Sunday, February 14, 2016

The timely passing of Antonin Scalia.

When I was in my teens, I used to love reading the screeds of Lyndon LaRouche and various Trotskyite factions pasted on mail boxes in New York. Even Dr. Bronner's Christian mystic rant about the unity of faith. There is something pure and liberating of a good rant. The more unhinged the better. It works better than waterboarding to suss out the fanatics in the world around us.

Then came the World Wide Web. Dr. Bronner's unleashed. Every person their own bottle of soap, free to inscribe what they will.

And so it was this morning. The day after Antonin Scalia was found debt at a range in west Texas.

Sure. Like that story was going to hold up.

It is now widely accepted across the web--now, there is an oxymoron--that Scalia was murdered. According to recent poll of 400 Likely Conspiracy Believers published at RealClear Conspiracies, 52% of those polled reject the official accounting of Scalia's death. Of those who reject the official accounting, 67% suggest that Barack Obama was responsible, seeking to change America; 42% he was killed by the Clintons, because it is what they do; while 22%, mostly under the age of 29, believe it was a collaborative effort of Obama and Hillary seeking to undermine Bernie. Of these explanations, only the second one holds any water. Obama knows exactly what he's doing, as Marco Rubio explained over and over. If this was the path he was going to take, he would have done it last year.

As is normally the case, these accusations mask a deeper explanation, that may never be uncovered. It may sound a bit too close to Pelican Brief, or an Oliver Stone film, but there are times when reality imitates art. So here goes.

Antonin Scalia was murdered by a right-wing, evangelical Christian, Texas oilman billionaire. We will call him Sheldon, just to keep things anonymous. Any similarity to Sheldon Adelson is purely unintended. After all, that Sheldon is a Jew from Boston. If he was going to do it, Scalia would have died in his sleep at a flophouse in Macao, or on a Kibbutz on the West Bank.

The other Sheldon, the one who had Scalia put down, is a courageous Christian who has invested tens of millions of dollars in Ted Cruz's campaign. Cruz's election is critical to him for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the oldest and most compelling rationale for these things. Money. Sheldon's oil holdings have been destroyed by the decline in price of oil from $100 per barrel down to $25. The driver of continued oil weakness is the looming entry of millions of barrels of new supply coming onto world markets from Iran. This was made possible by the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions.

Ted Cruz has committed to tearing up the Iran deal on his first day in office and reimposing sanctions on the mullahs.

The two largest looming impediments to the election of Ted Cruz are the US Constitution and Donald Trump. The greatest irony of Scalia's death is that the passing of the titan of Constitutional originalism benefits on one more than it does Ted Cruz, a man who fashions himself as the greatest patriotic defender of the words of the Constitution.

While the kerfuffle around whether Ted Cruz is a "natural born" citizen seems to have died down, the simple truth is that to a Constitutional originalist, Cruz is manifestly not eligible to be elected to the highest office in the land. Unless, of course, as the other Constitutionalist in the race, Rand Paul, suggested, the land is Canada.

Sheldon, like Cruz himself, understood that it was his eligibility to serve was likely to be tested. They had great faith in Scalia's fealty to the words of the Constitution. Scalia stood as the greatest obstacle to a majority vote in favor of Cruz.

Then there remained the Trump factor. Trump demolished Cruz in the New Hampshire vote across all demographic and political categories, but more devastating was that Cruz only polled 8% among non-evangelical voters. His sophisticated turnout strategy had worked brilliantly in Iowa, but if he were to drive other voter groups--Libertarians and non-evangelical conservatives most notably--to his corner, he needed to turn up the flame on the urgency of the campaign, and draw attention toward his deep conservative credentials.

One might have thought that killing Justice Ginsburg would have been a more likely target--after all, it would draw attention to the court without costing the court its greatest herald of conservative jurisprudence, but--in addition to the risks that Scalia constituted to Cruz's eligibility to serve--Scalia was the titan of the right, and nothing, absolutely nothing, would drive turnout from the conservative quarters more than the prospect of Barack Hussein Obama appointing his replacement. Or, perhaps, giving that power to a New York reality show billionaire with no proven credentials.

For Sheldon, it was all on the line. The oil markets. The Iran deal. Ted Cruz's eligibility to serve. The prospect of Donald Trump holding the future of the nation and the Court in his hands. Scalia's visit to the ranch in west Texas solved all his problems. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Strange bedfellows.

Donald Trump has his finger on the zeitgeist. Speaking to his gathered supporters after his New Hampshire victory, he observed that if the unemployment rate was really 5%, as suggested by official data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he never would have garnered the support that he has. The real unemployment rate might not be the 28% that Trump suggested, but low labor force participation rates and high underemployment rates, as well as stagnant real incomes--factors that people experience in their day-to-day lives, buttress Trump's essential point, and the BLS itself publishes an alternative unemployment rate calculation of that suggests a rate that is twice the official figure. However one views the official data, exit polls from the New Hampshire primary suggest that for Democrats and Republican voters alike, the economy is far and away the greatest problem facing the nation.

This should not come as a surprise to party leaders. After all, according to US Census data, median household income today is where it was twenty years ago, in real terms (adjusted for inflation), and effectively the same as it was at the end of the Reagan administration. It is an old story. The rich are getting richer, the highly educated are doing fine, but the less educated are getting poorer and the average American family has been treading water for decades now. Notwithstanding this dichotomy, the US economy has been a global success story. Since the 1990s, US gross domestic product has risen consistently and shown greater resilience in the face of economic downturns than any other advanced nation, and US policies supporting free trade and open markets have engendered an era of economic growth and declining rates of poverty across the globe. But if that success has had winners, it has had losers too.

Party leaders and candidates can learn a lot about the reality facing voters from primary elections. The New Hampshire primary is particularly interesting because it is an open primary, meaning that people can vote for whomever they want, as in a general election. As such, it might be a less useful gauge of the state of the competition in either party--for example, we do not know what percentage of those who voted for Donald Trump were Democrats or independents, or for that matter how many Republicans voted for Hillary or Bernie--but it provides an interesting snapshot of the tenor of the electorate as a whole.

In New Hampshire this week, 47% of the electorate voted for either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the two candidates who were running the most direct appeals to voters who are unhappy with the economic status quo. It might seem counter-intuitive to some to look at the vote from that perspective, but the campaigns of Sanders and Trump are more similar than a cursory profile might suggest. At a time when the electorate is being described as increasingly divided and partisan, there is a remarkable degree of alignment among two campaigns that are viewed by many as representing the left and right extremes of the political spectrum.

Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns speak directly to the anxieties and anger that many working Americans feel toward a political system that has ignored their welfare. They have each focused on the corrupting influence of campaign contributions on our politics, and blame the plight of American workers and their families in part on the unholy alliance of those who give and those who receive political contributions. Sanders's most effective attack on Hillary Clinton has been that she was corrupted by the money she took from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. Trump attacked Jeb Bush and others as puppets, whose strings would be pulled by the donors who fund their campaigns and their Super PACs.

As Trump pointed out in his victory speech in New Hampshire, he and Bernie Sanders both oppose free trade and its role in eviscerating middle class incomes. They both oppose the special tax treatment accorded to hedge fund managers and others in the finance industry. They both criticize Obamacare as being an expensive healthcare solution that was designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, big pharma, and other industries who have been massive contributors to politicians on both sides of the aisle. While Trump has disavowed his former advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system, last week he reiterated his core, distinctly non-Republican belief that no American should be without health insurance, paid for by the government if need be. Sanders and Trump both opposed the Iraq war, with Trump suggesting in a Republican debate that he would rather have seen the $4 trillion spent on military intervention in the Middle East used instead to fund roads and schools and hospitals and infrastructure, and both continue to express skepticism of deepening US involvement in the turmoil in the Middle East.

In the 1996 Republican primaries, Pat Buchanan ran a nativist campaign of "peasants with pitchforks" against economic elites, immigration, free trade and military interventionism. Today, after three decades of GDP growth that has provided little benefit to the average American family and wars that have cost much but accomplished little, Trump is running on the Buchanan playbook, but in much more fertile terrain. However, unlike Buchanan--or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz for that matter--Trump is not a culture warrior. He gives a nod to guns and abortion, but it is a perfunctory nod at best. His campaign, like that of Bernie Sanders, is about money and politics and the economic insecurities of the American family.

Even though their messages are clear, establishment Democrats and Republicans alike are at a loss as to how to deal with the winners in New Hampshire. Republicans, who have been waiting for months for Trump to crash and burn, crossed their fingers and hoped that the Trump insurgency had died in Iowa and that their prayers had been answered with the ascendancy of Marco Rubio. But after Rubio's debate debacle a week later, Trump outperformed even his lofty poll numbers in New Hampshire and establishment Republicans are once again letting the possibility of a Trump nomination sink in.

