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 Chago, 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.

 

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The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.

Doom and Gloom For The Democrats

Over the span of human history individuals and groups have found it advantageous to predict disaster. A sense of impending catastrophe motivates your followers, creates some temporary group cohesion, and calls into question the intelligence and motivations of those who are against you. If you can convince others that the world as we know it is about to end, the resulting crisis atmosphere also bestows enormous power to both manipulate and intimidate your opponents to reach your desired ends.

There are, however, two problems inherent in this approach. If the world doesn’t end in a reasonably short time, those who were willing to temporarily line up behind you are apt to quickly lose all faith because they think you a fool. Worse yet, if the disaster you predicted is not averted, those who put their trust in your skills and judgment will banish you from the tribe.

Now that we are finishing the seventh month of the Trump presidency, I believe we are seeing this dynamic play out—in a big way.

Watching the continuing vilification of Hillary Clinton since last November has been as transfixing as a train wreck. Her transformation from putative President-Elect to pariah has been both quick and merciless. Those who once touted her competence and celebrated her nomination are now often openly contemptuous of both her record and campaign. As comforting as the fervent belief in Russian chicanery is for many Democrats who are still shell-shocked by the election results and pining away for impeachment, the legacy of Hillary Clinton will always be that she somehow lost the election to a man who was widely considered unelectable—and embodies the repudiation of their party’s core beliefs. A fall from grace so swift and precipitous is almost without precedent in American politics.

In addition, President Trump’s dogged pursuit of his agendas on trade, immigration, healthcare, regulation, and the environment in the face of nearly universal opposition from the entrenched government bureaucracy and mainstream media has provided an instructive lesson regarding the limitations of crisis creation. Although this early phase of Trump’s administration has been an incredible uphill slog with a mix of both victories and defeats, the self-regarding Washington bubble is rapidly deflating. After all the supremely confident pre-election assurances that the changes Trump advocated would lead to instant and total catastrophe, the Democratic Party doomsayers seem stupefied. The facts that the sun still rises, jobs are being both created and reclaimed, and the lives of those outside of Washington-area zip codes are, by and large, either unaffected or improved since the Inauguration continues to erode their tattered credibility—and leaves them scrambling for a new message.

Consequently, Democrats face an existential question: If your leader has failed you and the predicted disaster has not occurred and validated your predictions, where do you go from here? This is clearly the problem that is roiling the Democratic Party at the moment—and causing a lot of doom and gloom among the Party’s faithful. Even worse, Bernie Sanders’ true believers and the stubborn remnants of the business-friendly Clinton wing are engaged in a self-destructive battle that does little to advance a coherent and compelling message—which is why no one seems to be able to understand where the Democratic Party now stands. Wistful efforts to anoint blank slate candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris are only further evidence of the ideological confusion that must be somehow crafted into a winning platform for 2018 and beyond. Winning Democratic leadership must come from the trenches—not a high-priced fundraiser in the Hamptons.

Waiting for a miracle—a pile of Russian gold in Donald Trump’s garage or a birth certificate proving that he was born in Moscow (wouldn’t that be ironic?)—is not going to save the Democratic Party. Nor is it a good idea for leadership to continually denounce all the remaining Democratic apostates who are still pro-choice, work somewhere other than a tech company, government agency, or non-profit organization, and (gasp!) sometimes meekly suggest that personal responsibility is more helpful than government handouts.

To fashion a winning coalition the Democratic Party needs new leaders who will rebuild trust that transcends party lines, offer solutions that are affordable, empower individuals rather than government or interest groups, and include rather than divide. Whether this is possible in the short term is questionable given the internecine divisions that now exist within the Party, but one can only hope that it will somehow be possible—someday soon.

