Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Alabama Senate Run-Off Election: Strange and Stranger

Today in Alabama, the GOP will select its nominee for the Senate position vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was named Attorney General by President Trump.  The winner of today’s contest will face Democrat Doug Jones in a special election on December 12.  Jones is a U.S. Attorney in Birmingham, and the lead prosecutor in the reopening of the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing case, a searing moment in the Civil rights movement in which four little girls were killed in the basement of the church.

The Senate vacancy has been filled thus far by Luther Strange, the former state Attorney General who was appointed by Governor Robert Bentley in the aftermath of Sessions’ departure.  Strange is being challenged by the notorious Judge Roy Moore.  The two were the top finishers in the GOP primary on August 15; since no one achieved a majority in that primary, this is a run-off election.

Strange is the establishment candidate, backed by both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.  His exotic name aside, he is viewed as the more mainstream of the two and a far more reliable potential Senate colleague than Moore.

Moore, the former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court would, if elected, instantly become a lightning rod of the party.  He first achieved notoriety for defying a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse, and refusing to follow the federal law that legalized same sex marriage.  Beyond that, he is an arch-conservative quote-machine, referring to Native Americans and Asian-Americans as “reds and yellows”; comparing a Muslim congressman taking his oath of office using the Quran with doing so with Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto; that 9/11 occurred because American has turned away from God; that homosexuality is “abominable, detestable and unmentionable” and that same-sex marriage will destroy the country.

The general belief is that a Moore victory could open the door to a potential Democratic win in December, or at least make it more feasible.  Since Sessions ran unopposed in 2014, and Senator Richard Shelby won in 2016 and 2010 by 64/36 and 65/35 margins, respectively, this seems unlikely.  Alabama is as red as they come.  Nevertheless, Moore’s incendiary beliefs are hardly the image the party wants to convey, and the Democrats could potentially put national money into Jones’ campaign if the opponent were Moore.

Against the advice of his political advisers, Donald Trump has decided to insert himself into the race, backing Strange.  Since Moore has consistently led in the polls, Trump’s decision is an extremely risky use of his political capital; a Strange loss would demonstrate Trump weakness among his core constituency, and cast doubt on future attempts to use his support on behalf of any candidate.

It was on Strange’s behalf that Trump journeyed to Alabama last Friday night and made his now infamous speech denouncing NFL players who have been taking the knee or locking arms during the national anthem to protest police brutality of African-Americans.  Trump’s comments served to ignite far more widespread protests at NFL games on Sunday, often including whole teams, some featuring Trump-supporting owners linking arms with their own players in protest, and widespread denunciation by Trump of strongest supporters, including Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft.

As for the race itself, all signs point to a Moore win, barring a last-minute meltdown.  Moore received 39% of the vote in the primary, and Strange 33%, and recent polling has affirmed that general margin.  Polling has been extensive in the race, with seven polls in the last week alone, all remarkably similar, all favoring Moore, by an average of 9.4 points.  It does not appear Trump is having much influence on the race, based on the polling since his speech.

BTRTN predicts that Judge Roy Moore will become the Republican nominee for the Senate in today’s run-off election.

Post-election note:  We got this one right.  Moore won 55/45.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Not Yet Tired of Winning

Who's afraid of the big bad Trump? Steve reflects on the debt ceiling, DACA, healthcare, and the NFL, and sees that people are pushing back, and winning.

Perhaps the climax of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign hyperbole was his claim that once he became President, we would all “win so much” that we would “get tired of winning.” Full disclosure: I was keenly skeptical about this particular epochal vision. As a lifetime follower of the New York Jets, I could not imagine a circumstance in which I would become “tired of winning.”

Then, with the election, Republicans seized control of the executive branch, the House, the Senate, and soon after Mitch McConnell succeeded in stealing control of the Supreme Court. I became convinced that if someone was about to get “tired of winning,” it was not going to be me.

Imagine my shock and awe when I realized that of all of Donald Trump’s campaign promises, this is the one that turns out to be the one closest to being correct. 

Now, to be fair, one reason this one has a chance of being the most accurate campaign promise is because the rest are lying in the Capital morgue.  There is no wall, no Muslim ban, no tax reform, and we have not “handled” North Korea.

The second reason why this campaign promise may be true is because it is not the Republicans, nor the Tea Party, nor the white supremacists, and not the neo-Nazis who are winning, although the latter two groups can make a stronger case than the former.

It is actually the progressives.  The Democratic Party enjoyed a September winning streak that was surpassed only by the world-beating Cleveland Indians.

The streak began when Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and flipped the bird at Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, reaching his hand across the aisle to agree to the Democratic proposal for raising the debt ceiling. Perhaps simply tired of losing, Trump brushed aside his seemingly ineffectual Republican colleagues so that he could at least bask in the temporary glow of being able to say a piece of legislation had actually been passed in the Trump administration.

DACA, DACA, gimme the news! Giddy with the glowing feedback his debt ceiling deal scored from the mainstream media, Trump doubled down with Democrats to navigate a way out of the tropical shit storm he had created by ending Barack Obama’s DACA program. Trump quickly huddled with new BFFs Pelosi and Schumer to cook up a legislative solution that would enable Dreamers to stay in the United States.  Trump -- who had centered his campaign on a draconian immigration stance from the minute that he entered the race by announcing that Mexicans were rapists -- finally found the elusive issue that could actually rattle his base.  Legendary patron witch of conservative cruelty Ann Coulter -- who only last year authored “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!” – greeted Trump’s leftist-loving DACA-nalia with a stone cold tweet: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” Ann Coulter trash-talking Donald Trump seems as alt fact as if Ed McMahon had gone rogue on Johnnie Carson. 

Tired of winning yet?

