This is the fourth installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don't fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to "claim the center" is a mistake. In Part Three I talked about how, contrary to popular belief, a clear majority of the electorate identifies as economically liberal. Today I talk about how even voters in a Republican-leaning district hunger for a candidate who will advocate for a populist economic agenda.
If OH-12 is so damned conservative, why is Pat Tiberi quitting?
Tiberi was a junior congressman in a somewhat different 12th District before it was gerrymandered to its current configuration. Both Tiberi's seniority and the Republicans' safety in OH-12 was better-established by 2009, but that's when Obama took office, providing a sure-thing veto over the boldest aspects of the Republican agenda. Finally, in early 2017, Tiberi (a) was firmly established as an important lieutenant to House Speaker Paul Ryan; (b) had a district which was seemingly tailor made for his electoral safety; and (c) had a Republican president in the White House, ensuring that his legislative agenda would be carried out.
Nine months later, he announced he was quitting, reportedly disillusioned with the job, having passed no substantive laws despite his party controlling the government completely.
Tiberi hasn't talked about his decision to quit in any detail, but it's not hard to guess that he was feeling the heat. The ACA repeal he was supposed to quarterback was a disaster. The currently pending tax plan may pass -- I suspect it will -- but it's wildly unpopular with almost every constituency outside of the super rich and the donor class. Thanks to the bills he has championed and his unwillingness to defend his positions to his constituents, Tiberi has been beaten up from every direction in his own, once-loyal district. I suspect he knows that it would've been tough to run on that record in 2018, even in his safe district. He is exhausted, he has never had a tough election, I suspect he's a little scared, and he got out while the getting was good.
In theory, none of this should be happening. I strongly suspect that the reason it is happening is because, in practice, there is no real constituency for Tiberi's agenda or the agenda of congressional Republicans and once voters finally get a chance to see it up close, they'll beat the hell out of the people who advocate for it.
People like Pat Tiberi personally. He seems like a nice guy. They may identify with the Republican party for various reasons, personal and historical. They may, in the abstract, like to hear talk about about fiscal responsibility and ending government waste. There is no majority, however, that supports cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing government programs and services which benefit the poor and middle class and claiming, contrary to nearly 40 years of objective evidence, that doing so will make life better for everyone. Once that finally became a possibility in January 2017, the nation -- and OH-12 -- got angry.
It's not just lefties like me who find a soak-the-poor-to-help-the-rich agenda repugnant. Most people who vote Republican do too. Indeed, just last year they nominated and elected a man president who they believed would fight that agenda. His name was Donald Trump.
Given how strongly Trump has gotten behind the agenda of Congressional Republicans in 2017, it's easy to forget it, but in 2015 and 2016 Trump ran against the current Republican economic orthodoxy. He ran against a bunch of Pat Tiberi types in the Republican primary and cleaned their clocks. Guys like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who share Tiberi's Congressional agenda. Guys like Bobby Jindal, who actually implemented the conservative economic agenda as governor of Louisiana, which led to fiscal and civic ruin. Candidate Trump, at one time or another, opposed nearly every plank in the current Republican economic agenda. He gained a strong and fervent following in doing so.
This didn't happen because he's charming -- Trump is repugnant in every conceivable way -- but because America has no interest in the agenda of congressional Republicans. Because he delivered a populist economic message about rebuilding and investing in America and in aiding the middle and lower classes who have taken it on the chin for a good thirty or forty years. One could argue that no one has spoken so directly and so effectively to the poor, the middle class and those who have been left behind by the modern economy in 50 or maybe even 80 years.
Now, to be sure, I don't think Trump believed that message himself. He cares nothing about anyone but Donald Trump. I don't believe he either wants to or that he is able to deliver on that message. His first year in office has shown that to him those were just words and that all he really cares about is looking good and getting "wins" in whatever way he can. But that populist message is what he ran and and it is what voters responded to. It's understandable that they did.