If anything, the Democrat establishment is worse off, facing the prospect of the farthest left member of the U.S. Senate--not even a Democrat actually--toppling Hillary Clinton and becoming the standard bearer for the party in the fall. For all the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders engenders, and a platform that is not as extreme as his rhetoric over the years might suggest, a Sanders candidacy leaves visions of George McGovern dancing in their heads. And that is not even fair to McGovern, who was a traditional, pro-market Democrat who was castigated for opposing the Vietnam War and proposing a negative income tax plan (that turned out to be a precursor to the now-wildly popular earned income tax credit). Establishment Democrats are acutely aware that a loss in November will leave the party without the White House, the Senate, or the House--to say nothing of the Supreme Court--and are loath to cast their lot with Sanders.

Republican candidates who decried Trump's bigotry and xenophobia early on have come to realize that he has his finger on the pulse of the electorate and now mimic his views on a number of issues. On the Democrat side, the oddest aspect of the campaign has been Hillary Clinton's determination to prove that she is as progressive as Bernie Sanders. Like Republicans trying to be as nativist or bigoted as Trump, it is a futile effort. After all, Bernie Sanders is a socialist running as a Democrat--a democratic socialist to use the new, softer language--and therefore she is simply not going to be able to flank him on his left. But more puzzling is why she would want to. The more Hillary tries to be who Bernie is and not who she is--a center-left politician who is comfortable traversing the halls of power--the more she exacerbates her deeper problems of trust and authenticity. Hillary has been among the most visible members of the Democratic Party establishment for decades now. It does not matter if this is an anti-establishment year, Hillary has to run as herself.

It may well be that by the end of the summer the Trump and Sanders challenges to the establishment will recede. After all, Hillary remains the overwhelming favorite on the Democrat side and Trump is, well, Trump. He really can't be the nominee of a major political party. But the issues they are pointing to are real. For years now, the system has been rigged in favor of people with money. Working class voters of both parties have seen their livelihoods undermined by free trade deals that shipped jobs overseas, bankruptcy reforms that have made it nearly impossible for them to dig themselves out of difficult circumstances, and intellectual property laws that have increased the costs of prescription drugs, just to name a few. One piece of legislation after another--each bought and paid for by major industries--has tilted the playing field against them.

That is the dirty secret of the corruption of our democracy. While all the hoopla has been generated around Citizens United and the hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into presidential campaigns and Super PACs, the real action has always been on the legislative side, where lobbying expenditures and political contributions--now approaching $5 billion a year--have delivered real results, year after year, all tracked and available for anyone who cares to look at OpenSecrets.org.

Nearly half of the voters in the New Hampshire primary cast their ballots for two very different candidates with surprisingly similar messages. If establishment Democrats and Republicans don't understand why, they haven't been paying attention. For decades now, each of the political parties have been paying more attention to those who fund their political campaigns than to the plight of those who cast the ballots, and now they are reaping the whirlwind. This year, voters flocking to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are declaring, in the famous words of Howard Beale--the news anchor who rails against the establishment in Network--that they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might go away, and if they do, the political establishment will breath a sigh of relief. But it is also possible that they aren't going to go away. Instead of their near-50% of the vote waning away, it might just continue to rise, and one of them might actually be elected president this year.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Donald Trump's secret

The white working class sold their votes cheap. Back when they were the stalwarts of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition, the southern and working class voters of the industrial Midwest were living the dream. Their votes mattered. The members they sent to Congress, particularly the southern Democrats, sat atop the most powerful committees and brought home the bacon. Then things began to change. Somewhere between the integration of the army under Truman, the Democratic Party embrace of civil rights, and the social upheaval of the 1960s, those white working class voters left their ancestral homeland and began their migration to the GOP. Whether one views that political shift as the denouement of the 19th century post-Civil War struggles or a rear guard action to resist the multicultural world to come in the 21st century, those voters left behind the political and economic power they wielded in the Democratic Party for what they thought would be a better deal as part of the Republican Party.

For the better part of a half a century, the Republican Party leadership has kept the modern Republican coalition together. They have been strange bedfellows--traditional Republican, Main Street business people and Wall Street bankers finding common cause with less educated workers from the south and industrial Midwest drawn to the GOP by Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and as Reagan Democrats--but they have stuck together with few defections. Sure, many liberal Republicans found they could not vote for John McCain if it meant putting Sarah Palin one bullet away from the Oval Office, and Wall Street was seduced for a while by Bill Clinton's commitment to financial deregulation, but through it all, those white working class voters held true. They were the rock, the immovable base of the modern GOP.

As it turned out, if you look at who got what out of the deal, the white working class voters got the short end of the stick. For decades now, the GOP has made good on its commitment to those voters and delivered a strong commitment to national defense, gun rights and a range of social and faith-based issues. For their part, Wall Street Republicans were more than willing abandon traditional Republican liberalism on social issues and embrace a coded racial appeal in each election cycle in exchange for support for a wide-ranging pro-business regulatory and economic agenda that was in other respects hostile to the white working class and middle class voters that joined their ranks. Put another way, the middle class white voters bought support for their conservative social positions by selling off their economic position. It was a deal with the devil that ultimately cost those voters dearly.

The members of Congress those working class voters sent to Washington, DC voted for legislation year after year adverse to the interests of their constituents. They voted for bankruptcy reforms that made it increasingly difficult for consumers to get out from under massive debts sold to them by predatory lenders. They voted to increase the cost of student loans and similarly make those debts increasingly difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. They voted for financial deregulation that further advanced financial interests at the expense of consumers. They voted for intellectual property laws that extended patent protection and increased the costs of prescription drugs. They approved legislation that tightened Monsanto's grip over the farming industry. Then there was the most important change of all, expanding international trade and the facilitation of corporate outsourcing, as American jobs and wages were undermined by international competition. One step after another, the transformation of the American economy was made possible as those white working class voters conspired in their own demise.

GOP leaders argued that each of those changes were in the broader interest of economic growth and efficiency, and certainly they were a boon to corporate profitability. But if you were at the receiving end of those changes, those families and communities whose livelihoods were built around farming and manufacturing that were undermined, and who watched as the rich got richer and their own families got poorer, you might come to a different conclusion. Over the course of three decades, white working class families watched in increasing shame and despair as their incomes first stagnated and then declined in real terms, and their hopes for the future faded.

Now, it has become apparent that many in those communities are literally killing themselves. Last fall, two Princeton economists published a paper documenting the rising death rate among less-educated, white, working class Americans in their 40s and 50s--primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. When marine mammals begin killing themselves as they have in recent years, it makes news. The scientific community dives into the problem, and environmental groups posit theories and suggest courses of action to ameliorate the concerns for the impacted species. But when it became apparent that the base constituency of the Republican Party was in a state of existential pain leading to massive numbers of suicides, the study made news for a day or two, but there has been no noticeable rush within the party to diagnose the problem and find solutions.
Fig. 1.
As illustrated in this graph from that paper, the data is quite stark. In contrast to a consistent pattern of declining death rates across other industrialized countries--and among other groups in the US--that cohort of less-educated whites (USW) are literally killing themselves off. Over the period from 1999 to 2013, the number of deaths were almost 100,000 higher than would have been the case had mortality rate held constant. Had the rate continued to decline as it had during the prior decade--and as it did in other countries as shown here--a half a million deaths would have been avoided--a number comparable to the number of Americans who died due to the AIDS epidemic.

This year, that cohort of less-educated, white working class Americans are overwhelmingly supporters of Donald Trump. While much has been written about their anger, there has been little outpouring of concern for their existential plight. Instead, they are being widely decried as bigots and racists for supporting the billionaire real estate developer who is now crushing the Republican field in the presidential nomination battle. There is growing consternation among the leadership of the Republican Party about how those voters can be pried away from Trump in favor of a candidate acceptable to the GOP establishment, but even in the face of the dramatic mortality statistics the GOP leadership has shown little interest in the linkage between the Trump phenomenon and the evident depths of depression and pain afflicting the base of their party.

Much of the Republican establishment has little but disdain for the suffering of their compatriots, as Jeb Bush suggested succinctly. “We have people that mope around thinking ‘my life is bad, my children will not have the same opportunities that I had.’ What a horrible notion in America, the most optimistic of places." Faced with the very real anger and pain--evidenced by a half a million deaths that might have been avoided--none of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls have any meaningful prescription for what ails a large swath of their party's base. No mention is made of decades of policies that served the interests of the party establishment, while eviscerating the livelihoods of its base. The only policy prescription any of them have to offer is tax cuts, which are largely irrelevant that cohort of Americans who pay little or no income tax.

