The New Case for Impeachment

The old case for the impeachment of President Trump has languished for lack of evidence that he conspired with the Russians, Robert Mueller not having tied together the dots, even though there were so many of them. Why so many contacts with the Russians that Trump’s aides and associates lied about? What was to be found in his tax returns or in Deutsche Bank records? Mueller said that he didn’t go into either one because it was outside his purview, but I don’t see how that could be the case. Those records could show if there was any financial advantage for Trump in cooperating with the Russians or any disadvantage if the Russians did not see him as cooperating with them. There is also the legal question of whether there can be obstruction of justice when there is no proof of any underlying crime. And so the various House Committees try to unearth what Mueller did not. It seems a futile quest and unnecessary if the election of 2020 will unseat him even if Jerry Nadler insists that he is indeed engaged in an impeachment inquiry and more than half of Democratic House members think Trump should be impeached.

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The Second August Democratic Debate

CNN is to be congratulated on how well it choreographed the ceremonials that preceded the two nights of Democratic debates. The candidates were paraded out one by one, as if on a quiz program, and for the same reason: to provide viewers a chance to associate names and faces. The first four candidates shook one another’s hands, and then that was dispensed with because it would become too cumbersome to have more than that greet one another individually. The men were allowed to kiss the cheeks of their female competitors though sexual harassment officers at corporations and schools would advise against that. Then there was an old geezer color guard bringing in the American flag and every one of the candidates were very serious and respectful, hands over their hearts, as “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung. I remember, when a kid, joining the crowd at Yankee Stadium in singing the national anthem and I remember when I took my son to ballgames at the same place and he and I were the only ones who sung along with the piped in rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Political debates are a good place to remind people of how serious an occasion politics is for the American people and the American system.

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The First Democratic August Debate

The general consensus about the first night of the two days of debate is that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were, as the NY Times put it, a “tag team” fielding questions about their “radical” health care and other economic proposals. I agree with that but would add that I think they did a very credible job of doing so and, to the extent that the parameters of a debate allow that, made what seemed to me convincing arguments though not conclusive ones. They explained that Medicare for All was not all that radical but just a meaningful extension of Johnson Era programs. They were convincing in arguing that people would, in sum, pay less for their insurance than they now did. They never had to address whether anybody would be left behind in the transition but did point out that unions could then go about their business of securing higher wages. It did occur to me that the argument against change, which is that it would be disruptive of present arrangements and so some people might suffer, is the one that is used whenever a new program comes along, whether it is to control toxic plant emissions, or regulate child labor, or most recently, to enact Obamacare. The transition passes, just as the noise of construction on Second Avenue has passed and new high rises are being built all the time to take advantage of the new subway.

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Censure Politics

I do not have much use for the four Congresswomen who are the bones of contention in the recent censure motion of the President that was passed by the House of Representatives largely by a party line vote. I was going to give the benefit of the doubt to AOC. She was young and articulate and might bring in some fresh ideas but her rejection of Amazon coming to New York City showed her to be an ideologue in the bad sense: slogans without content. She is just against big corporations. The governor, the mayor, the local congresswoman, and local labor leaders were all in favor of the project because it would bring fifty thousand jobs to Queens and a lot of them were for warehousemen and construction workers and so would help the working class, even though there would also be high paying jobs for techies and for executives. The tax breaks, all legal (I checked into that), wouldn't kick in until the jobs were in place, which means Amazon would pay less in taxes than it otherwise would; it would not be getting cash up front. I also didn't like Ilhan Omar. She is entitled to be against Israel but rather than attacking Jewish money she should have proposed what she sees as a legitimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict.

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Debate Fallout

According to MSNBC and network news, the most significant fallout of the two night Democratic debate was that Kamala Harris took on Joe Biden about bussing. Yes, commentators correctly point out, he was not as sharp as he needs to be or as he once was. Earlier in his career, he would have pinned her ears back by saying she didn’t know what she was talking about, but here he seemed to be struggling just not to give in to uhs and pauses, even to the point of saying he had run out of time to cover up the fact that he may have lost his train of thought. His voice was also weak. But on the merits of the issue, he was absolutely right. Back in the early Seventies, bussing was not a way to enforce Brown v. Board of Education but one alternative being tried out to improve the education of black children by integrating them with white children and Biden was a voice that told the simple truth: that bussing would not work as a way to integrate the schools, even if it should be used to end de jure segregation, and bussing would therefore needlessly inflame the passions of whites who were opposed to it even if whites had been perfectly willing to have blacks bussed long distances to attend schools in the previous segregated system. 

