Friday, December 28, 2018

Trump creates damaging uncertainty

The biggest problem facing the U.S. is not immigration, health care or a trade war.

It is uncertainty.

The inability of business leaders, pension fund managers, foreign government heads, Congress and individuals to count on usual practices and policies has created deep worries.

The stock market is not a reliable measure of all these concerns, but its deep decline reflects that uncertainty.  Even its recovery might do little to restore more confidence about the future.

The source of the uncertainty is President Trump.  He makes the abrupt changes in policy and disregards others – leaders of Congress, heads of foreign governments, economic chiefs.  Decisions are suddenly announced, often via Twitter.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s approach to the economy.  In business, he is accustomed to borrowing money to finance his real estate purchases.  He favors low interest for his business interests and has naturally become an advocate of the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates low.

The Fed has gradually raised interest rates from near zero, where they were set during the recession.  They remain at historically low levels.  But Trump blames falling stock prices on the modest rate increases and wants to fire the Fed chair, his own choice, in the mistaken belief he can change Fed policy.

The law intentionally makes Fed governors independent of political leaders.  Until now, no president has ever threatened to fire the Fed chair.  Trump’s menace and not the one-quarter-of- one-percent rate increase is a cause of market uncertainty and deep decline.

The partial government shutdown probably has little direct effect.  But the president’s insistence that the Democrats help him keep his signature campaign promise to build the Wall on the Mexican border creates uncertainty.  He allowed the shutdown when they would not agree to $5 billion for the Wall.

Why the uncertainty?  He had previously rejected the Democrats’ proposal of a full $25 billion for the Wall in return for creating a long path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who had been raised in the U.S.  The shutdown was caused by uncertainty about just what deal he would accept.

He suddenly announced he would withdraw American troops in Syria. That has thrown the Middle East into turmoil and uncertainty about the future in Syria, because those troops were a check on both ISIS and the Russians.  He claimed victory over ISIS, “my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”

While he had the right to make the decision, he saw it in personal terms – “my only reason” – and not as a matter of national concern. That decision drove Secretary of Defense Mattis to give notice.  More uncertainty.

Then, when the media interpreted Mattis’ resignation letter as a rebuke of Trump, the president abruptly fired him, eliminating the possibility of an orderly transition in this most sensitive position.  More uncertainty.

Mattis was the latest in a parade of top Trump appointees to either quit or be fired.  Several cabinet agencies now lack confirmed leaders.  Trump is looking for his third chief of staff.  More uncertainty.

In trade, Trump appropriately took on China, which abuses its economic relationship with the U.S.  But he targeted all major American trading partners on the unbelievable grounds that their exports threatened U.S. national security. 

His attacks on allies, his failure to consult with them and his support for extreme right wing groups in their countries all create considerable worries in world affairs.  He has belittled them, even tossing a couple of pieces of candy to the German Chancellor to show his low regard for her.  More uncertainty.

He induced North Korea to suspend nuclear tests and missile launches and declared victory. Meanwhile, the secretive country built more launch facilities and a major nuclear test center.  

Trump’s declarations of success allowed China and Russia to ignore many of the sanctions on North Korea.  In Asia, more danger and uncertainty.

American voters say they want the two parties to cooperate to produce results. The recent criminal justice reform bill proves they can.  But the president repeatedly attacks the Democrats in the apparently mistaken belief he can intimidate them into going along with his demands.  They won’t.  More uncertainty.

Why should the average American care?

Uncertainty threatens the economy.  It will discourage investment, resulting in fewer jobs.  The worldwide trade war will cause price increases.  Government will be increasingly deadlocked.  As the stock market falls, pensions will lose value.  Risks abroad will increase and the U.S. will have to go it alone.

The only certainty may be the uncertainty Trump creates.

Friday, December 21, 2018

‘Elections have consequences’ – more partisan warfare

“Elections have consequences, Mr. President.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer reminded President Trump of that fact when they met to discuss border security.  He warned the president that politics in Washington will change as control of the House passes to the Democrats and his party’s Senate minority can stop many bills there.

Trump had enjoyed almost automatic support in Congress when both houses were under GOP control.  If he now thought he could sweet talk Democrats, the target of his most heated campaigning, to support him, Schumer would educate him on divided government.

