Finding Common Ground


A highlight of a recent visit to Chicago was walking through Millennium Park, a magnificent 2004 expansion of public space near Lake Michigan. Built with both public dollars and significant corporate support, it has become a major gathering place for Chicago residents as well as a leading tourist destination. Millennium Park is also a real focus of civic pride for Chicagoans.

It’s a vivid demonstration of the value of public space in large cities and of the foresight that generations of leaders in Chicago showed in preserving the lakefront for parks and recreation. Other cities–and you know who you are–squandered the opportunity years ago to create similar kinds of public space along their rivers and harbors.

Public space brings people together, whether for concerts, wandering through gardens, peering at outdoor sculptures, or just providing a place to decompress from the trials of daily life. Perhaps most significantly, the fact that public space is available to everyone regardless of whatever category they are generally placed in underscores the importance of community.

I’m certainly not asserting that a public park is a substitute for dealing with the perplexing issues of urban education, crime and poverty. However, if we were able to see that we actually have a common stake in addressing those challenges in the same way as we appreciate the pleasures of shared public space, we might make some progress.

In fact, you might well trace the current rancor and division in our society and politics to the growing emphasis on self rather than on community. That’s always been a tension in this country, but the pendulum has lurched toward unrestrained individualism in recent years.

The unwillingness of some people to pay taxes to pay for support common services, infrastructure and basic needs has had dire consequences. Crumbling roads, bridges and utilities are taken as too expensive to repair or replace. We shortchange our public schools to the detriment of the whole society. Some elected officials are very ready to send Americans off to wars, but unwilling to pay for veterans services when they return. The less fortunate among us are told that it’s their fault that they weren’t born to a family of means.

Our politics, as shown in the ugly and often racist behavior in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, has sunk to new lows. The rabid mob at the Convention didn’t see victory in the election as adequate; they shouted for Hillary Clinton to be locked up or even executed. That’s not how people in democratic societies act, but the party of Donald Trump shows no shame at its excesses and its abandonment of the values on which this country was founded.

The party’s nominee gave a speech on Thursday night that was intended to terrify every voter in the country in the hope that many of them would turn to him as the strongman who would make everything right.

In the midst of that spasm of emotion, some Republican leaders have not capitulated to the madness and have been willing to put country ahead of party. In future years, when a grandchild asks what you did during the Era of Trump, there will be a clear division between those who can hold their heads up high and those who will have no response other than shame.

Trump’s Convention highlighted the worst in America.  It was, for anyone who sees the value of community and sharing, a truly depressing week.  I’m counting on the Democrats at their Convention in Philadelphia to demonstrate a strikingly different tone and appeal.  Until then, I will take comfort in my memories of Millennium Park as a positive sign of what our better instincts can accomplish.

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate


cool hand luke

That line from the classic Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, could describe politics in the United States today.

It’s much worse than people talking past each other or even ignoring each other. Opposing sides use the same words but not the same language. They look at the same events and see totally different things happening. If you’ve been paying attention to the news in recent weeks, you can probably identify lots of examples of your own, but let me offer a few to illustrate my point.

After the death of five policemen in Dallas, President Obama went to that troubled city to offer his condolences as well as reflections on police-community relations in this country.  Most of the commentary that I saw described his remarks as thoughtful and sensitive, indeed among his best public comments.  Sadly, he’s had a lot of practice as “Comforter-in-Chief”, and most observers thought he struck just the right tone.

But not everyone.  I read a couple of rants on the Internet about how many times the President used the word “I” in his comments, proof positive that he didn’t really care about the dead police. Not to mention the objection that he spoiled things by mentioning the black men shot by police in his comments on the shootings in Dallas. I’m pretty confident that  people expressing that sentiment have not approved of a single thing that Obama has done since he took office.

That’s certainly a pattern he has had to confront as president.  Even when he has adopted ideas favored by Republicans in the past, he has been attacked.  His health care plan, modeled closely after that one that Mitt Romney championed in Massachusetts, is one of many examples.   Those examples make it clear that there is nothing the President could have said or done to win the approval of his critics.

The chasm isn’t limited to views about the president.  Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in public comments blasted Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.  He immediately suggested that she should resign from the Court for meddling in politics and was joined by many of the same Republicans who don’t think their responsibilities include holding hearings on Court nominees.

More interestingly, however, neither Trump nor his acolytes were ever troubled by the intemperate public speeches of the late Antonin Scalia.  Using the standard they want to apply to Ginsberg, Scalia should have recused himself, for example, from all cases involving LGBT parties.

How about the outrage–what’s a more intense version of that word?–at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while Secretary of State?  As a Democrat who plans to vote for her in November, I  think she made a big mistake with her initial decision and with how she explained her actions over the months since it became public.  However, while FBI Director Jim Comey was highly critical of her actions, he concluded that she had not violated any laws.

