Thursday, October 26, 2017

What is Orthodox Republicanism?

What does Republicanism mean?  This is the burning question for the Republican Party today with
Steve Bannon declaring war on his party enemies and the likes of Senators Flake and Corker opting to resign because they are outcasts likely unable to win their nominations in the party that Donald Trump remade.  And the answer will have fateful consequences not only for the GOP but the health of the American Democracy.  Contrary to the hopes of Democrats, there needs to be a responsible Republican Party that has a soul.
The Republican Party today is not the party of Lincoln and civil rights.  It is not the environmental party of Teddy Roosevelt, and it is not the party of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits from New York where I grew up.  Back then it would not have been farfetched to argue of the two New York senators–Republican Javits and Democrat Bobby Kennedy–the former was more liberal.  Nor is this the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that worked across the aisle with Tip O’Neill, or the Party of George H.W. Bush who signed the American with Disabilities Act,  supported tax increases because it was in interest of the nation, and forged international alliances to  liberate Kuwait.  And it is not the Party of George W. Bush who supported immigration reform.
The Republican Party today is an ugly, selfish, and mean party.  It is a Party premised on the  anger, resentment, intolerance, and nastiness.  It is a party that does not want government to work, one that tolerates a president referring to women as pussy, immigrants as rapists, Muslims as terrorists.  It is a party that looks at someone like Jeff Flake–a pro free trade, internationalist who believes in a strong US international presence while also endorsing tax cuts and small government –as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). 
The same is true of Bob Corker, Susan Collins, and John McCain.  All traditional Republicans, but none of them find a place in the Party of Bannon and Trump.  It is not enough to support some principles of Republicanism, it is an ideological purity test demanding 100% loyalty. Bannon and Trump have become the Grand Inquisitor and Joe McCarthy of the Republican Party, and when Flake or Corker step into the role of Joseph Welch, asking of them “Have You No Sense of Decency,?" few within the Republican Party are willing to support them.  The new orthodoxy overrides principle, integrity, and what is right for the party and the county.
George Washington warned in his farewell address of the dangers of parties, seeing in them how they encouraged “the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.  He thought we would be better as a nation without them.  Perhaps, but they day is long since past.  Parties are a reality and the task as political scientists such as E.E. Schattschneider said, is to make them responsible.  Parties make governance possible, they make American democracy possible by mobilizing voters, checking the opposition, and articulating a vision for the public good.
The Republican Party of Bannon and Trump does not do that.  It is a party of nihilism, consuming itself and American democracy with it.  There is a need for a Republican Party to speak for the Constitution, Bill of Rights, free speech, and freedom of religion.  It is a party that needs to respect the right of people to kneel at football games, to acknowledge that scientific facts and that alternative facts are not facts but lies.  It needs to say that conspiring with a foreign government to  influence an election is treason, that conflating personal wealth and self-interest with the public good is wrong, and that remaining silent in the hope that it will advance a party agenda is wrong. 
There was time in my lifetime during Watergate when the likes of Howard Baker, William Ruckelhaus, and Elliot Richardson put the good of the nation ahead of party and did the right thing in opposing  Richard Nixon.  They were heroes, and Republicans, and no one tried to oust or outcast them.  The Republican Party needs people like this, as does the country, and we need a Republican Party and an American public that will support people like this.  This is what orthodox Republicanism once was, and it needs to be that again.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Trump Three Ring Circus

