Is It All Unraveling?

Alan Zendell, July 19, 2017

Americans often have conveniently short memories. We have to be reminded of things that should be part of our DNA by now. If honest journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite hadn’t had the courage and integrity to speak out against the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and the duplicity of the Pentagon in the early years of Vietnam, imagine where we’d be today.

If annoying and persistent reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hadn’t hounded the Nixon White House over Watergate, we’d never have learned the truth that there was a concerted effort by Nixon’s people to compromise the 1972 presidential election. And while it was mostly politically motivated, only the consistent media barrage of Bill Clinton ultimately revealed a serious weakness in the president’s character.

We’ve seen this act before. As the smoke thickens and the denials become nastier and more strident, as the scapegoating and excuse making seem to take on a life of their own, the White House begins to retrench behind ever more defensive walls. Press briefings are no longer televised, and gradually, the Press Secretary, who obviously had trouble dealing with the cycle of lies and contradictions has been replaced with a more reliable hack who’s willing to say whatever is necessary with a straight face. And now we hear that there may not be any more daily press briefings – how’s that for transparency?

And all that smoke? It gets denser and more toxic every day suggesting that there may be a real conflagration behind it. The possibility that serious violations have occurred concerning Russian interference looks more likely every day. Whether it was deliberate collusion or just incompetence doesn’t matter. Neither is acceptable, in fact it’s not clear which is worse.

One commentator reported on cable news that an unnamed source close to the Trump family said the problem was that Donald Trump Jr just isn’t very bright. Even if it’s true, is that supposed to be a defense? How irresponsible would it be for the President to allow his not very bright son to have access to highly sensitive materials and put him in positions in which his naivete and incompetence could result in diplomatic crises and serious confrontations which both our allies and adversaries? And if DT Jr is actually pretty smart and as unprincipled as his father, then what?

So our illustrious leader, who among other things is supposed to be a moral leader and role model continues to dance around the truth and deny any wrongdoing, only to change his tune and contradict himself the next day, and the next day after. He protests that the media are out to get him except for that narrow portion of it that buys everything he says. William Shakespeare got it right four hundred years ago – “the Lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Aside from the fact that the Trump administration isn’t even good theater any more, this drama is symptomatic of what many of us fear most. Remember what we owe the trusted journalists of past decades. Remember the signs of an unraveling administration, from Lyndon Johnson’s mishandling of Vietnam, to Richard Nixon’s attempts to cover up the crimes committed by his staff, to Clinton’s ever more unbelievable denials, to George W. Bush steadily losing the confidence of the country.

These signs are all clear. They’re not hard to read. Whether or not the FBI finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the Trump administration indicts itself every day. They have no idea what they’re doing. There is no leadership. Our diplomacy is a shambles. Instead of coming to grips with its failures, the White House constantly blames them on everyone else, from the Democrats, to fractious Republicans, the leakers, and the press.

Government is not a family-owned business, and security clearances can’t be passed out like birthday cards. This administration is unraveling and shedding credibility on a daily basis, just as surely as the failed administrations of the past did. We already see signs of defections among the more independent Republicans who are secure enough to speak the truth with nothing to lose. Lindsey Graham, John McCain (we wish him well), and the three female senators who Rush Limbaugh referred to yesterday as “Collins, Murkowski, Capito – [the] three female leftists in the Republican caucus.” What will it take for the rest of them to make it clear to the president that they won’t tolerate this any longer?

We can’t afford to ignore the lessons of history. There’s far too much at stake this time, and we need a moral principled leader steering the ship.

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Americans are Celebrating Today

Alan Zendell, July 19, 2017

This morning, Mitch McConnell said he imagined Democrats were celebrating today, but they ought to be clear why. That statement is another lesson in learning to translate political gibberish into English.

