Brian Frosh, Larry Hogan and Donald Trump

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined the Attorney General of Washington D.C. on Monday in a suit challenging whether Donald Trump is violating the “emoluments” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The central issue is whether Trump’s failure to divest from his many financial holdings, allowing him to profit from spending by foreign governments intended to influence his decisions, puts him at legal and constitutional jeopardy. While the obvious focus is on his hotel just down the street from the White House where many foreign officials have stayed, the suit has the potential to raise a wide array of issues, including whether the President can be forced to release his tax returns.

Whether a court will actually take the case is an open question.  The emoluments clause has never been tested before.  On the other hand, we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before, someone with an incredible tangle of financial interests who refuses to publicly disclose his holdings.

While some might argue that the emoluments clause is out of date or that the authors of the Constitution weren’t really serious about its inclusion, a more compelling position is that insuring that a president’s decisions are not “bought” by a foreign power is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1787.  Trump’s failure to either divest or disclose has created a constitutional quagmire that is entirely of his own making.

Frosh’s joining in this lawsuit is possible only because of a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year.  Prior to adoption of that statute, the Attorney General had to receive permission from the Governor for most legal actions.

Larry Hogan’s reluctance to allow suits or even to comment on  policies of the Trump Administration that adversely impact Maryland persuaded the State Legislature that the change was needed.  The other essential ingredient that facilitated the new law was the trust and confidence that legislative leaders have in Frosh, a former member of both the House and the Senate.

Frosh has never hesitated to take on tough questions.  Among other issues, he has been a leading advocate for environmental protection, a sponsor of Maryland’s landmark gun control law and strong supporter of marriage equality and immigration rights.  That Hogan is on the other side of every one of those issues helps explain the General Assembly’s  willingness to expand Frosh’s authority.

You won’t be able to find references in any of Hogan’s remarks to the word “emoluments.”  Unless the subject comes up while he is playing golf with Trump, Hogan will be able to dance around the subject.  Don’t expect a press release or an answer to a reporter’s question.

That approach won’t work, however, on other Trump policies impacting Maryland.  At this point, the President’s proposed budget includes no funds for the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Frosh is already talking to a number of other state Attorneys General about filing suit if the Administration follows through on its stated intention to gut environmental protections.

Hogan’s unwillingness to offer an opinion on the attack on the Bay leaves you wondering whether his brand of conservative Republicanism has any room for actual conserving.  The Governor is obviously very uncomfortable criticizing the President, but his apparent abandonment of the State’s most critical natural resource is sure to be an issue in next year’s election.

Similarly, Hogan’s preference for tip-toeing around the Republican revisions to the Affordable Care Act doesn’t seem politically sustainable.  Health care is a significant part of the State’s economy just as it is nationally.

Moreover the evidence is clear that a bill anything like the one that passed the House of Representatives, and which Trump applauded with an unseemly White House celebration, would do great harm to the citizens of Maryland.  Much like Congressional Republicans, Hogan so far has placed loyalty to his political party higher than  concern for the health of the residents of Maryland.

As we approach the 2018 election, we’ll find out whether the political calculation that Larry Hogan made was smart or self-defeating.  He is trying to walk the tightrope between not alienating Trump supporters in Maryland, who constitute a measurable part of his electoral base, and not alienating those Marylanders–sometimes the same people–who will be harmed by Trump’s policies.  He may have figured out the political sweet spot or, like Britain’s Theresa May, his actions may bring about his own political demise.

Meanwhile, until there is a Democratic nominee to oppose Hogan in next year’s gubernatorial election, Frosh certainly seems like the voice and face of the State Party.  That’s not to diminish the role of the Congressional delegation, but their focus has necessarily been on what’s happening in Washington.

Frosh’s willingness to speak out, to take action, to articulate a set of values that distinguishes him from both Hogan and Trump, provides an example of courageous leadership that is all too rare these days.  Now we need Republicans with the backbone to stand up to Trump’s assault on our democratic system and join Democrats like Frosh who are taking a stand.

 

 

The Carelessness of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate change agreement demonstrates a president in continuous campaign mode.  His approach is characterized by politics over policy, reckless disregard for facts and science, and a dangerous carelessness about the impact of his choices.

Despite having been elected chief executive of the government of the United States, Trump shows little interest in governing, a stunning lack of understanding of the constitutional system, and no core beliefs to guide his actions.  The only constants in his world are his overinflated view of his own abilities and a hypersensitivity  about how others see him.

Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement vividly demonstrates all these factors.  The event itself seemed more like a campaign rally than a serious policy prouncement.  In full display for all the world to see were his virulent nationalism, demagogic rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the threats posed by climate change and pandering to a political base desparate for reassurance that their lost world could be restored. Without any supporting evidence, Trump manufactured a smorgasbord of benefits that would accrue to American workers from abandoning the Paris agreement and brushed aside any alledged risks as illusory.

Why did he make such a disastrous decision?  For one, Trump had promised during his campaign to walk away from the climate agreement.  Toting up “promises kept” is an essential piece of his ongoing campaign for reelection in 2020.  Climate change denial has become a central plank of Republican orthodoxy and Trump, hardly a mainstream member of the Party, has been eager to find areas of common ground.  A third factor is the opportunity to dismantle another piece of Barack Obama’s legacy, which is  clearly important for Trump’s fragile ego.

