the constitution.

Perhaps even more irresponsibly, Trump will continue to raise the specter of a rigged election with its overt racial overtones.  His not-at-all veiled references to voter fraud by black Philadelphia residents is likely to be just the opening salvo.  He may, however, find it difficult to blame inner city voters when he loses Utah.

In what will surely be a counterproductive effort, some of his supporters are now tweeting about the need to repeal the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.  That call will only add to the gender gap, in which Trump trails Clinton by staggering percentages.

Additionally, you can count on Trump ratcheting up the number and outlandishness of his lies.  To say that he has an uneasy relationship with the truth would give him too much credit.  Trump lied continuously at the second debate, which made it no different from the rest of the campaign.

As one of so many examples, he has been briefed by intelligence officials on the fact that the Russians are responsible for the hacking of the Democratic Party, but continues to assert that it could be could be anyone.  That claim serves as a reminder to listeners of his strange admiration for the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin.

The list of lies is almost endless.  Trying to catalog them is actually beyond the scope of even the most diligent fact checker.

I’m afraid that what I’ve done up to now is barely scratch the surface of what’s in store for us.  In the words of a song that was popular during the 1979 run of the Baltimore Orioles to the World Series, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

We are likely to be bombarded with a constant volley of conspiracy theories, many of which have been lurking in the recesses of the alt.right. If he hadn’t already used it, we might well be hearing that Hillary Clinton was born in Kenya.  We may well hear about her secret ties to ISIS.

The effect of an unshackled Trump will make his election even less likely, will seriously damage Republican prospects in the Senate and maybe even in the House and leave the Party in total disarray.

It’s also likely to disgust voters.  To the extent that those voters turn away from the Man in Orange, it could lead to a landslide victory that sets the stage for a more constructive phase of American politics.  The danger for the Clinton campaign, however, is that her supporters view her election as a sure thing and not bother to vote.  The second risk is that an apparently one-sided election may allow some people to feel like there’s no cost to voting for Gary Johnson.  Trump poses too great a danger to democratic government for either of those indulgences.

That’s why it’s so important that Clinton, her campaign, and all of her supporters continue to go full speed through November 8 with no let up and no mercy.  Elections ultimately are not decided by polls; the outcomes are determined by who shows up.

 

The Most Disturbing Moment in Presidential Debate History

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Given what  happened in the days leading up to Sunday night’s second Presidential Debate in St. Louis, there was widespread apprehension that it could be the nastiest and most acrimonious encounter ever between presidential candidates. After all, the political world had been in a swirl since the disclosure on Friday of a tape in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women.  And that came on the heels of his disastrous performance in the first debate and his unraveling in the days afterward.

The grope heard round the world did come up early in the debate.  Trump dismissed it as “locker room banter”, suggested that all men engage in similar talk and then asserted that it was insignificant compared to the things that Bill Clinton has done.  Trump claimed it was just talk and that he had not actually done the things he boasted of in the tape, an assertion that has already been challenged and that will surely be further rebutted in the coming days.

His supporters will believe him and everyone else will view him as a predator who shouldn’t get anywhere near their daughters.   As much as this issue was highly anticipated in the run-up to the debate, it was actually not the most disturbing aspect of the night.

Trump was widely panned for his boorish behavior in the first debate, but didn’t learn the lesson.  Sunday night, he continually interrupted and talked over Hillary Clinton, even to the point that the moderators admonished him to let her speak.  And, in what can only be described as creepy, he lurked behind her as she walked around the stage responding to individual questioners.  Trump’s scowls, sniffling and head shaking as Clinton talked are, in the bigger picture, not very important, but his handlers surely must have told him how off-putting his actions are.

All of this, however, was standard Trump.  So was his steady stream of lies and misrepresentations.  Despite incontrovertible evidence, he continues to deny that he initially favored the Iraq war.  His characterizations of his tax plan and of Clinton’s bear no resemblance to reality.  Trump’s shaky understanding of the Middle East and his simplistic assertions about how to fix it would be laughable if he were not the presidential nominee of a major political party.  The list goes on but not even these problems compares with one statement he made during Sunday’s debate.

Casting aside one of the most important and enduring features of American democracy, Trump baldly stated that if he were president he would make sure Clinton was put in jail.  As contentious and nasty as presidential campaigns have sometimes gotten, never in our history has that threat been made to a political opponent.  We are not a petty dictatorship.  We are not a country that is just now trying to figure out how to establish democratic procedures.  We have a constitution and protections of individual rights and guarantees of due process of law.

Yet, Trump, in his careless and tyrannical manner, would sweep all of that aside.  You might  dismiss the statement as something said in the heat of the debate without adequate reflection, but, in fact, he has made similar suggestions in other comments.

Trump has talked at his rallies of wanting to lock Clinton up.  It always get a roar from his followers, some of whom are wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts.

Equally disturbing, Trump keeps suggesting that the election may be rigged and that if he loses, it could only come as a result of fraud.  That language itself is dangerous and a stunning break with a history of peaceful transitions of power.  We revere George Washington because he voluntarily relinquished his office when there was no tradition to do that,  a decision Lin Manuel Miranda celebrates in his musical, Hamilton.

Trump shows no awareness of the constitution and its limits and checks on power.  He attacked Clinton on Sunday for not having changed the tax code when she was a senator.  That ridiculous comment shows no understanding of the complexities of the legislative process and the need to persuade a majority of members of both houses to get laws enacted.

