Friday, August 28, 2015

Lacking detailed policy, Trump exploits style

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump may be teaching candidates of either party a valuable lesson.

Be yourself.

As pundits ponder the reason for his surprising success in polling about the Republican candidates and even in contests with Democrats, the explanation may be obvious.  Trump comes across as a person who expresses himself spontaneously, revealing his real self.

His style stands in contrast to most traditional candidates who carefully plan their words to gain support and to avoid offending any voters.  Often they end up speaking in generalities.  The public sees them as politicians doing what politicians do.

Trump makes a point of saying that he does not seek to be “politically correct.”  He appears to mean that he won’t say something that he doesn’t believe simply to ensure he remains in line with general opinion.

Not being “politically correct” or just plain “correct” may alienate parts of the voting public.  Do that often enough and you could have a tough time winning an election.

Trump’s approach could help him in a huge field of candidates during the primaries in which relatively few Republicans will participate in selecting the party’s nominee.  Still, it could make winning a general election impossible.

But Maine Gov. Paul LePage provides evidence to the contrary.  His 2014 reelection victory after he was outspoken about his political opponents shows that the spontaneous style also used by Trump may work.

This style has so far been a substitute for Trump providing details on his policy positions.  He shows a great deal of unexplained self-confidence and for some voters, that’s good enough.  His success in the polls has allowed him to set the terms of the GOP selection process.

Among the other GOP hopefuls, some have tried to imitate him, though he appears to be too far ahead of them for their moves to matter.  Except for Jeb Bush’s recent statements, they have hardly pushed back against his bold assertions and inaccuracies.

As he has struck a political nerve, the media has been covering him less as a political candidate than as a celebrity in world where celebrity news is journalistic gold.  It seems almost hypnotized by his skillful exploitation of his visibility.  If the media shifts its campaign coverage to the field, it will be worth watching to see if his attraction lessens.

As much as he has an effect on the Republican presidential race, there may also be an echo and an effect in the Democratic Party.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the echo.  Though his positions are almost directly opposite to Trump’s, he, too, appears as a candidate who speaks his mind without fear of offending voters.  If he’s not as spontaneous as Trump, he certainly seems as genuine.

For example, he has no problem labeling himself a “democratic socialist.”  He does this with apparently growing support in a country where “socialism” is mostly used as a dirty word politically.  Sanders seems to have long understood the virtues of being plain spoken.

Vice President Joe Biden may be Trump’s effect on the Democrats.  In the past, his great problem has been unscripted remarks that may get him into trouble.  He has had to apologize more than once.  And he forced President Obama to take a public position on the issue, when he blurted out his support for same-sex marriage. 

Now, what has been his main problem could turn into his chief asset if he chooses to run for the Democratic nomination.  It’s difficult to doubt he is genuine and not programmed, and that has appeal these days.

Contrast Trump or Biden with Hillary Clinton.  Hers is the model of a strictly planned campaign.  No errors are to be admitted and all comments appear to be prepared.  In short, talking points are known well in advance, much as was the case with President George W. Bush.  She often looks like a parent talking down to her ignorant kids.

The Clinton approach may look even more obvious because of its contrast with Trump or Sanders and possibly Biden.  There’s still time for her to unbend a bit, admit errors and look somewhat more human.  Still, there’s no doubt that the seeming certainty of her getting the Democratic nomination has decreased.

Candidates for president promise much, but voters often choose based on their opinion of the person’s ability to govern and not on specific proposals.  Spontaneity may reveal character better than do canned speeches.

Trump may be contributing to this year’s process, though plain speaking cannot completely substitute for a responsible platform.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Does Obama share Trump, LePage attitude toward legislative branch?

In response to last week’s look at GOP candidate Donald Trump and Maine Gov. Paul LePage and their attitude toward legislative bodies, some readers argued that President Obama should have been included.

It was less a matter of saying Trump and LePage really did not seek to undermine Congress and the Legislature as much as saying, “the other guy is just as bad as our guy.”

Obama has been under steady attack for taking on authority that his critics maintain should really be left with Congress.

The President has responded by pointing out he has issued fewer vetoes and executive orders than any president in decades.  He has been countered by critics who point out his extensive use of executive memorandums, whose tally has traditionally not been kept.

And like GOP President George W. Bush, though on a smaller scale, he has issued signing statements when approving new laws, indicating that he would not enforce parts of them he considered unconstitutional.

