Spy Games

It feels a bit like 1950….

Back in those panicky early Cold War days, the biggest show in town was the investigation of Alger Hiss, an American government official accused of being a highly placed spy working on behalf of the Soviet Union.  Over the past several weeks of today’s spy scare, it was revealed that a foreign policy advisor during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was placed under government surveillance due to suspicions (as yet unproven) that he was a Russian spy, a Russian woman who is here on a student visa was arrested and charged with being a spy, and a recent magazine article even explored the idea that President Trump himself is an agent of Russia.  All we need to round out the picture is an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, some sweaty new version of Senator Joseph McCarthy at its helm, grilling terrified witnesses and loudly accusing them of espionage and treason.

However, before going any further with this discussion of spies and spying, two salient facts must be acknowledged.

The first is that every nation has spied on every other nation from the dawn of civilization.  It is both prudent and smart to make every effort to peek at the inner machinations and motivations of your neighbors, who might, sad to say, not always have your best interests at heart.  Given the terrifying weaponry washing around the world today, to not spy on other nations in order to divine their decision making would be both foolhardy and irresponsible.

In addition, it is both obvious—and understandable—that American politicians are always accusing their rivals of being un-American.  Wrapping yourself in the flag to win political and—even more importantly—moral advantage is as tried and true a method of winning votes as kissing babies.  Our opposition to Russia after the end of World War II in 1945 (Who now remembers that the Soviet Union was one of our most important allies in the fight against Nazi Germany?) only added a new twist to this old ploy, and Presidents from Truman to Trump have been accused of being Russian dupes by political opponents who saw advantage in making this charge.

I am not certain the ferocity of the attacks are any worse than they used to be.  President Truman was, for example, regularly excoriated by Republicans for having “lost China” to the Communists, and Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater continually barked that President Lyndon Johnson was “soft on Communism” during his own failed campaign for the Oval Office.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the red-baiting disappeared for awhile because the Communists suddenly seemed like they wanted to become compliant capitalists, but the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, his KGB credentials flying, signaled there were limitations to the goodwill that could be bought via a McDonalds dishing out Big Macs in Moscow

 What makes today’s iteration of the Cold War political attacks so difficult to understand is that it is now the Democrats accusing the Republicans of being blind to the Russian threat.  Even as they are busily embracing “Democratic Socialism”, which sounds like some focus group phrase concocted to make Communism palatable in Cleveland, Democrats are furiously lobbing accusations of treason at President Trump for having the temerity to attempt to de-escalate superpower tensions at the Helsinki summit.  Given that only a few years ago Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and former President Clinton were best buddies with Vladimir Putin, the resurrection of this harsh and uncompromising Reagan-era “Evil Empire” rhetoric is apt to give one a bad case of whiplash.  What is not new are the old charges of treasonous intent that are on Page One of the “I’m more of a loyal American than you” handbook for demonizing your political opponents.  

None of this is, of course, connected with any tangible reality.  Many of the actions Donald Trump has taken as President have been the opposite of what any actual Russian agent would have done.  Whether he was pushing through a stupendous increase in U.S. defense spending, sending arms to Ukrainian separatists fighting for their freedom from the Russian Federation, or pushing rules of battlefield engagement in Syria that have already resulted in hundreds of Russian casualties, President Trump has been a much harsher adversary of Russia than his predecessor ever was.  

Indeed, if one flashes back to 2012 and President Obama—who was unaware that the microphone was on—timidly asking Russian President Medvedev to inform Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility to deal with difficult issues “after my election”, you have to wonder where all the Democrats and overwrought media were at that time.  Was Barack Obama colluding with Russia to swing the Presidential election in his favor?  Not surprisingly, there was no breathless inquiry regarding this question.

Of course, reality and rage do not have to necessarily coincide—what would be the fun in that?—and painting a hammer and sickle on President Trump’s back is a handy tool for escalating the anger necessary to drive Democratic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020.  Whether voters believe any of this or not is hardly the point.  The accusations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy or agentprovide a uniting issue for fractious Democrats, lend fresh legitimacy to Robert Mueller’s endless investigation, and hopefully distract voter attention from historically low unemployment and a roaring domestic economy.  Whether this will translate to Democratic electoral gains in the midterm elections and beyond is anyone’s guess, but it does not mean that we have heard the end of this discussion—and the many baseless theories it will spawn.

Advertisements

The Blame Game

Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?

I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.

I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.

I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.

As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?

If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?

If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?

If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?

Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.

If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?

I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.

Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.

Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.

Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.

However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.

A World Turned Upside Down?

There is a possibly apocryphal story that, upon surrendering to the American revolutionaries at the Battle of Yorktown, General Cornwallis instructed the British Army band to play “The World Turned Upside Down”. The situation must certainly have seemed so to the British, smugly certain of victory against the colonists, whom they deemed to be mere rabble—the “Deplorables” of their day. These farmers, laborers, and small business owners certainly must have seemed to be no match for the power and glory of the Empire at the very peak of its influence.

The world has now turned upside for a great many people who were convinced the sun would never set on the D.C. empire of ever-expanding government and regulation fueled by ever-increasing tax hikes and federal bureaucracy. Watching the sea of exceedingly sour Democratic faces during President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who still cannot seem to reconcile themselves to the new reality. This perhaps helps to explain the policies and positions now shrilly advocated by the Democratic minority that seem so at odds with both their party’s historical norms and current rhetoric.

I grew up with a Democratic Party aligned to the interests of blue collar workers. This stance obviously translated into policies that put cash into the pockets of the hard-working middle class that created so much of our nation’s prosperity through both their labor and personal spending. Although I realize the Democrats many years ago morphed into the party of Silicon Valley and Wall Street—it is no mere coincidence that Nancy Pelosi is from San Francisco and Charles Schumer is from New York—I believe their implacable opposition to the business and personal tax cuts recently enacted by the Republican Congress is spectacularly suicidal. Staking out an unyielding position against a bill that is already driving capital investments by businesses, prompting many corporations to hand out immediate cash bonuses to their employees, and reducing the federal tax bite for the vast majority of workers seems difficult to understand except as a short-sighted defense of overpaid D.C. bureaucrats instead of our tax-weary citizenry. For someone old enough to remember the Democratic Party as it used to be, this seems an upside down reality.

By the same token, it is probable that several shelves of books will someday be written to explain the Democratic somersault on the subject of illegal immigration. Democrats have somehow quickly moved from President Obama’s early vows to crack down on illegals to a current advocacy—if not outright endorsement—of sneaking into the United States and staying here. This stunning change in perspective among Democratic lawmakers is, in addition, today conjoined with a reflexive support for unabated migration from nations known to support terrorism. One has to wonder how Democrats plan to win back voters who don’t live in. . . San Francisco or New York. Watching so much of the nation’s electoral map turn Republican red two Novembers ago should have been sufficient to convince all but the most ideologically blinded to reconsider extremist immigration policies that helped put their party out of power—but it seems that upside down is the position still preferred by many Democratic loyalists.

By the same token the Democratic Party’s loud defenses of both the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, both of whom recently seem to be executing their investigative duties in manners that should raise the eyebrows of all but the most extreme partisans, also appear quite odd when put in historical context. I am old enough to remember when liberal Democrats (Is there any other kind today?) deeply distrusted the FBI and its motivations. Moreover, one need only glance back at the Clinton presidency to discern a very different attitude toward special investigations with elastic and expansive mandates.

The dead end search for Russian collusion in the 2016 election now seems to have mutated into an endless fishing expedition—accompanied by far too many self-serving and inflammatory leaks to the press—that serves to provide the unending appearance of wrongdoing in the absence of actual evidence. One need only to flashback to Kenneth Starr and his dim-witted defense of democracy, which eventually took the form of prosecuting the President of the United States for Oval Office nookie, to wonder what has snapped inside Mr. Mueller’s Democratic cheerleaders, who seem to have completely forgotten the damage done by odd investigative zealotry just a couple of decades in the past. Reality again lands bottom side up.

There is, however, one ongoing investigation in Washington that has real potential to be a political—and perhaps Constitutional—bombshell. Someday soon the Inspector General for the Department of Justice will be releasing a report regarding the FBI investigation of the Hillary Clinton email scandal—and the inexplicable assertion by former FBI Director James Comey that no federal laws were violated by either Secretary Clinton or her associates. If the Inspector General’s report were to show that the highest law enforcement officials in our nation were in fact tailoring their investigations and prosecutorial recommendations to help throw a U.S. Presidential election to one candidate over another, that would be a crisis of monumental proportions that would compel swift action to restore the integrity of our federal government.

Failing this were it to be necessary, our faith and trust in the guarantees embodied in the Constitution would be turned upside down, inside out, and shaken to the core. We cannot allow this to occur.

Why There May Not Be Any DACA Fix

Over the years I have seen a lot of wonderful foreign students pass through my classroom doors. They have been, for the most part, very hardworking and attentive. Many have spoken to me about their plans to remain in the United States after their educations were completed. Others discussed returning to their home countries and utilizing their newly acquired English language skills to start businesses or work in international trade or finance. Some were unsure of their long term plans, but they were enjoying their adventure of being a foreigner in another land in much the same way that so many generations of Americans have traveled abroad to expand their personal horizons.

We, however, have another unique class of “foreign student” here in the United States, those who were brought here as children by parents who illegally entered the United States. Some of these individuals have strong ties to their native countries; others are as American as apple pie. All are living in legal limbo, and President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy that was instituted through an executive order by President Obama has thrust the fates of these children, adolescents, and adults—not all of whom, of course, are now or ever were students—into the spotlight.

Congress is today on the hot seat to provide a legislative solution before the March deadline by which DACA will fully expire. Although it is still possible that a solution will be found, my sad prediction is that nothing will be resolved, which will force the roughly 750,000 men, women, and children impacted to eventually leave the United States. If this happens, it will not be primarily due to either heartlessness or hatred—although many will present it this way. It will instead occur because these lives will be forfeit to the political needs of those on both sides of the issue.

Donald Trump ran for President on a platform that promised to both kick out illegal immigrants and restrict the flow of legal immigrants from countries known to support terrorism. Although many of those previously covered by DACA fall into a special category that even President Trump agrees deserves some special consideration, their fate is inextricably bound to other immigration-related issues he has advocated, which include significant changes to our visa programs and construction of a border wall with Mexico. At this point in time he has little incentive to compromise on any of his campaign pledges, and the possibility that Congressional Democrats might impede the passage of a federal budget as a form of negotiating leverage, forcing a government shutdown, must make President Trump and his supporters rub their hands together with glee. Any further opportunity to weaken federal bureaucracies that have been distinctly unfriendly to his policies and programs is likely just fine with him, and Mr. Trump will certainly enjoy the opportunity to castigate Democrats for their intransigence.

Democrats will have their own problems with giving ground to smooth a compromise solution. Because a substantial portion of their most passionately supportive voter base resides in Sanctuary Cities or, under a new law that went into effect in California at the start of this year, a Sanctuary State, there will be little appetite for anything other than a total victory that immediately grants full citizenship—or an expeditious and easy path toward it. This will, however, likely block any possible deal because many in Congress—mostly Republicans but some Democrats as well—will be much more comfortable with a renewable application for residency and the right to study or work that will be, more or less, a permanent version of the short-term solution that DACA represented. Nonetheless, even a whiff of compromise with a President who is widely and wildly reviled by liberal Democrats is going to be functionally impossible because many will see the least accommodation as total surrender—and their vociferous opposition would scuttle any deal.

These are significant—and perhaps intractable—problems that will make any solution for those whose continued residency is jeopardized by the end of the DACA program very difficult to achieve. However, there is one additional twist to this issue that haunts my somewhat cynical view of professional politicians and their motivations—motivations which are sometimes quite different from those of the nation they profess to serve.

Although many are certain the Democrats will do everything possible to “save” those who might otherwise be forced to leave because they will potentially gain several hundred thousand new voters in key electoral states such as California, Texas, and New York, the cold political reality is that the Democrats might secure far greater political advantage by failing to cut a deal. People rarely are motivated by an injustice that is averted, but the level of outrage large-scale deportations would generate among key Democratic constituencies could drive stupendous increases in donations from wealthy liberal individuals and progressive groups. Given the well-documented fundraising woes of the Democratic Party since Hillary Clinton’s devastating defeat last year, this could be a perverse incentive to negotiate less ably.

Moreover, 2018 midterm Democratic electoral campaigns could focus on the need to elect more progressives in order to stop President Trump’s entire agenda, which liberals characterize as venomous toward the vulnerable, and the failure to reach a deal to protect those formerly protected by DACA could provide a useful focus for the rage of the “Resistance”, whose energy and dedication will be key factors in motivating voters. It does not take much effort to imagine the wave of outraged press conferences and tear-jerking campaign ads painting President Trump and the Republicans who support him as inhuman monsters who cruelly tear apart families and destroy innocent lives. Fundraising appeals and campaign speeches could even promise an immediate vote on impeachment if enough seats are flipped in the midterm elections, which would encourage a lot of frustrated liberals and left-of-center moderates to both donate and vote for Democratic candidates.

As much as I would like to believe a sensible and fair deal that will allow those who are hardworking and law abiding to remain can happen, I cannot help but wonder whether compromise is possible or—for some among the Democratic Party leadership who might believe they can win by losing—even all that desirable.

Pay close attention, America. The next couple of months could reveal much about the men and women leading our nation.

The Hangover

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chicago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.