Trump’s instincts are those of a dictator.  He talks about what he will do, not what the country will do.  Everything is personal.  And in all of those comments, he continues to reveal himself as a real threat to democracy and to our constitutional system.

Whatever you think of the tape from last week, his stated intention to jail a political opponent is a much more serious indicator of his not being qualified to be this nation’s next president.  Threatening to have Clinton jailed if he is elected president is much more disgusting  than anything he said on the tape.

 

The Turning Point

 

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When the definitive history of the 2016 Presidential Campaign is written, the events of last week will be seen as the forces that conclusively turned the tide in favor of Hillary Clinton. To put the week in context you have to look first at the run up to Monday night’s debate which unveiled the real Donald Trump to 86 million viewers.

Through a combination of Trump campaign spin and media laziness, the bar for Trump’s performance had been set so low as to be scraping the ground.  Yet he somehow was able go even lower and astonish even his own supporters with his lack of preparation, boorishness, and total unfitness for the presidency.

Before the debate Trump kept sending the message that he was too smart to need the standard debate practice.  In fact, however, even when his handlers tried to get him ready, he demonstrated the attention span of a gnat.  Still,  those shortcomings were not the real problem.

Instead, Trump failed most spectacularly in the attribute that he claimed as a strength, his temperament.  Teenagers have more self-control than Trump.  Young children don’t interrupt as constantly as he did.  For a self-professed expert at negotiations, he kept missing opportunities to make his case.

By contrast, Clinton acquitted herself brilliantly.  She demonstrated her usual mastery of the facts; she never lost her composure; and she managed to push the buttons that brought out the worst in Trump.  Clinton made it look easy and we should give her credit for doing that under incredible pressure.  A cough, too much or too little smiling, a misstatement, and the press, as well as her opponent, would have jumped all over her.  She never gave them the opportunity.

The rest of the week saw Trump unraveling as the negative reviews of his debate performance poured in.  He retreated deeper and deeper into the cocoon of Fox News and into his own fantasy world.  He claimed to have prevailed in a poll that never happened.  He also asserted that he won the debate based on polls widely recognized as unscientific.   And then, to contradict his spin, some of his proxies wondered whether he should participate in the remaining debates.

More amazingly, he kept playing the losing hand of a public debate with a former Miss Universe whom he had demeaned.  Clinton clearly baited him in the debate and he jumped in with both feet, apparently unable to help himself.  Some temperament!  Trump, in those exchanges, including an early morning flurry of tweets, became smaller and smaller right in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, the scrutiny by the press that Trump managed to avoid during the nominating process is finally catching up with him.  Three stories, any one of which would seriously damage most campaigns, appeared at the end of the week.

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who has been investigating the Trump Foundation throughout the campaign, turned up evidence that the Foundation has never applied for the necessary certification from the State of New York to be allowed to accept charitable donations.  On Monday, New York’s Attorney General ordered the Trump Foundation to cease operating.  While that disclosure is unlikely to dissuade his loyal supporters, it is a measure of the careless way in which he does business.

Potentially more damaging was the revelation that a Trump business explored opportunities in Cuba in the 1990s.  Given his very vocal opposition to President Obama’s recognition of the Castro regime, his hypocrisy on this issue may well undercut his support with the Cuban community in the all important state of Florida.

But the really big bombshell exploded on Sunday when the New York Times revealed that it has obtained partial tax returns which suggest that Trump probably evaded taxes for up to 18 years.  Coming on top of his debate comment that not paying taxes made him “smart”, this is an issue which should persist with real impact through the remainder of the campaign.  How Trump handles questions about his taxes in the remaining debates, if he shows up, will get lots of attention.

Additionally, a number of newspapers around the country, many of whom have never before endorsed a Democrat, came out in favor of Clinton this past week.  While endorsements probably don’t mean nearly as much as they once did, the position of those conservative papers reveals an uneasiness about Trump that is shared by a lot of Republicans.

Trump’s disastrous week is unlikely to change the minds of many of his supporters.  That reality shows just how polarized our politics are today and, even worse, how Trump’s message of racism, misogyny and xenophobia resonates with some Americans.

On the other hand, the stark display of his ignorance, mean spiritedness  and non-presidential temperament will raise the energy and enthusiasm level of Democrats, encourage the uncommitted to realize that Clinton is the only sane choice in this election and highlight the risk of throwing a vote away on Gary “Aleppo” Johnson or Jill Stein.

There’s almost a month to go until Election Day and lots of work to be done, but Donald Trump has managed to make an irrefutable case against his election.

 

The Worst Week in Annapolis

 

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Peter Franchot, come on down. You had the worst week in Annapolis.

The Comptroller, who spends a lot of time at press conferences and photo ops around the state, may need to stay in his office for a while. That’s the conclusion that many will reach after reading a recent report by the Office of Legislative Audits.

According to the report, the Comptroller’s Office misclassified 14,000 tax returns resulting in $8.7 million being sent to the wrong towns in Montgomery County.  The auditors also raised questions about the handling of out-of-state claims, the security of information held by the office and the sending of replacement checks.

Although Franchot immediately called his office the best in the country, the problem areas cited are at the very heart of the job of the state’s tax collector.  Showing a combative style in his response, Franchot blamed the problems on predecessors despite the fact that he has been in office since 2007.  Which makes his assurance that the issues are being immediately corrected seem of dubious credibility.