Media Blunt Force Trauma

There are a great many problems facing our nation today, but I wonder how many of us notice that we rarely actually discuss them. We are instead constantly beat over the head about a single issue that is apparently so earth shattering that it is far more important than any other matter facing our nation or world today:

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

If there is not some codicil in the Geneva Convention that prohibits this, there should be. Being bombarded with a steady stream of overcooked accusations, breathless innuendo, and anonymous attacks—all of which have so far added up (using Hillary Clinton’s famous characterization) to a “nothing burger”—has been excruciating. Given that a Special Counsel has been appointed to study the question of the Trump campaign’s supposed collusion with Vladimir Putin to throw the Presidential election (although, just how, nobody has yet explained), one would hope that sane minds in our mass media would simply wait for the investigation to determine whether any laws might have been broken. However, apparently they need a steady stream of eyeballs in order to sell advertising and subscriptions. Therefore…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Of course, some of this fixation is driven by a wild hatred of President Trump that is now the most salient characterisic of the news coverage offered our major media outlets. To say that all pretense of balance and objectivity has flown out the window would be like saying that the ocean is wet—at once blindingly obvious and wholly insufficient. Certainly the idea of journalism that is free of the taint of partisanship has been more an ideal than a reality for the vast majority of our nation’s history, but rarely have we seen coverage of a political leader that is so nakedly and unremittingly one-sided. I know that politics is a rough and dirty enterprise, but the sharp elbows exhibited by the press over that past couple of years have been a real eye-opener for many, and go very far to explain the 74% of Americans who, in a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer, asserted they believe news coverage tends to favor one side over another. Of course, even this dismal lack of trust is likely the fault of…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

There are, of course, perfectly reasonable arguments to be made against many parts of the Trump agenda and its implementation. The efforts of his administration and allies in Congress to erase most of the Obama regulatory, legislative, and foreign policy legacy virtually overnight raise legitimate questions about the effects of these actions on our nation’s citizens and our standing in the world.

Unfortunately, the response of President Trump’s critics has boiled down to a single inflammatory message on most every issue: “This man is insane!” Whether we are talking about the balance between cost and patient outcomes in healthcare, implementation of environmental regulations, school choice as a mechanism for improving student achievement, oil exploration as a means to greater energy independence, temporary immigration restrictions and enforcement of existing laws, or Federal and Supreme Court nominations, reasoned debate has been buried under acid rhetoric and doomsaying. All these policy changes could be the subjects of thoughtful and cool-headed inquiry by the press and mass media—and, to be fair, there has been some excellent work done—but a recent study of broadcast news found that 55% of news stories regarding the Trump administration have focused upon…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Now we have the peculiar saga of Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian representative in the hope he could obtain some dirt on Hillary Clinton prior to last November’s election. Just to put this into context, Mr. Trump was looking for scandalous or salacious information on his father’s opponent—he wasn’t selling nuclear secrets. As described to date, the whole episode seems more Curious George than John le Carré, and those who are anxious to spin this clumsy and amateurish effort into a sinister plot to bring down our democracy might want to consider switching from Red Bull to decaf. It is possible more information could come to light that would result in a more dire interpretation of events, but that will come only after careful inquiry, sworn testimony, and thoughtful evaluation based on reality rather than supposition.

However, regardless of the actual facts of the matter, the talking heads are ready and raring to go. So, without further ado…

(whack over the head)
Russia

(Another Whack Over The Head)
Russia!

(YET ANOTHER WHACK OVER THE HEAD)
RUSSIA!

Media Malfeasance

The intensity of the reactions to the 2016 election of Donald Trump—reactions that ran the gamut from disbelief to near-psychotic breakdown—and the cultural and political schisms that these laid bare have been explained and re-explained almost to the point of absurdity.

The short answer of many in the New York-California-DC media and cultural elite seems, no matter how kindly or judiciously stated, to boil down to this: A broad swathe of uneducated and bigoted rubes who have no idea what is good for them voted with fear rather than logic and have brought America to the brink of destruction by putting an idiot much like themselves into the White House. This belief certainly explains the exceedingly undemocratic attitudes of many who, having failed to either first win the election or later convince those in the Electoral College to throw their support to Hillary Clinton, are now cheerleading a stampede toward Presidential impeachment based on anonymously-sourced or self-serving statements from those now cast from the corridors of power by the voters.

There is, of course, a chance that President Trump and his associates engaged in some sort of unbelievable wrongdoing with the Russians to help him win the election that sounds like something right out of a spy novel. However, to date, there is absolutely no evidence to support such contentions, although to some in “The Resistance” that is simply further evidence that it all must be true—this is, after all, a “secret conspiracy” to subvert America, right? Unfortunately, we yet to have someone speak on the record and under oath. Nonetheless, our vaunted news media has pretty much decided snark and innuendo equals actual information, which thrills the “Not my President” crowd but leaves everyone else wondering why rumor-mongering is being celebrated as journalistic bravery.

There is, however, something well worth examining here: the incredible contempt with which a duly-elected President—and the results of that election—are being treated. Given that Trump won the Electoral College but not the popular vote, I can understand some of the bitterness of the Democrats. Moreover, the absolute and unshakable confidence of pollsters and the media in a Clinton victory leading up to Election Day left a great many with a bad case of whiplash—and provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists who somehow needed to explain an outcome that was so wholly contrary to their expectations. Sudden and shocking events always prompt a search for villains, and the Russians have been our go-to bad guys for nearly a century—and a handy excuse for virtually any misfortune.

However, I am starting to wonder whether we are seeing something entirely different here: a snobbish and scary attack on a President and his supporters by media and political elites who find Trump and those who voted for him simply unacceptable.

The British have a lovely expression that describes this haughty attitude perfectly: An individual is simply “N.Q.O.C.” (Not Quite Our Class). Although we love to believe that America is a perfectly egalitarian nation, the echoes of this kind of elite dismissiveness could be heard back in 2008 when Barack Obama, running for his first term, derided “bitter Americans” who “cling to guns or religion”. Hillary Clinton’s later comments about Trump supporters—as “a basket of Deplorables”—sprang from the same incredulity regarding the existence of Americans who drive pick-up trucks, serve in the military, and enjoy a Big Mac and fries at lunch.

The Democrats I grew up with were back-slapping, beer-drinking, lunch bucket guys who were happy to throw an extra steak on the grill if you showed up unexpectedly at their Saturday barbecue. Today the Democrats seem to live exclusively in college towns or expensive urban zip codes with high fences or security cameras, and now it’s all Pinot Grigio, artisanal cheeses, locally-sourced vegetable kebabs, and chit-chat about their children’s summer “enrichment” activities—screw riding bikes or building a tree house.

Now think of the average writer or editor for The New York Times or Washington Post—the nexus of the “Never Trump” universe—and try to imagine them working at a Walmart, attending a Bible study group, or spending a summer digging a new septic tank. This is, of course, an exaggeration meant to make a point, but although they might write wonderfully sympathetic articles describing the economic and personal struggles of the average American, these writers and editors are living in a world far removed from the everyday concerns of those whom they derogatorily describe as “Joe Six Pack” voters—and their career trajectories will be much enhanced if they can help to put their pals back in power so that they can once again hobnob with people just like themselves.

Why do I say this?

When the history of the Trump presidency is written, I wonder whether a single decision will be recognized as the true inflection point: President Trump’s decision to not attend this year’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner—and to forbid his staff from doing so as well. This was, in the rarified world of political journalists, pretty much like being a sixteen year old girl ditched by your Prom date. Although the coverage of Trump and his policies was already resoundingly negative, it seems to me that an angry and derisive tone much like that of an enraged ex-spouse infected a great deal of the media coverage that followed. What was political suddenly became very, very personal—and any pretense of journalistic objectivity seemed to fly right out the window. The mission now seems set in stone: Drive Trump and his bitter and deplorable voters from power so that order can be restored to the universe.

So here we are now.

It seems certain that every happenstance of White House personnel and policies during the remainder of the Trump presidency will now be spun into dark plots and criminal schemes by the mainstream media. Given that prosecutors exist to prosecute, we can likewise be reasonably assured that someone will eventually be charged with something, which will be fair and appropriate if sworn evidence is provided that proves wrongdoing.

However, this seems to me tangential to what is the actual crux of the matter: We are seeing something terrifyingly akin to a media coup in progress right now, and we should be very concerned about the glee with which many now want to reverse the results of a free and fair election. The decisions of a democracy are made at the ballot box—not in the newsroom—and voters will have ample opportunity to reward or punish President Trump in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.

Unless clear evidence of criminality and collusion based on admissible evidence is found, the media should back off on the overheated and condescending coverage, stick to supportable facts, and keep in mind that elections—not sneering insinuations—are the ultimate arbiters of how our nation conducts its affairs. Failing this, I fear we are in for a rough ride that will do little other than disenfranchise many of our nation’s voters—all because a relative handful of journalists believe those voters are bigots and idiots whose voices should be silenced.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.   (Aretha Franklin said it all in one word)