Then there was the Emmy moment when Stephen Colbert sent Hollywood jaws agape by bringing Sean Spicer onstage to announce that the viewing audience “will be the largest audience to witness the Emmys, period -- both in person and around the world," a brazen echo of Spicer’s original lie as White House Press Spokesman.  In a classic face-off between the super silly and the supercilious, progressives were typically split, with the Chris Matthews contingent laughing it off as just an entertaining gag, and the Frank Bruni wing arguing that Colbert had committed a grievous sin by providing a forum for Spicer’s rehabilitation.

Neither side seemed to see the larger point.  Without ever needing Spicer to actually say the “L” word, Colbert had created a device that allowed Donald Trump’s White House spokesperson to essentially admit to a huge national television audience -- far larger than Fox even dreams of -- that he knew damn well he had been forced to lie early and lie often in the service of Donald Trump.  Put another one up in the “win” column.

Not tired yet?

In yet another anthem to the growing political power of the “Gang of Late” – Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, and Seth Meyers  -- this week’s latest, last gasp, desperation Hail Mary attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare was played out according to the criteria established by a late night talk show host. Jimmy Kimmel spoke in May of his infant’s heart surgery and then made a plea for preserving the pre-existing condition clauses of Obamacare, thus spawning the “Jimmy Kimmel Test” for the worthiness of proposed healthcare legislation: would the law provide comprehensive coverage for the medical needs of an infant born with a congenital heart condition for the first year of life?” This week, Graham-Cassidy bill author Senator Bill Cassidy learned that it is not a great idea to flame a man who owns a very big microphone. Kimmel pummeled first the legislation and then the Senator for having “lied to his face.” 

For four consecutive nights, Kimmel used his monologue to rip Graham-Cassidy to shreds, which MSNBC ‘s Chris Hayes subsequently pointed out was probably the largest amount of time and audience devoted to the national healthcare debate anywhere on television. For months, Stephen Colbert has been the most scathing political critic of the Trump White House. This week, Kimmel took his place alongside Colbert in the fight for honesty, sanity, and reason.

As the inevitable healthcare train wreck became apparent, it was once again John McCain who surveyed the landscape and gave his Republican colleagues the look of a man who has just smelled fresh turd. Thumbs down, again. The Republicans have a very short window to attempt to turn Senators Rand Paul, Lisa Murkowski, or Susan Collins, and as of now those odds are very steep. Obamacare may survive yet another Republican onslaught, and if this issue indeed lands in the “win” column, they simply don’t get much bigger than that. 
Getting tired of winning? Probably not…

Then came the news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is asking for documents that specifically pertain to the actions taken by Donald Trump as President of the United States. This request establishes that Mueller is collecting evidence for what can only be the purpose of determining whether a sitting President committed a crime while in office. The document production request specifically calls for all materials relating to discussions about the firing of James Comey, which would be a charge of obstruction of justice. The Congress of the United States has previously established (see Nixon, Richard) that “obstruction of justice” rises to the Constitutional definition of an impeachable offense.

Learned observers sense that the pace of Mueller’s investigation is rapidly quickening, and that his team is skipping over steps in the usual process (for example, personal interviews before subpoenas) in order to proceed at full throttle. One can only hope that Mueller’s renewed urgency is borne of a realization that the sooner we get to endgame the better: keeping Trump’s fingers away from the nuclear codes is now becoming an existential issue for humanity.

By Friday, you may have felt some sense of weariness from the all this winning. You may have sensed the weekend coming on, and all you wanted is to wind down and seek a quiet respite from the images of catastrophic destruction in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, and find a way to soothe the nerves still jangling from the infantile nuclear saber rattling between Kim Jong-un and Trump. Perhaps all you wanted to do is curl up and to spend Sunday in front of the television, escaping all the stress of politics by enjoying an NFL game.

Nice try.

Speaking in the bleeding red state of Alabama, Trump dished up a super-high cholesterol serving of red meat in an ear-piercing dog-whistle to his bigoted base by ferociously demeaning NFL players who choose to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against inherent racism in American society.  The direct quote from the President of the United States: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired.'" 

Over the course of the next 48 hours, the President of the United States found himself swirling wildly in the devastating hurricane winds of a rapid succession of tropical storms, only these ones had names like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and even Tom Brady. Donald Trump triggered an astonishing show of solidarity among not simply African-American NFL players, but essentially all NFL players, the broader community of professional athletes, and even the Republican National Football League owners who have given big money to Trump’s campaign. On television screens all across the United States, from the morning broadcast of a game played in London to NBC's prime time telecast, Americans saw the players, coaches, and owners of the National Football League with locked arms, unified and defiant. When Trump loyalist Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, scolds Donald Trump, it’s like, uh, well, what can I say? Why, that would be worse than if Ann Coulter dumped on Trump.

I never thought I’d say it: Ann Coulter is right. At this point, who doesn’t want this guy impeached?

Yes, justice, compassion, fairness, and principle had a couple of decent weeks. 

We are a long way from done. And despite seeing the crocuses of sanity springing through the pavement in areas like DACA, healthcare, and even in race relations as embodied by the actions of the NFL, it of course does not really feel like winning yet.

There is grave danger still before us. We must continue to listen to Donald Trump talk about “totally destroying” North Korea. We must listen to him defend Nazis. We must listen to him lie daily and accuse truth tellers of “fake news.” We must observe him make each and every policy decision based on whether it will either eradicate a legacy of Barack Obama or help the image of Donald Trump. Sadly, things will probably get worse before they truly get better.

It may not always be linear, clear, certain, or uninterrupted; it may take too long, but in the past two weeks, we may have felt Martin Luther King’s very long arc of the universe bend, ever so slightly, toward justice.

How do I know?

Yesterday, I got an unbelievably clear sign from the cosmos, an absolutely crystal clear message from the almighty herself that my liberal ideals and progressive cause is just, righteous, bold, and will, as sure as the sun rises, will win over the long term.

Yesterday, the New York Jets won.  

Ok, JK.