To put this in perspective, auditors always find problems.  Some are relatively minor and can be resolved by tweaking procedures.  Others are  significant and may require major adjustments in processes.  Responses from agencies often include promises to “do better” or even to say that the problems have already been resolved.  Most audits get no public attention.

However, Franchot, as a matter of choice and political strategy, has made himself one of the highest profile office holders in the state.  He craves press attention and has a staff that is quite skilled at getting him the spotlight.

One of his methods of getting coverage is to pick public fights with other officials.  Recent targets include the President of the Senate, Mike Miller, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.  During his previous terms, he was frequently critical of Governor Martin O’Malley.  Franchot has also used his seat on the Board of Public Works to go after public employees who have had to accept his grandstanding without comment.

In addition, the Comptroller has increasingly tied his political fortunes to the state’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.  While Franchot has cast that relationship as an example of bipartisanship and commitment to fiscal restraint, many others see it as a calculated abandonment of whatever principles he once supported and a betrayal of the Democratic Party that got him into office in the first place.

For all these reasons, Franchot can expect neither support nor sympathy from other Democrats with respect to the audit findings.  By devoting as much time as he does to extracurricular activities–those that have nothing to do with the job of Comptroller–Franchot has set himself up for the charge that he has not been minding the store.

Another story this past week featured the Comptroller being the bearer of bad news about the state’s anticipated revenues.   Franchot is the chair of the Board of Revenue Estimates which is charged with determining how much money that state will take in from various sources.  The accuracy of those estimates is an essential component of the State’s budget process.

Franchot announced that Maryland would be collecting about $800 million less than had been anticipated in the last round of estimates.  That’s the largest shortfall since the 2010 recession and suggests one of two problems.  The first is that the Board of Revenue Estimates had a faulty set of assumptions built into their prior effort.  Revenue estimates are far from an exact science, but being reasonably accurate is essential to realistic budgeting.

The other explanation, which is the one the Comptroller emphasized, is that the state’s economy is much weaker than state leaders had been describing even recently.  Franchot used the words “stagnant” and “volatile” to characterize the economy.  That new reality undercuts his dear friend, Governor Hogan, who has claimed that his administration has revived the economy by making Maryland “open for business” and by cutting back on burdensome regulations.

State Budget Secretary David Brinkley argued that Maryland actually has a spending rather than revenue problem, a bit of transparent nonsense in light of the significantly weak performance of the economy.  Brinkley’s assertion is an effort to support Hogan’s argument that the General Assembly should reduce the amount of funding mandated by law.

Let’s be clear that the largest category that fits that description is state aid for education.  Hogan has frequently bragged that he has put the most money into education of any governor, but neglected to mention that he was required by law to do that.  What is clear from his comments and those of Brinkley is that Hogan would actually like to reduce education funding in Maryland.

I want to close the circle on Franchot’s bad week.  In focusing his public efforts on criticizing Baltimore City and County officials for not moving as fast as he would like in getting air conditioners in all schools and in his devotion to a post-Labor Day start to the school year, Franchot has been missing in action on the question of school funding.  During O’Malley’s tenure, he made comments similar to Brinkley’s about the budget problems involving spending rather than revenues.

Whether any of the news from last week hurts Franchot’s chances for reelection is beside the point.  As much as he loves attention, the news in which he was front and center last week showed a politician more interested in headlines than substance.  His knee-jerk support for everything Hogan does leaves him drifting far from the important policy issues facing the state.

For all these reasons, Peter Franchot had the worst week in Annapolis.

How We Got into this Mess

 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Mobile, Ala., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Of course you know what mess I’m talking about.  The United States has never in modern time had an election in which the candidate of a major political party was as unqualified as Donald Trump.  He would be, in the opinion of many national security experts of both parties, a serious danger if he ever reached the Oval Office.  Most serious economists agree that his approach to the economy–it’s impossible to call it a policy–would in all likelihood lead to massive deficits, international trade wars and another recession.

The list of Trump’s shortcomings is actually much longer. And that doesn’t even begin to address his sleazy and unethical business dealings, a level of narcissism rarely seen in public and a frightening blend of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. Trump is uninformed at a level that would embarrass most elementary school students, has shown no inclination to broaden his horizons or fill in any of the gaps and piles lie upon lie even as each one is disproved.

Yet, Trump may actually become the next president of the United States. For the longest time, few people, including me, thought that was a real possibility. We all share responsibility for not taking the threat seriously enough.  But beyond that initial complacency, there are a number of other factors and a lot of blame to share.

A logical place to start is with the Republican nominating process.  Trump was able to maneuver past a field of 16 other candidates clueless about how to oppose him.  Despite the Party’s rhetoric, the individual members of this field were remarkably weak.  The gaggle allowed Trump to avoid serious scrutiny in the early going.  Even when he led in early polls, the media–of which much more will be said–fell into a narrative from 2012 that there would be a succession of leaders in the race.

Some of the other candidates were woefully inept.  Others, who had initial support and qualifications, turned out to be dreadful campaigners.  Ted Cruz, who always fancies himself the smartest person in the room, waited until  too late to raise criticisms of Trump.  John Kasich, who in this field looked like a moderate even though he isn’t one, never put together a campaign with appeal beyond Ohio.