The Trump administration is a circus, but the question is whether its antics are an intentional
sideshow or a byproduct of dysfunctionalism?  The answer lies perhaps somewhere in between.  But like any good showman, Trump has learned how to manipulate his audience, and this includes both his supporters and distractors.
There is no question that the Trump administration has had the air or a circus, headed by a ringleader part Elmer Gantry, part P.T. Barnum.  Legislatively the Trump administration’s record of accomplishment is weak by any comparison, forcing it into the use of executive orders nearly double the pace of that of the Obama administration which Trump decried as a failure of leadership and inability to work in a bipartisan fashion.  Trump’s problem too is party politics, except it his own, not the Democrats, yielding intra-party gridlock. Trump has made some headway with executive orders, reversing some of Obama’s.  Yet there is a limit to what he has and can do here, with the easiest pickings (Obama’s Clean Energy executive order) already undone and the others requiring legislation or facing litigation.
The point is that the list of accomplishments by the Trump administration is thin and will continue to dwindle unless there is a major course correction in how it works with Congress.  Some will point to Trump’s blustering on the Mexican Wall (remember that?), the sort of cancelling of  the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Obamacare subsidies for the poor, and North Korea as accomplishments, but those victories are dubious at best.  If success is defined as ticking off the rest of the world, Muslims, women’s reproductive health, and transgender individuals, then it might be a banner day, but few beyond a core group of Trumpistas, few agree.
So the issue then there more than meets the eye?  Do the Trump blusters, his daily tweets, the soap opera treatment of his cabinet members, war heros, members of Congress, and anyone else who crosses him, merely represent a diversion or sideshow from what is really going on?  The answer is yes and no.  Yes it is a diversion in that the media and the public are so obsessed with “Keeping Up with the Trumpdashians” that less focus is placed on the failures of the Trump administration to govern.  Yes there is some intentionality here by Trump but it may be more a product of hiding failures, his ego and desire to maintain media attention, and simply not knowing  what it means to govern than a master plan to engage in disinformation.  Put simply, the Trump administration may be deluded by its own illusions, thinking that what it says or what it displays is reality.
The Trump circus is both a distraction from and a cause of  the administration’s failures.  After nearly ten months the defining characteristic of the Trump administration is its inability to learn from its mistakes, confusing tweets with governing, and  a denial that the Constitution defines how the political process works.  Trump’s presidency is a failure in all but one respect–knowing how to push the buttons of the American public.  He has convinced his supporters he cares about them and that he is doing things, and he has figured out how to get the media and his distractors to react to every single utterance or act of his.  He has train both camps to react, controlling both of them with predictability, just like a ringmaster in a circus.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Governing by Executive Order: As Obama goes, so goes Trump

This was the week of  the Trump executive order presidency.  Frustrated with his own inability to
govern and work with his Republican Congress, Trump used executive orders to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) regarding contraception, minimum coverage for health plans, and subsidies for the poor.  If the Obama presidency is precedent, it is not clear that Trump has the authority to do all this.  Instead, one legacy of Obama may be passing on to Trump a weaker presidency when it comes to the use of executive orders.

As candidate, Donald Trump criticized Barack Obama for governing by executive order, bypassing Congress and instead leading by fiat. Now that Trump is president executive orders look good to him. Democrats lauded Obama’s efforts to do an end run around Congress, which Republicans condemned. Now the reverse is the case.

Consider first who has used more executive orders.  According to CNN, by October 11, into his first year in office, Obama signed 26 executive orders–the fewest of any president going back to Eisenhower.  Trump has already signed 49–the most since Lyndon Johnson and on pace to be more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  Trump has become the executive order president.  For his supporters this is no doubt good–it is a sign of taking charge and being a leader.  But the criticisms that applied to Obama apply to Trump–it is side stepping the Constitution or at the least,  it is illegal or demonstrates contempt for the concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers.

At least this is what many Republican attorney generals thought when Obama was president.  Presidents have no inherent powers.  Their authority derives from either Article II or the Constitution or what Congress has delegated to them via the Administrative Procedures Act and other laws.  Executive orders in many cases carry the force of law and once issued, especially if they go through  a rule making process,  cannot easily be repealed without going though a series of procedures.  When Obama issued executive orders regarding immigration and rules for power plants, Republicans successfully challenged them in court with decisions that limited presidents going forward.  Among the principles these lawsuits established  is that presidents may not use executive orders to sidestep laws made by Congress.

This may exactly be what is happening now with Trump. Unable to get Congress to do his bidding when it comes to repealing Obamacare, he is governing by edict.  In some cases the orders seek to alter Obama executive orders, in others they go against congressionally-authorized law.  But in both cases, Trump  needs to do more than issue an order.  No president, including Trump, can say  “Make it so” like captain Picard from Star Trek, and make it happen.  Already Democratic attorney generals are using the same tactics against Trump their Republican counterparts used against Obama.  Time will tell if the legal results will be the same.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Gunfight at the Second Amendment Corral

