Saturday, March 30, 2019

Trump and the price of vengeance

IT IS NOT enough that I succeed, others must fail,” said Genghis Khan, the 12th century superdespot who inspired merciless boardroom tactics, equally merciless dictators, and the taste for vengeance savored by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

All the punditalk about a possible overreach by House Democrats in the wake of the pending release of the Mueller report pales in comparison to the proven overreach of President* Donald Trump, doing a protracted victory lap over apparently prevailing in that closed-but-not-closed investigation. Trump can’t celebrate a win for its own sake; chaos and conflict are the twin north stars of his persona and his psyche. And now, in the wake of victory, Trump has reanimated conflict with an old foe to address a new enemy.

With the potential Richter-scale disclosures in the Mueller report now largely downplayed by Attorney General William Barr’s Cliff’s Notes synopsis of the Mueller report, the president* hasn’t shifted his sights to a new domestic policy program. Instead he’s focused on remounting the thrice-beaten dead horse of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

With a statement to the Fox News bloviation ecosystem (“The Republican party will be the party of great health care. You watch.”) and apparently ready to make dismantling of that health care a central priority of the 2020 campaign — at the expense of at least 21 million Americans who can’t do without it — Trump’s busy turning the gold of a win into the dross of a stalemate or a loss, acting like a man blind to his own refusal to let a little success stand between himself and a major failure.

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Michael Kruse in Politico observed on March 29: “Barely more than a day after triumphantly (and incorrectly) blazoning his “Total EXONERATION,” Trump abruptly seized upon a Justice Department filing to pledge his intention to obliterate Obamacare. Bent on delivering on a campaign promise, Trump couldn’t resist the urge to try to parlay one win into an even larger one, no matter how improbable the odds. He ignored the advice of top staff and important allies, who pointed out that neither he nor his party had anything to offer as a replacement and that this almost certainly would work to the advantage of Democrats.”

The health-care issue is a convenient avenue where Trump can air a plethora of other grievances with his opponents, real and imagined. Even now, in the aftermath of what should be an easy layup of a victory lap with a touch of winner’s charitability, Trump’s hit full-vengeance mode, inveighing with a renewed vigor against the mainstream media, social media platforms, Hollywood and other available whipping boys and targets of opportunity.

He may well hope to exact revenge on his tormentors purely for its own sake. But never mind the mind-numbing logistical challenges of visiting Oval Office vengeance on each of more critics than he can count. In pursuing a mindless course of retribution, there’s a very real risk Trump runs by clumsily relitigating the purported wrongs against him for the last two years: the risk of turning voters off.

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VOTERS UNAFRAID to entertain something close to civility in the public discourse have reason to fear, or expect, tuning Trump out. The meanness of the man, his essential smallness, have been obvious in the worst way, and not just recently. Kruse reports: “To those ... who have watched him and known him longer than the insiders in Washington, this is par for the course for Trump. His vengeful, punitive, zero-sum worldview, they believe, dictates that a win alone is never enough; somebody else has to take the loss, and feel it.”

“Trump’s energy,” a former Trump associate told Kruse, “comes from conflict.”

“He is not interested in pleasures such as art and food and friendship, and he doesn’t seem to be motivated by love or creative impulses. The one exception is his drive to create conflict, which brings him the attention of others,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer, to Politico.

“When he says he likes to fight — all kinds of fights — he is telling the truth.”

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Waging a punishment campaign is unproductive and potentially damaging to a presidency at any time in a term in office; A combative Richard Nixon tried that for months during the Watergate debacle, and look what good it did him. By waging vengeance on the eve of a presidential campaign, Trump risks alienating voters — not so much his Base voters, who’ll happily drink his bathwater if he asked them, but the swing voters and independents that helped him win in 2016, the same cohorts of voters he needs to have a chance at winning in 2020.

Finally, inexplicably, Trump goes even further. He didn’t have enough real working adversaries, it was time to go out and gin one up. That’s what he’s doing with the resurrection of the health-care issue; the personal vengeance campaign is yoked to the revival of a new old Trump policy objective: the destruction of Obamacare.

If the stars misalign somehow and the president* gets his way, the 20+ million people most likely to be badly hammered by a repeal of the ACA would certainly hollow out a serious chunk of the 35 percent of the electorate, give or take, that defines The Base from which all blessings flow.