Many Americans like the idea of divided government, believing it will promote compromise and produce needed legislation.  But Mr. Trump’s own party promptly revealed that belief was a mere illusion.  Politics is not about public service.  It is about power.  Politicians today don’t readily yield power.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrats took governorships from the GOP.  In both states, Republican legislatures hastily passed laws stripping governors of their powers.  Outgoing Republican governors signed the bills. 

In the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans had whitewashed an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, they still took time as they went out the door to hold more hearings on Hillary Clinton’s home email server.

The two states and the House may see the situation flip under the Democratic control.

The parties can cooperate.  The only congressional review of Russia’s 2016 election interference is being carried out by the Senate Intelligence Committee, where the two party leaders work together.  They are more worried by the threat to the American democracy than to either party.

But the general rule is partisan warfare.  Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell whips Trump’s nominees onto federal district courts at an amazing pace, faster than ever before.  He wants no debate on them.  He is surely making some mistakes in his haste, but it is impossible to know who’s unqualified.

Like the Michigan and Wisconsin moves, he wants to reduce the Democrats’ future power should they win the presidency and other offices in 2020.  He blocked an Obama Supreme Court appointment, leaving a vacancy for more than a year, to await Trump appointees.

If there is any state where the consequences of elections were clear, it’s Maine.  There may have been no “blue wave” in the country, but there was one in Maine.  The governor and both Houses of the Legislature plus an added congressional seat are now under Democratic control.

The effect is immediate.  Governor-elect Janet Mills has named an experienced human services chief who is focused on, well, human services.  The new department head replaces a commissioner who seemed dedicated to reducing help for those in need.

Maine’s lesson may be that elections have consequences only when there’s a change in political control.  If the result is divided control, compromise may be more a matter of luck than responsiveness to the voters’ desire for results.

The next elections, less than two years away, may be a major test of Schumer’s message and Trump’s appeal.

The Republican Party is now largely Trump’s party, and he is expected to lead it into the campaign, unless he is derailed by his own actions.  Congressional and state candidates are likely to be his loyal supporters.  From the GOP viewpoint, the desired consequences would be more and better Trump.

The Democrats have a bigger tent, but can only have one presidential candidate.  Will they go with a candidate of change, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, or a more centrist leader, like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown?  Either way, Democrats want to end up fully in charge.

There was one sleeper in this year’s elections, and it could produce the greatest consequences.  Following the 2020 elections, all states with two or more House members must redraw their congressional district lines to ensure each has the same population.  Traditionally, that is done by the legislature and governor.

In recent years, the GOP in states including Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin has designed districts to its liking.  To avoid partisanship, under recent Supreme Court decisions, more states will let independent bodies set district lines.

If Democrats control state governments after 2020, they will run redistricting, influencing the composition of the House of Representatives for a decade.  This year, seven Democratic governors replaced Republicans, and they may be key players in drawing the new lines.  State legislative elections in 2020 will matter. 

Yes, Mr. President, elections have consequences.  We are about to find out the many ways that works.

Friday, December 14, 2018

“It’s the economy, stupid”—good news turns bad

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

That’s the famous quote attributed to a top Bill Clinton aide in 1992, when he was trying to come up with slogan for the presidential campaign.

It is still true.  While the focus may be on immigration or President Trump’s problems, the issue facing the U.S. and underlying the next campaign is the economy.

Trump claims and gains credit for great economic success for two reasons. 

The recovery from the deep recession has peaked in the first two years of his term.  He gets credit for it, though the low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve and the Obama-era stimulus got the recovery under way well before Trump took office.

Trump also is hailed for the tax cut.  Devised by congressional Republicans, he signed it into law.  It stimulated corporate profits and the stock market.  It gave taxpayers more spending money, boosting sales and cutting unemployment to the bone.  It did not pay for itself.

Economic growth will now begin to slow.  Given its size, the American economy cannot be fine-tuned.  Sometimes it heats up too quickly, causing inflation.  Sometimes, it grows slowly or idles, causing unemployment.  The natural swings are called the “business cycle.”

It now appears that the business cycle will soon decline from its sustained growth.  Through tax policy and the Fed’s money policy, the swing could be limited.  Trump, who was a major business borrower, prefers low rates and may be pleased with the Fed as it keeps rates down to fight the slowdown.

Added to the business cycle is uncertainty, which worries businesses and markets.  When they cannot enjoy confidence in economic policy, they tend to hold back, reducing activity and investment. 

Uncertainty makes planning ahead far more difficult.  Because the stock market is supposed to forecast the future, it may slump or grasp at varying signs from day to day.

