“The game’s afoot!”

I love it! Today there is yet more evidence that we are all living in a reality TV show. Do you remember The Truman Show?

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FBI Directory James Comey just wrote a letter to Congress saying that they have discovered new emails pertinent to the Clinton email server investigation and thus the FBI is reopening this case. Republicans of course are jumping all over this. Scant minutes after the letter became public, Trump exclaimed to an avid crowd that “Finally, justice will be served!” Meanwhile back at Hillary’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, press communication came to a halt as they considered what to say and do now. Is this the real October surprise instead of the prior one, the skyrocketing Obamacare costs?

You couldn’t write a better script for keeping up the tension. But in all likelihood these emails won’t add anything new. The ever-meticulous Comey may simply be making good on his promise to keep Congress apprised of everything no matter how trivial. At most they might add to the number of classified documents that Hillary mishandled, but who cares? Comey has already said that Hillary broke the law, but the necessary element of intent couldn’t be proven. But what if these emails contain the proverbial smoking gun? Wowie!

In any case, that couldn’t happen soon. The investigation process is necessarily lengthy and it is very unlikely to be completed in just a few days. If it did finish before the election that would indeed be a surprise. But what if Comey made an announcement that he is reversing his recommendation concerning criminal prosecution close to or even on Election Day? If I were writing the script for our reality show, that would be my plot device.

Alternatively, what if this happened in December, with the Clinton transition team in full gear and with Hillary busily interviewing prospective cabinet appointees? This would no doubt all be settled out of court, but I would expect a serious attempt at impeachment. Is it possible to impeach a President-elect before the swearing-in ceremony? I haven’t researched this arcane Constitutional trivia, but I suspect not.

Like I said, it seems increasingly likely that we are just characters in a massive soap opera. I just hope its denouement isn’t like Conundrum, the famous finale of the TV series Dallas.

Edit: The NY Times is now reporting that these new emails were found in the unrelated Anthony Weiner sexting investigation. Yes, the Big Weinie! The tie-in undoubtedly is through his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, who is Hillary’s closest confidant and long-time aide. I must say I am impressed with how the script writers of our reality show tie-in hanging plot lines.

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.

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.

A Trump Presidency Considered

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Now that the Trump candidacy is official, it isn’t too soon to consider what his presidency might actually be like, without the heated rhetoric from both camps. Here’s how Trump himself sees the job. Maybe it is how he runs his businesses, but I don’t know enough about that to comment. In any case, the following insight is taken from his own words and those of his trusted surrogates in conversations – never denied – with Paul Ryan, John Kasich and Newt Gingrich.

First, actually setting a detailed policy agenda and getting it through Congress will be delegated mostly to House Speaker Ryan, with assistance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Likely Trump will establish and promote some high-level concepts, like refocusing international trade agreements, strict control of immigration, and undoing many of Obama’s executive orders. Running things at the nuts and bolts level, both domestically and internationally, will be handled by Vice President Pence acting as Chief Operating Officer and assisted by the Cabinet. So, what remains for Trump himself? Apparently not a great deal either operationally or strategically. Presumably he will oversee and intervene if he sees anything veering off course, and he will also take the bully pulpit when needed.

This isn’t an entirely new concept of the Presidency. Ronald Reagan did this to a large degree, and to a much lesser extent so did George W. Bush. However, I believe that Trump has in mind pushing the envelope quite a bit. He is an energetic and active man, but he will be in his seventies and delegating a lot of the work of the most demanding job in the world is simply common sense. When matters land on his desk in the Oval Office, Trump espouses an intuitive decision-making approach. It has worked exceeding well for him in his business experiences and he sees no reason to abandon it now.

I don’t know if this administration philosophy will be known and understood by the voters. I doubt it. But if it were laid out boldly, it would be interesting to see how it would be received. To some degree, this could mollify many in the Republican base who warily support their novice candidate. And it might even calm some of the exaggerated fears of his opposition.

But what of his numerous wild statements masquerading as policy: The Great Wall of Mexico, deporting millions of undocumented aliens, questioning our continuing support of NATO, printing money as the solution to the national debt, and so on? He has said himself, and it is believable in terms of his business experience, that these are just opening positions in a negotiation. When your automobile dealer quotes the MSRP on a new car, do you really think he expects and plans to get that?