Outside of conservative think tanks, Wall Street investment banks, corporate C-suites, and a narrow class of ultra-wealthy people and political donors, there is no popular support in this country for slashing the taxes of millionaires and taking services away from the poor and middle class. None. People don't want it. When they saw it in the from of the AHCA, they recoiled. When they saw it in the form of the Republican tax plan they recoiled almost as strongly, to the point where some congressmen have been forced to explain that they're pushing this agenda for the sake of the donor class, not their constituents.
Americans do not want to giveaways to the wealthy, they want investments in the country and in its people. They know that government is often inefficient and wasteful, but they do not consider it their mortal enemy and do not want representatives who have no ideas apart from starving it and the people it serves. They heard Donald Trump say that he'd protect Medicare and Social Security and that he'd make sure they got good health care. They heard him say that he'd rebuild America's infrastructure and put people back to work. They believed him and supported him as a result.
Donald Trump gave lip service to helping ordinary Americans, but has no idea how to make that happen. Pat Tiberi, the rest of the Republicans in Congress and, almost certainly, the Republicans who run to fill Pat Tiberi's seat next year, don't give a lick about these things. They don't have a single policy proposal or talking point that even hints at helping ordinary Americans and there is nothing in their agenda that suggests that they'll try.
But people hunger for it. Not just liberals in Democratic neighborhoods, but people in Mansfield, Johnstown and Zanesville. Working people and farmers in Morrow County, Licking County and Muskingum County who once had stable employment or government support but don't any longer because Pat Tiberi and his buddies decided that millionaires needed more help than they did. People who believed Trump when he said that he'd help them. People who, for various reasons, voted Republican before but who have learned in the past year that Republicans are hostile to their interests.
This is not mere rhetoric. Data is being gathered that reflects this hunger for someone -- anyone -- to deliver on the promises Donald Trump falsely made.
Earlier this month pollsters Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz wrote a memo, based on polling data, concluding that successful candidates in 2018 and beyond "must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits." They said that voters are in search of a "clear, populist platform" in which candidates position themselves as credible opponents to the far-right agendas of congressional Republicans and President Trump. They found that voters want someone to show that they are not doing the bidding of lobbyists and corporate insiders. That they want representatives who "know what it's like to live a day in [their] shoes" and that they are willing to fight "for the right kind of change."
Donald Trump waved at this sort of message disingenuously and actually received a great deal of support as a result. Other Republicans have never offered this message and Pat Tiberi's would-be Republican replacements in OH-12 will almost certainly not offer it next year. It's a message that, once upon a time, Democrats offered but which they have neglected for over 25 years because they have been afraid of being painted as fiscally irresponsible or because they have come to enjoy the attention they have received from Wall Street, the tech sector and other moneyed constituencies.
It's a message that may alienate some CEOs and bank presidents in New Albany and Dublin, but which will resonate strongly with the masses of people in OH-12 who do not support Republicans' full frontal assault on Medicare, Medicaid and other public programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class in order to give those CEOs and bank presidents tax cuts. It's also a message that, per Greenberg and Zdunkewicz, will likely motivate those who do not typically turn out for midterm elections to make a point to do so, which will undoubtedly favor the candidate giving voice to that message.
It's a message a Democrat who believes in such things can and should run with in OH-12 next year. It's one that can, in a wave election, put that candidate over the top, even in a district Pat Tiberi won with 66% of the vote a year ago.
In our next installment I'll walk through various policy positions to demonstrate just how easy it can be for a candidate to run on populist, economically liberal positions in a way that appeals to voters in even conservative districts like OH-12.
This is the third installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don't fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to "claim the center" is a mistake. In this installment I talk about where, if not the center, a Democratic candidate wishing to win Ohio's 12th Congressional district should go.
In the last installment I talked about how voters' position on the political spectrum varies by issue. Rather than be uniformly conservative or uniformly liberal, people tend to have preferences which defy a clean left-right categorization and which render the idea of a candidate trying to split the difference between the left and the right ineffectual.
This is not to say, however, that there are not clear, predictable patterns of where people fall on the issues. It merely means that you have to look at more than just the standard old left-right ideological dimension and look past how people, broadly speaking define themselves politically.
