For 2019

Among the books I’ve been reading lately is Conservationist Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Sketches from Here and There, which he composed during the 1930s and 40s.  In his sketch, “Wisconsin,” Mr. Leopold wrote:  “To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming … all these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings.”

2019 may be a tumultuous year.  Let us pray [or hope, if you prefer 🙂 ] that our leaders fairly address the many issues we face rather than exploit them; that what is true, just, and good for our people and those around the world will ultimately hold sway; and that the year brings us the grace to recognize and appreciate the blessings we receive, and the strength to overcome the obstacles we encounter.

Happy New Year.

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 …

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 …