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. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Left, right and center.

According to a Monmouth University poll released this week, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 43% to 36% among likely New Hampshire voters. Up until now, Sanders has not been taken seriously by most observers in the media. The man is a socialist and this is America, after all. Even as Sanders surged past the presumptive Democratic Party nominee in the polls in the first primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, political observers have continued to view the erosion in Hillary's support as an indicator that there is an opportunity for Joe Biden. Sanders is simply not taken seriously.

It is the word. Socialist. Commentators are quick to suggest that Sanders is not taken seriously because he is so far outside what is labeled as the consensus mainstream of American politics. Yet that is not true. Rather, it is the positions of the political parties that have shifted.

Over the past several decades, the entire political spectrum has shifted to the right. Thus, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and others who would have been viewed as being on the extremes of the political spectrum a few decades ago are easily within the mainstream of the Republican Party today. On the other hand--particularly since the Clinton administration--the Democratic Party has migrated toward the center. Elizabeth Warren, whose views would have been well within the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the pre-Clinton years now is viewed as a radical of sorts.

Just because Bernie Sanders is on the left fringe of the two main political parties today, that does not place him on the fringe of American political thought. His main policy positions--for which he was excoriated on the pages of the Wall Street Journal this week--are more neo-Roosevelt than neo-Marxist. National health insurance, Social Security, rebuilding infrastructure, and low cost tuition at public universities sound remarkably like the political platforms of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, but today clearly are outside the accepted range of political debate.

Bernie Sanders' speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia this week may have woken some people up. It was an impressive performance on several levels. First, for the political maturity and respect he showed in speaking before a large evangelical Christian audience that he knew would not be supportive of many of his views, and second for the passion and clarity of the delivery. Sanders acknowledged areas of disagreement at the outset--views on abortion and gay marriage--and then framed the challenges of social justice, poverty and income inequality as moral imperatives common to Jews, Protestants and Catholics. While a Jewish politician speaking before an evangelical Christian audience may seem like an odd precursor to the visit of Pope Francis to Congress next week, Sanders' focus on issues of social justice and poverty mirrors many of the themes that the Pope has continued to address. In the Republican dominated Congress next week, Pope Francis will confront the mirror opposite audience--members who support the Church's opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but who oppose both his weakening of Church doctrine on those issues and his embrace of issues of social justice, poverty and income inequality.

The same day that Bernie Sanders spoke in front of 12,000 people in Virginia, Donald Trump was speaking to a gathering perhaps twice that size in Dallas. Unlike Sanders, Trump is always speaking to an adoring crowd these days. But like Sanders, his message is increasingly shaking up traditionalists within his party. Sanders and Trump are suggesting a melding of left and right on issues of economic, financial and tax policy that is frightening many on both sides of the aisle. Both Sanders and Trump argue for changes to the income tax that would increase the tax burden on the wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump describe the economic status quo as a rigged system that benefits a small group at the top to the detriment of the large middle class. Both Sanders and Trump embrace economic reforms that would punish the outsourcing of jobs. These positions are traditional fare for the socialist Sanders, yet are ones that have lost favor in all but rhetorical terms in the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Trump's castigation of a rigged system that benefits the wealthy, calling for increased taxes on the rich and the elimination of the special tax treatment afforded to hedge fund and other asset managers, and suggesting in his Dallas speech a 35% tariff on imported manufactured goods, all place him far outside the mainstream of the present-day GOP. Like Sanders, Trump's rhetoric is not as far outside of his party's tradition as some like to think. Trump's rhetoric in many respects mirrors the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan in 1996, whose "peasants with pitchforks" insurgency assaulted GOP policies that served the interests of corporate and financial elites to the detriment of the middle class. 

Last week, Jeb Bush released his own tax reform plan. The Bush plan is a version of traditional Republican tax policy in the post-Reagan era, reflecting reductions in nominal tax rates across the board and a narrowing of deductions. The impact of Trump's rhetoric and increased focus on the issue of income inequality were reflected in the Bush plan by the elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit.

While supporters heralded Bush's elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit, the bottom line of the Bush plan is that it would deliver an estimated 53% of the estimated $3.6 trillion in tax reductions over ten years to the top 1%. Six months after giving a policy speech that decried an economic situation where "only a small portion of the population is riding the economy’s up escalator," Bush produced a tax reform plan that provides an estimated $82,000 tax cut to the wealthiest taxpayers, while the annual savings to the other 99% of taxpayers would range from $500 to $1,500.

