Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump may not win, but will shake up politics

Conventional wisdom says that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, will lose the presidential election, because he embodies values and practices rejected by most Americans.
Whatever the dubious polling reports at any moment, reputable and successful forecasters see him losing the electoral vote by a landslide. Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee, would win as much because of Trump’s defects as her merits.
The media, abandoning its often misguided attempts simply to match quotes from two sides of an argument and call it objective reporting, has challenged Trump’s bold statements made with little or no basis in fact. Most news stories are about his false claims, “politically incorrect” statements and questionable business tactics.
Trump has made no effort to flesh out a platform, though there’s still time. His anti-immigrant promises are called un-American, but they appeal to some voters. His reliance on racist and even crypto-Nazi sources does not dent his popularity.
It is easy to assume that people backing Trump are themselves racist, holding opinions and values that are outside the American mainstream. Perhaps some fit this definition, but dismissing his supporters because of his behavior, values and lack of presidential demeanor misses the point.
The campaign may be more about the people who support Trump than about the candidate himself.
In reactions to my earlier columns and in a lengthy report in a recent issue in the New Yorker magazine, some Trump supporters reveal they are not racist, don’t really want to build a wall with Mexico and recognize that Trump’s talk often goes too far. In short, they are not what his opponents want to believe them to be.
They see what most Americans see – a political system that has become incapable of making decisions on pressing national needs, a system where partisan gain is more important than sound public policy. But they do not believe that a conventional politician can fix what’s wrong.
Many of his supporters may accept that he has no realistic chance of winning. But a strong race by him could send a chill down the spines of both parties, perhaps causing them to seek compromise as a way of assuring their survival. Or maybe a strong Trump run would lead to the creation of a new, moderate party.
Trump may not have run with this in mind. His giant ego will have been well fed merely by running as the nominee of one of the two major parties. Yet, even if his campaign is nothing more than a big ego trip, it has tapped into deeper political currents.
The Democrats seem to help him or fuel the views of his supporters. Hillary Clinton, demonized by the GOP, is the quintessential conventional candidate. She doles out promises to key constituencies and adjusts her message to pick up votes. Constituencies support her when she offers them what they want to hear.
Her drawback is that she is so obvious about it. Voters see a calculating politician of questionable sincerity, following a carefully drafted script and perfectly playing the usual role of candidates for federal office. These officeholders have been able to cling to power without producing needed results.
With her considerable background, Clinton almost looks like an incumbent. In a safe contest, the frontrunning incumbent simply avoids mistakes by avoiding the political debate as much as possible. She hasn’t had a press conference this year. She picks her talking points and avoids being questioned.
Clinton looks like the winner because she may have fewer negatives than Trump. Some Republicans, fearful of seeing their party seized by an untamed outsider, would rather sit out the campaign or even support Clinton, a known personality, than see Trump do well. They think he holds dangerous views.
It is possible that neither Trump nor Bernie Sanders, both fed up with conventional politics, thought they could win their party’s nominations. An incredibly divided field of conservatives helped Trump. A failure to move beyond his single, compelling issue when he started winning may have been Sander’s downfall.
The latest NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll reports that 56 percent of voters favor a candidate who would bring “major changes” to government even if the nature of those changes are now “not possible to predict.” Only 41 percent favor a candidate with a more “steady approach” even if that brought “fewer changes.”
It sounds like voters would favor Trump over Clinton. But he is falling short because of his undisciplined and controversial style. In other words, Trump may work as the messenger of national discontent but not as a presidential candidate.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Leaders promise return to 'good, old days' -- it won't happen

Change is inevitable, and you won’t like it.

That virtually ironclad rule plays a big role in today’s politics.

When Donald Trump, the presumed GOP presidential candidate, promises to “Make America Great Again,” he is offering to repeal change that some people don’t like.

They miss an America with such superpower strength it could do almost anything it wanted in the world.  It had a favorable balance of trade and could dispatch massive armed forces almost anywhere.

They miss a country in which one didn’t need to be careful about offending members of minority groups or risk being called a racist for expressing the views of the dominant and historic majority.

They miss a country before the arrival of a large and growing Hispanic population and with an African-American population that “knows its place.”

They miss the brash, self-confidence that comes with not having to compromise and to have citizens and countries give way to the will of the American majority.

Or look at the older voters in the U.K. who want a country that is purely British with no immigrants with strange sounding names and even stranger languages and accents.  They dislike being subject to rules made by European institutions in Brussels instead of by the British Parliament in London.