In the wake of the 2016 election, a lot of people have taken a look at voters, trying to break down their preferences across multiple dimensions. One study that has gotten a lot of play is by political scientist Lee Drutman. His study looked at 12 issue dimensions, ranging from the economy to faith in government to moral issues to racial issues to foreign policy and a host of others. Drutman's findings on all of those things are interesting, but we need not concern ourselves with a dozen varying issues at the moment. There was, however, a broad takeaway that Democratic candidates -- especially ones in Republican-leaning districts -- should take to heart:
Nearly three-quarters of the electorate is economically liberal.
Yes, in the year that Donald Trump won the presidency and Republicans retained their hold on Congress, 73.5% of all voters espoused broadly liberal views on economic policy, which include protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, seeing to it that Americans have access to quality health care and addressing things like the repair and replacement of our nation's infrastructure. They're likewise, quite surprisingly, happy to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to accomplish these goals. Meanwhile, only 26.5% of voters identified as economic conservatives.
If three-quarters of voters identify as economically liberal, how did Trump win? In two ways, really. He (a) delivered a shockingly popular anti-immigration, socially conservative message while; (b) espousing some markedly liberal economic views.
Item (a) tapped into the other large political divide Drutman identified apart from the economic divide: social conservatives -- including those who responded favorably to Trump's anti-immigration messaging -- totaled 51.6% of the electorate while those identifying as social liberals totaled 48.4%. Trump galvanized the former group with a nakedly nativist and at times xenophobic platform that either appealed to their prejudices or exploited their fears. He married this message -- though cynically and disingenuously -- to economic messages, saying, explicitly or implicitly, that by keeping immigrants out he'd save jobs and ensure that government benefits went to Americans, not foreigners. Included in this appeal were promises of restoring jobs and reviving industries thought lost and committing America to big public works projects, the sorts of which unreconstructed New Deal liberals once promised.
Those socially conservative attitudes exploited by Trump aren't going away. There has always been and will remains a subset of voter who will, above all else, vote their values or their prejudices first and foremost. An appeal to these voters alone, however, has rarely if ever been sufficient for a candidate to carry the day. It was made possible last year, though, by the sheer shamelessness of Trump's appeals to prejudice and bigotry AND his willingness to evoke economically liberal talking points and hint at economically liberal programs which resonated particularly loudly in blue collar areas in the Midwest.
The circumstances which allowed Trump to thread that needle -- mobilizing social conservatives while bringing along just enough economic liberals to carry the day -- will not exist in OH-12 in 2018. This is partially because Trump's anti-immigrant, socially conservative appeals did not, on balance, motivate OH-12 voters nearly as much it motivated voters elsewhere (remember, Trump performed worse in OH-12 than Republicans usually do). This is mostly due, however, to Trump's own doing and the doing of Congressional Republicans, who are in the process of alienating huge swaths of the electorate with policies that are utterly hostile to their interests.
Republicans are now committed to a massively unpopular fiscal and economic agenda which no one, apart from the wealthy donor class, much cares for. They attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and failed miserably due to a public uproar that took them completely off guard. They are now in the process of trying to pass a tax bill that benefits only the very wealthy and promises to, at best, do nothing for the middle class and the poor but which will likely lead to future cuts in benefits and services upon which they rely. These policies, if enacted, will result in a radical reduction in their own voters’ standard of living to the benefit of a tiny, elite class of wealthy donors and corporations.
This is not just me editorializing, however. It's the sentiment currently held by the voters themselves, including large numbers of Republican voters. And it's a sentiment that is intensifying by the day.
One poll released in the past week shows that only 16 percent of Americans believe the tax plan will lower their taxes, while 59 percent say the plan will favor the wealthy over the middle class. Another found that 78 percent of Americans — including roughly 70 percent of Republicans — don’t believe that a corporate tax cuts will result in any benefit to them. These results do not yet capture sentiment in response to yesterday's CBO analysis which shows that the tax bill, as currently constructed, will require $25 billion in cuts to Medicare next year alone. When that sentiment is captured rest assured that displeasure with the Republican agenda will be even greater. As a result of all of this, Republicans are faring horrendously in the polls. So bad, in fact, that it appears as though an unprecedented anti-Republican wave is forming.
