Conservative Values

Alan Zendell, August 4, 2017

I learned a lot about conservative values this week. It was enlightening. It was uplifting enough to restore my confidence in the future.

Why? I read Senator Jeff Flake’s book, which he named after Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. What I learned was that there is a sharp dividing line between the principles of conservatism and what has been masquerading as conservatism for the past two years. And to my surprise, I found myself in agreement with most of them.

Flake writes about three things in his book: his devotion to his Mormon values and beliefs, the conservative ideology he subscribes to, and the basic philosophy that governs his life. About the first, I’m ambivalent – I respect his beliefs, though they’re surely not mine, but like him, I respect and am willing to defend his right to follow them.

About the second, I agree in principle until we get down to the nitty gritty. As usual the devil is in the details, and in this case, the main details that separate my values from his conservative ones are how we define an entitlement and the proper role of government in our lives. Significant as those differences are, when it comes to his life-governing principles, I am in complete agreement, and it is that realization that has lifted my spirits all week.

Jeff Flake is the twenty-first century embodiment of Barry Goldwater, his mission in life to strengthen and uphold the ideas espoused by his mentor. I was not a fan of those ideas when Goldwater wrote about them, and I’d have guessed there was no one in our political spectrum with whom I was less likely to find common ground than Jeff Flake. But I was wrong.

His religion and ideology aside, Flake despises hypocrisy above all else. Score one for him. He values truth, honesty, transparency, and open discourse. He believes that important legislation must be bi-partisan if it is to have lasting impact. He fervently believes in the way the founders, principally Alexander Hamilton, designed the separation of powers and the rules of the Senate. He values facts and stability. And unlike many at his end of the Republican Party he believes that denying the conclusions of science will ultimately destroy us.

The most remarkable thing about Flake’s book is his attitude toward Donald Trump. Though he desperately wishes to support his president and his party, his overarching priority is that the country must come first. He believes that Trump’s brand of populism, his disregard for the truth, and his character are undermining both conservatism and American values. He despises Trump’s attitude toward immigrants, recognizing that when we close our doors we not only violate our founding principles, but we undermine the engine that drives our capitalist economy.

He believes in free trade, and thinks Trump’s attitude toward NAFTA and TPP are wrongheaded and ignorant. He says isolationism will strengthen China and Europe while our economy flounders. World trade is not a zero sum game. Winning does not mean someone has to lose, although that seems to be the only rule Trump plays by. In Flake’s view (and mine) the world is safer and more prosperous when everyone wins.

Senator Flake abhors the concept of alternate facts and is horrified by Trump’s claims of fake news and demonizing the media outlets that disagree with him, and his reverence for truth and facts has a broad scope – the evidence of climate change, certified election results, the birthplace of a president. He believes every citizen and every elected official has a responsibility to dissent when the president is wrong, and neither party nor executive power can be allowed to supersede what is in the best interest of our democracy. And he thinks unchecked gerrymandering is a cancer eating away at the fabric of our republic.

All this might sound hypocritically partisan if it was espoused by Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, but these are the words of the current-day apostle of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. It might sound petty and self-serving except that Flake accuses himself along with everyone else of succumbing to the temptations of power and partisan bickering, and of not having the courage to speak out louder when he might have.

Flake’s 2017 Conscience of a Conservative is a plea for reason, an appeal to replace discord with concord, an entreaty to put an end to the politics of fear and lies and constant pandering that swept Trump into the White House. He postures it as the need to return to the conservative values of Barry Goldwater, but his words sound eerily like the humanism of Bernie Sanders, too. His conservatism could not be more opposite to Sanders’ collectivism, but at their heart, their arguments are both based on respect for others and upholding the values of decency most of us were raised with.

When Flake says our salvation is in learning to work together, when he says the government can only function when the parties listen to and respect each other’s ideas, I believe him. He calls that conservatism. I called it being an American. And while he never allows himself to say it explicitly, the thing about which we are in clearest agreement is that the United States would be stronger and truer to itself if Donald Trump were not its president.

