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.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Democracy endangered when leaders lack “the vision thing”

When George H.W. Bush was preparing a run for president, he asked a friend to suggest key issues for his campaign.   

He understood most issues, but sought top policies to highlight. Time magazine reported that his friend advised him to take time off, “to figure out where he wanted to take the country.”

“Oh,” replied an obviously annoyed Bush, “the vision thing.”  His rejection of advice to find and state his goals for the country stuck with Bush for the rest of his career.

Like Bush, candidates prefer to focus on only a few current issues.  Often, poll results guide the campaign agenda.

A recent survey in Maine showed the top two concerns are health care and the economy.   With the oldest population of any state and increasingly restrictive state policies, health care makes sense.  And just about every politician runs promising to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.” 

Many voters might now understand that promises on these issues, as on most others in federal or state politics, likely mean little.  Presidents and governors depend heavily on Congress or the Legislature to enact the programs they promise. 

Voters still like to be pampered by promises made by candidates.   But they miss the “vision thing,” a sense of the goals the candidate would pursue. In fact, the candidate’s vision may be much more important than specific proposals.

Of course, some candidates have no vision, and are driven only by their desire to gain and hold public office.  They make promises first and excuses later. 

The situation is even worse when leaders, lacking a vision, run the government as if it was their personal property without much regard for the will or needs of the people.  That’s what seems to be happening now.

President Trump’s main policy focus is himself.  His vision often seems to be promoting himself as being superior to any of his predecessors.  He appears to be immune to his relatively low political popularity, while catering to his “base.”

He has surely convinced himself.  When asked about the possibility of being impeached, he replies that won’t happen, because he is doing such a good job.   Yet he makes few claims for his role in economic growth, because he is so focused on protecting the legitimacy of his 2016 election.

In short, Trump makes no attempt to offer a vision of the American future that might appeal to voters outside of his base.  The focus of his actions is more about appealing to what some people dislike, especially immigration, than about where he seeks to lead the country.

In Maine, Gov. LePage seems to believe that his personal opinion ought to prevail over the popular will.  Even after the voters themselves express a vision for their state on issues like health care or the minimum wage, he acts as if his position as governor allows him to ignore the people.

The voters and a majority of the Legislature decided they want Medicaid to cover more people.  That’s their vision of health care policy.  But LePage, who disagrees, believes that he alone is right on this issue.  Courts had to force him to obey what the voters decided. 

LePage’s attitude not only skips the “vision thing,” but reverses it.  In a system based on rule by and for the people, he substitutes his own opinion, damaging the foundation of the system itself.

The extent of both Trump’s and LePage’s failure to provide a broad vision with wide appeal is shown by their use of hostile and divisive language even against members of their own party.  “I am the state,” they seem to say.  Their vision extends no further than themselves.

That happens elsewhere as well, with negative and predictable consequences.  Victor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, opposes a democratic system open and fair to all.  He rejects the principles of the new Europe, but willingly takes EU financial aid.

At the European Parliament, he was surprised to be censured last week by an overwhelming vote that included even his conservative political allies.  Unlike many of Trump’s Republicans, his friends were willing to stand up to him.

Trump and LePage are not models for candidates who would look beyond themselves to the long-term needs of the nation and state.  Candidates’ proposals could fit within a sensible and consistent view of the political future. 
In this year’s campaign, federal and state candidates should share their vision for the governments they would lead.  Offering the “vision thing” beats leaving the campaign to the half-truths and negativism of 30-second television spots.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Kavanaugh hearings show Congress shifts lawmaking power to Court

Forget your high school civics class, the one where they taught you how laws are made. It wasn’t true.

Here’s the truth. Congress sometimes manages to pass broad laws, leaving it up to the experts -- regulators or administrators -- to fill in the details that apply to people.  While rulemaking, they’re under heavy pressure from lobbyists, who remain invisible to the public.

After the rules are adopted, opponents to the law or rules take their arguments to court.  They may claim the law is unconstitutional or the rules are not in line with the law.  Judges then say what the law is.

The centerpiece of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, was if he would provide the decisive vote to overturn the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.  It had ruled that a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion was part of her right to privacy, protected from government interference.

In effect, the Court, not the Congress, has become the branch of government that determines the fate of Roe and it may do so by as little as a single vote. The original decision was based on an appeal from a Texas ruling, not from a law passed by Congress.  In short, the Court became the only federal lawmaker on abortion.

During the hearings, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, gave the Senate Judiciary Committee a little civics lecture, dealing with this point.  What he said was important.  It has been viewed by more than a million people via YouTube.  His four points are worth the attention.

First, he said, “In our system, the legislative branch is supposed to be the center of our politics.”

Second, he said, “It’s not.”

Third, “...when we don’t do a lot of the big actual political debating here, we transfer it to the Supreme Court.”

Fourth, “...we badly need to restore the proper duties and the balance of power from our constitutional system.”

In effect, he suggested that, while the legislative, executive and judicial branches are meant to be equal, the Constitution’s drafters placed Congress in Article I, because that is where policy is supposed to be made.  Protesters should not be at the Supreme Court, but at the Capitol.

