The Third Presidential Debate

The big takeaway for the chattering classes seems to be Trump’s coy refusal to accept in advance the results of the coming election. Really this isn’t surprising but for some reason people never seem to take what he says at face value. He has said this before and it is entirely consistent with his general approach to life. Of course surrogates, like his campaign manager and his daughter, immediately came forward to disavow this unprecedented position. However as I write this, I am listening to Trump’s first post-debate rally. He just explained, “Of course I will accept the election results … if I am the winner!” The crowd roared its approval and broke into a familiar chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

500wiHowever, I found something else in the debate to be far more significant. An initial topic was the Supreme Court. Hillary said forthrightly that she viewed the Court’s primary responsibility to be “to stand on the side of the American people, not corporations.” I take this to mean that she wants Justices who see their job as looking out for the welfare of the average person. Truthfully, my jaw dropped. Does she really mean that?

I do understand where she is coming from. Many people believe that this Court, marginally dominated by conservatives, has rendered decisions that go against “the little people”. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a prime example. But to say that the Court must take the opposite tack is equally wrong. That simply is not the purpose or mandate of our highest court. It is not designed to be Big Mommy for us all. Rather it has a quite specific role in adjudicating the consistency of laws with our Constitution and in rendering judgments in certain special areas of the law. Of course it should try to do this fairly and, since the Justices have human frailty, they will not always succeed. But the Court having agendas is a mistake even if we applaud them.

Of course Presidents will nominate candidates for Court vacancies who are philosophically compatible with their own viewpoint. And no one can doubt that Justices bring biasing perspectives to their decisions. However this is a far cry from setting a specific agenda to be followed independent of the cases involved. This is one instance where literal interpretation of our Constitution is most compelling, even if you disagree with this as the proper approach in general. If the writers of this marvelous and enduring document had intended the primary role of the Court to be a bulwark against threats to the public welfare they would indubitably have said so. No one who has examined their other writings and statements could possibly believe that this was their unwritten intent.

It is the duty of Congress to serve this role. If it fails on occasion, having another of the coequal branches of government take up the slack is perhaps attractive if what it does meets with our approval. But we will inevitably regret it if that ever becomes the norm as it will destroy the true essence of our form of government.

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Political Lies: Strategy or Mental Defect?

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I just read a riveting historical analysis of lying by Presidential candidates, and in particular by our two current ones. Both have been accused of fibbing and shading the truth, something hardly unusual for politicians, but not in my lifetime has this become such a key part of the political dialog.

The analysis is revealing. Trump appears to lie reflexively, saying whatever comes into his mind that appears to serve his current purpose. It is as though he really does live in Wonderland where anything can be true if you say it is so. Lies to him are strategies.

Hillary is far more selective. Almost all of her lies are about herself, not about others or about external events. She has constructed a self-image that protects her from inconvenient facts. Lies evolve from failed attempts to reconcile this self-image with objective reality.

Nicholas Kristof concocted this example that aptly illustrates this difference. “If Clinton declares that she didn’t chop down a cherry tree, that might mean that she actually used a chain saw to cut it down. Or that she ordered an aide to chop it down. As for Trump, he will insist, [that he] absolutely did not chop down that cherry tree, even as he clutches the ax with which he chopped it down moments earlier on Facebook Live.

Both of them seem to truly believe at least some of their lies, and that belief is sometimes strong enough to withstand solid evidence to the contrary. The question then is the degree to which this characteristic might negatively impact their Presidency. An inability to appreciate the true situation is potentially very dangerous, particularly where great affairs of state are involved. That is so obviously true that arguing it is pointless.

The difference between the scope and extent of their propensity to lie is crucial. Hillary’s lies are relatively harmless, although they do clearly indicate a serious psychological issue. Trump’s strategic lies are far more problematic. Does he, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, think ‘six impossible things before breakfast’? Or is he simply a devious and compulsive liar? It is impossible to discern from afar and without expert diagnosis, but the potential consequences for someone wielding the power of the Presidency are frightening.

Is it a pay-to-play scheme?

