Friday, October 19, 2018

Trump, big money 'nationalize' political campaigns

This weeks’ political quiz.  One the following is true and one is false. 

(a) “All politics is local.”  

(b) Money is the lifeblood of politics.

The correct answer is (b).  It makes (a) false. 

The reverse was once true, with election campaigns conducted on a “retail” face-to-face basis on issues that were matters of state or local concern.  Now, many campaigns are national and rely heavily on outside funds and support.

This year, the U.S. House of Representatives is forecast to flip from Republican to Democratic and that there is even a slim chance that GOP could also lose control of the Senate.

The Democrats need to pick up at least 23 seats to gain House control, usually too great a challenge in any election.  Incumbents traditionally hold onto their seats.  This year, a great many House Republicans have chosen not to run, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

What has clearly turned this year’s House elections into a national contest is President Trump.  With both houses of Congress in Republican control, he is able to pursue his policies virtually unchecked.  His popularity remains relatively low, and voters may favor giving Democrats control of the House to block him.

Aside from party loyalty, voters in House races are likely to be more influenced by their view of Trump than of their local candidate.  This may also be true in Senate races, but most seats there up for election this year are held by Democrats, making their challenge to Trump more difficult.

Once most financial support for candidates came from within his or her home state, and much of it came in small amounts.  A big change took place in 2010 when the Democrats persisted in treating House races as local while the GOP launched a national campaign based on opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

This year, a billionaire, who made his fortune running casinos, is contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates across the country, almost entirely because of Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Local issues don’t matter.

The political mantra seems to be, “All politics is money.”  We have reached the point where there is virtually no limit on big money contributions to elections.  Unless you read the fine print at the bottom of television campaign commercials, you miss the extent of out-of-state campaign funding. 

“SuperPACS” receive huge, unlimited sums, their sources kept secret.  They can spend freely, so long as they claim they are independent of the candidates they support.  Their outlays dwarf labor union contributions, despite their effort to make it seem they are merely striking a balance.

Let’s look at the campaign of a House incumbent from Maine to see the role of outside money.

One commercial for Second District candidate Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent, is funded by the NRCC, which states that it is not affiliated with his campaign.  But the NRCC is the National Republican Congressional Campaign, the party’s main organization for supporting House candidates.

The largest contributors to it are major finance and insurance companies plus the campaign funds raised by GOP House hopefuls for party leader who want members’ votes when the new Congress assembles in January. 

Poliquin’s campaign website notes: “He earned success helping manage pensions, including at Bath Iron Works.”  That understates his success.  He has been rated as the 17th wealthiest member of the 435 member House on the strength of what he made as an investment manager.

Among his largest contributors are financial firms like Citigroup and UBS.  They may not be seeking his support for their issues but simply ensuring that a like-minded congressman, with experience in the world of finance, remains in office.  Either way, this support has little to do with Maine.

Whether it is Poliquin or other candidates, voters can easily be left with the false impression that the candidates are locally supported.  The trail of the big money behind congressional campaigns reveals that many candidates are dependent on national interests beyond their claimed local focus.

Most of the money goes to buy television commercials and to send mailings in which candidates make their case or, more often, their opponents are attacked.  Backers know that voters are influenced by negative spots, short on solid information and often wildly inaccurate.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that spending money is part of free speech, making it virtually impossible to limit campaign cash.  Now, in politics, big money talks loudly. 

Congress should seek ways to limit money in campaigns, forcing a new Court review, if necessary.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Optimistic about Kavanaugh’s record, Collins ignored his partisan bias

Whether you liked it or not, Sen. Susan Collins' speech on confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court mattered.

The Senate is supposed to give its “advice and consent” to Court nominations, but there are no rules about just what it ought to take into account.  Collins provided a clear statement on this point, important no matter whether a voter accepts the guidance she drew from it.

There are four elements she could have included in her analysis and she addressed three, including the most important – what kind of a judge is the nominee.

To her credit, Collins read his opinions and sought the advice of legal experts.  She did the work that members of the Judiciary Committee should have done, but gave little sign of having done in their partisan fury to confirm or deny Kavanaugh.

Remember that on the vast majority of Supreme Court nominations, the Senate respects the president's choice.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Democratic liberal, received 96 of the 100 possible votes.  It was reasonable to assume that Collins, a Republican, would support President Trump unless Kavanaugh's record revealed he was not in the judicial mainstream.

Because opponents feared he would align with already sitting conservatives on the Court to form a majority, he could hardly be said to be outside today’s judicial norms.  Opposed specifically because of his conservatism, critics assumed that he would join with other justices to reverse Roe v. Wade and enhance presidential power.

Collins interpreted his record optimistically. She accepted his assurances at face value. While she might have overcome her worries on abortion rights or same sex marriage as the result of her analysis, she is certainly open to criticism for having given Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt in every case.

He can either prove Collins wrong and justify the opposition's charges or he can consider himself bound by her interpretation of his record and keep to it.

If her main level of review was judicial, she first mentioned the obvious political considerations surrounding the nomination. Trump was committed to naming a conservative.  As Collins noted, opposition to this or any other Trump nomination could expected to be instant and automatic.

The fervor of the opposition probably made her splitting with the Republicans more difficult.  She might seem to be giving in to pressure instead of making up her own mind.  In fact, some claim the blistering opposition may have motivated Trump voters to more active support for GOP House candidates next month.

Obviously, Collins did not like the pressure, much of it coming from Democratic voters who might not have supported her in 2020.  Because she took her time, she became exposed to great pressure and the ultimate attacks on her.

Her third focus was on the alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh on Christine Blasey Ford, when both were teenagers.  Collins concluded it had not been proved.

Voters were left to wonder if proof would have blocked confirmation.  Some senators obviously let the FBI report settle their vote.  Was the Kavanaugh-Ford issue enough to topple the nomination or even legitimate grounds for ignoring other aspects of his record?  On this confirmation test, the jury is still out.

Collins did not touch Kavanaugh's judicial temperament.  Does he have the reserved and thoughtful detachment we expect of judges?  His response to the Ford charges was heated, undisciplined and obviously political.  She left it alone.

Yet it may have revealed more about him than his judicial record, his expected judgments on the Court or the Ford case.  Senators knew he was conservative, but he proved to be outright partisan.

In what was a laudable attempt by Collins to apply an “advice and consent” standard that went beyond the partisanship of most of the other senators, she missed one of the most important concerns – Kavanaugh's demeanor as a judge.

It is too soon to know what effect her decision will have on her political future.  Even she can't know now, unless she plans to retire. 

In the end, her vote did not decide confirmation.  She might have created a tie, which Vice President Pence would have broken for Kavanaugh.

Had she caused his nomination to be rejected, Trump was said to have a far more conservative appeals court judge, a woman, ready to nominate.

In all this, there is a message for voters.  Kavanaugh is on the bench because Trump is president.  The energy spent in this nomination conflict is needed in all elections. More than ever, the country needs wide and sustained involvement in the political process.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Trump offers isolationist foreign policy

In his recent U.N. speech, President Trump offered his vision for America’s place in the world.

Nobody was surprised that his words echoed U.S. policy in the decades before the outbreak of World War II. Perhaps this was how to “make America great again" -- return to the years when the country was a world power that chose isolation until it was attacked.

The core of his outlook is that the U.S. supports “independence and cooperation” over “global governance.” Trump’s America should avoid agreements and organizations that affect national sovereignty.

“Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived,” he declared. Other countries follow the American approach. He promised that “the United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.”

The U.S. would remain a major player in world affairs, but usually by going it alone. He listed one example after another where he had led the country away from multilateral approaches toward independent action by the U.S.

Like other leaders, he is opposes Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Middle East. He continues to complain that when the Iran nuclear deal was signed, Iran regained access to its own funds held in the U.S. He considered that money “a windfall” Iran could use to finance its aggression.

Other countries are working together to try to keep the nuclear deal alive so that Iran, now subject to international inspection, is banned for more than a decade from developing nuclear weapons.

Though he said other countries should assert their own sovereign interests, he clearly signaled American opposition to actions they might take.

The U.S. seeks to force other countries to sharply reduce oil purchases from Iran. In effect, they are under American pressure to adopt U.S. policy, not their own approach to Iran.

On North Korea, Trump expressed satisfaction with the initial results of his direct talks with Kim Jung-un. He ignored the difference between North Korea, which still develops nuclear weapons without inspections, while Iran does not.

“All nations of the world should resist socialism,” he said. But what if they wanted a greater role for government without Venezuelan-style dictatorship?

American funding of defense elsewhere should be replaced by money from the countries on the front lines, he said. Defense policy is a matter of reducing American dollars spent abroad. The traditional policy said that helping defend other countries kept conflict from America’s shores.

Trumps’ concept of trade means that no country should have a favorable balance with the U.S. To force others to buy American goods, the U.S. erects barriers to imports from others. Higher consumer costs and lower profits are a price worth paying for greater sovereignty.

On the environment and climate change, Trump said nothing. Last week, his EPA reported that temperatures are rising faster and farther than previously forecast, but said there was no point in trying to reduce or prevent that change. Global warming is inevitable, it implied, so why make futile gestures.

The American media gave only fleeting coverage to Trump’s speech, except to note the General Assembly laughter at his campaign-style boasting, an international first. They gave more coverage to the latest human interest story. And the media ignored French President Emmanuel Macron's response to Trump.

He clearly saw the need for countries not only to cooperate as separate parties but to work together. And he directly challenged Trump for trying to torpedo the Iran deal and for quitting international efforts to fight climate change.

Trump’s policy in resolving the Israel-Palestine problem is to squeeze the Palestinians as hard as possible to force them to negotiate on Israel’s terms. He has cut American funding for the U.N. agency providing education and health care to Palestinians.

Macron’s answer was that France would step up its funding of this agency. Trump’s action and Macron’s response is a sign that countries are beginning to pick policies to support off a sort of world menu. Trump expressly announced that would be the American approach to the U.N.

The French president rejected any thought that Trump’s change of course was only temporary. He saw American foreign policy as being “the law of the strongest.”

He charged that it was an attack on “universal values,” the principles on which are countries have been thought to agree: supporting human rights, fighting poverty and promoting the prosperity of all.

Where the new American vision leads remains unknown. Past policies centered on national rights and a la carte “cooperation” have the unfortunate history of leading to conflict and even to war.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Sexual abuse cases bring new era in American history

The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court forms a chapter in a new epoch in American history.

Like other countries, the U.S. has dealt slowly with the rights and roles of women.  Now, the country is undergoing major change, and allegations about Kavanaugh are part of it.

His nomination and the careers of other men in the public spotlight have been affected by allegations of sexual crimes.  Long hidden or ignored, some men have exercised their power – political, theatrical or physical – over women more often than many had suspected.

Decades ago, Margaret Chase Smith, the Mainer who was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and Senate, urged caution in too readily accepting allegations.  In her famous Declaration of Conscience speech, she said that the Constitution speaks of “trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.”

The danger in relying too heavily on allegations alone is that they might become a standard tool of political opposition. 

Still, much evidence, including some only circumstantial, has made it impossible to deny certain gross misdeeds.  Cases emerge after decades of the system intentionally ignoring them. 

Some men have admitted assaults.  Some charges have escaped prosecution, only because the actions in question may have occurred too long ago or victims have suppressed the trauma.   

The Washington Post recently revealed a long-hidden case of a Texas high school girl who was raped.  Despite firm evidence, her attacker was not prosecuted, and she was hounded out of town.  No wonder she said nothing for years.

However charges of past abuse are resolved, they have led to one clear result. The #MeToo movement has caused an increased awareness among women that abuse can no longer be ignored and among men that abusive behavior may be judged well into the future.

Even more important, revelations of sexual abuse have led to a greater recognition of historic discrimination against women.

To a surprising extent, charges of sexual abuse against then-candidate Donald Trump, comedian Bill Cosby and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have promoted the political future of American women, by graphically calling public attention not only to past abuse, but also to their unequal treatment.

The #MeToo movement is only one element of change and needs to be transformed into a “We,Too” way of life.

More women are running for Congress than ever.  Some may gain votes simply because they are women.  But support will come also because voters are coming to understand that women are as capable as men to direct the affairs of state. They should be elected based on ability, not sex.

It remains to be seen how many of these candidates will succeed.  What’s most important is that they are on the ballot.  Women will undoubtedly play the leading role in the future political process, and the races this year are a step in that direction.  Two women are running for Maine governor this year.

Maine has sent three women to the U.S. Senate.  One now serves, and one of the state’s two House members is a woman.  Perhaps they benefited from women’s votes.  But the case can be made that they were elected by both women and men on their merit.

President Trump has appointed women to important posts, though not to head any of the top four departments, as both of his predecessors did.  But his boasting about groping women still rankles. Could a woman have been elected after bragging about having groped men with impunity?

Women are beyond doubt ready to lead.  In universities, law schools and other professional schools, they are becoming the educated majority.  They clearly know how to manage their personal and professional lives.

But “We, Too” must act on such change.  At the Supreme Court, since the appointment of the first woman in 1981, there have been 16 nominees, but only four have been women.  The chief justices in Maine and the United Kingdom are women and Canada recently also had a woman leading its top court.

The need to recognize women as leaders extends beyond government.  In the private sector, a woman still does not receive equal pay for doing the same job as a man.  Women lead only about five percent of the five hundred top companies on the Fortune list.

The problem of discrimination against women goes back to the beginning of the human race.  What is happening now in the U.S. is thus even more historic, more difficult and more important than most Americans, female or male, may imagine.