To win OH-12 in 2018, a Democrat must be positioned to ride that wave. To be positioned to ride that wave, he or she must understand the manner in which that wave is breaking. Economically speaking it's breaking left, not right. The wave favors someone willing to take a strong stance in opposition to the current Republican agenda and a strong stance in favor of liberal economic policies which remain massively popular. It takes someone willing to buck the old conventional wisdom about left-center-right politics and to eschew decades of punditry which suggests that a Democrat must track toward the center or espouse economically conservative sentiments in order to appeal to the broader electorate.
To win in OH-12, a Democrat must seek to polarize the electorate around issues of economics in the same way Trump polarized the electorate on social issues in 2016. Rather than employ bigotry to frighten them with the specter of immigrants taking their jobs, a Democrat must merely note, in plain terms, that Republicans are hellbent on taking their prosperity and handing it over to wealthy donors and corporate interests. Such a message, by the way, has the benefit of being true and is something voters already overwhelmingly understand.
Then, a Democrat who wishes to win OH-12 must argue, forcefully, that he or she will not allow that to happen and must articulate a better way to approach things.
In the coming installments, I'll talk about how best to articulate this message.
In my first installment in this series, I explained how a candidate must run for something, not against something and, as such, a candidate wishing to win OH-12 must not turn his or her campaign into a referendum on Donald Trump.
This does not mean, however, that one should worry about upsetting Trump supporters or that one should strive to carve out some sort of middle ground in the name of a centrist campaign that seeks not to offend Republicans in a Republican-leaning district. It certainly does not mean taking for granted those voters who comprise a Democrat's motivated liberal and progressive base while pivoting to the center in an effort to woo moderates and conservatives. Indeed, to the extent anyone thinks that's a good idea, they think so because they're trapped in a political mindset addled by old, mistaken assumptions about the ideological nature of most voters.
There's a conventional political wisdom that holds that the electorate is divided evenly, between staunch liberals and staunch conservatives, with a mass of moderate swing voters in the middle. Based on that, there's a belief that the more a candidate can move his or her platform in the direction of his opposition without alienating his or her core base of support, the better his or her chances of capturing the center, and with it, the election.
This framing has informed Democratic campaigns for over 25 years. It is the reason why, since the early 1990s, Democrats have worked hard to portray themselves as pro-business, pro-war, tough-on-crime, pragmatists while downplaying their populist and humanitarian tendencies. Democrats have come to believe, based on the example of Bill Clinton and his acolytes, that pivoting to the center will allow them to grab the bulk of those centrist voters -- which they believe to be the bulk of all voters -- and take their left wing base along with them because the base has nowhere else to go.
The only problem with this is that it's almost completely bunk. I suspect it never was true, and even if it was at one time, it certainly isn't now.
While the left-center-right model of politics provides a somewhat useful theoretical explanatory framework, people don't fall into such neat categories. Yes, there are people who, almost tribally, identify themselves with one party and would never consider voting for the other under any circumstances, but I'm not terribly concerned with them. No politician will ever turn the hardcore base of the opposition party in their favor, nor should he or she waste a lot of effort trying. Likewise, one should not fear attack from them, given that they are going to oppose you no matter what you do. Franklin Roosevelt is a good example to follow here. In 1936, as America was still litigating the New Deal, he knew who his opponents were and he knew they wanted him defeated. Rather than try to placate them or sidestep their attacks, he openly recognized them, saying “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Most voters, even in a districts which lean heavily toward one party, like OH-12, are not such committed ideologues. Yes, the district skews Republican, but the number of staunch partisans in any district is often overstated.
This district, like others, contains economic conservatives who espouse markedly liberal social views. It contains reactionary social conservatives who nonetheless support increased social security and medicare benefits and who, when asked, say they'd support a national jobs program. There are economic liberals here who are devoutly religious and who resist pro-LGBT policies. There are social progressive entrepreneurs who, when their friends aren't listening, will tell you just how much they'd like that corporate tax cut. While committed and engaged political types might march in lockstep with one party's platform, most voters are not committed and engaged political types. Most voters have strong, predictable policy positions on one or two policies but upend those old political spectrum models when it comes to others.
