Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

An Important Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

One difference between today’s political parties stands out: Democrats hold their own to a much higher standard than Republicans. Where Republicans quickly bury their collective heads in the sand when confronted by wrongdoing on the part of their fellow Republicans, Democrats frequently rush — sometimes, perhaps, too quickly — to judgment. But, if Democrats sometimes overreact, at least they are not looking away when bad behavior stares them in the face.

This is one lesson learned from the fall from power of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned this week amid a cascade of accusations from multiple women of improper sexual behavior and after release of a report from the state’s attorney general detailing Cuomo’s conduct. Cuomo resigned when it became obvious he would not survive impeachment by Democrats in the state legislature and because virtually the entire Democratic Party, nationally as well as locally, called for him to step down. 

Contrast the nearly unanimous demand from Democrats for Cuomo to resign with the disregard of Republicans to wrongdoing among them. Nary a peep has been uttered against Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who is reportedly under investigation for having sex with an underage girl. Gaetz has denied the accusation, and he, like everyone else, is entitled to his day in court, but Republican silence in this instance is deafening. This from a party that once tried to claim character and sexual morality mattered. It is, after all, little more than 20 years since the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. (More on Clinton later.)

Gaetz is small fry, but former president Donald Trump is not. Whole books have been written, and will continue to be written, on Trump’s sexual improprieties, his corruption, and his illegal plotting against the United States Constitution (as in, the “Big Lie.). Even more shocking than the Republican Party’s willingness to ignore all the evidence of Trump’s bad behavior is that party leaders ignored it even though it was conducted openly. No Republican can ever credibly claim, “Well, I didn’t know it was that bad!”

Trump bragged about sexually molesting women in the “Access Hollywood” tape. More than two dozen women have accused the former president of sexual misconduct, and at least one of those cases involved an accusation of rape. One of Trump’s defenses against these allegations is to say, “She’s not my type,” which seems to suggest that if the woman in question were his “type” it would be permissible to engage in criminal behavior. 

Republicans overlooked all that bad conduct, even the parts he admitted, just as they turned a deaf ear to all evidence of Trump’s corruption and other instances of criminal and/or unethical actions. Most Republicans in Congress refused to impeach and convict Trump for attempting to lure Ukraine into meddling in the 2020 presidential election. Similarly, most Republicans voted not to impeach and convict Trump for inciting a mob to storm the Capitol to prevent the counting of electoral votes. And, they continue to look the other way as evidence of his continuing war against the American democratic system mounts, even though much of his plotting to undermine the 2020 presidential election has been conducted in the open.

Trump’s success (at least, so far) in escaping accountability for his bad behavior — sexual, ethical, and criminal — serves as a template for other politicians. But, Cuomo had other, closer to home, role models as he tried to tough it out amid all the increasing accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties. Fomer President Clinton was one. Clinton survived his impeachment for sexual impropriety and perjury and left office with high approval ratings. But, with the growth of the “Me Too” movement in recent years, many Democrats have come to regret their unwillingness to confront Clinton’s behavior. 

Cuomo probably took inspiration from Ralph Northam’s survival as governor of Virginia. Northam, a Democrat, refused to step down in 2019 when a 1984 photo surfaced that appeared to be him in blackface. Despite nearly universal calls from Democratic leaders for him to resign, Northam will finish his term this year as a Democrat in good standing. Northam was probably aided by Virginia’s single-term limit for governors and the fact that his would-be successor, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault by two women. Fairfax also remains in office. 

Cuomo is the son of a popular three-term former governor of the state. He was in the middle of a third term himself, defeating all comers from the party’s left and right. And, he received widespread plaudits — and great press coverage — in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for his handling of the contagion in New York and his battles with Trump over needed supplies and ventilators as well as the president’s overall handling of the pandemic.

But, Cuomo made enemies along the way. His prickly personality and vindictiveness helped to undo him. Over his long career, Cuomo has earned a reputation as a bully who is quick to retaliate against people — even former allies — who challenge him. (Sound familiar?) Many perceived Cuomo as less than straightforward. “He’s a political thoroughbred with many skills. But honesty is not one of them,” said Mark Green, who ran against Cuomo for political office in the early 2000s. Finally, Cuomo was embroiled in other scandals besides sexual impropriety, most notably the accusation that his administration forced nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Reports indicate the policy increased the number of virus-related deaths among residents of these facilities. 

In the end, however, Cuomo’s successes and failures probably had little to do with the reaction of the Democratic Party to the accusations against him of sexual misbehavior. As the party that claims the mantle of diversity and appeals to women voters, Democrats simply could not ignore all the credible accusations against Cuomo. And, the nearly universal call among Democrats for his resignation reveals, once again, an important difference between the two parties. Simply put, it is this: The quest for power leads Republicans to ignore evil among them (perhaps, even abet it), while Democrats believe that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed.

Posted August 13, 2021

Learning From the Past

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

One of the presumed advantages of maturity — and Joe Biden is a very mature president — is accumulated wisdom gathered through the span of a long life. Biden is not only our oldest president; he has also spent virtually his entire adult life in national politics. He has seen the system up close and surely knows what works and what does not.

Biden witnessed the last two Democratic presidents’ excessive timidity in approaching the significant issues of the day. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered huge midterm defeats during their first terms because they failed to revive sluggish economies. Neither of Biden’s Democratic predecessors offered bold economic plans and both were undone, in part, by futile stabs at bipartisanship. Obama, in particular, constantly tried to pry a few Republicans from the party’s obstructionist stance, tailoring his programs and nominations — the stimulus package, healthcare reform, the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — to appeal to moderates within the GOP. It never worked. 