Whether Obama has disrespected congressional powers is not likely to yield a satisfactory statistical result.  Either side can claim the data supports its position.

The issue is not statistics; it is substance.

When a president is faced by a Congress controlled by the opposition, he has often flexed his political muscle to the dismay of the other party.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Obama has been quite open about choosing to act because of congressional attempts to block his proposals.  “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them,” he announced.

Instead of putting pressure on Congress, that statement amounted to a declaration of war.  Republicans could not accept his proposals without looking as if they were weak, so they left the field to him.

The alternative would have been for him to act assertively way without his defiant public statement.  Then, perhaps, the GOP leadership might have chosen to deal with him at least on some issues to forestall unilateral action his part.

Obama did leave the door open for months to an immigration reform deal, favored by many leading congressional Republicans.  But, with Obama having embarked on his go-it-alone policy, GOP leadership having become overly cautious about taking any action, and the approaching presidential election, the chances for cooperation died.

Instead, Obama pushed his executive power to the limit, perhaps even over it, in issuing an executive order that promised to prevent deportation of millions of immigrants.  Little attention was paid to his record of deporting far more than any predecessor.

His move to tell government prosecutors to avoid pushing many possible deportations infuriated Republicans, adding to their arguments against his supposed usurpation of lawmaking power.

In the end, the dispute over whether Obama stepped over the line of executive authority and assumed powers belonging to Congress may never be settled.  Courts have rejected the president’s use of recess appointments and may look at the immigration order, which has already been suspended.  But it’s highly unlikely that a court will broadly define the limits of presidential power.

Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress have become engaged in a high stakes tug of war.  In fact, that’s been characteristic of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government from the beginning.

That struggle is quite different from the kind of confrontation between LePage and the Legislature.  The governor’s plan to veto all bills is less a struggle for power than a sign of petulance.  LePage has made it clear that he does not respect the Legislature or legislators.

LePage wants them to accept his reelection as a mandate to adopt his proposals.  He has offered non-negotiable proposals, and there’s virtually no room for compromise.

With Trump, it’s simply a question of whether his obvious lack of respect for anybody who disagrees with him will be carried over into his relationship with Congress.

Obama and Congress are engaged in a new chapter of the classic contest to define the power of federal government institutions.  Obama did initially seek cooperation, but as soon as the House of Representatives came under GOP control, it was the House that offered only take-it-or-leave-it options.  He reacted.

Obama and Congress have serious conflicts, but they differ from a mere assertion of the right to blank-check political power, sought by LePage and likely also by Trump.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trump, LePage would endanger "balance of powers"

Gov. Paul LePage and GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump have something in common.  Each wants to run government more or less at his will.  Neither gives great weight to the role of the legislative branch.

In fact, both readily disparage legislative opponents and their constituents, one or the other of them calling their critics “weak” or “corrupt.”  Writing off large parts of the population, they raise the question of their ability to lead a state or national government on behalf of all the people.

Both come from executive positions in the private sector where their word might have been law.  LePage is learning and Trump must yet learn that in government the constitutional balance of powers matters.

Discussing the recent decision of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, I noted that it had ruled the state constitution gave the Legislature virtually “absolute” power on behalf of the people, while the powers of the executive and judicial branches are more limited.  The situation at the federal level is similar, though not identical.

The growing power of the executive risks giving both office holders and voters the wrong impression.  After a general election victory and aware of the extensive powers of office, an executive can come to appear to be the people’s primary representative.

One reader asked, “why have a governor if the Legislature is the primary representative of the people?”  Or a president, for that matter.

The revelation about the power of the legislative branch must have been a surprise, when we have become accustomed to executives claiming to speak for the state or country. 

The executive is primary in representing the state or country in relationships with others.  And as a single leader, the chief executive may inspire and encourage citizens. 

From there, it is easy to gain a sense that the executive is the dominant element of government, enjoying a general election mandate that ought to be observed by the legislative branch.  That’s LePage’s message, and there’s little doubt that Trump would see his office in the same way.

Still, there’s a good reason why the legislative branch comes before the executive branch in both the U.S. and state constitutions.  The legislative branch is supposed to represent the collective will of the people, the real sovereign.  It makes laws using authority delegated to it by a constitution approved by the people.

Precisely because its members are elected by district and not statewide or nationally, the legislative branch can reflect complex public sentiment more accurately than can the executive.

The executive’s lawmaking powers are supposed to be limited.  Vetoes of bills passed by a legislative body can be overridden, leaving the last word to the legislature.  Even appointments of top people in the executive branch must be confirmed legislatively.

A more complex world has imposed a transformation in the traditional balance between the two branches.  It has proven to be impossible for the legislative branch to enact laws that are sufficiently detailed to deal with the many specific situations arising when the executive tries to carry out the laws.

Inevitably, the executive must be left to adopt rules and procedures to apply the law.  Without unlimited funds, it sets priorities about which laws should be applied most actively.

In many cases, rules and executive orders have come to look a lot like laws.  The process of filling in the open questions in legislation leads to increased power for a president or governor.  If the executive branch goes too far, the legislative branch has to find a way to rein it in.

The executive is expected to have an agenda, proposed by the chief office holder and supported by executive branch personnel.  The problem of primacy arises when the top executive believes this agenda must be passed or that he or she is more powerful than the legislative branch.

President Teddy Roosevelt said the White House was a “bully pulpit,” meaning that the presidency gave him a strong position to advocate his agenda.  But, in another sense of the word, he did not “bully” Congress so much as find ways to convince its members to support him.

Courts increasingly find themselves asked to deal with the limits of executive power.  While the political system may allow for judicial determination whether executive actions are constitutional, it would be better for government to function based on positive relationships between executive and legislative and between government and voters.

Scorning and ignoring opponents, as LePage and Trump do, may provide a momentary sense of satisfaction, but it almost certainly undermines chances for constructive government.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Constitutional Rules and Practical Politics

Two Maine women have given us a couple of valuable lessons about government.

One was Leigh I. Saufley, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and the other was U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

For a unanimous Court, Saufley wrote the reply to questions from Gov. Paul LePage on whether the Legislature had adjourned or not.  The answer cost him the chance to veto 65 bills.

The Chief Justice reviewed the powers of the Legislature compared with those of the executive and judicial branches.  It turns out the three branches are not equal. 

Most importantly, she wrote that all power comes from the people, and it is “the power of the Legislature to act on behalf of the people.” She recalled a 1912 decision of the Court that the powers of the executive and judicial branches are only those given to them in the Constitution, while the 
powers of the Legislature are “absolute,” subject only to any constitutional limits.

As a result, only the Legislature could say whether it had adjourned.  The governor, claiming it had, could not.  Because it was still in session, new bills had become law without his signature and were not open to his later veto.

LePage has taken his victory in last year’s election as the sign of a public mandate for his policies.  He wants the Legislature to fall in line with his proposals, and it refuses.  Saufley’s lesson is the Legislature, not the governor, embodies the full power of the people.  If LePage will now work with it, some of his ideas have a better chance.

Beyond settling current battles, this little civics lesson reminds readers that the people are the “sovereign” in the American system, and they create a legislative body to exercise power on their behalf.  Because government sometimes seems to act as if the people are its subjects and not citizens, this point is worth remembering.

Sen. Collins was involved in a more ordinary legislative dispute.  Many fellow Republican senators want to cut all federal funding of Planned Parenthood, because they disapprove of what they understand to be its policies on fetal tissue and because it performs abortions, though not using government funds.

To enact such a bill, they had first to overcome a legislative filibuster, meaning that it would take 60 senators to end debate before a vote on cutting off funding could take place.  Defunding lost, because only 53 senators supported ending the filibuster and moving to the key vote.  Sen. Collins was one of them.

Collins has a history of supporting family planning and women’s health.  She soon came under criticism for her vote to open the path for the bill to be enacted.

Her answer was that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had promised her and the other two GOP sponsors that if the bill were debated, they would be allowed to propose an amendment not to defund the organization but to ask the Justice Department to investigate it and report to the Senate.

It seems quite likely that if debate ended, there were the necessary 51 votes to pass the bill ending funding of Planned Parenthood, even over Collins’ opposition.  With enough votes to slam the door on the organization, why would the majority have agreed to her amendment?

One of the co-sponsors of her proposal, probably cautious about what might happen, voted against cutting off debate.  He must have understood that most GOP senators, especially with some of them running for president, would reject anything less than defunding Planned Parenthood.

Collins surely understood that risk as well.  Yet she followed the party line to open the way to a funding cut, while excusing her action by making a counter-proposal that might be easily defeated.  Perhaps she figured there were not enough votes to end debate, so thought she could please GOP leaders without doing any real harm.

For her proposal to succeed, it would have depended almost entirely on Democrats.  She avoided aligning with them by sticking with her party, possibly because she knew the entire defunding exercise was a sham. 

Her tactic was less a reflection of her attachment to principle, which is undoubtedly sincere, than her attachment to the Republicans.  That’s practical politics, especially for a self-styled moderate in an increasingly conservative party.

The problem is some voters expect their representatives to favor principle over politics no matter the political risk.

While Saufley reminded us about the sometimes forgotten basic principles of American government, Collins provided us with a lesson about how principles risk being sacrificed to practical politics.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Presidential race: undercurrents of change

The Fox GOP debate dominates the political news, but it could obscure the real undercurrents of the presidential campaign. 

It’s important to keep the campaign in perspective, almost impossible do in the heated daily play-by-play reporting.  Here’s what is emerging from the campaign.

Polls.  While polling may indicate little about the ultimate nominees, even now it can influence the choice.  By using polls to limit the number of GOP debate participants, Fox was carrying out, in a somewhat rough fashion, the same process voters use to define their choices.  The field simply must be thinned.

Debates.  Once a useful encounter in the process because so much depended on so few head-to-head debates, they have been devalued by their frequency and the many participants.  Mostly, candidates have only to avoid making mistakes.

Trump.  Donald Trump, a man of great wealth and self-esteem, has never run for political office and avoids all the normal caution of political candidates.  He comes across as a real change, just what many people want.  He shares the popular disdain for government.  Above all, he makes things simple.

He’s not likely to succeed, unless voters like his style and worry little about his lack of substance. But he will force some from the field.  He could become so flattered by the attention he is getting that he could convince himself  he could win as a third party candidate, which worries the GOP.

Clinton.  The mantra is Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination locked up, but that belief is beginning to wear thin.  There are two indicators of her loosening grip on a sure nomination.  One is Vice President Joe Biden’s possible run and the other would be the appearance of another woman in the race.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren?

Clinton generates a sense of superiority, which causes mistrust.  She has held back as her problems have increased.  Even if Benghazi is a phony issue, the emails on her personal computer are not.  If anything, they reinforce the sense that she is not bound by the same rules as the rest of us.

Sanders and others.  In 2008, voters supported “change.” but got a lot less than they expected.  Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, like Trump, now represents real change.  Possibly too liberal to be nominated, he gains enthusiastic support, because of the simple message he would bring change.  Other Democrats lack exposure.  Is Secretary of State John Kerry a possibility?

Parties.  The political parties are becoming less and less relevant.  Many candidates now run without showing their party affiliation on their campaign materials.  In the presidential campaign, a single Supreme Court decision has transformed American politics.

Big donors.  The Citizens United decision opened the way for extremely wealthy donors to make unlimited political contributions.  It now appears that a handful of billionaires will be able to pour more money into the presidential campaign than will the political parties.  That means their personal platforms will become more important than party platforms.

Primaries.  The early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina usually thin out the field.  When candidates finish in third or fourth place, their funding tends to dry up, leaving them no choice but to abandon their campaigns.  It is possible that the big donors will not be so easily discouraged and will keep their candidates in the race until they hit larger states.

Wedge issues.  It has become increasingly clear that many voters decide based on a single issue.  In effect, if the voter likes a candidate’s position on same-sex marriage, abortion, environmental regulation or Iran, they automatically are deemed to endorse the rest of that candidate’s positions.  That has a major effect on debates and campaigns.

Overpromising.  Presidential candidates promise bold policy changes, without mentioning that they could not keep their promises without congressional support.  Surprisingly, the voters believe these promises, though we almost surely will be disappointed.  A more realistic candidate does not garner much support.

Congress.  Congressional and presidential campaigns have grown more disconnected.  In the districts, voters may decide based on much different issues than those influencing presidential races.  That difference is part of the reason why presidents cannot produce promised results.

Campaigns.  Presidential campaigns involve big money.  While there are few outright attempts to buy votes, most of the money is used to influence voters, usually by massive television advertising or single-issue direct mail.  Voters often go no further than the ads to learn about candidates, just what the big donors want. 

It’s still early innings, but we need to recognize the selection of a president is more than a sports event.