Much was made in the days leading up to the announcement of a supposed battle between competing White House factions to persuade Trump which way to decide.  Those reports were most likely a combination of internal spin and external wishful thinking.  It’s hard to believe the outcome was ever in doubt, especially when you consider the language and tone of his remarks described by one commentator as “belligerent.”

Climate change poses serious risks to the planet.  Deferring action is not an option.  If there were an environmental disaster clock similar to the one assessing the risks from nuclear weapons, Trump just moved it closer to midnight.

Yet, Trump seems oblivious or indifferent to those risks.  For him, the decision was a political choice somehow detached from any real world consequence.  It’s easier to belittle scientific evidence than to work to protect the environment.  For Al Gore, climate change is an “inconvenient truth”; for Trump, it’s a matter to be ignored.  Perhaps he will think differently if sea water covers the golf course at Mar-a-Lago

It is in that respect that I use the word “careless” to describe Trump’s approach to governing and decision-making.  He understands and cares only about his own interests.  He is amazingly uninformed and uninterested in anyone else.  As a result, his decision process does not take into account how others will be impacted by his actions.

That myopia is not limited to decisions about the environment.  Think about the travesty of the health care bill that he has been promoting.  During the campaign, Trump bought into the Republican talking point about “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act.  He is still committed to that goal even though he has shown no understanding of what is in the bill passed by House Republicans.

Even as the Congressional Budget Office determines that 23 million Americans will lose their health insurance and many others will pay much more for coverage, Trump blathers about having the best healthcare system in the world, claims he is adding money for health care – despite his proposed budget slashing funding – and continues to assert that everyone will be better off under Trumpcare.  It’s only words to him.  Enacting a bill–any bill–for which he can claim victory is all he cares about.

Trump’s late-in-his-political career conversion  to “pro life” is another illustration of his carelessness.  His switch was merely a political expedient.  To keep his base happy, he has appointed a justice to the Supreme Coury who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His selections as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Attorney General are both working to make access to abortion and contraception more difficult.

Is Trump acting on one of his core beliefs or is he going along with his political crowd with no regard for the consequences for a woman’s ability to control her body and her health?  That’s an easy question to answer since Trump has no core beliefs.

As many have noted, Trump is fundamentally a transactional figure.  He cares about making the deal, not about what impact it will have on others, not even on his core supporters.  His need to tally up symbolic victories is leaving in its wake a trail of enormous damage to the United States and to all but its wealthiest citizens, but Trump doesn’t either notice or care.

Donald Trump has no feelings or empathy for others, is extremely egocentric, has no close personal relationships, seems to lack a moral base and does not learn from his experiences.  Medical professionals are understandably reluctant to offer a diagnosis based solely on his public behavior, but the rest of know that when it quacks likes a duck, it probably is a duck.

Pointless Trump Storylines

 

Donald Trump is a hypocrite.  We knew that a long time ago.  Spending valuable time and resources on the most recent examples is just distraction from the real and growing dangers of his presidency.

Yet, we had extensive coverage, on his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, reporting that he and Melania engaged in actions for which Trump tweeted to criticize Barack and Michele Obama  when they made a similar visit.  Trump bowed just as Obama had.  Melania wore no scarf or head cover just as Michele had not.

Does reporting on that comparison enlighten us in any way? Does it make Trump supporters reconsider their backing for him? Does it change the political calculus among Members of Congress?

An example that makes even less sense is the endless speculating–and that’s all it is–on the condition of the Trumps’ marriage.  Did Melania reject Donald when he tried to hold her hand?  Or was it their personal version of a high-five?  No one knows and no one should care.

Trying to discern what her facial expressions “really” mean has become something of a cottage industry.  If there’s one thing we should all have learned by now, it’s that no one on the outside can really know what’s going on within a relationship.  More importantly, it’s a form of gossip that distracts from the important questions about Trump’s actions as president.

Another running narrative of the Trump presidency is that he plays golf frequently.  We all remember how loudly Republicans criticized President Obama for far fewer golf outings but seem unmoved by Trump’s trips to the fairways.

At some level, I’d rather have him putting than tweeting or making budget decisions, but that’s not really the point.  We know that his work habits are less than stellar.  We have seen countless examples of his willingness to indulge himself at taxpayer expense.  Neither, however, is breaking news.  And neither helps us deal with the very real damage that his presidency is doing to this country.

No one would call Donald Trump an eloquent speaker or even a particularly articulate one.  He makes up words, misspells them constantly, garbles thoughts and sentences and rambles in presentations in a way that leaves you scratching your head, wondering what he is talking about.

Words certainly matter and some of his language can create serious confusion, misunderstanding and even deepen divisions.  He should be called out in specific instances, but merely mocking his speech is a pointless, even counterproductive, enterprise.

On the whole, press coverage of Donald Trump is now exponentially better than it was during the presidential campaign.  Reporters have cultivated sources and revealed information that the Administration was trying to hide.  If not for the media, Mike Flynn would still be National Security Advisor, there would be no special prosecutor and any efforts to expose Russian interference in last year’s election and learn whether there was collusion by the Trump campaign would have long been buried.

The first four months of his presidency have been the subject of insightful analysis and commentary.  While many Republicans still cower in their safe districts, the public resistance to Trump has been significantly enhanced by the growing transparency that the press has provided.  In other words, the existence of the First Amendment and its protection of a free press has, yet again, proved invaluable.