No, the sign from the cosmos was that yesterday, the score was decided before the NFL games started. Yesterday, the good guys won. Everyone in the NFL locked arms, some knelt, and they demonstrated the astonishing power of unity in diversity, idealism in the face of cynicism, and defiance in the face of bigotry.

No, President Trump, we are not yet tired of winning.

And we will never be tired of winning until we overcome the huge obstacle that stands between us and our better angels, stands between what we are now and what we can be, and stands in the way of the unity in diversity that is actually what can make our country great again.

That obstacle, President Trump, is you. 

This battle will continue to be exhausting and frustrating.

But when it is all over, you will be able to say that you kept one campaign promise.

You’re making us all tired of winning.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

The news yesterday that the U.N. passed a watered-down set of sanctions against North Korea is cause to consider whether conventional solutions will ever be enough. Steve tries to take a few steps out of the box.

Terrible storms ravage two huge population centers. The scars of Charlottesville linger. New evidence piles up shredding Trump’s assertions that he had “no dealings with Russia.” An executive order that protected nearly a million “dreamers” is callously rescinded.

And, lurking throughout, a delusional wanna-be tyrant with a ridiculous haircut and small, stubby hands surrounds himself with obedient family, stern military, and a motley staff of sycophants, and rants wildly about destroying his adversary in a horrific pre-emptive nuclear strike. 

Meanwhile, back in North Korea, Kim Jong-un seems ready to lose his temper, too.  

Yesterday, the United Nations passed new sanctions on North Korea, but the New York Times noted that “they fell significantly short of the far-reaching penalties that the Trump administration had demanded just days ago.”

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

There is no doubt: it is an extremely complicated problem with a very long history, and it seems that each and every path to attempt to thwart Kim Jong-un is fraught with peril, risk, unintended consequences and competing objectives. It’s a mess, they all say. A puzzle inside a conundrum. Incomprehensible.  Unsolvable.

Why, it reminds one of that lovely melody from The Sound of Music...

How do you solve a problem like Korea?
Their leader is nuts and we haven’t got a plan.
Now he can send an H-Bomb to Chicago,
Hey China, we’re begging you, you gotta lend us a hand!

The gang in Pyongyang’s devoted to their dear leader
He’s ready to launch a Seoul-searching riposte
But how do we make him bow?
Cause we’ve got to move right now!
Before Kim Jong-un can take out the whole West Coast.

Ah, how do you solve a problem like Korea?
When Donald Trump is the leader of your land?

Ah, we laugh that we may not cry.

The combination of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is modern civilization’s worst nightmare, two wildly erratic and ignorant egomaniacs who together can trigger the power to destroy all life forms on earth and are each prisoner of the Id-driven impulse to act now and think later.  With all due respect to tax reform, Obamacare, immigration policy, dreamers, Charlottesville, horrific storm carnage, and the Russia investigation, if North Korea blows, we may not even last long enough as a species to be rendered extinct by climate change.

Let us begin with a quick summary of the conundrum.

Kim Jong-un is producing ever more powerful nuclear devices and ever more accurate missiles at a rate that makes a Chinese iPhone factory look like the back office at the Connecticut DMV.

As the superb NBC Chief International Correspondent Richard Engle explained so crisply last week on All In with Chris Hayes, the United States therefore sits at a moment of rapidly shortening opportunity.  Right now, we can wage war, knowing that in the worst case scenario, Kim Jong-un does not have the capacity to threaten us with “mutual assured destruction,” the Cold War doctrine that served as a the definitive deterrence that prevented superpowers from launching their nuclear arsenals.

Therefore, Engle explained, the United States has a very short window in which it could launch a highly targeted strike designed to completely cripple North Korea’s nuclear capability. In this scenario, the United States would send Pyongyang a message – simultaneous with the attack – that if Kim Jong-un made any move to retaliate against the United States or any of its allies, the United States would initiate a second launch that would bring about the complete destruction of Kim Jong-un, his regime, and probably a huge chunk of North Korea in the process.

If this is indeed what the Trump administration is contemplating, it is a terrifying and chilling gambit. If Washington is wrong in their guess that Kim Jung-un would stand down, the casualties from conventional weapons aimed toward South Korea would be appalling. Perhaps the North Koreans might even have time to launch nuclear weapons toward Seoul, Tokyo, or even Los Angeles. It is an unbelievably high risk first strike. If this is the prevailing military option, it is too big a gamble and with too much downside to attempt.

So if the military option is untenable, what other options do we have? The obvious course of action is to continue to turn the screws on sanctions, on the hope that truly draconian measures – cutting the flow of all fuel and oil products into North Korea – could bring the country to its knees.

The problem with this approach is that the United States is completely dependent on China for such sanctions to have teeth. The Chinese dominate all import and export in and out of North Korea, and they could turn the screws tight on Kim Jong-un… if they wanted to. But what’s in it for China? They’ve pretty much reconciled themselves to a fully nuclearized North Korea, and they have little reason to worry about it.

Indeed, Kim Jong-un actually plays a fairly useful role for China. His satanic iron grip over his country means that China does not have to worry about a regime change that could prove friendlier to the West and even seek a reunification of Korea under leadership from Seoul. Kim Jong-un’s family has been the devil that China has known for decades, and the implementation of crushing sanctions against Korea could bring down Kim Jong-un and destabilize North Korea.

All this means that Nikki Haley can talk tough in the U.N., but China and Russia still have veto power on the Security Council, so – as yesterday’s vote indicated – truly crippling sanctions are not going to happen. And when Donald Trump threatened to stop trade with any country that does business with North Korea, everyone in Beijing had a great chuckle. Who’s going to make those iPhones – the Connecticut DMV?

So, you can’t bomb ‘em and you can’t starve ‘em. What is a global superpower like the United States supposed to do?

So how do you solve a problem like Korea?

Well, there is that old saw about Einstein's definition of insanity, which is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We don’t pretend to be smarter and we certainly don’t know one-tenth of what the career experts at the State Department know, but there is a certain point at which the question is no longer “how can we make our current strategy work harder?” but rather, “what radically different approaches could we take?” It is time to think outside this terrible little box we are in.

