Meacham: Ronald Reagan’s Hopeful Farewell

The attached link is to a New York Times opinion piece by historian Jon Meacham.  As most reading this are aware, I consider Ronald Reagan – despite the fact that in retrospect, I am troubled by the ultimate effects of some of the fiscal policies he initiated — to have been [at least up to this point — always have hope for the future  🙂 ] the best President of my lifetime.  I hope you can access Mr. Meacham’s essay.

The Wall and the Swastika

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, on January 4, 2019:

“A wall is an immorality.  It is not who we are as a nation.…  This is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that [President Trump] is creating here; it’s a wall between reality and … [the President’s] supporters. … He does not want them to know how he is hurting them, so he keeps the subject on the wall….  We are not doing a wall … A wall is an immorality between countries.  It’s an old way of thinking.  It isn’t cost effective.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on January 8, 2019:

“As recently as 2015, Sec. Clinton boasted, ‘I voted numerous times to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.’ … Obviously, that was then.  … Today, the new Speaker of the House is trying to argue that a physical barrier is ‘immoral.’  …  Now look, walls and barriers are not immoral.  How silly.  … [B]ack in 2006 … then-Senator Clinton, then-Senator Obama and [Sen. Chuck Schumer] were proud – ‘proud’ – to vote for physical barriers.  The only things that have changed between now and then are the political winds and, of course, the occupant in the White House.  So this is no newfound, principled objection; it’s just political spite – a partisan tantrum being prioritized over the public interest [My emphasis].”

One of the legal areas to which I devoted my career was trademarks.  Among the major tenets of trademark law is the stronger an association members of the public attach to a mark over time, the greater its power.  Occasionally, when speaking to our marketing folks about general trademark law principles, I would refer to the Swastika — perhaps the best example in history of the connotations a mark can gather.  Its design is artistic, symmetrical, and powerful.  It would have been a great mark for a gym shoe.  Over centuries, it enjoyed extensive and positive connotations across Eastern cultures and in this country.  I recall us seeing depictions of it in ancient Native American art during a recent trip to the southwest.

Its pedigree prior to the 1930s doesn’t matter.  While one could argue that any graphic design is just “a design” … the Swastika cannot be viewed as a design.  It was made synonymous with monstrous evil.

I would suggest that at least in the remarks noted above, Rep. Pelosi weaved disappointingly between the moral, political, and practical in trying to explain why she called the Wall an “immorality.”  While there are apparently valid concerns about whether $5 billion to extend the border wall is an effective means to enhance our border security, if the disagreement is framed in practical terms, it’s hard to contend that the government should be shut down over a mere fraction of the federal budget.  Either Ms. Pelosi couldn’t articulate her fundamental rationale (very unlikely) or didn’t want to inject provocative rhetoric into an already fraught situation (most probably).  For his part, Sen. McConnell’s indication that it is “silly” to label a wall “immoral” was, in the current context, possibly oblivious but more probably a politically disingenuous side step.  (I suspect that if one reviewed Sen. McConnell’s early Senate speeches – he was first elected in 1984 – one might well find that at some point, he called the Berlin Wall “immoral.”)

There has to be a higher principle than depriving the President of a political lollipop or the wall’s cost efficiency to require so many of our people within and outside the federal government to deal with the economic hardship they are now facing.  There has to be a purpose worthy of their sacrifice.  I would submit – being acutely aware that this impasse is creating no financial hardship for me – that there is.  The Border Wall shouldn’t be funded because — in the current context – it is no longer a “wall”; it is an immorality.  When Sens. Obama, Clinton, and Schumer were voting during the Republican Bush Administration to fund border construction, they were supporting a structural means for reducing illegal immigration.  When at the beginning of his campaign Mr. Trump declared Mexicans – and by extension, all brown-skinned peoples — crossing the border “murderers and rapists,” and as during the last several years he has repeatedly indicated that he will stop the (nonexistent) “invasion” he claims is occurring at our southern border through a “great, big, beautiful wall,” he transformed a structural means of reducing illegal immigration into a symbol of racial bigotry.

Sen. McConnell was unwittingly right on a couple of points:  2006 was then – when a border wall was just … a wall.  I suspect that under future administrations of either party, a border wall will again be considered merely a means to reduce illegal immigration.  However, while we have – using Mr. McConnell’s words — “the current occupant in the White House,” the wall is a trademark of hate.  Its funding should be rejected.  Hopefully, Democrats are holding fast for the right reason as our people’s financial hardships multiply.