First, it’s not just Democrats who are celebrating. It’s every American who worries about the cost of health care, and recent polls suggest four out of five of us fall into that category. More significantly, what Americans are celebrating is the failure of an attempt to pass bad legislation crafted in secret while excluding everyone but the fifty-two members of the Senate Republican caucus. And in the twisted logic of political rhetoric, McConnell blames that failure on the refusal of the Democrats he excluded from the process to cooperate.

The truth that no Republican senator will speak publicly is that the entire conservative agenda is aimed at reducing the cost of what they refer to as “entitlements” so they can reduce taxes. That seemed like a good idea to millions of voters when the Tea Party wave took opponents by surprise more than a decade ago. But average people are realizing that what conservative billionaires consider entitlements are actually things that every other industrialized country guarantees its citizens. And reducing taxes doesn’t benefit them, partly because it’s the wealthy who see the biggest savings, but more importantly, because the things government stops paying for are things they want and need.

The Tea Party, like all extreme movements, whether it changes its name to the Freedom Caucus or pretends to be acting in the interests of all Americans, invariably overreaches. It becomes drunk with power and thinks it can subvert the democratic process and dictate change.  That’s understandable, because its supporters have done that all their lives, using their wealth to overwhelm all opposition. In their world money speaks louder than rules, morality, or principles, but when voters realize they’re being deceived, it doesn’t work in government.

So what we’re celebrating, Mr. McConnell, is that your party contains people of principle. And it contains people who, even if their principles aren’t pure, understand that if they try to ram legislation like the AHCA down voters’ throats, they will pay a heavy price next year. The party of Lincoln is being reminded of one of its founders most memorable quotations:  “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Populist movements come and go, but eventually Americans tend to get it right. Extremists never represent the will of the majority though it sometimes takes a while for the truth to sink in.

That’s why the checks and balances built into our system are so essential, and why we can’t permit those same extremists to denigrate or eliminate them. It’s why the senate has filibuster rules, and why its sometimes arcane-seeming rules that make passing revolutionary changes difficult exist. It’s why demonizing the press and the broadcast media strikes at the heart of our democratic process. It’s why attempts to delegitimize the courts that attack the basis of our constitution cannot be allowed to succeed.

Senator Schumer responded to McConnell by saying Democrats have been ready to work with Republicans and remain so, but before any bipartisan solution can be crafted the ideas of slashing Medicaid and depriving millions of Americans of the health care they need to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthy must be abandoned. That too was a political statement, but it’s one that the vast majority of Americans support. Schumer also reminded Mr. McConnell of his own statements on the record, that when a single party seeks to impose its will on the country it will invariably fail. In McConnell’s own words, the only way to create stable laws that meet the needs of the country is with bipartisan cooperation.

The unfortunate truth is that the people we have elected to represent us seem to be the only ones who don’t understand that the vast majority of Americans want them to work together. In my opinion, this is to a large degree the result of gerrymandering, which deliberately skews the result of legislative elections. The whole point of gerrymandering is to permit one extreme political view to suppress the clear wish of the majority of voters. Let’s hope the Supreme Court recognizes the damage this does to our country and fixes it.

Let’s also hope that now that Americans are awake and paying attention they maintain their focus. When politicians know we’re watching it affects their actions.

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No, Mr. President, Just About Anyone Would NOT Have Taken That Meeting

Alan Zendell, July 14, 2017

Remember all the talk during the campaign about whether success in managing a business translated to success in governing? Before Donald Trump won the nomination, the Republicans were the ones asking the question loudest. It was actually the most important question being raised, far more important than Trump’s morals or principles or business ethics, more important than whether he was a liar, a racist, or a mysoginist.

The notion of a pristine, highly moral, totally honest president is a fantasy out of a children’s book. Governing and politics are hard-nosed dirty enterprises, and our fantasy candidate, should he or she ever actually win would be an innocent lamb led to the slaughter. Our presidents have to be tough, and they can’t always tell the truth, but there are certain rules they must follow.