Is it illegal? Is it even wrong? These questions are asked about the intermingling of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s official activities as Secretary of State. Each side has its own vastly different viewpoint. There is no doubt that people attempted to use their favored position as Foundation donors to make contacts with government officials. Their purposes are varied and somewhat unclear. But in general either they had a favor to ask or they wished an opportunity to express their opinion on some matter of importance to them. So far, there is no evidence that these contacts directly achieved anything of value. Hence the Clinton camp claims that there is no wrong doing.

But that misses a crucial point that can be best illustrated by this example. Let us suppose that a businessman is wooing potential investors for an important project. They are reluctant because he doesn’t have a successful track record and they don’t know if they can trust his claims. In the midst of a negotiating session, he says that he must leave because he has a meeting with the Secretary of State. They are impressed but wary that this might be just another flamboyant claim. Then he offers for one of them to accompany him to meet this high government official. Naturally they decline, viewing it as a likely imposition, but now they do see this businessman in a new light. Clearly he is a man of importance with high government contacts. Perhaps becoming his partner is a worthwhile investment after all.

IMG_0544Of course this example is contrived but it does illustrate how simply having access can be very valuable even if it produces nothing directly tangible. Both Hillary and Bill are well aware of this and they exploited it to gain Foundation donations and lucrative speaking engagements. In my opinion, the case is clear. This is wrong even though it might not violate the law. While it is true that such slimy influence peddling is common in Washington, that doesn’t change the fact that it is morally repulsive.

If Hillary has been doing this deliberately with full awareness of these issues, she is morally degenerate. If she has only overstepped bounds inadvertently and with the best of intentions, then she is too oblivious to be trusted with any serious responsibilities. Neither possibility speaks well for her ambition to become our next President.

Recently the Clintons announced that they will sever relations with their foundation if Hillary is elected President. They phrase this as an attempt to eliminate any possible perception of impropriety, not as an admission that there is something wrong to be remedied. That is obtuse. This is not an issue of mistaken perceptions. If their intentions are pure then they should terminate the foundation forthwith, not wait until they have achieved their political ambitions. The Clinton Foundation has done a lot of good work and that should not be forgotten. One possibility is to turn over all of its activities to another active international charitable group, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nothing would be lost except a money pit for the Clintons and a dangerous pothole in Hillary’s road to the Presidency.

Trump and Anti-Terrorism

Donald Trump just completed a major address on his anti-terrorism policy. He was uncharacteristically restrained in his delivery but his policies seemed to echo a distant unpleasant past. In 1798, President John Adams signed a set of four bills comprising the Alien and Sedition Acts. If you want a brief history lesson, there is a nice Wikipedia article here. In summary these acts, and most of Trump’s policies, strengthen national security through tight restrictions on immigration and naturalization and through deportation or imprisonment of dangerous or hostile non-citizens.

japaneseorder-23-0311aOne of these acts, the Alien Enemies Act, remains on the books, although I don’t know if its constitutionality has ever been tested. These acts have been used for purposes we would abhor today, like jailing government critics and interning citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have no proper application in our present difficult times.

The major argument of the Clinton camp for why such draconian actions are unnecessary is that immigrants, and in particular refugees from the Middle East conflict, are being subjected to incredibly tight screening before being admitted. I believe that is a conscious and deliberate lie! Evidently, not every time is it groundless when Donald tosses out crude epithets like Lyin’ Hillary.

I don’t make that charge lightly. First, I doubt that we have allocated the resources, either funds or skilled manpower, necessary to accomplish this task. I did a crude calculation based on published security clearance procedures and costs that convinces me of this shortfall. I have been through that process myself. It can be difficult and costly in the best of circumstances, and it requires highly skilled investigators who are in short supply.

But more importantly, I am convinced that the needed information simply cannot be obtained. Records are missing or unavailable in the war zone blazing across the Middle East, and interviewing contacts is almost certainly impractical. Obama and Clinton are letting their charitable instincts drive their decisions. This speaks well of them, in a sense, but it is either dangerously naive or more likely disingenuous, since they undoubtedly understand the true situation.

What they actually mean by their claim of tight screening is that it takes a very long time, perhaps up to two or more years to process each application. They even say that specifically when challenged. But if you think about it, that is a meaningless statistic. It is a bit like Hillary’s claim that a million miles of diplomatic travel means useful experience. Moreover, I don’t think such a process is even contemplated for the flood of Syrian refugees, at least not if we are to meet the admission goals of Obama’s proposals.