Clearly, Biden learned a valuable lesson: Go bold and go over the heads of Republican leaders to appeal to Republican voters. He secured passage of a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package early in his term. No Republicans in Congress voted for it. Biden did not wait — as Obama did — for Republicans to offer support. Instead, the new president took advantage of slim Democratic majorities in Congress to push through the rescue bill on a straight party vote. The strategy is working: Poll after poll show most Americans — including a significant percentage of Republican voters — support the relief measure. 

As Biden prepares to address Congress Wednesday evening — marking his first 100 days in the presidency — he continues to offer bold initiatives. He has proposed a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill, which includes, in addition to the traditional building and repairing of roads and bridges, a large jobs component, broadband coverage for the entire nation, and development of alternative energy sources to combat climate change. Other audacious plans — voting reform, an immigration overhaul, police reform, and an attack on income inequality, among others — likely will come soon.

Not much in Biden’s past suggested he would be a president with such radical proclivities. But, Biden evidently is a student of history, so he must know that high poll numbers, which he currently enjoys, can be fleeting. He must understand the fates of Clinton and Obama, as well as the lessons from the first term of one of America’s greatest presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Confronted by the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, Roosevelt used his first 100 days in office to calm the financial panic and begin rolling out the programs that comprised the New Deal. Fifteen major pieces of legislation were introduced during those first 100 days. Roosevelt’s frenetic attack on the Great Depression gave the concept of “the first 100 days” meaning, and ever since, presidents have been graded, perhaps unfairly, on their accomplishments during the early days and weeks of their terms. 

This analysis is not meant to suggest that Biden faces an existential crisis as great as the Great Depression, though the threat from COVID-19 cannot be underestimated nor can the successes of the new administration in getting vaccines distributed and into the arms of millions of Americans be overly praised. But where Roosevelt faced one extremely daunting crisis, Biden faces a multitude: The pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, climate change, immigration, income and racial inequality, abuse of power by police, and Republican attacks on democracy (voting rights and the right to protest).The list is so extensive as to make one wonder why anyone wants to be president!

Like Roosevelt, Biden is not wasting his current popularity nor public support for many of his proposals. Of course, Biden would like Republican votes in Congress for some of his proposals, but he also knows, as we all do, that the current Republican Party — in the throes of abject submission to former president Donald Trump and led in Congress by the obstructionist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the subservient House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — is committed to opposing anything he presents.

More important in Biden’s calculations are Republican voters. He is not likely to peel away many Trump loyalists — hard right conservatives convinced Trump won the November election as well as gun rights advocates, racists and xenophobes, and cultural warriors. But, he is calculating that populist proposals — economic populism as opposed to the nationalist and racist populism of Trump and the Republican Party —  will garner support from Republican voters.

Biden is betting that the $1400 checks people received, an improving economy putting people back to work and raising wages, tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations, a jobs program in the infrastructure package, broadband expansion to rural areas, and other programs that benefit all voters will win him bipartisan support. 

So expect to hear from a bold Joe Biden Wednesday night, a president who knows surely that the only way to win bipartisan backing and break gridlock in Washington is to deliver for all Americans.

Posted April 27, 2021

Stark Differences

The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our [the federal government’s] stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use. — Jared Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, April 2, 2020, in reference to medical equipment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

We need to remember, the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people. — President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021.

Two stark contrasts: The Republican Party’s vision of government as some alien presence, disconnected from the everyday lives of the people who live under it; and, the Democratic Party’s belief that, in our democratic republic, government is by us for our benefit. “We the people,” as the Constitution’s preamble puts it and Biden affirmed, is the Democratic ideology; “us” against “them,” the Republican creed.

This is not new. These two conflicting interpretations of the relationship of the governing to the governed have defined American political parties from the beginning. The roles have shifted through history, with the Democratic Party now championing government as a tool for the betterment of society through creation of the social safety net and expansion of democratic practices. The Republican Party’s ideology is best summed up in President Ronald Reagan’s favorite aphorism, uttered in his first Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The differences between the two parties center on competing visions of the role of government. But, in the past, both parties accepted the basic framework of American democracy: Devotion to the Constitution, free and fair elections — the results or which were honored by both victor and loser — and the rule of law. And, both parties were coalitions of differing interest and ideological groups that made compromise possible.

Now, in our highly polarized political process, the two parties consist of tribes that no longer talk to each other, much less work together for the common good. The Democratic Party has moved to the left, embracing an active government in which healthcare is a guaranteed right, the state promises a minimum standard of living for everyone, and everyone participates in choosing the nation’s leaders.

The Republican Party has not only become more conservative, but it has moved to darker places on the political spectrum, becoming an authoritarian party that shares common goals and methods with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz Party, both of which have subverted the hopes of democratic rule unleashed after the fall of Communism late in the last century. A recently declassified report from the director of national intelligence asserts that the Republican Party, in collusion with the Trump White House and the party’s propaganda organs (for that is what Fox News, Breitbart, and One America News are), cooperated with a Russian campaign to keep Trump in the presidency by undermining the campaign of now-president Joe Biden.  

The report says the Russian government worked to weaken “public confidence in the electoral process.” Trump used the same strategy with his constant litany before Election Day of the dangers of absentee voting and his refusal to accept the results of the election after November 3. Trump’s intransigence convinced his supporters that Biden is not the legitimately elected president, despite all evidence to the contrary. One of the surest roads to autocracy is fomenting a belief that the electoral process cannot be trusted.

Trump has not given up. Just this week, he complained that “our Supreme Court and our courts didn’t have the courage to overturn elections.” In this blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric, the former president no longer simply asserts that the other side cheated; he now suggests that results he does not like should be ignored. It is a concept that spurred the insurrection at the Capitol in January and encouraged two-thirds of congressional Republicans to vote to throw out duly certified electoral votes. A majority of Republicans — along with Trump — were willing to sacrifice democracy to maintain political power. That is the mindset of autocrats.

