Getting Carried Away

President Trump is easily the most deeply, passionately hated American political figure in my lifetime.  No other nationally known politico — not Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, not Sarah Palin, not President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — really even comes close.  Among some people, at least, the wellspring of absolute loathing for Donald Trump is off the charts, and it’s causing them to say and do things that are amazing.

hqdefaultConsider, for example, this op-ed piece published last Friday in USA Today.  One of their “opinion contributors” argues that President Trump has “broken the presidency” and that the office needs to be abolished.  It’s not exactly a reasoned essay about constitutional principles and structural reforms in the government of our republic.  Instead, the article says things like “[t]here is a bloated authoritarian lounging in his bathrobe in a 200-year-old mansion that used to symbolize the principal republic of the world” and “[i]f you’re stunned that President Donald Trump is still in office because he’s so horrible and so unpopular and so obviously corrupt — you are not alone — the overwhelming majority agrees with you.”

Clearly, the author thinks that President Trump is a very bad person . . . but what about the office of the presidency?  Well, the writer argues that impeachment won’t solve the problem, because “[i]t’s never lived up to its promise” and has never removed a bad president from office.  And her concern now that Trump holds the office is that the presidency has become so powerful that it is beyond repair:  “My fear isn’t Trump; it’s that the next autocrat is most likely smarter and savvier than Trump. Every partisan from every niche of American politics should be alarmed. We have a branch of government that stinks so bad it’s wafted over the entire nation and its outer territories. The entire world sees it. We’re in trouble. The presidency is broken. Our little democratic experiment is in peril.”  The answer, she suggests, is to follow the Swiss model, and replace the executive with a “council of boring bureaucrats.”

This alarmist piece in a national publication isn’t alone, it’s just one symptom of much bigger, deeper issue:  how their disgust with everything President Trump does and stands for is causing some people to seriously advocate for actions that could affect the foundations of our republic.  I’m not sure how serious the USA Today op-ed writer really is, but after more than 200 years and more than 40 Presidents, good and bad, I’d say the Office of the President can withstand the election of Donald Trump.  And I wouldn’t like to even think about how a “council of boring bureaucrats” would have dealt with guiding the Union through the horrors of the Civil War, or leading the country forward to victory during World War II.

The people who hate President Trump are entitled to their views and have the right to express them vigorously.  I just hope that everybody recognizes that there is a difference between a man and an office.  We shouldn’t let our feelings for the current occupant cause us to make changes to how our government works that could have serious repercussions down the road.

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Rethinking Prison

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention — at least, not compared to Twitter wars and Russian collusion claims — but Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be working hard, and making progress, on a tough topic:  prison reform.

The House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill in the spring, and the Senate is now working on its version of the legislation.  President Trump has weighed in by hosting meetings of governors and federal officials and pointing to the issue in some of his tweets.  And, in an era where it seems like Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything, the prison reform bill seems to be attracting bipartisan support.

prisonerjaildeathpenalty2The House legislation, called the First Step Act, seeks to reduce recidivism by funding education, drug treatment, and job training programs, and allowing inmates who complete programs to earn credits that would permit them to leave prison early and complete their sentences through home confinement or a stay at a halfway house.  The Senate bill would add to the House legislation by tacking mandatory minimum sentence measures.  Among the topics being addressed are changing the “three-strikes-and-you’re out” mandatory sentence for drug offenses from life in prison to 25 years, reducing the disparity in sentences given for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and reducing the mandatory sentences imposed when a firearm is used in an offense.  Still other provisions would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory penalties when sentencing offenders for less serious offenses.

I’m glad Congress and the President are focused on prison reform.  Studies indicate that there are significant racial disparities in sentencing, and although the gap is closing, black men are still much more likely than white men to be imprisoned.  It seems that prison often makes inmates more violent and irredeemable.  And if you speak to a federal judge about their job, one topic they’re likely to mention is their frustration at the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion they currently have in recognizing special circumstances that would allow them to shape more appropriate sentences that are tailored to the individual defendant and his or her specific conduct.  All of these are important, substantive topics that need to be addressed.