Here goes…

It’s interesting to note that when Teddy Roosevelt said, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the first suggestion in the phrase is not the part about the “big stick.” The first step is to “speak softly.”  The first and best way to resolve any conflict is with words rather than bombs, and there is little evidence that we are using the power of communication to the fullest.  

We have a Secretary of State who believes his job is to downsize the State Department, and we have a new ambassador to China who has only been in place since May. Donald Trump is railing about “fire and fury,” which is pretty much the opposite of what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind.

Are we really doing everything we can to do to communicate effectively with all of the relevant players in this conflict?

First: Are we communicating effectively with China?

Let’s begin by attacking the core premise that China does not have a strong motivation to deter North Korea from its nuclear build-up.  It seems impossible to believe that the evolution of North Korea into a nuclear superpower is truly in China’s best interest. 

Consider the worst-case scenario: if China stands idly by and allows a nuclear war to occur between the United States and North Korea, who do they think is going to clean up the mess afterwards? It is an absolute certainty that China would have to devote billions in personnel and treasure to rescue, repair, and rebuild an obliterated North Korea, lest they leave an opening for South Korea, Japan, and the United States to race into the power vacuum, creating a united Korea led from Seoul.  Are we doing a good enough job of communicating with China about what a post-apocalyptic North Korea would mean for them?

But even the notion that a continuation of the status quo is tenable for China seems at odds with reality. Kim Jong-un is proving to be an unguided missile incarnate, an undisciplined provocateur who fires missiles that have an accuracy rating comparable to Donald Trump’s average stump speech. All it would take is one careless trigonometry error to accidentally trigger a regional crisis across the Pacific Rim. Why would China want this particular whack-job in charge of a nuclear arsenal that sits at their doorstep?

Consider this way, way out-of-the-box and extremely contrarian notion: why doesn’t the United States introduce a motion in the United Nations proposing the China annex North Korea?  Suppose the United Nations endorsed the idea that North Korea is proving to be a dangerous rogue nation and that the world of nations would prefer to cede this territory to China in exchange for China taking active responsibility for its governance.  At the very least, simply introducing the idea would shine a spotlight on China as the superpower that must own this problem.

The bottom line is simple: this problem cannot be solved without China, and it’s never going to get solved if China doesn’t believe it is even a problem. 

Have we even really engaged China at that basic level? They know that we have a problem with a North Korea as a nuclear superpower. But can we persuade them that they should have every much a problem with that as we do?

Second: Is it time to try communicating directly with Kim Jong-un?

There is apparently a conviction in diplomatic circles that it is bad policy to reward a rogue player with the recognition and respect that is accorded in proposing direct contact with the United States.

Are we going to stick with that dogma all the way to Armageddon?

Perhaps we can admit the reality that the man has gotten our attention. Pretending he is not worthy of recognition seems to be one of those rules that works until it no longer works. It no longer works.

The fact is that we succeeded in dissuading Muammar Gaddafi from pursuing his nascent nuclear weapons program through quiet back-channel diplomacy premised on a carrot and a stick. We made clear that his country would be economically rewarded by giving up his nuclear program. This, of course, is the exact same strategy that the Obama White House used to create the Iran nuclear deal. 

Why aren’t we recognizing that it is time to bring Kim Jong-un to the table and enter into a dialog? In the worst case scenario, we at least look like the grown-ups in the room who tried to solve the matter through diplomacy.

Third: Are we communicating effectively with the people of North Korea?

It is clear that North Korea is a rigidly contained and controlled state, and that this extends to an extreme editorial grip on all mass media, including television, radio, print, and the internet.  Why? Because far more than fearing the United States, Japan, or South Korea, Kim Jong-un fears a massive uprising from his own people.

The single most effective thing that the United States could be doing to combat North Korea is to create and foment a Korean Spring  a recognition among the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is a savage tyrant who is terrorizing, repressing, and starving his own people to save his own position.

It will not be easy. Kim Jong-un manufactures fake news on a scale of such appalling deception that he makes Donald Trump seem only as damaging as the weather anchor on Fox.  His geyser of fake news paints a picture of the United States as an unspeakably cruel agent of destruction bent on the obliteration of North Korea. And, yes, it does not help our cause when the President of the United States provides actual, real, unretouched video that says pretty much the same thing.

As a final daunting fact, we must recognize that the population of North Korea has been trained for three generations to believe that the family of Kim Jong-un carries a God-like entitlement to lead the country. In North Korea, the ruling family and the state are blurred to the point that they are indistinguishable, and the authenticity of Kim Jong-un as leader is akin to divine right.

Still: one has to believe that people who are smart enough to build a hydrogen bomb are smart enough to know that this fat little brat is not God.

I was fortunate enough this past weekend to listen to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal talk about the the situation in Korea. Off the top of this head, the extremely well-informed Senator quickly ticked off many of the points in a brisk and efficient summary of the conundrum.

I asked him if he thought that the people of North Korea knew who Bruce Springsteen was.

The point was simple. Are the people of North Korea so hopelessly brainwashed by their Dear Leader that they actually believe that everything in their country is tippety-top, state-of-the-art, best-it-can-be? Or do they have an inkling that they are actually living in a dark, lonely, repressed, sad world and being cruelly denied their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by a bad genetic mutation with a terrible haircut?

Are they truly content because they only know their own closed world, or do they feel bludgeoned and angry and resentful of the tyrant who crushes their spirit? Do they have a sense that there is food, opportunity, and the chance for a better life beyond the walls in which they are imprisoned?

Do they know who Bruce Springsteen is?

My definition of “Shock and Awe” would be to see Coldplay, Sting, Bruce, and Paul McCartney on one stage. My Williams College religion professor Mark Taylor remarked back in 2004 that he did not understand why we bombed Baghdad. “We should have just sent the Rolling Stones,” he mused.

