Monday, July 24, 2017

"Better Deal" may be a better strategy

An interesting article in The Atlantic reveals that Democrats have come up with a strategy to take back Congress (or at least part of it) in the 2018 elections. "Better Deal" appears to be a real step forward, one that could, conceivably, be successful.

In all of the post-mortems on the 2016 elections, the one aspect that has chimed true repeatedly is the Democrats' disconnect with working-class and lower-middle-class voters. Democrats did not even know Michigan and Wisconsin were vulnerable to GOP appeals until votes were cast. Too many Democratic political strategists never looked beyond Manhattan or the District of Columbia. 

"Better Deal" will offer a much more populist slant than Democrats have offered recently. Bernie Saunders, whose populism lapped over into socialism, sparked excitement among many Democrats in 2016, but the cards were stacked against him. Even Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" slogan is not populist in the way of "Better Deal," which hearkens back to FDR's "New Deal" and Truman's "Fair Deal." A more populist tone on health care, jobs, anti-trust legislation, fair wages, tax fairness and other issues could resonate with the mostly white, less-educated, hard-working but falling behind, largely forgotten voters who swarmed to Trump rallies with their empty promises and angry insults.

As Democrats such as Chuck Schumer have realized, Democrats need to appeal to that broad spectrum of the electorate who wanted what Trump was selling. Democrats can retake this constituency they once owned by adopting clearly defined principles and goals. Among these should be affordable health care (even if it means cracking down on excesses by the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers and hospitals); restrictions on the size and monopolistic practices of major banks and other corporations; tax law that is simplified and fair at all levels (not slanted toward the super rich and big corporations); public education within everyone's reach teaching history, civics and national pride; treatment for drug addiction (whether it is opioid pain relievers, marijuana or other drugs); strong but fair law enforcement, federal policy that respects science and research; and a return to federalism that respects state sovereignty but is unafraid to step in and to do bold things, such as the Interstate Highway system or the Apollo program.

In doing this, Democrats must steer clear of their tendency to over-regulate. They responded to the 2008 financial crisis by passing Dodd-Frank, which has made closing on a mortgage a paperwork nightmare with each little step strictly prescribed and backed by federal prosecutors. These regulations did nothing to prevent the big banks' gambles with mortgage securities and their no-document mortgages.

Unfortunately, Democrats in recent years have too often relied on dividing the electorate into special-interest groups and setting party agendas aimed at attracting as many interest groups as possible. Meanwhile, disenchanted voters watched big conglomerates destroy their small-town retailers and shut down the factories that provided a decent (but bare) living for generations. Stores disappeared, jobs disappeared, and self-respecting laid-off workers had nowhere go.

Democrats (in fact all of America) must not abandon civil rights and justice. They can still appeal to racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgenders. Political correctness has silenced any criticism or perceived slights of these groups. Thus, a candidate who responded to a Black Lives Matter question by saying "All lives matter" was booed vociferously. At some colleges, conservative speakers are shouted down or assaulted in the name of "free speech." Persons in this country illegally cannot be called "illegal immigrants," though, clearly, their status is illegal. A fair and reasonable immigration policy must protect U.S. jobs and culture while providing procedures for foreigners who wish to become Americans and can contribute to the American economy and security.

A "Better Deal" strategy can win, but it will mean making a sharp turn from Democrats' trajectory of the past few elections. Republicans, meanwhile, may help Democrats if the GOP continues on its trajectory of prescribing tax cuts for the wealthy for any problem the nation faces and ignoring the needs of the very people Democrats ignored in 2016

 

Friday, July 21, 2017

I am familiar with this killer

Glioblastoma, I know your name. In the past decade, you've taken away a close friend, a close relative, and two local acquaintances I had admired and respected. Getting to know your name was painful. Initial shock. Determination. Reason for hope, though minuscule. Dashed hopes. Final acceptance. Lives stolen away early.

Now Senator John McCain has the sobering, frightful diagnosis. He has survived so much — airplane crashes, a deadly shipboard fire, being shot down over North Vietnam. Five years of torture and mental, emotional, physical stress, permanent physical damage. The demeaning lies of political campaigns.