Of course, this fatuous response by the Clinton campaign hardly justifies Trump’s policies. Probably the best answer lies in some middle ground, however compromise is beyond unlikely in our current political battleground.

Candidate Hillary and the Road Ahead

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 25:  Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Democratic Party organizing event on July 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. On the first day of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton is campaigning in North Carolina.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I am not a great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I came away from the Democratic Convention proceedings this week with a bit more enthusiasm. It was not so much from what she said in her acceptance address, but rather from what others said about her. She really is an uninspiring politician, as she has ruefully admitted. Even after so many years of toiling in the political vineyards, she simply hasn’t mastered the differences between debate, persuasion and oratory. Some of this is purely technical, some the tonal limitations of the female voice, and some simply seems to be a bit of a tin ear. I wonder why she has evidently never taken expert instruction?

You might argue that this is superficial, that policies and their implementation are what matter. Of course they do, but there are three key attributes of a successful president that overlay those concrete factors to make them feasible and effective. These are the ability to persuade, to inspire and to lead. They are related but different and they are absolutely key to an effective Presidency.

Presidents are not dictators, notwithstanding the ill-informed oratory of Donald Trump. In fact the limitations on their power are even greater than is commonly believed. Harry Truman had the right insight when he reflected about what his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, would discover. Truman mused, “He’ll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike, it wont be a bit like the military. He’ll find it very frustrating.” I might add that poor Donald would likewise find that he can’t exercise his customary power as CEO or say to virtually anyone who matters, “You’re fired!

If you want to understand what it really takes to be a successful President, there is no better analysis than Richard Neustadt’s treatise “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.” it was written some time ago, but his insights remain true.

Of course it helps greatly if the President’s party controls Congress, although, given our sharp political divide, Senate control really means having a 60-vote super-majority. And this rarely happens. Also, even in this circumstance, the panjandrums of Congress have their own agendas and imperatives. They seldom just toe the line. If Hillary returns to her old residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she can expect to face a difficult and strong-minded Congress. Policies will be hostage to the administration’s powers of persuasion, both directly with Congress and in the bully pulpit at large. In this she will likely have to rely heavily upon key members of her team. I think Vice President Kaine will be a big help, as will her husband, and hopefully she will make better executive appointments than did President Obama, many of whom were disastrous interlocutors on the Hill. Unavoidably however, the onus will be on Hillary to carry the weight when needed. We can hope that she will consciously or otherwise sharpen her skills on the job.

I believe that one way to gain insight into the character and likely performance of someone is to hear a friend or associate speak of some small event involving them that really struck a bell. The big items, like policy and leadership, are fairly obvious and have whatever value you assign them based on your own principles and standards. One anecdote I heard was telling, but honestly I am ambivalent about its message. See what you think.

Michael Muzyk, a New York trucking executive, tells the story of one day in 2004 when he accompanied then-Senator Clinton on a mission to promote upstate farmers’ produce. At the state fairgrounds, Hillary got word that her husband had been hospitalized for emergency heart surgery. “I guess you had better go,” Muzyk said promptly, but Hillary surprisingly responded, “No. People have gathered to hear me speak and I mustn’t disappoint them.” We all now know more than we wish about the Clintons’ complicated marital relationship. But this likely was a dire circumstance affecting her life partner and the father of her only child. Was her response a sign of dedication and self-sacrifice, or perhaps was it a cold-hearted calculation of risk and reward?

This is probably not what you or I would have done in similar circumstances, but then we are not likely to serve as President of the United States, for whom events and decisions usually cannot wait upon personal needs and responsibilities. More than any other descriptor for this demanding position, the job comes first. Too much and too many depend upon it.

Nostalgia and Selective Memory

lead_960At the Republican convention, enterprising reporters asked a selection of delegates when exactly was America great before, i.e. what period were they yearning to reproduce? There were several decades mentioned. The Reagan and even the Bill Clinton eras got votes. But far and away, the post-WW2 period received the most votes, in particular the early years of the Eisenhower administration.

This particular nostalgia seems quite understandable to me. Those old enough to remember it were probably white, middle-class youngsters at the time. You might get a different answer from a black delegate – that is, if you could find one.