The lesser part of his point was that entertainment is our most successful export, and that many of our entertainers are popular even in the most remote and barren regions where our political leaders are reviled.  Some of these people may claim to hate the United States, but they sure seem to like the people – the entertainers, the artists, the athletes, the celebrities – that they know so well.  Yikes, even Kim Jong-un loves Dennis Rodman, for chrissakes, and he seemed to be plenty up to date on Hollywood film releases when The Interview was about to open.

The broader point is that the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of freedom are the unfettered, loud, and powerful voices of a free society.

Why aren’t we waging the most aggressive and sophisticated communications program in history to let North Koreans know that their leader is a cruel tyrant who is endangering their families, repressing their freedom, killing their opportunity, and preventing them from joining in the prosperity and economic vibrancy of free nations?

Sure, it will be tough to get that message into North Korea, but we must.  Smuggle it, mail it, put it on flash drives and air-drop it. Put it in water-tight canisters – messages in a bottle -- that wash up on the shore. Put it, Trojan-horse style, in gifts. Yes, and have Lin-Manuel Miranda write it, Patty Jenkins direct it, Bruce Springsteen sing it, and Stephen Doyle design it.  We need to put a world class team of creative artists and media gurus to the task of communicating with the people of North Korea.

Advertisers know that for all the money they spend on television, the most powerful medium in the world is word of mouth. Once we get the fire started, there will be no stopping.

Like there was no stopping Lech Walesa,  the people from the east pouring through the gates of the Berlin Wall,  a man in front of a tank Tiananmen Square, Martin Luther King… or Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton.

Somewhere in North Korea right now, there is a man or woman who knows that babies are hungry because Kim Jong-un is spending every North Korean dollar on nuclear bombs. Bombs that, if ever used, will only guarantee the incineration of their families.  

We owe that person a message in a bottle.

We need to tell that person that help is on the way. We need to encourage that person to believe that a better world lies outside that crappy little armpit that Kim Jong-un has built while hiding his people behind the 38th parallel.

We need to let that person know that it is time to defy the tank and wield the unstoppable power of a people yearning to be free.  

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

To build on Teddy Roosevelt:  we should talk -- softly, loudly, clearly, persuasively... but we must do a far better job of communicating. And yes, we should offer a carrot, and carry a big stick.

But let’s not stop there. Let's figure out how to reach the people of North Korea themselves.

And maybe, just maybe, we should actually should try the sound of music. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Time for a New Bill of Rights

The daily diet of projectile tweets, undisciplined quotes, disturbing revelations, morally bankrupt pronouncements, and erratic behavior coming out of the Trump White House makes it hard to focus on broader issues and very real underlying problems. Steve pauses to reflect on one such issue: our weakened Constitution that is now in need of substantial revision.

Though some may not realize it, the oath of office taken at the inauguration of a new president is not a promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the United States.”

The specific vow, stated with hand on Bible and ending with a plea of help to the Almighty, is to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” 

Hardly a nuance. In a world where CEOs sign employment agreements that have riders and clauses running dozens of pages, most postings for internships on LinkedIn have a more robust and concrete job description than we give to our President.  Sure, there’s a bit of detail in Article 2 of the Constitution, where the framers briefly note the pay grade, the role as Commander in Chief, and the responsibility to appoint people to important government jobs.

But in the actual oath of office, the framers list a grand total of two responsibilities. One is a bit of a tautology: to “faithfully execute the office of President,” which sort of translates to “I promise to do the job that I was hired to do.” And then there is that little business about preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution… the only item in the oath of office that resembles a job description.

Here’s an irony: every day on MSNBC, we hear breathy broadcasters speculating as to whether Robert Mueller has enough on Trump so that maybe – just maybe – the Congress will squeak through to an impeachment on a largely circumstantial case of obstruction of justice.  Hey, everybody, listen up! Here’s a far stronger argument for impeachment! Why don’t we charge him with failing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution?

The case to be made is not one that is contingent on accepting James Comey’s understanding of the word “hope.”  We start with Trump’s relentless attack on the legitimacy of the judicial branch, through which he undermines separation of powers. There is his constant effort to de-legitimize a free and independent press, which derives its power from the “freedom of speech” clause in the First Amendment.  There is his religious discrimination, as evidenced in his travel ban, and also prohibited by the First Amendment. Sure, go ahead and throw in the obstruction of justice charge, in which the President is using the power of his office to attempt to shut down an independent criminal investigation of his own election campaign. With all that, and we don’t even need to prove the treasonous act of colluding with a hostile foreign government to influence the outcome of our election. 

The truth is that we have a constitutional crisis in full swing in America today, but it is not the one people talk about. The one commonly anticipated is a face-off between two separate but equal branches of government… which would occur if, for example, the Supreme Court ordered Trump to turn over subpoenaed financial documents and Trump refused.

No, the constitutional crisis we are talking about today is a broader, ongoing, and relentless assault on the Constitution and its intent that is weakening its ability to bind the country together and function smoothly under the rule of law.

This constitutional crisis started before Donald Trump ever presided over a television show. The battle that has been raging is one in which partisans – and let’s be blunt, by that we largely mean Republicans – have been contorting, undermining, and thwarting the will and intent of the Founding Fathers in order to achieve political ends.

The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution knowing full well that they could not predict the future, could not anticipate every appropriate responsibility and limitation to government, and that they were not writing a comprehensive and fully detailed operating manual for a functioning government. Their goal was to create the architectural plan, with the expectation that legislators would fill in the detail, and that the ability to amend the Constitution would create a mechanism to accommodate the inevitable revisions that would be required.

As such – and as we have learned the hard way – there is a great deal that was never spelled out to the finest degree, and this has left the door open for manipulation and a gross corruption of the founders’ intent. 