But now it's different. This is Glioblastoma. You killed Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden. Nothing stands up against you. Not wealth, not fame, not political power, not heartfelt prayers, not youth.

Glioblastoma, you are an accomplished killer. You defy surgery, chemo, radiation, herbal "cures." You may be diverted, but in the end, you win.

When you stole my brother-in-law's hopes and dreams and lease on life, his extended family gathered for a rally/fundraiser against brain cancer. Thousands came out to defy you at the Duke Brain Tumor Center. Many families posted photos and tributes to loved ones who had received the diagnosis and had pinned their hopes on this hospital acknowledged as the best there is against the killer you are. The steadfast love and determination were so inspiring until I noticed the most salient fact from all those posters: each one showed death had followed diagnosis by no more than about 18 months to two years; some much faster than that.

Glioblastoma, I know your name. And I am in awe of your power.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What if Republicans and Democrats worked together?

Republicans can't cobble together enough GOP votes in the Senate to pass a law to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something else. They can't even cobble together enough Senate votes to simply repeal Obamacare — a goal they've been boasting about for seven years. So the Senate's Republican leaders don't know what to do about it. They are at an impasse. Even though their party controls the House, the Senate and the White House, they can't pass legislation they've been promising for seven years.

What CAN they do?

Here's an idea: Instead of insisting on legislation that is supported only by Republican votes, what if they tried putting together legislation that could attract the requisite number of Republican AND (gasp!) Democratic votes? They'll need 51 votes, but Republicans have been able to hold onto about 47 or 48 GOP votes for whatever version of repeal-and-replace legislation they dream up. Suppose the GOP leadership approached the Democrats and asked for their support, with a willingness to compromise on some details of the health care legislation that would make the new bill palatable to conservative or moderate Democrats.

That's the way congressional legislation used to be passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the creation of the Interstate Highway system, the creation of NASA and the race to put astronauts on the moon, and the Voting Rights Act were all passed with votes from both sides of the aisle. Why not do it again?

It's possible that otherwise sympathetic Democrats will refuse to participate in any Republican deal. After all, the atmosphere has been so poisoned by harsh rhetoric that both parties are wary of any deal that might help the other side. But it's the only effective way to get legislation in the national interest passed. Democrats should have learned the dangers of partisan voting in the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the resulting nearly decade-long assault by the other party.

But bipartisan leadership and legislating has worked before. It can work again. Won't somebody give it a try?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Prayers and theological malpractice

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, did not like the news photo of evangelical leaders gathered in the White House to pray for and "lay hands on" President Donald Trump. I can't really blame him. I found the picture of that scene disturbing, and I have found the evangelical support of Trump throughout the presidential campaign and presidency a mystery and an abandonment of Christian principles. Many evangelicals continue to support Trump, despite his habitual lying, his personal insults, prideful mendacity and his lack of Christian compassion and humility.

But Barber's reaction went beyond my own disgust and disappointment with Christian leaders who have forsaken Christian principles for political gain. Barber has declared praying for Trump to be "theological malpractice bordering on heresy." Barber seems to forget that Jesus urged his followers to "love your enemies" and "pray for those" who hate you or use you.

I don't know the nature of the prayers the evangelicals uttered in the White House, but I would hope that they prayed for divine guidance for the nation's leader. He needs all the divine guidance he can get, even though he shows little evidence of Christian devotion, humility or openness to change.

Is it wrong to pray for someone you disagree with or who has done wrong? Surely any Christian, evangelical or not, would agree that praying for others is a religious practice, if not an obligation. I think of the survivors of the Mother Emmanuel Church massacre who publicly declared that they had forgiven the racist gunman who murdered nine church members at a Bible study, and they would pray for him. Such forgiveness and compassion is a Christian witness.

Barber's wrapping of his own political agenda in a religious cloak is not surprising. It is his standard methodology. The protests against the Republican state legislators in Raleigh were not just a political statement; they were moral judgments. Barber named the weekly protests "Moral Mondays." Although I agree with the protesters' opposition to many of the actions of the General Assembly, I recognize that no political party or faction has a monopoly on morality.