Recent  coverage has suggested that, belatedly, the press may be awakening to the need for more rigorous critique of Donald Trump.  The embarrassment of appearing as backdrop for a Trump infomercial for his new D.C. hotel may finally have stirred what’s left of their professionalism.  The concern, however, is whether this new attention comes too late.

Questions about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation have been pursued ad nauseam.  Meanwhile, the press has let  Trump slide on his refusal to release his tax returns.   With lots of opportunities, reporters have failed to point out in real-time his repeated lies.   His bizarre admiration for Vladimir Putin has been treated as a curiosity rather than a serious threat to our national security.

At long last, Trump’s use–very likely illegal–of his Foundation is getting attention.  That coverage came as the result of the work of one Washington Post reporter who has been examining Trump’s charitable contributions for several months.  Sadly, his efforts, up to now, have been an exception in press coverage.

Whatever happens between now and November 8, the possibility of a Trump victory has surely been enhanced by unbalanced and superficial coverage of his campaign up to this point.

Let me be clear that Clinton has brought some of the negative coverage on herself.  Still, although she has flaws as a candidate, many of the accusations against her are no more than caricatures of the real person.  Trump’s attacks and the willingness of the press to regurgitate his narrative about her has clearly impeded her efforts to appeal to voters.

I want to highlight the most glaring issue. It’s not uncommon for voters, when interviewed, to say that they don’t trust Clinton and even describe her as a liar.  Trump has repeated that charge daily and it’s apparent that some of his supporters believe it’s true because they have heard it so many times.

Fact checkers during the campaign tell a very different story.  Clinton does at times embellish or distort the truth, but she’s not even close to Trump in the number or proportion of lies and evasions.  Trump is a world champion liar while Clinton is merely a garden-variety political bender of the truth.

Journalists are finally starting to have the discussion about whether it’s their role to point out Trump’s lies.  The presidential debates will be a real test of whether they are up to the challenge.  If they do not call him on his outright lies, they are doing the American electorate a real disservice.

There are, in my judgment, two other factors, that explain why we run the risk of a Trump presidency.  The first is the gutlessness of many Republican leaders who back him even as they acknowledge his disastrous shortcomings.  While a number of prominent Republicans have refused to endorse his candidacy and have even spoken out against him, many others have set party above country although they know better.

That position, in turn, has encouraged rank-and-file party supporters to line up behind Trump’s campaign.  Additionally, the acquiescence of party leaders has given the candidate cover to continue his outrageous statements.  There are few profiles in courage this election season among leading Republicans.

Finally, it’s essential to look at the American voters who are lining up behind Trump’s candidacy.  For a long time, the press bought the story that they are predominantly individuals left behind by the global economy and hurting economically.  It’s the same narrative that was used initially to explain the rise of the Tea Party carried over to the Trump campaign.

Now, however, numerous studies demonstrate that his backers are not predominantly  economically disadvantaged.  Instead, they are characterized by three attitudes or perspectives.  Trump voters are virulently anti-immigrant in much the same way that Brexit supporters were.  In other words, they are driven more by cultural and social concerns than by economic ones.  They are worried about losing their position in the country’s hierarchy.  There’s no evidence, however, that they are actually losing their jobs to immigrants or that they are the victims of crimes committed by people coming over the border.

Trump’s appeal to their emotions is exactly what those voters want.  They like being ratified in their opposition to immigrants even when the facts suggest that immigrants pose little or no actual threat to them.  These voters, like Trump himself, don’t care at all about facts.

Trump’s followers, as is evident at any of his rallies, are also resentful and angry.  His venting is, in many ways,  a proxy for their venting.

Some analysts have argued that this segment of the populations has been ignored for too long and that Trump fills a gap that no other politician has addressed.  The problem with that assessment is that what Trump has done in response is to fan their resentment and encourage their xenophobia.  They are not really interested in specific policies, which works out well since Trump has none.

Finally, and most disturbingly, Trump appeals to racists, sexists, and homophobes in our society.  What we didn’t know, partly because they had tended to keep their prejudices largely out of public view, was that there are so many of them.  There is a dark and ugly underbelly of America that Trump has encouraged to come out of the shadows.  Apparently it wasn’t politically correct–note the irony–for Clinton to call them “deplorable”, but it’s hard to think of a better word to characterize their attitudes.

Finally, Trump’s not-so-subliminal message to this group is that “you certainly don’t want a woman as president after eight years of the black guy who probably was born in Kenya despite what I’m saying publicly now.”  What’s more disturbing than his message is that so many people are buying into it.

We have only one and half months until an election that has enormous stakes.  Hillary Clinton  won’t blow up the world; Donald Trump really might.  With a Democratic Congress, Clinton would have a chance to make progress on many of the issues that Republican obstructionism has prevented Barack Obama from advancing.

Donald Trump is unqualified , dangerous and appeals to all the worst instincts in people.  It’s hard to know which of those characteristics is the worst, but, in combination, they are terrifying.  It’s not too late to avert a disaster, but the threat is a real one.  Let’s move away from the brink and hurry to the nearest polling place.

Courts, Schools and Politics

 

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Last week, I attended a session of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The case I heard asserted that the way in which the State funds public education violates Pennsylvania’s constitution.  Similar tests in other states challenging large disparities in the resources available to students depending on what school they attend have resulted in a wide variety of outcomes.