Like it or not the Second Amendment exists and the Supreme Court has ruled that its language guarantees an individual right to bear arms.  Like it or  not , the best estimates are that 40% of US households have guns and there are perhaps 270 million guns privately owned in the country.  Like it or not, guns are not going away and even if the Supreme Court were to reverse itself and declare there is no individual right to bear arms, all the existing guns are not going away.  Like it or not, banning guns in a mass way will produce a firearms bootleg problem that will make alcohol smuggling during Prohibition look like child’s play.  Like it or not, for much of the country, guns are rooted in political culture of the United States–it’s God, guns, and the Constitution.
So what do we do after the Las Vegas killings?  There are no simple solutions even though there are the usual recitation of simple slogans that are more about political posturing in the next election than they are about real policy solutions.  We already are hearing talk from one side that we  need more gun control, with predictable opposition from the other side.  One side will say “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or the way to “stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”  The other side will embrace universal background checks to screen out criminals or those with mental illnesses, or will, as is now the solution de jour, a ban on bump stops for guns as a remedy.
The gun debate is complicated for two major reasons: the politics and the multifaceted nature of the problems surrounding the causes of gun violence.  The politics is about how the debate has been constitutionalized around the Second Amendment and weaving of guns within parts of the US into the very fabric of cultural identity.  Urbanites, northerners, and liberal-Democrats largely are clueless about this. Moreover, the gun debate has been defined by the NRA which has taken an absolutist position of the Second Amendment.  For many of its members, guns are the defining issue for them and they turn out to vote.  For the opposition, there is no equivalent.  The NRA has also captured the Republican Party, making guns, along with cutting taxes, the two defining issues for itself.  So long as the NRA and the Republican Party define their raison d’etat around guns, little will change in terms of the politics.
But even if the politics were to change, defining both what the problems with guns are and  what are the solutions is not easy.  Right now the media is hyperventilating over the NRA saying it could support a ban on bump stocks.  This is brilliant politics.  Banning the stocks will do little so long as assault weapons are available.  Gun manufactures no doubt love this proposal–instead of letting some people spend just a few dollars to modify a regular gun, make them spend more to buy a real assault weapon.  Moreover, the focus on bump stocks takes the political focus over other reforms, and the NRA looks outright reasonable in favoring the bump stock ban.  At best, a symbolic idea that solves nothing and which also plays well with some swing voters in 2018.
But what would actually work to curb gun violence?  This of course is complicated.  Part of the solution is understanding the underlying nature of the violence.  Yes, some of it is rooted simply in the availability of assault and other weapons and they do need regulation.  And regulation is constitutionally possible.  At no point has the Supreme Court said that reasonable regulation of some weapons is not possible.  Lower courts have upheld some regulations.  Not even in the case of the First Amendment has the Supreme Court said that free speech is absolute–time, manner, and place restrictions are possible, and not all utterances qualify as constitutionally protected speech.  There is nothing inconsistent in saying that possession of bazookas (which are arms) is unconstitutional, and the same is true for assault or automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  Such regulation might solve some problems but certainly not all.
Increased penalties for weapons use is not a solution.   There is little evidence, as I and others have show several times, that many people who commit crimes are rational actors deterred by the calculation of prison time.  Moreover, the experience and failure of mandatory minimum and three strikes laws demonstrates the futility of this approach.
The call for background checks, especially if instant and without some waiting periods, will solve only a small part of the problem, if at all. Do we screen for mental illness and past criminal behavior, for example?  When it comes to mental illness, are all who have a mental illness dangerous?   The American Psychology Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists hundreds of conditions that count as mental illness, with estimates that more than 42 million qualify.  To say that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous is a gross stereotype and demeaning.  Moreover, what is a mental illness?  Remember at one time the DSM listed being gay as a mental disorder.  Additionally, are all those with felony records dangerous, and what about the idea of people having paid their debt to society?  Finally, keep in mind that the Las Vegas shooter had no record of mental illness and no criminal record.  A background check would have done little to deter him.
Finally, what do we do about all the guns that are used in cases of domestic abuse, suicide,  crime, and street fights?  Yes guns make such killings and violence easier, but the underlying roots are located in alcohol and substance abuse, in problems surrounding poverty, or in cultural values about manhood, masculinity, and honor.    Decreasing the supply of guns will help, but there are underlying  socio-cultural problems at play. One hypothesis worth testing is the connection between areas that have high levels of alcohol dependency or poverty and gun violence. There may be other  correlations, but more research is needed and the NRA and the politics of guns has prevented that.
The point that is being made here is that the problems of guns are complex. The politics of guns makes solving the problem of guns impossible.  The problem of guns is in part availability of  some types of weapons and where, but it also about regulation of human behavior.  Guns do kill people, but people also kill people, and any viable solutions must disaggregate the variety of problems surrounding gun violence into viable policies that have identified problems and solutions.