Comey, who had been highly regarded by conservatives until that pronouncement, has been pilloried for rendering his professional judgment because it didn’t confirm the political preferences of Republicans in Congress.  Yet, nary a word has been heard from any of them in response to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s revelation that he too used a private server and didn’t see any violation of the law in Clinton’s actions.

Let me offer one more example: the differing ways in which reactions are divided whenever there is a mass shooting in this country.  Despite the pleas for a serious conversation about gun violence, no such thing has happened in decades.

Rather, I’d like to suggest that we all listen to the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown.  He first pointed out that the police were doing their job and made a plea for lawmakers to do theirs.  Brown went on to note that in the midst of the attack on police in that City, it was hard to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” because so many people were openly carrying around the scene of the shooting.  It’s a cinch that none of those “good” guys helped the police deal with the assassin, but they did add to the confusion.

And now we have the prospect fast approaching of a Wild West situation in the streets of Cleveland next week.  Protesters will show up to express their opposition to Donald Trump and the Constitution of the United States will tell them that they have every right to do that.

Somehow, in this upside world in which we are now living, there will be Trump supporters in the streets as well, asserting that those Constitutionally-protected protests somehow threaten them.  And the problem is that those people will in some cases be carrying guns because they are allowed to.  What can possibly go wrong?

Some people in this country, whenever something bad happens, quickly assert that it is Barack Obama’s fault.  I suppose they have a point in that Obama insists on continuing to be Black.

This massive breakdown in communications has been building for years.  What is particularly frightening is that we now have on the public stage a demagogue who is encouraging hatred and bigotry, telling his followers that it’s okay to build walls and marginalize groups because of their race, religion or ethnicity, and setting the example that anyone who disagrees should be attacked verbally and perhaps even physically.

The Trump candidacy is a direct result of our failure to communicate.  Unless he is soundly defeated in November, the democracy that we have cherished since the founding of this country is in real peril.

The Inadequacy of Words

Words can be very powerful. They can inspire patriotism, foment revolution, result in acts of compassion or incite riots. Words can heal, scar, comfort and humiliate.

Yet there are times that mere words are inadequate. In the aftermath of the horror that was last week, thousands of words have poured forth urging unity, understanding, a rethinking of race relations in this country and asserting that we are better than our worst moments. Two common themes were shock at the events of last week and a hope that we as a society could begin addressing the causes of that spasm of violence. Although there were exceptions, the preponderance of what was written in response to the killing of five policemen in Dallas and two unarmed black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis spoke more to seeking solutions than to casting blame.

As someone who has spent much of my adult life engaged in using words to analyze, advocate and describe, I have a high regard for the importance of putting thoughts into words.  When I taught undergraduates who would tell me that they knew the answer but just couldn’t put it into words, my response invariably was that then they didn’t really know the answer.  Being able to articulate thoughts as words is one of the key ways in which we interact as human beings.

Still, I found the torrent of words from last week, many of them incredibly thoughtful, moving and sincere, to be a totally inadequate response to all those deaths.  Perhaps it’s partly because we’ve heard versions of those words so many times before in the aftermath of whatever was the most recent national tragedy.  We so often declare that “this” must never be allowed to happen again.  We talk about a particular event “changing everything.”  We even assert that there are lessons that have been learned from whatever the most recent horrible event was.

I think many people are a bit numb at this point.  The bad news keeps bombarding us with no time to absorb one tragedy before another comes hurtling at us.  How do you make sense of the senseless?  How do you comprehend what at some level can only be described as evil? How do you retain any confidence that what has happened so frequently won’t happen again soon?

The impulse to express feelings through the written word is a pretty basic one.  I have no quarrel with all those who shared their thoughts last week and in fact was moved by many of the words.  But, ultimately, I took no solace in them.

Last week’s murders are among the many symptoms of a society that shows lots of signs of unraveling.  The inability of Congress to deal with  the core issues facing the country without the discussion turning into partisan warfare is dismaying.  The mean-spirited and ugly tone of so much public discourse guarantees that nothing positive will result.  Public cynicism about our politics and a decreasing level of confidence in the major institutions of our society undercut our ability to find solutions to any of the big problems facing us.

I have written on many occasions about the need for “commonsense” regulations regarding guns, but my larger concern is that we are not even able to have a serious discussion about the topic.  I understand that some people have views on the topic that are different from mine.  What I don’t understand is why those who reject “gun control” are unwilling to offer any proposals on how to reduce–not eliminate–the level of violence that plagues the United States and that sets us apart from every other industrialized nation in the world.  The words we use become barriers rather than bridges to communicating.

The inability to have a discourse on guns is mirrored by similar impasses on many other issues.  We are stuck in stalemate and seemingly lack the will to move beyond it.