I was introduced to Barber about a decade ago, when he was selected as keynote speaker at Wilson's annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. The breakfast enjoyed broad biracial support and had become a convivial celebration of community diversity. Speakers in previous years had praised King's nonviolent approach to racial equality and his principle of brotherhood all people.

Barber took a different tack. He angrily and loudly vilified the white community in general and specific white politicians (all Republicans). Before his speech ended, people began leaving. The joyful highs that had concluded previous MLK breakfasts were missing after Barber's speech. A member of the MLK celebration told me later that Barber had nearly destroyed the annual breakfast, causing it to lose much of its business and corporate support.

Barber's critique of his political adversaries is not heretical, but it does weaken the moral foundation of religion. If all morality is politically based, it is no longer morality. If religious principles are based on politics, it's not sound religion.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Meeting with a Russian lawyer, plus second thoughts

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Donald Trump Jr. had met last year with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. The NYT has led the Fourth Estate in researching possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin conducted a cyber campaign aimed at aiding the Trump campaign and denying the presidency to Clinton.

The only remaining major question for all but the most blinded Trump supporters has been whether there was collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin. That is, did the Trump campaign coordinate or conspire with Russians to hinder Clinton's campaign or reduce her vote totals?

Although the Trump Jr. meeting sounds a bit like collusion, the fine print is less provocative. Would Chelsea Clinton have accepted an invitation to meet with someone who promised negative information about Donald Trump? Would any political campaign operative decline such an invitation promising "dirt" against an opponent in this era of background research teams and negative campaigning? The meeting might be ill-advised but shouldn't be surprising.

Trump Jr. says the meeting was a bust. He says he received no negative information about Clinton. He says he was told that some Russians were secretly contributing to the Clinton campaign, and the Russian lawyer only wanted to talk about international adoptions. He says he received "no meaningful information."

Far from being a "smoking gun" proving collusion, this incident seems to be another example of Trump administration inexperience or delusion. Unless Trump Jr.'s account can be contradicted by other sources, there's not much smoke in this collusion gun.

Second Day Second Thoughts

 After I wrote the above post, Donald Trump Jr. gave more information about his meeting with a Russian official and released some emails that only raise more concerns about the Trump campaign's lack of caution and lack of any moral standards. The campaign that led chants of "lock her up" last year seems willing to accept derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from any source, no matter how suspicious or how tainted by its Russian origins.

These latest revelations (from Trump Jr. himself, lest anyone claim that it's all "fake news") show just how naive and trusting Trump officials have been about Russia's interests and actions in the 2016 campaign. They were willing to meet with and believe any intermediary who had "dirt" on Clinton. They knew the promised information was coming from inside the Kremlin — confirmation that a foreign power was attempting to influence and subvert a U.S. presidential election. 

A year later, Donald Trump, the candidate the Kremlin was attempting to assist, continues to deny that the Russian government was trying to subvert the vote of the American people. Trump Jr.'s "I love it" (from his own email, released to the media by himself) may be the closest we've come to proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

If Trump Jr. is being truthful about the lack of useful information from his meeting with a Russian lawyer — a dubious proposition about the Trump administration — it might not matter. Trump Jr.'s enthusiasm for the derogatory information, acknowledged to be from a foreign power, may be all that is needed to show collusion.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller still has a long way to go with his investigation, but Donald Trump Jr. is making his task a little easier.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Time to end the longest war

The Afghanistan war (2001-present) is not the longest war in American history. The United States has been at war in Korea since 1950. An armistice was signed in 1953, putting an end to large-scale military conflicts, even though sabotage, artillery duels, raids and unprovoked attacks continue. No truce treaty has ever been signed. A state of war — undeclared and unofficial because the "Korean War" is officially known as a United Nations "police action" — has existed ever since.

Attention has turned to this unending war recently because of North Korea's launch of an ICBM and its possession of nuclear warheads. Generations of American presidents have attempted to rein in the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea for three generations without result. North Korea continues to pursue a highly militarized, very aggressive and extremely dangerous policy of confronting and threatening the United States, South Korea and Japan. Offers of food for its starving population, fuel oil to fuel industries and other assistance have not resulted in policy change in North Korea.