Still, it does seem a bit odd to yearn for the Cold War era, when children were being taught to “duck and cover” in an A-bomb attack, an era when crude and overt segregation reigned over the South, an era when Sen. McCarthy was trampling rights hither and yon, an era when dreaded polio struck thousands every summer. But then, selective memory isn’t confined just to early evidence of Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

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Hmm? No intrusive social media, “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners”, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, Saturday night at the drive-in with your honey, Norman Rockwell images, schools where the worst offense was chewing gum in class, humming factories filled with WW2 veterans building new lives and families … I am starting to get a bit enthused myself!

Who are these Trump supporters?

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People who actually think seriously – you and I, perhaps? – simply can’t understand why so many voters support Trump. Who are all these wing nuts, we ask? Don’t they even listen to what he says? Opposing Hillary makes some sense. She is clearly a flawed candidate. But that hardly translates into wholehearted support for Trump, as the long agonizing of the leading Republican politician, House Speaker Paul Ryan, clearly shows. Well, an anecdotal example reported in yesterday’s Washington Post may explain just a bit of what is really going on.

Ordinary middle-America is reaching blindly for genuine change, not the kind of false promises trotted out by politicians of all stripes every four years. The Post article discusses Teresa Sikorski of small-town Parma, Ohio. A life-long Democrat, Teresa and her husband recently changed their registration so that they could vote for Donald Trump. The Sikorskis have long been active in local Democratic party politics, voted twice for Obama and still are largely favorable to him, and are well aware of Trump’s shortcomings. The Post quotes her as saying, “I would never have in my life believed I would be voting for a Republican.” But now she and her husband expect to vote the straight Republican ticket in Ohio. She doesn’t promise that this switch will be permanent. Much depends, no doubt, on how well it works out.

Oh yes, I neglected to mention one interesting aspect of this particular example. Teresa Sikorski is the loving sister of Dennis Kucinich, who was the Democratic mayor and congressman for Cleveland, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the most ardent liberals of our time. If Teresa can make that leap of faith, do you suppose that other thinking voters can too?

On the subject of change, there have been two Presidents in the modern era who made a serious attempt to produce the change that they promised. Both followed failed Presidencies and times of existential crisis in the minds of ordinary Americans. They were Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The changes they genuinely desired and sought couldn’t have been more different.

Roosevelt fought for expansive government economic powers to hold back what he saw as an economic oligarchy running wild. He wanted to force individuals to act in the public interest in a new expanded form of social compact. He clearly saw the erosion of economic opportunity and a growing separation of “haves” and “never will haves”. Reagan was pessimistic about the government’s ability to resolve social problems and felt that the crushing weight of big government would permanently hinder the vast potential of our people. Each saw untrammeled entrepreneurs and the wealthy class in completely different lights. Roosevelt perceived them as the root of the problem; Reagan saw them as the crucial basis of economic success. Whatever opinion you might have of their ideas, successes and failures, no one can doubt that they had sincere visions for change and that they seriously tried to implement them.

1413162730864Is this another of those times? Is Obama yet another Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover? I don’t think so, but I suspect that many do. And I must admit that I do see a few parallels. Like Hoover, Obama can be cerebral and detached, and he seems overly committed to policies that have failed to achieve their purposes. But to be fair, Obama mostly succeeded in taming the terrible economic crisis he faced while Hoover failed abysmally. With respect to Carter, Obama similarly exemplifies the consequence of ambitious good intentions not backed up by strong political leadership. Both had disastrous relationships with Congress, including within their own party. No President could conceivably succeed in such an environment.

But Trump is no Ronald Reagan and I still hold to my belief that Hillary will pull it off, although it should be a close call. Crucially, she has demographics on her side. But the hidden factor is the voter who won’t openly admit it to friends or pollsters, but who will nevertheless pull the lever for Trump in the privacy of the voting booth. This phenomenon was on display recently across the Atlantic in our mother country. British voters gave the outward impression first that they would elect a Labour government and then later that they would reject Brexit. Then on Election Day something strange happened. A combination of hope and emotion triumphed and both expectations foundered.

These Trump supporters are not crazy or thoughtless. They are not part of a right-wing cabal. They are neither racist nor generally bigoted. Oh sure, a few Trump supporters are some or all of these things, but some are just ordinary folks who are genuinely upset and frightened about their future and that of their kids.