Contrast the increasingly expansive and democratic vision of the Biden administration, which differs strikingly not only from modern Republican ideology but also recent Democratic thought. After the successes of the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Society of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democrats moved away from embracing activist government. Note their middle-of-the-road rhetoric:

Jimmy Carter: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” 

Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is over.” 

Barack Obama: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.” 

President Biden, instead, is harking back to the philosophy of the New Deal and the Great Society, attacking serious problems — such as environmental degradation, immigration reform, the obscene income inequality plaguing the nation, and attacks on democratic processes — with bold programs. The first piece of Biden-inspired legislation to pass Congress was the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion program to ramp up vaccine distribution, help Americans suffering economically during the pandemic, and begin an attack on poverty through an expanded child tax credit. 

Nothing is more critical for the success of the Biden program than passage of two laws to guarantee access to the ballot. Central to the Republican march to an authoritarian government is the party’s attempts to destroy democracy — first in its refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, then in passage of laws in many states restricting the right to vote.

The battle over voting rights is central to the questions posed by the two competing visions expressed by Democrats and Republicans. Will the United States remain a democracy that  cares for the well-being of its citizens and continually expands democratic processes? Or, will the United States follow the lead of rightward drifting countries in Europe and become an undemocratic society whose leaders are not freely chosen by all voters and cling to power for its own sake?

Posted March 19, 2021

Call for Unity

Donald Trump left the White House several hours before Joe Biden was sworn in Wednesday, January 20, 2021, as the nation’s 46th president. A small person to the end, Trump broke a long-standing tradition by declining to attend his successor’s inauguration. Just as well, as the presence of former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama testified to the sanctity of the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power while highlighting Trump’s petulant refusal to concede he lost.

Biden’s Inaugural Address was a clarion call to unity, asking Americans to put aside “this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” But, Biden uttered more than platitudes. The president also called upon America to live up to its core values of truth, equality, justice, and acceptance of diversity of opinion. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said. 

The new president’s appeal to our “better angels” contrasted with his predecessor’s constant stoking of division, distrust, and hatred. Other contrasts between Biden and Trump were the evident openness of the new administration — the new press secretary briefed Wednesday evening — and the eagerness of those at the top to get down to work. Biden signed several executive orders only hours after becoming president, and Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the swearing-in of three new senators in her role as President of the Senate. Trump always showed little interest in actually being president, in the work of the presidency, and in the weeks following his electoral defeat he did little but stew, lie about the validity of the election, play golf, and issue pardons to his cronies.

There is evidence that the sway of Trumpism is diminishing. The Proud Boys, the far-right group asked by Trump at the first debate with Biden to “stand back and stand by,” is rethinking its undying loyalty to the former president. After the election, the Proud Boys wrote in an online message on a private channel “Hail Emperor Trump.” But, as soon as Trump departed the White House, the White-supremacist group referred to him as a “shill” and “extraordinarily weak.” It may be a positive sign that no militias descended on Washington, D.C., and state capitols and no anti-Biden protests occurred, despite warnings from the FBI of the potential for violence and the threats of far-right activists to mobilize in the days leading up to the Inauguration.

One place where divisiveness still lingers is the Capitol. Biden is quite right to call for unity and to appeal for bipartisan cooperation, which may occur as some Republicans search for ways to work with Democrats on much needed legislation, such as economic relief from the ravages of the pandemic and rebuilding the nation’s decrepit infrastructure.

While unity and bipartisan cooperation is a worthy goal, some accountability is needed for those who worked to undermine American democracy by pushing the “big lie” of election fraud. That there was no significant fraud and that Biden fairly won election as the next president was evident immediately after November 3. Yet, a significant bloc of Republican senators and a majority of the House GOP caucus voted against certifying the electoral returns of two states. They did so only hours after a mob — encouraged by Trump and congressional opposition to certification — stormed the Capitol, putting the lives of members of Congress in jeopardy.

The United States cannot pretend this did not happen. Obviously, we will never forget those frightful images of insurrectionists desecrating the “people’s house.” But, we also must never forget the role played by prominent Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is a case in point. Two weeks ago, McCarthy was a prominent challenger of Biden’s victory, telling constituents, “I agreed with objections that were made to two states.” Yet, Wednesday, McCarthy had the temerity, the gall, the nerve to stand in Statuary Hall and tell Biden and Harris he was “very proud of you both.” The California Republican added, “I listened to your [Biden’s] speech today. You talked about tension and division. Our task as leaders is to bind this nation’s wounds and dedicate ourselves to the values that all Americans hold dear.”

Not too proud, evidently, to vote against Biden’s and Harris’ certification as president and vice president. Politics is not a profession that emphasizes self-introspection, but really, Mr. Minority Leader, how lacking in self-awareness can you be? On Inaugural Day, McCarthy also said, “As leaders, we are judged not by our words, but by our actions.” Indeed! Mr. Minority Leader, your action in objecting to electoral certification before and just after the insurrection of January 6 speaks much louder than those words you spoke on Inaugural Day!

McCarthy is not the only Republican who requires scrutiny. Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas fanned the flames of insurrection by their words and actions. Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin called the behavior of Hawley and Cruz “inexcusable” and said the Senate must  “seriously” investigate their actions. Some Republicans in the House may have given aid to the mob before and during the storming of the Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “there will be prosecutions” if evidence shows that members of Congress “aided and abetted an insurrection in which people died.”

