Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Losing: Not Always Bad Politically

Losing: Not Always Bad Politically
Peter Schultz

            Most commentary on the current “crisis” regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court takes it for granted that the Democrats really want to “win” this battle and deny Kavanaugh a seat on the court. I think, however, that that could be an assumption that is not warranted, just as it is unwarranted to think that our two political parties want to win each and every election.

            There have been numerous elections where a political party does want to win an election or is content to lose. In 1912, William Howard Taft and the mainstream Republicans preferred to lose that presidential election to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson rather than win it with Teddy Roosevelt as their candidate. In a more contemporary vein, I was interested to see that while Republicans in Massachusetts could not elect one Republican to the House of Representatives they could elect governors, e.g., Bill Weld. Maybe that is because to elect members to the House of Representatives, the mainstream Republicans would have to nominate Republicans who would undermine their power, whereas electing a governor does not constitute that kind of threat.

            Moreover, other losses, e.g., the Vietnam War, have not harmed those who wanted to wage and win that war. In fact, since that defeat those who are in favor of militarizing our foreign policy are more popular than ever. And there is some evidence that those who waged that war suspected that this would be the result especially insofar as the US went “all in” in waging that war. Furthermore, we have been waging war in Afghanistan for at least 17 years – and so it cannot be said that we are “winning” that war – and yet the fact that we haven’t been able to win that war has done nothing to weaken those in favor of a militaristic foreign policy. If anything, those favoring such a foreign policy have been strengthened. And, of course, I need not point out that the “failure” on 9/11 has done nothing but strengthen the hands of those who advocate a full bodied militaristic foreign policy.

            Why point out this phenomenon now? Well, because it is a bit naïve to assume that the Democrats would be unhappy with Kavanaugh being successful in his bid to become a Supreme Court Justice. The Democrats, having “fought the good fight,” as it were, can try to turn this “defeat” into a “victory” in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election. Moreover, they can do this without having to change any of their agenda or support people who would challenge the status quo, viz., the insurgents in the party.

            So there are benefits that will accrue to the Democrats even if Kavanaugh is confirmed, most generally a strengthening of that party without requiring it to “change its stripes.” Hence, my prediction that Kavanaugh will be confirmed, and the Democrats will raise “holy hell,” even while grinning all “the way to the bank.”

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Trump's Shooting Gallery Politics

Trump’s Shooting Gallery Politics
Peter Schultz

            At every carnival I ever attended, there has always been a shooting gallery where for a few bucks you can try to knock over enough targets to win a prize of some kind, a teddy bear or a doll. And this seems to me a pretty good description of
Trump’s politics, shooting gallery politics.

            Trump has targets that he aims at, some more often than others. Some of Trump’s targets are immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Europeans, North Korea, China, proponents of global warming, teachers and other public employees, John McCain, Jeff Sessions, Robert Mueller, all Democrats and some Republicans. And Trump’s ammunition is his tweets, which he fires off at his convenience. Trump practices shooting gallery politics and as might be expected given how often he shoots, he is pretty good at it.

            But there are limitations, defects in shooting gallery politics. One defect is that it is impossible to “kill” enough targets to “win,” as is obvious from the global war on terror and its “targeted killings.” No matter how many targets one kills, more targets always appear and the killing must go on. As shooting gallery proprietors know, “the game” is endless. At best, one wins some relatively worthless prize, like a teddy bear or another “tweet battle.”

            Another defect in shooting gallery politics is that there is no overarching goal. FDR promised the American people a “New Deal” while LBJ promised them a “Great Society.” As a result of these overarching projects. FDR’s and LBJs actions did not seem random. They were not taking “pot shots” at different and apparently random appearing targets. FDR and LBJ had “enemies,” of course, but it was relatively clear who the enemies were and why they were enemies.

            As a result, FDR and LBJ would make speeches about their political projects, speaking in paragraphs in order to persuade, whereas Trump sends out tweets that often take on the characteristics of what are called “tweet storms.” These tweet storms are not intended to persuade but to overwhelm. Trump’s tweets are used as ammunition, much like how many right-wingers use information. There is no attempt to engage, to create the conditions for discourse, but merely to overwhelm with “facts.”

            Shooting gallery politics is incompatible with republican or popular politics insofar as republican or popular politics requires public discourse, public debate, and public engagement. By embracing shooting gallery politics, Trump shows he has no interest in public discourse, public debate, or public engagement. He aspires to despotism as he is anything but a republican.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

American Politics: Don't Mean Nothin'

American Politics: Don’t Mean Nothin’
Peter Schultz

            It all dawned on me as I responded to a friend’s post on Facebook that the charges against Kavanaugh were “a set up.” I responded that, of course, it was a set up and then it became clear to me what I meant. It was a set up but the people being set up were the American people; they were being played by both parties in a little drama that reveals how meaningless most of the American political drama is.