Where are we now?  Trade and immigration policies are sending signals that create uncertainty.  Tax cuts have boosted the annual federal deficit, leaving no room to deploy more of them without cutting Social Security and Medicare, which looks politically impossible.

The U.S. has real trade issues with China, so has good reason to be tough.  But Trump seems to think that any American negative balance in trade in goods must be ended, and against all countries, not only with China.  “I am a tariff man,” he says. 

Trump focuses on trade in goods, not services or investment.  He sees the value of imported goods as a sign the exporting country is winning an economic war.  He ignores any offsetting value of U.S. exports.  He likes tariffs, because they bring in federal revenues, helping to offset the deficits from tax cuts.

He overlooks the impact on American exporters who immediately face retaliation from countries whose exports must pay higher tariffs.  American farmers see their soybeans rot and manufacturers lose equipment exports when other countries retaliate against Trump’s moves.

When the president threatens even higher tariffs, he breeds uncertainty among as U.S. exporters wait to see what happens.  They worry about their losses. When they worry, investors worry, and the stock market flutters and falls.  Pensions are dependent on the market and suffer, making retirement more risky.

Add the immigration situation.  It is likely that a majority of Americans worries about excessive, illegal immigration.  Stemming all immigration is a central element of Trump’s political appeal.  To prove his seriousness, he expels long-term productive contributors to the economy as both workers and consumers.

Low unemployment is appealing, but the country is reaching the point where jobs go unfilled for a lack of workers.  Blueberries, a major Maine product, went unharvested this year without migrant workers.

Some may worry about China displacing the U.S. as the world’s largest economic power. Not only are there a lot more Chinese, but U.S. anti-immigration policy would result in a gradual decline in the American population, reducing the size of the domestic market and the ability to produce for the world market.

Dealing with this range of economic issues is complicated and difficult.  Like it or not, the U.S. is part of a world economy.  Easy political promises may have easy popular appeal, bringing cheers from the crowd, but may prove impossible to fulfill.  There is no silver bullet. 

Isaac Newton, the great British physicist, found that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  The task is to understand effects of actions.

Trump’s policy is “America First,” even if it isolates the country.  The reaction to “America First” may be economic chaos and decline.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Congress, Maine need more, better term limits

Who needs term limits?  We got them this year without a law.

Term limits are supposed to ensure turnover among elected officials, breaking the power of a few bosses and bringing in new legislators attuned to the popular will.  They don’t exist at the federal level, and the Maine version needs a truth-in-labeling review.

This year, without any formal requirement to retire members of Congress, voters produced 100 new faces in the House of Representatives and 10 new senators, where the Republicans gained seats.

The Democrats picked up 40 House seats, resulting in a shift of party control.  President Trump’s waning popularity in suburban districts gets much of the credit.  To be fair, the president’s party historically loses some House seats, when candidates lack the presidential candidate’s coattails.  But this setback was bigger than usual.

Many senior GOP House members decided not to seek reelection.  Some were obviously unhappy about life with Trump.  Others, finished being committee chairs, opted to cash in on their experience. The political rise of women, as candidates and voters, led to House-cleaning.  

The model for term limits was George Washington who gave up the presidency after two terms, though he would surely have been able to be reelected.

Washington’s precedent was the unwritten term limit for the president until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times.  That prompted a constitutional amendment limiting the president to two terms.  No other limits were adopted, even for the vice president.

The argument against term limits is that officials become experts on issues and on how government works, when they hold office longer.  Otherwise, short-termers might be open to influence by bureaucrats or lobbyists.

In practice, legislators leave the details of lawmaking to bureaucrats and are open to influence by lobbyists who contribute major funding to their campaigns.  The promised benefits of holding office for long terms appear to work better in theory than in reality. 

Political courage suffers when an official focuses on political survival.  Look at GOP Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, the two most outspoken critics of their party’s president.   They could only challenge President Trump, because they were not seeking reelection this year.

There is no chance the necessary constitutional amendment to make term limits the general rule would be adopted.  That would require the consent of the very members of Congress whose terms would be affected.

House Republicans provide a partial solution.  They limit members to six years serving as a committee leader.  Then, each must cede the seat to another Republican.  No law is required for a party to set such a rule for its own members.

One result is that, after a chair’s term ends, he or she may be reluctant to fall back into the ranks.  Instead, they often retire and take a job where they can use what they have learned in government.  Though turning government service into personal profit is less than ideal, it does ensure legislative change.