It is against that backdrop that the passionate embrace of Donald Trump makes sense. Trump gives voice to their deep anger, and also, at some level, their shame. They made a bad deal, and Trump is touting himself as a deal man who will change that. No one else in the Republican Party--even as they fight to replace him--will acknowledge the things Trump will acknowledge. That our politics have been corrupted by corporate and financial interests seeking special favors. That the past decade and a half of war has devastated military families and the nation's treasury, and stolen resources from badly needed domestic investment. That free trade and corporate outsourcing has been a bad deal for working men and women. No one in the GOP but Trump is willing to talk about those things that have afflicted the white working class, because they do not believe any of those things are bad. As much as the GOP depends on the votes of the Republican base, establishment Republicans are with Jeb on this: Americans have no business whining. They are blessed to live in land of unparalleled opportunity. If they don't like their lot in life, they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about it. A half a million deaths, and there is little but contempt.

Perhaps the Trump voters have finally woken up to realize that the people they are in bed with have been screwing them over all these years. The Republican Party that they signed on to was and remains the party of the wealthy, of corporate America, and of Mitt Romney and his cabal of hedge fund managers. The GOP establishment needs them for their votes on election day--after all, that was why Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan sought them out to begin with--but after that they don’t want to be in the same room with them. That is not true about Trump. Those Republican voters are rabidly pro-Trump, because he is the only person who is rabidly pro-them. He is an old time economic populist of the Huey Long school. Screw the fat cats and their holier than thou attitude, it's our turn. His words are the opposite of the disdain Jeb has shown them. Trump strokes his followers at his rallies.“I love you people, I love you. I love you.... I’m winning with the smart people," he continues. "The people are smart. The people that are representing them are either dishonest, not smart, incompetent, or they have some other agenda that we don’t even know about.”

They love Donald Trump because he says he loves them. No one else loves them, no one else cares about their pain. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hateful speech comes out of the shadows.

Donald Trump rose again this week in defense of Vladimir Putin, suggesting that there was no evidence that the Russian President had ordered the assassination of reporters. After offering his thoughts on Putin, the leading Republican Party candidate for the presidential nomination confirmed that as much as he might hate reporters, he had no plans to kill any.

"I hate some of these people," Trump remarked, gesturing to reporters at the back of a crowd of supporters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "but I would never kill them. I hate them. No, these people... I'll be honest, I would never kill them. I would never do that." He stopped for a moment and cocked his head as if in contemplation, with a hand gesture suggesting he was weighing the pros and cons of the idea. Then he continued, as the crowd laughed and many craned their necks trying to get a glimpse of the reporters at the back of the auditorium. "I would never kill them. But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It's true. But I would never kill them, and anybody that does, I think would be despicable."

It would be despicable as well if a man in Richmond, California, were to target the local Muslim community with homemade explosives, as William Celli allegedly planned to do before his arrest by the FBI on Sunday. Trump may believe that Celli's actions would be despicable, but Celli made no bones about being inspired by Trump's words attacking Muslims, and he confirmed in a tweet that he would follow Trump "to the end of the world." Robert Dear was similarly inspired by the words of politicians who railed against the killing of babies by Planned Parenthood, when he killed three people. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were inspired by the words of ISIS leaders and they killed 14 people. We live in a world that is awash in hateful speech, and a world where people are moved by it.

Deciding to shoot someone in America today does not require mental illness--as we know from years of watching Law and Order--it just requires means, motive and opportunity. With 300 million guns floating around providing the means and a plethora of hate speech providing the motive, and there is no lack of opportunity. Trump's delivery, as it so often does, oscillated between seriousness and a certain type of levity, and surely no one doubts that Trump's bit about reporters was his version of stand-up comedy. But given the tenor of the times, will people really be surprised if a reporter is next?

Donald Trump's language has been unabashedly incendiary, but what makes him different from populists over the years is not the sentiments behind his speeches, but rather the bluntness of the words themselves. Trump has eschewed the long political tradition in Republican campaigns of speaking in code, of using dog whistle politics in order to speak to the racial animosities and xenophobic dispositions of elements of the Republican base while not embarrassing the GOP establishment in polite company.

Unlike leading candidates in campaigns past, Donald Trump does not appear to care about embarrassing himself or the party. Perhaps more to the point, those in the Republican base that have embraced his candidacy--largely middle-aged white men with no college education--appear relieved to no longer have to sit skulking in the shadows during this primary season. They love Trump because he embraces them with open arms, unlike those east coast establishment Republicans who for so long have looked down on them.

With Trump, there are no dog whistles slipped inside a speech otherwise sanitized of offensive language. Channeling the resentments of those that have flocked to his banner, he lays it all out there. The fat cats. The Mexicans. The Muslims. And, of course, the press. As much as establishment Republican candidates like to pal around with the well-heeled elites of the business and financial worlds that fund their campaigns--the haves and the have-mores as George W. once famously described them--it is the downscale white voters, with all their warts and blemishes, that have carried the GOP to victory over the years. This time around, as demographics and diversity are tilting the electoral landscape in the favor of Democrats, those voters loom to be more important to the GOP than ever.

Jeb Bush--like many in the Republican establishment--just can't come to grips with the nature of the Republican primary electorate. He continues to blame the failure of his efforts to run an uplifting, positive campaign on Trump's vulgar message and tactics, but the truth is that appealing to the bigotry and xenophobia of elements of the electorate has long been an essential part of the job. Ronald Reagan told his stories about young bucks and welfare queens to stoke the racial animosities of working class and southern whites and bring them into the Republican fold. Jeb's father ate pork rinds and used the explicitly racial Willie Horton ad when he won the presidency to let those voters know that he was more than just a high brow New England prep school kid, and Jeb's brother understood how to run as a compassionate conservative in the national spotlight while at the same time serving up red meat to the base.

Nor is pandering to racism and bigotry through coded language and images in presidential contests the exclusive domain of Republicans.  Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were each southern politicians who understood how to reach out to the same constituencies that have now gravitated to Donald Trump. Jimmy Carter cloak his language supporting segregated neighborhoods under the language of preserving ethnic purity, while Bill Clinton use his Sister Souljah moment to establish his racial bona fides. What has shocked Jeb and others has been how willing Trump has been to eschew innuendo and code words--that have traditionally provided a patina of deniability to otherwise offensive and destructive language--and, at least in the minds of his supporters, call a spade a spade.

The problem facing the GOP establishment is worse this time around. The white working class electorate drawn to Trump has finally come to realize that immigration and outsourcing and free trade and globalization are all part of the toxic mix of policies supported by the GOP and its business allies that have decimated their lives, their families and their communities. When Jeb tried early on in the campaign to soften the language of the immigration debate, he demonstrated how far out of touch he was with the base of his party. Indeed, the more outrageous Trump's words have become--and the higher his poll numbers have risen--the more other candidates have begun to mimic rather than push back against his message. Now, with two-thirds of Republicans supporting anti-establishment candidates, GOP leaders may have finally come to realize that Donald Trump is merely the symptom of a deeper problem: a large majority of the those who self-identify as Republicans may no longer believe that the establishment wing of the party shares their goals and values.

Ultimately, as the crowd cheered him on, Donald Trump decided that he would not kill reporters. But he stood before a crowd of Republican supporters and acted as though he was actually considering it, and no one from the leadership of his party stood up to tell him that he had gone too far. Five months ago, Trump was berated by the leadership of his party simply for suggesting that John McCain was not a war hero. This week, he talked publicly about killing reporters and no one said a word. Gone were the coded speech and dog whistles, gone the patina of deniability. All that was left was speech, and it was dangerous, hateful speech.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

To defeat ISIS, we must stand up for America.

The rise of Islamophobia and the fear that has been consuming much of the country is not just about Donald Trump. The Republican front-runner is embarrassing himself and our nation with his rhetoric. Things have gotten so bad that Trump is being publicly scolded about chauvinistic behavior by a leading member of the Saudi royal family. This is the family whose fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics spawned Islamist terrorism across the globe, who prohibit any worship in the Kingdom but Islam and regularly behead apostates, and whose oil wealth funded the rise of ISIS and of al Qaeda before it. But Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's words, "You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America," are in truth less about Donald Trump's conduct than about all of ours. We are a disgrace to America.

We have seen many mass shootings this year. In June, Dylann Roof killed nine people at a bible study group at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a South Carolina native, hoped his killings would spark a war between blacks and whites. In October, Chris Harper-Mercer killed ten people at Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon. Harper-Mercer, a British native raised in the U.S., had an arsenal of 13 guns and appears to have had interests in Nazi and white supremacist culture. In November, Robert Dear killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Dear, a native of Kentucky, brought with him a duffle bag of handguns and rifles and was long known to hold strong anti-abortion and anti-government views. Then, two weeks ago, Syed Rizwan Farook, an Illinois native, and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a social service center in San Bernardino, California. The couple had four weapons.