Exactly for that reason, spending time chasing sideshows should be avoided.  In the first place, continuous stories about Trump’s golf outings run the risk of trivializing overall coverage of him.  The important issue is what his administration is doing to undermine protection of the environment, not how often he has gone to Mar-a-Lago.  The attack that Trump and Betsy DeVos are leading on public education in this country should have our full attention; Trump’s awkward sword dancing with Saudis is merely a distraction.

When the press plays up examples of his hypocrisy, it feeds into the narrative that he and his supporters are pushing that the media is picking on him, that reporters are biased against him.  He will always believe that he is being treated unfairly and perhaps many of his backers will also, but there’s no point in giving fodder to that claim.

Finding the right balance is no easy task.  The greatest risks from the Trump presidency come from his temperament.  His behavior should certainly be covered by the press.  That Trump is desperately trying to bury the investigation into his ties with Russia should have our full attention.  If he tweets in the middle of the night about some perceived grievance, it doesn’t deserve the same level of scrutiny as his efforts at a coverup.

It’s an absolute certainly that Donald Trump will continue to provide abundant reasons for people to resist politically and for the press to closely examine his actions.  This is no time to be distracted by quirky behavior that is not central to the issues of governing and democracy.

 

 

They’re Off and Running

 

Or are they?

Although it seems likely there will be a crowded field in Maryland’s 2018 Democratic Primary for Governor, appearances might be deceiving. Currently, eight names have been mentioned frequently enough to become a list, but it’s far from certain that all of them will still be running a year from now.

There are two reasons why the race has attracted as many prospects as it has. First, incumbent Larry Hogan looks like he could be vulnerable.

The most important factor is numerical. Hogan was elected Governor in 2014 with 884,400 votes in the November General Election.  By contrast, Martin O’Malley accumulated 942,279 votes in his 2006 victory and even more, 1,044,961, in winning reelection in 2010. In other words, Hogan’s win in 2014 was significantly impacted by Democrats not bothering to vote that year. Will they come back in 2018?

A second factor that might put Hogan at risk is the looming shadow of Donald Trump.  Maryland’s Republican Governor has done his best to avoid commenting on the chaos being created by Trump or on his growing political and legal problems.  Whether Hogan can get through an election season ducking and weaving around the backlash to new health care legislation and to federal budget cuts that will do great damage to Maryland seems doubtful.

On the other hand, Hogan remains popular, will have a mountain of money to spend on the General Election and, so far, has not stumbled badly on any particular issue.  He has demonstrated significant political skills and by next November may have built on those skills to solidify his position.

The second reason for the crowded Democratic field is that none of the contenders has established himself as a clear frontrunner.  No one comes into the race with the kind of political stature that Martin O’Malley had in 2006.

Some potential candidates are betting that the electorate will be looking for the kind of candidacy that they represent.  Is this going to be an outsider year?  Is one of these eight this year’s Bernie Sanders?  Or does what remains of a Democratic establishment reassert itself in the primary?  Moreover, with a large field, someone could win with considerably less than 40% of the vote by cobbling together the right coalition.

Looking at the credentials of the eight candidates–and I suppose others could still decide to join the race–three or four seem the most likely  to be still in the running by next year’s June Primary.  In making that observation, however, I’m not discounting the possibility that one of the lesser known candidates could put together a brilliant campaign and catch fire with voters.

Meanwhile, let’s segment the field.  Two county executives, both term-limited in their current positions, are almost certain to stay in the race.  Rushern Baker of Prince George’s and Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County both have records as local leaders that they can tout in their bids for statewide office.  On the other hand, both face the challenge of not being well-known beyond their home jurisdiction.

How well Baker and Kamenetz will do in running a statewide campaign and in raising the large amounts of money needed remains to be seen.  You can easily find supporters of each who will voluntarily offer critiques on the shortcomings of the other but, ultimately, voters will  get to make that judgment.

John Delaney and Doug Gansler belong in a different category.  The former, representing the 6th Congressional District, is clearly  interested in higher office and has the advantage of being able to put a lot of his own money into a campaign.  That money might overcome Delaney’s relative lack of name recognition outside his district, but he has to decide whether it’s worth the investment.  There is speculation that Delaney might instead have aspirations to national office.

Gansler is the only potential candidate who has already run a statewide race–three of them in fact.  The former State Attorney General lost the 2014 Democratic Primary to Anthony Brown, but could certainly argue that the deck was stacked against him.  Whether he can overcome the “beach party” picture from that race and build on his network of volunteers and donors are his big challenges.  A recent poll by his campaign did show him with a double-digit lead in name recognition.

If both Delaney and Gansler stay in the race, they will cut into each other’s vote totals.  On the other hand, if one of them drops out, the other may have a feasible path to winning the primary.

The other four names being mentioned–Ben Jealous, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross and Jim Shea–are harder to classify.  Madaleno is a highly respected State Senator from Montgomery County who has been the leading critic of Governor Hogan among members of the General Assembly.  Whether he would give up his seat and the considerable influence he has in Annapolis will probably depend on whether his early campaign is able to attract enough donors and supporters to make him a credible threat to win the nomination.

The other three are political outsiders, individuals who have never run for political office before.  Jealous, former head of the NAACP, is trying to position himself as the populist in the race and still needs to demonstrate that he can put together a campaign that reaches traditional Democrats.  If he stays in the race, he has the potential to split the African-American vote with Baker and make it harder for either of them to win.