The country is learning, now, what many of us who’ve been involved in government meant by asking the question. There’s no reason someone who was successful in business couldn’t be an effective president if he or she had the right temperament. Succeeding in government requires a mind open to change, a willingness to accept that the playing field is different with an entirely new set of rules and conventions, and that the combination of a massive ego and huge sums of money don’t work in government the way they do in business.

Everything is different, and the differences are not just in style. When a business wants to hire a qualified employee it’s a simple transaction; things like prior relationships, nepotism, even objective qualifications are secondary to the desire of the boss doing the hiring. In government, the rules for hiring employees are so complex and arcane, they discourage qualified people from either applying for jobs or wanting to be managers. The same is true for hiring consultants, advisers, and contractors. Unless a business receives money from the government, it is free of all the entangling laws and regulations that were put in place to assure fairness, but have evolved into nearly impassible roadblocks.

A president, like every other government official is bound by countless statutes, ethics requirements, and constant scrutiny by the media. The most important difference, we now see, is the body of laws governing foreign contacts and espionage. Companies spy on each other all the time, but when governments do it the consequences can be grave. In government, anything construed as subverting our electoral process or passing sensitive information to a potential adversary is a felony that can rise to the level of a capital crime.

Remember when Trump said Hillary Clinton should be in prison for the things she allegedly did? If anyone else did them, he said, they’d be locked up. Well, Donald, have a look in the mirror. If a private citizen not protected by the Office of the President did the things your people seem to have done, the case would be open and shut.

So no, just about anyone would NOT have taken that meeting with the Russian lawyer or written about how eager he was to receive damaging political information from a nation that clearly means us no good. Anyone who understood the rules would have reported it to the FBI as an attempted act of subversion. Mister President, your son is not only naïve and incompetent when it comes to government, his action was criminally irresponsible. And your son-in-law, Mister Kushner, as brilliant as he is reputed to be by many people, is no better.

When you’re connected to the president, you can’t just pick up the phone and talk to anyone you want about anything you’d like to know. You can’t just go to meetings without vetting the people you’re colluding with, and you can’t just get on a plane and visit your country’s enemies because you feel like doing it.

The truth is, you can’t even think about governing without reading some of the more basic federal laws that describe what’s allowed and what isn’t. And federal statutes cannot be boiled down to two sentence summaries. You can’t let your ego drive your actions. You can’t tweet about things that must only be discussed behind closed doors by people with the appropriate clearances.

Your base may love you, Mister President, but they know even less about the rules of governing than you do. And if you get impeached for your actions or your family and advisers wind up in prison, that base of yours will just go on living their lives looking for another hero to save them from themselves. They love the theater and the drama, but you’ll take the fall.

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The AHCA Ball is in McConnell’s Court

Alan Zendell, July 11, 2017

If it wasn’t certain before, today’s revelations about Donald Trump Jr sealed the deal for the President’s leverage with Congress. The cloud of uncertainty hanging over the administration’s role in Russian meddling with our election means there will be no arm-twisting by Trump Sr when the Republican senators try to pass a health care bill.

The ball is entirely in Mitch McConnell’s court. It’s clear that the seventy-four-year-old Majority Leader desperately wants to pad his legacy with a win on health care, especially if it tarnishes the legacy of Barrack Obama. What is less certain is the lengths to which he’s willing to go to achieve it.

Despite the obvious partisan rancor in most of his public pronouncements, many observers doubt his commitment to passing a wholly Republican bill, if it means ultimately having to admit defeat when his party faces the voters in the 2018 election. He has hinted, recently, that if his own party can’t get its act together he might have to reach out to Democrats to get the job done. Was that a credible threat?

One indication of how things might go may be gleaned from the Conservative Review’s Liberty Scorecard, which rates every member of the House and Senate with letter and number grades  meant to tell conservative voters how well they can trust the incumbents to vote the Right way. McConnell is certainly not The CR’s poster child. They rate him an F, though it’s a relatively high F with a score of 42. To put that in perspective his fellow senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul gets an A with a score of 92.