            Here’s the jest of the story. Senator Feinstein reveals that she has a letter, which of course she turned over to the FBI, in which the nominee Kavanaugh is accused of sexually attacking a young woman some 30 years ago when he was in high school. Of course, with the help of an all too willing media, the story blows up and becomes a major story.

            But think about it: Which party loses? The answer: Neither one loses. The Democrats get to trot out another sexually abused victim, and appear to be fighting Kavanaugh’s appointment “to the bitter end.” And, of course, with the mid-terms only a few weeks away, they win because they can appeal to their base and charge the Republicans with trying to ram through the appointment of someone who might be guilty of sexual abuse. So the Democrats win.

            And the Republicans? Well, they win too because they can protest that this whole event is a charade, a bogus charge with little to back it up of something that may or may not have happened decades ago. Think of how the Trumpsters, et. al., can pound this rather lame charge into the ground, which of course makes the charges leveled against the president himself look just as weak. Our patriarchy will be fortified. And then, of course, the Republicans will still get Kavanaugh on the court because it will be so easy for the Senate to shoot down these charges. So the Republicans win as well.

            This encapsulates the character of American politics. The two parties collude in ways that benefit both parties and to do so takes no great effort at all. No “smoke filled rooms” are needed. All that is needed is that the two parties act as people expect them to act, as they pretend to be “enemies.” They are in fact “indispensable enemies,” insofar as the games they play fortify their power, fortify their authority, while convincing the American people they are “enemies.”

            Does anyone lose? Well, I am guessing that Christine Ford will lose. Her life as she knew it is over and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the not too distant future her career will take a dive. And, of course, I also suspect that we, the American people, will lose also as another hypocrite takes a seat on the Supreme Court which he will hold at his own pleasure, pretending that he actually cares about the Constitution and what it means. “So it goes.” American politics: Almost all smoke and mirrors.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Presidency as Fairy Tale

The Presidency as Fairy Tale
Peter Schultz

            Below is a link to a book review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest offering Leadership: In Turbulent Times. While I wonder whether or how much of this book has been plagiarized, as has happened in other instances of Goodwin’s work, I am more concerned with yet another hagiography on some of our presidents. This is problematic because, as near as I can reckon, we have not had a decent president since at least the 1950s. More importantly, I believe this phenomenon may be traced to the office itself, which was flawed in its conception and has grown more flawed over the course of American political history.

            The fly in the ointment, as it were, was noticed by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention in 1787 when he argued that it would be unwise to create an office that appealed to avarice and the love of honor:

“there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when created in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”

Franklin argued that given such an office ‘It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust [who seek such an office]. It will be the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your Government and be your rulers. And these too will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation: For their vanquished competitors of the same spirit, and from the same motives will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.”

So, according to Franklin, the presidency would not only encourage “the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits” to seek that office, but this office would lead to a political system that would be constantly characterized by partisan warfare as others, also bold and violent, sought to undermine a sitting president and his administration. And it would seem, given our situation today, Franklin was quite prescient in his speculations.

Hence, while Goodwin wants us to look to the presidency for our political salvation, insofar as Franklin was and is correct, we should rather be looking for ways to reform the presidency, to make it less attractive to those human beings who crave both profit and honor. Several possibilities come to mind, of course. But perhaps the most obvious one would also be the best one: Limit presidents to one term of six years, after which such officials would be banned from serving in any federal office. This would lessen the appeal of that office to those who wish to acquire a reputation for “greatness,” thereby encouraging others, less enamored of such honors and their accompanying “profits,” to seek the office. Could or would we be any worse off than we are today?

Monday, September 10, 2018

The "Integrity of America's Democratic System." What?

The “Integrity of America’s Democratic System.” What?
Peter Schultz

            The fear is rising that the current state of affairs is threatening “the integrity of America’s democratic system,” to quote an article on the CNN website, linked below.

But the idea that there is a core of "adults in the room," as described by the op-ed writer, subverting the President's authority and wielding for themselves the power granted to the commander-in-chief during an election season should also be a troubling one, since it raises questions about the integrity of America's democratic system itself.”

            Two responses. First, what is happening to Trump is nothing new, nor is it especially egregious when it comes to attempts to subvert a president’s agenda. Just one example should suffice here, viz., the presidency of JFK, where some members of the CIA and the military wanted to invade Cuba and overthrow the Cuban regime even though JFK had expressed no desire to do so. Hence, the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was meant to force Kennedy to send US forces into Cuba to support what both the CIA and the military knew was an invasion that could not succeed without such action. But Kennedy did not send US troops to help the invasion succeed and said afterwards that he would like to “break the CIA into a thousand pieces.” And if you want to talk about “a coup,” as Steve Bannon did recently, then just let your mind consider the Kennedy assassination which even the Congress concluded – in the 1970s – was a conspiracy. Now that could have been a coup.