An aloof management approach can succeed when the President sets the tone and the overall agenda. But every presidency runs into the unexpected, unplanned and threatening event. Dwight Eisenhower expressed it best, from personal experience. He noted, “The nakedness of the battlefield when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and clamor and terror of war is comparable to the loneliness – at times – of the presidency. These are the times when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action and then – all alone – make his decision.” The intuitive presidency will run up against this unyielding reality and may – probably will – come up wanting.

So, a Trump presidency might not be as bad and dangerous as some fear, but that would depend upon the unlikely happenstance of a prolonged period of domestic and international tranquility. Do you really want to bet on that?

In sharp contrast, Hillary would probably conduct a fairly standard Presidency, likely modeled on her husband’s eight years in that office. She won’t delegate much responsibility outside of her long-time advisors and perhaps to Vice President Kaine. We can expect thorough, though necessarily slow and tedious, decision making. But I simply cannot erase from my mind an image of Secretary of State Clinton in action.

obama_20120501Five years ago, a group assembled in the White House, possibly in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. Apart from President Obama, participants included Secretary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and other top military and security personnel. The Arab Spring was exciting everyone with the promise of a new dawn of democracy in North Africa. But that evil dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was resisting and threatening to crush the nascent freedom fighters in the eastern part of Libya. He had long been in our sights for his depredations at home and abroad, although in recent years we seem to have reached an accommodation of sorts. Hillary, by her own account, was the principal architect of the proposal to oust Gaddafi and save his people from slaughter. Read the insightful retrospective in the NY Times here.

In my mind, I see grim but pleased faces around the table as they foresaw this effort, their Christian impulses and democratic fervor on full display. Details remained to be planned, but this meeting led inevitably to the chaos we see today. Here is where my mental scenario abruptly halts. Why did no one, and particularly Hillary Clinton, say “Whoa! Haven’t we just been through this? We deposed Saddam, with the same belief that we would be welcomed by a grateful populace and that democracy would bloom on the arid sands of the Middle East. And how did that work out?

In any case, neither the intuitive nor the cautious approach to presidential action will always succeed. Both can lead to disastrous mistakes. Only the most successful Presidents have mastered both and have generally recognized which was needed in a particular instance. So here is my forlorn prediction. We live in dangerous times. Threats abound. The world’s economy is sitting at a point of precarious stability where the slightest jar could push us into crisis. At times, fast and resolute action will be essential; at other times precipitate action will result in long-lasting damage to our interests and well-being. Whichever candidate wins in November, we likely face the danger of a failed presidency, the consequences of which are unpredictable and frightening. I hope I am wrong and that the quote often mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismarck is true, that “a special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States of America.

Can Hillary fight the odds?

Here’s a little hint that might save you some money in the future. Just because something usually happens, or even always has happened in the past, doesn’t mean that it will happen again. But that is where the smart money goes unless there is a good reason – a really, really good reason – to believe that conditions are different this time.

So, here’s a statistic to ponder. Since the 22nd Amendment limited a President to two terms, i.e. since Truman, there have been six elections where one party had held the office for two preceding terms and the incumbent was not on the ticket. This is written carefully to accommodate two special cases. First Roosevelt and Truman and then later Kennedy and Johnson were co-incumbents over two consecutive terms due to deaths in office. In only one of these six cases did the candidate of the same party as the retiring President succeed him. In fact, in only one instance was the election even close. That was the Bush/Gore cliffhanger in 2000. Of course many Democrats still believe that the Supreme Court effectively stole that election, so maybe we should put an asterisk on those 5:1 odds.

We now face a seventh example, with Hillary Clinton attempting to follow the two terms of Barack Obama. Just on this basis alone, those are pretty awful odds against Hillary, don’t you think? The American people just get tired of the same old, same old. They hope, against all experience to the contrary, that the other party might be better.

Even worse, in the one case where it did happen, the previous President and the successful candidate were very popular. They were Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. When Reagan left office his approval rating was 63% and his successor was usually in the mid 50’s. Today’s candidates would kill for those numbers. And certainly neither Obama nor Clinton come anywhere near close to this, although Obama’s ratings have been rising recently.

Trump and Clinton Conspiracy

The best thing that Hillary has going for her, given this history, is Donald Trump. And I suspect it just might be enough. Do you think those rumors that the Clintons are behind the rise of their old pal Donald might have some substance?