Pondering Tonight’s Oval Office Address

In the last post, I referred to a concept, Naïve Realism, that I should have defined and seems likely to prevail among our people after President Trump’s Oval Office Address this evening.  In return for ending the government shutdown, the President is widely expected to call for the funding of additional wall construction along our southern border to stem what he and his cohort are claiming to be a “crisis” of illegal entry into our country by migrants and terrorists.  Mr. Trump may threaten to declare – although the Washington Post is currently reporting that it is unlikely that he will declare — a national emergency; such a declaration would reportedly provide him with what some pundits have described as largely unfettered authority to divert funds from other defense initiatives to the construction of the additional border barrier.

Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets aggressively point to government data as evidence of the lack of any emergency, and a number of commentators – including Chris Wallace of Fox News – have pretty effectively shown that literally only a handful of the 4,000 suspected terrorists that the Homeland Security Agency states that it detains at our borders every year are apprehended at our southern border.  [There appears to be an ongoing skirmish as to the relative threat posed by the 3,000 “Special Interest Aliens (SIAs)” that U. S. Border and Customs Protection reports it has encountered in 2018 at the southern border.  On one hand, DHS indicates that a SIA may pose a national security risk due to travel patterns and like factors indicating a potential nexus to terrorism; on the other hand, DHS states that a SIA designation does not indicate any derogatory information about the individual.  You be the judge.]

In short, this dispute has evolved into the kind of political rugby scrum that existed before the Trump presidency but has been exacerbated by it:  the President shouting an emotional, disingenuous, divisive message that stokes his base; Democrats and the mainstream media countering with facts that, while overall having the better part of truth, are presented with a highly partisan relish.

Mr. Trump’s supporters hope that his speech tonight will sway a larger segment of our citizens to his position; his opponents fear that such might occur.  This may prove to be another prediction that is only so much Noise, but I don’t think we’ll see much movement.

A while back, one of our sons gave me the book, The Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling.  At one point, Mr. Kling refers to the concept of Naïve Realism, which he describes as “… each of us naively believ[ing] that our perspective is real, even though different perspectives contradict one another.”  He in turn cites a piece by Psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman, who describes Naïve Realism as “an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise adaptive aspect of brain function” which serves us well when perceiving the physical world but can readily betray us in the social domain of understanding, where “… our ‘seeing’ is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation.”  A link to Professor Lieberman’s (short) piece is below.

“Naïve Realism” may simply be a highfalutin way of describing what we all know:  that we each more readily accept what we want to believe.  In any event, I would suggest that the President’s supporters – alarmed by the threat they believe exists at the southern border — will be moved by his address, and enthusiastically support any action he takes; his opponents – believing the President’s claims a political sham — will sharply dispute his assertions, and aggressively attempt to counter any measures he initiates.  Those anywhere in the middle will probably dismiss the whole fracas as political posturing – and simply want the government reopened.  Virtually no citizen’s opinion will be altered.  (Indeed, I wonder how many of our people are even still listening; Mr. Trump’s constant maelstrom seems to have exhausted not only his opponents but many of his supporters).

I am concerned about the ramifications of what appears to be Mr. Trump’s current course for two reasons, however:  first, his showing tonight will dilute one of the few tools of the office that he hasn’t already sullied to create a national consensus if our nation is ever confronting a true emergency during his presidency; and second, although his declaration of an emergency, either tonight or in the future, would presumably create a path to reopen the government by getting him – at least in the short run — the funding he demands while enabling the Democrats to have stood their ground, I fear that his invocation of an emergency will give Democrats a rallying cry to attempt to curb a President’s emergency powers.  It may likewise cause a judge to rationalize limits on a President’s powers that will adversely hamstring future Presidents.  The fact that we currently have an unprincipled and ill-suited person filling the office is, in my view, insufficient ground to limit the latitude to act in our behalf that we want at the disposal of an able and well-intended Chief Executive in the time of true national emergency.  (There is, of course, also the countervailing concern that could arise from any challenge to the President’s actions:  a judge’s rejection of limits on the President’s power could cause Mr. Trump, if over time he feels increasingly besieged, to feel dangerously emboldened).  I would submit that Congress – even in a more bipartisan, nationally-focused iteration than exists today – is by necessity too unwieldy to move with the resolve and alacrity required in a true time of need; further, I would venture that the chances are extremely high that we will more quickly return an able, well-intended individual (of either party) to the presidency than we will be able to install a majority of Senators and Representatives able to look beyond their own respective political self-interests to the good of the nation as a whole.