            Second: “America’s democratic system” is an illusion. What makes our political system democratic? The fact that we have a president who received more than 3 million less votes than the person he allegedly “defeated?” Or the fact that we have a Senate where states like Rhode Island, North and South Dakota have the same number of senators as states like California and Texas? Or the fact that we have a Supreme Court whose justices serve at their own pleasure, often for decades, and are not accountable for their decisions in any way?

            If this is a democracy, it is a democracy of a very weird kind because the will of the many is more often thwarted than respected and our governmental institutions were constructed and are functioning to do just that, thwart the popular will. Our governmental institutions invite officials to oppose the president, both overtly and covertly because this is another way to ensure that the popular will does not predominate.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

No, Nikki, Resistance to Presidents Is Not "Fundamentally Wrong"

No, Nikki, Resistance to Presidents Is Not “Fundamentally Wrong”
Peter Schultz

Here is a passage from a column written by Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador, a link to which can be found below.

What this anonymous author is doing is very dangerous. He or she claims to be putting the country first, and that is the right goal. Everyone in government owes a greater loyalty to our country and our Constitution than to any individual officeholder. But a central part of our democracy requires that those who work directly for the president not secretly try to undermine him or his policies. What the author is describing is an extra-constitutional method of addressing policy disputes within the administration. That’s wrong on a fundamental level.”

            To cut to the chase, it is not “a central part of our democracy . . . that those who work directly for the president not secretly try to undermine him or his policies.” Our Constitution makes the president the “chief executive,” not the only executive. There are other executives, cabinet secretaries for example, who also possess executive powers and responsibilities that in many instances cannot legally be controlled by the president. For example, during the Watergate affair, Nixon could not fire the special prosecutor so he had to get another executive to do that after two executives, including the attorney general, refused to obey Nixon’s order. Talk about undermining the president and his policies. This act of disobedience led to Nixon’s resignation.

            Even officials who serve at the pleasure of the president possess powers that the president cannot legitimately control. He can fire a disobedient executive but he cannot assume the powers of even the newly appointed official. And because the president can fire some officials, acting covertly against the president when an executive thinks that is in the national interest makes sense. And, of course, this scene has been played out again and again and again in our political drama, with officials seeking to undermine the president and his policies. It is just part of a drama framed by the separation of powers in the service of limited government.

            Patrick Henry criticized the Constitution for “squinting in the direction of monarchy” and he was correct. But it only squints in that direction; it does not embrace monarchy and the presidency is, at most, a disguised monarch. But the disguise is important in helping to preserve constitutional or limited government. And in a limited government, the powers of all officials, and especially of the chief executive, are limited. How these limits are enforced, made real, is left up to the discretion of those whose duty it is to impose them.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Is This A "Constitutional Crisis?"

Is This a “Constitutional Crisis?”
Peter Schultz

In the link provided below, David Frum wants us to believe that we are facing a “constitutional crisis” because of “Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees….” According to Frum, such defiance is not “a constitutional mechanism” and, hence, its use creates a constitutional crisis.

Well, while I am with Frum in thinking that such defiance is troubling, to call it a constitutional crisis is a bit much. After all, this is hardly the first time that a president has been defied by others in his administration, whether appointed by him or not. For example, it seems pretty clear that the CIA was actively involved in undermining the presidency of Jimmy Carter and several parts of the bureaucracy were actively seeking to undermine Nixon’s presidency, as he, Nixon, claimed. Defiance of presidents, both overt and covert, is a common practice, one that has bedeviled presidents for a very long time. And in fact such defiance is built into our constitutional order via the separation of powers and the bill of rights, the latter of which protects the freedom of the press as well as the freedom of speech or expression.

In sum, there is no constitutional requirement that other officials, either elected or unelected, support or not defy a president. Of course, the Supreme Court is composed of unelected officials serving at their own pleasure and, while appointed by the president, they are not expected to support his policies. The Court may be, as Hamilton argued, “the least dangerous branch,” but that does not mean it isn’t dangerous at all or that it shouldn’t wield its power even in defiance of the president. It is, in fact, it’s constitutional duty to do so.

So, no, this isn’t a “constitutional crisis.” In fact, it is just normal politics in what claims to be a constitutional order that creates a government of equal and coordinate departments. And as Harry Truman is rumored to have said: “If you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Term Limits: What It Might Be Like

Term Limits: What It Might Be Like
P. Schultz

            Below is a link to an article that helps to illustrate what our politics might be like if we had term limits. Briefly, term limits would open up our political order to change in a way that having a permanent political class does not.

            In an aside, the article which is about the primaries in Massachusetts makes me a bit sorry that I now live in North Carolina and not Mass. But then, only a bit and in Massachusetts I cannot play golf year round or watch, live and in person, Wake Forest soccer [ranked #1 in the nation again] or Wake Forest football. You gotta take the bad with the good.