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 …

On the Decision to Withdraw from Syria

There are a plethora of aspects to President Trump’s decision to remove our troops from Syria, seemingly virtually all bad; these are being covered by any number of experts much better versed than I.  There appear to be few sensible members of the Administration nor knowledgeable members of Congress that support this decision.  Sen. Chris Coons has suggested that more than ninety members of the Senate disagree with this decision.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford was apparently notified of Mr. Trump’s decision after the President announced it by tweet.  If this latter report is accurate, it is more than unnerving; it is scary.

It appears that departing Defense Secretary James Mattis was aware of the decision before it was made, and voiced strong disagreement.  Although every American should wish Mr. Mattis well on a personal level, his resignation is both disheartening and alarming – disheartening because he was a level, experienced voice that provided a steady hand in what is clearly a sea of chaos; alarming because it is clear from his resignation letter that he had lost the ability to curb President Trump’s aberrant impulses.

At some level, all of us can appreciate the President’s desire — magnified by his isolationist spirit – to start to withdraw from our seemingly intractable Middle Eastern involvements.  (To boot, he promised his supporters that he would withdraw, and he is manic about fulfilling campaign promises.)  These understandable motivations need to be balanced against the likelihood that the withdrawal will enable ISIS to regroup, solidify Russian influence in the Middle East, aid Iran, imperil Israel, project a lack of American resolve in other areas of the world, etc., etc.  That said, the two areas of concern that most stand out for me are the manifestly disunited process preceding the decision and the peril in which the contemplated withdrawal will place our Kurdish allies in Syria.

Our Syrian Kurdish allies have been our most effective fighting force against ISIS.  They have clearly hoped that given the support that they have provided us, we would in turn support their desire for an autonomous region if not an independent Kurdish state.  They are hated by ISIS, the Assad regime, and Turkey.  Kurds, generally, are considered a danger by Iran and Russia.  The Afghan and Iraq regimes certainly have no love for them, due to their own nations’ independent-minded Kurds.  If we go forward with this withdrawal, we are turning our backs on these dedicated allies.  They are going to be assaulted from virtually all sides.

While there are profound examples in our history of a President making decisions contrary to the recommendations of his military command and prevailing opinion (Abraham Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War coming most readily to mind), it is disturbing that this President – untutored, rash, self-focused, at least preoccupied by if not unraveling as a result of the Mueller probe — is dispensing with appropriate procedural guideposts in the conduct of the most sensitive of his responsibilities.  And:  before ISIS-designed or -inspired bombs start going off in Paris, Berlin, London, or New York, our Syrian Kurdish allies may well have been purged.

I still see bumper stickers around Madison declaring about Mr. Trump:  “Not My President.”  With all due respect, Mr. Trump is our President (the Russians influenced segments of our citizenry, but it was still our people that pulled the voting levers), and thus, our Commander in Chief.  Military strategy falls within his purview.  Those of us calling for respect for law in other contexts need to have respect for our laws in all contexts.  However, although a certain amount of damage has already been done by the withdrawal announcement, I am hoping that Mr. Trump will ultimately reverse this decision given the widespread outcry – including from those that have generally supported him — regarding its potential consequences.

On Messrs. Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos … and Ford and Leopold

On December 14, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did indeed sign the package of “Lame Duck” bills, presented to him by the Wisconsin Legislature under the leadership of State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Voss, designed to limit the ability of incoming Governor Tony Evers and other Democrats to take the actions upon which they had victoriously campaigned and to suppress the future turnout of Democrat-leaning eligible voters.  It was a disappointing display of the mean-spirited petty partisanship that characterized the past eight years of state Republican leadership.

I speculated in an earlier post that given the national negative attention that the Republican measures had drawn, Mr. Walker might be feeling conflicted between the prospects of leaving office labeled a Sore Loser if he signed the bills, and incurring the wrath of his core supporters if he didn’t.  If he did feel any such tension – and it appears that he may have, given his delay in signing the bills, the pains he took to downplay their impact, and his protestations regarding his legacy — he clearly determined that his own political future was better served by doing what his supporters wanted him to do, presumably recognizing that those most offended by his final official actions would never vote for him anyway.  From a political handicapping standpoint, it’s hard to question his calculation.

Although it’s exhilarating to use – as I have – the word, “execrable,” to describe the Republicans’ recent actions, and the word, “outrage,” to describe one’s frustration at the manner in which they’ve thwarted the will of the majority of Wisconsin citizens, now that the storm has passed, I find myself more nettled than angered.  While the Republican actions currently cast an unsavory air over Wisconsin and will for a time slow the state’s return to what I believe is its natural heritage, the state was able to overcome the national stigma that it must have endured following the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s; compared to that, the fallout here is seemingly of little account.

I very much enjoy leafing through “The New York Times Front Pages 1851 – 2012,” given me a while back by our daughter and son-in-law.  On its front page of January 8, 1914, the Times reported that Henry Ford had just announced that Ford Motor Company was going to dispense $10 million of its 1914 profits to its employees, and that it was establishing a minimum pay scale of $5 per day for all employees.  Treasurer Henry Couzens is quoted as saying, “Believing as we do, that a division of our earnings between capital and labor is unequal, we sought a plan of relief suitable for our business.  We do not feel sure that it is the best, but we have felt impelled to make a start, and make it now.”

In the late 1940’s, the renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac, describing life in and around the farm he owned in the 1930’s and ‘40’s along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Among his depictions of central Wisconsin wildlife, fauna, and evolution, Mr. Leopold at times ventured further.  At one point he observed, “We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so … But there is one vocation – philosophy – which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools.  It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worth while [sic] to wield any.”

Those that cling to outmoded ways disappear with them.  Whose thinking will be relevant in 50 years?  That of Messrs. Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos?  Or of Messrs. Ford and Leopold?  Considering that tempers my frustration …

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.

The Horns of Governor Walker’s Dilemma

As all of you are aware, on December 5, in an “Extraordinary Session,” Wisconsin Republicans passed a number of measures designed to provide the state GOP future political advantage and/or limit incoming Democrats’ ability to take steps upon which they victoriously campaigned.  These “Lame Duck” actions have received national notoriety and been criticized not only by Democrats but also by some prominent state Republican donors and politicians (including former Republican Governor Scott McCallum).  On December 9, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that as of Friday, December 7, the bills had not yet been formally sent to Governor Scott Walker for action, and that they will not be formally sent to him until December 20 unless he asks for their formal tender.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on December 8, “Walker can sign the bills into law, veto them, or exercise his partial veto authority to strike certain provisions before signing them.”

It is certainly not a stretch to suggest that that these bills were constructed in a spasm of Republican partisanship and indignation arising immediately following the Governor’s close defeat, in an attempt to hold onto policy directions forged by Republicans over the last eight years that incoming Governor Tony Evers has pledged to modify.  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­During debate on the bills – which were, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, crafted in close consultation with Mr. Walker’s office — Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos stated, in urging their passage:  “… [W]e are going to have a very liberal governor that is going to enact policies that are in a direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

Any number of pundits have commented on the effects that the Republicans’ actions will have upon the reputation of the State of Wisconsin if these measures are enacted, and I certainly have my impressions, but those can await the final disposition of the bills by the Governor.  What I find intriguing at present is the fact that the Republicans don’t appear to have anticipated the amount of high-profile notoriety and ridicule their actions would bring upon themselves and the state.  Perhaps most intriguing are the horns of the dilemma that Mr. Walker seems to be personally confronting as he determines how to act upon these measures – horns that he may now appreciate if he has not yet called for the bills to be sent to him.

Mr. Walker is a career politician.  Running for and holding office has been his life.  If he signs these bills — which already have his fingerprints all over them — he’ll be branded within Wisconsin and across the nation as a Sore Loser who was determined to thwart the will of the majority of the 2018 Wisconsin voters – a label that I would submit could be much more detrimental to any future political aspirations he might have than his narrow loss.  On the other hand, if he vetoes or materially modifies the measures, he’ll presumably be viewed as a traitor by his Wisconsin Republican legislative allies (who have already reaped and will continue to incur derision for their passage of these measures) and the core supporters that would form the bedrock of any future run he might wish to undertake for Wisconsin statewide office.

I have wondered whether there might be a third avenue – a way for the Governor to have his cake and eat it, too.  Will the bills become law if Mr. Walker simply does nothing?  Article V, Section 3 of the Wisconsin State Constitution provides:

“Any bill not returned by the governor within 6 days … after it shall have been presented to the governor shall be law unless the legislature, by final adjournment, prevents the bill’s return, in which case it shall not be law. [Emphasis Added].”

Numerous accounts of the Extraordinary Session have indicated that the Legislature “adjourned” after passing the controversial measures.  With zero background in the nuances of Wisconsin legislative practice, I’m assuming that this adjournment would be considered “final” in the constitutional sense.  If so, any failure by Mr. Walker to act will cause the bills to expire without becoming law – which, I suspect, would cause him to incur the same level of wrath from his supporters as would an outright veto.