At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that the consensus on any one issue lies in the middle of a left-right spectrum. A 2014 study suggested, in fact, that the "moderate" position on any number of issues presented to participants in the study was typically the least popular and that people tended to gravitate in large groups to some surprisingly extreme positions. This shouldn't be terribly surprising as we've seen this born out in public opinion polls and heard it in conversations with our friends.
A large majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana which is typically portrayed as an extremely liberal position. Smaller majorities, but still a great many people, favor tougher immigration restrictions than we've had in the past, which is a conservative and, often, a reactionary viewpoint. Though their specifics -- and their sincerity -- varied wildly, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump delivered remarkably economically populist messages at times in 2016 -- messages often characterized as extreme -- gaining each of them surprising amounts of enthusiastic support. At the moment, the entire government is controlled by elected Republicans who have vowed to slash taxes and social programs, but slashing taxes and social programs is massively unpopular, suggesting no one was punished for refusing to take a "moderate" position on those issues.
On average, a lot of voters may wind up in the "center" overall but they may not inhabit a centrist position on any single issue. That's the problem with averages, right? The average age of the humans in my house is 26, but there is no one close to age 26 living in my house. A candidate should spend no more time trying to win the vote of the largely mythical centrist voter than I should spend looking for a 26-year-old in my kitchen. To the extent they set up their campaign to do so, they set themselves up to fail.
So, if you can't predict where the voters will be based on the old left-center-right spectrum, and if you can't play the old "establish your base in the primary and then pivot to the center in the general" game, how does a candidate connect to voters and gain their support?
The answer is to stop trying to identify abstract, ideological policy positions in the hopes of finding people who support them and to start looking at and listening to people and their concerns and to craft or support policies which address them, no matter how such policies are traditionally characterized, ideologically speaking.
The name of the game is to help make people's lives better which, in turn helps make our country better. It's a pretty simple game once you stop adhering to the old political conventional wisdom and start applying values, empathy, brains, compassion and creativity to the problems facing our country and its people.
In subsequent installments, I'll flesh out how this works in practice, addressing a number of problems and political issues through that lens.
Recently I wrote about why I think a Democrat can win Ohio's 12th Congressional district, despite it being gerrymandered to favor Republicans. In the coming days I'm going to talk about how a Democrat can actually win it.
This series of posts is not about the nuts and bolts of a campaign. This is about positioning, communication, tone and, above all else, policies, which will allow a Democrat to win a district that, generally speaking, leans Republican by a seven to nine point margin and which, a year ago, voted 54% in favor of Donald Trump and 66% in favor of a Republican congressional incumbent.
In the first installment, I want to talk about the elephant in the room: President Donald Trump. He will no doubt be a major factor in every election in 2018. It would be a mistake, however, to run solely or even primarily against Donald Trump, his character and his scandals. Indeed, I am confident that doing so will not win this seat, for one simple reason:
Winning politicians do not run against something. They run for something.
Donald Trump will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene for the foreseeable future. This district, in fact, would not be even remotely competitive if not for his alienating presence and for the damage he has already done. His election has motivated and mobilized people to an unprecedented degree. He is largely responsible for Pat Tiberi throwing in the towel in frustration, opening up the race.
Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, however. What's more, the Republican candidate who will be on the ballot will be a newcomer who will not have to defend a pro-Trump voting record. Indeed, I suspect he or she will move heaven and Earth to distance his or herself from Trump and will be able to do so relatively easily. As such, to the extent a Democrat makes the election, above all else, about Donald Trump, he or she will not be running against his or her opponent. What's more, he or she will allow the Republican to be he first to localize the race, the first to highlight issues voters care about and the first to claim, rightly or wrongly, that they have better answers about how to address those issues.
We'll talk about those issues more in coming installments. The key thing to understand for now, though, is that voters want to vote for something. They want to think that they are casting their vote to make their lives and the lives of their loved ones better. A successful candidate will be the one who convinces voters that they will help them do just that. Running against Donald Trump, first and foremost, will not accomplish this.