They miss being an island nation, enjoying its isolation but benefitting from good but arms-length links with the European continent and the U.S.  Some even miss the fading days of the Empire when the Queen was more than a tourist attraction. 

Brexit brought all that back, at least for a short while.

Or take Russia, which misses the days when the USSR was a superpower that could dominate half a continent.  It could ignore the poverty of large parts of its population and instill pride because it had the hydrogen bomb, sputnik and a massive military.

Vladimir Putin offers to restore Russia to the place of the USSR.  Though all of the former Soviet republics have become independent countries, Russia has occupied territory in both the Ukraine and Georgia.

Missing superpower days, Russia sends warplanes to buzz U.S. naval vessels, showing more muscle than brains.

Russians miss their glory days in the Olympics and other international sports events and have resorted to the extensive use of performance enhancing drugs.

Despite the longing to repeal change and return to a favorably remembered past, these efforts to bring back “the good old days” can’t succeed.

In the U.S., however much Trump opposed President Obama and questioned his birth, an African-American president has been twice elected.  Millions of Latinos are in the country because their labor is needed, and they want to be Americans.

Relatively soon, the country will no longer be majority white.  That represents change that cannot be blocked.

Britain will pay a high economic price for its decision to leave Europe.  Perhaps a majority now consider the price worth paying.  But it is likely that what is now a middle-ranking power cannot make it alone and will have to make a deal with Europe for its own well-being.

Russia cannot afford to indulge its nostalgia for the days of the USSR superpower.  Putin’s moves have been financed by oil reserves that are losing their value.  At some point, Russians will resist paying the price in personal consumption to support the quest for lost power.

What about those who seek change?  Bernie Sanders or Trump supporters have been encouraged by promises of change if their candidate prevailed.

Change will inevitably come, but it may not be the change they seek.  As the first Obama campaign showed, the promise of change on the campaign trail does not easily translate into the planned results.  See promises of Afghanistan withdrawal, closing Guantanamo prison.

The path of change is subject to many pressures.  No single political leader has enough power to assure promised change, when they must deal with powerful foreign adversaries, legislatures, economic forces and competing constituencies.

Voting may bring about a change of direction though it is unlikely to result is specific promises being kept.  Clearly, the UK can leave the EU, but it is hazy about exactly what comes next.  With Trump, voters are asked to trust the future to his self-proclaimed abilities.

The U.S. can choose between a flawed candidate familiar with the limits on executive power imposed by the system and a flawed candidate who would have to learn painfully those lessons on the job.

In short, the world has a kind of momentum that guarantees change, but will disappoint those who hope for specific changes.

Friday, July 8, 2016

EU and Brexit: A personal view from an American "insider"

At the European Union, then known as the European Community, I was one of the few Americans ever to be a staff member of the European Commission, its executive and regulatory agency.
Earlier, I had been a student at the College of Europe, the post-graduate school that prepares high-ranking EU and national officials. Later, I became a Brussels-based journalist covering the EU.
In those days, the purpose of European unification was clear. Having launched two world wars, Europe decided to link the economies of its countries so closely that they would be unable to launch a new conflict. France and Germany were the principal drivers.
The U.S., having participated heavily in both world wars, had a major stake in the success of the European effort. Not only could another devastating war be avoided, but also it would have a new and powerful ally. So there was no conflict of interest if an American helped the Europeans work together.
Beyond practical efforts, both the College and the Community sought to create a European consciousness. New leaders would see themselves as much as “Europeans” as French or German or Italian.
In the early days, the “European idea” began to take shape just as its founders had hoped, though somewhat more slowly. The major European power not included was the United Kingdom, and it wanted to join.
As a reporter, I sat across a pub table from Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, who had come to Brussels to seek membership. But France’s President Charles de Gaulle saw Britain as America’s ally, not really European. He made sure Britain was not admitted. After he departed, the UK joined.
Even at its best, Europe would be a confederation of strong nations not a federal system like the U.S. Instead of requiring new members to accept its existing “constitution,” as in the U.S., the EU kept renegotiating its deal.
The EU created a single market in which goods and services could flow freely across national borders without limits. As had happened in the U.S. from the outset, workers could cross borders to find jobs. Not surprisingly, workers from poor areas have been moving to relatively rich countries.
The only American parallel was the “Great Migration” when millions of African-Americans moved from the South to northern and western cities, a movement of people allowed by the Constitution.
The European Commission has issued a myriad of detailed rules governing all aspects of the economies of member states. They are meant to assure fair competition and a level playing field.
But the Commission goes quite far both in scope and detail. To take a relatively minor example, it requires all countries to use daylight savings time. That’s not done in the U.S. where even now two states skip the hour change.
The problem for some in the U.K., where elections can change national policies, is that the Commission is appointed, not elected. The European Parliament has little real power. The Council, where each country is represented, sets major policy, often by unanimous vote.
The result is that the Commission system is technocratic more than democratic. So long as the 28 member countries retain power, this is the almost inevitable result. In short, the countries can make a new Europe, but their creation raises new concerns.
One way of dealing with differing views is to allow different levels of involvement. While most of Europe adopted the euro as its currency, Britain kept the pound. Many countries allow passport-free travel among themselves, but not Britain.
So Brexit happened. Older Brits dislike the influx of Polish and Rumanian workers and the loss of control by the elected U.K. Parliament. Brexit voters counted the cash and found the U.K. paid more than it got. Unlike the U.S., where the Civil War answered the question negatively, European countries can quit the EU.
Brexit, and right-wing EU opposition elsewhere, could reopen the entire European question. The ideal Europe, about which I studied and which made for me good friends across Europe, may work only for some countries, especially those present at the creation.
Driven by younger people whose adult consciousness has always included the EU, the core group could move ahead, possibly by adopting more democratic mechanisms.
Britain probably has the choice of being in an outer circle or seeking even closer ties with the U.S. and Canada, which offer a European-sized market but share its opposition to the kind of independent power exercised by the Commission.
These events make the U.S. more than a spectator. It must care about the outcome.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Poltical Thoughts 11 -- Clinton's emails