Each of these mass killings were motivated by issues that have long histories of inspiring violence--racial animosity, anti-government resentments, white supremacism, anti-abortion convictions, and radical Islamism. And, as much as it has become a common meme to blame mass shootings on mental illness, in the minds of adherents, each of these are motivations that justify the turn to violence.

After initial spasms of blue vs. red invective, our collective responses to the mass shootings in South Carolina, Oregon and Colorado were tempered, and discussion of those events quickly faded. Then came the fierce response to the Farook-Malik murders. Unlike the responses to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people--which have been toned down to the level of stuff that happens--the Farook-Malik murder of 14 people is now being widely described as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11. While that might technically be an accurate statement, suggesting that a husband and wife shooting of 14 people with two pistols and two rifles was in any respect comparable to the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of 2,977 people as attacks on the homeland is patently manipulative. Just to provide some perspective, the media spin on the Farook-Malik murders could have been that the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino will likely make December 2015 the month with the largest number of deaths by mass shooting since the prior month, November 2015, when 49 people were killed

Roof, Harper-Mercer and Dear killed 22 people. Between the three of them they had dozens of handguns and assault weapons. Their motivations were racial and rooted in their Christian faith. This is not to say that they were radical Christian terrorists, but simply that their motivations--the white supremacist and radical anti-abortion convictions--were grounded in their religious beliefs. In contrast, Farook and Malik had four guns--a small cache compared with their mass murderer counterparts--yet the scale of their "arsenal" has been widely hyped as the ensuing war on terror rhetoric rose in intensity.

Of course, the Farook-Malik murders were terrible, and they were distinct from the other mass killings because they were part of a pattern of mass murder directed or inspired by ISIS. But the depth of the fear that the San Bernardino shooting spree has provoked across the country has been disproportionate.

This was made clear to me when a friend asked if he should be worried about going to a concert in the wake of what happened in Paris and San Bernardino. The framing of the Farook-Malik murders as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11 gave rise to my friend's question, and it has undercut the possibility of having reasoned discussions about how the country should respond to this next phase of Islamist inspired violence. The simple fact is that my friend has a far greater chance of any number of disasters befalling him--being hit by a drunk driver, getting trapped in a collapsed building toppled by an earthquake or choking to death on his popcorn--if he goes to a concert in downtown Oakland than the next Farook-Malik-style murder.

Osama bin Laden built al Qaeda's war with the West based on a straightforward strategic calculation. He believed that through terrorist attacks on the United States, he could draw the United States into wars on Muslim lands. He anticipated that the presence of American soldiers killing Muslims would be an effective recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and he believed that the U.S. military could be defeated, "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," through the asymmetric warfare tactics that he had seen defeat the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan and the U.S. military itself decades earlier in Vietnam.

In addition to embracing bin Laden's strategy, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is seeking to draw a sharp line between the world of Islam and the world of the unbelievers, and to convince Muslims that they can never be accepted as practicing Muslims living in the West. He defines the world where Muslims in the West live as a gray zone that must be eliminated. A "gray zone" refers to a society where individuals can live their lives in accordance with their faith, while at the same time being part of a larger secular society that respects those choices. Baghdadi's strategy to eliminate the gray zones is built around directing and inspiring terrorist actions that will provoke a reflexive response by Western nations that will achieve his objectives and alienate their Muslim citizens. The Farook-Malik murders were that type of terrorist action. The objective was to provoke exactly the type of panic that has ensued, with a range of reverberating effects--such as Donald Trump's rhetoric and an outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment--that communicate to Muslims in the United States that they are objects of suspicion who may never truly be at home here.

Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi has a cunning geopolitical strategy that uses our own worst instincts against us. Over the past several weeks, we have seen how effective that strategy can be. We could have acted quite differently, and responded to the Farook-Malik mass shooting of 14 people in a manner comparable to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people. Instead, we responded in exactly the manner that Baghdadi hoped we would. Everything we have done, and each of the actions that have been suggested that we might do--develop a registry of Muslim citizens, increase the surveillance of Muslim places of worship, apply religious tests to those who would cross our borders--will feed the anxieties and alienation of Muslims living in the west.

These responses will not make us safer from the risk of these kinds of attacks, and at the same time they diminish the essence of who we are. We need to stop blindly doing what bin Laden and Baghdadi want us to do. America is at its essence a gray zone. Our nation's a priori commitment to religious liberty and our long history of integrating immigrant communities and cultures into the mainstream of American life is the most effective countervailing weapon we have against the future that Baghdadi and ISIS imagine imposing on the world. Whatever actions we take with respect to the continuing war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, here at home we are fighting a different war. We lose this war if we take the kinds of actions that Donald Trump and others have suggested. We win if we draw our Muslim communities closer to us and collectively confront the challenges that ISIS presents.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reaping the whirlwind.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan waded into the tumult of protests this week against Donald Trump's plan to close the U.S. borders for a time to Muslim immigrants. Trump's proposal has sparked universal condemnation across the political spectrum. Of course, to call it a plan was a bit hasty; as in all things Trump, it was rhetoric. There are no plans to build a wall along the Mexican border.  There is no plan to register Muslim Americans. And there is no plan to implement a religious test for immigration into the United States. There are just words.

This is not conservatism, this is not what the Republican Party stands for, Paul Ryan complained. What is conservatism and what does the Republican Party stand for are probably the right questions, but Ryan is raising those question a few decades late.

Politics in America is not about ethics and it is not an exercise in philosophical debate. There may be implicit arguments involved about what policies might deliver the greatest good for the greatest number, but the core undertaking is about using the democratic process to achieve and maintain political power. And over the past half-century, the Republican Party has played the game well. Despite all the demographic arguments pointing to inherent Democrat advantages, the high-minded theories about Democrats being on the right side of history, and decades-long disadvantages in party identity and registration, the Republican Party stands today with an iron-clad grip on the House of Representatives, a solid majority in the U.S. Senate, and control over an overwhelming majority of state governorships and state legislatures. Only the Presidential election next year stands between the GOP and total domination of U.S. politics.

And there sits Donald Trump as the obstacle to GOP hopes and dreams. The oddly coiffed real estate mogul has translated his two decades of reality show stardom into absolute dominance in the Republican primary season to date. Trump showed early on that he has a sense for the political jugular when he took down the presumptive front-runner Jeb Bush through little more than suggestions that Bush lacked energy, and he has gone on to tap into the zeitgeist of a large share of the Republican Party base with one controversial statement or proposal after another. And each time Republican pundits stated with great assurance that this time Trump had gone too far, Trump's popularity just kept rising. This week, Trump's call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States set off two new firestorms, one with respect to the harshness of his rhetoric, and another of panic within the GOP that Trump might be marching the party toward a political catastrophe that it is powerless to avert.

The depth of the Republican problem was made evident by polling published since Trump's most recent pronouncement. On December 9th, a Bloomberg/Purple Strategies poll suggested that Trump's temporary ban on Muslim immigration was supported by 65% of likely Republican primary voters, and that 37% of respondents suggested that his proposal made them more likely to vote for him, while only 16% indicated that the proposal would make them less likely to vote for him. Then, the next day, a CBS News/New York Times poll taken from December 4th through 8th--days both before and after Trump initially made his comments--showed him with 35% support among national Republican primary voters--up 13 points since its last poll in October--and a 19 point lead over second place Ted Cruz. Most notable about the CBS News poll was their observation that Trump's support was 30% before his comments on Muslim immigration, and jumped to 38% after the comments.

As despicable as many view Trump's comments, his populist success should not come as a surprise to the Republican establishment. For the past half-century, the GOP has built its electoral success on an uneasy alliance between the GOP establishment--with roots among the landed aristocracy, Wall Street and Main Street mercantilist classes--and the predominantly white working class and evangelical wings of the party.

This modern Republican coalition was the strategic brainchild of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips among others. After losing the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy by 100,000 votes of 70 million cast, Nixon won the presidency eight years later with a slim 43.4% to 42.7% popular vote margin over Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace winning 13.5% of the vote and five southern states in the Electoral College.

Determined not to face a third close contest, Nixon and the Republican Party implemented the Southern Strategy to bring long-time Democratic white southern, rural and evangelical voters into the Republican Party. Those voters, alienated largely by the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, became a core GOP constituency. And the strategy was successful. Four years after his narrow win over Humphrey, Nixon demolished George McGovern, winning 49 states and 60.1% of the popular vote. While McGovern was a particularly weak candidate, Nixon's 1972 election numbers largely mirrored what 1968 would have been if you added George Wallace's vote totals to Richard Nixon's, which would have given Nixon 56.9% of the popular vote and a 44 state landslide.

