I Don’t Want to Share a Beer with my Commander-in-Chief

There has been a good deal written about the desire of many voters for “fresh faces,” outsiders with no prior experience with government. This has led to patient efforts to explain to those voters why giving someone access to the nuclear codes who doesn’t understand what they are or how government works might not be the best idea.

We Americans tend to confuse celebrity with competence, likability with ability to do the job. You would think we’d learn…

Case in point: Most commentators attributed the original victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore to the former’s “likability.” Bush seemed like the sort of person you’d like to have a beer with, the pundits explained, while Gore was stiff and “professorial.”

The rest, as they say, is history. And much of that history is still being uncovered…

Chris Whipple has written a story at Politico offering a long teaser of the upcoming Showtime documentary The Spymasters. He and two colleagues spent more than a hundred hours interviewing the 12 living CIA directors, with considerable focus on the 9/11 attacks. Although the overall picture of failure by the administration to prevent the attacks has long been known, the story and documentary provide some added details. The key detail is that the warnings the Bush White House received from the CIA in the summer of 2001 were a lot more chilling than the infamous August 6 presidential daily brief. Writes Whipple:

[George] Tenet vividly recalls the [July 10] White House meeting with Rice and her team. (George W. Bush was on a trip to Boston.) “Rich [Blee] started by saying, ‘There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.’” [Condi said:] ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black responded by slamming his fist on the table, and saying, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!’”

As we now know, the administration not only didn’t go on “wartime footing” (which may or may not have been a good idea in any event), but according to Congressional investigations and subsequent revelations, basically shrugged its collective shoulders and waited to see what would happen.

Much of the incompetence that characterized so much of W’s first term–not to mention his reliance on the counsel of Darth Cheney–can be attributed to his very thin public resume. Even though his father was President, he’d been involved in politics, not governance, and the Texas Governor’s office is notoriously weak.

He did, however, have a resume, which is more than Trump, Carson and Fiorina.

Like it or not, we need a President who actually understands how government works–not a President who shares our resentments or our religious fantasies, nor one who tells us what we want to hear, no matter how far removed from actual fact.

We shouldn’t be choosing someone to run the country because s/he is someone with whom we’d like to have a beer.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Gratitude Nazi

I know that this blog isn’t exactly a “happy place”–most days, it is devoted to discussions of thorny problems, counterproductive policies, and the various disabilities of an aging republic.

But today is Thanksgiving, and this “Gratitude Nazi” (my children’s not-so-fond description of me on turkey day, when I insist that everyone at the table tell what they are grateful for) wants to acknowledge some of the blessings for which I am incredibly grateful:

  • a wonderful family–including a husband who puts up with me, children and stepchildren who have made me proud, and PERFECT, WONDERFUL grandchildren.
  • a fantastic network of friends. I lost two who were very important to me this year, but I remain incredibly grateful for the time we had and the gifts of their friendships.
  • Thoughtful and collegial co-workers who are always willing to help me analyze issues and identify new approaches, and who are smart and funny and supportive and just good companions.
  • the community that has grown up around this blog–a group of people composed of both real-life and virtual friends, whose commentary never fails to illuminate a subject or teach me something new.
  • the fact that all of my problems are “First World” problems.

So happy Thanksgiving, everyone. While we enjoy our turkey and all the “fixings,” let’s take some time to recognize our blessings and be thankful for them–and let’s resolve to redouble our efforts to work for a society that provides everyone with reasons to share that gratitude.

See you tomorrow.


Maybe Democracy Just Doesn’t Work…

Democratic theory is based upon the premise that voters will respond to evidence of performance–that they will fail to return politicians to office when the policies pursued by those politicians demonstrably fail to work.

Democratic theory also assumes a significant level of voter self-interest; that when the policies of Party A have created an environment inimical to an individual voter’s interests, he/she will vote instead for Party B ( or in some places, party C or D).

And of course, democratic theory assumes that accurate information–aka “facts”– will be available to the general public from media sources that most voters consider trustworthy.

Maybe democratic theory is wrong about all of that.

David Atkins has written a provocative post over at Political Animal.

Something has happened over the last 15 years in the American conservative psyche that most journalists and centrist political observers don’t want to admit. Conservatives are locked in an increasingly hostile defensive crouch against reality and demographic trends. Supply-side economics, once unquestioned in its Reagan ascendancy, has been shown to be a failure on multiple levels. President George W. Bush’s signature war in Iraq turned out to be a bungled disaster. Secularism is on the rise, gays can legally get married, and America is fast becoming a minority-majority nation. Climate change and wealth inequality are the two most obvious public policy problems, neither of which has even the pretense of a credible conservative solution. This, combined with the election of the first African-American president, has had a debilitating effect on the conservative psyche, which now sees itself under assault from all directions.

Conservatives have responded by creating their own alternative reality in which rejection of basic facts and decency in the service of ideology is a badge of merit and tribal loyalty. That has created an environment in which the most popular voices tend to be the most aggressive and outlandish.