Arguably the most egregious example of this is that the manner in which Mitch McConnell subverted the Constitution and the will of the people over the last Supreme Court vacancy.  The Constitution spells out that the President – and only the President -- has the power to appoint a candidate to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, which must then be approved by the Senate. But Founding Father and “Father of the Constitution” James Madison did not feel a need to add words to the effect of “and this better happen within three months of the vacancy, you sleezebags.” Nor, for that matter, did he overtly add the words “except in the last year of a Presidency,” which McConnell spun out of thin air as his rationale for blocking the will of the people.  So Mitch McConnell trampled on the intent of the founding fathers by refusing to even consider the nominee submitted by Barack Obama.  Mitch McConnell tore another big hole in the Constitution.

McConnell gamed the system, and plenty of Republicans thought he was brilliant to do it. Except when “the system” you are gaming is the intent of the United States Constitution, then you are simply manipulating the grey areas to serve a partisan or personal agenda, and you are subverting the will of the people. Mitch McConnell would be interested to know that the entire reason the United States of America was created was because the previous government had refused to represent the will of the American people.

McConnell alone represents an entire front in the war on the Constitution. It was McConnell who famously declared that his sole and overriding purpose in Congress was to attempt to make Barack Obama a “one term President,” as opposed to say, serving the people or working to improve that state of the republic. McConnell then attempted every parliamentary trick in the book in his efforts to block Obama’s agenda and stymie any semblance of forward progress. It is indeed ironic that when the Republicans took control of the executive branch, the House, and the Senate in 2016, McConnell still proved that his true skill set is to not get anything done. You have to admit, McConnell’s ability to stop any form of action or progress has a certain bipartisan flair.

In fact, it’s been quite distressing to realize how much of our governmental processes are not governed by real legal language, but rather by customs, honored traditions, and the good intentions of well-meaning patriots who viewed public office as a sacred trust.

The pardon of Joe Arpaio is the latest example of how years of policy, custom, tradition, and practice can be rendered worthless with the casual signature of an uneducated and unprincipled operator. Yes, there is no question that Donald Trump has the Constitutional authority to pardon anyone he wants at any time he wants.  But in the course of the 229 years since the pardoning power was articulated, there has been a vast infrastructure of policy and practices that have been brought to bear on judging the appropriateness of Presidential pardons.  Donald Trump ignored 229 years of policy and practice to throw red meat to his base. He grossly violated the spirit and intent of the Founding Fathers. There’s no literal language in the Constitution spelling out the reasonable criteria for considering and granting a pardon, so Trump just took out a club and crushed this important concept in a way that worked for his political needs.

Make no mistake: the Constitution has been stretched, strained and contorted for some time now. The Constitution determined that there should be two Senators per state, but seats in the House of Representatives should be determined based on population. The framers of the Constitution never felt a need to write down that states should not artificially distort the geographic shape and composition of districts in order to screw the minority party. So now we have long had the practice of gerrymandering, which was raised to a big data art form by the Republicans prior to the 2010 census. Their ferocious lock on the House is attributed to large measure to the extreme gerrymandering executed in Republican State Houses with 2010 census data. 

At the time the Constitution was written, the idea of an Electoral College made sense, as the Founding Fathers felt that the President should not be selected in a direct vote of the populace, but rather by wise and learned representatives of the less educated and ill-informed masses. Today, the Electoral College is a painful anachronism, a vestigial artifact of a vastly different time. Instead of improving the selection of the president, the Electoral College has twice in the span of sixteen years served to subvert the will of the people.

Perhaps the most elegant and important construct in the Constitution is the separation of powers: the federal government is comprised of three separate but equal branches that each provide “checks and balances” on the powers of the others. There was perhaps no greater “check and balance” that the idea that only Congress was empowered to declare war. But in a world in which the thermonuclear extermination of the United States could be launched and completed in minutes, the power to execute the most deadly form of war in human history was ceded to one person, fully empowered to act alone and on his own guidance. We now have a person with a tenuous grip on reality threatening pre-emptive nuclear annihilation of North Korea, and if he wants to do it, nobody can stop him. Certainly not what Madison and Jefferson had in mind.

Yes, the Constitution is off warranty and we blew past its 200 year maintenance and servicing without checking under the hood.  Madison probably would have been stunned that there have only been 27 amendments in 240 years, and flabbergasted that only two have been ratified in the last fifty years.

A strong argument can be made that the document itself actually no longer does a good job of reflecting the will and the inalienable rights of the citizens – not on the small stuff, but on the most crucial matters of government.

Twice in the past seventeen years we have elected a President who did not win the votes of a majority of citizens.

We have seen the will of the people to appoint a Supreme Court Justice eviscerated by inadequate governing language in the Constitution, and the very philosophical balance of the Court thereby shifted away from what the majority of the people intended at the time of the vacancy.

We have seen the House of Representatives turned into a dysfunctional and non-productive forum for rigid ideologues to posture and preen while getting nothing done.

We are living in a nightmare in which a single, terribly flawed and arguably deranged human being has the right and power to launch weaponry that would destroy civilization on earth, and we can do nothing about it.

It is time to acknowledge that Donald Trump may actually be as much a symptom of the underlying problem as he is the problem himself. One reason Donald Trump was elected was because millions of people were utterly frustrated that our government does not seem responsive to the will of the people. 

It is time to convene a bipartisan body to examine the weaknesses in our Constitution that time and unscrupulous individual players have revealed.

It is time to look into a new set of amendments, modeled after the Bill of Rights, that implement precision in cases where imprecision has led to manipulation. Perhaps, for example, an amendment should be written to say that the right to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court falls to whoever is President of the United States at the time of the vacancy, and that person retains the sole right to nominate candidates even after he or she leaves office.  McConnell could not have pulled his stunt if such a constitutional amendment was in the books.

It is time to consider much more precise language that limits the authorization to launch nuclear war to a small group – but more than one person. Perhaps we require a majority of the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States in order to press nuclear buttons.

