Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Why Bolton is Out--and does it matter?

John Bolton’s departure–whether fired or resigned-- as National Security Advisor for US President Donald Trump is only the latest example of a presidency that is disorganized and incoherent when it comes to American foreign policy.  His departure will do little to change the basic tone or goals of an administration whose chief characteristic when it comes to foreign policy is one at war with itself; or more accurately, a president in conflict with the US foreign policy establishment.
There are two ways to think about US foreign policy–its goals, strategy, and tactics, and then its decision making style.  While much has been made of how much Trump represented a significant break with past foreign policy practice, he still comes within the normal range of a board set of goals that goal back decades.    Before Trump the US was committed to super power supremacy and support for free trade policies that favored its interests. It supported multi-national alliances such as NATO, and support for western democratic principles remained a core foreign policy objective for the US.
Despite Trump’s political rhetoric, the basic goals of US foreign policy did not change.  This was true  part because Trump’s selections for his advisors have come from the traditional US  foreign policy establishment, including John Bolton.  Although there may have been many within the US foreign policy establishment and then Trump administration who wished to take more aggressive and perhaps in some cases a more militaristic approach toward Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, such as Bolton, those who advocated more diplomatic means, both camps shared common US goals regarding these countries to contain their influence or limit nuclear capacities.
But the real problem within the Trump administration was not so much a difference of tactics or strategy among his advisors so much as it was the personal foreign policy style of Trump.  Repeated stories reveal how he ignores his advisors, does not read intelligence reports, and how he acts on personal instincts and emotion.  Trump also demands personal loyalty.
Bolton’s problem was twofold.  One, he had very strong opinions and he was not afraid to share them, even with the president. This raised the question of personal loyalty.  Second, the Trump administration’s foreign policy team has already changed over several times in less than three years, reflecting the erratic nature of the president’s personality driven approach to making decisions.  These shifts in teams reflect Trump’s own lack of a worldview or consistent way to think about foreign policy.  He has ranged from more military muscle when he brought in all the generals, to less militaristic and more focused on trade wars.    Trump right now seems focused on trade, the economy, and a more isolationist foreign policy that relies less on threats of military might than what suited Bolton.
In some ways, Bolton was out of fashion with this period of Trump’s presidency.  In reality it does not matter if Bolton was fired or resigned.  This debate is for the issue of appearances.  If he resigned, Bolton becomes another former Trump advisor who gets to criticize  the president, if he was fired the president gets to show leadership and claim Bolton failed to do his job.  The difference in resign or fired is in whose is actually making the decisions in US foreign policy, the bureaucrats and advisors or the president.
In terms of Bolton’s replacement it is not clear what foreign policy phase Trump is now in.  But at least short term Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will become even closer to the president in advising on national security matters.  Pompeo and Trump appear for now to work well together, and perhaps Bolton is out because he lost the battles he was picking with the Secretary of State.  Any replacement for Bolton will have to be someone who get along with Pompeo, suggesting perhaps Brian Hook, Pompeo’s advisor, might be a leading candidate.
Overall, look for little change in the Trump administration’s post Bolton foreign policy.  It will remain a presidency where decisions are intensively personality driven and where Trump is at odds with his own foreign policy team and establishment.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Are They High? Why the Minnesota DFL is pushing marijuana legalization

            The Minnesota DFL is making legalization of marijuana a 2020 election issue. Governor Walz has instructed his agencies to prepare for it and Democrats are kicking off a statewide listen tour to tout legalization’s benefits.  Does such a strategy make political sense or are the Democrats high?
            From a public policy perspective, the current criminalization “war on drugs” has failed. I argued that in a Texas Tech Law Review Article 26 years ago, well before it was fashionable to advocate for legalization.  The current criminalization approach has failed to stop drug usage, imposed racially arbitrary sentences, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars in government enforcement and lost personal freedom and productivity due to incarceration.  Maybe for some, usage of marijuana is a matter of personal freedom to use a harmless drug.  However, as we have seen with the opioid crisis and some research on prolonged use of marijuana, use of any drugs ought also to be viewed as a public health issue with the question being what is the best way to regulate a specific drug to address it real or potential health issues.  Criminalization has failed with marijuana and legalization of some sort is the answer.  From a public policy perspective the question is what type of legalization.