Against that backdrop, Donald Trump's success this year should not be particularly surprising. This year's revolt of less-educated, southern, rural and working class voters against the GOP establishment has been simmering for decades. The Republican Party establishment has long held tight control over its nomination process. As the saying goes, Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Yet along the way there has been a history of discord. In 1992 and 1996, Nixon speechwriter and conservative herald Pat Buchanan led his Peasants with Pitchforks uprisings against the establishment candidates, winning 20-25% of the primary vote against the incumbent George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, respectively. Buchanan's share of the vote mirrored exactly the share of the GOP electorate represented by the Wallace voters that Nixon brought into the party. The subsequent emergence of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party demonstrated more than a decade after Buchanan's last race that the anti-establishment, nativist wing of the GOP was alive and well.

Over the past fifty years, the GOP has catered to the socially conservative views of the voters who migrated to the GOP in the wake of the Southern Strategy, but has been largely inimical to their economic interests. Pat Buchanan railed for years that the GOP was serving the interests of Republican corporate and Wall Street elites by supporting free trade and immigration policies that undermined the economic interests of working and middle class Americans. Donald Trump expanded on Buchanan's attacks on the GOP establishment when he targeted the preferential tax treatment provided to hedge fund managers and the control of GOP candidates by mega-donors and special interests. Last month, a report published by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case documenting the increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans--in particular from suicide and substance abuse--provided epidemiological evidence that anger and despair growing out of decades of economic stagnation and decline affecting working class and middle class Americans that have given rise to the anti-establishment revolt within the GOP are reflected in mortality statistics as well.

Even as the GOP establishment is complaining about Donald Trump's rhetoric, the rest of the Republican field has largely ignored evidence from his rise that the Republican base is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more. Across the board, the candidates have had little to offer their working class constituents beyond one more round of tax cuts, ignoring the simple reality that tax cuts are of little or no value to working and middle class Americans who pay little or no federal income tax. As Mitt Romney famously observed four years ago, the bottom 40% of Americans pay no federal income tax, while those in the middle quintile have an average income tax rate of only 1.3%.

In the wake of the most recent turmoil, leaders of the GOP still seem to be pinning their hopes on Trump voters falling in line, but history suggests that they won't. In 1992 and 1996, when Pat Buchanan won his 20-25%--a bit below Trump's polling today--those voters did not fall in line during the primary season; it is just that their votes did not matter as--like Bernie Sanders this year--Robertson was running against a single establishment candidate who easily won 60-70% of the vote. The problem the GOP faces today is that against a field of 14, Trump's 30% share may hard to beat, unless most of those candidates drop out early on once the voting actually starts, or, as in 1992, Trump takes the path of Ross Perot, who ran as a third party candidate--with anti-free trade rhetoric that mirrored Pat Buchanan's--and won 18.9% of the national vote, enough to cost George H.W. Bush reelection and give the White House to Bill Clinton.

GOP efforts to shame Trump into submission--and preferably into leaving the race--are ill-conceived. As recent polling has suggested--and as has been evident for months now--Trump has his finger on the pulse of a broad swath of the GOP electorate, and those voters appear to be hunkering down in defense of their man. The less educated core of Trump voters today--as has been true for decades--resent being labeled as uneducated bigots, particularly by GOP establishment elites who for fifty years have leveraged their votes to achieve political success, but have offered little or nothing in return except for a stout defense of the second amendment and other social issues. 

Paul Ryan complains that Trump is not acting as a conservative, but Ryan is showing a tin ear to the situation facing his party. The definition of being a conservative--to say nothing of being a Republican--has changed dramatically over the years. Richard Nixon walked away from the New England small government conservatives when he brought southern, rural and evangelical conservatives into the fold who were activists on social issues. Similarly, Ronald Reagan killed the fiscal conservative traditions of the party, while George W. Bush cast out the GOP traditions of conservative restraint in foreign policy in favor of neoconservative activism. But through it all, the GOP remained true to its corporate and Wall Street masters, the elements of the party that were most distrusted by the groups that were brought into the fold fifty years ago, and by Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party in the decades since. Conservatism in Republican politics is not a static concept defined in the writing of Edmund Burke, or Ayn Rand for that matter, as Paul Ryan's words suggest. It has been balanced over the years by the exigencies of what it takes to win. 

Paul Ryan's protests notwithstanding, Donald Trump's populist, nativist rhetoric--as offensive as it may be--is well within the American political tradition, and his campaign has its antecedents in the traditions of the GOP as well. GOP candidates have thrived over the years through their willingness to say the words necessary to motivate their base--however offensive to others they might be--and Trump is no different. The question is what comes next. Now that the GOP top brass--from Speaker Paul Ryan to GOP Chairman Reince Priebus to its éminence grise Dick Cheney--have heaped condemnation on Donald Trump, and many declared him unfit to serve, they have placed themselves between a rock and a hard place. Either they find a way to take Trump down--even if it means daring him to bolt the party to launch a third party bid--and reassert control over the primary process going forward, or they sit on their hands and risk a Trump victory, a fracturing of the Republican coalition on Election Day, and undermining in a few short months what it took them decades to build.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Defining the enemy.

Within hours of the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, my friend, a long time reporter with years of covering the Department of Justice received a call from the editors of a major newspaper. They were struggling with how to describe the actions of Robert Lewis Dear: if it turned out the shooter had anti-abortion motives, would that meet the Department of Justice's definition of domestic terrorism.

The editors' question was specific to how the Department of Justice would interpret Robert Lewis Dear's assault and murders, but it mirrored the debate that springs up immediately after these events about what constitutes a terrorist act vs. other forms of violence. Terrorism is generally defined as a tactic using violence or the threat of violence to inspire fear in pursuit of a political goal.

The question raised by the editors points to the difficulty--and in their view the importance--of how we label incidents like this. Because of the prominence of Planned Parenthood as a political issue raised by Republicans over the past several months, people quickly looked to see how the Republican presidential candidates would respond to the question the editors raised. Mike Huckabee, a candidate with impeccable anti-abortion credentials who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, held down the straightforward, call-a-spade-a-spade, end of the spectrum when he declared that Dear's action was domestic terrorism. Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz hunkered down at the other end of the spectrum. Cruz took pains to suggest all manner of alternative explanations for why Dear did what he did--most remarkable of which was that Dear may be a transgendered leftist activist--in a strikingly defensive effort to deflect any culpability from his own anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol of the past few months. The queen of anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol, Carly Fiorina, launched a leftists-at-the-gates counter offensive.

Newspaper editors know better than most--their jobs are literally about parsing words and meaning after all--that terrorism is a highly subjective term. The use of the term terrorist today cannot be divorced from the language of the global war on terrorism (GWOT) declared by the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. One of the consequences of the GWOT is that it has provided a vocabulary that has come to be used by governments across the globe to label one's opponents in morally absolute terms, and in turn for sanctioning all manner of state action against them. Vladimir Putin rose quickly to our defense after the 9/11 attacks, as he saw in our determination to go to war half-way around the world under the banner of the GWOT a post-hoc justification for his own wars against Chechen separatists

There are myriad other examples of how the language of terrorism has since been used. Bashir al-Assad used the language of terrorism in the early days of civil protests against his regime, as he quickly labeled real and manufactured events as the work of terrorists to justify the tenor of the regime's own violent assault against its own people. China has used the language of the GWOT to justify its suppression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Buddhists in Tibet. In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority has struggled for the linguistic upper hand, as each has labeled the other side as the terrorists. Terrorism is both a tactic utilized against a state or other more powerful adversary, and a propaganda tool, in the GWOT context, used by those in power for the labeling of their enemy and the justification for means used to defeat it.

Each of these circumstances suggests the subjective nature of the terrorist label. Terrorism is what we call what the other guys do--the bad guys. That suggests why Ted Cruz cannot allow the murders in Colorado to be labeled an act of terrorism. While Robert Lewis Dear may (or may not) have been inspired by Cruz's history of vitriolic attacks on the evils of Planned Parenthood, Ted Cruz does not view his own rhetoric as extreme. To Ted Cruz, the other guys are the extremists, while he is a strict constitutionalist advocating for what he believes would be the mainstream of American thought if America had not deviated from its founding principles.