It is time to write an amendment that creates a simple principle based on geographic proximity -- one that cannot be manipulated -- to determine seats in the House. We must eradicate the gerrymandering that is at the root of gridlock.

Perhaps there is an amendment which specifically limits the authority of the President to ignore Congress and impose policy through Executive Orders.

And, while we are at it, perhaps we should institutionalize that simple tradition of requiring candidates for president to submit their taxes for public scrutiny.

For many years, the system worked because enough learned patriots served in government positions to deduce and enforce the will and intent of the Founding Fathers in situations in which no literal language had been written.

Now, it is difficult to believe that our government is broadly populated by patriots rather than partisans, by students of history rather than ignorant populists, and by people motivated by the greater good rather than personal greed.

To believe that we will soon revert to Camelot, Lincoln, or Roosevelt is sadly naïve. The names may change, but we now have too many McConnells and Trumps, and not enough people with the guts to act on principle rather than self-preservation or party.

When we understand that the laws, language, and customs we use to define our government no longer effectively ensure the consensus of the governed, it is the duty of citizens to act. Perhaps two amendments in fifty years is not enough to keep pace with the astonishing rate of change in a global, digital, and internet-centric world.

It is our right, as citizens, to expect our government and our government officials to be reflecting the will of the people and the betterment of our society as a whole, not to be pursuing partisan or personal agendas. It is time for constitutional amendments that articulate that right.

Thomas Jefferson opened the Declaration of Independence with the phrase: “When, in the course of human events…”

While the phrase has come to evoke a timeless, profound, enduring majesty, the truth of it is that the literal meaning is far more mundane.  It essentially means, “from time to time,” “every now and then,” or perhaps “when the circumstances call for it.” A document that was not even perfect when first written 229 years ago is very, very far from perfect today. If anything, Jefferson was making the point that in a world of constant change, people who aspire to self-government under the rule of law better make sure that their government remains ever well designed to reflect the will of the citizenry.

It is time for a new Bill of Rights: a Bill of Rights that clarifies that the citizens of the United States will not abdicate their power of self-government to individuals who are bent on serving personal or partisan objectives.  It is time to stop assuming that people of good intention will do the right thing. It is time to clamp down on the ambiguity and fight the people who are perverting the founders’ intent.

It is time to call for rethinking how our government should work to serve its citizens, because our 229 year old Constitution is not doing that now.

And having Donald Trump as our President is demonstrating just how weak and fragile our Constitution is when there is no brilliant and learned patriot empowered to preserve, protect, and defend it.

We have all read the documented evidence that Donald Trump has lied literally hundreds of times since taking office.

But the most significant lie came in the very first words he spoke as he assumed the mantle of the Presidency: that he would “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”  It is time to repair our constitution so that the likes of him can never threaten the very foundation of our country again. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

BTRTN August 2017 Month in Review: I Am A Wreck, I Am An Island

Tom with the month in review, another step deeper into the abyss.


No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

John Donne, were he alive today, would be forced to consider a rewrite.

Donald Trump declared war on the Republican establishment this month, adding those he needs most to accomplish his agenda to the long, long list of those he reviles.  Trump’s enemies begin with his bitterest adversaries, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the evil mainstream media.  But many others inhabit this ever-growing continent of Trump-animus – he launched his campaign two years ago with a bilious screed against Mexican immigrants and the enmity has accelerated unchecked ever since.  And now Trump’s own land is a tiny personal island inhibited only by a shrinking pool of supporters.  The “wait and see’s” have seen, and have become as appalled as those who had no need to wait.

Last month Donald Trump began, for the first time, to truly fray the nerves of the GOP.  His attacks on Jeff Sessions, the rise and fall of the hopelessly incendiary Anthony Scaramucci, the transgender military ban without input from his generals, the aftermath of the “repeal and replace” disaster, the Boy Scout speech, the police speech advocating violence to perps – all prompted harsh words not only from Democrats but from Republicans as well.

It turns out Trump was just getting started.  In this, his seventh full month in office, Donald Trump declared war on virtually everyone outside of “Trump Can Do No Wrong” groupies, including the Republican Party.

This was the month dominated by Charlottesville, when Trump flubbed presidential-post-tragedy protocol and ignored the expected soothing, unifying words (except when aided by a teleprompter).  Instead he opted for ambiguous statements and chaotic rants at both a Trump Tower press conference and a Phoenix “campaign rally” speech.  The statement equated neo-Nazi, white supremacist inflamers with their adversaries, and the rants essentially defended, and doubled down on, that statement. 

The exodus began, as GOP Senators Bob Corker and Tim Scott questioned Trump’s competence and moral authority, respectively.  Rex Tillerson pointedly refused to comment on Trump’s values after making his own disgust with racism clear.  Gary Cohn wrote an (unsent) resignation letter and publicly denounced the Administration’s response.  CEO’s abandoned Trump’s advisory councils, which he was forced to disband.  Paul Ryan offered modest approbation.  And so on.

But Charlottesville, hideous as it was, was hardly the only distancing act of the month.  Perhaps most significant politically was the public break with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, the man who holds the keys to tax reform, infrastructure and, just maybe, an impeachment trial.  Trump held him personally accountable for the failure to bury Obamacare, and suggested all sorts of legislative tactics that are anathema to McConnell, including eliminating the 60-vote requirement for most legislation, attaching a veteran’s funding bill to the debt ceiling passage, and, most outrageously of all, threatening a government shutdown if the Budget bill fails to include adequate funding to build the notorious Wall. (This demands ignores, of course, Trump’s own campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the Wall – a claim Trump conveniently undercut in a conversation with Mexico’s President earlier this year, in which he made clear that he understood that Mexico would not pay for it, and asked only the President Nieto stop talking about it publicly.)