On Shutdown Machinations

Every one of us is to some extent caught in our own Naïve Realism, but it’s hard for me to see how Republicans escape the political box that the President Trump has created for them over the current government shutdown or how Democrats, if they are at all adept, can’t split the common front that Republicans – except for a few foreign policy issues when the President has gone too far – have pretty well maintained throughout the first two years of the Trump term.

If I understand the situation correctly, after Rep. Nancy Pelosi was sworn in yesterday as House Speaker, the House passed bills to reopen the government – absent any funding for Mr. Trump’s border wall — which were essentially the same measures that the Senate had passed in December with what then appeared to be the President’s support.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that he will not submit the bills to the Senate for a vote, presumably because they would garner sufficient bipartisan support to pass; if presented with such bills, Mr. Trump will be required to either capitulate on his demand for wall funding or veto them – either of which has much more political hazard than advantage for him.  Mr. McConnell’s refusal to introduce the bills has thus far engendered criticism from Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, both up for re-election in 2020 in states Mr. Trump lost in 2016.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suspect that there may be a number of other Republican Senators that are privately frustrated by Mr. McConnell’s transparently-partisan maneuvering (new Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr — who has performed steadfastly as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the last two years – perhaps among them).

Although one needs to guard against being swept up in the commentary of hyperventilating liberal talking heads, I heard a comment this morning with which it seems hard to disagree:  by failing to submit the bills for a vote, Mr. McConnell is politically protecting the President – at some risk to some members of his own Senate caucus.

The big donors of both parties are awash in money (which I consider one of the great current threats to our system of government – an issue to be held for a serious separate post in the future).  We have, for example, seen countless ads over the last couple of years funded by billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, sharply criticizing Mr. Trump and calling for his impeachment.  It seems to me that if Democrats are interested in using the shutdown to drive a strategic wedge within the Republican ranks, they should ignore the President – there is probably no human in the developed world that doesn’t already have an irreversible opinion, pro or con, of Mr. Trump — and instead get their well-heeled donors to fund the construction of messaging stressing these points:

That for purely political posturing, Senate Republicans are unwilling to consider the same bills to open the government that they already passed in December.

That Democrats are willing to authorize as much money for border wall funding as Mexico certifies to Congress it has paid to the U.S. for such funding.  (I admit:  This is too easy.)

That while Senate Majority Leader McConnell refuses to allow the Senate to vote on the same bills to reopen the government and pay federal workers that Senate Republicans passed in December, Mr. McConnell’s spouse (Elaine Chao) serves as the President’s Secretary of Transportation, and Mr. McConnell’s brother-in-law (Gordon Hartogensis) is Mr. Trump’s nominee to serve as the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  (As Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mr. Dooley once observed:  “… [P]olitics ain’t bean-bag.”  Mr. McConnell has seemingly made himself as much of a target for Democrats as the Republicans consider Ms. Pelosi.)

My guess:  That kind of messaging, run in all but the deepest of red states represented by Republican Senators, together with the internal heat undoubtedly being generated by those in the Republican Senate caucus feeling endangered – a displeasure perhaps intensified by the realization that Mr. McConnell’s own bid for re-election in Kentucky in 2020 is probably best served by sticking with the President — would create an exquisite squeeze upon Mr. McConnell and ultimately result in significant Republican defections …

The Lamentable Legacy of Paul Ryan: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there  😉

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution of the United States provides, in part, as follows:

“The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker ….”

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 provides, in part, as follows:

“If … there is neither a President nor Vice President … then the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall … act as President.”

John Stuart Mill, 1867:

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Paul Ryan, April 2011:  “We need leadership, not a doubling down on the politics of the past…….We are looking for bipartisan solutions, not partisan rhetoric.”

Paul Ryan, April 2011:  “Exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety is not hope, it’s not change, it’s partisanship.  We don’t need partisanship. We don’t need demagoguery.”

Paul Ryan, May 2011:  “I don’t consult polls to tell me what my principles are …”

Paul Ryan, 2013:  “America is more than just a country …. It’s more than our borders.  America is an idea.  It’s a very precious idea.”

Paul Ryan, 2015:  “Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islamic terror are Muslims, the vast, vast, vast majority of whom are people who believe in pluralism, freedom, democracy, individual rights.”

Paul Ryan, 2016:  “In America, aren’t we all supposed to see beyond class, see beyond ethnicity?”

Paul Ryan, 2016:  “I would sue any president that exceeds his or her powers.”

Paul Ryan, 2016:  Regarding then-Candidate Trump’s claim that Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel was biased in the Trump University case because of the Judge’s Mexican heritage:  “[A] textbook definition of a racist comment.”