The timing and substance of the Bush proposal were startling. As the standard bearer for the political center, and still in the eyes of many the presumptive nominee, Bush continues to demonstrate a tin ear. Several months ago, he stumbled badly on questions about the Iraq war and Iraq policy going forward. Now, he chose to publish a tax reform plan that did little but further demonstrate his inability to read the mood of the electorate whose support he is seeking. Even if he believed that the Republican base would ultimately embrace the kind of tax cut plan that has long been central to the Republican playbook, Bush failed to pay heed to the power of Trump's populist rhetoric and recognize that perhaps, just perhaps, this was not the moment in the campaign to launch a tax cut proposal that once again disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans. 

For years, there have been issues where the left and the right were in alignment. Concern over the power of Wall Street, corporate welfare, trade policy, and federal power over education policy come to mind. But the power of the center has long trumped the ability of those on the left and the right to drive public policy on those or other issues. Right now, Sanders and Trump are driving the political debate. Sanders may be a socialist, but the issues that he is raising have broad appeal and a long history of support within the Democratic Party base. In a similar manner, Trump has tapped into resentments toward corporate and financial elites that have a long history within the GOP, and those who suggest that Trump is not saying anything substantive about policy are not paying attention.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sins of the father.

Jeb is playing defense, but for no good reason. After all, Bush is the true conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and should be entitled to the support of the Republican base. His record as Florida governor demonstrates his bona fides as a fiscal conservative. His treatment of Terri Schiavo, harnessing the power of the state to keep a dying woman alive demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian conservative. His argument for affirmative American actions to support a floundering Iraqi regime demonstrates his fealty to Neoconservative foreign policy principles. Yet day after day, Bush is mocked by a man who has no such bona fides, a man who seems to be making it up as he goes along, a man who has done everything short of mocking his manhood.

This is not the race that Jeb wanted to run. The man who swore that he would only run for president if he could run a campaign infused with joy continues to struggle under Trump's barbs. There is little evidence of joy in Jeb's campaign, his demeanor instead is alternately angry, annoyed and fed up. Jeb pronounced when he declared his candidacy that he was willing to lose the nomination if that was what was required to remain a viable candidate in the general election. Of course, Donald Trump understood the silliness of that formulation: you cannot win the general if you do not win the nomination first. So Donald Trump is taking Bush at his word and helping him lose the nomination. This week, Jeb's numbers fell solidly into single digits, while Trump numbers continue to rise.

Jeb's claim that he would prefer to lose the nomination than compromise his principles is admirable in some philosophical sense, but the notion that he will not calibrate his campaign to the tenor of the electorate violates a time-tested mantra for Republican electoral success since Richard Nixon: go to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general election. Of course, a central tenet of that strategy is duplicity. You tell the right wing of the party one thing to win the nomination, you tell the nation something else to win the election. It is exactly that duplicity that appears to have led the Republican primary electorate to reject a host of traditional politicians in favor of the two men now leading in the polls--Donald Trump and Ben Carson--neither of whom has held elective office.

Jeb understands that essential duplicity. He understands that time-tested strategy. He just suggested as a condition of his candidacy that he wouldn't play by those rules.

Centrist Republicans and independents who recall Jeb's father with fondness looked at Jeb's prospective candidacy and thought it should be a slam dunk. Just go to the electorate and say, I am my father, not my brother. And say it over and over again. Domestic policy? I am my father, not my brother. More important, foreign policy. I am my father, not my brother.

But the world according to centrist Republicans and independents is irrelevant to the Republican primary process, and as much as George H.W. Bush has found great favor with voters as time has passed, conservatives will always see him as the man who violated his sworn pledge and raised taxes, and whose fidelity to the pro-life cause was always in question. To the primary electorate, particularly the evangelical base of the party, I am my father, not my brother would have to be flipped to I am my brother, not my father. And that was the path that Jeb chose. Forget standing on principle, or even showing reasoned judgment, Jeb went so far as to say that his brother would be his primary advisor on foreign policy.

Centrist Republicans and independent just shook their heads in wonder.

Jeb's struggles to win the affection of the right wing of his party mirror his father's struggles thirty-five years ago. George Herbert Walker Bush ran for president as a traditional Republican Party candidate in 1980, just as the years of the GOP as the party of sound money and social moderation were coming to an end. Bush entered the race as the favorite of the GOP establishment wing, only to be soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan as the primary season got rolling. 