This is not a merely theoretical idea. There is a relatively recent precedent bearing it out.
In 1994, Republicans won back Congress in an historic wave election, with Republicans taking the House for the first time in over 40 years. While hysterical anger at the recently-elected Bill Clinton and his ill-fated healthcare reform effort did much to motivate the GOP base, a motivated base did not, by itself, create the wave that won that election.
Republicans won by historic margins in 1994 because they offered affirmative policy positions in the form of the Contract With America. To be sure, The Contract With America did not contain positive policy positions -- much of what was proposed was terrible policy -- but they were affirmative positions in the form of ten specific acts and multiple measures that corresponded with their political ideology. It told voters what they would do and how, in their view, it would help them and make their lives better. Voters may or may not have believed that Republicans could deliver, but they gave it a chance because people wanted then, as now, to believe that today will be better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.
In subsequent elections the primary thrust of GOP rhetoric was opposing Bill Clinton and defeating him for the sake of defeating him. It was echoed in the 2000s, when Democrats tried to make elections about George W. Bush and in 2010, 2012 and 2014 when Republicans tried to make elections about Barack Obama. Those messages made the hardcore elements of the opposition base extraordinarily happy and, at times, led to some short term gains, but they alienated less-engaged voters and did not give them anything positive to grasp on to. Such messages did not create the sort of waves that help a minority party gain real power and cannot now be counted upon to form the basis of an affirmative political movement.
There has never been a less popular president heading into his first midterm election than Donald Trump. As time goes on his unpopularity will likely increase as details of the various scandals surrounding him continue to come out and as a compliant, spineless Republican-controlled Congress continues to abide him in the name of advancing their harmful agenda. Activist groups such as the Indivisible groups have and will continue to channel the energy, excitement and, yes, anger that has exploded onto the political scene from the left in the past year as a result of Trump's toxic presidency. Any candidate who wishes to win OH-12 must, without question, work with these groups and their members, listening to their concerns and pledging to help them accomplish their goals. No candidate running for office should shy away from saying they will fight Donald Trump and restore Congress' seemingly abandoned oversight responsibilities.
Fighting Trump, however, will not by itself convince a critical number of the 66% of the district which voted Republican in 2016, let alone the 54% of it that voted for Trump to cast a ballot for a Democrat. A campaign centered on fighting Trump will not give people who are not as engaged as political activists are (i.e. most voters) a reason to engage. It will not draw in voters who want, above all else, to create a better tomorrow and who will help create the wave necessary to flip OH-12 from red to blue.
This does not mean running a centrist campaign. This does not mean equivocating on one's deeply-held convictions. Above all else it does not mean taking that motivated base for granted and reaching out in vain to attract staunch Republican voters to a compromised liberal or progressive agenda. In Part 2 of this series, I'll explain why that is.
Earlier this afternoon, Paul Ryan was on Brian Kilmeade's show on Fox Radio. He was asked if the GOP had to make a choice between supporting Trump or going its own way. Ryan said this:
"We already made that choice. We’re with Trump . . We all agreed on that agenda."
This is a critical admission from Ryan which is going to come back to haunt him.
Trump is, needless to say, not popular. Yesterday Ed Gillespie, who had attempted to ape Trump's messaging and style, was soundly defeated in the Virginia gubernatorial race. It's a sure thing that, as Trump's approval ratings continue to languish, Republican candidates will not even try to do what he did and, rather, will attempt to distance themselves from Trump as much as they can. This is especially true in districts, such as mine, which did not support Trump nearly as strongly as they supported other Republicans in the past.
Ryan has foreclosed the possibility. Or, at the very least, he has made is such that any Republican who does not wish to be tied to Trump must likewise distance themselves from Ryan and the Republicans in Congress, whom Ryan leads. After all, now that Ryan has admitted that Trump's agenda is their agenda, it will become the agenda of candidates who seek the support of the Republican establishment. I don't know how a candidate can convincingly do that without closing off critical avenues of support, financial and otherwise. I don't know how you even get the nomination of your party while repudiating its leaders.