Worse yet, we are well into a presidential campaign that could result in an even more fractured country.  I find it totally incomprehensible that Donald Trump, the least qualified and in many respect least serious candidate I have ever observed in national politics, has a chance to be elected president.  I do understand that some in this country don’t trust or even dislike Hillary Clinton.  I also understand that people have legitimate reasons for being angry, frustrated and disillusioned.  What’s harder to understand is why, even with all those factors taken into account, so many citizens would consider turning this country over to an unstable, erratic and potentially dangerous individual who exhibits every sign of being both a narcissist and an autocrat.

At this point, I don’t take comfort in any words about either the presidential campaign or the state of the nation.  While there are many small steps that individuals can take to improve their immediate communities, I’m at a loss how we are going to regain the soul of our nation.  I don’t think we need to “make America great again;” I would settle for making it civil.




4th of July Musings


The 240th anniversary of the writing of the Declaration of Independence is particularly significant in this most bizarre of election years. Even in those times when the imperfections of our political system seem most glaring, we have always comforted ourselves with two reminders. First, as Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst system of government except for all the rest. Additionally, we tend to take solace in the assertion that things have always eventually worked out in the past.

Sometimes the working out has taken a very long time, as with ending slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era. Voting and civil rights did not come quickly or easily to African-Americans, women, or the LGBT community.  The Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1965 Voting Rights Act reminds us that it’s possible to move backward as well as forward.  We still have a long way to go.

Similarly, the perception of foreign threats has not brought out the best in us. Think of the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus under our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer raids, and the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  In the aftermath of 9/11 and now of terror attacks by ISIS, the debate about the correct balance between security and liberty is in full force

From the vantage point of 2016, we can see real progress in many areas even as the rise of Donald Trump should remind us that we can’t take any of our freedoms for granted. The “it’s always worked out before” mentality is an invitation to complacency with real, not imaginary, harms that could result.

If you doubt that, think of the predictions about the impact on the British economy that were widely ignored before the Brexit vote. Think of the young Brits, who will be most impacted by the split from Europe, many of whom didn’t bother to vote. Think of all those people who searched on Google after the vote to find out what their vote meant.  Think, finally, of the increase in racial incidents in Britain apparently by people feeling empowered by the virulent anti-immigrant message that was a centerpiece of the Brexit campaign.

It’s easy to find parallels for every one of those developments in Britain in the political atmosphere of this year’s election.  Donald Trump’s simplistic pronouncements about renegotiating all of the current trade agreements would cause chaos in the international economic system.  Focusing on NAFTA and TPP ignores the fact that international trade is governed by a much larger complex of agreements.  The impulse to protectionism implied in his rants has always led to turmoil in the past.

Moreover, his “tax plan” would, in the opinion of any economist who has taken a close look at it, dramatically increase the national debt and bring no discernible benefits other than reducing the taxes of the very wealthy.  Actually, Trump has shown so little awareness of how the economy works that the greatest danger is his ignorance and naiveté.

We are told that the “have-nots” voted for Brexit to punish the elites.  We are also told that anger over the struggling economy convinced people to vote for a change without necessarily understanding what that change would be or how it might make things better.

You can definitely see that same dynamic among Trump supporters.  Given that most of those individuals are highly unlikely to switch their position, ensuring that he is not elected president in November needs to focus on getting Democrats to vote and on undecided voters.

Much of the commentary on the Democratic race since Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination has focused on whether Bernie Sanders fans will end up supporting her.  The more significant question is whether they will vote at all.  Young voters, the core of his support, have historically turned out in the lowest proportion of all age groups.  That it happened that way in Britain should be no surprise.

Any of those young voters who assert that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump; or who decide that if Bernie can’t be president they will stay home on Election Day; or who are just too busy to go to the polls; will be making a direct contribution to the election of Donald Trump and to all that will follow.  After the election is no time to have voters remorse or to “wish” that you had done the right thing.

Trump’s campaign has been filled with lies, misrepresentations and distortions.  If you’re one of those people who says that “all of them do it”, you just haven’t been paying attention.  Accepting false equivalency is the lazy way of evaluating political candidates.

Every fact checking organization has concluded that fully three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are largely or totally false.  He has an insurmountable lead in the “pants on fire” and “four Pinocchio’s” ratings.

Don’t wait until after the election to google his comments.  You have no excuse for discovering after the fact that he has been lying to you for months.  If you choose to believe his lies, that’s on you.

And, as in Britain, the ginned-up fear about immigrants is driving a significant part of Trump’s appeal.  We’re already seeing more overt signs of racial and immigrant bias.  If Trump wins, you can count on those same people feeling that they have license to express their darkest and ugliest prejudices.  Not letting him become president is the most effective way to put them back in their boxes since it’s unlikely their minds will ever be changed.