No rational observer can dispute President Trump’s disregard for the sentiments Speaker of the House Paul Ryan claimed to espouse throughout his career.  While one can, as in Part I of this post, point to the discrepancy between Mr. Ryan’s dire warnings about our growing national debt and his actual performance in Congress, I would assert that the dichotomy between the sentiments he expressed during the last 20 years regarding fundamental American freedoms and the American idea and his actual conduct of the Speakership constituted an abject abandonment of his Constitutional responsibility.  His record is one of shame; he acted as a partisan political leader while ignoring his responsibility as Speaker of the “People’s House.”

I have written in these pages that that Mr. Trump “… takes endless liberties with the truth.”  Mr. Ryan knew it.  He stood aside.

Mr. Trump repeatedly attacks those outlets running accounts he doesn’t like as “Enemies of the People” and “Fake News.”  Mr. Ryan knew this was divisive calumny.  He stood aside.

Mr. Trump repeatedly panders to racial bias, perhaps most notably in his reference to Mexicans as “murderers and rapists,” in his comments following the events in Charlottesville, and in his harping about migrant “invasions” of “bad people.”  Mr. Ryan knew this was hateful bigotry.  He stood aside.

Mr. Trump’s repeated unwillingness to acknowledge that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election on his behalf, contrary to the unanimous view of the American intelligence community, both diminished the public standing of those whose duty it is to protect us and degraded our ability to safeguard our democratic systems.  Mr. Ryan knew it.  He stood aside.

Mr. Trump’s constant attacks on the Special Counsel investigation disregard his and his cohort’s now-admitted lies, ignore myriad now-established facts regarding his organization’s interactions with Russians, and conveniently overlook a truly impressive number of guilty pleas and indictments already obtained by Mr. Mueller’s team.  Mr. Ryan knew this.  Not only didn’t he act to protect our nation; he allowed Rep. Devin Nunes – who’s been exposed as a White House stooge so many times that one loses count – to continue to whitewash the White House and cast aspersions on the investigation.  Mr. Ryan’s actions exceeded acquiescence; they approached Constitutional malfeasance.

Mr. Trump has throughout his presidency been fixated on a Mexican border wall that virtually all security experts — and, indeed, most politicians of both parties — consider an ineffective waste of taxpayer dollars, and has currently forced a federal shutdown causing hardship on federal workers and depriving our citizens of government services to which they are entitled.  Mr. Ryan knew that Mr. Trump’s maneuver is purely a political stunt.  Not only did he do nothing to block the endeavor; in his last real act as Speaker, he enabled Mr. Trump’s partisan spasm by engineering House passage of a bill authorizing wall funding that he knew couldn’t pass the Senate … to try to shift blame for the shutdown to the Democrats.

I’ve been hard on Mr. Ryan in these two posts.  I’ve at times wondered about the source of the visceral disdain I have developed for him over the past two years – which, in some ways, exceeds even the distaste I have for President Trump.  I’ve come to realize that it’s because I believe that Mr. Ryan did know better, did have honorable instincts, had the power to act … and chose to capitulate to our nation’s darkest instincts for the sake of partisan politics and a few Pyrrhic legislative victories.  He was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives – two steps from the presidency.  He had the position, opportunity and duty to protect our nation by confronting the rants of a demagogue … and he stood aside.

In a 2012 New Yorker piece, a close aide of Mr. Ryan described his philosophy as follows:  “Only by taking responsibility for oneself … can one … make responsible choices between right and wrong ….”  While Mr. Ryan obviously learned a grade schooler’s lessons in his Janesville civics classes – “How a Bill Becomes a Law” – he failed to absorb the statesman’s guideposts:  Morality; Rule of Law; Responsibility; Honor; and Courage.  In blog parlance, his legacy is that of capitulation, abdication and cowardice.  In the language of the street … he let us down.  He didn’t have the guts.

The Lamentable Legacy of Paul Ryan: Part I: Redux

[I posted the following note in May of this year.  An “inside baseball” insight to blogging:  if one writes ponderous pieces that need to be broken into parts (as I obviously do), one should never post any part of a note until all parts have been completed.  I learned that with this piece.  I posted Part I … and then got distracted.  Part II is now done.  Its specific text will differ to a certain extent from the draft that existed last spring, but regrettably, nothing Mr. Ryan did between then and now has changed its tenor.]

After Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced his intent to retire from Congress this past April, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement intended to praise Mr. Ryan, saying in part, “Paul’s speakership has yielded one signature accomplishment after another for his conference, his constituents in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, and the American people [my emphasis].”

While one can agree or dispute Sen. McConnell’s characterization of Mr. Ryan’s tenure as one of “accomplishment,” it seems to me that the order in which he placed Mr. Ryan’s constituencies was entirely accurate — and (unwittingly) more indictment than tribute.

By all accounts, Mr. Ryan is an upbeat, pleasant man of probity.  His intelligence and grasp of policy detail are legendary.  Even those that vigorously disagree with him on substantive issues like and praise him personally.  Yet, it is hard, as Mr. Ryan’s tenure draws to a close, not to characterize his record as, at best, one of accommodation and enablement, and at worst, one of hypocrisy and timidity.

Any review of Mr. Ryan’s record demonstrates that the issue of greatest concern to him throughout his career has been the ever-growing federal debt.  An internet search yields such a number of the Speaker’s declarations on the issue that if all were recorded here, WordPress would need another couple of servers to hold them.  A brief sampling:

  • In March of 2010:

“This debt crisis coming to our country. The wall and tidal wave of debt that is befalling our nation. Medicare and Social Security go bankrupt within ten years, we have a debt that is looming so high that in the last year of President Obama’s budget just the interest payments on our debt is $916 billion dollars.”

  • And again, urging a need for fiscal restraint in March, 2013:

“Our debt is already bigger than our economy.”

These are understandable sentiments; a number of thoughtful commentators have suggested that our burgeoning debt may be not only our most important domestic policy issue but also our most dangerous foreign policy challenge.  However, anyone looking at the dates of these and his like comments will note that they all were made while Barack Obama was in the White House.

  • In 2001, Mr. Ryan voted for President Bush’s tax cuts [to be fair, at the time of the vote, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a significant federal budget surplus into the future].
  • In the summer of 2003, he voted for President Bush’s second round of tax cuts. If truly a deficit hawk, he accommodated to his party’s political interests.
  • In the early winter of 2003, he voted for Medicare Part D. If truly a deficit hawk, he accommodated to his party’s political interests.
  • According to news accounts, he voted at least five times to raise the federal debt ceiling during the Bush presidency. Good policy, but I’ve seen no indication that he sounded any alarm in those years — as contrasted with the struggles on this issue during the Obama presidency.

If I understand the reporting correctly, the CBO concluded in 2012 that the Bush Tax Cuts and Medicare Part D were the cause of about 30% of the then-current national debt.  No matter how one feels about the substance of these measures, it was apparent by the time that President Trump took office that the Bush laws had significantly added to the deficits that Mr. Ryan never tired of railing about.  Mr. Ryan nevertheless ushered through the House both a tax cut and a budget deal – which USA Today reported that he called the “biggest accomplishments” of his Speakership — that the CBO estimated in April would add $1.6 trillion to the deficit during the next decade … and more if the individual tax cuts (set to expire in 2026) are extended.  This estimate could not have come as a surprise; when Trump tax plan details surfaced in the spring of 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that “not one respondent” in a University of Chicago poll of leading academic economists thought that the plan would pay for itself.

In the final analysis, the Speaker was more interested in obtaining perceived short term political gain for the members of his House Republican caucus than in America’s long term fiscal stability.  The measures he championed placed the entitlements that millions of Americans need and will need on even shakier ground than they were before.  He instead chose to accommodate his members.  A fact is a fact.

It’s difficult not to conclude that the dichotomy between Rep. Ryan’s words and actions is more evidence of political careerism and opportunism than fervently-held policy beliefs.  Even so, I am less troubled by his inconsistency on fiscal issues than by his failure of moral Constitutional leadership.  However, recognizing that this is a blog rather than an endless Word document, it’s time to call a halt.  More in Part II …

Border Wall Bewilderment

As President Trump and Congressional Democrats are skirmishing over the level of U.S. tax dollars that should be allocated to build Mr. Trump’s border wall, and the President is threatening a shutdown if he doesn’t get the level of funding he seeks, I confess that I’m a bit … baffled.  Recognizing that I’m primarily preaching to the choir:

Don’t border security experts pretty unanimously agree that there are many approaches we can take that will enhance our border security more effectively than a physical wall?

Since the shutdown is projected to occur on December 21, and the Republicans control the entire federal government until January 1, how can any failure to secure the border wall funding that the President seeks be considered … the Democrats’ fault?

Isn’t Mexico supposed to be paying for the wall?

I admit that there is no original insight here; I just couldn’t resist.