Concerns about Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader or Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican Leader could be eliminated if they were subject to similar term limits.  However experienced they are, they would be forced to allow younger people to learn about leadership.

The effort to replace Pelosi this year has fallen short.  Some new Democratic members, who do not back her, are likely to be needed to put her over the top when the full House votes in January.  Second District Rep. Jared Golden and his anti-Pelosi allies could offer their support in return for a deal on leadership term limits.

Change would also result from bringing all congressional districts down to be as close as possible to equal population.  Seats can be added by Congress itself, something it has not done for a century.  There would be roughly 100 new faces in the House.  

Today’s leaders hold on thanks to the reliable support of their long-term colleagues.  An enlarged and redistricted House could eliminate many of today’s safe seats.  With more elected officials seeking top roles, leadership limits become possible.  So, even without formal term limits, the parties can make them happen.

In Maine, a person is limited to only eight years as a House or Senate member.  But they can then jump to the other house and back again endlessly and some do.  After two terms, a governor can take a term off and run again, as Gov. LePage now threatens.  

Maine law makes a mockery of state term limits.  The voters could fix this sham.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Sen. McConnell, one-man government, wields great power

The country is torn by partisan conflict.  Many blame President Trump, but he is exploiting a split that existed before he took office.

One person deserves even more responsibility for the failure of the parties work together – Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate Majority Leader.  Winning partisan battles is his sole purpose.

As the new Congress convenes, the most important single vote Sen. Susan Collins casts will be to re-elect McConnell as the head of her party in the Senate.  One of the few GOP moderates, she has been loyal to McConnell who promised her campaign funds after her vote in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

However moderate Collins may be, she helps enable a man who has done much to block bipartisan legislation, to destroy the presidential nomination process, and to promote maximum partisanship.

Most Maine voters probably care little about McConnell’s influence and Collins’ support.  She may worry that she will get the worst Senate committee assignments if she does not back him.

“I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor,” McConnell says.  In practice, that means he can prevent the Senate from considering any bill he dislikes.  The remaining members of the GOP majority have simply ceded total control to him.

While the role of the Majority Leader is to ensure the orderly operation of the Senate, his (there’s never been a woman) powers can lend themselves to partisan or personal abuse.  McConnell is the textbook case.

The Constitution states that presidential appointments to the Supreme Court depend on the Senate’s “advice and consent.”  It can approve or disapprove the nominee.  But McConnell has positioned it to do neither, in effect evading its constitutional responsibility.

When a vacancy occurred more than a year before the end of President Obama’s term, he appointed Merrick Garland, a distinguished federal appeals judge, to fill the vacancy.  Garland is a moderate, and McConnell found him insufficiently conservative. 

He gambled that the next president would be a Republican who would name a conservative.  To make that possible and to avoid any negative reaction to his denying the position to an obviously qualified nominee, McConnell simply blocked senators’ contacts with Garland and prevented a hearing on the nomination.

McConnell departed from obvious constitutional intent and removed the power of appointment from the president.  Though Democrats remain resentful, McConnell got away with his power grab. 

In 2013, he did his best to torpedo a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform.  Unless almost all Republican senators would vote for it, he would oppose it.  He would support bipartisan bills only if the Democrats could not take credit for their passage.

Much the same is taking place now.  Bipartisan agreement has been reached on criminal justice reform, which he personally opposes.  He claims too little time remains this year to deal with it, despite its broad support, including from President Trump.  Once again, he sets himself up against the president, even one of his own party.

Before the Garland case, he insisted that every judicial nominee should first obtain 60 votes as the gateway to the final simple majority vote.  By invoking this rule, he blocked almost all Obama judicial appointments.  Then, the Democrats controlled the Senate and changed the rule to require a simple majority to end debate.

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid left the supermajority in place for the Supreme Court.  When McConnell took over, he applied the simple majority to Trump’s two appointees, who made it to the Court.  Ignoring his own past obstruction, McConnell blamed his change on what Reid had done.

When asked to allow a bill protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller from any White House move to end his investigation into the 2016 elections, McConnell said there was no need for it.  He claims Trump would not end the inquiry, despite the president’s constant criticism.

People elect senators in the belief that each, with the same vote, carries equal weight.  Yet the senators automatically turn over some of their most critical powers to a single person.  That might have promoted efficiency, but excessive efficiency is the enemy of intentionally disorderly democracy.