The Clinton emails:  3 points

1.  AG Loretta Lynch gave up nothing.

Bearing the burden of Trump, Republicans are calling for the indictment of Hillary Clinton because she used her personal, home computer for official business.

The decision on what action, if any, ought to be taken by the Justice Department and will be made by department lawyers and the FBI.  Because she met with Bill Clinton, Attorney-General Loretta Lynch has said she will stay away from making the decision but leave it to the professional staff.

Does anyone seriously think Lynch would have overruled the staff even without her meeting?  If she had, that news would have leaked, making it look like a political decision not the course of justice.  So she gave up nothing.

2. Hillary Clinton won’t be indicted

Even if there were official charges, an indictment would not be required any more than it was for General David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, who actually handed classified documents to his mistress.  He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a fine and was put on probation.  No indictment, no trial.

While Clinton kept some classified documents on her personal computer, until now there has been no evidence reported that it was compromised.  She did not intentionally turn documents over to anybody.  If that amounts to more than an administrative failing similar to actions of others, she still would have transgressed less than Petraeus.  Thus, if this matter amounts to anything, the penalty should be less than his.

3.  The investigation has taken too long

The situation has not been helped is the length of the “investigation.”  If it had been handled quickly, it would have been better for all, except partisan Republicans, looking for issues.  Possibly, the DOJ has been stalling until after the election.  It’s worth noting that the FBI and Justice Department were said to have kept quiet on Petraeus for several months, acting only immediately after the 2012 presidential election.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Brexit in Europe, stalemate in U.S. may produce similar result