Whether Ross and Shea have any chance to make an impact on this race is anyone’s guess.  The early betting line is that neither of them do.

Who the Democratic nominee will be partly depends on how many candidates stay in the race and which ones do.  If the contest is highly divisive and the winner ends up with little or no money left for the General Election, the advantage will definitely swing back to Larry Hogan.

However, if one of these candidates emerges as a clear frontrunner and is able to raise a competitive war chest, the Democrat’s registration advantage combined with a high level of anti-Trump activism could be decisive.  No one has any basis for being complacent.

 

 

The Unprecedented President

 

Much attention has been devoted to trying to decide what psychiatric diagnosis best describes Donald Trump. Early consensus was that Trump is a textbook narcissist, but that assessment doesn’t seem nearly adequate to take in all his abnormal tendencies.

Recently, some observers have compared him to an underdeveloped child,a label which may be doing most children an injustice. Does he meet the criteria to be called a sociopath? That claim has certainly been made.

The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it’s irrelevant. Labeling him neither changes his behavior nor imposes any constraints on what he does. Whatever personal satisfaction you may take in referring to Trump as a narcissist, he is still president and he continues to do outrageous and dangerous things everyday.

Characteristics that were already evident during the Presidential campaign have, if anything, been accentuated since he took office.  Trump craves both the limelight and approval.  His attention span is so short as to make you wonder how he functions at all.  The President has no curiosity nor any inclination to educate himself about the many areas for which he has responsibility.  He is thin-skinned and quick to anger.  Yet, ultimately, none of these observations changes a thing.

Trump’s time in office has been chaotic and unproductive, but those are hardly the most important consequences of this uniquely abnormal man holding the most important job in the world.  He creates damage without knowing or caring.  He sells out his supporters without a second thought.  Moreover, Trump has neither respect nor regard for our constitutional system and the norms and values that have allowed it to function as well as it has for so long.

In the last two weeks, Trump has taken his assault on our democratic system to new depths.  After the House of Representatives passed a highly partisan and deeply flawed bill that purported to “fix” the country’s health care system, Trump led a celebration at the White House despite knowing little of what was actually in the bill and ignoring the fact that the process is far from over.  A celebration after your team has finally made a first down shows you don’t really understand what you’re doing.

Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey showed so many of  his personal flaws in vivid display.  It was clear very quickly that the President had been in a rage about Comey’s handling of the investigation of his ties to Russia.  After making various subordinates put out a clearly fictitious explanation, Trump undercut them with his own remarks and tweets, in essence acknowledging with pride that he had engaged in obstruction of justice.

Most observers at that point expected the Comey story to dominate the news for weeks. Firing the FBI Director seemed like an untopable display of misreading the political dynamics of a decision, bungling the explanation and setting up a constitutional confrontation.

That conclusion underestimated Trump’s tendency always to be able to dig the hole a little deeper.  This week, the Washington Post, working with sources within the government, revealed that Trump had disclosed highly confidential intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister during a recent White House visit.

Trump tweeted that he, as president, had every right to reveal the information. Perhaps so but remarkably bad judgment on his part.  This from a man who threatened to have Hillary Clinton locked up for her handling of classified emails.

Another important strain of the Trump presidency was illustrated in this most recent incident.  The President constantly sends subordinates out to lie to the press or at least to offer defenses that attempt to cloud and confuse.  Sean Spicer has done that so many times that hardly anyone takes what he says seriously anymore.  He has lost the only resource that a press secretary must have, personal credibility.

Worse yet, Trump sent HR McMaster, his National Security Advisor and one of the few people in the administration who has been well-regarded and respected, to offer a defense.  McMaster disputed claims that did not appear in the Post article, didn’t deny that Trump had disclosed classified information and refused to take questions.  The cost of his standing up for Trump is to leave an indelible stain on one of the only adults in the room.

While many Americans watch in horror, Trump threatens the basic institutions of this country, reduces respect for the United States around the world and allows his administration to do great harm to the citizens of the country.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to reinstitute highly punitive and counter-productive drug enforcement laws.  EPA Director Scott Pruitt is gutting the nation’s environmental laws.  Trump’s proposed budget would benefit the very rich and devastate the lives of the most vulnerable citizens.

Labelling Trump won’t change anything.  We may get some relief from late night comics, but they won’t stop his presidency.  Democrats may be able to obstruct some measures and draw attention to others, but they are still in the minority in both houses of Congress.

What the country needs, I would even say desperately, is for Congressional Republicans to acknowledge that we have a president who is unhinged and that they alone can stop him.  So far, appeals to put country before party have fallen on deaf ears.  I expect little or nothing from either Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, both of whom are amoral opportunists.

Rather, this is the moment for some profiles in political courage from rank-and-file Congressional Republicans.  Senators and Representatives know what is going on in front of their eyes.  They are neither stupid nor blind, but they must stop acting like lemmings marching in lock-step with their party leaders.  It’s time to take their oath to the constitution seriously.

 

Ignore Trump’s Distractions

Even as the Trump Administration is doing great damage to this country, entirely too much attention is being paid to events that are irrelevant or trivial. Is there any significance to the President having had dinner at the White House with three ignorant redneck blowhards? Was anyone surprised that he catered to the fringes of his base with that invitation or that Sarah Palin, Ted Nugget and Kid Rock acted like immature adolescents while they were there?