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Elizabeth Warren's Proposals

Elizabeth Warren has risen to be in a virtual dead heat with Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg for second place behind Joe Biden in the Democratic race for the 2020 nomination and commentators attribute that to her claim “I have a plan for that” in every area of public policy. That is her defining personae: she is a policy wonk. So let’s test that out by examining some of her policy proposals and see if they bear the weight of analysis or are more like the policy proposals of Paul Ryan, which made no sense if you looked into them. Well, Warren’s proposals do bear up under some scrutiny, but only if you also adopt her general view of things, which is to soak the rich for the sake of doing that, which is an ideological rather than a policy matter.

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Scandals

A political scandal occurs when a person or set of people who have either power or influence are uncovered to have engaged in pernicious conduct that puts a nation at risk. McCarthyism was an attempt to point out that people in high places had been Communists and that they continued to hold their positions of influence until they were uncovered by McCarthy. Watergate was a scandal because it was uncovered that President Nixon and his men had tried to undermine the American electoral system. Sometimes the evidence of a scandal is unclear, as when McCarthy just flashed sheets of paper proclaiming them to be lists of traitors working in the State Department, and sometimes the details are elaborately spelled out, which happened with the Senate Watergate Committee.

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Mueller, Again

The only one who seems to be satisfied with the Mueller Report is Donald Trump, who was all prepared to release numerous memos challenging its findings until the Report exonerated him and now that is what he says the report did. He must be very relieved because he knows what he is hiding and he seems to have gotten away with hiding it. So is his 2020 campaign going to be built on the slogan “At least I wasn’t a traitor”? The rest of us found the Mueller Report unsatisfying because it didn’t answer the key question of what Trump and his people had been doing with the Russians, there having been significant events to prompt the inquiry in the first place. But Mueller, in the Report and in his follow up “clarifying” statement of last week, seems to have further muddied the waters by engaging in the mind boggling legal proceduralism that is the bane of that profession but does not bedevil the rest of us who are, God be thanked, not lawyers. Let’s look at the knots into which Mueller has tied himself.

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FDR The Politician

Conservatives after World War II came after FDR by saying that he had meddled too much in military affairs and that he was a terrible administrator, never letting his subordinates know what he wanted from them. Liberals defended the legacy of FDR by saying he meddled in military affairs only very rarely, such as when he decided to delay the invasion of France for, at first, one year, and then for two, even though his top military advisors wanted him to invade France in 1942. He also intervened when, to the surprise of Churchill, sitting beside him, he announced at the Tehran Conference in 1943, that he was demanding the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis forces, everyone knowing that the Axis would therefore fight the war to its bitter end. And FDR proved not such a bad administrator. What he did was just appoint one new commision after another, with new leadership, to compete with the other governmental agencies, and just see which one was the more successful. He turned over war production to the captains of industry he had for so long excoriated, and they delivered vast quantities of armament and so the Allies won the battle of the Atlantic because they were producing more new  tonnage of ships every month than the Nazi U-boats were able to sink.

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Abortion Politics

I have been asked by a reader to comment on the recent spate of anti-abortion legislation in Southern states. I am reluctant to do so because, as appalling as I find the anti-abortion legislation, I think the abortion issue is more complicated than either side is willing to admit. The nation is at an impasse, some half century after Roe v. Wade, the issues surrounding the beginnings of life and what to do about it no closer to resolution than they were then.

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Political Careers

Democrats like me like to think that the election of Donald Trump was an aberration in that he won in the Electoral College only by some tens of thousands of vote and that it was unusual for a major party to nominate such an outlier as their standard bearer. He flummoxed his Primary opponents with his theatricals; they could figure out no way to respond. On the other hand, it is possible to think that he is just a harbinger of things to come: more and more candidates elected for their celebrity because that is what happens when nominations are driven by what happens on the debate stage rather than by the records of the politicians on the issues with which the American people are faced. Now, government by celebrity does not have to be anarchic. The United States could incorporate having mercurial and outlandish Presidents by more and more of the actual power to run the government falling on institutions like the cabinet departments which would operate in a more autonomous fashion , their actions coordinated by some chief of staff. We would then be in more of a parliamentary system with a permanent civil service answering only a little bit to appointed cabinet ministers. Before reaching that conclusion, however, let us put the main proposition to the test. Is it true that parties no longer act as checks on who their nominees will be and so the age of the celebrity has been unleashed? Let us consult, for evidence, how it is that politicians have traditionally made the careers that bring them to that circle of people who will go for the ultimate prize.