Some Europeans think the European Union government works too well, while some Americans think their federal government works too poorly. Their solutions may turn out to be the same.
The European Commission, an unelected executive and regulatory body, has imposed on countries measures it deems necessary to create a unified European economy. It has overridden national concerns and failed to recognize that dissatisfied countries could opt to leave.
The result was the Britain’s exit vote and movements in other countries demanding their countries leave the EU.
The solution may be a two-level Europe, composed of those countries willing to accept integration of their economies and public policies and others interested mainly in the free trade across national boundaries.
A multi-tier system has already exists. Nineteen “eurozone” countries have adopted a single currency, the euro. Others, including Britain even before Brexit, have their own national currencies. Even a third tier exists, composed of non-members having special trade deals with the EU.
Given the forces unleashed by the Brexit vote and the desire of Germany, France and other countries to keep the EU intact, a two-level EU could be formally created. It’s even possible that Britain would change its mind and decide to accept participation in the less tight EU version.
Whatever the outcome for Britain itself, it seems almost inevitable that a new two-level arrangement could discourage other countries, who dislike parts of the EU system, from trying to leave.
In the U.S., the issue is less about “big” government than about the inability of the federal government, deadlocked by partisanship, to make any decisions on major public issues. That’s the exact opposite of Europe.
There’s been a rush to interpret the Brexit vote as somehow similar to voter discontent shown in this year’s presidential primary contests. In fact, many unhappy American voters are not rejecting too much government, but protesting the breakdown of the federal government.
Because of the deep partisanship that has developed in Congress and between Congress and the president since 1994, the federal government has been unable to produce responses to pressing public needs.
Deadlock in Washington on matters from gun control to birth control plus just plain partisan opposition for its own sake has prevented Washington from producing needed answers.
Increasingly, the states have moved to adopt their own answers to policy issues. In effect, the U.S. itself is creating its own two-tier system.
There is a long history of conservatives asserting what they consider state’s rights. They want states to escape federal laws they dislike by opting out. But recent developments depart from that tradition. States adopt their own policies to fill a vacuum left by federal deadlock.
Perhaps a democratic republic of more than 300 million people, the third most populous country in the world, cannot produce a decision-making process able to deal with increasingly complex issues. Maybe it’s better to rely more on individual state action, wherever constitutionally possible.
One view is that states are closer to problems, better reflect the people’s will, and should have the right, even using federal money, to deal with issues as they determine. For example, that explains Gov. LePage’s desire to set his own food stamp standards.
Last month, Congress passed a major, new chemical safety law for the first time in 40 years. It had previously been unable to agree, allowing the states to pass stronger protections for the handling and use of toxic materials.
The main reason Congress finally acted was most likely pressure from chemicals manufacturers that disliked the many different state rules. Even so, existing state rules stricter than the new legislation are allowed under the new law, though new, tougher state rules are banned.
Gun control is a good example of the existing two-tier system. Congress cannot act, so California, big enough to be a country by itself, enacted its own restrictions on assault weapons. That creates a legal level different from federal regulation.
Under this two-tier approach, each state can tailor-make its policy. Maine, a markedly different environment from California, can have virtually no restrictions on guns.
If this keeps up, the U.S. could slip toward confederation, like Canada or Switzerland. That would produce a smaller federal government.
The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the inherent sovereignty of individual states alongside the U.S. While Congress has the constitutional power to impose the supremacy of federal law over state law, partisan stalemate could prevent it from asserting such federal authority.
A two-tier system may turn out to be in the cards on both sides of the Atlantic.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Where's the economic recovery?

Many people believe the economy is not what it used to be. No economic recovery for them.

Politicians promise, “jobs, jobs, jobs.” They claim they want to help the struggling middle class, worried about not getting ahead. Vague promises of more and better jobs lead people to believe they will get one of those jobs and enjoy a new prosperity.

The truth is different. If elected, officials won't be able to return the economy to the prosperity of the past or ensure that the frustrated middle class will gain.

For one thing, the economy is better than it seems. Economic analysts point out that people are living longer and have access to constantly improving technology. Taking a long view, they note that average personal income, after taking inflation into account, is much higher than it was.

So why are so many people unhappy or uneasy? Those with relatively little education or previously employed in manufacturing are less well off. Incomes have stagnated. And the security that came from working for the same employer for an entire career has been replaced by an almost permanent sense of uncertainty.

Add to that a widespread sense of injustice about the accumulation of great wealth by the few benefiting from special tax breaks while the middle class struggles.

Politicians simply cannot turn the situation around. While it is easy for them to blame lost jobs on countries lacking environmental standards and where workers are badly paid, countries with higher standards can compete effectively with the U.S. A global economy has helped create worldwide sources of production.

Many lost jobs will never be recovered. But there are steps that can be taken to reduce manufacturing costs and prevent that sector from disappearing in the U.S.

Energy costs have declined, and they need to keep being reduced. There's little question that jobs have been lost in Maine because of its cost of electricity is much higher than in much of the rest of the country and the world. Maine dismantles hydropower, while China builds dams.

Workers need to be better trained. Will government put more money into community colleges or will voters starve them by insisting that government is too big and spending should be cut?

Responsible politicians need to have the courage to explain that restoring prosperity requires government help. This not a question of more government jobs, but public spending to work with private sector employers to develop growth plans that will promote more job opportunities.

But roads, bridges and public facilities are not being well maintained, and the country urgently needs to spend public funds on the jobs that will repair them.

To induce recovery, the U.S. cannot rely on the Federal Reserve alone to promote growth by keeping interest rates low. Whatever people think of government spending, the American economy competes with countries making more public investment in jobs.

There are only two ways to raise public money: tax increases or more debt. Debt is easier for politicians, so we may hear less about its “crushing burden.” But more tax revenues would be better.

Dealing with immigration is also part of the solution. It adds consumers, who are also new taxpayers, to help stimulate the economy and pay for government programs.