McConnell’s control relies on party loyalty, as did Reid’s.  He acts like a military officer, keeping his troops in line.  The will of voters or even of the senators themselves is lost. 

Public office is no longer a public trust.  In the Senate, it’s all about trusting McConnell.

Senators are unwilling to stand up to McConnell’s arbitrary rule.  Mainers may wish that Collins would take that risk. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Conservative judges not turning out to be partisan

President Trump is making the federal courts conservative.  The effect could last for several decades.

With the flood of his judicial appointments approved by the Senate and capped by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, this view is widely accepted and feared by alarmed opponents.  For them, a “conservative” court means judges sustaining Trump’s partisan views.

But there is a problem with this potentially inflated fear.  There is a difference between “conservative” and “partisan.”  This week, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rebuked Trump for claiming that a judge and an appeals court are partisan.

Last week, two federal courts – U.S. District Courts with judges appointed by Trump and confirmed by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate – showed that the panic may be exaggerated.

A federal judge in Bangor ruled that GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin had not made the case that ranked choice voting is unconstitutional.  The decision effectively meant that Democrat Jared Golden would take Poliquin’s House seat.  The ruling was grounded in law and was neither partisan nor conservative.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. ruled that Trump could not simply toss a CNN reporter out of the White House, even if he asked obnoxious questions.  The reporter was entitled to due process before losing his entry badge.  The president could not discriminate among reporters, once newspersons had been given access.

Both judges made their decisions based on the Constitution, not in favor of the president and party who had placed them on the bench.

The concern about a conservative court focuses on a handful of critically important issues that the court has already decided – abortion, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act, and state voter control of congressional redistricting.  Will the new judges reverse these decisions?

A lower federal court, no matter how conservative the judges, cannot reverse a standing Supreme Court decision.  Only the Supreme Court or, in many cases, Congress can do that.

Clearly, a good argument can be made for Congress to legislate and not leave it up to the Supreme Court, as it did with abortion.  But experience shows the Supreme Court, even with an ideological majority one way or the other, can produce surprising decisions.

The Affordable Care Act was not overturned when Roberts voted to approve it, contrary to expectations.  The two Trump appointees to the Supreme Court may not vote as expected or exactly the same.  It is early in their tenure, but their records show they can think for themselves.

Much depends on how a case gets to the federal courts.  In the past, conservative state attorneys-general brought cases attacking Obama policies.  They raised issues that the federal courts were forced to address.

Now, the tables have turned.  Liberal state AGs are launching cases against Trump policies and have begun to achieve success.  In effect, they are forcing federal courts to address their concerns.

The vast majority of cases coming before the federal courts do not lend themselves to a conservative-liberal split.  Some are technical and have limited scope.  But others deal with interpreting the laws, not constitutional questions.

If there is an ongoing ideological split among Supreme Court justices, it may be about the extent of federal powers.  Congress could settle most such questions by making the decisions itself.

Kavanaugh previously served on the same court as Merrick Garland.  President Obama had nominated Garland to the Supreme Court, but McConnell made sure he was denied any hearing by the GOP Senate.  On the same Appeals Court, Kavanaugh and Garland agreed more than 90 percent of the time.

Their agreement showed, above all, that most issues do not rise to the level of ideological controversy.  Republicans used their agreement to show that Kavanaugh was not a dangerous conservative, though McConnell apparently found that Garland was a dangerous liberal.

Blame for the concerns about the ideological split on the Court belongs to McConnell.  For him, judicial confirmations are partisan issues, even if the justices do not see themselves as partisan.  McConnell bears major responsibility for the Senate’s deep political divide.

Trump wants to make sure he pleases conservatives with his judicial appointments.  Whatever his partisan views, he ends up installing qualified judges. 

The Federalist Society, a serious, conservative group, suggested Kavanaugh, who was also found to be “well qualified” by the politically neutral American Bar Association.  Relying on it, Trump has produced more competent judicial nominees than earlier GOP presidents, including Richard Nixon and both Bushes.

Before assuming the worst about the new appointees, critics should probably be as fair-minded as they want judges to be.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Spoilers undermining elections; Maine becomes especially vulnerable

Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thought a lot about elections. 

A mathematician as well as a writer, he disliked plurality elections.  The candidate winning the most votes, but less than a majority, would have been rejected by most voters.  That could happen with three candidates or more.  Carroll, the penname of Charles Dodgson, failed to come up with a good solution.