Those kind of stunts don’t matter. Similarly, it really should be of no concern to anyone how many members of the New England Patriots showed up for a photo-op with Trump. Why is that a story that gets some people on the Internet all excited?

The list of these kinds of distractions is a long one. Trump constantly boasts about having the largest crowds, the greatest first 100 days, the smartest cabinet. The fact that none of those claims are true should now be seen as old hat, not worth comment.

Similarly, pointing out that Trump lies constantly and that he is a total hypocrite is not a revelation.  While we shouldn’t accept that behavior as normal or reasonable, acting startled at the most recent example is a waste of time and energy.

Trump and his appointees are doing so many things that warrant outrage, resistance and comment.  As Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said in a very different context, watch what he does, not what he says.  It’s going to take a lot of committed and sustained effort by those who worry about the threat to our democracy, our civil rights and the fabric of our community to resist and fight back.  There’s no room for wasting time and energy on distractions.

In fact, it’s becoming increasing clear that in many respects Trump himself is merely a sideshow.  He signs Executive Orders that will only matter if his administration figures out how to implement them.  He revels in photo ops which mostly underscore the white, male composition of his administration.  He blusters about what Congress must do and then either suffers a humiliating defeat, as with the Health Care bill, or backs down, as he did this week about funding the Wall for which he insisted as a candidate Mexico was going to pay.

Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, is right in the middle of some of the worst things being done in Trump’s name.  He is making every effort to undercut the Justice Department’s historical role as defender of the poor and disadvantaged.  The threat Sessions poses to voting rights, criminal justice reform and our confidence in the fairness of law enforcement is truly frightening.

Yet, again, a lot of ink and airtime was devoted to his ignorant comments about a federal judge on an island in the middle of the Pacific.   That comments reinforces an image of Sessions as a narrow-minded ideologue, but it is not central to the damaging policies he is pursuing.

The anti-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, may be doing the most long-term damage of anyone in the Trump Administration.  He is pulling back regulations that were intended to keep air breathable and water drinkable.  He is signaling directly to corporate polluters that he has little or no interest in enforcing environment standards.  It won’t be long before this Administration formally withdraws from the international climate accords that were championed by Barack Obama.

Pruitt is a rabid anti-environmentalist.  The best shot at minimizing the damage he is intent on will come as the result of law suits filed by environmental groups.  That effort is worthy of our attention, not the carnival acts produced by this Administration to distract us from what’s really going on.

Another area in which the interplay between words and actions is not entirely clear is foreign affairs.  Trump blusters an awful lot.  He tells us it’s time to start winning wars ago.  He’s taken a couple of largely symbolic actions with the Tomahawk missile attack in Syria and the dropping of a BIG bomb in Afghanistan.  Neither of those steps constituted a policy; what may follow is anyone’s guess.

Trump has threatened unilateral action North Korea.  You have to hope “his” generals–widely regarded as the only adults in the room–will insist on a more measured approach.  He has reversed himself on so many positions that he took while a candidate that you are once again forced to conclude that his words are largely meaningless.

Activist citizens have generally done a good job of focusing on the important issues, such as preserving the Affordable Care Act and fighting for a sensible approach to climate change and respect for science.  While the media’s coverage of Trump has gotten more skeptical and more critical since the campaign, they still find the chasing of shiny objects to be irresistible at times.

Fawning over the notion that Trump had become “presidential” by ordering a missile strike in Syria was utter nonsense.  Falling for the narrative that dropping the “Mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan was a significant step in that war was irresponsible.  Getting obsessed about so-called power struggles within the West Wing and being breathless about the alleged moderating influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, despite no supporting evidence, take the focus off the important issues.

Trump is abnormal, but that fact was established a long time ago.  We need to avoid treating him as entertainment and focus on what he is doing to our country.  That enterprise is more than enough to keep concerned citizens busy for the next four years.

Can a Democrat win the Maryland Race for Governor in 2018?

Sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it?  In normal political times, the answer would be “Of course, why is there any doubt?”

But, as we all know, these are not normal political times.  In 2014, Larry Hogan shocked the Democratic Party establishment by upsetting its hand-picked candidate, Anthony Brown.  Since then, the incumbent Governor has convinced some observers that he is invulnerable because of his very high approval ratings in public polls.  His approval level of 65% in the most recent survey places Hogan as the most popular Republican governor in the country.

While Hogan has certainly demonstrated political skills, his standing in the polls is not purely a result of how he has governed.  His widely admired personal fight against cancer has definitely given him a boost in the polls.

More to the point, however, the “approve/disapprove” question is the wrong one to rely on.  Recently a Washington Post/University of Maryland survey asked voters whether they would support Hogan for reelection in 2018.  That number–41%–suggests that he is less a political behemoth than a normal Republican running in heavily Democratic Maryland.

In 2014, Democratic candidate Brown underperformed Martin O’Malley’s 2006 campaign in all but three counties in Maryland.  Even in counties that O’Malley lost, his losing margins were considerably less than Brown’s.  To take a couple of examples, in Allegany County, Brown won 23% of the vote while O’Malley had 42%.  In Calvert, the comparative figures were 29% and 42%.

In the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s, Brown won by a larger margin in his home county and had about the same advantage in the other two.  However, in the two next largest jurisdictions, O’Malley outperformed Brown by significant amounts:  Anne Arundel, 42% to 32%; and Baltimore County, 48% to 39%.

If you split the difference in the percentages for Brown and O’Malley and assumed a 2014 turnout, Hogan would lose in 2018.  Obviously, elections are more complicated than just the manipulations of numbers, but these calculations remind us that Hogan will be running uphill in Democratic Maryland in 2018.

Moreover, other factors would also seem to  be working against his reelection bid.  The first is turnout.  Fewer voters went to the polls in the 2014 election than in 2006.   Brown tallied 124,000 fewer votes than O’Malley.   It’s hard to imagine any Democratic candidate in 2018 running a worse campaign than Brown did in 2014.

And that may be the least of Hogan’s problems.  The level of Democratic activism since the election of Donald Trump as president strongly suggests that turnout in next year’s elections, nationwide as well as in Maryland, is likely to surge.

The other widely discussed narrative about Hogan’s 2014 win was his ability to appeal to white working class voters, many of whom had traditionally voted for Democrats.  Was Hogan an early indicator of Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election?

This will certainly be one of the keys to next year’s race, but Hogan’s path is far from assured.  Other than reducing highway tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore, his record is a really thin one.  His legislative victories have been claims rather than reality; he has failed to impose his will on the budget; his vetoes have all been overridden; and his crossover attempts, such as supporting a ban on fracking, aren’t going to persuade many Democrats to vote for him.

Hogan is trying to walk a delicate balance between keeping his base happy and broadening his appeal.  He can’t win with just Republican voters, but his ability to attract Democrats and independents may have waned.

And, as already referenced, there will be the looming presence of Donald Trump in the 2018 race.  Hogan’s posture up to now has been to keep his distance from the president and to avoid commenting on what is going on in Washington whenever possible.  At times, the approach has required convoluted verbal gymnastics.

If Congressional Republicans had passed their version of health care, Hogan would be dealing with the very negative impact of the new law on Maryland.  That possibility is still on the table.  There’s a long list of other Trump initiatives that could come into play by next year, but the most significant impact will arise from whatever budget is passed in 2017.  Given Maryland’s historical reliance on federal funding, there’s no version of a Trump budget that is good for the State.

Hogan won’t be able to keep dancing around the impact of actions taken by Trump and Congressional Republicans.  He will be faced with the difficult choice of which voters to upset by whatever positions he takes.  And whoever is the Democratic candidate should make this issue a centerpiece of a campaign against Hogan.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of who the Democratic candidate will be.  The current list of prospects is eight, but it’s hard to know how many of them are serious.  One interpretation is that the presumptive frontrunners, Rushern Baker and Kevin Kamenetz, have not scared off other contenders.  Another view is that Hogan hasn’t scared them off either.

There are some outsider candidates, non-politicians if you will, as well as  one candidate from 2014 giving it a second try, Doug Gansler.  In the next few months, starting in June, we’ll start seeing what advantages and disadvantages each of these candidates brings to the race.

The conventional wisdom is that a bruising primary would damage the winner and complicate the efforts to raise enough money for the General Election.  A contrary view is that a contested race will stimulate turnout and help in the November election.

Will Democrats show up at the polls and will they unite behind the winner of the primary?  The answers to those questions will have a major impact on calculating Hogan’s chances of reelection.  At this point, despite Hogan appearing as the favorite before the race really began, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

 

The Consequences of Trump Being Trump

Even for those not paying close attention during the Presidential election, Donald Trump’s fundamental characteristics have become vividly clear  in his first 100 days.

Trump is certainly a narcissist. He lies constantly, often for no apparent reason. He has incredibly thin skin and lashes out at any comment he views as critical of him, even if the remark is clearly accurate.

Trump may well be the least well-read person ever to occupy the White House. He has no knowledge of  basic historical facts.

The President relies almost exclusively on his instincts and often doubles down on them if faced with evidence that he has made a mistake. Trump fosters chaos around him but doesn’t use it for strategic purpose.

Moreover, despite his bluster, Trump is clearly an insecure person.  His dependence on family members who lack qualifications for the high level positions  they have been given in the White House is unprecedented.  His constant monitoring of cable tv shows, particularly on Fox News, reveals a person with no core beliefs or values.

If you were  paying attention during the campaign, none of these observations comes as a surprise to you.  All of Trump’s warts were in plain sight.  What we are now coming to grips with is the impact of Trump’s deficiencies on his approach to governing.

Trump asserts that his unpredictability is a virtue.  The implication is that he makes deliberate calculations to confuse possible adversaries.  One byproduct is that he leaves allies and friends scratching their heads as well.  Moreover, the “mad man” theory of foreign relations requires you to have strategic objectives that you are pursuing.  Trump shows no evidence that he understands the complexities of the rest of the world. More significantly, it is unclear what he hopes to accomplish.

After seeing pictures of children who were victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, he ordered retaliatory bombing.  According to some sources, Ivanka Trump played a key role in convincing him to take that step.  But pictures of dying refugee children have evoked no similar sympathies so it’s hard to know what his true motivation was.

Even more importantly, however, there’s no indication of what he hoped to achieved with the bombing or of what steps 2 and 3 might be.   You half expect him to observe that “no one knew the Middle East would be so complicated.”

