Will the Constitution hold?

For years, I taught a course on the American Presidency.  Given the central role of that office in the workings of our system of government, the class was always stimulating, topical and an opportunity to address important questions.  To do the subject justice, you had to incorporate information about the U.S. Constitution, American history, the interaction among the different branches of government, public opinion and lots more.

I don’t know how I would teach that course today.  Donald Trump has upended so many of the conventions and norms about the presidency that the terrain looks more like a lunar landscape than familiar hills and plains.  It’s not even clear that we can use the same language that we did in the past to discuss Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan.

As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently observed, it’s not farfetched to worry whether Trump will abide by the results of a close election in 2020.  With the notable exception of the Civil War, that’s not a outcome we ever had to consider before.  Trump’s erratic behavior, his wildly irresponsible language, his flaunting of legal and constitutional restraints and his surrounding himself with a cadre of sycophants who are loyal to him rather than to our system should terrify any thoughtful citizen.

The issue of his intentions is, in the final analysis, irrelevant.  It’s clear that he will say almost anything that pops into his head, whether it is true or not, whether it benefits him beyond the moment that he says it, whether it stirs followers to violence.  We are told from time to time that some remark was a “joke”, that we should not take him literally, that he is apt to reverse his position on a whim.  Yet, words and actions have consequences regardless of original intention.

We have seen in this country a dramatic rise in hate crimes and the growth of hate groups.  Trump saw “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville when most decent observers saw white supremacists chanting racial slogans.  Mass shootings in the United States have been overwhelming committed by white males raised in this country, not by Muslims, immigrants or other groups demonized by the president.

And now, in the aftermath of Robert Mueller submitting his report to the Department of Justice, the country really does seem to be hurtling toward a constitutional crisis that makes Watergate look like a minor misunderstanding.  Trump is finally building a wall, but, instead of it being on the border with Mexico, it is a stonewall intended to prevent Congress from gaining access to information about his efforts to obstruct justice and place himself above the laws of this country.

Trump’s newest favorite toady, William Barr, has blocked access to the full Mueller Report.  The argument that he possesses a higher authority to make judgments about the Report than do members of Congress raises the most fundamental constitutional issues.  Now the President is claiming executive privilege to keep the full report under wraps, an assertion that would allow him to be the judge and jury of any accusations of wrong-doing leveled against him.  The executive privilege blanket has similarly been thrown over individuals who could shed additional light on Trump’s behavior, such as Mueller himself and former White House Counsel Don McGann.

Down the street from the White House, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, a true blue loyalist if there ever was one, has concluded that Congress has no “legitimate legislative purpose” in requesting Trump’s tax returns, despite no qualifying language in the law that allows them to pursue the documents.

Will all the information requests and subpoenas end up being reviewed by the Supreme Court?  In 1974, that court concluded that the President does not have unlimited power to resist inquiries from Congress. Will the conservative majority on the current court make a decision based on partisan politics or will they preserve their historic position as an independent branch of government?

In 1919, Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote The Second Coming, that included lines that have been quoted many times over the years:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In times of crisis, people have often asked whether the center would hold, whether rationality and moderation could stand up to anarchy and passionate intensity.  We are surely at one of those moments in history.  As Lin Manuel Miranda noted in “Hamilton,” “oceans rise, empires fall”.  That the American experiment in democracy has had a really amazing run is no guarantee that we will survive the existential threat that the Trump presidency is posing.

The period between now and the 2020 election will test our souls as no other time ever has.  Nothing should come as a surprise. Two hundred thirty years is far longer than any most other governments world wide have endured.  Will this be the end of the American experiment?


Treating political depression

Well before the Mueller Report was completed last week, you already knew that Donald Trump was doing enormous damage to this country.  You don’t need any additional reasons to work against his re-election.

Take a couple of days, if you must, to get over your disappointment that Jared and Ivanka weren’t marched off in handcuffs.  A finding of collusion was always a long shot.  An actual smoking gun was from the start more a pipe dream than a realistic outcome.  As Americans, we should be relieved if the president didn’t engage in treason.

And, by all means, be skeptical about William Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report.  The appropriate level of cynicism is well-expressed in Andy Borowitz’s joke about Barr reading Moby Dick and not finding any whales.

Then, and it needs to be soon, pull the covers off your head and continue the fight.  Nothing is inevitable, but hard work and determination are essential if we are to, in the words of Ben Franklin, “keep our republic.”

Donald Trump is an awful president, a mean-spirited human being and a real threat to democratic values.  The case for opposing him does not require findings from the Mueller Report or, for that matter, from any congressional investigation.  The case against Donald Trump is in plain view and has been clear from Day 1 of his presidency.