Clearly more to come.  Something I wonder, but will never know:  whether at this point, Mr. Walker wishes, from his own personal perspective, that he had simply graciously accepted his defeat …

Wisconsin Republican Lame Duck Session: Undermining Democracy

For those of you not already aware, set forth at the bottom of this note is a link to a Wisconsin Public Radio News account describing proposals that the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature is reported to be considering in a lame-duck session this week.  Although there is no point to regurgitating the information provided through the link, a few of the proposals on the table include:

  • Limiting incoming Governor Tony Evers’ ability to modify Wisconsin’s Voter ID law, change state work requirements for food stamps, authorize Wisconsin to leave a federal lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, or make changes to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (which Mr. Evers indicated, during his campaign against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, that he would like to eliminate).

 

  • Reducing the in-person early voting period from that currently allowed by law. (Early voters have generally favored Democrats.  To state the obvious:  to the extent that this law suppresses voter turnout, it serves to disenfranchise legally-authorized voters.)

 

  • Moving the Wisconsin 2020 Presidential Primary from the current April date to March – which can be expected to reduce turnout in the April elections, clearly to the benefit of conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly. (In addition to the blatant political nature of the measure, the Clerks of several counties have already expressed concern about the practical logistics of such a change, and there are estimates that the additional statewide cost of the switch may approach $7 million.)

 

I recently had refreshers with a close friend, a lifelong Wisconsin Republican, who indicated in passing that he had been angered by the recall vote against Mr. Walker in 2012, because he felt that those that had lost in 2010 “were trying to take away my vote.”

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal contains a piece by Lance Morrow, “America is Addicted to Outrage.  Is There a Cure?”, in which Mr. Morrow suggests that we, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, can’t go on being outraged by everything; we are exhausting ourselves by blowing everything out of proportion.

I understand my friend’s indignation at the 2012 recall effort.  I also find Mr. Morrow’s piece thoughtful and persuasive.  That said, since the most welcome outcome of the 2018 elections for me was Gov. Scott Walker’s defeat, I can’t – try as I might – feel anything but frustration – indeed, outrage – at what the Republicans are reportedly intending to do.  They lost every statewide race in 2018.  It is clear that the majority of Wisconsin citizens do not agree with the direction that Republicans have taken the state.  They nonetheless appear intent on imposing their will of the majority of the state’s citizens.

Democrats are obviously vociferously denouncing the Republicans’ actions.  I note with interest that State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, in defending the actions the Republicans intend to take, has issued a statement which provides in part:

“The legislature is the most representative branch in government and we will not stop being a strong voice for our constituents.”

Any resident of this state over the age of 18 will recall the 2011 dispute over and demonstrations against Act 10, the Wisconsin statute that adversely affected the collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave rights and benefits for most Wisconsin public sector employees, and will probably also recall that prior to the law’s enactment, Wisconsin Senate Democrats staged a boycott in an vain attempt to prevent Act 10’s passage.

During the standoff, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Democratic State Senator Spencer Coggs defended the boycott:  “We’re doing our job of making sure the people have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”  The Journal-Sentinel included Sen. Fitzgerald’s response:  “That’s not democracy. That’s not what this chamber is about. [My emphasis].”

The efforts listed in the linked account are unquestionably intended to hamper incoming Gov. Tony Evers and thwart the will of the majority of the citizens that voted in 2018.  State Republicans are resorting to these efforts because they clearly understand that the greater the percentage of legally-qualified Wisconsin citizens that vote, the more likely they are to lose elections and influence.  What they apparently intend is not — to cite Sen. Fitzgerald — democracy. What they intend is execrable.

I really did find Mr. Morrow’s piece compelling.  I really do intend to work on controlling my outrage.  It would help, however, if Wisconsin state Republicans claiming to represent me – as a resident of the state of Wisconsin – had the slightest respect for our democratic form of government and for fair play.

https://www.wpr.org/gop-state-lawmakers-look-limit-early-voting-lame-duck-session

On the Passing of George H. W. Bush

President Bush himself perhaps provided the most insightful assessment of his presidency in a comment to historian Jon Meacham:

“I am lost between the glory of Ronald Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons.”

Even so, I now look back on his life of service and his decency … and realize what our current political climate has lost, and the standard to which we need to aspire and return.  Mr. Bush’s agreement during his term to raise taxes – despite his earlier campaign pledge, and with the understanding that it could (as it did) cost him a second term – because he felt it was the right thing to do – is in stark contrast to the craven focus on self-interest of politicians of both parties that we suffer with today.

I would submit that what can be said of President Bush can’t be said of many presidents:  that his years in the White House were simply a part of the tapestry of a larger life that in its entirety consisted of integrity, honor, duty, devotion to his wife, his family, and his friends, and dedication to his nation.  Although there are good biographies available about him, I recommend that anyone having the opportunity instead read All the Best – George Bush, a compilation of the President’s correspondence over a lifetime.  It demonstrates in his own words, more clearly than any historian, eulogizer or commentator has or will, what a fine man he was.