The world, which he promised us he was uniquely qualified to get under control, is getting more dangerous by the day.  Trump just announced that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is at an all time low despite his campaign rhetoric that it would reach new levels of friendship.  The comment also demonstrates his lack of historical context–the Cold War, in which nuclear war was a real threat, was much more dangerous.

Trump’s blustering about taking care of the threats from North Korea is similarly unhinged.  What leverage does he think he has if he, the master deal maker, can’t convince the Chinese to rein in their neighbors?

Trump’s lack of qualification for the presidency is showing up in the sputtering start to his administration.  His sole success has been getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed by the Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court.  The President’s lack of engagement and understanding of the complexities involved contributed substantially to the failure to pass the Republican health care plan.  Trump seems no more ready to move forward on tax reform, which will be equally difficult politically.

The fiasco that has played out over the Administration’s attempts to impose a Muslim travel ban shows a similar failure to comprehend Constitutional and political reality.  As in so many other areas, Trump seems content with a flashy photo-op and fiery political rhetoric to stir up his base.

A growing number of promises that Trump made in his campaign are rapidly being exposed as just plans lies or figurative rather than literal intentions or hyperbole that he wasn’t serious about.  Did anyone really believe he could bring back manufacturing and coal jobs?  What a fun joke he told about reducing the budget deficit.  Or even better, his claim that Bureau of Labor Statistics reports are now credible where once they were phony.

Trump governs by lies, distraction, chaos and ignorance.  While early evidence suggests that many of his supporters are just fine with that approach, the consequences for the country are not so sanguine.  We have a foreign policy that is without direction, without any grounding in national interest, without an appreciation of the complex interrelationship among different foreign entanglements.  The President seems oblivious to the risk of stumbling into a war or a foreign commitment for which neither the goals nor the means of achieving success exist.

In domestic affairs, Trump has so far been willing to leave decision-making to the most extreme ideologues in his administration–Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Mick Mulvaney, Scott Pruitt and, of course, Steve Bannon.  His lack of interest as well as of understanding of the policies they are instituting has ushered in an era of great damage that will take years to recover from.  Attacks on women’s health, on basic civil rights, on government help for the poor and disadvantaged, on protection of the environment and on the very idea of a “United” States are already creating a legacy on which history will not look favorably .

Americans on a daily basis are astonished at the inept performance of Sean Spicer, at the latest wild conspiracies that the President asserts, at the sense that we are watching a reality television show rather than our government at work.  Meanwhile, there are grave consequences to having as president a man who is temperamentally, intellectually and by lack of experience unfit for the job.

If you think we’ve seen the worst from this president, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just when you think he’s hit the bottom and can’t sink any lower, he outdoes himself.  There is no bottom with this presidency.

 

 

Brexit, Donald Trump and the Cost of Dysfunctional Politics

 

Once upon a time I knew a lot about Britain’s relationship with the European Community.  More than 40 years ago, I studied that country’s efforts to join what was then referred to as the European Common Market. The history was a tortured one as Britain held on for too long to the belief that it was still a major world power, closer to the United States than to the continent just across the English Channel. Eventually, though, a deal was struck and Britain joined the European Community.

With that historical context in mind, the vote in last year’s referendum can be seen as not just a reaction to concerns about immigrants from the Middle East or bureaucrats in Brussels. The British have always been ambivalent about efforts to tie the countries of Europe more closely together and to reduce the autonomy of the individual nations.

With the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, the great experiment that has helped keep peace for over 70 years in a continent that almost destroyed itself in the 20th Century, is at jeopardy.  If the French elections at the end of April bring to power the extreme nationalist, Marine Le Pen, European collaboration could start coming apart.  And if that happens, the British referendum will be seen as the snowball that started the avalanche.

Whatever the outcome of the French vote, however, Britain will be less well off because of its decision to go it alone.  Prime Minister Theresa May has started the formal process of disengagement and the decision is irrevocable.  London will remain a delightful place to visit, but Britain’s influence in world finances will inevitably decline.  Its position in world trade will become much less significant and, ultimately, the economy of the nation will be weaker and more, rather than less, vulnerable to global influences.

May seems like she’s doing the best she can with a bad situation.  Her predecessor, David Cameron, is the real villain in the piece, a spineless “leader” who thought that the expedient of a referendum would spare him the need to stand up to political critics.

While most analyses have focused on the rise of populism in Britain to explain the vote to leave Europe, there are two other important lessons as well.  The first is that weak and inept political leadership can lead to disastrous results in a democratic system of government.   Democracy is largely defined by processes with no guarantee of particular outcomes.

Second, some decisions have more consequences than others.  Leaving the European Community will impact every aspect of British life and the impact will be both short and long-term.

Those lessons are being played out at this very moment in the United States.

Whatever the explanations for Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he is now the president.  So far, his administration has demonstrated a stunning mix of ignorance, incompetence and hard-line conservative greed.  Trump’s executive orders, tweets, public pronouncements and legislative initiatives have played well with his base supporters but are dismaying a growing portion of America and the world.

So far, the impact has merely been damaging.  Trump has ordered a rapid retreat from environmental protection and policies to reduce the impact of climate change.  His Attorney General is shifting the Justice Department’s position from protector of minorities and disadvantaged to ally of the rich and powerful.  His Secretary of Education is leading an attack on public education.  And the list goes on.