Author Mark Bowden's cover story in this month's Atlantic offers four options for dealing with North Korea, each of them fraught with catastrophic dangers and slim chances of success. The options range from a pre-emptive strike to take out North Korea's leadership along with its missiles and nuclear warheads to an acceptance that North Korea isn't going to change and can't be defeated without a war so intense that it threatens civilization and humanity. Bowden concludes that there are no good options and worries that President Trump, nearly as bombastic and unpredictable as North Korea's Kim Jong Un, could misjudge the situation and unintentionally start a war that would kill hundreds of millions in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Start with this premise: Diplomacy is preferable to war. North Korea might be uninterested in more food, more fuel or more cash, but it might be interested in a truce that ends the nearly 70-year state of war. Offer that as an incentive to halt ICBM development and deployment and an end to nuclear weaponry and cross-border raids. In exchange, vow to reduce U.S. presence in South Korea, sign a treaty between the two Koreas (without merging the two), increase trade and visits between North and South Korea, reduce the size of both nations' military, and "normalize" relations between North and South.

Kim might not agree to these provisions, but they can be a starting point for negotiations. The other impetus in this negotiation would be the certainty that, even if Kim develops a substantial nuclear threat, any use of nukes would result in a counter-attack that would turn the northern half of the Korean peninsula into a radioactive and burning wasteland — the equivalent of the "Mutually Assured Destruction" that avoided nuclear devastation during the Cold War.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A book about life from a dying woman

In the past month, I have recommended Nina Riggs' book, "The Bright Hour," to a dozen or more people. Each time, I told the story of this brilliantly talented woman, a close friend of my son and his wife, who had breast cancer and chronicled her bout with the "one small spot" that turned into a metastatic aggressor in her blog, an article in The New York Times' "Modern Love" section and, finally, in this book.

The topic is not one that most people care to read about. It's sad, and it strikes too close to home for most of us. But Nina achieves something with this book that transcends her personal experiences and the sadness of a young woman with two young boys facing her mortality before the age of 40. Her NYT article, "When a Couch is More Than a Couch," opened the door for the book. Literary agents and book publishers saw the finely tuned article about Nina's quest to buy the perfect couch — one that her husband and her sons could enjoy after she's gone — and wanted her to write an entire book.

In his review of the book, which was released this month, Drew Perry, a novelist and close friend of Nina, said he had a habit of turning down the corner of pages with especially good quotes or lovingly tuned sentences. With Nina's book, he said, he was turning down almost every page. Her prose is poetic and immensely insightful and quotable.

The book is full of quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, an ancestor of Nina's, and the French philosopher Montaigne. She relies on the wisdom of others to try to make sense of her own life, and she brings her own wisdom.

Nina pulls readers into her world of hope, despair, sickness from chemo and radiation, optimism and depression, how to tell young boys that their mother has terminal cancer, how a loving husband tries to sustain his wife through the worst of times. As Nina is fighting her own illness, her mother is dealing with another cancer, myeloma. A close friend with breast cancer carries on a profane and sarcastic comic dialog with Nina, whose mother doesn't live to see her daughter's book published or her grandsons grown up.

In this worst of times, Nina finds goodness and brightness and love and laughter. She finds that "When you fall in love with your kids, you fall in love forever," a realization taken from a song from her childhood, "When I Fall in Love." Seeing Benny riding his bicycle without assistance for the first time is a thing of sublime beauty, even as Nina's back has just broken because cancer has attacked her vertebrae.

From her time studying in Italy, she recalls "memento mori" — "Remember, you will die." Nina faces her own death and all that she will miss with her husband and her sons. She sees the beauty of the days we have for as long as we have them: "We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other."

Two bits of irony struck me about this book. The "About the Author" page says Nina "lived with her husband and sons and dogs in Greensboro." She died weeks before publication, requiring the startling past tense, a book about life about a woman who has died. The other irony comes from Nina's book of poetry, published in 2009. It's title: "Lucky, Lucky."