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THERE’S A better use of Trump energies than revisiting the old battleground he keeps losing on, again and again. The fact that he insists on doing just that is to focus on a proven loser in the polls and the courts, two of the three places that matter the most in the debate.

In the wake of the release of Barr’s index-cards-and-a-Sharpie summary of Mueller’s report, there have been calls to Democrats from conservative analysts and the Fox News star chamber, asking them to accept the findings (the findings of the summary, mind you, not the full report) that Trump wasn’t ever involved with Russia in any way — requests asking Dems to “just get over it” and “get on with your lives” and (the usual go-to shorthand) “move on.”

How sadly ironic it is that Trump, the prickly, tragically hypersensitive standard-bearer of the Republicans, seems to be unwilling to take that same advice.

Image credits: Trump: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik. Nixon: Public domain.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Democrats, democracy
and the shock of the new

THE PROCESS of making a magazine cover doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an endeavor of weeks and sometimes months in preparation, the result of an army of creatives marching, for a minute, in exactly the same direction.

By that fact, then, there was no reason to be coy about whether or not Robert Francis O’Rourke of Texas was going to seek the presidency. A publisher like Vanity Fair doesn’t commit to a cover story (and Annie Liebovitz taking the photos!) about someone just pulling his chin about the presidency — like so many in the emerging 2020 cycle. You’re in or you’re out. And O’Rourke’s been in since before that VF cover was published; there was no other reason to put him there.

And in that magazine profile, the phenom Beto O’Rourke set the table, and the bar, for every Democrat who’s serious about winning next year. “I think that’s the beauty of elections: You can’t hide from who you are,” he told Joe Hagan of Vanity Fair. “The more honestly and directly you communicate to people why you’re doing this, the way in which you want to serve them, I just think that the better, more informed decision that they can make.”

Beto, who formally announced on Thursday, March 14, is one of the latest entrants into the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination. His talent for orchestrating the slow rollout of something apparently inevitable has been repeated by others who’ve decided, before and since, to seek the nomination.

That’s nothing new; every four years, it seems, we get an ever-increasing field of aspirants for the Oval Office. But the would-be Class of 2020 is another animal entirely. For one thing, and for the first time, the current field of 13 Democratic candidates is almost as demographically diverse as America itself.

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The traditional white-male recipe of presidential contender shares countertop space with Asian, African American, Latino candidate flavors, male and female alike. One of the 2020 campaign’s early stars is the gay mayor of an Indiana city. With one notable exception, the current crop is dramatically younger than the candidates of recent years.

Most of these 13 candidates represent a true generational shift in the Democratic party identity. They could be the vanguard of the party’s future if — if the youngblood Democrats don’t get hoist internally on the petard meant for their interparty adversaries: building the litmus tests that can divide a party from within.

Maybe the ones who got in early knew, or sensed, what was coming, from the shape of the times and the perilous arc of the current presidency. The earliest adopters jumped in months ago, and even further back than that. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney came out early in July 2017. New York businessman Andrew Yang announced on Nov. 6.

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OTHERS, ALMOST certain long shots, started the new year running, or pulling their chins about running. Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard announced her candidacy on Jan. 11. Pete Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Ind., came out on Jan. 23. Spiritual author Marianne Williamson, a confidante of Oprah Winfrey, announced on Jan. 29.

But rightly or wrongly, those candidacies are seen as outliers, in the early going, anyway. Since Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, joined the race, on Jan. 12, the trickle of Democratic contenders with more gravitas (read: fundraising clout and/or political experience) became a flood:

California Sen. Kamala Harris joined the race with a high-profile, high-energy launch in Oakland on Jan. 28. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker jumped into the race on Friday, Feb. 1, with a video sent to supporters and the media. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren jumped in on Feb. 9. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her candidacy in a raging snowstorm on Feb. 10.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders started his campaign on Feb. 19. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee entered the race on March 1. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper followed suit on March 4. Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla., announced formation of an exploratory committee on March 13. And New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand formally began her quest for the White House, announcing on March 17 and officially kicking off her campaign in a March 24 campaign event as bold and optically rich as you could ask for: In front of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan.

A survey of other possible contenders is about as long as the one for those who have declared: Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; former Secretary of State John Kerry; former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan ...