There are compelling philosophical and political arguments in favor of doing whatever it takes to ensure that all students, regardless of the zip code in which they live or their family circumstances, get a quality education.  We may differ about exactly what that phrase means and about the best way to achieve it, but it should be a goal that unites us.

The public rhetoric in this country is overwhelming pro-education.  Presidents like to be seen as education supporters.  So do governors.  So do candidates running for office.  What  makes the argument even more significant is the growing realization that we live in an interdependent world in which our competitors are global, not just local.  Additionally, schools need to prepare students for jobs that require a higher level of skill than they did in the past.

As good a game as we talk, however, our commitment to the “walk” has been disappointing.  Comparisons on internationals tests have shown that we’re not number one.  Employers in this country often complain about the lack of basic skills among job applicants.  And, most relevant to the court cases, there are significant gaps in educational achievement across the country.

Public education in the United States has for much of its history been seen as a local responsibility.  Deference to local control is an article of faith in most debates about schools.  And, for many years, local control brought with it the full burden of financing public schools, usually through local property taxes.  Over time, states have taken on an increased share of that burden, albeit with significant difference in both the amount and the method of distributing those funds.

Two states with which I am most familiar illustrate those differences.  In Maryland, a school funding formula was first established in the 1970s.  Originally known as the Lee-Mauer formula, it has regularly been updated to take account of the need for increased levels of state support and adjustments to the distribution mechanism.  The most recent review is now underway by a commission chaired by former University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan.

Maryland’s approach takes into account the local wealth of jurisdictions in allocating funds as well as calculating what level of support is needed to achieve the desired educational outcomes.  While it’s not a perfect system, it’s hardly coincidence that Maryland consistently ranks near the top in national comparisons of state educational performance.

Pennsylvania is a different story.  There is no statutory requirement for school funding.  Instead, the annual budget depends on what the Governor and the State legislature can agree to appropriate.  Under the previous administration of Republican Tom Corbett, state support for public schools was drastically reduced.  Funds have too often been allocated on the basis of political decisions rather than educational ones.  Moreover, with far more school districts than in Maryland, the differences in spending when  local and state funds are combined are often stunning.

The essence of the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is that the State is not fulfilling its own constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.  While factual support for that contention can be demonstrated by the budget disparities among school districts, the resources available depending on what school a student attends, and enormous variations in educational outcomes, the case I listened to addressed those issues only in passing.

That is because what the Supreme Court was really being asked to decide is whether the question of funding of public schools was one that could even be reviewed by the courts.  The plaintiffs in the case had the challenge of responding to the argument that the issue constitutes a “political question”, one that can be resolved only by the executive and legislative branches of government.

It was clear listening to the questions from the Court that a number of the justices were sympathetic to the “political question” argument.  Why get into a dispute for which there are no clear judicial guidelines for  resolution?  Why put the Court in the position of having to issue an order to a co-equal branch of state government that it wouldn’t be able to enforce?   Why run the risk, as has happened in other states, of taking on a dispute that would drag on for years with frequent appeals from each party?

The other side of that question just as clearly appealed to other of the justices.  Is lack of equal access to a quality education an injustice without a remedy?  Is the Court willing to accept the contention by a lawyer for the State that Pennsylvania satisfies its constitutional obligation merely by providing enough funding to open the school doors?  Is the Court bound by previous practices and interpretations of the Constitution’s education clause or does it have the ability to respond to changing circumstances?  The Connecticut Supreme Court came down decisively on this side of the argument in a ruling last week.

Any lawyer reading this blog will immediately be able to point out that the cases is more complicated than I have described.  Of course it is.  Those legal briefs go on for pages to say nothing of the footnotes.

However, any fair observer in court that day would have concluded that this is a dispute that has two sides.  One, which certainly may prevail, is that the court has no business getting involved.  Even if the Governor and Legislature are not doing a particularly good job of responding to the educational needs of students in Pennsylvania, there’s nothing a court can or should do about it.

Alternatively,  as the plaintiffs , representing students,  parents and school districts, argue, they should at least be given the opportunity to present their arguments in front of a court.  Given the fundamental importance of education in today’s world, is the right approach to duck the question by hiding behind procedural excuses?  We’ve seen more than enough of that behavior from our Congressional representatives in Washington.  Politics as usual isn’t serving us well.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court doesn’t need to get caught in that quagmire.

 

21st Century Campaigns, 20th Century Media

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Matt Lauer’s embarrassingly bad performance as moderator of last week’s so-called Commander-in-Chief forum highlighted a recurring problem in this year’s Presidential Election. It is true that Lauer is not really a journalist and can’t be taken as representative of all reporters.  Nonetheless, it is equally true that the media has often fallen short in its role of informing and enlightening the public about the two candidates seeking to become the next President.

This is in many ways a presidential election unlike any we have ever had before. One candidate is a pathological liar and the other is a woman.  Some members of the media have not adjusted well to these new challenges.  Too many reporters have been striving for an unwarranted mechanical balance in their coverage.  Others keep getting manipulated.  And some, consciously or unconsciously, betray a deeply ingrained sexism.

Donald Trump’s willingness to continuously repeat allegations shown over and over again to be false shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for reporters. But apparently it is.  Lauer blew an easy and predictable opportunity to call Trump on his assertion that he had never supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chris Wallace, who will moderate the Third Presidential Debate, has already announced that he doesn’t see his job as being a truth squad. Does that mean he views his role as just an empty conduit who brings no knowledge or expertise to the evening?  A robot could be programmed to ask questions and replace Wallace on the stage.