Of the fifty-two Republican senators, fifteen have Liberty Scores of 70 or higher (John Kennedy, LA; Mike Lee, UT; Ted Cruz, TX; Benjamin Sasse, NE; Rand Paul, KY; Tim Scott, SC; Tom Cotton, AR; Jim Risch, ID; Marco Rubio, FL; Steve Daines, MT; Michael Crapo, ID; David Perdue, GA; Charles Grassley, IA; Jim Imhofe, OK; and Richard Shelby, AL). Since the attempt to make the bill the President called mean more acceptable, four of the senators on that list oppose it.

Fourteen Republican senators have Liberty Scores of 40 or less (Susan Collins, ME; Lamar Alexander, TN; Lisa Murkowski, AK; Thad Cochran, MS; Roger Wicker, MS; Orrin Hatch, UT; Johnny Isakson, GA; Mike Rounds, SD; Shelley Capito, WY; Lindsey Graham, SC; John McCain, AZ; Thom Tillis, NC; John Cornyn, TX; and Richard Burr, NC). Of that group, three oppose the present bill.

Thus, seven of the fourteen senators who have expressed opposition aren’t in either group, so as partisan as all this has appeared, it’s clear that Republican views on health care are not aligned solely on ideology. The voters are making their wishes known and senators of all stripes are listening. They all want to be re-elected.

McConnell attempted to get a bill crafted in secret behind closed doors, and to his credit, the Senate was far less leaky than the White House. But despite his best efforts, it appears that Democracy may be alive and well. They tried to pass a bill that would further enrich the wealthiest Americans at the expense of so many families that when the smoke and mirrors cleared, the public’s response was immediate. Women, even many who voted for Trump realized they were getting screwed, and hard-working people who lost their health coverage when their jobs disappeared realized that Congress wasn’t doing anything to assure that they would have either again, any time soon.

We learned that opposition to the AHCA wasn’t some liberal media conspiracy. Eighty percent of Americans don’t want it, and McConnell knows, if he didn’t before, that selfish agendas like the Koch Brothers’ can’t stand the light of day any better than vampires. Perhaps that’s not a bad allusion.

The protesters aren’t going anywhere, and McConnell knows that, too. It’s difficult to imagine how he’s going to satisfy them and garner enough votes in his own caucus for passage. Horse trading only works when there’s something to trade, and he has nothing to offer reluctant senators that will offset putting their seats at risk.

Given all that, I’m not sure the Majority Leader would see reaching across the aisle as a defeat. If he’s as savvy a politician as people say, he knows the most memorable legacies are earned by forging bipartisan successes no one thought possible. And he can do so without fear of opposition from Trump. If the president has demonstrated anything it’s that, lacking strong principles of his own, he’ll sway whichever way the wind is blowing. If McConnell gets a bill passed that satisfies most Americans, Trump will not only sign it, he’ll tweet about how it was a great victory for him.

But who cares about that? Trump makes himself more irrelevant every day. What’s important is making sure Americans have access to health care, and whether the final bill looks more like Obamacare 2 or something the Republicans can claim they created, it really doesn’t matter.

Obamacare is a flawed law, but it changed the way Americans viewed health care. It was a watershed accomplishment that set the stage for the future. If requiring amendment were the sole criterion for evaluating a new law, every major bill passed in recent memory would fail the test. Virtually every Congress proposes tweaking the Social Security Act, but no one ever suggests repealing it.

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Korea Follow-up

Alan Zendell, July 9, 2017

A good friend posted a comment on Facebook in response to my July 7 article, Korea. He said: “Economic sanctions are likely to result in increased starvation, while Kim funnels off the wealth to feed his military ambitions. Add an humanitarian issue to all the others.”

I think it’s important to respond here where everyone can see it. I admit that when I wrote about strangling North Korea’s economy, I wasn’t thinking about how that would affect the population. But the more I think about the situation, the more it reminds me of terrorists using innocent civilians as human shields. The entire civilian population of North Korea are effectively hostages.

We can’t save everyone, and we certainly can’t do anything to relieve the suffering that the North Korean regime has visited on its own people. I hate the idea that we might be responsible for worsening their plight, but if Kim keeps on his present course, will they be any better off? If North Korea is allowed to continue to invest everything it has in a nuclear armed military, how will that feed its people?

If Kim forces a military confrontation the consequences for the people of both North and South Korea will be disastrous. If we can head that off by making conditions in the north so bad that the people finally rebel against the leaders that put them in that position, I think we will have done the best we could.

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Alan Zendell, July 7, 2017

Given the history of Korea since World War II, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s the mess it is today. We like to think of the Korea problem as an example of the Good Guys (the South) versus the Bad Guys (the North), a left over concept from the Cold War, of which Korea was and is a perfect microcosm.

Like most cliches, this one doesn’t reflect present day reality, or history either, for that matter. Korea was split in half when we and Soviet Union divided the spoils of the  Japanese Empire in 1945. There were no good or bad guys in Korea then. Both countries were governed by rather despicable dictatorships which were at war with each other almost from the moment of their creation. In 1950, good and bad were defined by the American fear of Soviet expansion which featured the Berlin Wall, The Greek Civil War, and finally, Korea. In those days, every act of American foreign policy was dictated by fear of Communism.

When the Soviet-backed North Korean army invaded and nearly overwhelmed South Korea, we could have looked the other way. Many argued that this was just another civil war that was none of our business, but General Douglas MacArthur convinced President Truman that abandoning South Korea to the Russian-backed North would result in Soviet domination of Europe and possibly lead to World War III. Thus, the same fledgling American dominated United Nations Security Council that two years earlier had created the State of Israel on a barren desert surrounded by sworn enemies and left it to shift for itself, authorized a “police action” to stop the aggression from North Korea.

War weary Americans were often indifferent to the Korean conflict. Polls taken in the Midwest during the war showed that at the height of the conflict, large numbers of Americans were unaware of the fighting in which over five million military and civilian lives were lost. Thus, the Korean armistice was greeted mostly with tired yawns in much of America outside of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

What we have today is a prosperous, if not overly democratic South Korea which figured out with American help that manufacturing what the rest of the world wants is the best road to success. (How many Hyundai or Kia vehicles and Samsung appliances does your family own?) In the North we have the third generation of the original dictatorship’s dynasty in Kim Jong Un which has, in effect, remained at war since 1953. What we also have is the product of the foreign policy of American administrations from Eisenhower through Bush 41, the effective life of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. For forty years the driving force in Korea and elsewhere was containing Soviet expansion while avoiding triggering all-out war. The main difference today is that North Korea’s primary backer is China.

North Korea has in many ways been a political pawn of the major powers. Everyone chose to ignore its growing threat, even when it was clear the latest embodiment of the Kim dynasty was a paranoid madman. North Korea has been a diplomatic disaster on all sides, yet none of the major countries involved (the United States, China, Russia, Japan) seems willing to compromise its short term interests to achieve a solution. On one hand, a military solution, even if it is sanctioned by all parties, remains extremely risky; on the other it becomes riskier with every day that passes as North Korea’s technology improves. And that situation is not helped at all by vague threats tweeted by Donald Trump.

You don’t have to be a diplomat to see what is needed here. Short of an internal coup or an assassination plot that takes out the entire Kim support system, the only thing that will slow North Korea down is a concerted effort to strangle its economy, which by all reports is extremely fragile. But achieving that goal requires the kind of cooperative diplomacy that none of the major players has shown either the willingness or the ability to pull off in the past sixty years. And even if they start now, there’s no guarantee that it will work in time to head off a nuclear confrontation. The only thing that’s clear is that the longer it takes the worse the odds become. It’s kind of like the climate change debate but on a much more accelerated time scale.