... and oh yeah, there's also some guy named Joe Biden.

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START GETTING used to it right now: the phrase “2020 vision” will get thrown around a lot next year, and in a context that has nothing to do with ophthalmology. For Democrats, the vision thing will be very real, and multifaceted.

Almost to a person, the emerging Democratic field is painting in very broad strokes right now, and there's nothing wrong with that ... right now. Much of what's propelling O'Rourke, Booker, Harris and Sanders to the top of the pops is a willingness to daringly, and maybe even impossibly, go outside the lines on policy prescriptions.

With such a big field of early contenders, the very idea of what makes a Democrat, what (beyond slogans and stereotypes) identifies a Democrat to the American electorate is undergoing several elastic interpretations — every one of them part of what makes this country what it is.

And there’s the rub: not everybody's gonna get to drop the mic. The process by which the Democrats perform this bloodsport surgery is never pretty, and thinning the herd certainly never is. The battle for the nomination will see to that.

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But this election season, the Democrats have the advantage of wielding, in a political context, what the renowned art critic Robert Hughes once called “the shock of the new” — his phrase that contextualizes the evolution and power of contemporary art, its velocity into the culture, and its reach and impact on our world.

The panoramic demographics of the new class of candidates, and the boldness of their convictions, impart much the same kind of frisson, the same jolt, to the political realm. The new wave of Democratic presidential contenders is, to some degree, a direct result of the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections.

The forthright embrace of Democratic social and economic values we saw embodied in the campaigns of Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, what we see distilled in Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib is finding its way into the campaigns of Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Warren, and others now finding their true, full populist voices.

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YOU CAN’T accuse the Democrats of playing small ball. O’Rourke set the terms of engagement in Vanity Fair; so did Booker at a recent town hall event.

“We are better when we help each other,” he said. “I believe that we can build a country where no one is forgotten, no one is left behind; where parents can put food on the table; where there are good paying jobs with good benefits in every neighborhood; where our criminal justice system keeps us safe, instead of shuffling more children into cages and coffins; where we see the faces of our leaders on television and feel pride, not shame.”

One of the sweetly grand certainties of the 2020 campaign: Unlike most of the presidential campaigns in any of our lifetimes, the future of the serious bid for the presidency of the United States will be not just polychromatic — Harris’ and Booker’s campaigns stand on the shoulders of antecedent giants, from Shirley Chisholm to Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama — but also ... well, what would the word be — poly-experiential?

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Because that’s what it is on the Democrats’ side of the aisle: more women, more younger members, more members of color. For the first time in a long time, the Democrats are interesting again: hungrier, a bit angrier when it’s required, and at times fearlessly foolish. Some of that will change; the young guns of the Democratic House will learn the law and the rules, like all of those who came before them. And in that process — knowing what to do and what never to do — they’ll have had a good teacher in the presidential asterisk occupying the Oval Office.

In Washington, the shock of the new takes its sweet time, but it does show up, and when it does, we never look back. That’s slowly happening again.

A new Morning Consult poll found approval for President* Trump in GOP bellwether state Ohio down 19 percent since 2017. At the Five Thirty Eight website, a poll of polls — YouGov, Rasmussen, HarrisX — discovered a nearly 10-point difference, a mood swing if you like, in approval / disapproval ratings. People disapproved of Trump by 52 percent; Trump’s champions gave him 42 percent in support.

These aren’t outliers. They reflect the ways in which, little by little, an abiding fact of American identity is coming into play. Donald Trump doesn’t move us like before. The shock of the old never trumps the shock of the new.

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WHY? SIMPLY PUT, we’re getting tired of The Don™. His angry orange madman shtick is getting old, and we know it and so does he. We can’t say that out loud because we don’t need the aggravation from neighbors and complete strangers, but it’s true: Donald Trump has worn out a welcome that was never a real, proper welcome in the first place.

He’s gotten predictable in doing what he believes is unpredictable. We know his every move; we can forecast every tic and twitch, and two years in, deep down we can tell: This is as good as it’s gonna get.

Whether the Democrats can move the needle enough — combating their own perverse appetite for self-destruction and overreach with an engaging, credible, palatably principled bid for the White House — remains to be seen. But it’ll be fun to watch what happens.

Is everybody in? The circus is about to begin.