When Ted Cruz advocated admitting Syrian Christian refugees into the United States, because "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror," he was not denying that Christians--notably anti-abortion activists with a history of attacks on clinics providing abortion services--promoted or committed violent acts, but rather his words reflected the fact that terrorism is a subjective category that is inherently about what the other guys do. Cruz posits that Christians do not commit acts of terror because if Christians commit them as acts motivated by their faith, those acts might step over the line of what is legal--and should be condemned as such when they occur--but because their cause is grounded in principles that he shares, those acts would not constitute terrorism.

In the second Republican debate, Carly Fiorina offered the most passionate anti-abortion call to action among the candidates with her testimony regarding a video showing the vivisection of a live fetus--a video that it turned out does not exist in the form she suggested. Fiorina, more than any other candidate, should not have been surprised if it turns out that Robert Lewis Dear was inspired by her words. Abortion has long been an irresolvable chasm in our politics. A woman's right to chose and a fetus's status as a living being set those on each side on a seemingly irreconcilable collision course. If one believes that a fetus is from conception a life endowed with all of the rights of any human being, then what Fiorina claimed to have seen is an abomination that might well in the minds of extremists warrant the action that Robert Lewis Dear--like others before him--took to act against the slaughter of innocents. Instead of deflecting blame for the actions that her words might have incited, perhaps Fiorina should have been true to her convictions and stood with a man who by all appearances put his own life on the line in response to rhetoric similar to her words of passion.

If we are going to use the language of terrorism, we have to be careful to apply it consistently. We cannot apply different standards because a person is Christian or because they are white, as some felt the New York Times did in its description of Robert Lewis Dear as "a gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew." Given the current usage of the term, Dear should be labeled a terrorist if he did what he appears to have done. But we should not be surprised if doing so, in our current political landscape, turns out to be an unproductive step.

What Robert Lewis Dear did was terrifying and barbaric, and it is becoming increasingly clear that his actions were inspired by the anti-abortion meme. But it is not useful to label any crazy person who does horrific things a terrorist, however much the old definitions might fit. We have to be cognizant in this debate that the global war on terror changed everything, particularly the language of terrorism. Terrorism is no longer simply a word used to describe a political tactic, but has become a moral absolute, a designation of evil. It may be that the word has lost its salience for the application to events of "domestic terrorism" that lack an organized, systematic framework, and to which the anti-terrorism tools and tactics do not apply.

In his speech declaring the global war on terror, President George Bush assigned equal moral culpability to those who commit acts of terror and those who support them. Translated into our domestic landscape, this suggests that an acknowledgement by Carly Fiorina or Ted Cruz that their rhetoric may have inspired Dear's actions could imply culpability for a terrorist act. Even if that is exactly what their political antagonists would love to see, it would only take us farther down a slippery slope in a year when political rhetoric has already begun to test the limits of what a democracy can tolerate. Instead, we need to move in the opposite direction, and those who assign these labels might begin to consider language that reframes the issue in a way that allows people to confront the linkages between incendiary language in the public square and the violence that can ensue, without falling into the trap of debating who is a terrorist and who is not.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The new world order.

Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Hillary Clinton established the objective that is commonly held among all presidential aspirants: ISIS must not be contained, it must be destroyed. Yet beyond that statement, despite all the fury generated on the campaign trail by the ISIS attacks and the failures of American strategy to date, there is little that any of the candidates have suggested that differs much from what we have been doing so far. Aerial bombardment, special ops and arming the Kurds, plus other stuff at the margin. With 75% of Americans opposed to putting American forces on the ground, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, only Lindsay Graham has remained outside of the arc of consensus that spans the left and the right and insisted that we must put armed forces on the ground in Syria.

Our engagement in Syria has a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to it. By all accounts, we are opposed to almost every side of that country's civil war. Our attempts to "train up" our own moderate fighting force has been an expensive failure. The notion that we were going to train moderate Syrian Sunnis on Saudi soil to return to Syria to fight Sunni extremists, who were themselves weaned on Saudi-Wahhabi theology and funded by Qatari money, was from the beginning steeped in irony. Our ability to engage our Sunni allies in the region to spearhead the anti-ISIS fight has had limited success. The Saudis, who funneled money into anti-Assad rebels from early in the uprising, briefly participated in the anti-ISIS airwar, but their interests remain primarily sectarian and their focus has shifted to their proxy war with Iran in Yemen. The Turks, who could steamroll ISIS should they choose to, are essentially in business with the caliphate, providing an outlet for its oil sales and a transit corridor for its recruits, and view growing Kurdish political and military strength in the wake of the Iraq war as the more immediate threat to Turkish interests. Only Jordan, led by Oxonian King Abdullah, has remained a stalwart ally, consistently embracing US interests as his own.

The formula that Hillary set forth this week suggests that ending the Syrian civil war is a necessary first step toward defeating ISIS. The strategy envisions enlisting Syrian Sunni rebel groups that are now focused on fighting Assad--of which there may be as many as 1,000--as a fighting force against ISIS. Turning those groups against ISIS requires first getting rid of Assad and creating a more benign Syrian government. This new government would have to retain the loyalty of Assad's senior military staff--lest they defect to ISIS as Saddam's Baathist generals did--as well as be acceptable to the Sunni population. This would allow for an end to the civil war. Once that political concord is achieved, those forces now targeting Assad would be turned against ISIS, providing the fighting force we need on the ground in lieu of sending our own.

If this generalized description of governmental reform and reconciliation as a prerequisite to military success on the ground sounds familiar, it should: It mirrors what we have been working toward for the past decade in Iraq. The battle against ISIS in Iraq has foundered on the continuing alienation of the Sunni population from the Shi'a dominated central government, which has not been resolved as promised since Nouri al Maliki was removed as Iraq Prime Minister. Trust, it appears, can be neither imposed from outside nor built quickly. In Syria, Hillary's strategy is predicated on two assumptions that seem to be tenuous at best. First, that there is a feasible replacement regime that would be embraced in short order by the warring parties. Second, that the range of powerful actors who thus far have been ignored in the strategy formulation process--notably Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated militia that is arguably the strongest military force in the country--do not have their own end-game in mind.

In her talk last week, Hillary largely ignored Russia's recent entry into the Syrian civil war in defense of the Assad regime. Syria has been a Russian ally for decades and Russia's naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast is one of only two Russian naval facilities on foreign soil. This week's downing of a Russian attack aircraft by at Turkish F-16, and the ensuing emergency meeting of NATO--the Turkish action was the first downing of a Russian aircraft since the end of the Cold War--will add some larger perspective to the Syria conflict, and force us to recognize that for all of the attention to Bashar al-Assad, and even to ISIS, how we manage our relationship with Russia is far more important than either of those issues.

If Russia is committed to the survival of its ally in Syria, that is a factor that cannot be ignored. Over the past few days, the notion of putting American forces on the ground in Syria seemed to be gaining support domestically. But to do so absent an alliance with Russia that goes beyond current "deconfliction" efforts to avoid unintended incidents between our aircraft and theirs in our respective air wars over Syrian territory would be enormously risky, as the downing of the Russian jet suggests. If we have troops on the ground while Russia is independently engaged in an air war over the country, it is inevitable that at some point American soldiers would be killed by Russian bombs, leading to terrible potential escalation possibilities.

Hillary's silence with respect to Russia was notable. It was over four years ago that Barack Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, yet as America ramped up its verbal war on Assad, no consideration was given to whether Russia might come to the defense of its ally. Since that declaration by President Obama, however, Russia has seized the Crimea and sponsored a war in eastern Ukraine. That is to say, in the intervening years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared to the world--and to the United States in particular--that Russia is back from the dead, and can no longer be disregarded as a force in the world. Putin's domestic approval ratings are now near 90%, in large measure because of his reassertion of Russian interests on the global stage and his willingness to stand up to the United States. One has to imagine that Putin's entry into the Syrian conflict is a calculated step to reassert Russia's strategic interests beyond its immediate borders, and that he would not have engaged in the fight without first determining that he was prepared to stick it through to the end.

The Obama administration's determination to overthrow Assad has grown in intensity as the civil war has worn on, as civilian deaths mounted, and as our embarrassment at Assad's defiance of our demand that he step down has grown deeper. But the Assad regime has never been a strategic concern to American interests nor to our allies. Israel cautioned early on against American efforts to force Assad to step down, believing that what might come in their wake would very likely be worse. On the other hand, our relationship with Russia is one of critical national interest. For almost a quarter of a century, U.S. foreign policy has reflected a "unipolar" status wherein our military power allowed us to do what we wanted, when we wanted, wherever we wanted in the world. Russia's entry into the Syria conflict signals a change in the world. Their military may not be a match for ours, but as one Russian general noted recently, they are the only nation on earth with the capability of turning the United States into dust with a nuclear strike and their strategic interests will have to be taken into account.