Workers themselves need to understand the country cannot return to an economy that no longer suits the times. Because they will change employers and even change the type of work they do over their careers, people will have to accept that the comfort and certainty of long-term employment is probably gone for good.

That means going back to school in mid-life to become equipped for new jobs that continually require increased skills. More importantly, it means regaining confidence that the economy will provide good paying jobs, though without the same certainty that came from working for the same employer for one's entire career.

Fortunately, Maine has suffered less than other states, but its lower unemployment is partly a function of young people simply moving away. That's not an economic policy. The state needs more workers and more jobs.

The economy has changed, and we cannot go back. People should understand that political promises alone will not restore their faith in the American economy. Manufacturing will never be the same, and new jobs require new and better skills. Tax reform is needed to provide a greater sense of economic justice plus more revenues.

To move ahead, the country needs cash and confidence. That means increased government support and better understanding of how to deal with the new economy.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The campaign: historic, bitter, negative

A Washington Post column headlined last week, “Now, Election Day is the only thing that matters.” Nice thought, but not true.

The campaign runs until November 8, and much will matter in the next five months. Here are some things to watch for.

This is an “historic” election. Since Lincoln, all U.S. presidents either previously held high political office or served as a top Army commander. Donald Trump did neither. Until Hillary Clinton, the U.S. has never had a woman heading the ticket of a major party or as president.

It may also be historic if an effort is mounted to dump or bump Trump. Could the Republicans find a way to deny him their presidential nomination? If they could not dump him, might he be bumped aside by a separate presidential campaign, providing a political home to Republicans who cannot support him?

With the unfavorable ratings of both major party candidates, alternatives may be pushed. One possibility is the Libertarian Party, but the positions of many of its activists against the Civil Rights Act and state-issued driver’s licenses may rule it out as more than a protest.

Expect torrents of opinion polls, and they will probably be wrong. The election is really 51 separate elections, so the national polls mean little. And some people lie to pollsters and many people refuse to participate, throwing off the statistical value of surveys.

Better than polls, look at analyses like “538” and the Princeton Election Consortium, which have been excellent in picking presidential winners.

Beware of the pundits, who will comment vigorously every day between now and Election Day, often relying on weak polls. They have their audience, but they know little more than the conventional wisdom of the moment.

Breathlessly awaited are the vice presidential picks. They should tell voters much about how Clinton and Trump view the race.

The speculation is that Clinton may have to pick a liberal running mate with appeal for Bernie Sanders’ supporters. But she might reason those voters have nowhere else to go and pick a somewhat more moderate veep candidate, hoping to attract some unhappy GOP voters.

Trump supposedly needs a solid Republican to appeal to skeptical party voters. His problem is finding a viable candidate who will support his controversial positions.

Then, there are the two national conventions. Such gatherings, filled with thousands of docile delegates and armies of bloggers, have ceased having any real function. The primary-caucus system has neutered them.

Conventions are like reality programs, but the event is pointless, often boring, and the viewer already knows the winner. The media will hype them, but television coverage will be far less than years ago. If you don’t watch, you won’t miss much, except possibly somebody’s good speech.

Money matters. A major element of the campaign is the dominant role of money. A close look at the campaign commercials will reveal that many are not coming from the candidates but from free-spending super-PACs.

Trump, who used a lot of his money and his own staff in the primaries, is now looking for financial support. The Republican National Committee may be a major source of help, but will Trump have a super-PAC? Clinton has the backing of a major super-PAC.

Mostly negative campaigns are likely. Both candidates offer targets, though Trump’s are coming almost daily. Voters will be urged, possibly more than ever, to vote against, rather than for, candidates. That makes issues of relatively little importance.

The two most positive selling points are not issues. Clinton should get massive support as the first potential woman president. And Trump supporters may overlook his daily controversies, because they like his anti-establishment tone.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the upcoming campaign will not be the presidential race itself but its impact on congressional elections. Often, voters who turn out for a presidential candidate also vote for congressional candidates of the same party.

The GOP has many apparently vulnerable U.S. Senate seats up for election this year. The Republicans cannot achieve a filibuster-proof Senate majority; in fact, they may lose even a simple majority.

In the House of Representatives, where gerrymandering by state legislatures has led to more safe GOP seats, the likely result is continued Republican control. Will fading GOP moderates regain some strength, forcing their party to compromise with the Senate and president?

In Maine, the Second District race between Democrat Emily Cain and Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, who has had difficulty resisting the GOP conservative pull, could be a key election influenced by the presidential race.