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The Sanctity of Our Armed Forces

A. L. Kaplan, August 1, 2017

A. L. Kaplan’s love of books started as a child and sparked a creative imagination. Born on a cold winter morning in scenic northern New Jersey, her stories and poems have been included in several anthologies and magazines. Her first novel, Star-touched, is due out October 1, 2017. She has served on the Maryland Writers’ Association’s Howard County Chapter board for several years and holds an MFA in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art. When not writing or indulging in her fascination with wolves, A. L. is the props manager for a local theater. This proud mother of two lives in Maryland with her husband and dog.

Army   Marines   AirForce

Marines   CoastGuard

On June 14, 2016 candidate Trump tweeted a message to the LGBT community: “I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”

On July 26, 2017, President Trump tweeted, “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

I want to add my voice to the millions of Americans who have reacted with shock and dismay to this change in policy. Each and every person in all branches of the United States military is there because they want to serve our country, protect its citizens and the rights guaranteed them by our constitution. These brave people do what most of us are unable or unwilling to do; risk their lives to defend our land, sea, and air domestically and abroad. This job takes them away from their families for months at a time, but that is a sacrifice they make willingly to keep us safe.

So why would we want to keep any of our brave and courageous people from volunteering to serve our country? Death does not discriminate against people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Next time you see a member of our military, don’t forget to thank them for their service. They are there to protect you regardless of your race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. If they don’t discriminate, neither should we. To do so goes against everything this country stands for.

We don’t really know how many transgender persons serve in our military, because bigotry, prejudice, and outdated rules have forced most of them to hide their identity. As a result, estimates vary wildly. A 2014 UCLA study pegged the number at more than 15,000, while a 2016 study by the Rand Corporation commissioned by the Defense Department estimated the number was between 2,150 and 10,790. More than likely the actual number is higher, since transgender persons have a strong incentive not to admit their identity when asked.

Does the number matter? Would Trump’s tweet be any less horrendous, any less in violation of American values if there were only one?


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Susan Collins, a True American Hero

Alan Zendell, July 30, 2017

Susan Collins was first elected to the Senate in 1996. She’s halfway through her fourth term, and if she chooses to run for a fifth, it will be during the 2020 presidential campaign, so she’s relatively immune to pressure from the White House and blackmail from groups like the Koch brothers. But in her case, I don’t think that matters. She would continue to be true to what she believes no matter who threatened her. She would place the interests and needs of her constituents above the needs of the far right. She will, as she always has done, defend poorer Americans who would have no health care if not for Medicaid and women who depend on organizations like Planned Parenthood.

It’s clear that she is appalled by our president, his behavior, his character, his unprincipled and unscrupulous way of dealing with people he disagrees with. But listen to her interviews. She is impeccably polite and soft-spoken. Her words are carefully chosen, though she is crystal clear about what’s wrong with Trump while sounding like a loving aunt talking about a nephew who just can’t seem to do anything right. Never a nasty word, and yet she is as effective as anyone in the Senate.

Unassuming and never self-aggrandizing, she was overwhelmed yesterday in Bangor, ME when she stepped off an airplane to a spontaneous eruption of applause from everyone near enough to recognize her ( Compare that to the constant rabble rousing Trump’s people do to stir up his limited base. It’s not difficult to get 6,000 screaming fans to fill an arena in a place like eastern Ohio where workers have really suffered from our evolving economy. But let’s keep it in perspective. That part of Ohio has a population of about 1.5 million, so those rabid crowds in Youngstown represented about half of one percent of the people who live there.

Trump attracts crowds by utilizing a team of professional organizers who carefully select their venues and spend months setting up rallies with bands, television cameras, party hats, and food concessions. All Susan Collins has to do to attract adoring crowds is show up unannounced at an airport.

All throughout the Obamacare repeal debacle, we knew that Mitch McConnell had a razor thin majority to work with. We also knew that Susan Collins would never go along with the selfish, insensitive attempts by some of her colleagues to deprive millions of health care to achieve tax cuts for their wealthy benefactors. From the first, she single-handedly reduced McConnell’s margin of victory by a third, while quietly setting an example for other senators with a conscience, giving them some cover from the relentless pressure from the right.