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The Mueller Report, Finally

I have been chewing over the Mueller report for four days now and I still have trouble coming to terms with it. Journalists have been saying how pleased they are that it confirms so many of their findings. But that is part of the problem. It looks like it could have been written without the resources of a special prosecutor's office just by reviewing all the information that was available on the public record. But the Mueller report was supposed to link the dots not merely review them. To do so, it was supposed to use its subpoena powers to grab hold of Trump’s tax returns and the records of Deutsche Bank to see whether there had been a basis for blackmailing the man who would become president. The Report stays mum on whether it investigated those leads. If it had, it might have cleared the President of suspicion but instead it just leaves us with our suspicions intact: that there were too many contacts with the Russians for there not to have been something fishy going on. Not having resolved that leaves the public in limbo, not knowing more than it did before, however much the Report is declared either to exonerate or not exonerate the President. The Report was to develop the facts and leave conclusions to the Congress which could decide whether any of the offenses were impeachable, never mind whether they were criminal or not, which is a far less important question, even if the Special Prosecutor law makes that the aim of the inquiry. We want to know what the Russians were doing with and without Trump and the New York Times is a more lucid guide to that than is the Mueller Report which is boring reading, piling one fact on another but not having much narrative drive. Some commentators have taken comfort from the fact that the Report shows the White House to be a sleazy place under this President. He is out to aggrandize only himself and seems to be a woefully poor executive, unable to put his meaner or more malevolent schemes into operation. But we already knew that and those shortcomings do not constitute an impeachable offense. Moreover, Trump does do some of the things he cares about. He makes life miserable for people crossing the southern border looking for asylum and many of his supporters like him for doing that. So he did deliver on that promise even though he hasn’t been able to deport the eleven million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, something I feared he would try to do when he took office. He just can’t get a handle on his own bureaucracy.

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The Joe Biden Issue

The Joe Biden issue doesn’t seem to go away, stoked by both Trump and cable news, which can’t deal with the serious issue of whether the current President is fit for office. Zelinka Maxwell says on MSNBC that she wants a nuanced discussion of changing views of what is unwelcome touching, which is the term now used for the most modest intrusion on the personal space of females. She says there is a difference between kissing babies and kissing the back of the head of an adult woman. But what seems so  obvious to her does not seem so obvious to me, and the men on her panel were not willing to engage the issue, to in fact engage in a nuanced discussion. Like kissing babies, planting a kiss on the head of a woman one is obviously trying to give emotional support, there being a lot of people around who can see that it is not a sexual overture, is innocuous, and hardly worthy of discussion, people in my generation doing it all the time as a way to create solidarity with colleagues. Why should one not think that most women would not regard this as non-threatening, only those in the media jumping on the bandwagon to score points for their side in the ever roiling sex wars of our times?

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The Politically Correct

Let us treat being “politically correct” not just as a rhetorical term thrown out by Donald Trump as a way to malign those who object to his racism and misogyny, or as a term used to describe those on the political left or members of minority groups who wish people to be ashamed of their opinions and who take offense at the expression of opinions with which they do not agree. Rather, let us use it as a serious term of moral and political philosophy which refers to how people negotiate to get heard what they want to say. That way, the term has some perennial rather than purely faddish reference and explains something about political dynamics as those are and always have been.

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Coalition Democracy

There is a lesson  that should be learned by American politics from what happened during the Arab Spring. It will be remembered that the people who went out into the Square to bring down the Mubarak government were what we would call liberals or modernizers. They were students and techies and women. They were backed by the Army, which got them the first and only fair election in Egyptian history. But look what happened then. They could not come together around a single candidate to represent their interests, neither one of the young people, like the IBM executive who got the international media spotlight for a few days, nor Barudi, the distinguished international civil servant who had lived outside the country for many years, nor some indigenous political figure. The result was that the Arab Brotherhood, not expecting to gain power, won the election and its head, much praised by the international community as a potential enlightened figure, and given credit for having put down some unrest among the Bedouin living in the Sinai, nonetheless proved too sympathetic to Islamist forces and so was dispatched by the army who got their own leader elected president without much resistance by the international community, which had given up much hope that the Arab Spring was a democratic reform movement. And now to America.

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Can Free Speech Be Excessive?