Trump’s unprecedented approach to campaigning helps explain why the press struggled early in the primary process, but they have had enough time to get their act together.   Too often, he has been allowed, without challenge, to lie, to throw out vague generalities without detail and to make slanderous assertions attributable to “someone.”   Some reporters act as if they are scared of Trump.

Another part of the problem is sexism.  Hillary Clinton has clearly been held to a different standard because she is a woman.  Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a blunt column describing the unevenness of the coverage, but he stands almost alone in pointing it out.  What she wears and what her voice sounds like may be relatively trivial examples, but they represent an underlying mind-set which helps illustrate the differences in her coverage from Trump’s.

There are too many examples.  Why is the press still repeating unfounded claims about Benghazi while Trump’s record of racial discrimination in housing that he owned gets little attention?  Why is the Clinton Foundation described in terms of unsubstantiated allegations about corruption while an apparent bribe to the Florida Secretary of State from Trump receives almost no coverage?  Following Clinton’s diagnosis of pneumonia over the weekend, will reporters demand access to Trump’s health records?

Too often  journalists fall prey to the siren call of false equivalency.  If Trump makes some outlandish claim, the press feels the need to point out that Clinton once said something similar.  The pseudo-professional standard of balance has distorted the goal of seeking the truth.

Trump has run a campaign almost totally devoid of substance or detail.  Clinton has released numerous position papers and demonstrates a mastery of public policy that is wonkish at times.  Yet, the press treats their command of the key challenges facing the country as if there is little difference between them.

Lauer, who apparently is not conversant in current affairs, spent an inordinate amount of time at the Forum on Clinton’s emails.  While I concur that her public discussion of the server decision and the handling of emails has often been convoluted and even deceptive, we now know an awful lot about it and can make our own judgments.  As both Bernie Sanders and the Washington Post have argued, the press has gone overboard on this issue.  Let’s give this story a decent burial and move on.

Why didn’t the media spend an equal amount of time and effort asking about Trump University? Has Trump been challenged about the reports of students racking up debt without gaining either knowledge or credit? There have been a couple of brief flurries of interest, but nothing resembling the attention paid to Clinton’s emails.

Significantly, we still don’t have Trump’s tax returns, detailed information about his foundation or his claimed charitable contributions. Perhaps most ominously, we have had no serious inquiry into his business dealings in Russia.  I for one am eagerly awaiting the drumbeat of incessant questions to him about these topics.

Trump, for too many members of the press, is treated as more celebrity and entertainer than possible president.  He is constantly given the benefit of the doubt as a political newcomer.  Trump’s stunning ignorance about the world is not highlighted.  His praise of Vladimir Putin offers a disturbing insight into his values which warrants close attention from the press.  So far, however, the press has treated it as more a curious oddity than as a revelation about his character or his patriotism.

Soon we will have the Presidential Debates to capture our attention.  While the moderators should have no trouble exceeding the “Lauer Standard”, they still will have a challenging job.  Trump, during the Republican debates, ignored time limits, felt totally unconstrained by any specific question, and engaged in ad hominem attacks on his opponents.  If the moderators allow him to continue that behavior in the debates, the losers will be the American people.  Moreover,a growing disgust with politics–a pox on all of their houses–benefits Trump if it reduces voter turnout.

Notwithstanding Wallace’s personal standards, the press must do more than be disengaged questioners or passive observers.  I realize that none of them want to be the main story, but look at how Lauer in fact became the headline by his inept performance.  Debates should not be cage wrestling matches or free-for-alls.  Those tell us nothing about how the candidates would handle the job of being president.  A moderator must moderate, keep control, enforce the rules and push candidates to respond to questions.

The press needs to do better than it has so far in the 2016 campaign.  I realize that being well-informed doesn’t necessarily lead to wise decisions, but being ill-informed almost guarantees bad outcomes.  In this time of venerating the Founders of our political system, it’s worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson’s vigorous defense of freedom of the press was based on his belief that it would lead to a well-informed public.  This year seems to be testing both sides of that proposition.

 

School Days

summer be summer

Last Wednesday, Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot traveled to Ocean City to hold a press conference.  Marching under Franchot’s banner of “Let Summer be Summer”, Hogan announced his intention to issue an Executive Order mandating that all 24 school districts in Maryland begin their academic year after Labor Day starting in 2017.

It is an objective that Franchot has been pursuing without success for several years.  Now it appears that he has an enthusiastic partner in Hogan.  Earlier last week the Comptroller, in touting the idea, observed that he had not found anyone who was opposed to the move.

That bit of spin was quickly undone by pushback from a number of quarters including: a Baltimore Sun Editorial, “Labor Day Madness”; a Washington Post Editorial, “Starting School after Labor Day will hurt Maryland Students”; and a Sun op/ed by Maryland Delegate Eric Luedtke, “Hogan and Franchot: Profiles in Pandering.”

There are, to be sure, supporters, including Ocean City merchants and some parents of school age kids who have publicly joined the effort.  You can also find lively discussions, both pro and con, about the proposal on Facebook, although those exchanges tend to sound like echo chambers.