President Trump has a real opportunity to show the world that he actually is the master of the deal he claims to be. The situation in North Korea demands the best from everyone concerned. But Trump hasn’t shown us anything during his five-and-a-half months in office that demonstrates any substance behind his bluster. I hope for all our sakes that he rises to the challenge.

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The Fable of Mika and the Pig

Alan Zendell, July 2, 2017

I’ve always had nothing but disdain for daytime television, but nine years ago, when I began working from home, I started watching Morning Joe with my first cup of coffee. I guess that was the point of the show’s name, but when the cuteness of the play on words wore off, I still found the idea of a former Republican Congressman hosting the morning show on the world’s most liberal network amusing enough to watch.

I soon noticed that Joe Scarborough liked to surround himself with smiling, nodding mannequins, ala Howard Stern, whom I detest. One was Willie Geist, a pretty face who never seemed to have anything of substance to say, and the other was a pretty face with really nice legs. The thing I most noticed was that Morning Joe’s entire marketing campaign consisted of pretty face number two in poses that invariably featured more of her legs than I thought tasteful for an alleged news program. That seemed to be her primary role on the show as she hardly ever said anything.

That was my impression of Mika Brzezinski, whom I had never heard of before. The only other notable thing about her was her surname, which aside from containing two Z’s, she shared with her famous father, whose full name actually had three. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that Scarborough’s ego required only sycophants could share the spotlight with him, and I lost interest in his show.

But perhaps I’d judged too harshly. Mika turned out to be a woman with a voice, which she used to criticize Donald Trump. Joe, who had never seemed to value her opinion much during the time I watched his show, was right there beside her this time. That got my attention because while the idea of Trump as president literally makes me fear for our country, his attitude toward women is what infuriates me. The most perplexing thing for me over the past two years is the shocking number of women who don’t seem to care about that.

But here was Mika, taking advantage of her sizable audience and speaking up. Yay for Mika! Actually, yay for both Mika and Joe who’ve joined the long list of public faces that have refused to be intimidated by the president’s bullying. Trump’s latest tweets have raised the issue of whether he violated federal law by attempting to blackmail Mika and Joe over the National Enquirer story. Whether or not he did, that issue is part of another growing list, this one of actions that clearly define Trump as someone who thinks rules don’t apply to him.

Neither list may ever change the attitude of Trump’s gradually dwindling base, but as they grow they affect everyone else, from the Independents who voted for him to the so-called Reagan Democrats who hated Hillary and maybe even some of the women who voted for him despite all the reasons not to. The lists also affect foreign leaders who must be in a rising panic about how to adjust to a world in which America’s shining light is gradually being extinguished.

Trump’s relentless attacks on Mika, at a time when he should be spending all his capital lining up support against North Korea, finishing off ISIS, and keeping his promise on health care add a new dimension to the arguments about why he is unfit to be our president. I’ve commented before about his lack of a moral center and his obvious narcissism. But there’s no longer any reason to mince words − he’s a pig. That’s the only way I can think of to describe him that really gets at the essence of the man.

There’s an irony in that, if you don’t mind another slight play on words. In high school, we all read Animal Farm, the brilliant allegory on human nature told through animals. Do you remember Napoleon, the character that led the populist revolution against the tyranny of the farmer? He succeeded by convincing the hard-working animals that made the farm profitable that he would improve their lives when the corrupt human presence was gone. Napoleon overthrew the farmer, but once in power began tearing up the democratic reforms that had rallied his base of power. He intimidated the other animals and turned on those he considered disloyal.

Napoleon, the most vicious and duplicitous animal on the farm turned out to be worse than the humans who were overthrown. He betrayed every principal he claimed to believe in and replaced them with the simple doctrine: Napoleon is always right.

Napoleon, of course, was a pig.

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