            But policy change requires political opportunity.  The DFL sees the time as now to advocate for it., despite the fact that the Republican State Senate Leader Paul Gazelka has said legalization will not happen next year.  So if legalization is dead next year why push it?
There are several reasons.  The first is polling data that suggest 64% of those surveyed by  Gallup favor legalization, including in Midwest states such as Minnesota..  However, what legalization means varies by person.  A Mason-Dixon poll found recreational legalization support only at 37%.  Neither poll indicated that recreational legalization was a top issue for many voters.  Thus, while it appears that there is majority support for legalization, it is less clear that recreational use is a top political or policy priority for a large percentage of the voters. 
For the Minnesota DFL, they may be hoping that supporting marijuana legalization is the 2020 equivalent of the 2012 marriage amendment.  In that year the Republicans placed on the ballot a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.  The theory was that support for the amendment would be so strong that it would help the GOP maintain control of the state legislature and win Minnesota for presidential candidate Mitt Romney by energizing the party base.  It backfired.  Instead, it energized the DFL, especially young voters, and it resulted in flipping the state legislature to Democrats who in 2013 legalized same-sex marriages in the state.
More specifically, though, Democrats may be reading numbers from the 2018 election.  That year two pro-legalization parties in Minnesota qualified for major party status.  In the race for State Auditor, the Legalize Marijuana Now Party received 133,913 votes, whereas in the race for Attorney General,  Grassroots Legalize Cannabis received 145,748, or 5.28% and 5.71% of the statewide vote for those offices respectively.  In running for office, the two pro-legalization parties opted  not to run against one another to prevent splitting of votes.  This is important because one can argue that those who voted for one of the pro-legalization parties are those who view the issue as their top priority. This means not that 10% of the voters supported pro-legalization parties, but something around 5-6% of those casting votes in either the State Auditor or Attorney General races.
The Minnesota Secretary of State indicated that 2,611, 365 individuals cast ballots in 2018.  Assume that the 145,748 Grassroots Legalize Cannabis vote is a fair estimate of those who support legalization as a primary or top issue.  This works out to 5.58% who voted for a pro-legalization party.  In the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis,  31,976, 14,720, and  5,471 respectively voted for a pro-legalization party or candidate.  In total, these three counties constituted 62,167 or 42.7% of the pro-legalization vote in the state.  The other 56.3% was clumped in urban areas or college-town areas, with thin support in more rural areas.  Even in suburbs, support was  less.  For the Attorney General’s race, in Edina and Eden Prairie, two typical and more affluent suburbs that might be likely to support legalization, 2,462 out of 62,523 voters or 3.94% of the voters went for the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party.
What do all these statistics suggest?  Perhaps they underestimate support for recreational legalization as a top priority.  But they do indicate a small percentage of the population cares about the issue and the DFL feels it cannot ignore it.  Failure to support legalization may mean more voters drift away from the party, making it harder to pick up a Senate majority or mobilize voters for statewide races.  Yet, the geographic distribution of support for legalization  is clumped, strongest in areas where the DFL are already strong.  Moreover, if the race for control of the state, especially the legislature, goes through the suburbs, especially with suburban women, it is not clear that a  strong legalization approach makes sense.  In talks I have given, when legalization is raised, many suburban women exclaim “Another thing I  have to protect my children from.”
Perhaps marijuana legalization will do the same in 2020, mobilizing young voters to come out and vote. Or perhaps it will alienate suburban (female) voters, or it leads to a counter-mobilization by the GOP who are already motivated to come out to support Donald Trump.  This is the gamble the DFL is taking going into the 2020 elections in its advocacy for recreational marijuana.