Public understanding of the role of elected officials in undermining the peaceful transfer of power — a bedrock of republican government — needs to occur not because Americans are vengeful but because knowledge is the most effective tool for preventing future betrayals. We know that lies — deliberate lies told by people who knew better or ought to have known better — unleashed the mob on the Capitol. The only way to fight lies is with truth and the truth will only emerge when the culprits are named and their abettors come to grips with their betrayal of constitutional government. Only then will the unity of which President Biden spoke truly occur. 

Posted January 22, 2021

What Is Trump’s Endgame?

To put it in Brooklyn lingo: Donnie, you ain’t got bupkis. So, fuggedaboutit!

Only President Donald Trump will not go quietly. His campaign has filed a wave of frivolous and quixotic lawsuits claiming election fraud. Most of the lawsuits lack any evidence of wrongdoing, and judges routinely dismiss the Trump camp’s claims. Besides, even if courts ruled for Trump in all cases, there simply are not enough possible examples of fraud to overturn the election results. Joe Biden is president-elect because his lead in battleground states is insurmountable, giving him a clear victory in the Electoral College. 

So what is Trump trying to do? The most benign explanation, though not a very complimentary one, is that the toddler-in-chief needs time “to process” his loss. As is well-known by now, Trump hates to be a “loser.” Some have claimed the president especially is galled at losing to “Sleepy Joe,” though that explanation runs counter to evidence suggesting Trump always believed Biden was his most formidable potential opponent, hence the whole concocted Ukraine scheme. 

Already, millions of Trump supporters are convinced that the election was rigged. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair. That number is likely to increase over time. Whether or not Trump has to be forcibly removed from the White House does not matter, as either way he certainly will not go quietly. He will tweet and call into his favorite (at least for now) cable channel — he may even start his own TV network — claiming the election was “stolen,” a vicious and false assertion that will be believed by millions.

It is not only Trump who is beating this drum. The bulk of elected Republican officials — with few exceptions — also are yelling “fraud” and “rigged,” in part, no doubt, to rally the Trump base to vote in the January special elections in Georgia. Accusations that the election would be rigged emerged before any ballots were cast, with Trump leading the charge against mail-in balloting. These seemingly endless allegations of electoral wrongdoing only serve to undermine Biden’s presidency. Republicans have a sorry history of delegitimizing Democratic presidents. The perfidious “birther” assertions pushed by Trump and other conspiracy-minded racists convinced millions on the right that Barack Obama was not entitled to the presidency, frustrating his ability to enact his agenda and stiffening Republican obstructionism.

Obama was not the first Democratic president undermined by Republicans. In 1992, Bill Clinton won a 370-169 majority in the Electoral College, beating incumbent George H.W. Bush by 5.8 million in the popular vote. But, because Ross Perot obtained 19 percent of the vote, Clinton’s share was only 43 percent. Republicans spun that total to claim Clinton lacked a “mandate” to govern since 57 percent of the voting population voted against him. (Never mind, that a subsequent poll showed Perot voters breaking evenly for their second choice.) Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole quickly opined, “I intend to represent that majority [the anti-Clinton vote] on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Republicans worked to frustrate every Clinton initiative, just as they did when Obama became president. 

Trump’s temper tantrum already is preventing a normal transfer of power. Biden is unable to gain access to the office space and equipment and funding required by law to facilitate the transition. The president-elect has not received the President’s Daily Brief — a compendium of intelligence data that goes to senior government officials. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford says he is ready to intervene to insure Biden is briefed, but how effective his intervention might be is anybody’s guess. Bill Clinton, a few weeks after the 1992 election, met with his defeated rival and said Bush“gave me the benefit of his thinking on a lot of things.” Do not expect a similar scene this year.

It gets worse. Trump is still president, but he does not appear to be doing any work. His public schedule has been empty, yet he does have time for rounds of golf. This inactivity parallels a huge spike in the number of cases of COVID-19, though Trump long ago gave up on working to contain the pandemic. The only thing Trump seems interested in these days is getting revenge on those he perceives wronged him. Hence, he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others in sensitive posts at the Pentagon and National Security Council, installing loyalists in their place, including retired General Anthony Tata who has a history of bigoted utterances, including calling Islam “the most oppressive violent religion” and referring to Obama as a “terrorist leader.”

Is this evidence of a coup in plain sight? Certainly, the many prophecies before the election that Trump would not concede have been borne out. I have no doubt that Trump would not shrink from doing whatever he could, but coups often involve at least part of the military siding with the insurrectionists, and it is hard to see America’s armed forces obeying orders to overthrow the Constitution. There are, of course, other military-style units in other departments of the government — such as were deployed in early June in some American cities — that Trump could theoretically mobilize. But, it is not clear Trump possesses the discipline and focus such an action would require. 

Beyond a coup, the prospect of a civil war exists. More than 70-million people voted for Trump, and the vast majority of those already believe the election was fraudulent. Might they rally to Trump’s side if he refuses to leave the White House on January 20? How would they act out their anger and disapproval?

Whatever happens between now and Inauguration Day, one thing is clear: The denouement of this presidency matches the odiousness of its four years in power. The nation will not easily shrug off its dance with right-wing nationalism. Democracy has been stained by Trump’s four years in office. Could that be his endgame?

Posted November 13, 2020

Optical Delusions

I should have anticipated the optics…. [P]art of the job is also the theater of it. President Barack Obama, September 7, 2014, on NBC’s “Meet the Press”

“The optics” in question was President Barack Obama’s decision to play golf on Martha’s Vineyard just minutes after hanging up a telephone call with the devastated parents of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by ISIS. Obama vowed “relentless” pursuit of Islamic radicals, but his seeming ability to express rage one minute and play golf the next appeared callous at best. All the more callous, given British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to cancel his vacation because of hints that Foley’s killer came from Britain. 

