Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro's dealth sparks memories

News of Fidel Castro's death took me back to October of 1962. My class sat nervously in the school lunchroom wondering whether we might be vaporized by a massive nuclear attack at any moment. We worried about the future as much as 13-year-olds can worry and felt vulnerable in a way we never had before, even as we had lived through more than a decade of warnings about Soviet surprise attacks that left us watching the skies for Russian bombers.

It made perfect sense for the United States to oppose, in every way possible, the Castro regime in Cuba, just 90 miles off Key West (as we were often reminded). We had heard reports about how brutal and uncivilized the Cuban dictator was. We believed the reports that he had trapped pigeons in his swanky New York hotel room and cooked them rather than eat the restaurant food he was sure was poisoned. We believed the reports of his brutality and immorality. He was a "Godless Communist." Enough said. America had to get rid of him. We tried in the Bay of Pigs but failed. We launched secret plots against him. We imposed an embargo against the whole nation of Cuba. The close ties between the United States and Cuba were severed forever. Americans could not travel to Cuba, but Cuban exiles were welcomed in South Florida, which was transformed by the many thousands of Spanish-speaking Cuban expatriates.

Even though the Cuban Missile Crisis passed without nuclear war, even though the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba's economy had to get by without Soviet financial support, even though Castro's regime became an archaic remnant of an impractical socialist dream, the U.S. embargo on Cuba remained in place. The political power of the South Florida Cuban emigres kept America shackled to a failed policy that accepted worse regimes around the world and failed to unseat Castro. Only after Fidel's health forced him to relinquish his total power over politics, economics and diplomacy and Barack Obama re-examined the failed logic behind the embargo were Americans able to travel to Cuba and trade with Cubans.

Fidel Castro latched onto a doomed political and economic system after the Cuban revolution, leading slowly to the sclerotic economy of today's Cuba, but a fair assessment must admit that he improved the lives of most Cubans. His policies provided free education and free medical care for all Cubans, giving Cubans, despite their low standard of living and lack of modern conveniences, good health and good educations. Most Cubans supported Castro and mourn him now because of those policies.

The post-Castro Cuba will likely become more open and accepting of foreign investment and more welcoming to American tourists, but the future will depend largely on how far Fidel's successors will go in opening the Cuban economy and encouraging free-market employment not dependent upon government jobs, as 80% of Cuban employment is now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

McCrory has an unbeatable election strategy

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory's election strategy seems apparent now, two weeks after the election. He is determined to win the election by taking it out of the hands of voters and giving the Republican-dominated state legislature the power to determine the election victor.

Democratic challenger Roy Cooper leads McCrory by more than 6,000 votes — a margin that has grown as county election boards continue to count absentee and provisional ballots. McCrory's campaign has challenged voting in more than half the state's counties. Thus far, each challenge has been rejected by Republican-dominated county boards of election. Still, McCrory and his soldiers persist in claiming the election isn't settled until every complaint is heard and every vote counted a second time. This week, he called for a recount, even though the first count remains incomplete.

The secret weapon of an incumbent governor in danger of losing an election is an obscure provision in the state constitution giving the legislature the final authority to determine an election victor when electoral squabbles drag on and the election results remain contested. If McCrory and his crew can drag out the vote count just a few more weeks, the General Assembly, with veto-proof Republican majorities in both chambers, can declare McCrory the winner, no matter what the vote totals say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Not my president"? Think about it

"Not my president" has been the rallying cry of protests against the election of Donald Trump. Did any of the protest leaders think this through?

If Trump is not their president (elect), then where does that leave them? Trump IS the president-elect of the United States of America. Like it or not, that is how the election came out. I've voted in every presidential election since 1972, and many times my vote was wasted on a runner-up for the office. Still, I recognized that in a democracy, as in most of life, you don't "always get what you want" (thank you, Rolling Stones), and I grudgingly accepted the fact that a majority of voters (or electors) selected the person I didn't want.

When someone is elected president of the United States, he or she is the president of all the people — those who voted for him/her, those who cannot stand him/her, those who failed to cast a ballot, those who are giddy at the outcome and those who are angry about the outcome. None of these can rightfully claim "not my president."

Unless, of course they want to really do something about it, such as forsaking their American citizenship, moving to another country — presumably with a leader more to their liking — or starting an insurrection. They should be warned that some secessionist in South Carolina tried that option 155 years ago. They declared that Abraham Lincoln would never be their president. It didn't go well for them.