I can think of no more inappropriate way to celebrate this nation’s history and heritage than to “build a wall.”  It’s ironic that Tea Party activists, Know-nothing nativists, and Trump advocates all assert a fealty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Their values couldn’t be more at odds with either of those documents.  In wanting to build walls, use religious and ethnic tests to determine who gets to be an American, and trying, however futilely, to cut this nation off from the rest of the world, they demonstrate how disconnected they really are from what is exceptional about the United States.

That Democrats will be holding their Convention in Philadelphia, 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was written in that City, provides an almost perfect counter-image to Donald Trump.  The key to Hillary Clinton’s ability to prevail in November is for her campaign to come out of the Convention with the same urgency and commitment that inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence.


The Brexit Tsunami

Union Jack

The day after Britain voted to leave the European Community, the Washington Post ran an article about large numbers of Brits googling to find out what the European Community is and what the impact on Britain. of terminating its membership might be. Talk about getting to the barn door too late.

All along we’ve known that the opposition was driven by some mix of fear and anger, much like Donald Trump’s supporters in this country. What we didn’t know was how strong that side would be. The vote was expected to be close, with a lot of speculation in the last few days that the “Remain” forces were gaining strength.

A broad spectrum of experts, including just about every economist willing to be quoted, argued that Britain’s exit would be bad for the country, bad for Europe, bad for the world economy and generally bad. The 52% who voted to leave either didn’t believe those predictions, didn’t care about them or weren’t even aware of them.

Even in the first day, it looks like those experts knew what they were talking about. Markets around the world are taking a beating. The British pound’s free fall may be good for tourists visiting Britain, may eventually help British exports, but sure looks bad in every other respect.  And in one of those “you can’t make this stuff up moment”, Donald Trump observed that it might be good for his golf courses in Scotland.

And that’s only the first day. What’s really most ominous about Britain’s decision is the extended period of uncertainty and instability that it will usher in. The legal structure of the European Community is incredibly complex and detailed. Negotiating Britain’s removal will be lengthy, contentious and a source of continued confusion. Some of the “Remove” proponents argued that the country on its own could cut a better deal with the European Community than it could as a member. That’s an example of wishful thinking that’s off the charts ridiculous.

But so much more could happen and just about every scenario you can imagine ends badly. Will other countries decide to hold their own referenda? Almost certainly. Will others exit as the result of that process? Pretty good chance.

For Britain, or perhaps more precisely England, there may well be an extreme irony. There is already talk north of the border that there will be another vote on Scottish independence. The Scots, it turns out, aren’t so keen on leaving the European Community. In fact, the “Remain” vote won decisively in the land of kilts. It’s not hard to imagine Scotland splitting from England and then turning around and applying for its own membership in the European Community. Try to picture Passport Control between those two countries. And how will they sort out where the British Open is played?

And if that weren’t strange enough, the “Remain” side won decisively in Northern Ireland, prompting some supporters to argue that the time had arrived for reunification of Ireland.

Moreover, for anyone still skeptical about the reality of a global economy, that gigantic thud you heard on Friday was the Dow Jones Average falling 611 points.  Are you still sure that Brexit has no relevance to you?  Since the Great Recession of 2007, this country has had a slow and steady, albeit not terribly robust, recovery.  Some economists were already speculating about when the next recession, pretty much inevitable in their view, would begin.  The large waves being stirred about by Brexit could lead relatively soon to the next economic downturn.

Besides the potential for economic turmoil, what are the other major consequences of Brexit?  For one, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation.  That’s actually too good for him.  Cameron, after all, decided to call for a referendum in the first place and then failed to rally his party to support the “Remain” side in sufficient numbers.  The key point is that Cameron did not have to call for a referendum.  He was feeling pressure from some Conservatives and, rather than show leadership and political courage, opted for the expedient of throwing the decision to the voters.  History will not be kind to David Cameron, which is only fitting.

Pollsters got another vote wrong.  You might want to cut them some slack since it was close but that’s being too generous.  In the last few days, all the polling stories suggested that the tide was moving in the direction of “Remain.”  The pollsters apparently underestimated the “Leave” vote, which was either a methodological problem or a lot of people deciding late.

That the first explanation could be right should make you worry about polling for the American election in the fall.  Trump certainly has a following that looks in many respects like the winning coalition in Britain.     Besides being angry, fearful, less educated and generally older, Trump voters are not very concerned with facts.  That the Brexit forces ignored sophisticated economic warnings about the consequences of leaving Europe makes them seem a lot like voters supporting Trump.

There’s one other point worth making that has been almost totally ignored in the public discourse about Brexit.  It might be tempting to cite yet again George Santayana’s admonition that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the problem is slightly different.  I’m pretty sure that most of the “Leave” supporters never recognized the original purpose of European unity.

The predecessor organizations in the early post-WW II period to what eventually became the European Community had a single overriding objective.  The goal was to tie the countries of Europe, and particularly Germany, so closely together that another war among them would be not only inconceivable but practically impossible.