And then came, relatively unnoticed by many in the onset of Hurricane Harvey, the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Bull Connor of his time.  Trump pardoned Arpaio without following the traditional pardoning process, and displayed, yet again, utter contempt for the judicial process that convicted Arpaio on – yes – contempt of court charges.  This amounts to contempt of the Constitution itself, and more of the GOP went a-fleeing.  (Paul Ryan went so far as to critique it explicitly.)

Come September, Trump and the GOP leadership must take their hands off each other’s throats and get some important legislation passed – notably they must raise the debt ceiling, fund the goverment and pass a budget, and make progress on tax reform (or more likely a “simple” tax cut).  All of these carry complexities, as the GOP factions that tore apart the ACA repeal are very much in play.  McConnell and Ryan will certainly rely on Democrats to raise the debt ceiling (the Freedom Caucus will not support a clean bill), and the Dems may decide to extract some conditions of their own.

Why would Trump alienate those he needs most, McConnell and his Senate colleagues, when every vote matters?  So many GOP Senators have broken with Trump on one issue or another – Corker, Scott, Flake, McCain, Sasse, Graham, Murkowski, Collins, Moran, Portman, Gardner, Rubio, Paul, Heller, Tillis, Alexander and Capito – that it’s not hard to envision who might be the 19 GOP Senators required, in addition to the 48 Dems and Independents, to reach the 67 needed to impeach.  (I just listed 17; I bet Ted Cruz and Mike Lee would not mind casting that vote either.)  All that is needed is for the Dems to assume control of the House in 2018 – at this stage, with an 8-point “generic ballot” lead, a strong possibility – and for Meuller to find an impeachable offense (of course the Senate make-up could change in 2018).  On that note, the recent discovery of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s 2016 overture to Russia for a Trump Tower in Moscow may or may not be significant in and of itself, but it does give Meuller an entry-point into the Trump financial empire, if he still needed one.

The answer to that question may lie in Trump’s own madness, but more likely he is looking for a scapegoat if his agenda continues to flounder.  And taken further, it is part of the strategy to cater to the base, who hates McConnell, Ryan and many of the others.  Congress has a ridiculous approval rating – only 10-20% depending on the poll.  Attacking the Congressional leadership is a sure way to curry favor among the Trump faithful, an even juicier target than the mainstream media.  And, as stated, it inoculates him against legislative failure.

Trump’s War has also, in effect, extended to a struggle with his own Chief of Staff, John Kelly.  Kelly has quickly forced out Scaramucci, Bannon and Gorka, and has taken clear control of the White House apparatus.  But Trump remains uncontrollable, and the Teleprompter battle shows that Kelly can only go so far and do so much.  When you pit the true Trump, the Trump One who shrieks, against the Trump Two who is dutifully (and dolefully) called out to clean up, there is no contest.

Trump Two has had the upper hand thus far in reacting Hurricane Harvey, but Trump One managed, in Corpus Christi last Tuesday, to slip in references to crowd size, his own competence, and the magnitude of the moment, while omitting any empathetic statement to those who have died or are suffering in Houston.  He also has fired off tweets that were irrelevant to the crisis, which should have commanded 100% of his focus.  He shows a singular inability to be truly presidential during times of national tragedy, which is simply unprecedented.

Where does this all go?  The careening train continues, the approval ratings drop, and Trump seems hell-bent on a strategy to delight the base – only – and hope they get out in droves to vote for him in 2020, if he lasts that long.  With such a strategy, we may invoke John Donne again, who ended that same sermon with words that need no revision:

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


Trump’s approval rating dropped by two more points in August, continuing the steady erosion of his support, roughly a point a month decline since January.  These numbers remain atrocious from a re-election standpoint, and underline the risks of that “rely only on the base” strategy.  It’s hard to wring 50% of the vote from 38% of the populace.



Trump predecessors who won re-election had far higher approval ratings just prior to their re-elections:  Reagan (58%), Clinton (54%), George W. Bush (48%) and Obama (50%), while the two who failed to gain a second term were exactly in Trump’s current range: Carter (37%) and George H.W. Bush (34%).

Trump has time to turn it around, of course.  While a path to legislative triumph is fraught with peril, Trump could emerge with a tax cut or an infrastructure bill; he could avert a war in North Korea and/or gain ground in Afghanistan based on his “new strategy”; the economy could continue to improve and grow.  Any or all could lead to improvements in his ratings.  After all, Reagan and Clinton both hit the mid-30’s in their first terms and bounced back well before Election Day.


The story of the economy is one Trump would do well to accentuate, as long as he can.  It is folly, of course, to attribute the economy’s whims entirely to the actions of the president.  This is particularly true of a president just a half-year into his first term.  The economic numbers over this span are consistent with Obama’s in his last year in office, which gives credence to the thought that Trump simply inherited a reasonably strong economy and has done no harm as yet.

However, the facts are that economy has strengthened modestly while Trump has been in office, and any politician would take credit for that.  The “Trumpometer” stands at +13, which means that the key indicators are, on average, 13% better than on the day he took office.  Whether this can be sustained is open for question, but the biggest driver is the 3% GDP growth this last quarter, which few believe can be repeated consistently.

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 7/31/2017
Trump 8/31/2017
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

+ 13%
  Unemployment Rate
- 6%
  Consumer Confidence
+ 8%
  Price of Gas
- 3%
  Dow Jones
+ 11%
+ 43%

We’ll keep a close eye on economic performance.  But remember, if Congress cannot pass a tax bill, or passes a modest one, Trump can then blame them for an economy that stumbles.


Just for fun – I used the Simon & Garfunkle song “I Am A Rock (I Am An Island)” that inspired the title of this article once before, late in the 2012 campaign, for a song parody that I called “I Am Barack, I Need Ohio.”  It was one of our better received songs, so here is a link to the lyrics if you want a laugh after reading this piece about this abysmal Administration.  (Back in the quaint old days when Dems could carry Ohio, days I fear are over.)

Obama did take Ohio in 2012 – and Colorado and Nevada, too, and even Florida (all referenced in the song).  And, of course, re-election.