For months she stood alone on her side of the aisle, never wavering in her position. At times she was joined by people like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, but the principles that produced that accidental alliance had nothing to do with her concerns for the people who would be left without access to health care. In the end she was also joined by Lisa Murkowski, who the Alaska Dispatch described as someone Alaskans have watched grow and learn to stand up to the political pressures of the right since she was appointed in 2002. Her vote, too, was courageous, but I can’t help thinking it was Susan Collins’ example that made Murkowski’s No vote possible.

Collins was the only member of the Republican senate caucus that staked out her position from the beginning and stood firm regardless of the vitriol spewed by Trump and self-serving hacks like Rush Limbaugh. She showed that American heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

John McCain cast the dramatic deciding vote that killed the Obamacare repeal effort, but there’s no doubt that the real star of the principled resistance in the Republican party was Susan Collins.

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John McCain, a True American Hero

Alan Zendell, July 28, 2017

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” That was Donald Trump the candidate talking about John McCain in June of 2015.

McCain must have taken that to heart. While other Republican Senators were caving in to Trump’s bullying, McCain made it clear that he wouldn’t be taken prisoner this time. He said from the beginning of the health care debate that he disagreed with the way his party’s leadership was handling it. He believed that an issue as vital and far-reaching as health care should be a bi-partisan effort from the beginning, and last night, true to his word, he cast the deciding vote that sent the final Republican attempt to force their will on the nation down to defeat.

I’ve always believed John McCain was a principled man with deep convictions. I believe that’s why he cast that vote. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done it for any other reason.

But sometimes we can act out of principle and derive other satisfactions at the same time. We watched on cable news as McCain quietly met with the other two Republican senators who joined with him to defeat the bill, clearly letting them know what he intended. We also saw him cross the aisle and hug several of his Democratic colleagues, letting them too know that the game would soon be over. After his speech the other day when he returned to Washington after being diagnosed with brain cancer, I can’t imagine why anyone was surprised.

McCain knew when he decided to come back to the Senate that he held the winning hand. There was no doubt that Susan Collins was going to vote No, and if there was any doubt about Lisa Murkowski’s vote, Trump’s crude, ham-handed attempt to blackmail her by threatening to have the Interior Department withhold grants from Alaska iced it. Clearly, McCain was angered by those strong-arm tactics, giving him yet another reason to vote No.

McCain’s phone call to the president shortly before casting his vote must have been priceless. I can only imagine Trump’s rage on being informed that McCain was about to destroy his final attempt at forcing a bad health care bill through. But even better must have been John McCain’s quiet satisfaction at putting the bully in his place and performing another great service for his country. And he may be forgiven if he savored the taste of revenge served cold.

Did he have another great moment seeing the look on Mitch McConnell’s face as he stood just a few feet away and flashed a thumbs down? I hope so. After being labeled a maverick for decades, because he put principle ahead of party when it mattered most, that last bit may have been the most satisfying of all.

It’s too bad there weren’t more Republican senators willing to stand up for the simple principle of bi-partisan legislation, despite the fact that the great majority of Americans clearly demanded that from their Congress. So while we regret that it all came down to one vote in the end, I’m glad it was McCain who got to cast it. He deserves to be remembered for that single act even more than all the other heroic things he’s done.

When he was the Republican nominee for president in 2008, I was in a real quandary. I loved the idea that a man like Barrack Obama could be the one who led us into the next generation, but I feared his complete lack of experience. History had shown time and again that charismatic leaders of populist movements couldn’t be trusted to govern well when they won, and that gave me great pause.

When McCain was selected as the nominee I had to think long and hard about how to vote. I’d always liked and respected him. Though I didn’t always agree with his views, I trusted him the way I rarely trusted politicians, and I might well have voted for him, but as it was for many other Americans, the advent of Sarah Palin swayed me to vote for Obama. It’s a strange irony that today, John McCain stands as a hero for standing up to his party and the president, since it was probably allowing his party to force Palin on him as his running mate that cost him the presidency.

John McCain is not a superhero. He’s made some costly mistakes in his life. But when we needed him most, he once again stood up and did the right thing for his country.

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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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