If any significant portion of his proposed budget is enacted, the consequences for the poor and struggling of this country will be even worse.  Trump is trying to shred what used euphemistically to be called the “safety net.”  By all appearance, his only serious priorities are increasing the defense budget and reducing taxes for the very wealthy.  In a nation that has seen the inequality gap grow dramatically in the past three decades, his efforts seem designed to accelerate that process.

Trump’s willful ignorance of history, science and the lives of most Americans is contributing to decisions that do great harm to the very fabric of the nation as well as to many who voted for him.  His lies, deceptions and blatant disregard for the most basic notions of ethical behavior have undermined the credibility of the office.

For some observers, however, all that bad news is not the greatest danger from the Trump Presidency.  Instead, the gravest danger may lie in his total incompetence.  So far, there have been no real emergencies, no national security threat, no moments that required quick and decisive action.  Trump blusters about ISIS, bellows about Mexicans and Muslims, talks irresponsibly about handling North Korea, but his performance so far provides no basis for any confidence in how he would actually respond.

David Cameron had a parliamentary majority and, under the British system, should have been able to govern.  He failed miserably.  Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the Executive Branch of Government.  Yet, he totally bungled his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cannot produce a travel ban that comes close to conforming to the Constitution and demonstrates on a daily basis that he has something to hide with respect to his dealings with Russia.

I have many smart friends who are confident that we will survive the horrors of the Trump Presidency.  They believe in the basic institutions of this country and look to our history to reassure themselves that we have always come through dark periods before.  I hope they are correct, but I am also quite sure that it won’t automatically turn out well merely because it has in the past.

Trump is harming not only the people of this country and our relationships with the rest of the world, but his administration is also seeking to undermine the basic safeguards of our democratic system.  That system has served us quite well for well over 200 years and shouldn’t be given up without a fight.  We may take some comfort in how incompetent he is, but that won’t stop him from doing great harm while he is still in office.

 

Overcoming “Trump Depression”

 

In a recent article in the New York Times, Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, argued that people who pay the most attention to politics are most likely to be unhappy. While it’s indisputable that a lot of people have been unhappy since November 8 of last year, Brooks’ assertion paints an incomplete and misleading picture.

As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there trying to get you. Similarly, in today’s political environment, there’s plenty to be depressed about regardless of the state of your mental health.

Americans who think government should provide help to the disadvantaged, disabled and in need, who believe in science and the threat of climate change, who are troubled by the growing level of inequality in this country, and who support equal rights for women and minorities must live with a president and a Republican-controlled Congress who are openly contemptuous of all those goals.

Donald Trump was elected president despite or, maybe, in part because of, a campaign filled with open appeals to prejudice and hatred, promises that could never be kept and a self-absorption for which the term “narcissistic” is barely adequate.  Trump’s pattern of lies, bullying, unethical behavior and ignorance of our constitutional system has carried over from the campaign to the Oval Office.

Is it any wonder that many politically active citizens are struggling with emotions which range from rage to apathy to what surely feels like depression?  Women, who have struggled for years to achieve equal treatment in the work place, the political arena and health care are facing attacks that seemed unthinkable as recently as 2016.  Minorities are also facing more aggressive assaults on their right to vote and to participate in the political system.

In an economy that has disproportionately favored the most wealthy for several decades, the new Administration seems determined to put yet another thumb on the scale.  Attacks on immigrants, the press and anyone outside some narrowly defined mainstream are, to many, assaults on the very essence of what has made this country special and, therefore, are deeply disturbing.

Contrary, however, to some people’s reading of Brooks’ article, the answer is not to avoid the news or to disengage from politics.  Certainly it’s possible to overdose on Rachel Maddow or on like-minded Facebook posts, but’s burying your head in the sand, going off the grid, and cutting yourself off from others are not solutions to what ails you.

Despite the disdain in some quarters for facts, the problem is reality-based.  Many of us see serious threats to our most cherished values, to institutions that have served this country well for a very long time, to the proposition that we are one country rather than a collection of gated communities.

More rather than less political engagement is the prescription for “Trump depression.”  That will probably mean spending less time surfing the Internet or signing petitions and more time writing checks to causes that matter to you; calling, writing and visiting your elected representatives; going to rallies and demonstrations that make clear to the president and the members of Congress that the public is paying attention to what they are trying to do; and being part of a record off-year turnout for the 2018 elections.

The good news is that we are already seeing evidence of all these activities in numbers totally unprecedented at this point in the political cycle.  People who told me how much trouble they were having overcoming their depression in the aftermath of the presidential election are finding ways to channel their energies and emotions.

We’re seeing spikes in donations to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.  “Indivisible” groups are sprouting all over the country. People are showing up for rallies and protests.  Also, we should not forget that there are lots of white males who don’t feel threatened by immigrants or women or globalism and who are concerned by the anti-democratic tendencies of the new president.

Sustaining that level of engagement won’t be easy although we can be confident that Trump and Paul Ryan will continue to provide motivation for us.  Make no mistake, political activism was one of the key factors that contributed to the failure of the Republican health care initiative last week.

Anxiety about the 2018 elections will become increasingly more apparent among officials up for reelection.  Public opinion polls, already showing records levels of disapproval of a president in his third month, will continue to plague Trump.  Republican infighting and finger pointing for their failures will blossom as their struggles get more difficult.

Unfortunately, Trump and Ryan will do more damage before they are ultimately stopped, but there is at least a solution to their misguided agenda for all who are depressed by it:  ever more political activity.