Sasse found the failure of Congress to do its job went back to the 1930s, when it shifted much responsibility to administrators, those infamous “bureaucrats.” 

But he admitted there’s more than that. He said to his fellow senators, “... if your biggest long-term thought around here is about your own incumbency, then actually giving away your power is pretty good strategy.”

It takes courage – accepting the risk of losing reelection – to vote for controversial legislation. It’s this aversion to political risk that leads legislators to shift power to administrators, with the last word going to “super-legislators,” the nine Supreme Court justices.

If Congress did its job, hearings on Court nominees would focus less on how a judge would legislate and more on a person’s “temperament and character” and on their ability to keep their personal views out of decision-making.

Sasse’s speech was an outstanding exercise in American idealism.  There are a few reasons why it’s not likely to happen.

Even he admitted that Congress cannot master the details of all legislation and must leave some to experts.  The question is how far that goes, and some Democrats seem to believe much must be left to unelected experts. 

Perhaps laws should be both more specific and broader in scope.  The intent would be to transfer less authority to administrators and less power to lobbyists. Just look at the tax code. It’s far less complex than the bewildering IRS rules.

Court decisions have always dealt with policy, and judging is not merely a question of following the law. The Court makes law.  In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Court ruled that black people were not really people at all.  That decision was pure politics, a hugely misguided attempt to forestall war.

The inability to compromise blocks Congress from making needed policy decisions.  An immigration policy that was nearing bipartisan agreement has died on the altar of the Mexican border wall.  Trade policy, clearly a congressional power, is left to a president who never saw a tariff he didn’t like.

In the end, if Sasse’s view is to prevail, it depends on voters focusing more on the “temperament and character” of congressional and presidential candidates and their political orientation than on the ill-advised pledges they make to get elected and then can’t or shouldn’t keep.

Friday, September 7, 2018

McCain fought Trump, but president’s base remains unmoved

Sen. John McCain's funeral was the occasion for praising his dedication to friendship and fair play. 

The words of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Meghan McCain, his daughter, were all telegraphed criticisms of Donald Trump's rough handling of his self-designated adversaries both at home and abroad.

But the words they spoke or even election results in November unfavorable to Trump will not change underlying divisions among the American people that have been brought to the fore by Trump's election and his demeanor.

Trump's style may leave much to be desired.  He shoots from the lip and never admits error.  Faced with McCain's political opposition, he lashed out, saying that McCain was not an American hero.   When criticized, he doubled down and claimed that he, the almost certain draft dodger, did not regard a POW as a hero.

It is hard to believe that there is any American who does not believe that McCain performed heroically.  A  POW for more than five years, he was tortured and rejected early release, knowing it would serve as propaganda.  He had accepted an extra and especially risky mission.  This was a hero.

Trump has readily attacked both Democrats and Republicans.  He has scorned America's oldest allies.  He shows little concern about the reaction from people whose help and support he and his country may later need.  He seems to trust nobody outside of his family and perhaps a few friends.

McCain saw Trump's attitude and actions as a departure from American values of patriotism, cooperation, and compromise. He feared the U.S. was disintegrating politically and losing its leadership role in the world. 

McCain, Bush and Obama held Trump responsible for the loss of American power and influence.  But they may have missed the fact that Trump represents a significant segment of the American public.   His supporters may share some concern about his tweets, but they appreciate both what he does and what he represents.

It is easy to dismiss Trump's “base,” but it is real, and it is not going away.

Some of his supporters see Trump as the embodiment of the rejection of demographic change in the country.  Obama's election was a clear indicator that the racial composition of the country is changing.  In a few decades, the American majority will no longer be white.

Trump's opposition to immigration sends the message that this demographic trend can be slowed, if not halted.  If the new demographics worry a person, supporting Trump makes sense.

Trump promised change, and he obviously tries to keep his promises.  Some people expected he would abandon some of his promises when he discovered they were incorrect or based on false assumptions.  But he has spurned the experts, whom he saw as producing too few useful results, and kept his promises.

Suppose NAFTA is modified.  Suppose China backs down on some of its trade policies.  Suppose the economy continues to grow thanks in part to tax cuts and deregulation.  Trump will take full credit and many people will understand too few of the details to question his claims.

If these voters are satisfied by his moves and their results, they may believe his rough treatment of others and his knee-jerk tweeting have been justified.  He may be a bully, but he's our bully.  The base would remain loyal, and McCain's call for American values could be ignored.  It will be a case where the end justifies the means.

Trump worries most about being seen to have won his election with Russian help.  He need not to have colluded, but still find himself and the legitimacy of his election challenged.  The facts may lead as far as a serious impeachment attempt, but almost certainly he would survive as president.

In the end, the key question may be whether his base believes he is a political victim, like Clinton or a real scoundrel, like Nixon. But most Republicans back him if for nothing more than party loyalty.  They see the media as biased, not their president as dishonest.  

McCain believed that Americans could be called back to their values from their flirtation with Trump. However much he deserves respect, he may be proved to have been unduly optimistic.

Trump's most ardent supporters hated McCain. One of them tweeted a threat to the life of Meghan, simply because she took her father's side against the president.

The challenge to holding the country together may be far more difficult that McCain's call for unity and to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”