Plurality elections produce minority winners.  The candidate finishing after the top two may be a “spoiler.”  Without races limited to two candidates, spoilers are inevitable.

A spoiler ruins the smooth running of elections, because that candidate may distort the will of the voters.  Why are there spoilers, people who have no realistic chance of winning but must understand they can affect the outcome?

Some spoilers are shams, and run to support one candidate by drawing votes away from another.  Some run to gain a wider audience for their views, even hoping their showing might lead to a new party.  Some seem to think that lightning will strike, and voters will suddenly rush toward them.

Here’s an example of the spoiler effect.  In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president as an independent, appealing to Republican voters more than to Democrats.  He drew so many votes from President George H.W. Bush in Maine that Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state and Bush, despite his Maine connections, finished third.

In 2000, Ralph Nader probably cost Al Gore the presidential election by siphoning off Gore votes in Florida and Oregon.  A classic spoiler was Eliot Cutler in the 2014 Maine governor’s race, who reneged on his promise to drop out if he trailed. 

This year, Alan Caron, independent candidate for governor, made the same promise and, in a classy move, kept it.  So did the potential spoiler in Arizona’s U.S. Senate contest.

Voters could see the possible impact of spoilers all across the country.  Maine is gaining the national spotlight, because it alone uses ranked choice voting to determine the winner in federal elections. 

Ranked choice voting has been called instant runoff voting, because second choice votes for a first round loser may be instantly reassigned to other candidates.  It lacks the second campaign that accompanies a real runoff.  Depending on your viewpoint, it either enshrines spoilers or neutralizes them.   

Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist, last week told the world about the Maine, writing, “Why didn’t anybody think of this before?”  Second District GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin, afraid of losing his seat thanks to ranked choice voting, launched a federal court challenge to it. 

The combined effect of Poliquin’s challenge and Collins’ column may bring the system onto the national stage.

In 2011, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco tipped its hat to Carroll and provided an excellent analysis of plurality, run-offs and ranked choice elections.  Each had defects.  Were ranked choice voting issues great enough to endanger the constitutional rights of voters?

If there were big problems, the Court said it would apply “strict scrutiny,” meaning it would have to order less harmful ways of accomplishing the same purpose.  But if the possible harm was relatively small, the Court need not go that far. 

While not weighing the relative effect of various election systems, the Appeals Court, the highest court yet to consider ranked choice voting, found any harm was small, meaning the new system could be used.  Poliquin’s appeal challenged this conclusion.

The Appeals Court’s impartial analysis of the system was thorough.  This week, the U.S. District Court denied Poliquin’s bid to stop the law.  A final federal court decision, if it sustains earlier findings, could lead to broader national adoption of ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting would not eliminate hopeful spoilers.  Unless the requirements for entering the race are raised, it might even encourage them.  This year, a nonresident ran third in the Second District election, needing only 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot.  Meanwhile, the in-district Democrat had to win a costly primary.

Major-party candidates mostly ignore potential spoilers, probably fearful of drawing more attention to them.  Campaigns are so busy bashing one another that they often miss the possible effect of also-rans.

Candidates should campaign more openly on the potential effect of spoilers.  Ignoring them hasn’t worked.  States should make it tougher for potential spoilers to run, because the process is now biased in their favor.  States might also consider adopting runoffs.

Carroll was wise.  He knew elections are not a whimsical wonderland, but a real battleground where the rules of political war can determine winners.  

Friday, November 9, 2018

Dems boost their 2020 outlook, but Trump owns GOP

Whatever else that can be said about the 2018 elections, they are a picnic for pundits.

They can find anything they want in the results.  Trump won or he lost.  There was no “blue wave” or the Democrats scored big gains in the House and governor’s seats.  The president has gained a Democratic House to target in campaign attacks or the Democrats now have the votes to impeach him.

Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is, as always, a matter of how one views it.  For many voters enough is enough, and they are ready to shift their focus to the holidays, their families and football.

Still, beyond the short-term effects, the elections may have provided some important markers about how politics in America is changing.

If people believed that the 2016 Trump election was a fluke, they have been corrected.  The make-up of the congressional GOP shows that the party belongs to him.  Traditional Republicans have lost control.  His hold on the Senate means he can worry less about moderates like Sen. Susan Collins.

In effect, the Republican Party has become more clearly conservative.  For Trump, it is a matter of “my way or the highway.”  It is time to stop talking about the Trump “base.”  He owns the GOP.