Obama’s demonstrable insensitivity in 2014 comes to mind when viewing pictures of President Donald Trump hitting the links twice this Memorial Day weekend as the death total in the United States from COVID-19 approaches 100,000. In between rounds, Trump insulted perceived enemies and promoted a baseless conspiracy theory. All this while millions of Americans remained hunkered down, trying to cope with the rising death toll and the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

No one begrudges presidential recreation. Being president is a hard job, though Trump is doing his best to make the presidency appear effortless. He seemingly expends little effort at significant portions of the job, such as taking advice from experts, listening to intelligence briefings (he apparently does not read the intelligence briefings, according to reporting), consoling the nation when appropriate, inspiring it at other moments, expressing empathy when others suffer, and leading by example. (His refusal to wear a mask to protect others from the spread of the contagion demonstrates his unwillingness to do what the government he heads decrees as appropriate behavior.) And, his prodigious capacity for imbibing cable TV news is well documented.

Even a president who seemingly expends little energy on the job is entitled to golf, though Trump’s frequent forays — 266 rounds since becoming president — make a mockery of his previous criticisms of Obama’s golf playing. Trump tweeted 27 times between 2011 and 2016 about Obama playing golf. Trump promised on the campaign trail in 2016, “I’m going to be working for you. I’m not going to have time to go golfing, believe me. Believe me. Believe me, folks.” One of those 27 tweets, by the way, criticized Obama for golfing during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 when there were two confirmed cases of the deadly disease in the United States.

Many presidents have played golf. The number of presidential duffers totals 17 since William McKinley hit the first tee shot in 1897. Only Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were non-golfing presidents in the following 123 years. Franklin Roosevelt also did not play while president because of polio, but he reputedly was an accomplished golfer as a young man. Woodrow Wilson holds the presidential golfing record. He played more than 1200 rounds from 1913 to 1919 (a massive stroke suffered in October 1919 incapacitated Wilson). It was Dwight Eisenhower who made golf the presidential sport, with a boost in later years from Bill Clinton.

Trump’s Sunday morning golf outing precluded his attending church, though he previously had called for worshippers to return this weekend. Trump is not a noted churchgoer, and his sudden interest in matters of faith may be related to his unexpected precipitous slide in poll numbers among religious conservatives. An April survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows a double-digit decline in Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals (-11 percent), white Catholics (-12 percent), and white mainline Protestants (-18 percent) from the previous month. Evangelical voters are a key part of Trump’s base, and such dramatic slippage threatens the president’s reelection prospects. Given that, it is surprising he did not forego the greens for a pew. Though I suspect, he does not want the job. He just does not like to lose.

Trump’s other main weekend activity involved tweeting, for which he always finds time. I may be wrong, but I sense the president is tweeting more and with more vitriol and nastiness as his poll numbers decline. If so, that does not bode well for the remaining months before Election Day as the number of deaths likely increases and the economy continues to suffer.

In any event, in a series of weekend tweets, Trump mocked former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and frequently mentioned potential Joe Biden running mate Stacey Abrams’ weight (fat shamming is never good, but coming from a clinically obese man?), ridiculed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appearance, and called former Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton a “skank.” He referred once again to a long-debunked conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and frequent Trump critic as a TV host, may have murdered a woman. He also tweeted about the alleged dangers of mail-in voting.

Ignored by Trump: The dead in American wars who are honored on Memorial Day and the nearly 100,000 who have died so far from COVID-19. That was left for others to note, including The New York Times, with its dramatic Sunday front page listing one percent of those who have died from the contagion.

Trump did take part in several Memorial Day commemorations, including laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a presidential tradition, and a part of the job no president would dare shun.

The optics of presidential behavior to which Obama referred six years ago includes acting presidential. For Trump, acting presidential means satisfying the rage of his base, at whom his Tweets and his shattering of the norms of presidential behavior are aimed. Trump knows his base does not care whether he golfs nor notes the hypocrisy of his golfing in the midst of a pandemic after condemning Obama for golfing when two people died of Ebola. And, the base certainly does not find much wrong with his tweets, or if they do, they just do not care. So a president who believes he is president of only a part of the nation will continue to act unpresidential. Who would expect anything different from a man unfit to be president?

Posted November 26, 2020

The Tail Has Wagged

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren believes President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani for a domestic U.S. political reason: To distract the American public and Congress from his trial in the Senate. “We know that Donald Trump is very upset about this upcoming impeachment trial,” Warren said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But look what he’s doing now. He is taking us to the edge of war.” 

Warren was accusing Trump of employing a “wag the dog” tactic: Launching a military strike to divert attention from impeachment. The phrase comes from the title of a 1997 film satire starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. The same accusation was leveled against President Bill Clinton in 1998 when he ordered strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in the midst of the scandal that led to his impeachment. 

Warren said it was “reasonable” to ask questions about Trump’s motivation because “the administration, immediately after having taken this decision, offers a bunch of contradictory explanations for what’s going on. There was a reason that he chose this moment, not a month ago, not a month from now, not a less aggressive, less dangerous response.”  Trump claims he ordered Suleimani’s death to “stop a war,” but many Democrats find — in the words of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — the evidence for an “imminent” Iranian attack “very unsatisfying.” Schumer added, ”We don’t know the reasons that it had to be done now. They don’t seem very clear.”

Reading the president’s mind — to ascertain his motives — is a tricky proposition, but two points should be obvious. First, Trump is a pathological liar, so believing anything he says about anything is next to impossible. And, second, no one should ever doubt that Trump will do anything if he thinks his actions benefit him, which is — after all — what his impeachment is all about: The withholding of aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country smearing Trump’s political rival. Trump simply has no filters — and no scruples or morals — when it comes to self-interest. 

This is a serious problem, and one of the president’s own making. By lying continually and by demonstrating his willingness to act in his interest rather than the nation’s, Trump automatically makes his motives suspect. He cannot be believed when he states a purported reason for an action — any action — and it is reasonable to assume he acted to further his own political success. Suleimani was a “bad guy” who may have deserved to die, but questions will always linger.

Trump was not impeached by the House for acting like a king, but he surely is behaving as one in his handling of the current Iranian crisis. Witness the bizarre way Trump believes he has notified Congress regarding his Iranian policy. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress…. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!” posted the tweeter-in-chief. Actually, as in so many other matters, the president is wrong. The War Powers Act of 1973 requires formal notification to Congress within 48 hours of the onset of hostilities. 

Like many monarchs of old, Trump is impetuous. In the chaotic events leading to the attack on Suleimani, military officials presented Trump with a menu of options to punish Iran for the attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad. The menu included the most extreme option — killing the Iranian general — on the assumption that the president would reject the improbable choice in favor of a more palatable possibility. It is a strategy used by the Pentagon since 9/11 — one that worked with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom rejected targeting Suleimani. But, Trump is not like his predecessors. To the surprise, and perhaps chagrin, of his advisers, Trump chose the extreme option. 

And, like despots of olden and modern times, Trump acts with little input from others. The president faces the prospect of war hamstrung by a lack of trusted and experienced advisers. His constant disparaging of American intelligence agencies has taken its toll. The president’s national security team is short-staffed, depleted by scores of departures. His closest White House aides are consumed by the impeachment process, and Trump hardly can turn to America’s traditional European allies for assistance and advice since he has bullied and alienated most of them from the beginning of his tenure in office.

An impetuous president lacking an experienced team of advisers — who he probably would not heed in any event — is ill-equipped for the coming game of tit-for-tat with the Iranian theocrats. Trump’s rashness caused this escalating crisis in the first place. He tore up the nuclear deal with Iran because of its fatal flaw: It was negotiated by Obama. He did that without considering a Plan B, and now he has to confront the Iranians without any apparent long-range strategy.

The ayatollahs in Tehran are prepared for the long haul, which is why Suleimani was in Baghdad when he was killed. As Dexter Filkins points out in his superb New Yorker 2013 profile of Suleimani, the Iranian leaders learned a lesson in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The carnage of that war — and its indecisive outcome — convinced the leadership of the futility of traditional combat. Instead, the Iranians decided to wage asymmetrical warfare — attacking stronger powers by using proxies, first in Lebanon, then in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Suleimani’s Quds Force (Quds means Jerusalem, which Tehran promises to “liberate” from the Israelis) was key to this strategy.

The reliance on this kind of combat means the Iranians are unlikely to launch a direct attack on U.S. interests. The mullahs surely will thunder from their pulpits about the “Great Satan” in Washington, but their response may rely on unleashing Hezbollah in Lebanon to strike Israel or a cyber attack of some kind on the United States. A cyber attack of unknown origins already hit a U.S government facility, and while it cannot be attributed directly to Tehran, it shows the perils of Trump’s actions. 

Whatever the Iranians do, Trump will not care. His goal was distraction, after all. He will not succeed if the American public is able to view Iran through a different lens than impeachment and sever any linkage between the two. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, now says he is willing to testify before the Senate if subpoenaed, keeping impeachment at the forefront regardless of the next steps in the Iranian crisis or how much tail wagging Trump does.

Let the Senate trial begin!

Posted January 7, 2020

The Republican Dilemma

The Republican dilemma is simple: There is no good defense for President Donald Trump’s requests for foreign governments to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. The arguments posited by Republicans so far — ranging from silly to absurd to downright lying — are an indication of just how dubious the GOP position is. A further indication is the lack of historical precedent for such an invitation. Not one of 10 former White House chiefs of staffs — who served under all the presidents from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama — recalled any instances when the White House solicited or accepted electoral help from other countries, according to a survey conducted by The New York Times. (The quotations in the following two paragraphs come from this article.)

James Baker, a former chief of staff for two presidents, remembers one telling episode. In October 1992, four Republican members of Congress came up with a plan to bolster the flagging re-election prospects of President George H.W. Bush, who was trailing challenger Bill Clinton. Their plan: Attack Clinton for protesting the Vietnam War while attending school in London and also visiting Moscow. Bush liked the idea, but then demurred at the next suggestion. “They wanted us to contact the Russians or the British to seek information on Bill Clinton’s trip to Moscow,” Baker wrote in a memo later that day. “I said we absolutely could not do that.”

“I served three [Republican] presidents in the White House and don’t remember even hearing any speculation to consider asking for such action,” said Andrew  Card. William Daley, a chief of staff under Obama, said if someone hinted at such a move he would “recommend the person be escorted out of” the White House. “I would have shut him down,” said Leon Panetta, chief of staff for Clinton.

All of these patriots understood that extending an invitation for foreigners — countries or nationals — to meddle in American elections is wrong, aside from the particulars of Trump’s requests to Ukraine — a vulnerable country in the shadow of a mighty neighbor, Russia — and China and who knows how many other countries. The reason is simple: Other countries do not act in the interests of the United States. They act only in their own interests. That is right and proper. As Lord Palmerston, a prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” It does not matter if the other country is a friend, an ally, or an enemy. The same rule applies to Britain, Israel, and Canada as to Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. 

The Framers understood the dangers of foreign interference. “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence… the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” said President George Washington in his Farewell Address. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 68, warned of the “most deadly adversaries of republican government [who] might be expected to make their approaches… from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Hamilton never dreamed that a president might hold the door open, so to speak, for such an adversary. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison alerted his colleagues to the possibility of a president who “might betray his trust to foreign powers.”

Republicans once knew the Framers were right. During the vice-presidential debate in 2016, Mike Pence said, “…All you need to know out there, this is basic stuff. Foreign donors, and certainly foreign governments, cannot participate in the American political process.” Now, the vice president sings a different tune: “I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States [Joe Biden] or his family profited from his position as vice president during the last administration…. The president made it very clear that he believes other nations around the world should look into it as well.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned Russia not to meddle in the 2020 elections, but said it was Trump’s “duty” to lure Ukraine into an investigation of the president’s political foe.

Most Republicans probably understand that Trump’s Ukraine phone call was an abuse of power, which is why so many of the ostensible defenses of the president are so tortured. Defending the indefensible is hard work, and it may make even the glibbest of speakers babble. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is hardly glib, but his performance Sunday on “Meet the Press” was a classic example of a politician with no cogent answer to a question trying to evade instead. Host Chuck Todd asked Johnson why he reportedly winced when told that military aid to Ukraine was linked to an investigation of Trump’s foes. Johnson immediately launched into a defense of Trump, claiming “I have never in my lifetime seen a president, after being elected, not having some measure of well wishes from his opponents. I’ve never seen a president’s administration be sabotaged from the day after election.” (Apparently, Johnson missed the Obama years.) Then, Johnson raised alleged CIA and FBI leaks on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The interview went completely off the rails — with Johnson shouting incoherently — when Todd tried to steer the subject back to the matter at hand. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s inability to mount a coherent defense of Trump in an appearance on “60 Minutes” did the president no favors. McCarthy apparently had not read the White House-released notes on the Ukraine call, accusing host Scott Pelley of adding “a word” — though — to Trump’s request that Ukraine do the president a favor. “Though” is in the White House document. McCarthy — along with other Republicans, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri — later claimed Trump was joking when he asked China also to interfere in American politics. Funny man, that President Trump!

Many Republicans fall back on conspiracy theories, which was Johnson’s tactic when he invoked supposed leaks on Russian meddling in 2016, ostensibly to aid Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign. Conspiracy theories or evasion or deflection, anything but actually discussing the issues at hand. The reason Republicans do not want to defend the merits of Trump’s actions is obvious: The actions are indefensible. And, that is the Republican dilemma, which will only worsen.

Posted October 8, 2019

Scarred by Reagan

Generals, so the hoary maxim goes, are always prepared to fight the last war. Building on the lessons of World War I, France constructed the Maginot Line — an ultramodern defensive line of fortifications — along its border with Germany, but not on the Franco-Belgian border. In the spring of 1940, Hitler’s armies invaded Belgium, and after conquering that small country, crossed into France. The Maginot Line was effective, so the German Army simply outflanked it. In the United States, the world’s most superb military cannot shake the trauma of Vietnam. It colors all military decisions, from where the nation will deploy troops to the strategy used in conflicts.

Politicians, too, it seems, are often mired in the past. Or, at least, older politicians cannot forget past painful political experiences. Nowhere is this more evident than in the generational divide within the Democratic Party. On issue after issue, the younger Democratic members of the House — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, among others — call for bold action, only to hear party elders — lead by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California — say, yes, we agree with you, but now is not the time. Push too far too fast, older Democrats argue, and there will be a backlash for Republicans to exploit.

Pelosi and her generational peers — Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, applying this analysis to the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden — all came of age in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter. The rout that year saw not only Carter’s defeat, but also the ouster from the Senate of a number of liberal Democrats who had defined the party for a generation: Frank Church of Idaho, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and George McGovern of South Dakota, the party’s 1972 presidential nominee. 

The lesson the now older Democrats took from the trauma of 1980 was that the party had moved too far to the left in the late 1960s and 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Reagan’s victory was the inevitable result in what — or so Pelosi, et al. believed — was a center-right country. Future events only strengthened their conviction: Reagan’s even bigger landslide victory four years later and the subsequent triumph of the rather inept George H.W. Bush — despite the Iran-Contra scandal and eight years of Republican control — over Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had held a 20-point lead in the polls.

Even when Democrats won, battle-scarred veterans like Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, and Biden, learned the lessons of moderation: Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 came only because Ross Perot’s presence in the race kept either major party candidate from gaining 50 percent of the vote and Clinton eked out a win because he was a centrist Democrat. In his first term, Clinton signed into law the controversial 1994 crime bill, originally written by Biden and which bolstered Clinton’s centrist bona fides. Clinton ran for reelection in 1996 and governed as a Republican moderate. “The era of big government is over,” he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address. Then, Clinton proved it by working with Republicans on enacting Republican ideas on welfare reform and Wall Street deregulation.

The tendency to move toward the center continued during the presidency of Barack Obama. Obamacare was framed not as a human right but as a reform that would reduce budget deficits. The heart of the new system was the individual mandate, a Republican idea borrowed in the hope — misplaced — of garnering GOP votes in Congress. Same for the stimulus package, which was long on tax cuts — to appeal, again, misguidedly, to Republicans — and short on actual stimulus projects.

Pelosi is liberal, but she fears progressive Democrats will move the party too far to the left. “Own the center, own the mainstream,” she says, adding, avoid the “exuberances that exist in our party.” “Exuberances” refers to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. This is the voice of Democrats who grew up in the years of Reagan. But, younger Democrats — Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley — matured in the  years of Republican obstructionism when the party veered far to the right. For these Democrats, Republicans should not be coddled, they should be beaten. And, progressive issues — such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, free college education — should not be avoided, but extolled and advocated.

