The October Democratic Debate

Despite the complaints that the Democratic field is too large, there being too many candidates on the stage, and the usual criticism that these debates aren’t really debates because they are not sustained interchanges where people get to answer people’s answers, the CNN debate on Tuesday was very successful in that it gave a sense of each of the candidates and gave the audience an education on a range of issues. The topics touched on could have been expanded into an entire political science course. Most of all, the debate provided a sense that what unites the Democratic Party is that it sees the purpose of government as satisfying whatever needs the populace has. There is no limitation on the ways government can help people, which is the opposite of what Republicans used to say, before Trump, which was that smaller government was better government, that government had its limits because government was the enemy of liberty rather than its enhancer-- or that was the case before Trump appeared on the scene to play Mr. Bluster from the Howdy Doody show: all talk, no delivery. But before getting to the issues, let’s talk about the horse race.

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The Necessity of Impeachment

Conservatives and moderates will say that the phone call between Donald Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine is just Donald Trump’s usual bluster and so not to be taken seriously or, if it is, that it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense because it is, after all, just one phone call, and that even if it is an impeachable offense, it is too late in Trump’s term to pursue impeachment because the election about a year from now is available as the preferable device for getting rid of him and so not give the Republicans the excuse of saying that the Democrats are not willing to go to the ballot box to get their way. My view is that the charges are very serious, very impeachable and, most important, it is necessary to pursue these charges because we cannot wait for the next election to correct the problem Trump presents.

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Samantha Power: Human Rights Activist

The top national security people who work in the White House are usually meritocratic appointments, the selection made from people who had been working previously in ever more important positions in either Republican or Democratic Administrations, and so you could count on how they would conduct themselves in office because they were already known quantities. That tradition goes back a long time, John Foster Dulles was the heir apparent for Secretary of State if Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Truman and he got the office when Dwight Eisenhower won the Presidency four years later. Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk were old Washington hands. The same is true closer to the present. Madeleine Albright was a Democratic fund raiser turned professor of international relations and Condoleza Rice was a student at the University of Denver under Albright's father and she had learned a lot about deterrence theory before she signed on to educate George W. Bush about foreign policy. Colin Powell had been a political general before working in the White House. 

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A Third Try at Impeachment

Here we are at the start of the third round of impeachment talk, and it is a good question whether anything will come out of it when nothing came of it in its previous iterations. First there was the Mueller investigation into connections between Trump and the Russians during 2015 and 2016. Mueller got so tied up in legalities that he couldn’t conclude that the communications between the Rusians and the Trump camp amounted to a conspiracy because there was no proof of criminal intent, which is a version of what I would call the clown defense. Trump is such a clown that he doesn’t know he is entering a conspiracy only that he is acting conspiratorially and then can deny it was malevolent because he goes public with what others would try to hide. He asked Russia at a public rally to go after Hillary’s emails and a few days later Wikileaks released a lot of information. So how could Trump be conspiring right in front of us? He is a fool rather than someone like Nixon, who worked hard to cover up what he knew to be wrong conduct on his part even if it were warranted by his sense that both political parties do it.

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The September Democratic Primary Debate

Commentators quickly summed up the horse race aspects of last night’s Democratic Primary Debate. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill, two former United States Senators, said on different networks that nothing had changed in that the three leading candidates, Biden, Sanders and Warren, were still in the lead, having provided acceptable though not outstanding performances, and that some of the outlier candidates, like Amy Klobacher and Corey Booker, had made some well put points. Only Julian Castro and Andrew Yang seemed to falter, Castro for aiming a haymaker at Biden that failed and which made Castro look cruel, and Yang for offering an Oprah like gift to some citizens, an offer that drew laughter from most of the candidates. So things are settling in, the longer Biden remains in the lead, the longer he is likely to maintain it, his occasional stumbles notwithstanding. So much for the feel and strategies of the candidates vis a vis one another.

I want to attend, instead, to what were the topics selected by the journalists to ask questions about, and what were the presumptions embodied in both the questions and answers. It is interesting to note, as some commentators have, that neither impeachment nor Warren’s wealth tax, both worthy of debate, were brought up in the course of the debate. Nor was abortion or the Supreme Court. What was brought up and how was that handled?

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A Nation in Crisis?

Pundits and scholars suggest that our nation is in crisis. Abroad, we are challenged by China, Russia, North Korea. We are threatened at our borders by immigration. We have an economy that doesn’t produce satisfactory jobs for many underemployed people and where career paths are uncertain for people even of the upper classes. The country is rife with regionalism and a cultural war between the people who live on the coasts and those who live inland. Race relations are still lousy or, worse than that, retrograde, what with police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the urban underclass ever more racially segregated. There is a rampage of mass shootings. We are desperately in need of infrastructure improvements and bringing about a decline in air pollution. And, of course, we have separated into two political tribes which can not communicate with one another and an electoral system which two times in the last twenty years has given us a President who did not win the popular vote. How can this not be considered a crisis? Well, it is not, and that is made clear by applying even a wee bit of historical perspective. In fact, we are living in perhaps the most benign of times since the Era of Good Feeling that followed the War of 1812 and lasted, let us say, until the tariff crisis of 1824 that ushered in the Pre-Civil War Era which was a thirty-five year period in which any number of things were done to try to prevent a civil war.

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Truth in Politics

During the late Nineteenth Century, Gottlob Frege said that every sentence was a proposition in that a truth value could be attached to it. That meant that every sentence (except those that were obviously just for emphasis, like “Ugh!”) was either objectively true or not. The blue unicorn is there behind you or he isn’t. One can quibble about whether this is only true of sentences with Western grammatical constructions, but the point is telling about English and associated languages. It is not far from that to Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite description, which said, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, that every sentence says about its object that the object exists. The blue unicorn exists even if only as a figment of your imagination. That is perhaps the high point of the philosophical view that language could be reduced to the same thing as science: a set of assertions that could be put to the test of their truth because what else was there? All statements were either true or nonsense. There is no place in that sense of language for metaphor or symbol.

The way around this is to notice that while it may be the case that, strictly speaking, sentences are true or not, that often is not what people find interesting about them. If I hear gossip, I care less about whether it is true or not than about the images it puts in my mind to contemplate. Yes, I might wonder if the rumor that JFK had an affair with Marilyn Monroe is really true, but it is the contemplation of that rumor which is intriguing, and so I remember her singing a sexy version of “Happy Birthday” to Jack at a birthday party given for him. Language, in fact, has many ways of qualifying a truth claim so that it is a sort of truth where the truth of the matter is not really central. Look at some contemporary political examples of the ways language can evade or easily satisfy the demands of truth.

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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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