I do know, however, that anyone running against a Republican in 2018 should obtain audio of Ryan's comments today and pound the message home, over and over again, that there is no daylight between Republicans and Trump. That a vote for a Republican is a vote for Trump. There should not be a single Democratic campaign that does not paint its opponent with Ryan's "we're with Trump" declaration and who does not, when his or her opponent claims not to be, ask them to prove it.
This was a pretty stunning miscalculation by Ryan. I suspect he and many other Republican candidates will end up paying for it.
A few weeks ago my congressman, Pat Tiberi, announced his resignation. When he leaves the House at the end of January, he will take a job leading the Ohio Business Roundtable, a lobbying group for the state's biggest businesses and the CEOs who run them.
Yesterday Tiberi, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, began presiding over hearings for the Republicans' new tax bill. The bill, sold to the public with lie after lie after lie, provides massive benefits for corporations and massive benefits for CEOs and the people who make the sort of money they make. CEOs like Leslie Wexner, Ohio's richest man, pictured here on the Ohio Business Roundtable's "About Us" page:
Wexner, a board member of the Roundtable, happens to live in Tiberi's district and has donated thousands upon thousands of dollars to Tiberi's campaigns over the years. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.
There are millions of people who will be worse off if and when the tax bill passes. Millions more who will be further harmed once its consequences fully play out. Meanwhile, there will be a few hundred CEOs -- and their layabout heirs -- who make out like bandits. Pat Tiberi, one of the men most responsible for passing this bill, will literally be working for those CEOs when the law takes effect.
Tiberi will face no consequences for his blatant conflict of interest. He has filed all the proper disclosures and abided by all the relevant ethics laws in taking his new job. He likewise never has to face the voters of our district again, so delivering his new corporate bosses exactly what they want while harming the people he still, technically, represents, will create no problems for him whatsoever. He's going to get away it.
We in Ohio's 12th District, however, can prevent this from happening again. We can make it a point to elect a successor to Tiberi who is not beholden to corporate interests. We can demand that whoever takes Tiberi's seat demonstrate that they will carry out the will of the people who vote for him or her, not the will of the people they'll look to for their next job after they leave Congress.
When the candidates to replace Pat Tiberi come forward, ask yourself: who do they work for? Answer that question by looking at who gives them money, who vouches for them and what it is, exactly, that they promise to do for those people. Then ask yourself if we do not already have enough people in Congress working for the rich and for corporate interests.
Sometimes, like Pat Tiberi, quite literally so.
In the last year we've learned all too well that Donald Trump is seemingly immune from scandal and impervious to shame. Not a week goes by that he doesn't say or do something that would end anyone else's political career. We've lost count of the things which have happened in and around his personal and political orbit that would stop a politician's agenda dead in its tracks. At the moment his top advisors are being investigated for conspiring with Russians to subvert our democracy. That's something which got people executed in my parents' lifetime.
Despite this, the Trump train, however slowed in the public opinion polls and however assailed by the public opinion pages, continues to chug, more or less, forward, announcing policy initiatives that will likely pass and which will shape our country for decades to come. No one in a position to stand up to Trump and say "no" seems willing to do so.
A little over a year ago I wrote a post about the troubling manner in which politicians and public figures talk about complicated subjects. About how they seem to increasingly rely on anecdote and references to their personal experiences when addressing matters of policy, ethics or morality rather than on facts or ideas. About how, for some reason, they could not talk about, say, sexual harassment without referencing their "wives and daughters" or they could not talk about taxes or social policy without making reference to some local farmer or businessman who would be affected.
On some level I get why they do this. People like stories and first person accounts. We respond to them well. On a geologic scale we're barely removed from a time when oral tradition was our primary means of understanding the world, so it makes sense that we respond to personal appeals.
Our public discourse seems to have gone too deeply into the personal and anecdotal, however, to the point where tales, rather than facts, data and ideas, have come to dominate the conversation. Yes, my friend, I'm glad that you care about the advancement of women now that your daughter is getting her MBA, but can we talk about the advancement of women who are not your daughter? Sure, I suppose I'd be curious to know how this new regulation personally affects Joe Smith from East Alton, Illinois, but it's probably more important to know what it means in objective terms -- defined by facts and figures -- for the country as a whole, wouldn't you agree?