If you weren’t sure before, all doubts should have vanished as you watched his reaction to Barr’s summary letter.  Rather than treating it as a time for healing and moving on, Trump seems determined to settle scores, seek revenge on all who have criticized him and wage war on his opponents.  The most disturbing consequence of the Mueller Report is that it seems to be emboldening Trump to be less restrained, less constitutional, less willing to consider any views other than his own.

His loyal band of enablers–I originally had a much stronger term, but decided to keep the PG rating of this blog–is cheering him on.  Lindsey Graham, who we once believed had a shred of integrity, Sean Hannity, who has never given that appearance and their comrades-in-arms can be relied upon to encourage Trump’s extremism.  And sadly, Trump supporters in the public are also going to think they have been given license to attack the press, demonize all Democrats and block out all “news” that doesn’t correspond to their pre-existing beliefs.

The next couple of years are going to be harder and more painful than the past two have been.  To fight the depression that will come from living in a version of our country that gets uglier and uglier, there is only one remedy and that remedy is sustained and focused political involvement.

Don’t waste your energy on the early intramural battles among Democratic presidential candidates.  They will eventually get sorted out and there will be a single candidate to unite behind.  Will the eventual nominee be too moderate for you?  Too liberal?  Get over it.  You can’t possibly believe that Trump could be preferable to that nominee whoever he/she may be.  And don’t you dare stay home on Election Day.

Meanwhile, there is so much important work to be done in all those other races that Democrats have for many years ignored. Take note how much better things are now that Democrats control the House of Representatives.  Remember those feuds about whether Nancy Pelosi had the right stuff to be Speaker in these troubled political times?  At this moment, Speaker Pelosi is the best thing going in terms of restraining an out-of-control president.  And she is bringing along other Democratic Representatives formerly unwilling to take a stand.

Imagine if Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate.  That will happen if enough people get out and vote in 2020.  There are plenty of other things you can do to make a difference in the political climate as well as for your own mental health, but the most powerful weapon you hold is your vote. Use it.

For too many years, Democrats have failed to realize that state governments control many of the issues that are most important to our daily lives. Republicans recognized decades ago that by winning state elections they could control legislative districts, disenfranchise voters and impact the many policy areas determined largely at the state level.  School funding.  Healthcare.  Environmental protection.  Gun laws.  And the list goes on.

Rather than itemizing all the ways in which Donald Trump is doing great damage to our country, I’ve focused instead on what we as citizens can do to regain control of our destinies.  Trump will continue to do things that outrage and depress us.  We can’t give in to those emotions.  To paraphrase, we are better than that only if we fight back and take action.

Bob Mueller is ancient history.  We need to write our own future.



Risking one of Maryland’s prize resources

Back in the 1980s, when this story began, Maryland had at best an average system of public higher education. When experts rated how states compared on the quality of their public colleges and universities, Maryland was not part of the discussion. That didn’t mean that you couldn’t get a good education at a state school; it just meant that Maryland was not a national leader, not ranked among the best, not a resource that state officials bragged about as part of their economic development pitches.

Multiple studies were conducted by numerous state commissions, each of which resulted in reform recommendations that went nowhere. While there was widespread agreement that the State needed to do better, there was no consensus on what specific changes were needed. The last report landed in 1987 on the desk of the newly elected governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer.

Schaefer, famous for his “Do it Now” approach to governing, was not about to let another report gather dust. With only limited experience with higher education issues as the Mayor of Baltimore City for 15 years, he nevertheless recognized the potential that highly ranked public colleges and universities could have for strengthening Maryland’s economy, work force and quality of life.

The legislation that eventually passed the General Assembly in 1988 went through a good bit of sausage making before it received legislative approval, but the result satisfied Schaefer’s primary objective: to make public higher education a top state priority. While some argued about the details of the structure and others worried that the flagship campus at College Park would somehow be diminished, all those naysayers were proven wrong.

Over the years since 1988, Maryland has consistently funded its public colleges as a key resource, even during times of recession. One Governor, Bob Ehrlich, briefly broke that pattern, forced tuition to increase substantially instead of providing new state appropriations and lost his re-election bid. While there were many factors that led to Martin O’Malley’s victory in the gubernatorial election in 2006, the sharp contrast over who supported higher education was certainly a high profile issue. Moreover, ever since then, governors have kept a careful eye on tuition levels as a potentially third-rail issue.

With widespread political support, public higher education in Maryland thrived in the years after Schaefer’s reorganization. In some years, every other state reduced its public appropriation even as Maryland’s increased. Even more importantly, every measure you can think of in terms of the quality and competitiveness of Maryland schools improved. The flagship campus is now among the leading public universities in the country, mentioned in the same breath as Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan and California. Measured by research grants won, private dollars raised, credentials of faculty and incoming students and achievements of graduates, the University of Maryland is a national leader.

The same can be said of many of the other State institutions when compared to similar types of universities. That certainly applies to the professional schools in Baltimore and the regional comprehensive campuses.

Up to this point, I might be accused of making a marketing pitch for Maryland public colleges and universities. Remembering the history is important, however, because the incredible progress of the past three decades seems at risk for the first time since 1988. Rather than rely on the cliched phrase of a “perfect storm”, let’s instead focus on a serious of events that have shaken public confidence in those charged with stewarding one of the state’s critical resources.

The unraveling started with the inept response to the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. After a brief tug-of-war between campus officials and the University System’s Board of Regents, the latter group took charge and stumbled its way through a process that left everyone perplexed and distressed. Amidst a lot of finger-pointing and backtracking, the Board chair resigned, the decision to fire the campus President was rescinded by the Board and the football coach was fired after having first been retained.

Neither the full analysis of nor the final reaction to this series of events is in. The General Assembly is in the process of passing legislation that expresses its unhappiness with the Board, increasing the amount of transparency required in their decision-making and making a few largely cosmetic changes, but the current bill moving through the legislative process doesn’t really address the basic causes of the mess the Board made of the McNair case. Strong willed individuals making decisions in executive session won’t be outlawed.

The Association of Governing Boards, a national higher education association, is in the final stages of its own independent report. The best guess is that the AGB’s findings will be even more critical of the Board of Regent’s action.

But wait, there’s more. And this is where it gets really messy and potentially even more damaging. The Chancellor of the University System, who some–including me–thought was not adequately engaged in the McNair controversy, now finds himself in a contentious battle over accusations that he retaliated against an employee who raised questions about whether he had acted unethically last year. There’s even some question about how the Board handled the information about the legal complaint. This matter is now fully public and likely to become even more acrimonious.

The General Assembly has weighed in with budget language cutting $1 million from the Office of the Chancellor. You can see that as a vote of no confidence that won’t easily be reversed. In a second budget provision, the legislature is holding back an additional $200,000 from that budget until the Chancellor answers questions about outside income he has received.

Last week it also became public that the board of the University of Maryland Medical System had been allowing its members to engage in business transactions with the medical system. While legislators have started talk ominously about mandating new conflict of interest rules, Mayor Catherine Pugh, the recipient of what appears to have been a sweetheart deal, has already announced her resignation from the board. Whether this latest controversy actually intersects with the other ones swirling around the University System is not yet clear, but it may get muddled in people’s perceptions regardless.

Clearly there is a lot to sort out here. At this point, it’s hard to see who comes out of this looking good. It may be that there’s less than meets the eye with some of these matters, but there is certainly plenty to be concerned about.

The most significant consequence in the long run is the undermining of public confidence in an important state institution. Someone needs to take on the job of restoring confidence in the governance of public higher education and the effort needs to be much more substantial than a press release or a set of promises. The legislature can ask questions and give the matter a high level of visibility, but that’s not enough.

For reasons that are not readily apparent, Governor Hogan showed relatively little interest in engaging on these critical matters until speaking out publicly about the medical system board. Perhaps he is too busy pursuing the charade that he will challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020, but he’s neglecting important work back here at home. He appoints the members of the Board of Regents and needs to insist that they get their act together.

There are lots of significant details to resolve, but what we are discussing is basically a failure of leadership by the Board of Regents, the Chancellor and the Governor. The stakes are too high to keep sleepwalking through a series of problems that are being transformed into a crisis.

Racism in plain sight

Does it seem to you there’s been a significant increase in overt acts of racism by public figures in the last two years? I’m not sure anyone has actually been keeping track, but we’ve sure seen a lot of examples recently.

Consider Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a strong supporter of Donald Trump and a leading member of the House Republican Freedom Caucus. At last week’s hearing at which Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, testified, Meadows decided to “prove” that the president is not a racist by having a black Trump acquaintance and HUD employee, Lynne Patton, stand behind him during the hearing.  (“some of my best friends…”) Case closed.

Well, maybe not. It’s hard to think of a more transparent ploy.  When another member of the committee, Rashida Tlaib, newly elected Congresswoman from Michigan, called out the stunt, Meadows got indignant and tried to give the impression that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. That claim got a little dicey when the internet produced examples of Meadows urging that Barack Obama be sent back to Kenya “or wherever he was from”.  It’s amazing how often racism and hypocrisy go together.

Meanwhile in Maryland, a Democratic state legislator from Harford County was overheard describing an area in black-majority Prince George’s County as a “N…  district.”  Just to be clear, this happened in 2019, not decades ago.  Mary Ann Lisanti has stumbled through various explanations and rationalizations, including a claim that “everyone” has used that expression at some point.  Despite that compelling defense, it’s hard to find a public figure in the State who has not called on her to resign.

Right now, I’m skipping over recent history, such as the “blackface” escapades of the Virginia Governor and Attorney General, or the ways in which numerous public policies have had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color.  Congress, lots of state legislatures and even the U.S Supreme Court, with its head-spinning rationale in nullifying a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act, have all contributed to a retreat from the Civil Rights progress that was made in the 1960s.

Instead, I’m trying to understand why so many people currently think it’s okay to express their racial bigotry publicly.  I’m not arguing, of course, that covert racism is a good thing, but, rather, that the overt expression has encouraged, even empowered, growing numbers of people to speak and act on their biases.

In one sense, it’s Barack Obama’s fault.  If he hadn’t had the audacity to be elected president, all those people terrified at the notion of  a black man being president might have stayed undercover.  More significant than just the fact of him being president, however, were the constant attacks on him by large numbers of conservatives, including Republican office holders.

The “birther” movement was nothing but racism and was based on nothing but prejudice.  Did you know that John McCain  was not born in the United States?  Did you ever hear anyone raise questions about whether he was a U.S. citizens?  There was, of course, no reason to, exactly as there was no legitimate reason to question Obama’s citizenship.

Racism has always been with us.  Slavery really is this country’s original sin.  Despite nonsensical claims to the contrary by people like John Kelly, Trump’s one time chief of staff, the root cause of the Civil War was the dispute about slavery.  The years after the War, Reconstruction and then the Jim Crow era, changed much less than most of our history books tell us.

It was the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and a series of Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s, that began chipping away at the legal structure of discrimination in this country. I also believe that, however halting and imperfect the progress, societal views have been progressing in the last half century.  But not universally.

You figured out long ago whether this argument is going.  Leaders, both formal and informal, help set the context for public opinion and behavior.  What is acceptable?  What is outside  the norms of  society?

When a man who was a leading spokesman for the “birther” movement ran for president in 2015, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that he would bring his racist perspective to the presidency.   It didn’t take Michael Cohen telling us at the hearing last week that Donald Trump is a racist to reveal the truth.  We’ve had evidence for as long as he has been in the public eye.

Trump’s assertion that there were “good people on both sides” of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia was a blatant demonstration of his bigotry.  Again, we can also go back to his record as a New York developer or to that of his father to find plenty of corroborative evidence.

Whether or not the president is necessarily a national role model, there is no doubt that his words and actions have a significant impact on many citizens.  Trump has displayed the total absence of any moral compass, a disregard for basic values, even ones long held sacred from the Constitution.   He is basically an amoral person who, if it benefits him at the moment, slides easily into being immoral.

His racism is a given, unchangeable.  The bigger challenge at this juncture in our history is all those citizens who are not only untroubled by his bigotry but who take it as a license to act similarly.  Actions such as a tax law that only benefits the richest Americans may eventually be reversed.  The damage to race relations in the country however, if we are not careful and diligent, may be a much more enduring legacy of the Trump presidency.

Scanning the Democratic field

It’s still really early. There will be more candidates, more rumors and more drama, not to mention moments of panic among Democratic voters. And we’re barely into 2019.

How does the field, however large, get sorted out? I have some preferred candidates though, sadly, my views won’t determine the outcome. My intent is to focus on those among the contestants I like, try to avoid saying negative things about the others and, at the end of the day, support whoever is the Democratic nominee. I suspect–and hope–that most Democrats will take a similar approach because defeating Donald Trump should be the paramount consideration in 2020.

This last observation may be more profound than it sounds. We are witnessing breathless reporting about the struggle within the Democratic Party between moderates and liberals. They may disagree now about Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and raising the minimum wage, but, hopefully, the differences will fade once the choice is between any Democratic and the sitting president. There will be plenty of energy and enthusiasm to override ideological quarrels.

Let me also try to dispel one bit of anxiety. Will Democrats be sunk in the 2020 election by the fact that some members of the party describe themselves as “Democratic Socialists”? Republicans will certainly try to terrify voters with the bogeymen of Karl Marx, Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin, but, in fact, they already try to terrify voters in every election. Most Americans have only the dimmest idea of what socialism is, which Republicans will try to exploit by focusing on just the label.

The challenge for Democrats, a totally achievable one, is to emphasize  the specific programs they favor—health care, for example, looks more and more like a winning issue—and resist being dragged into a battle about labels. The dramatically growing inequity in wealth and income, exacerbated by the Republican tax cut, looks like a potent winning issue as well.

My own perspective starts with the reality that I don’t know a lot about many of the candidates.  But neither do most Democratic voters.  I am wary of those with very limited experience. We are experiencing at this moment a vivid demonstration that the presidency is no place for amateurs. Even those in the Democratic field with short tenures in national office leave me doubtful.

At the other end of that spectrum, I am disinclined to support candidates who have already had their chance. My concern is not just about age, although that is a factor. As an aside, it seems to me that the most skillful politician around today is Nancy Pelosi but I would not support her for president. There are several Democrats who have been national figures for years, have even run for the nomination before, but, in my opinion, bring more baggage than viability to the race.

I say that knowing that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all have enthusiastic followings. The occasional reports that Hillary Clinton is contemplating another try seem more about staying in the public eye than about a serious candidacy.

Right now, I am most impressed with two of the candidates in the Democratic field. That opinion is based, first, on my assessment that in a General Election a moderate will hold onto most Democratic voters while having the best chance to win over independents and even a few disgruntled Republicans.

The two Democrats who have my attention right now are both from the Mid West, another factor that is likely to be critical in 2020. Trump’s upset wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016 turned the election. Knowing a bit about the Keystone State, I’m pretty confident Trump can’t win there again.  Having a nominee from that section of the country could recreate the “Blue Wall” that would be key to a winning Electoral College strategy for the Democratic candidate .

Sherrod Brown, Democratic Senator from Ohio, is well positioned to run strongly throughout the region. He was re-elected in 2018 even as Republicans won all the other key races in his state. He is not regarded as a dynamic speaker, but he is a clear and strong advocate for core Democratic values. He seems to have the potential to bridge the gaps among Democratic voters.

For now, I’m going to still include my second choice, Amy Klobuchar, even though she is encountering highly negative press about her treatment of staff. A major story in the New York Times last week went well beyond earlier accounts and ensures that the controversy won’t go away quickly. However, if her campaign is not derailed by those stories, she brings the same sort of Mid West moderate appeal as Brown.  

The former Governor from Colorado, John Hickenlooper, and the current one from Montana, Steve Bullock, brings some of the same strengths as my first two choices.  While neither is well-known nationally, they each possess the significant attribute of having been a successful chief executive.

In including Klobuchar, I’m explicitly betting that a woman could win notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. I’m also not ready to conclude that a person of color can’t win despite the upsurge in open racism that we have seen recently. We are likely to get a better read on both these questions as the election season unfolds.

It’s too early to predict that any of the four I have mentioned will win the Democratic nomination and then go on to capture the presidency in 2020. There are too many obstacles still to be overcome for any candidate and too many unforseeable events to make such a prediction now.

Still, if one of these candidates or one with similar characteristics is the Democratic candidate in 2020, there is a very good chance that Donald Trump will be a one-term President. Then we can begin repairing the damage he has done.



The worst thing about Donald Trump

It might seem a futile exercise to try and pick among the many and never-ending horrible things that Donald Trump has done since he was elected president. There are new candidates every day, every hour, every tweet.

The narrative about Trump is one of constant shock. We have learned not to say that things can’t get worse because they always do. The phrase “constitutional crisis” has become a part of everyday conversation. Trump routinely violates norms of civilized behavior as well as long-standing perceptions of acceptable political boundaries.

Trump has repeatedly called the free press “the enemy of the people.” He regularly engages in racist, sexist and xenophobic language. The declaration last week of a “national emergency” as justification to build a wall along the border with Mexico is a direct challenge to the constitutional system of separation of powers.

And, as any reader of these words knows, the list of Trump outrages is much longer and raises fundamental concerns about the viability of our democratic system.

On the bright side, there is clear evidence of fighting back, of resistance, to Trump and the threat he poses. Sixteen states have already filed suit to challenge his executive order. Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in 2018 largely as a backlash to Trump’s presidency. The press has shined a bright light on the transgressions of his administration. And, of course, we are all waiting for Robert Mueller’s Report.

Even if Trump is eventually forced from office or defeated for re-election in 2020, however, the damage he has done will remain. Although some actions will be reversed, the damage to the environment and the influx of conservative judges in the federal court system will live on. The biggest challenge I see is that so much of the destruction left in Trump’s wake was neither calculated nor deliberate but the byproduct of mindless destructive behavior.

Let me illustrate my contention with two examples. Much of the fury of his presidency has focused on his efforts to get a symbolic wall built. While it has been essential to counter those efforts, I don’t think he really cares at all about the wall. Building it was a promise made to appeal to the emotions of supporters during the 2016 campaign. At this point, he would rather run in 2020 on his continued fight for the wall than on having gotten it built.

When opponents cite statistics about the decline in illegal border crossings or the lower rate of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump and his supporters couldn’t care less. He is a pathological liar and a raging narcissist, but he is also coldly calculating. Trump will do and say anything that keeps his political arguments alive and viral. Our mistake is thinking that he actually cares about the outcomes.

That characteristic is, in my opinion, the worst thing about him and the greatest threat to our political system. He will heedlessly do anything to advance his personal political fortunes without any regard for the broader damage that it may cause.

Take the emergency declaration. Republicans are terrified that the next Democratic President will claim the right to restrict gun ownership or impose strict environmental rules under a similar rationale. While Trump can be seen as taking an “apres moi, le deluge” view of the world, he really doesn’t care if he wins or loses on his emergency claim. He cares more about continuing the fight and the chaos it generates.

Did he misspeak at his emergency announcement when he said he didn’t really need to do it this way? Maybe, or maybe he is indifferent to the legal outcome of the fight. From his vantage point, he wins either way.

The same indifference can be seen in Trump’s tariff wars. Lots of observers have pointed to the economic damage being done to voters in his base, another “fact” that he casually brushes aside. Trump is not offering solutions; he is instead the “courageous warrior” fighting valiantly for “principles” that are only vaguely understood by his supporters and not really of any concern to him.

What Trump ultimately represents is the utter and total triumph of cynicism over any real policy goals or principles. As a result, he is unmoved by the broader or longterm implications of his actions. Has he undercut the constitutional system of checks and balances? Has he given license to racists to act out their prejudices? Has he undermined the international system that provided relative stability in the post World War II era?

The answer to all three of those questions and many more is that he didn’t even consider the consequences. It is that mindlessness that may well be the most enduring legacy of the Trump presidency. And the most dangerous and destructive.

Virginia on my mind

The three highest ranking elected officials in Virginia, all Democrats, are each in deep political trouble for acts they committed well before they took office. That’s the simple part of the story.

All three are resisting calls to resign. Not only have their political futures become interlinked, despite real differences in the accusations against them, but the Virginia saga has raised a number of broader issues nationally.   What actions should cause a public official to resign? Are there circumstances which should allow people to be forgiven for past acts?  And perhaps most difficult of all, are we able to make distinctions between different kinds of offenses?

To say there is no national consensus on how to answer those questions is a dramatic understatement.  In truth, we have not even started a serious conversation about the issues.  Instead, until the Virginia debacle, every transgression was addressed largely in isolation.  Moreover, the discussions are, for the most part, being carried on by Democrats while Republicans maintain an eerie silence.   More on that point shortly.

How far have we as a society come on race relations?  Whatever your personal answer to that question, we do have a broad albeit far from universal consensus that certain behaviors are unacceptable.   I’m not referring to violations of the law, but rather to actions that show overt bias or disrespect.   Whatever the extent of racial prejudice that still exists in the general population, we have the right to expect our elected officials to adhere scrupulously to the notion of racial equality.

That Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney  General Mark Herring believed in the 1980s that appearing in blackface was acceptable is stunning.  That Northam wasn’t sure which person he might have been in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook defies common sense.  Those of us who lived through the latter part of the 20th century are dumbfounded that they didn’t know better.

Do their actions then disqualify them forever from holding public office?  If you hold that view, and I certainly take it as a legitimate response, where should the line be drawn?  In what circumstances are apologies enough?  Is redemption possible?

Another current example demonstrates the complexity of these questions.  Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, one of two recently elected Muslim Members of Congress, was hit with a firestorm of criticism after two tweets that were widely seen as anti-Semitic.   The good news is that she quickly apologized.  The bad news is that she could straight-facedly deny in 2019 that she was engaging in anti-Semitism.  At the same time, can we distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the government of Israel and some of its  American supporters?

We are, moreover, living in a time when some national leaders seem to be giving permission to others to act out racial prejudices.  That President Trump could declare that there were “good people on both sides” at the racist march in Charlottesville needs to be factored into our discussions about contemporary race relations.

Whether we forgive Northam or insist he resign should not be determined by Donald Trump’s racism or by the lilly-white complexion of the Republican Party.  On the other hand, trying to make thoughtful distinctions between different acts is worth the hard work it will take.  The payoff will be a clearer consensus about race relations in this country.

The charges against Lt. Gov. Jordan Fairfax are of quite a different nature.  He has been accused by two different women of sexual assault.  Coming to a determination about the validity of the accusations has to be the first step, but the category is, if proven, a criminal act.  That Fairfax, bookended by offenses by two white office holders, is African Americans certainly impacts people’s reactions.

Rape and other forms of physical assault on women should be seen as at one extreme of the MeToo movement.   That’s not to argue that other forms of harassment and insensitive behavior are not worthy of condemnation.  The question that has not really been adequately discussed, however, is whether distinctions can and should be made among various forms and levels of offensive behavior.

Donald Trump again can be seen as creating part of the context for this discussion.  Republicans are unwilling to criticize his many examples of demeaning and offensive behavior toward women, from the Access Hollywood tapes to accusations of paying off women to remain silent about affairs to incredibly sexist language in everyday conversations.  The “Republican standard” is no standard, but it does complicate the political dimensions of the issue.

Democrats, with a rapidly growing number of women in their elected ranks, have been active in calling out sexism.  What’s not yet clear, however, is whether there can be distinctions between different sorts of acts and whether some behavior can be forgiven.

The very hard political case for many Democrats remains that of Al Franken.   There are understandable differences of opinion on how serious his transgressions were and on the motives of people like Kirsten Gillibrand  in pushing hard for his resignation.

There is real value in a serious public debate about the ethical standards we should expect our elected officials to meet.  If the outcome is to be constructive, however, we need to work much harder at thinking through the standards rather than just jumping to conclusions about individual cases.

The Hazards of Vanity Candidates

Most people remember that George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election after the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the recount process in Florida. Bush’s popular vote margin was less than 500, but there were serious issues, including numerous legal challenges, about the counting of the ballots.

An issue that received a lot of attention in 2000 but has receded from the popular discussion since then was the impact of a third party candidate, Ralph Nader, on the outcome. While both Bush and Democrat Al Gore garnered nearly three million votes each, Nader siphoned off 97,488, a figure that makes the ultimate 500 vote margin pale in comparison.

Nader never had a chance to win Florida, much less the presidency. His candidacy was purely an exercise in ego and vanity. He was never competitive, yet he may have determined the outcome.

The nature of the American electoral system makes it almost impossible–let’s continue to say “almost”–for a third party candidate to win the presidency. Teddy Roosevelt’s dramatic run in 1912 is fascinating to read about, but is a total outlier in terms of presidential elections. In modern times, only a couple of candidates–George Wallace, Ross Perot–have won large blocks of votes, but never enough to be serious contenders.

To believe that a third party candidate could actually win the presidency, you have to disregard both the structure of American elections and the history of politics in this country. First, and perhaps most important, the Electoral College system embedded in the U.S. Constitution means that the outcome is determined state by state on a winner take all basis. Accumulating votes doesn’t matter unless you are able to win a plurality in a state. Everyone else gets zero electoral votes.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a growing debate about whether the Electoral College mechanism should be replaced by a national popular vote. That would require amending the Constitution, a process that is incredibly difficult. Even the work-around proposals that have gained some support are pipe dreams.

Absent a change in how we elect presidents, third party candidates will continue to be, at most, spoilers rather than serious contenders. Despite the growing discontent with our current political parties, voters continue to rely on party identification as the key to their decision making. Ironically, the degree of partisan identification has actually increased even as we complain more vociferously about the negative consequences of partisanship.

By now, you’re probably thinking that this blog is about Howard Schultz. He has already been the recipient of a virtual avalanche of criticism for his candidacy – and all of it well deserved.

Schultz has no chance at all of being elected as an independent candidate. Despite his talk about wanting to represent the political moderates of the country, there is little or no evidence that such a group actually exists. Complaining about Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi does not mean you are ready to vote for an independent. You may find multiple examples of people willing to express their loathing of parties, but you will be hard pressed to collect enough of them at the polls or even on a nominating petition to impact any election.

Why is Schultz talking about running? If he can’t win–and if he doesn’t realize he can’t win, he’s more naive than I had believed–does he have other laudable objectives? The traditional answer of third-party candidates is that they want to raise important issues that are not being discussed by the two major parties. That actually can be done without running for the presidency, but never mind for now.

The most plausible answer to why he’s running–based on his comments as well as the history of previous candidates such as Ralph Nader–is that he believes his success in selling coffee and accumulating huge amounts of personal wealth makes him uniquely qualified to lead. After all, if Donald Trump, with his history of business failures, can be elected president, why can’t the former and successful CEO of Starbucks?

When you think about that rationale, however, it ultimately boils down to little more than an ego trip. Schultz believes his prior “fame” will translate into a popular following. His lack of any relevant experience and his fundamental misunderstanding of how the system of electing a president actually works underscores that his candidacy is nothing but an exercise in personal vanity.

Schultz, of course, is not the only person talking about running who is in reality a vanity candidate. All those people who’ve already had their season and can’t seem to relinquish the stage are running for the wrong reasons. My list starts with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Add whatever additional names occur to you.

There are, on the other hand, a large number of prospective Democratic candidates who could be strong nominees in 2020. I am not worried either than the field is large or that it has not narrowed as of now. There’s time. But a good first step would be to cull all the vanity candidates from the list of contenders.

A Little Perspective

So long as the hotel has wifi, a traveler is never really off the grid. Getting away for a couple of weeks can, however, reduce the non-stop, maybe compulsive, reading of the daily political news that consumes the lives of so many of us.  I’d be the last person to argue that citizens should cut themselves off from the political world, but we should question how much of our time and attention it warrants.

A recent trip gave me the opportunity to reflect on my news consumption.  I certainly scanned my daily emails, but didn’t feel the need to read every breaking story several times on different sites.  After all, there were fascinating places to see, different cuisines to sample and the opportunity to learn about other cultures and their histories.

While I was away, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed for a seat on the United States Supreme Court, the Saudis butchered an American journalist in their consulate in Turkey, Donald Trump made up ever more outrageous lies hoping to terrify the electorate before the November election and campaigns in many places reached new depths of ugliness.

Being somewhat insulated from the day-to-day news cycle gave me the chance to consider whether I had missed or lost anything of significance.  I don’t think so.  I certainly reduced the frequency of my outrage at what is going on politically in this country, but that outrage by itself is not particularly useful.  In fact, I would argue that it gets in the way of our ability to prioritize and focus on those things that we might be able to impact by political involvement.

Let me try to illustrate that last point.  We have regular reports of the increased frequency of Donald Trump’s public lies.  I already know that he is a compulsive liar.  I know that he is a raging narcissist.  I know that he is not interested in facts or science.  More evidence of those truths will not make me sleep better at night nor will it help me fashion a political response to his presidency.

I’m certainly not arguing that we should condone his behavior or ignore it, but neither should we let him distract us from our primary objective.  There is really only one way that citizens who are alarmed about the direction in which Trump is taking this country can change that course, and that is by showing up and voting on November 6.

At this point, there is no longer such a thing as a reasonable or moderate Republican.  Every member of that party in Washington and throughout the country ultimately supports or condones the President’s agenda and behavior.  We have been suckered too many times by Senator Susan Collins of Maine.  Let’s stop falling for her dance of agonizing over a decision that always ends in disappointment.  If you want to stop the cruel and cynical acts of Mitch McConnell, take away his majority.  If you want to restore  a degree of accountability to what goes on in Washington, make sure that there is a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Nothing else matters as much.  Don’t be distracted by Trump’s transparently phony announcement that a tax cut is coming. Pay no attention to) his outrageous, unfounded claims regarding an immigrant caravan that won’t reach our border until December at the earliest.

Equally, it’s way past time to shed the Democratic indifference to state and local elections.  Stop worrying about who the Presidential nominee in 2020 will be.  There’s plenty of time.  Instead, give your attention, your money, and, most importantly, your vote to Democratic candidates for Governor, the U.S. Congress and the State legislatures.  And where there are local government races, get yourself informed and then make sure you vote.

Think how much time we would all have to devote to the important matter of getting Democrats elected on November 6 if we stopped using so much energy chasing Trump’s outrageous stories down various rabbit holes.

A lot of attention has been paid over the past several months to the idea that a Democratic wave is coming on November 6.  That story has had its ups and downs, with breathless attention given to Trump’s polling numbers and his fiery rallies.  Forget it.  None of that matters.

The ONLY thing that matters is if you and everyone who cares about the welfare of the United States votes for change in this year’s election. Don’t assume that all your friends and relatives will vote.  Remind them.  Help them if they need it.  There can be no excuses.  Elections have consequences.  Don’t have regrets afterwards.