Like Jeb today, Jeb's father ran up against a candidate who skillfully and passionately appealed to the right wing, activist base of the party, an electorate who then, as now, were particularly disdainful of the establishment wing of the GOP. The Ronald Reagan that Bush ran against was more similar to Donald Trump than many care to remember. Today, pundits like to recall Ronald Reagan as the sunny optimist who described America as a shining city on a hill, and as a politician willing to cross the aisle and share a drink and a story with Tip O'Neill after a day's work was done. Those pundits fault Donald Trump for not conveying the positive, uplifting message that Ronald Reagan did.

Yet their's is a revisionist history of the times. Just as Trump is vilifying immigrants and playing to the nativist sentiments of the GOP primary electorate, Reagan's campaign was imbued with barely coded racial rhetoric that was abhorrent to New York and New England Republicans, but was effective in solidifying the support of the historically Democrat southern and rural electorate that was first brought into the GOP by Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. In a campaign strategy orchestrated by Lee Atwater to attract supporters of the segregationist and 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, Reagan flew to the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi to demonstrate that he stood with southern whites against the civil rights movement, and he sprinkled his campaign rhetoric with stories vilifying "Cadillac driving welfare queens" and food stamps abuse by blacks. Reagan also scorned the traditional fiscal prudence of the GOP in favor of supply side economics and a tax cutting fervor that Bush famously labeled as "voodoo economics." 

Jeb's father's final capitulation to the new realities of the GOP did not come in his acceptance of Reagan's offer of the vice presidency, but rather in Bush's selection of Reagan political operative Lee Atwater to run his successful 1988 president campaign--a campaign characterized by his no-tax pledge, and the racial fear mongering manifest in the Willie Horton campaign ad.

Jeb's father and brother won the White House by embracing the advice of political strategists and long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. There was no nonsense about running campaigns that were joyful or subordinating politics to principles. George H. W. Bush learned to eat pork rinds when Lee told him to, to walk away from his pro-choice and other sentiments of his traditionalist GOP heritage, and to sign off on racially charged wedge campaign tactics. President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 did not run on their own terms, but embraced the strategies that their advisors laid out for them.

Jeb prefers to point to Trump as the cause of his campaign woes, and like his father before him, Jeb seems to be discounting the appeal and effectiveness of an opponent he personally and politically disdains. Yet the obsession with Trump may be masking Jeb's larger problem--which he should have learned from watching his father's defeat in 1980 and victory in 1988--which is that his own conviction that he is the candidate truest to conservative principles will not suffice as a campaign strategy. Donald Trump may not be Ronald Reagan, but the Ronald Reagan that whipped Jeb's father was not the saint of people's imagination either. Jeb might have the better resume, he might be a man of compassion, but neither experience nor compassion are the currencies of the moment. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Trump moment.

Each week it just keeps getting better. The production values, the element of surprise, the buy-in. We have reached the capitulation phase of the Trump bubble. The punditocracy now believes not only that he might win Iowa, but that he probably will. And New Hampshire. Of course, no one casts a ballot for another five months, and we have seen many people take victory laps this early in the process who were never heard from again.

This week, the Fox News Poll put Donald Trump way out front in the Republican contest with 25% of the sample of registered voters. In second place is Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12%. Then, sliding into first place among actual politicians running for the Republican nomination for President, is Texas Senator Ted Cruz with 10%. The poll had several notable results. First, the continued stammering performance of the presumptive nominee, Jeb Bush, whose numbers fell from 15% to 9%. Second--though "notable" might be an overstatement--was Marco Rubio leading the pack in the race for "who would be your second choice" with 13%.

There are reasons that people like Donald Trump. Listen to him when he calls into Morning Joe or some other political gabfest, and he will really tell you what is on his mind. Listen to Scott Walker--who has probably suffered the greatest decline from borderline frontrunner status to where he is on the brink of being lapped by Carly Fiorina and John Kasich--drone on about how he won three races in four years (really, Scott, do you realize that just makes you an average Congressman) or Jeb stumble over exactly why it is he wants his brother to be his foreign policy advisor, and the Donald seems in contrast to be straightforward, confident and unscripted. Given the contrast with his cautious and highly scripted peers, it is no wonder that his supporters forgive the highly flexible nature of his positions on most any issue.

Whether you love him or hate him, or are just along for the entertainment value, Trump speaks with a clarity that is not typically part of our political discourse. At the first Republican debate, he startled people when he pointed to his fellow candidates on stage and commented not just that he had made political contributions to several of them, but that as a businessperson when he made those contributions he fully expected to receive something back in return--comments about campaign finance that the trendy news website Vox.com declared to be "shockingly insightful:"

"I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system."