As for the House, Trump can see it as a normal midterm shift away from the party of the president and not as a swift rejection of his brand of politics.  If he is right, it may result from the fact that he never enjoyed majority popular support.

In 2016, he won 2.9 million votes less than Hillary Clinton, but her majority was so concentrated that he picked up the win in electoral votes.  It is possible this year that a popular majority voted for Democratic candidates, and, lacking the electoral vote effect, their party gained the House.

It is certain that Trump is running in 2020.  The question for the GOP is whether an anti-Trumper, like outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich or retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake can muster enough support to take a run at him in the Republican primaries.

Beyond the question of whether the elections were a referendum on Trump, they shed more light on how the political world is changing.

The Census classifies all municipalities as urban or non-urban.  The country is becoming more urban, and the election showed that the Democratic-Republican split is becoming even more clearly an urban-rural divide.

In Maine, the First District House contest, easily won by the Democratic incumbent, was much less heated than the Second District battle, where a GOP incumbent was challenged.  Yet it looks like the more urban First will have cast more ballots than were counted in the rural Second.

More women and minorities ran and, it is likely more of them voted, along with added young people.  They tilted toward the Democrats.  As they become an increasing share of the electorate, that could reduce the long-term prospects for the GOP.

The strong runs of an African-American woman for governor in Georgia and a Democrat for the Senate in Texas, both unimaginable a few years ago, are signs of dramatic demographic and political change in the Republican heartland.

While these changes may look promising for Democrats, the future is not guaranteed to belong to them.

The GOP majority in the Senate has increased if for no other reason than most seats in the elections were held by Democrats.  That flips in 2020, when many GOP seats are up.

Trump and the Senate majority have the power to reshape the federal courts during the next two years.  The Democrats cannot stop them.  Their only hope, however unlikely, would be to trade House support for GOP policies for some neutral judicial appointments.

The Democrats must also better define themselves in the face of a clearly Trump GOP.  Will they be seen as the progressive counterforce to Trump or as centrists?

While the Democratic Party has historically been able to accommodate a wide range of political views, the candidate it selects in 2020 will have to send a message on how the party should be seen.  Trump has shown that the candidate defines the party and not the reverse.

As for issues, the economy can be expected to dominate. The boom will end.  The government tax cut stimulus has been financed by debt.  Not only will the economy slow, but the bill will come due.

The pundits say the next election campaign has begun, but so perhaps has the next political era.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Washington, the president we need; Trump, the president we have

Each year, on his statutory birthday, this column pays tribute to George Washington.  Now, in light of the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at worship and the role of President Trump in creating the atmosphere for such actions, it joins with others across the country in recalling one of his writings.

Rhode Island, fearful that is small size would lead to its being run over by the other states, refused to ratify the Constitution.  When President Washington toured the entire country, he intentionally skipped Rhode Island.  Only after the other states threatened a trade embargo did Rhode Island, by the narrowest of votes, ratify.

Washington then decided he must visit Rhode Island.  He traveled by boat from New York, then the capital city, to Newport, Rhode Island.  When he stepped off the boat, he was greeted by members of the Jewish congregation there, happy to be part of the United States and honored by the arrival of the president.

The president was an exceptional man.  He had refused any offer of a royal title in the new country, even declining to be called “Your Excellency.”  A Virginian, he would order that his slaves would be freed at his death, and they were freed more than 60 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.  

He sought to be president of all Americans, though he faced opposition from Thomas Jefferson and his new political party.  Among the ranks of the Americans fighting the British, he included Roman Catholics and Jews, though both were the objects of discrimination.

He condemned only those who would rebel against the United States.  But he did not identify himself with the country and received heated criticism.  He understood that whatever he did set the tone for the entire country and its government.

Contrast what he wrote in his letter thanking the Newport Jewish congregation with what President Trump says.  The American people need a leader who will rise above partisanship and rabble rousing, just as Washington did.

It would be easy to say that the times are different, and the president can no longer be so civilized.  But a true leader must rise above the passions of the times.  He or she must remind Americans of their faith in the goodness of their country, not stimulate and exploit their distrust of one another. 

Washington is the true American president, not Trump.  When people vote, they should keep the difference in mind.  Herewith is the letter Washington wrote to the Newport Jewish congregation.

Gentlemen: While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.  If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.  It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity.  May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.  May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington