“Fear was a big part of it”

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I’m watching the PBS American Experience episode “Ruby Ridge”. Sara Weaver, the daughter of Randy Weaver, is describing how her parents were preparing to move from their Iowa farm to living on a mountain in Idaho. She says they were adhering to the Biblical passages of “an apocalyptic future” and says

“Fear was a big part of it.”

As the episode draws to a close, she adds

“When you operate out of misinformation and fear, things can go wrong.”

These are words worth remembering – not just in the tragic and volatile 1992 “Ruby Ridge” case, but in our society in general today, and in the language that we hear from those who are responsible for guiding us forward as a nation.

Fear is a big part of it.

Listen to what we are being told:

  • Fear those who cross our country’s border from Mexico – they are rapists and murderers and drug lords.
  • Fear those who run from brutality and death in Syria – they are terrorists who hate our freedom.
  • Fear those who report on our government’s actions – they are enemies of the American people.
  • Fear those who teach – they are telling our children what to do, what to say, what to think.
  • Fear those who wear a hoodie on a chilly night – they are armed and looking for a house to rob.
  • Fear those who wear a jihab – they are hiding something, maybe a bomb.
  • Fear those who march in protest – they are paid professional agitators trying to destroy our democracy.
  • Fear those who own large, successful businesses – they are mistreating their workers and hiring illegal immigrants.
  • Fear those who run for office under the (name one) Party – they are only out for (their supporters, their class, their race) and will take away your (rights, guns, money).
  • Fear those who demand your attention – they want to heckle you, mock you, shout at you, shout you down

Sara Weaver is someone who was thrust, unwillingly, into the public eye, under terrible and tragic circumstances. Yet, because of those circumstances, she knows so much more than our leaders do:

“When you operate out of misinformation and fear, things can go wrong.”


Photo: ©AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Reward and Punishment: SCOTUS Nominations

I’m still troubled by the idea of rewarding – and thus encouraging – the behavior of the GOP Senate in 2016 re: the nomination of Merrick Garland.

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While two wrongs don’t make a right, rewarding a wrong encourages more of the same. There have to be consequences to misbehavior, especially intentional misbehavior such as the 2016 GOP Senate engaged in.

With that in mind, and for that reason – the Democrats should block all consideration of any SCOTUS nomination for the duration of this current presidency, regardless of the nominee’s qualifications.

 

Ending the Imperial Presidency

I have a theory — that we are living through the end of the “Imperial Presidency”, with the accompanying restoration of the Congress as the center of power in federal government.
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“The Imperial Presidency”. Those who have watched as many presidencies as I have (or more) know that term. It has been around for the entirety of our modern presidency — which I put at all presidents starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration, in the midst of the Great Depression. It was FDR who swung the presidency like a club, sweeping across the economy and the “general welfare” of a nation in dire straits. FDR wasn’t always attentive to the Constitution along the way, and met resistance from conservatives, the opposition (Republican) party and businesses. But his New Deal reforms are entrenched in government programs to this day — and the presidential power that he exercised before and during World War II set the tone for the Imperial Presidency that continued long after he died.

All presidencies since FDR have tried, with varying degrees of success, to deal with the challenge of the Imperial Presidency. We’ve had other Imperials — JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, W and Obama. All of them were accused — correctly — of expanding the dominance of the White House. In most cases, Congress pushed back hard and SCOTUS blocked the way, but the popular perception, at home and internationally, was that of a dominating, celebrity POTUS.

With 45, it’s different — significantly different. First, he is showing himself, unsurprisingly, to be utterly incompetent and ignorant, and has surrounded himself with friends who are equally ignorant, equally incompetent or just too obsequious to resist him. Add to that the departure, by voluntary or forced resignation, of the knowledge leadership in the executive branches, and the slow pace at which that leadership is being restored. The executive branch is in the hands of idiots – and that is widely accepted to be true, at least for the time being.
Second, importantly, Congress is all Republican. This gives Congress the ability to do whatever they want and to succeed in demanding that their fellow party member in the White House go along with it. They are soon to move SCOTUS into their camp as well (because they can), taking down any final barrier to Congressional “overreach”.
This creates the framework for a very powerful Congress that can lord over a much-weakened presidency. The Republican Congress has been testing its strength against the Obama presidency and, by any measure, succeeded beyond their expectations. And while he was frustrated often, Obama was a president with enormous personal strength of will and intellect. He could wield a law-making scalpel to get some things done because he understands the law, if not the politics of legislating. And he surrounded himself with like-minded people, equally knowledgeable.
By contrast, Obama’s replacement is a dolt both in the law and in legislating (or even in simple management) and his posse does not make up for that weakness.
So the stage is set for a dominating Congress to tower over a much-diminished White House in a way that we haven’t seen in 75 years or more. And that shift may be long-lasting. I expect the “Imperial Presidency” to be a concept shuffled off to history, replaced by a presidency marked by weakness at home and abroad.
One very significant implication of this weakened presidency is the role of “Command-in-Chief.” Can a strong Congress permit the president to exercise the military as his predecessors (W and Obama) could? They passed “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) for W, then essentially let it continue for Obama. With a weak president — especially one who is desperate to demonstrate his self-imagined “strength” — the AUMF is a very dangerous weapon. I expect Congress to pull it back and restore its constitutional power “to declare war”.
A second implication of this weakened presidency is how the United States is perceived internationally. If the US — both in Congress and among the people — do not see a powerful president, how will foreign nations relate to the US? Will they invite the president to a state visit and to negotiate treaties if they do not see the president as a true leader? Perhaps the Speaker of the House will rise in importance internationally as the true leader of the United States, in the same way that the Prime Minister is viewed in parliamentary governments. Perhaps the president will become head of state in title only, in the view of our allies and enemy nations alike.
BOTTOM LINE: Presidential elections of the future will mean far less and have far less real impact than the bi-annual Congressional races. Focus.

Image credit: An East View of Gray’s Ferry, near Philadelphia, with the Triumphal Arches, &c. erected for the Reception of General Washington, April 20, 1789 , line engraving (1789) by James Trenchard
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Words, Not Just Tone, Matter

In the “heated argument” between Kellyanne Conway and Jennifer Palmieri at Harvard last week, the press attention focused on the seemingly angry tones between these two. The audio reflects that tone, both speakers (and others) talking over the others in incomplete sentences, neither side making a coherent argument. What should have been an instructive and reflective examination of the past presidential campaign devolved into a shouted barrage of “Oh yeah?”, “Did not!” and “Did too!”

But for all the shouting and hostility, we should not forget the words — yes, there were words spoken and statements made and claims denied, and these should not be ignored. These words matter, because the claims they make matter and the denial of these claims matter.

So — what set off this heated argument?

Palmieri expressed her pride that Clinton stood up against the “white supremacists, white nationalists” who were attaching themselves to Trump’s campaign as a way to get their message out.

“One of my proudest moments with [Hillary Clinton] is her standing up with courage and with clarity in Steve Bannon’s own words and Donald Trump’s own words the platform that they gave to white supremacists, white nationalists. And it is a very, very important moment in our history as a country and I think as his presidency goes forward I am going to be very glad to be part of the campaign that tried to stop this,” Palmieri said.

The claim, then, is that the Trump campaign gave “a platform” to these groups.

The counter-claim is that the Trump campaign had “a decent message for the white working class voters” and that Clinton “doesn’t connect with people, […] they have nothing in common with her [and] you had no economic message.”

The counter-claim is not, as it turns out, a denial. Conway doesn’t say “no, we did not give white supremacists a platform, we kicked them out whenever they latched on to us.” Conway doesn’t quote any statement by Trump or anyone else in the campaign, telling David Duke, the KKK, Breitbart, the Spencers’ or other known white nationalists to go away. Indeed, when those statements did come, they were only after the election was over and Trump had been declared “president-elect.”

So we have a claim, an accusation if you will, which — given the opportunity — the accused does not deny.

Words shouldn’t be lost in the heat of the exchange. Words aren’t as entertaining as a shouting match, true, but they are instructive.

Words — and the absence of words to the contrary — matter.

Trump Transition: You’ve Been Punk’d!

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Let’s think about this for a second.
  • First, never forget that Trump’s expertise is marketing – more than anything else, he gets people to think the way he wants them to think.
  • Second, Trump is highly sensitive to any criticism – he does not tolerate having people say negative things about him.
  • Third, Trump never lets any challenge go unanswered and unpunished.
With that in mind, Trump is “interviewing” a lot of people who were really rude to him. The key here is Romney — why would Trump want Romney to be considered for something as high profile as Secretary of State?

Follow The Leader

In our party-driven political system, there are two ways for a party and its “leader” (i.e., presidential nominee) to work together — the people can follow the leader, or the leader can follow the people.

In the 2016 presidential election, the two major parties are following opposite models.

Clearly, the Republican party — both its elected “leaders”, like Speaker Ryan, and its voting members — are lining up behind the nominee, Trump. In this follow-the-leader model, they overlook any faults or failings he may show and happily ‘endorse’ his analysis of problems, his prescriptions for the future and his attitude toward others.

Less clearly, the Democratic party is working the opposite model. The influence of candidate Sanders, Senator Warren, and especially the party’s voting members made its way into both the party platform and the positions of the party’s nominee, Clinton. In this follow-the-people model, Clinton’s positions have moved from the center-right to at least a center-left position, adopting (or “co-opting”?) positions that Sanders held when this campaign started.

The question for voters — for you — is this: which model are you more comfortable with?

Are you comfortable with the follow-the-leader model? This means that you watch the leader to see what he says or does, and let that tell you what to think and say and do. Are you a follower?

Or would you be more comfortable with a follow-the-people model? This means that you make your own assessment of what direction we should go in and the president pushes the government to make it happen. Are you a leader?

Thus far, of the two major party nominees, one side is following the leader and the other is following the people. That should make the choice simpler in November, shouldn’t it?

Whispering Against the Shouters

[submitted as a comment in the NYTimes in response to other comments on Paul Krugman’s op-ed column “Imaginary Health Care Horrors“, March 30, 2015.]

In a comment in the New York Times, “Frank” wrote:

The trouble is that Democrats are not there defending [the Affordable Care Act]. They have bought into the myth that people don’t like it and so they are afraid to speak out.
And in so doing, they are perpetuating the false story. That’s how the Democrats lost seats in 2010. They allowed the shouters to go unchallenged and if they do it again, they will lose again.

It is not enough to challenge the shouters — the challenge must be brought with the same theatrical sense, the same bombast, the same excess as the shouters use. Otherwise, the challenge is just a whisper in a roomful of shouters. Continue reading