The period in Europe since the end of World War II has stood in marked contrast to the half century that preceded it.   If Brexit foreshadows a general unraveling of European harmony, the economic problems that are already  evident will be the least of the consequences.

It’s hard to end this complex foreign relations challenge anywhere but on the 2016 Presidential Election.    That Donald Trump was visiting one of his golf courses in Scotland just as the vote was occurring sums up his understanding of foreign affairs just about perfectly.  At a time when impulsive, emotional responses are really dangerous, that’s all he brings to the table.

Yet, watching the Brexit vote unfold, it would be naive to argue that he has no chance to be elected president.  Brexit reminds us that he actually could win.  It should also remind us that elections have consequences and those consequences can be both dangerous and destabilizing.  Brexit should be a wake-up call for everyone on this side of the pond.

Notes from a Topsy Turvey World


UK remain

As the days start to get shorter and the blue paint starts to wear off, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the recent developments in this particularly strange year.

You may not have paid much attention, but on Thursday citizens in Britain will vote on whether or not to stay in the European Community. You might well shrug and say that Brexit, as it has come to be known, “will have no effect on me and what’s the big deal anyway.” In an increasingly interdependent world, you really don’t have the luxury of that position. Already world economic markets are reacting negatively to the mere possibility of Britain disengaging from Europe and what that might mean for the future stability of the Continent.

If the British voters decide to leave Europe, there will be an extended period of instability as the complex details are negotiated and as other countries reconsider their own future in Europe. Unless the vote is extremely close, you’re likely to know the outcome by late Thursday as the impact starts to wash up on our shores.

There’s another piece to the Brexit story worth considering. Those most in favor of leaving Europe bear a striking resemblance in age, education level and political outlook to Donald Trump’s supporters. Both groups want to return to a past that never was, to a perceived golden age where everyone looked and sounded exactly like they do, when the economy was robust and immigrants were nowhere to be seen. In other words, these groups want to pull the covers over their heads and whistle a happy tune.

In the United States, meanwhile, guns are back in the news.  In the aftermath of the massacre in Orlando, the debate over how to respond to mass murders has been temporarily reignited.  What broke out first was a discussion about the intentions of the shooter.  To the question of whether he was motivated by terrorist goals or by homophobia, the answer is probably yes.  Not long before his inevitable death, Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS.  However, the target that he picked was a gay nightclub that was well-known to him.  Whether his own sexual orientation was an issue has also been raised.

We’ll probably never sort out motive to everyone’s satisfaction.  There is only one thing we know for certain.  Matinee was able to slaughter 49 innocent victims only because he had a military-style killing machine that was designed exactly for that purpose.

To those who argue that access to guns isn’t the real issue, there is a moral obligation to suggest other ways in which tragedies like Orlando can be avoided.  No one is arguing for perfect solutions, only for lessened risk.  Could the FBI have stopped Mateen?  Agents didn’t think they had enough evidence, a judgment call which will always apply.  Would better mental health treatment in this country help?  Perhaps, although legislators certainly haven’t been very willing to provide the funds needed.  Would keeping all Muslims out of the country, as Donald Trump has suggested, be the magic solution?  Mateen was born in this country.  Beside, there is no evidence that Muslims in this country are any less patriotic than any other group.  To say otherwise is racism, of which there is a good bit around right now.

Meanwhile, despite strong public support for common sense gun regulations, our political system is unwilling to respond.  As usual, the United States Senate did its part by rejecting four rather modest proposals that only received a vote in the first place because of a filibuster by Connecticut Senate Chris Murphy.

When hopes are pinned on a measure so limited as restricting people on the “terrorist watch list” from getting guns, the bar really has been set incredibly low.  Yet, even that measure was much too high for 53 senators who saw the greater threat to this country in the possibility that some people might have been put on that list incorrectly.

Interestingly, in the same week, the United States Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court ruling that Connecticut’s far reaching gun law is indeed constitutional.  Yet, for the NRA and its rented and purchased members of Congress, an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment seems to be the only civil right that matters.  Actually, no other provision in the Bill of Rights has been treated as an absolute, but that doesn’t stop supporters from making ridiculous claims.

At this point, nothing will change with the present composition of Congress.  The best hope is a Donald Trump-led electoral disaster for Republicans in the fall that results in a dramatic shift in membership in the House and the Senate.  Hillary Clinton’s strong support for gun regulations with a Democratically-controlled Congress should be powerful incentive for those who are appalled by the ongoing violence to get out and vote and support candidates with similar views.

Finally, I want to note a dilemma that Donald Trump has created for himself.  The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton at present has $42 million in her campaign war chest while Trump has $1.3 million.  Both, as anyone with an email account realizes, are actively fundraising, but he has not been doing very well.

When Trump supporters are asked why they back him, a frequent response is that he is not beholden to anyone for money since he is so rich.  It’s an assertion that he made over and over again during the nomination process.   Does he run the risk of becoming just another politician asking for special interest money?  Or does he open up a fortune that he claims is $10 billion and actually finance his own campaign?

If you were looking for a classic example of someone being hoisted on his own petard, this would be it.  Trump is having all sorts of other problems with his campaign right now, but not being able to compete with Clinton in spending on media, staff and organization may prove to be the final straw.  Moreover, after months of relatively uncritical and incredibly extensive coverage by the media, the press is starting to examine and reveal much more about Trump’s claims as well as his qualifications and temperament.  He may be sailing into a perfect storm and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

The Hogan Shuffle

larry hogan


There’s no question that Governor Larry Hogan is extremely uncomfortable with the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.  (Unless you are still deluding yourself that there will be a successful revolt at the convention in Cleveland, it’s pointless to keep referring to him as the “presumptive” nominee.”)

He’s been asked by the press on numerous occasions whether he is supporting Trump and has twisted himself into incredible contortions to avoiding responding.  Hogan even pretended the other day that he was unaware of the most recent obnoxious comments made by Trump in response to the mass murder in Orlando.

What’s odd about Hogan’s handling of the Trump problem is that he has consistently demonstrated real political skill, first by winning election in 2014 and then in navigating his first year and a half in office.  While there’s no guarantee that his public opinion approval will stay as high as it is now, it’s none the less very impressive.  His evasions on Trump make him look amateurish, which he certainly is not.

To be fair to Hogan, the dilemma that he is struggling with has been tripping up a lot of other Republican office holders.  The best example may be Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.  The Wisconsin Representative has badly tarnished his image and any claim to the high moral ground by his contradictory and shifting positions on Trump.  Can you really be greatly troubled by Trump’s racism and know-nothing appeal and still hold fast to your endorsement of him?

Paul Ryan, Larry Hogan and anyone not driven by hyper-partisanship knows that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president, that his temperament is eerily reminiscent of 20th Century fascists in Europe, and that he is blatantly appealing to the worst in Americans.  Surely this is a moment in which the best interests of the country and its future should be more important than whether your party’s standard-bearer is elected.

I’m confident that Larry Hogan has no intention of voting for Trump or supporting him in any tangible way.  Yet, he continues to do his version of the Ali shuffle, and he’s not doing it very well.  Maybe he is feeling pressure from his pal, Chris Christie, not to openly attack Trump.  If that’s the case, he might consider the damage that Christie’s image has suffered since he become Trump’s leading cheerleader and errand boy.

Hogan has the opportunity to rise above the slime that Trump is spreading across the political landscape.  Both reporters and Democrats will continue to hound him about his failure to speak out against Trump.  He could put all of that behind him and raise his stature among thoughtful voters by simply calling out Trump for the destructive force that he is.

The ugliness is only going to get worse between now and November.  There’s no new Trump who is going to make Republicans like Hogan feel good about their candidate.  The governor should cut his losses and reconcile himself, as Kathleen Parker suggested, to lose this election with dignity.

Brian Frosh: Principled and Courageous

In a time in which so many elected officials demonstrate neither principle nor courage, Brian Frosh reminds us that we don’t have to lower our standards. I’ve been a long-time fan of the Attorney General, yet he continues to amaze and impress me with his commitment to doing the right thing regardless of political opposition.

The latest example might have been imagined by George Orwell. A group of House Republicans,  members of that body’s “Science” Committee, wrote a letter to certain Attorneys General around the country in an effort to intimidate them. The AGs’ transgression: investigating deceptive practices and statements by the fossil fuel industry.  Specifically, their inquiry is focused on whether energy companies crossed the line into criminal behavior in their attempts to knowingly sabotage scientific evidence of man-made climate change.

In a letter signed by most, but not all, of the Committee’s Republican members and by none of the Democrats, Chairman Lamar Smith requested documents and communications from the investigation and suggested that the actions by the AGs “may even amount to abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

Have you ever wondered why no Congressional Republican is on record as acknowledging climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence? It’s not that they are stupid; rather, they are craven cowards.  The few Republicans who voiced support for climate change were promptly challenged and defeated in primaries.  The flip side of that coin is that much of the “dark money” that we have been reading about comes from the energy industry and strongly supports candidates who toe the coal and oil line.

What Smith and his colleagues were trying to demonstrate to their supporters was how enthusiastic they are about energy sources that cause pollution.  Their heavy-handed effort to scare opponents has run into strong resistance, none more colorful or unrelenting than that from Frosh.  If you read his letter back to Smith, rejecting their request and raising serious questions about their motives and their authority, you’ll quickly realize that the response was not composed by a committee or tested out with a focus group.  The letter is pure Brian Frosh, a fearless advocate for the environment and for truth.

The anti-scientists on the Science Committee suggest in their letter that there must be some sinister conspiracy involving Attorneys General communicating with environmentalists.   It does make you wonder whether the committee and its staff had communications with representatives of the fossil fuel industry as they prepared their missive.  Neither is prohibited, but the attempt to use the force of Congress to suppress the work of an independent level of government should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who actually cares about liberty.

Frosh’s stand raises a larger point as well.  Too many people in positions of responsibility are failing to speak out as demagogues, science and truth deniers and just plain liars roam the face of the political landscape.

The most recent example was the total capitulation to partisan politics by House Speaker Paul Ryan.  By endorsing Donald Trump in the face of Trump’s continuing outrageous statements, Ryan squandered his considerable reputation and public standing.  Ironically, he also made more likely what he was trying to avoid, Democrats recapturing the House of Representatives.  He and his fellow House Republicans are now tied firmly and unequivocally to whatever dishonest and coarse things their party’s presidential nominee says and does.

Over the years, I’ve often seen and had the opportunity to write about public officials who squander the potential of their office and are mostly concerned with their own self-image.  Some of them are shameless grandstanders; some of them take positions that buy cheap popularity in the short-term, but result in terrible public policy; some of them bully and berate people who are powerless to resist.  Those of you who fit any of these categories know who you are.

By contrast, Frosh, as Attorney General and before that as Chair of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has consistently stood up for causes that he believed were right regardless of whether they were politically popular.  He’s still leading the charge for sensible gun laws, is a vigorous advocate for consumer rights, and, as this example demonstrates, is relentless in his support of the environment.

It’s easy to get discouraged by this country’s national politics and by a presidential campaign that veers into the surreal at times.  In the craziest moments, it’s good to remember that there are public servants like Brian Frosh.


Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, who won a Vermont Senate seat running as a Socialist, is now trying to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. He has far exceeded initial expectations, continues to draw large crowds, and has a message about income inequality in this country that is clearly resonating with many voters.

Yet, he trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination in every category including, most significantly, number of pledged delegates. As the process winds towards its conclusion and the Convention in Philadelphia in late July, Sanders has increasingly made complaints about the Party’s nominating rules a staple of his campaign rhetoric.

Does Sanders have a legitimate case or is he just turning into a sore loser?
It’s worth starting with the fact that, until this campaign, Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party. While he does caucus with the Party in the Senate, he has not been a participant in any of the others ways in which Democrats engage in the work of their party organization.

That reality really does undercut Sanders’ standing to complain. When he decided to run for president, he did so knowing that there was an existing set of rules. No one forced him to run as a Democrat.  Moreover, you didn’t hear those complaints early in the process. They have arisen only as it has become evident that Sanders has only a very slight chance to prevail against Clinton.

Sanders has generally railed against a system that he describes as rigged. His observations about income inequality and about the perverse impact of money on the political system ring true for a lot of Americans, including many who support Clinton. In fact, those are themes that Sanders has been espousing for all his time as an elected official, but now he has a national audience for his message. The salience of his positions helps explain his outsized popularity among younger voters.

However, when he applies his “rigged system” complaint to the Democratic nominating process, he is on much weaker ground. He has focused his ire on two aspects of that process, the inclusion of so-called Super Delegates as automatic participants at the Convention and the closed primary rule that exists in many states.

Both arguments have been made without regard to the history that led to those two rules and to the context in which they exist. Sanders doesn’t like the impact on his candidacy but he has not been able to make a cogent case for why those two provisions are fundamentally unfair.

Primaries became the principal way in which candidates competed for delegates after the 1968 Election in which Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without running in a single primary. His selection at the Chicago convention that year was engineered by the power of the Party’s political bosses. That fact plus his loss to Richard Nixon in the General Election led Democrats to begin a complex process to reform how their nominee would be picked.

Over time, two party commissions, one chaired by South Dakota Senator George McGovern and the other by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, rewrote the rules. In addition to emphasizing the role of primaries in selecting delegates, Democrats gave more weight to gender and racial diversity in the composition of those who attended their convention.

The immediate result of this dramatic opening up of the process was the disastrous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 election. McGovern, the choice of a very liberal convention, was too far out of the country’s political mainstream. It became clear that while political bosses completely dominating the process created a distorted outcome, their total absence had a different kind of negative result. Eventually, the effort to find a more balanced process led to the creation of Super Delegates, elected officials and others who have a stake in the political viability of the party’s candidate.

Is the current balance the correct one? That’s a reasonable point to debate, but not in the middle of a nominating process. Sanders knew, or should have known, what he was getting into and made plans accordingly.

Parties changes their rules all the time, usually in response to whatever happened in the prior election. Republicans, for example, front loaded their primary schedule after 2012 when it took a long time for Mitt Romney to wrap up the nomination. In a great illustration of the rule of unanticipated consequences, that accelerated schedule helped Donald Trump to run up a series of victories before he came under close scrutiny by either the press or his opponents.