Hillary's strategy to defeat ISIS had an eerily familiar ring to it. Nation building in a land torn by tribal and religious conflict. Notions of democracy in a country lacking core institutions. But its biggest gap was not taking into account Russia's determination to protect its ally and its interests. That may be a negative factor or it may be one that offers real opportunities, but one thing is for sure, it cannot be ignored.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Déjà vu, all over again.

The bodies were still warm on the streets of Paris, and the reprise of the Global War on Terror was ramping up back here at home. We can hear the old talking points being dusted off. In our new, real time, twitter world, it took barely a nanosecond for the attacks to start after the candidates at the Democratic presidential debate declined to call radical Islam by its name. How can you fight an enemy that you refuse to name, came the rebuke, in many splendored formsWe have been down this path before.

In the last Republican presidential debate, Jeb Bush made a brief stab at taking the high ground in the immigration debate that was dominating the Republican contest before the Paris attacks. Married to a Mexican woman and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Jeb admonished his colleagues to be careful about the political ramifications of the harsh language that they were using that has already alienated Hispanic voters. "It would send a signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is. Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal."

It has been barely a week, and Bush's words have already been rendered quaint. In the wake of the Paris attacks—and particularly after word spread that one of the attackers had entered Europe as a refugee carrying a Syrian passport—Republican presidential contenders have been falling all over each other to tout how tough they would be on Syrian immigrants. Chris Christie—vying for a way back to the grownup debate—landed the most dramatic sound bite: I would take no refugees from Syria, not even a three year old orphan.

Jeb sees himself to be a compassionate man. From the outset of the primary season he has struggled with the harsh tenor of the campaign rhetoric, and nowhere more so than on immigration. He has watched as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have shown no bounds in their vilification of Hispanic immigrants, but had no comeback to Trump's simple declaration during the last debate: We are a country of laws. We need borders.

This week, Jeb again stumbled between his compassion for refugees, his urgent need to connect with Christian conservatives as his campaign flounders, and his better judgement, when he suggested that the US should accept only Syrian Christian refugees. He suggested that his rationale was that the Syrian Christians were uniquely caught between ISIS and the Assad regime, but he had his facts wrong, as Syria's Christian community has been largely supportive of the Assad regime. He may have been trying to find a compassionate middle ground where America didn't completely abandon the Syrians' exodus, but as he has been wont to do, his words just made things worse.

Jeb quickly walked back his words. Perhaps it was his brother who pulled him back on the issue. George has been down this road before, and even as the Republican candidates are railing against the Democrats for refusing to cite radical Islam as our enemy, they might recall that W. struggled as well with how to label Al Qaeda and their ilk in the months following 9/11. He and his administration ultimately came to realize that religious labels—radical Islam and Islamofascists most notably—undermined the ability of the US to build and sustain alliances with Muslim nations.

As much as Jeband now Ted Cruzmight want to appeal to the Christian conservative base by carving out special treatment for their co-religionists, their words impact how America is viewed across the Islamic world, and what they say as a candidate will live on should they become commander in chief. Jeb, in particular, bears the Bush name and legacy, and there is little doubt that there are those in the Muslim world who will find in his suggestion that only Syrian Christians be offered sanctuary in the United States validation that his brother was indeed a Crusader all along—a central tenet of Osama bin Ladin's rhetoric—and point to Jeb's words as proof positive that America was and remains a crusader nation.

Over the past two weeks, ISIS attacks have killed 400 people. They killed 224 Russian tourists flying on a passenger jet out of Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. They killed 43 worshippers at a mosque in Beirut. They killed 129 in Paris. And they injured hundreds more.

Fourteen years ago, we were Paris. We were Beirut. We were Russia. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, countries around the world expressed their sympathy and support for the United States. As the World Trade Center lay smoldering in lower Manhattan, the leading daily newspaper of France, Le Monde, pronounced Nous sommes tous Américains. We Are All Americans. We might, like Jeb, imagine ourselves a compassionate nation, but over the past days of tragedy, we have not proven to be the America of our and Jeb's imagination. For all the outrage over the horrific events in Paris, we have shown little or no similar compassion for the dead and dying in Beirut. Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that the city long known as the Paris of the Middle East remains in the Middle East and the dead and dying are Shi'a Muslims. While Nous Sommes Paris adorned the pages of the Russian news service SputnikNews in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is hard to find a corresponding response in the American press to the death of the many more Russians who died in the Sinai bombing. For reasons that confound the imagination, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union it seems that when Russians die they are still little more than communists in our eyes.

The political firestorm over Syrian refugees erupted as Jeb's compatriots seized on one Syrian passport to demonstrate a threat to the homeland. If they imagined that by their words they were demonstrating their capacity to lead the nation, it has been a dreadful performance. These were not attacks on America, but they are right, that may yet come. However, if it does, it may come at the hands of a Syrian. Or perhaps a Frenchman, as most of the Paris attackers were. Or perhaps fifteen jihadis from Saudi Arabia, the ancestral homeland of the radical Wahhabi branch of Islam that birthed much of the worldwide scourge that has challenged the world for decades now, including ISIS itself. ISIS is a devious and strategic organization. One could not put it past them to have instructed the Paris attacker to make sure that his passport survived the attack, imagining the havoc it would create in western countries.

This week, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60% of Americans believe that we should be doing more to attack ISIS. At the same time, the poll suggested that 65% opposed sending special forces to the region and 76% opposed sending ground troops. These numbers point in opposite directions, and suggest a populace that has no idea of the choices that we are likely to face in the months ahead and the costs that may be involved.

American public support for the war in Iraq lasted barely two years, and turned against the war by the middle of 2005. The question of whether the debate leading up to the Iraq war resolution was an honest one, and whether that war was "sold" to the American public remains a source of controversy and anger. In the days to come, we are going to have another national debate about terrorism, and how our nation should respond, and those who propose taking the country to war once again should consider that history.

Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, long-time chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee famously suggested that our nation's politics should end at the water's edge. Foreign policy and war are too important, Vandenberg asserted, to allow them to be embroiled in our eternal partisan battles—as we have seen erupt in a matter of hours in this go round—specifically because international relationships and alliances require that our nation's commitments endure from one administration to another, and survive transitions from one political party to another.

Barack Obama was elected on a platform of ending US intervention in the Middle East, and the American public continues to demonstrate strong opposition to many of the actions that an effective response to ISIS might entail. Whether it is a return to putting boots on the ground as part of an international coalition or once again enhancing government surveillance capabilities, public antipathy looms as the fruit of how the public debate was conducted last time we went down this road. Fourteen years ago, we started out with the same debate about what to call radical Islam, and the quality of our public discourse went downhill from there.

Already, there are calls to go to war, and we have not even been attacked yet. If our political leaders want to lead, and if they want our policies in the region to be successful and endure better than they have over the past decade, they should take a long look at how we got to where we are, and each take it upon themselves to do a better job of leading a public debate that will bring Americans to understand the choices that we face than they did the last time we went down this road.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

This is not a cage match.

Ted Cruz showed his chops. The former leader of the Princeton debate team, and reputed top college debater in the country decimated the moderators at the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate on Wednesday night. This is not a cage match, Cruz began, and proceeded to lay out the asinine questions that the moderators asked the array of presidential contenders on the stage. Mr. Trump, are you a cartoon character? Mr. Carson, can you do math? Mr. Bush, why are you still in the race. These are questions we might ask among our friends at a dinner party, but John Harwood, seriously?

Ted Cruz compared the Democrat debate to a Menshevik running against a Bolshevik, and it was an interesting historical analogy that was probably lost on 99.99% of the American audience. We are not big on history, after all, so who would recall the tepid socialist regime of Alexander Kerensky that toppled Tsar Nicholas and ended the Romanov dynasty in February of 1917. The Mensheviks enjoyed a brief rule before being toppled in the October Revolution that brought Vladimir Lenin to power and led to the 70 year rule of the Marxist-Leninist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Few remember that we had a horse in that race. Along with British, French and Japanese forces that were on the ground, the U.S. was supporting domestic opposition to the Bolshevik regime during the three year civil war that followed the October Revolution. Russia was a big place and Siberia was and remains a resource rich environment, and the declining European colonial powers and the expansionist Japanese empire all coveted a piece of the rock.