The classicist David Konstan wrote an article entitled “Parrhesia”, which is the concept of free speech as that was practiced in Athens when that was a Fifth Century B. C. democracy.  That meant a person, as a citizen, could speak candidly, as if he were among friends, when he spoke his mind, though that did not mean he should engage in flattery, on the one hand, or insolence, on the other. As that idea is elaborated in the Fourth Century B.C., when Greece has become a series of states, some more despotic than others, that means one must curb one’s thoughts unless being outspoken is taken to mean that you have said things that ought not to be said, and so the person who pushes this limit is being courageous even if foolhardy because such people will be censored for their outbursts. Konstan sums up his point this way: “The term is located at that inevitable ideological juncture where debate rages and where what some believe must be brought into the open is just what offends others.” I think that this distinction between candid speech and obnoxious speech is very applicable to the current controversy in the House of Representatives about whether Ilhan Omar went too far when she used anti-Semitic tropes in referring to AIPAC money and the divided loyalty of Jews. She believed it and said it. Did that go too far? Nancy Pelosi thought so but a considerable number of Democrats did not. I want to address that question.

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This Political Moment

The United States is at a very weird moment and that is not because the President of the United States is weird, what with all his lies, rants, meanness and ignorance, a collection of vile qualities we have never before seen in a President, some of his predecessors, like Nixon, suffering from one or another fatal flaw, but not from such a collection as this one which makes Trump unfit to don the cape of tragic hero, as was true of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy for his risk taking, Nixon for his conniving. Trump is merely contemptible and many of his followers see him that way, as a figure useful for upsetting the applecart rather than one who is very good at keeping it on a straight course.

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Radical Politics

Two weeks ago, I might have thought I would have to say I was wrong about what I had said two weeks earlier, which is that there was not much difference between the various candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, that they were all New Deal Democrats, and so we would make a choice on the basis of personality, which is a good or a bad thing depending on whether you think that people of real character will shine through, the alternative being that we will chose a charlatan or simply someone who has a tic or an expression that we find charming. What had gone wrong was that so many of the Progressive Democrats seemed committed to outlandish “Socialist” proposals and so there was a real division between the progressives such as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, on the one hand, and the mainstream Democrats, such as Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, the others not yet having chosen sides. What a difference a few weeks make.

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The Structural Underpinnings of Free Speech

Free speech is the experience of knowing that you can say anything you please without fear of governmental or other institutional authorities. You have free speech when you sound off in a high school class about politics because you know that school is a protected space where a variety of opinions are allowed even if some people may disapprove of what you say or even criticize you for those opinions but must, nonetheless and however grudgingly, admit your right to hold them. Free speech does not mean you are free to insult people, because that violates basic rules of courtesy, but it does mean that contrarian opinions or even fresh and unfamiliar points of view get a hearing, the only control being the informal ones that have to do with customs which can be so rigorous, as in a religious community, that saying unholy things can lead to ostracism or perhaps merely severe rebukes, these enough to make such a community not to be one that allows free speech. Free speech, as an experience, then, has about it the sense of liberation, individuality and democracy. Free speech is also a term that refers to the institutions which, like that high school, protect and further the activity of free speech, and this post is concerned with what are those institutions that led to the establishment of free speech as a characteristic feature of democratic regimes.

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Cultural Mutation

Cultural mutation is a way to understand what is happening in a number of politically charged issues from race relations to foreign policy even though social scientists do not usually treat culture as something subject to spontaneous or creative change. Culture is usually regarded by anthropologists as the continuing way of life of a people, embracing customs, laws and beliefs, and so very stable and self-perpetuating and arising for unknown reasons, while sociologists emphasize the way culture reinforces the social structure that exists because it is transmitted by institutions that are answerable to the structure, as when television transmits what its advertisers will approve of, social media  a maverick in that there opinions percolate up from the people, and there is an understandable reaction by which government and other institutions of culture, such as the press, want to see the social media controlled so that they do not promulgate unpopular opinions. Culture is also taken to be a bridge or the medium through which change takes place in that culture diffuses innovations across a population, as when it spreads knowledge of vaccination, even though it is not responsible for original ideas. These theories are contrary to the perspective of humanists, which sees culture as the source of new ideas, whether in science, as when Darwin and Newton invent new perspectives because of their own ruminations while building on precedent thinkers, Darwin a mutation on Malthus and Lyell, while Newton was contemplating Copernicus and Galileo-- and vaccination was, after all, invented by a particular doctor in England on the basis of his observation of cows and the lack of smallpox among cow maids. Ingenuity and insight count. The humanist perspective can be applied to current events.

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