You can spend the next four years opposing Donald Trump and all that he does, but until you give up your citizenship or a new president is elected, you cannot say he is "not my president."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Finding blame for the electoral loss

A week after the election, the blame is being passed around among Democrats. Hillary Clinton announced that it was FBI director James Comey's fault for his ill-timed review of newly discovered emails. Others blame the ignorance or the brainwashing of Trump voters.

The primary reason for Hillary Clinton's loss should be obvious: Clinton and her campaign strategists blew it. The former secretary of state/senator/first lady ran as an anointed heir, the person whose nomination was a foregone conclusion and whose electoral victory should have been predestined. She was a terrible candidate. She could not inspire and rouse an audience the way Trump or Bernie Sanders could. Her speeches meandered between off-putting shouts at meaningless points and foolish attacks on her opponent's supporters. Her "basket of deplorables" will go down in history as one of the most foolish statements a presidential candidate ever made. Even if you believe it's true that Trump supporters are "deplorable," you shouldn't insult voters, some of whom might be swayed by more sympathetic rhetoric.

Clinton's email server consumed political news for much of the campaign, and she never had a satisfying response to the various leaks. She admitted it was an error and apologized, but the original decision to forgo the government email service for her own private server helped confirm the impression that she was secretive, paranoid and above the law. Her response to an antagonistic question in the Benghazi hearings, "What difference does it make?" could have been a Republican sound bite/summary of her indifference. She was responding to a question about the deaths of American diplomats, and the exasperated response seemed to confirm her own indifference to the lives of other Americans.

Clinton's campaign strategy of attacking Trump fell short because she was not offering a more appealing platform. Trump, like it or not, tapped into the frustrations of the working class while Clinton promised more of the same. For Americans who had done well in the past decade and who liked President Obama (a majority now like him), her promises were attractive. But Americans at the bottom — not poor but not well off — were angry and wanted change, not more of the same, and most were willing to accept all of Trump's many negatives in order to strike a blow at the political establishment Clinton proudly represented.

Her strategy aimed at a coalition of women and minorities, using wedge issues to bring out the Democratic base. But Trump did relatively well among working class women, and minorities were uninspired by Clinton.

Outside the Beltway, Democrats have to do better, and they have to listen more to people who are losing their struggle to keep afloat economically.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An election like no other

My greatest fear before the election was that some angry Trump supporters would follow through on their promise to go armed to the White House and take over the government if Trump lost. A Trump victory resolved that fear but didn't eliminate all protests and violence. Small protests with some rioting broke out after Hillary Clinton conceded.

A smooth transition of power has been the greatest attribute of American democracy over the past 240 years. Even when the change was abrupt, as it was after the elections of 1800, 1876, 1912, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000 and 2008, there was no rioting and few, if any, public protests.

The 2016 election has shaken not only the leadership in Washington but also the entire political, polling and commentary industries. The polls had it wrong. Nearly every poll showed a Clinton victory -- usually a close win but a win nevertheless. But Trump was able to win nearly every battleground state, some by wide margins. The polls had it wrong, not because they were pulling for the Democratic nominee but because their data were wrong; data were insufficient or distorted by the difficulty of polling in the 21st century. At a time when a majority of people use cell phones instead of land lines, it's increasingly difficult to find a representative sample of the electorate. Pollsters will be examining their techniques and strategies to try to make polling great again.

The armies of political consultants also took a beating. Clinton had hundreds of data analysts, organizers, managers, publicists, graphic designers and other consultants guiding her campaign. She had the greatest "ground game" in history, we were told. Look where it got her! The political consultants, like the pollsters, missed the working class anger that fueled the Trump bulldozer.

They should have known better. Working class anger has been around for a while. Twenty-five years ago, as NAFTA was signed, workers worried but didn't have the power to stop the free trade stampede. The loss of industry, retailers and just basic prosperity in small towns have left millions feeling crushed by the global economy and the politicians who set the table for it. Trump tapped into that anger without offering a viable solution. The anger and frustration were so great that supporters were willing to overlook his insults, misogyny, narcissism and lack of knowledge. All that mattered was getting back at the political establishment that had done them wrong.