One other thing:  prison and sentencing reform is politically thankless.  It’s easy for politicians to rail about crime and boast about tossing people into prison and throwing away the key; it’s a lot harder to look thoughtfully at a broken system and try to figure out how to fix it in a sensible way.  A vote for prison reform today might produce campaign ads about a Senator or Representative being “soft on crime” when the next election rolls around.  We’ll have to see whether these kinds of political considerations derail the prison and sentencing reform effort.

For now, though, I’ll give President Trump and Congress credit for stopping the name-calling, rolling up their sleeves, and actually working on a challenging issue.  If only other important issues could be addressed that way!

Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.

The President And The King

President Donald Trump has a particular, head-scratching talent for creating controversies that are both unnecessary and divisive.  The President’s recent insulting tweet about the intelligence of LeBron James is a classic example of a problematic character trait that just won’t go away.

lebron-james-donald-trump-jamilIn case you missed it, CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed LeBron James about a school James established for underprivileged children in Akron, Ohio at which every student receives free tuition, food, a uniform, and a bicycle.  It’s a classic example of James’ continuing focus on his old home town and using his celebrity platform, and his own money, to help those in need.  Even Cleveland sports fans who are disappointed that James has decided to play in Los Angeles respect his commitment to his roots in northern Ohio.

So where does the President come in?  Apparently he was miffed that James, who was an outspoken supporter of Hilary Clinton during the last campaign, responded to a silly question from Lemon by saying he might have to run if there was no one else to oppose President Trump.  That evidently was too much for our thin-skinned President, who then tweeted:  “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

The silly question and answer provides no basis for insulting the intelligence of either LeBron James — whose public statements, whether about sports or other topics, are typically careful and thoughtful — or Don Lemon.  And the President’s ad hominem attack provoked many athletes, as well as First Lady Melania Trump, to make statements supporting James.  It’s just the latest example of how our touchy President’s inability to restrain himself produces another gratuitous, divisive controversy.

I’m not sure President Trump really takes advice from anyone, but you’d think someone could convince him to put down the Twitter feed for once and just let the economy do the talking.

About That “Patriotism” Survey . . . .

Earlier this week, on the eve of the Fourth of July, Gallup released a poll that addressed how Americans feel about their country.  The provocative lead to the Gallup story, which produced a lot of equally provocative headlines around the country, was as follows:

“This Fourth of July marks a low point in U.S. patriotism. For the first time in Gallup’s 18-year history asking U.S. adults how proud they are to be Americans, fewer than a majority say they are “extremely proud.” Currently, 47% describe themselves this way, down from 51% in 2017 and well below the peak of 70% in 2003.”

83240-fullNot surprisingly, in view of the current occupant of the White House, the percentage of Democrats and liberals who describe themselves as “extremely proud” of being an American has declined.  But note that the 47% figure addresses only those people who describe themselves as at the highest pride level available on the survey.  The vast majority of the respondents still expressed significant pride in their country, with 25% saying they are “very proud” and 16% who are “moderately proud.”  That adds up to close to 90 percent of the respondents.

The first paragraph of the Gallup release also makes, in my view, a significant error in equating “extreme pride” with “patriotism.”  In my view, patriotism means you love and care about your country, not that you are blind to its issues;  patriotism is not “my country, right or wrong.”  You can be devoted to and supportive of your country without feeling “extremely proud” that you are an American at a particular point in time.  Changes in “extreme pride” say a lot more about how Americans are feeling about the course the country is on than they do about how Americans feel, deep down, about their country, its history, its freedoms, and its opportunities.

I’d be willing to be that everyone who is vigorously opposing the various initiatives of the Trump Administration is doing so because they are convinced that opposing such initiatives is the way to make America an even better place to live.  They may not be “extremely proud” of their country right now, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t patriotic.