It’s important to recognize that this initiative has nothing to do with improving the quality of education in Maryland.  Neither Hogan nor Franchot has demonstrated any particular commitment to public education.  Hogan keeps asserting that he has put record amounts of funding into the state budget for education but, of course, all of that was mandated by state law.  Every time he has had a choice to make, he has refused to add money to the education budget.

Franchot likes to describe himself in his current version as a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.  You could search far and wide for any social issue that has gotten a fraction of the attention from him that the school calendar has.

Increasing tourism in Ocean City is a defensible goal, but it is necessary to ask whether this initiative meets the standard of “first do no harm” to schools.   There’s no evidence that concern has even crossed either of their minds.

If school starts after Labor Day, when does it end?  Hogan’s answer, using the same Executive Order magic wand, is June 15.  That date smacks of a last second, not well-thought-out addition to the press event.  Since Labor Day doesn’t fall on the same date each year, the number of days between then and June 15 will change from year to year.  Similarly, June 15 will fall on a different day of the week each year.  That kind of micro-managing of local affairs is what Republicans profess to loathe.

Franchot for some time has argued that with better calendar management, there’s no reason that the school year can’t still end in mid-June as it does now.  At the same time, he has severely criticized the same education “bureaucrats” who would be responsible for that better management for their resistance to his proposal and for the way in which they manage the calendar today.

There are multiple factors that determine how long the school year runs.  First is the State requirement that students have 180 days of classroom instruction.  We should actually be talking about more instruction time, but the authors of this idea have shown no interest in that discussion.

Hogan reiterated the 180 day requirement in his Executive Order even as he used the occasion to repeat his rants against teachers’ unions.  Perhaps he is more intent on picking fights that he believes will benefit him politically than on the impact of his actions on classrooms.

Snow days are a second factor.  While not much of an issue on the Eastern Shore, there are years in which schools in the rest of the State use up all of their scheduled snow days and are forced to add extra days in June.  In Garrett County, which voted decisively for Hogan, it’s not unusual to have as many as 12 snow days in a school year.  Unless climate change reduces the likelihood of snow in Maryland, this problem is not going away and can’t be brushed aside by an Executive Order.

The school year also has what might technically be called discretionary breaks.  Many are of long-standing and have significant support.  Given that Hogan and Franchot feel comfortable deciding when the school year should start and end, it only seems reasonable to expect them to weigh in on whether to retain or modify those breaks.  Otherwise, they are merely making the easy, popular decision and leaving the school “bureaucrats” to take the blame for cutting other breaks in which families make plans to spend time together.

One is the mid-year or Christmas vacation period.  Should that be reduced in length?  Fewer days then would certainly make it easier to finish by mid-June.  The same can be said of Spring break, which includes Easter Monday in most school districts.

Franchot has cited Worcester County for starting after Labor Day and has suggested that, therefore, all jurisdictions should be able to do it.  Setting aside whether that County should be seen as the educational model for the State, the small wrinkle in that argument is that Worcester County does not provide days off for the Jewish holidays.  Guidance from the Comptroller on which religious holidays should be recognized by school systems would help enormously with the scheduling challenges.

School districts negotiate with teachers’ unions about professional days during the course of the year.  While the Governor would certainly love to target those days as unnecessary, that attitude shows how little regard he has for teachers.  In an era of rapid change in both content and rules regarding curriculum, on-going teacher education would seem essential, not at all a waste of time.

Oh, and then there’s the issue of athletic teams and bands that start practice prior to the first day of school.  Under the Executive Order, will they be allowed to continue doing that or will they be expected to spend those days in Ocean City?

Given the odd mix of micromanagement and lack of detail in Hogan and Franchot’s Labor Day pronouncement, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a political stunt.  Hogan’s belligerent tone at the press conference makes it clear that he wants a political fight over the issue.  In warning legislators that they challenge him at their electoral peril, he runs the risk, however, that voters won’t agree with him that this is the most important issue facing the State today.

Hogan seems totally focused on maneuvering to get himself reelected. His administration is much about gestures, little about substance and certainly not about public education.

Franchot, who should know better, seems content to fiddle on the margins of public policy rather than using his office and political skills to advocate for policies that help citizens.  Even if he believes that starting school after Labor Day is a positive step, he can’t possibly believe that there aren’t other pressing issues more worthy of his time and attention.

There is finally another matter to consider.  I’m not even referring to whether the Governor has the authority to change the school calendar by Executive Order.  That question will certainly be debated in the coming months.   Rather, you have to wonder why an elected official who constantly is advocating for less government and who professes a belief in local control is able to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution on 24 local school systems.  That explanation should be worth hearing.

Revisiting Martin Niemollar

Niemollar

Martin Niemollar, a Protestant Pastor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a frequently cited warning after World War II about the dangers of staying silent in the face of evil:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

For those who assert that Donald Trump doesn’t really mean what he says or that he will act differently if he is elected president, my response is: Can we really take that chance? Presidential campaigns are almost always hard-fought contests that stretch the boundaries of truth, engage in hyperbole, attempt to divide the electorate between those for and those against a candidate and appeal to emotions.  But by any historical comparison, Trump’s approach in this election is far outside the boundaries of normal for any of those categories.

Trump has been called a lot of things during this election, including a narcissist, a racist and a neo-fascist. Of the first charge, there’s no question; he’s a textbook case. Whether or not he is a racist–and there’s lots of evidence to support the allegation–he certainly appeals to racism among his followers. It’s neither subtle nor hidden and the reactions are on full display at many of his rallies.