If Cruz's analogy had a weakness, it was in the relative strength of the Democrat combatants. Bernie Sanders by all rights stands to the left of Hillary Clinton, so should be the Bolshevik in the story. As Lindsay Graham, the greatest wit among the Republican contenders, suggested in Wednesday's junior varsity debate, Bernie "went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don't think he ever came back." But, of course, Hillary is no weak-kneed Menshevik, and if there are political killers on the modern American landscape, they are the Clintons. Lenin would be proud, and no doubt when Vladimir Putin looks at the landscape of adversaries coming down the road there are few whose ability to play a long game must concern him as much as Hillary. Marco Rubio is a child, Christie and Trump blowhards, and Jeb! barely a shadow of who we were told he was. Ted Cruz might well be the cream of that crop, but Putin knows our politics as well as we do, and for Cruz to be elected would require a strategic capability to manipulate the democratic process that none but Putin himself possess.

What set Cruz apart was his ability to actually listen to what others were saying and respond. Unlike Rubio, whose rhetorical flourishes demonstrated the benefits of extensive debate preparation--all of his answers were well crafted in anticipation of specific lines of questioning--Cruz was doing what real debaters are supposed to do, he was rebutting what his adversaries were actually saying. He applauded his rivals when that supported his thesis, and showed humor that demonstrated his understanding of how others view him. His greatest weakness? His affability and overall agreeable nature.

Chris Christie had his moments. Perhaps only those from Philly and south Jersey appreciated his giving Allan Iverson his moment in the sun. Practice? We're talking about practice? went Iverson's most famous rant. In response to CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla's question about whether fantasy football gambling should be regulated--a question asked because of a recent insider trading scandal--Jeb! showed is only moment of joy in the last month as he noted that his fantasy football team was 7-0, let by Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, and, turning to his one-time running buddy Marco Rubio, "I have Ryan Tannehill, Marco, as my quarterback. He was 18 for 19 last week. So I'm ..." And Christie exploded. Fantasy football? We're talking about fantasy football? "We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? Can we stop?”

And of course, Christie was right. His retort summarized the night in two respects. The CNBC forum was little more than a cage match. They were like the previous three presidential debates that have all been plays upon the classic Tim Russert Meet the Press gotcha format of pointing out hypocrisies in candidate rhetoric over the years, but in the CNBC case a bit more incendiary and insulting. It marked the confirmation of what this presidential season has now been fully reduced to: the ultimate reality TV show. And the night marked a new low for Jeb Bush, as he proved unable to do as Chris Christie did and pivot from a silly conversation about fantasy football to some more salient topic.

It was a shame, because this presidential debate was remarkable for the alignment of positions taken by the candidates pointing to real issues about our economy, income inequality, and the fundamental question of whether things in the country are working the way they are supposed to be working, and for whom they are supposed to be working. For Hillary and Bernie--the Menshevik and the Bolshevik--to be discussing why, as Carly Fiorina asked, we now have five major banks on Wall Street where we once had ten, or why, as Marco Rubio asked, our education system is no longer providing adequate support for Americans that want to go to college and lift up the possibilities for their children and their children's children, would be no surprise. But when it becomes the central focus of a Republican debate that CNBC honcho Larry Kudlow thought should focus instead on cutting corporate income tax rates, the moderators should have shown the same dexterity that Ted Cruz demonstrated, and pushed for a real discussion of why our economic and political system is not working for the large majority of Americans, and what a Republican solution to that very real problem might look like.

Over the next week, the next phase of our new reality show will swing into its next phase. The next batch of polls will come out, and America will vote one or two candidates off the island. Perhaps Rick Santorum will go home, and maybe Bobby Jindal, as the show's executive producers look for a say to get Lindsay Graham on stage and move Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul off. There is a good reason that Donald Trump continues to lead in all the polls, after all he has been a reality TV show celebrity for more than two decades and he gets how the format works. But Ted Cruz has made the case for introducing some seriousness into the process, and perhaps the next debate will take his words into account. After all, the CNBC moderators must have been totally embarrassed by finding themselves--rather than the other candidates--the target of the food fight that they provoked. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Jeb fades to black.

Free stuff is back. Responding to a man at a South Carolina Republican gathering last week who observed that Republicans had little visible support among African Americans, Jeb Bush harkened back to the Romney campaign four years ago. Unlike the Democrats, Bush suggested, his message to black voters was not to "get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff." Rather, Bush explained, his vision is of a world where African Americans "can achieve earned success."

Jeb's is a message that might work if it came from his political protégé Marco Rubio, a child of immigrants and product of Miami-Dade County public schools. But Jeb is the scion of a generations-old political family and the product of Phillips Andover Academy. The notion of earned success is a bit harder to parse for a man who was given his first job by his father's close friend James Baker at a bank that Baker owned. From then on--whether in his real estate or political pursuits--Jeb's career was nurtured through the extensive Bush family relationship network.

One of the things that sets Jeb apart from Donald Trump is that Jeb seems to have no idea when he is being offensive, while Trump relishes every moment of it. Bush's free stuff meme--that African Americans vote Democrat because they get free stuff--is not just paternalistic, it ignores the long history of the African Americans as supporters of the Republican Party--the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, after all--up until the post-World War II era, and the political machinations by the GOP that prompted black voters to shift their political allegiance.

Harry Truman's integration of the Army and the ensuing Democratic Party embrace of civil rights as part of its party platform in 1948--in the face of bitter opposition from the segregationist "Dixiecrat" wing of the party--started the migration of black voters to the Democratic Party. The passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s may have prompted further movement of the black electorate, but it is important to note that Republicans in Congress voted in larger percentages for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 than did Democrats. It was Richard Nixon's active outreach to invite the southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party to join the GOP that marked the end of significant black support for the Republican Party.

It was not the free stuff that the Democrats offered, but rather an affirmative decision by the Republican Party to trade its historical base among New England Republicans and black voters for the southern and segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. To suggest that African American voters left the Republican Party in search of free stuff has the history wrong. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, blacks did not leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left them.

Jeb seemed oblivious to the fact that he was proffering his free stuff narrative while campaigning in a state that had only weeks earlier lowered the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds--a flag that had been raised in 1948 at the time that the Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic Party convention. He seemed to see no irony in his bemoaning the appeal of free stuff in a state that seceded from Union lest its white population and economy be deprived of the ultimate free stuff: the free labor of enslaved black Americans. And he no doubt gave no thought to the fact that the State of South Carolina is among the largest recipients of free stuff from the federal government--that is to say from the rest of us--as each year it receives back from the federal government far more than its citizens pay in taxes, with 2014 net revenues from the federal government equal to 26.7% of its gross state product. Far from being a state built on earned success, South Carolina is built on a culture of free stuff.

Jeb's defense of his remarks this week on Fox News Sunday--reiterating his assertion that people "don't want free stuff"--are truly the words of a man who was born into wealth. Of course people want free stuff. We want roads and education and prescription drugs and other people to fight our wars. And we don't want to pay for them. The World Wide Web and the social networks that now consume our free time are built on people's preference for free stuff, even if they have to trade away their privacy in the bargain. And despite his wealth, Jeb is no different. Jeb--like his tormentor Donald Trump--could have chosen to fund his own political campaign, but he prefers to take hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money, money that Jeb continues to insist is free--that it comes with no strings attached--despite the scorn that Trump rightfully heaped upon him for that suggestion.

Jeb just cannot get out of his own way. Early on, he stumbled over the question of the Iraq war, and could not bring himself to accept that for most Americans the trillions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of young soldiers killed or maimed--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties--have not led the nation to a better place. Then he offered a tax plan that delivers massive tax cuts to the rich in the midst of a campaign where Donald Trump has drawn an angry Republican base to endorse his call to increase taxes on the rich. More recently, Jeb published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal suggesting the wide ranging steps he would take to spur deregulation, only to find his plan ridiculed by the normally conservative readership as little more than a pandering road map for business lobbyists and campaign fundraising.

Jeb increasingly has the aura of an aging football coach trying to get by on a playbook of a prior era. Donald Trump has made waves this year by channeling the anger of Republican primary voters who for decades now have seen their incomes stagnate and prospects for the future dim. Trump has begun to raise questions of class privilege and income mobility, issues that for too long have been forbidden topics in our political discourse. But Jeb has been unable to adapt his message or his narrative on earned success to even recognize the differences between his world and that of most Americans. It is not just his inability to grasp the disdain among the Republican base for his brother's record of war and spending, but Jeb has shown himself to have a tin ear for the very real resentments toward the political class and economic elites that have become central to the race. Instead, he just keeps returning to the bromides of the Reagan era--cut taxes, cut regulation, and it will be morning again in America. His meme about free stuff and earned success is just par for the course.

But no one is buying what Jeb is selling. Bush might continue to be the frontrunner among the Republican field based upon prediction models, but that just shows how difficult it is has been for the political cognoscenti to believe how poorly Jeb is performing. With all that money and all of those connections--the free stuff on which his campaign of inevitability was constructed--it is finally sinking in that Jeb himself may simply not be up to the job.