Calithreenia

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a curious measure on the California ballot this November.  The proposal would split California into three different states that would be separately governed.  The last time that happened with an existing state was 1863, when loyalist West Virginia broke off from secessionist Virginia during the Civil War.

202574-fullThe three new states that would be created by the proposal are “Northern California,” which runs from the northern border of the current state to the middle of the state and includes cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento, “Southern California,” which runs from the middle of the state down to the border with Mexico and includes cities like San Diego, Anaheim, and Fresno, and “California,” which is geographically much smaller in size and encompasses California’s crowded coastal area, running from Long Beach in the south up to Monterey in the middle of the state and including Los Angeles.  Whatever else you might think of the proposal, I think we can all agree it fails miserably in the “creative state naming” area.

The ballot measure was spearheaded and funded by a venture capitalist who apparently has made it his life’s mission to break California up.  Previously, he tried to split the state into six parts — which he now thinks was just too many for voters to stomach.  “This is a chance for three fresh approaches to government,” he told a newspaper in an interview.  “Three new states could become models not only for the rest of the country, but for the whole world.”

When I was out in California recently, I asked some people about the ballot measure and what they thought.  I didn’t find any proponents, but did find people who were worried less about becoming models for the world and more about practical things — like water, which is a pretty scarce commodity in what would be “Southern California” and is primarily supplied by “Northern California.”  There also would be challenging questions involved in allocating infrastructure and accounting for its cost.  And the people I spoke to also indicated that they like the Golden State the way it is — a big, sprawling, incredibly diverse state that offers lots of different climates and geographical areas and encompasses some of the country’s most iconic cities.

Even if California voters pass the measure, the break-up apparently would need to be approved by Congress, which would be no sure thing.  It’s not at all clear that other parts of the country would want to add four new Senators from the west coast — or two more stars to the national flag.  Fifty is a good, round number.  52?  Not so much.

The Bruising Battle To Come

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in Trump v. Hawaii turned out to be a kind of farewell message from the longtime jurist, who announced his retirement yesterday after the end of the Supreme Court’s term.  His call for care and adherence to constitutional principles in the statements and actions of government officials in that concurrence has a special resonance now, as the nation moves forward into what will undoubtedly be a bruising battle over the nomination of his successor.

1200px-ussupremecourtwestfacadeThese days, every Supreme Court nomination is a huge event, but the replacement of Justice Kennedy is a special moment.  He has long been seen as the crucial “swing” vote in important, hotly contested cases that ultimately were decided by a 5-4 margin, and a centrist who might side with the liberal position in one case and the conservative position in another.  As a result, Republicans see the nomination of his replacement as a chance to reorient the Court, eliminate the “swing,” and lock in a predictably conservative majority — which is exactly what Democrats fear.  And who can blame them?  These days, with Congress often rendered inert by infighting and inability to compromise and the Executive Branch governing by executive order, the Supreme Court is increasingly seen, and has increasingly acted, as the ultimate decider of all kinds of policy issues that used to be reserved for the political branches of government.

The upcoming confirmation process will not be a high-minded moment for our country.  With passions already at full boil, and with Democrats angered by fresh memories of the Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland in the last year of President Obama’s term and Republicans recalling the Senate Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” when the Democrats were in the majority, we can expect a heated, partisan, no-holds-barred process.

This means that the nominee, whoever it is, will receive the most exacting examination imaginable.  You can be sure that every organization, position, and activity on the nominee’s resume, from college days forward, will be put under a microscope, and every word in every opinion the nominee has written will be inspected and weighed for signs of intrinsic bias that could be used to argue against confirmation.  Can a President who has lots of skeletons in his own personal closet, and who has struggled to identify qualified individuals to fill positions in his Administration, actually select a nominee who can withstand the spotlight that will be directed at everything he or she has done?  And how many potential nominees — and their families — will quail at the prospect of such personally intrusive, withering scrutiny?

It’s not going to be pretty, folks.