Fortunately for us, Trump has not yet had the opportunity to prove that he is a fascist. He has certainly expressed his admiration for figures like Mussolini as well as dictators like Vladimir Putin.  His campaign speeches show no understanding of or regard for the safeguards of our constitutional system.  His assertions about what he would do once in office sound very much like those dictators  he so admires.

How might Martin Niemollar update his warning in light of Trump’s demonizing of different groups?

First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Muslim

Then they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Mexican

Then they came for the Syrian refugees, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Syrian refugee

Then they came for Hillary Clinton and her supporters with “2nd Amendment” remedies, and I hoped that we hadn’t waited too long

Of course, lots of people are speaking out about the dangers posed by Donald Trump and his campaign for the presidency.  As inflammatory, bigoted and divisive as his rhetoric continues to be, the most disturbing part of his campaign is his encouraging and enabling of the worst in human nature.    Some of his supporters appear only too willing to follow without question his lead.

Racist language has become more overt.  Anyone who does not support him is an enemy, not merely an opponent.  His pronouncement that a victory by Hillary Clinton could result only from a rigged election is an open call to his followers to challenge the legitimacy of her presidency.  The sub-text of encouraging violence is above not below the surface.

And still so-called Republican leaders refuse to disavow this man who would pull down the pillars of our democratic government.  Pragmatism is always a major component of politics, but sometimes it goes too far.  This is one of those occasions.

Criticizing a particularly outrageous statement by Trump but continuing to support his candidacy is a moral copout.  Trying to draw meaningless semantic distinctions between not endorsing him but still voting for him is an abdication of a higher responsibility to the truth.  Making excuses for his rhetoric, as Paul Ryan did in claiming Trump’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies” was a bad joke, means the Speaker of the House is an enabler, not a leader.

Dante said it best centuries ago: The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.  Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus and a dishonor role of others have seating guaranteed to them.

George W. Bush and Donald Trump: Eerie Parallels

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My summer reading list is largely the same as my fall list: primarily history, politics and biography. I recently finished Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush”, an examination of the 43rd president of the United States. Smith, a prize-winning biographer, has previously written presidential studies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower.

“Bush” covers a lot of familiar ground but also provides some perspectives that may change some of your previously held views. The bottom line, documented through its 660 pages, is the book’s last sentence: “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worse foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

Despite that conclusion, Smith gives Bush credit for his efforts to stem the scourge of AIDs in Africa, his counter-ideological response to the financial meltdown of the economy in 2008, and even his failed initiative at immigration reform. In foreign affairs, Smith paints a picture of Bush as the “decider,” just as Bush claimed. In this account, Dick Cheney is not pulling all the strings, Donald Rumsfeld raises significant questions and Bush frequently overrules all of his military commanders.

As I was reading “Bush” in the politically charged summer of 2016, I was struck by a number of his characteristics that resonate with the current Republican presidential nominee.  Bush came to the presidency with almost no experience or, indeed, understanding of foreign affairs.  His father arranged some high level briefings in the two years before the election, but it’s clear that Bush was not a quick study or a serious student.   We all saw lots of examples of his inexperience during his presidency, but we sometimes forget the broader lesson.  Experience does matter; the presidency is not a place for on-the-job training.

Donald Trump would have us believe that his stunning lack of understanding of the rest of the world is no obstacle; that reneging on an agreement with a contractor is preparation for international diplomacy; and that his own “big brain” will guide him successfully through any challenges that arise.  If anything, Trump would come to the presidency with even less foreign affairs experience than Bush, and Bush’s lack of preparedness was a disaster for this country.

A second strain of Smith’s assessment is Bush’s resistance to learning and to accepting facts.  He never tried to understand the history of the Middle East much less the sectarian divisions within that region.  His administration concocted a link between Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism that never existed and saw weapons of mass destruction where there were none.  All of these examples and others were a combination of willful ignorance and a predetermined desire to go to war with Iraq.

Does that sound chillingly like Donald Trump?  Fact checkers have concluded that three-fourths of his public pronouncements are wholly or partially false.  Moreover, as a political neophyte, Trump has shown no willingness to be briefed and to learn about issues that would confront him as president.  His comments on NATO, the Ukraine, Brexit and anything he discussed yesterday keep demonstrating a mental laziness that should terrify any serious voter.

According to Smith, Bush put primary trust in his own instincts, often to the exclusion of expert advisors and factual presentations.  In his case, those instincts were in part a reflection of his own deeply held religious beliefs.  Bush often counted on God to bring about the desired outcome even when all the evidence suggested he was on the wrong path.

Absent the religious connection, that’s a theme we see constantly repeated by Trump.  He doesn’t need experts because his instincts are so good.  He dismisses evidence because he “knows” better.  And his very small circle of advisors, mostly family, do not provide the kind of environment in which opposing opinions or serious questions are welcomed.

Much of the reaction to Donald Trump up to now has focused on his theatrics, his coarse and vulgar style and his breaking of all the traditional political norms.  There’s plenty there to make you do everything you can to prevent him from ever becoming president.  However, the comparison with the characteristics of a man many believe to have been the worst president this country has ever had provides an additional dimension to ponder.  Trump is so ill-prepared, by experience, temperament and knowledge, that his presidency might make Bush 43 look like an age of enlightenment.