Political pundits, including highly regarded conservative writers, backed away from Trump. They couldn't abide the bombastic posturing and the ignorance of policy details that Trump's supporters willingly overlooked. As a result, many, including George Will, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, exposed Trump's lack of qualifications and urged his defeat. These writers had relied on what the polls said and failed to get out of Washington into the "flyover states" to see how fiercely upset the working class voters were.

At the state level, N.C. Republicans rode the Trump wave, with the exception of Gov. Pat McCrory, who was apparently undone by the "bathroom bill" he had championed. Unofficial results show Democrat Roy Cooper with a slim victory over McCrory, who lost Charlotte, Raleigh and other urban centers. Voters took revenge on McCrory for the unnecessary law that has cost the state an estimated $600 million in investments.

Unfortunately for those voters who wanted revenge, they could knock off McCrory but not the supermajority of Republicans in the General Assembly. Running from gerrymandered districts, legislators didn't have to contend with an electorate diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, party affiliation and political philosophy that McCrory and other statewide candidates did. GOP dominance in the legislative branch is unabated. So long as the General Assembly remains overwhelmingly in GOP hands, nothing will change.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

As election ends, where did we go wrong?

This much-lamented election year is coming to a finale, and few besides the consultants making fortunes off this quadrennial exercise will mourn its passing. What we should be doing as the votes are being counted and thereafter is address what got us to where we are now -- an election with the two most disdained, least trusted and most detested of any presidential candidates in history. How did we get to this?

There is no one influence to blame or one incident or person. This situation took years to develop. We didn't fall off this cliff without climbing to the summit. This is how we got here:

  •  We have an educational system that is not promoting citizenship and civic pride. We have become so self-conscious about historical actions that are now considered hateful, uncivilized and cruel that we forget that people of history lived in a different world with a different set of standards. And Americans were not alone in being on the "wrong side" of the newly aware standards. Slavery, second-class status for women, child labor, and other offenses were universally tolerated at some time by nearly every culture. Young people today do not know history and cannot learn from it or make realistic judgments. Numerous examples are available of high school- and college-educated young people not knowing what the Civil War was about, not knowing who were the Allies of World War II, not knowing the meaning of "Manifest Destiny" or the American melting pot.

  • Our entertainment culture has become a dangerous substitute for education. Americans cannot name Supreme Court justices, their senators or the three branches of government, but they know the names of movie stars and singers and all their friends.

  • Money has distorted politics and election campaigns, forcing candidates to constantly raise money from big donors and to use that money to attack their opponents. Congress has become so polarized that members barely communicate with members of the other party. Political "experts" on each side lie in wait for a misplaced word or an unfiltered sentence from political opponents, and they build their campaigns and their strategies around these "gaffes," rather than serious dialogue on important policies.

  •  The news media, which is dominated by broadcast and online media, are too much controlled by managers steeped in entertainment instead of pure news. As a result, they focus on unimportant spectacles, such as Hillary Clinton's private email or Donald Trump's hands, instead of important matters, such as North Korea's nuclear arsenal or Putin's vision of a dominant Russia.

  •  Worst of all, poorly educated, entertainment-focused Americans with very brief attention spans refuse to think seriously about the most serious issues of the day. Those issues are out there, hidden behind the salivating coverage of insults, attacks and wayward comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Election Day: It's one week away

Today is one week from Election Day, and I have not voted. I have never voted before Election Day. Call me Old School, but I like the idea of going to the polls along with 200 million or so other Americans and exercising my right to vote as a collective ritual.

I don't wait until Election Day because I'm undecided. I'm usually off the "undecided" list at least a month before the election. I don't wait to see if there is some "October Surprise" that might change my decision at the last minute. I've seen enough "October Surprises" to recognize that many of them are as contrived as a surprise party and no more consequential.

No, I vote on Election Day because that is how American democracy was originally designed. Since the election of George Washington, a single day has been set aside for the election of president and members of Congress. If a single day for voting was good enough in 1789, it should be good enough today.

I don't resent "early voting." In fact, I recognize that all those people standing in line to vote early weeks before Election Day clears away the line for me on Election Day, when I show up around about sunrise and greet a new day and, perhaps, a new era. I should thank all those early voters for getting out of my way so I don't have to stand in line.

Exercise your right to vote. If you haven't voted early, join me next Tuesday on the day our forefathers set aside for this national ritual of democracy.