Add to that Chris Cillizza’s trenchant observation about the public’s growing distrust of media–the insistence (from right and left alike) that all media is biased– in a recent Washington Post column:

Here’s the thing: If there is no agreed-upon neutral arbiter, there are no facts. And, as I have written before, what is happening in the Republican race is that most of the candidates — save Trump and, at times, Ben Carson — are playing by an established set of rules around what you can say and do. Trump is not only not playing by those rules but there are also no referees to enforce his blatant flouting of them.

And that, children, is why–as Atkins notes–the GOP is Donald Trump’s party now.

What If We Tried Running Government Like a Government?

We’ve all heard it a million times: “why can’t government be run like a business”? I generally want to scream “because government isn’t a business….” but I generally settle for “Don’t you mean we need to run government in a businesslike fashion? You really don’t mean we should run government like a business…”

This notion that government is just like business, only less efficient, is often cited by people as the reason they support candidates for public office who, like Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina, have no government experience (and frequently, only the dimmest idea of what government is and does).

In a recent post–rant, really–Mark Sumner insisted that the recurrent theme that “government should be run more like a business,” is both dangerous and completely counter to the whole idea of democracy.

Government and business are not the same thing. In fact, there are good reasons why, in a democracy at least, any effort to run the government like a business should be seen as a hostile act.

After making the (obvious) point that the business of business is profit,  and the business of government is the common good, he goes on:

Well, those who still want to run government like a business would surely be thrilled at the idea of giving the president a pay raise of 16 percent a year—the average increase for Fortune 500 CEOs last year. In fact, CEO pay has risen 937 percent since the business-friendly 1980s, while presidential pay hasn’t even kept up with inflation. Come to think of it, when you compare average CEO pay to company revenues, it looks like President Obama should have pocketed about $124 billion last year. I think everyone can get behind that aspect of “running it like a business.” Right?

But then, the president would deserve that money, because unlike an actual president, as government CEO he’d have enormous freedom to ignore what anyone else said and run the nation as he wanted. Sell the Grand Canyon! Swap North Dakota for North Sudan! Fire the Congress! Yes, Mr. President.

I suppose that people could mean “run the government like a business” in terms of keeping the books tidily balanced. Only, of course, they don’t. Check out Amazon. Or Twitter. Or… well, just about any of them. Check out all those investment banks that invented more theoretical money than the GDP of the entire world, and then lost it.

I particularly liked his conclusion:

If you want a government that takes as much of your money as it can, delivers as little as possible, gives what it takes to a handful of the powerful, and is intrinsically unstable … Sure. Run it like a business.

And actually, there have been governments run this way. Plenty of them. There’s even a word for it. Starts with an ‘F.’ Just Google Mussolini, Benito. You can take it from there. Though, speaking of Mr. M, a lot of this “run it like a business” stuff seems to grow out of a longing for having one tough-talking leader at the helm. Maybe you should add Mugabe, Robert and Franco, Francisco and Dada, Idi Amin to that search. Like I say, this kind of government isn’t exactly a new idea.

On the other hand, if you’d rather have a government that’s interested in providing the best service to the greatest number of people, in rewarding everyone fairly, in protecting the weak from the powerful, then you have another choice. You need to run it like a government. That’s the only way you can, hmmm, what’s that phrase?

“Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

That stuff. There’s no profit in that stuff. That’s why it’s nobody’s business … but should be everybody’s government.

Why I Have Blocked “Gopper”

Regular readers of this blog’s comments sections know that it has attracted a regular troll who calls himself “Gopper.” Gopper’s comments suggest that he is an unhappy and angry individual (with, evidently, a great deal of time on his hands), and although he has frequently crossed the line into invective and incivility, I haven’t previously blocked him, for a couple of reasons: for one thing, I am a big believer in the widest possible exchange of perspectives; for another, it is much too easy in the age of the Internet to limit our interactions to those with whom we agree, and thus fail to recognize the extent to which others hold not just diverse but frequently disturbing and even dangerous beliefs.

In that sense, Gopper’s frequent bizarre rants were instructive (although to the extent others couldn’t resist taking the bait, he managed to derail several otherwise productive conversations).

Yesterday, however, the anti-Semitism that has been visible in previous comments was full-blown; his defense of Nazi atrocities exceeded any tolerance to which he might otherwise be entitled in a civilized society,  however useful he might be as a “case in point.”

In a very real sense, this blog is my virtual home, and those invited in will be expected to adhere to the rules of civilized behavior. Visitors are free–indeed, encouraged–to disagree with me or with anyone posting comments. As arguments heat up, I can tolerate–and I have tolerated–a certain degree of testiness and occasional incivility. But ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and cannot be tolerated.

Gopper’s presence here has served its purpose; he has demonstrated where the problem lies.

The raw vitriol–unleavened by any respect for evidence or reason or other people’s humanity–is undoubtedly not unique to him. Those of us who are trying to leave this world just a little bit better, a little bit kinder than we found it, need to realize that Americans aren’t just arguing about the best way to achieve the common good, or even about what the common good looks like. All too often, debates that are ostensibly about policy are really about power, fear, privilege, advantage–and deep-seated tribal hatreds.

People in the latter category simply cannot be allowed in polite company.

Forgive the detour; this blog will return to its regular obsessions tomorrow.