In states that allow open primaries, where registered voters can choose which party primary to participate in, there is a real possibility that the outcome will be determined by individuals who are not members of the party. Crossover and independent voters have multiple objectives that often ignore what is best for the party in whose primary they are participating.

Primaries are not previews of the General Election. They are mechanisms for selecting delegates. If we are going to continue to have political parties as the main structures for organizing our elections, there is a much stronger case to be made for closed rather than open primaries.

And, as with Sanders’ other objections, the primary system was in place before he announced his candidacy. Unless you are incredibly naive, you realize that rules matter in politics and that you don’t get to change them when things are unlikely to go your way.

To some supporters, Sanders refusal to compromise and, indeed, his anger are appealing traits. In recent days and weeks, those characteristics have increasingly dominated his campaign. Neither portends success in governing, but that’s a different matter. While I fully agree that Sanders has every right to continue to campaign aggressively for the nomination, it’s beginning to look like he doesn’t care whether his efforts damage the ability of the party whose nomination he is seeking to win in November against Donald Trump.

That approach again reminds us that Bernie Sanders is not really a Democrat. For some voters, that’s part of his attraction. For others, it’s a clear demonstration that it’s time to close out the process and enable Hillary Clinton to devote her full attention and resources to preventing a Trump presidency with all its implications.

Off the Political Grid


Francisco FrancoDonald Trump

During a recent trip to Spain, I managed largely to ignore the political news that had been such an obsession before I left. To be sure, an occasional headline broke through or an email from a friend pointed out some particularly outrageous development. For the most part, however, I stopped reading newspapers, Politico news summaries and all the sage commentary.

Upon my return, I discovered that relatively little had changed. It turned out having immediate access to a breaking report or to the latest mudslinging was for the most part irrelevant. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

That conclusion is far from a statement that politics doesn’t matter or that we don’t need to make every effort to be well-informed about it. What it does mean, at least to me, is that we often get consumed with the details and miss the big picture. In an era where real-time communications seem so important — witness all the people you’ve seen walking along the sidewalk, head down, reading or writing on their smartphones — relatively little “breaking news” is actually crucial. News organizations that rush to get the story first often get it wrong.

My observations, at first glance, seem to conflict with the basic storyline that this is the year in which everything has changed.  We have the spectacle of two outsiders with no loyalty to the political parties whose nominations they are attempting to capture.  The two frontrunners have unprecedentedly high unfavorable ratings.   The political establishments of both parties are in disarray and increasingly ignored.   In addition, one candidate, with no experience in government, is appealing to the worst in human nature, blatantly disregarding the truth, and reminding many of the fascist dictators of the 20th Century.

None of these developments, however, happened overnight.  All of them can be traced to prior history.  One of the many ways in which the media has performed badly in this election is failing to examine the factors that have led to the political mess in which we find ourselves today.  Everything is about the next news cycle, the scoop, the latest incendiary attack.

What’s more, we still have ahead of us more than five months of what will likely turn out to be the ugliest presidential campaign in history.  Given the patterns of our recent politics, that shouldn’t come as a surprise either.

How do we come through this election with our democracy as well as our personal sanity intact ?  My hiatus in Spain suggests a couple of strategies.  First, it is really critical that we pay attention to the campaigns and what they tell us about the candidates.  That’s different from reacting, or overreacting, to every pronouncement, every accusation, every bit of spin. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump present vastly different backgrounds, policy positions, approaches to the office and appeals to voters.  It’s been a long time since the electorate was offered such a stark choice.

Secondly, if you believe the outcome of the election matters, then active involvement is essential.  The first thing my wife and I did after returning from our trip was to write checks to two campaigns that we think are important.  The biggest political mistake that some people of my generation made was to convince themselves in 1968, after a tumultuous Democratic nominating campaign, that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon.

This is the point at which my trip to Spain raised an important historical example.  After the Spanish Civil War in which the army under General Francisco Franco overthrew a democratically elected government, Franco ruled Spain as an absolute dictator for the next 36 years.  Critics frequently compare Trump to Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but I think the comparison to Franco is at least as troubling.

The Trump campaign is certainly not a military coup, but it has many of the same appeals that Franco offered to Spanish conservatives.  Moreover, while a Trump presidency would not last 36 years, it certainly could bring about fundamental changes in what we now think of as American democracy.

I don’t plan to go back off the political grid and I will do my best to keep political news in perspective.  If reasonable people stay engaged, don’t allow themselves to get distracted or discouraged by the pseudo-drama of the campaigns and remember that there is no such thing as a perfect, flawless candidate, there will not be a Trump presidency to worry about.  That bit of optimism, tempered by the necessity of working to make it happen, is the best that I can offer.