This divide spills into the presidential race, with Biden the candidate who bears the scars of the Reagan years. Most of the younger candidates are more outspokenly progressive than the former Delaware senator. The two exceptions to the age differential split — Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — turn out not to be exceptions upon closer inspection. Sanders is not really a Democrat and has few ties to the Democratic establishment. Warren voted for Carter in 1980, but she was largely apolitical in those years. It was only in the 2000s that Warren became involved in national politics and found her progressive voice.

The Democratic base appears to be moving left. At least, that is true of Democrats likely to vote in the primaries. If that is the case, then a progressive Democrat with bold ideas — Sanders, Warren, Senator Kamala Harris of California — could be the party’s presidential nominee. A victory by a progressive finally might salve the wounds of the Reagan years. Then, Nancy Pelosi could shed her calculated caution and push a truly progressive agenda through Congress. It is time!

Posted July 9, 2019

On Being A Great Ex-President

Jimmy Carter is now the longest-living president in American history. He also just may be the greatest ex-president.

Unlike other recent presidents, who devoted their post-political careers to self-enrichment (Bill Clinton) or historical vindication (Richard Nixon), Carter provides a model for post-presidential life. Always a champion of human rights, Carter has devoted his later years to furthering freedom around the world and working for charitable causes. The Carter Center at Emory University, founded in Atlanta in 1982, is committed to promoting democracy and human rights worldwide. Carter has labored, literally, for Habitat for Humanity, whose profile he raised, building houses for underprivileged people around the world. 

Reflecting his presidential concerns with international affairs, Carter has used his years after office to apply his experience and knowledge on the world stage. He has served as a freelance ambassador for a variety of international missions, observed elections in nations with histories of fraudulent voting or that recently emerged from an autocratic past, and advised later U.S. presidents on the Middle East. The State Department has employed Carter to mediate disputes with volatile foreign leaders, notably Kim Il-sung of North Korea and Muammar Qaddaffi of Libya. In 1994, the former president assisted the United States in resolving a tense nuclear weapons dispute with North Korea. In 2002, Carter’s active work for international harmony earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.  

The Iranian hostage crisis colors interpretations of Carter’s presidency. Yet, though he served only one term, Carter had successes. He tried to restore humility to the office, countering the tendency toward an imperial presidency by dressing informally, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration, holding frequent press conferences, and limiting presidential pomp. He introduced many social and economic reforms, most of which met with opposition in a Congress eager to challenge presidential ambitions in the aftermath of Watergate. 

In 1977, the Carter administration’s negotiations gave Panama eventual control over the Panama Canal and guaranteed the neutrality of that key water link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A year later, Carter brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement when he hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. Domestically, Carter worked to restore the trust in government frayed by the illegalities of the Nixon administration. His administration attacked fraud and mismanagement. He established the Department of Education and furthered aid to needy students. 

Failure, in the end, marked Carter’s tenure. The economy deteriorated with soaring inflation, increasing unemployment, and jumping interest rates. Some of this was not Carter’s fault, as he inherited an energy crisis resulting from our national dependency on imported oil. His attempt to appeal to public confidence faltered when he spoke of a “crisis of spirit” and a national “malaise.” Who can forget Carter wearing a cardigan and urging us to turn our thermostats down, as he had at the White House? Though he had some success with America’s Communist adversaries — recognizing China and signing significant arms control agreements with the Soviet Union — Carter’s inability to stem the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his failure to secure the return of the hostages held in Iran for 444 days overshadowed the successes of his presidency.

President Carter pushed human rights, though critics painted his idealism as naive. It was as a former president that Carter’s decency and his commitment to human rights and democratic norms flowered. John Quincy Adams may be the only other ex-president who rivals Carter in worthiness. Adams had a long and productive career, notably being the inspiration — as James Monroe’s secretary of state — for the Monroe Doctrine guaranteeing the independence of Latin American nations. As president, Adams pushed a far-sighted program of internal improvements, conservation of public lands, national observatories, and the promotion of industrial development. But, it was an age of devotion to the common man and the expansion of democracy, and Adams could not win reelection against the force of Jacksonian democracy. In addition, Adams shared with his father, John Adams, the second president and noted revolutionary leader, a prickly personality and a certitude that made compromise difficult if not impossible. And, allegations that he earned the presidency in the Corrupt Bargain with Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky in which Adams bartered the presidency for naming Clay secretary of state guaranteed Adams’ defeat in 1828.

But, what a later life he led! In 1830, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1836 he led the crusade against the gag rule whereby Southerners sought to stifle debate of anti-slavery petitions sent to Congress. The Constitution guarantees citizens the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society began a petition drive demanding the abolition of the odious institution. Thousands of petitions reached Congress, which responded by passing a resolution automatically “tabling,” or postponing any action, on petitions relating to slavery. Adams led the fight on this blight on democracy, and in 1844, the House rescinded the gag rule on a motion he introduced. 

In  1841, Adams argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of escaped slaves in the famous Amistad case, winning release of the captives. He opposed the Mexican War, claiming it was a notorious land grab to extend the realm available to slavery. “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was known for his battles in Congress, collapsed on the floor of the House on February 21, 1848, while giving a speech. He died two days later of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. 

Adams and Carter have much in common as two mediocre-at-best presidents who led (is leading, in Carter’s case) stellar lives after their terms in office. Adams labored in an official capacity while Carter’s work has been mostly as a volunteer in the private sector. Both demonstrate that being a former president can be more than giving speeches for obscene amounts of money and serving on boards of directors. Both ex-presidents provide a template on how to be a valued citizen after the presidency. And, in Carter’s instance, a demonstration that a former president can use his reputation for doing good.

Posted April 5, 2019