Speaking to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair over the weekend, Trump expounded on how the system works:

"Many of the people that gave to Jeb, and to Hillary, and to everybody else, they're friends of mine, or enemies of mine, but they're people I know. These are not people that are doing it because they like the color of his hair, believe me. These are highly sophisticated killers. And when they give $5 million or $2 million or a $1 million to Jeb, they have him just like a puppet. He'll do whatever they want. He is their puppet. Believe me. And with me, I had yesterday a lobbyist call me up, it's a friend of mine, good guy, smart as hell. He's for his client. I don't blame him. He said, 'Donald, I want to put $5 million into your campaign.' I said, I don't need it, I don't want it. He said, 'No, no, I want to put five million in.' I said 'I don't want it. Because when you come back to me in two years and you want help for a company that you're representing or a country that you're representing, I'm going to do the right thing for the people of the United States. And I don't want to have to insult you.'"

Trump has upended the traditionally cautious political debate. In a campaign with well over a dozen candidates--many, if not all, with credible resumes boasting years of service as governors and senators, plus two prominent figures from industry and medicine--it is the reality show celebrity, birther and huckster extraordinaire who is leading the pack. But more than just leading the pack, Donald Trump has proven his ability to do what each of the others can only dream of: he can tap into the zeitgeist of a disenfranchised electorate and thumb his nose at big money fat cats--all while standing in front of a Butter Cow and giving kids helicopter rides at the Iowa State Fair. In a year where political money has been a driving narrative of the race--Jeb's $100 million war chest vs. Sheldon Adelson backing Marco Rubio vs. the Koch brothers picking Scott Walker vs. the Clinton money machine--Trump has asserted a scathing critique of our entire campaign finance system in words that everyone can understand.

Over the past several decades, the magnitude of spending on federal elections and lobbying has grown dramatically. Built upon the words of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech and the right to petition the Government, a series of federal court decisions--including the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United--now provide the legal infrastructure supporting what Trump suggests is a massive influence peddling industry. The root of the problem has been the Supreme Court fixation on corruption as a function of quid pro quo relationships, while the art of lobbying and contributions in our nation's capital is not about quid pro quo contributions for official acts, but instead is about relationships that keep the quid and the pro quo separated in time but still deliver the goods.

Our corruption is deeper, more complex, and far more damaging. As the Donald observed--while the Butter Cow stood by in rapt attention--once you take the money, "they have him just like a puppet." And the money in question is huge. According to OpenSecrets.org, the finance industry alone paid out $507.3 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2014 campaign cycle, and that was an off year. The largest single recipient was New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who received just over $4.1 million, with Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner close behind at $3.7 million and $3.3 million, respectively. And that is just contributions from one industry.

The simple fact is that none of this money is contributed without a purpose. A lot of money is contributed because in Washington, DC, a lot is at stake, whether in legislation, in regulatory rulings or in other ways. As noted on OpenSecrets, the money that industries, companies, unions and issue groups spend on lobbying is often just a drop in the bucket compared to what they can reap in return if their lobbyists are successful.

The notion that access and influence are part of an economic relationship between donors and public officials that is comparable in its long-term effect to quid pro quo corruption--as OpenSecrets and Trump each suggest--is the theory that was specifically rejected by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion in Citizen's United. While Kennedy rejects explicit quid pro quo relationships as bribery, he embraces the notion that a natural alignment exists between elected officials and their contributors where "It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors." 

From where Anthony Kennedy sits, the politician who delivers the goods is being appropriately responsive to the interests of contributors, while to Donald Trump that politician is a puppet. Trump's casual allegory of sophisticated killers and puppet-masters poses a challenge to Kennedy's central conclusion in Citizen's United that "The appearance of influence or access... will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." 

Many have argued for years that political money is a destructive force, but perhaps when Trump says it--and says it as a candidate speaking in plain English to an adoring crowd from the base of the Republican Party--people will begin to pay attention.  If Trumps words are "shockingly insightful" it is only because people have not been paying attention. The shocking part is that a majority of Supreme Court justices still seems to be unwilling to acknowledge that our nation's capital is plagued by a systemic corruption that is rooted in money.

When Donald Trump's moment ultimately fades--which it must--and the Republican primary season returns to script, we will see whether his comments about political money have any lasting impact. One might imagine that when the mega-donors reassert their control over the process, people will demand to know exactly what those donors expect to get for their money. Or perhaps Anthony Kennedy is correct, and while people may claim to be shocked they nonetheless accept that money is an eternal fact of life in our democracy.