Image credits: Beto Vanity Fair cover: © 2018 Vanity Fair. © 2018 Annie Liebovitz. Yang: tk. Buttigieg: tk. Booker: CNN. Shock of the New cover: Thames & Hudson 1980, 2004. Trump side-eye: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

'We have got to get back to normal':
Elijah Cummings' redemption song

EVERY SO often, someone rides to the rescue of America with a cri du Coeur from an unexpected place and puts things in a perspective we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see coming.

In June 1954, during the dangerous travesty of the Joe McCarthy era, when a voice of sanity was desperately needed from ... anywhere, Joseph Welch, chief counsel to the United States Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings, stepped up and confronted the apostate Republican senator from Wisconsin with one blazingly honest distilling of outrage: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It’s been said, in a kind of acclimation, that this was the moment when the McCarthy vilification machine began to grind its gears and fall apart, ending one of the more ruinous episodes in American political history.

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The three-ring dumpster-fire train wreck of the Trump administration hasn’t given us many unalloyed profiles in courage; neither, frankly, have most of the people on its periphery in the government. We may have one in the Democratic congressman who heads a subset of congressional lawmakers never more vital than they are today. In Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, there may be the kind of spiritual centering, of faith and reliance in the Constitution, required to advance not necessarily the process of impeachment, but certainly, sure as hell, the process of inquiry.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, presided over the public congressional hearing of Michael Cohen, President* Trump’s former fixer/enforcer now effectively turning states’ evidence with a host of unsavory revelations about his former boss.

The expected highs and lows of Wednesday’s hearing — one of three such public and closed-door events — needed a ringmaster for these feral cats, someone to put things into perspective, and Cummings rose to the occasion. A veteran of 23 years in the House, Cummings took charge as the committee chairman, navigating the usual partisan rancor with a brisk, no-bullshit, businesslike style, and no reluctance to use the chairman’s crowd-control device: the gavel.

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IT THREATENED to go off the rails, all right. After Cohen’s compelling prepared statement, various Republican lawmakers did what they could to discredit him, some more noisily than others (witness North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, who got in airtime waving papers around, fulminating and rhetorically foaming at the mouth over having his racial tolerance bona fides challenged. Justifiably, it turned out.).

Meadows went after freshman Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who broke with House protocol when she called Meadows out for the "racist act" of using the presence of, and a statement by Lynne Patton, a single black woman, to disprove allegations of racism against President* Trump.

Meadows told the committee that he and Cummings “have a personal relationship that’s not based on color and to even go down this direction is wrong.”

“If there’s anyone who is sensitive in regard to race, it’s me, son of former sharecroppers who were basically slaves, so I get it,” Cummings said.

“I could see and feel your pain, I feel it,” Cummings told Meadows. “And so I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain and frustration.” Cummings got the side-eye from some in the minority media for siding with Meadows on largely procedural grounds, and on misperception, instead of with Tlaib on the basis of fostering an open debate in an open forum.

But Cummings proved himself to be what we’ve always known and believed him to be: an old-school institutionalist, a colleague of long standing in this deliberative body, a stone believer in the system and its possibilities, and its potential for fairness. The system he now helps to direct.

Why Trump bombed in Hanoi

WHEN GLOBAL summit meetings end as fast as the one just wrapped in Hanoi, it’s for one of two reasons: Either the summiteers realized they had no differences of opinion to slow things down, or they found out early that their differences of opinion would short-circuit anything else from happening.

We might have guessed that the second Donald Trump summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, just ended in Hanoi, would have the same kind of unsatisfying stalemate as happened last June in Singapore. We could tell that the first day, when it was announced that North Korea and the United States had already failed to reach agreement on the crippling sanctions imposed on North Korea.

What followed that first news were claims and counterclaims, concessions asked for and concessions purportedly ignored, each country offering an explanation as to why things went south so fast.

From the North Korean perspective, it may have come down to intransigence, an unwillingness to budge. But for the United States, the failed talks in Hanoi point to a growing institutionalization of American failure on the world stage, an inability to successfully advance American values and interests in a vital region of a shrinking, combustible world. ...

Read the full essay at Swamp

Image credits: Trump: Leah Mills/Reuters. Swamp logo: ©2019 Jerrick Ventures LLC.
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