The point of that essay was that we spend too much time creating narratives when it comes public life and policy, often baseless ones, and not enough time thinking. We spend a lot of time talking about our feelings too -- using the language of anger or personal offense for the most part in recent times -- but we do it in a rather self-centered way, lacking in empathy for anyone beyond ourselves or our immediate circle. That's an acceptable way to run a village, maybe, but it's no way to run a county of over 300 million people.
I wrote that post a month before Donald Trump was elected, in response to the 2005 "Access Hollywood" video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. I wrote it because everyone asked to comment on it referenced their wives and daughters and did little if anything to say, full stop, that such behavior should be condemned as unacceptable even if you don't have a wife or a daughter. Little did I know when I wrote it that such a scandal -- the sort of scandal which would definitively wreck any politician who came before him -- would be a mere footnote on Trump's way to claiming the presidency, regardless of how many wives and daughters were invoked.
Little, also, did I know that what would transpire since the election would validate a warning I first heard 26 years ago, which explains both that which troubled me a year ago and that which is transpiring today.
Back at Ohio State, in the early 1990s, I had a history professor named Alan Beyerchen. I wasn't a history major -- ours was merely an intro to western civ class and most of the curriculum was outside of Professor Beyerchen's specific area of research -- but he was more engaging and enthusiastic about teaching freshmen and sophomores than most professors I ever had. He'd often digress from the day's lecture to talk about larger cosmic issues. One he hit on, time and again, was about how history is animated by its actors defining their personal identity in opposition to that of their enemies (people proclaiming that which is "self" vs. that which is "other" explains oh so much over the centuries). Another one of the big cosmic issues he talked about was how, in his view, we seemed to be on the verge of entering a "high tech dark age."
Beyerchen seemed focused on what he felt as the then-primordial information age's attack on literacy and personal agency. He worried about us moving away from writing and books -- he was particularly upset at how poor his students' writing skills were, mine included -- and suggested that computers and the ability to edit without a lot of hassle was partially responsible. He talked about the prospect of virtual communities supplanting real communities, the ethical hazards of technological advances (which then, as now, were so often promised to be benign) and what all of that might mean for an enlightened civil society. He wasn't necessarily alone in these preoccupations, of course. A lot of people were worried about that stuff then, albeit on a much more superficial level than Beyerchen was. Just look at the science fiction of the mid-90s and all of its virtual reality and Internet panic as evidence.
It went deeper than that for Beyerchen, though. He wasn't some guy merely grousing about technology and all of its alleged perils. For him the most serious risk of the coming high tech dark age was an epistemic crisis. A crisis in which, due to the waning influence of institutions that characterized enlightened society such as libraries, universities and governmental bodies run by and for a literate, educated and engaged populace, simply agreeing on what truth and knowledge and information is would be a challenge. If knowledge was less etched in stone than transferred via ephemeral means, would it not risk becoming intangible? Mutable? And if it did, what value would it truly hold for people?
Once you're in that situation -- a situation in which people find it simple and even preferable to disagree on basic facts -- truth itself is a malleable concept. Once human beings aren't sure what is true, they tend to revert to superstition and fear. Once you have a population of fearful, superstitious people who don't know what is true, those in power are able to warp reality even more and are able to exert control over them more easily than they already do. If the people are afraid enough, they'll be quite happy to allow it.
That, for all practical purposes, is the definition of a dark age. It's a dark age even if we have a lot of shiny technology and even if we've eradicated the plague.
This afternoon I read something which makes me believe that the epistemic crisis which would usher in a new dark age is already upon us. It's from David Roberts at Vox, and it describes the way in which the right wing political and media establishment has rendered facts malleable and increasingly meaningless:
Roberts' concern: that Robert Mueller's investigation will prove a case of Donald Trump's participation in an illegal conspiracy to subvert our political system and that no one will do a thing about it. That the Republicans in charge of the legislative branch will shirk their responsibilities to check the executive because they fear political reprisals from a base that is intoxicated with a cocktail of misinformation and anger, served by the right wing media establishment.
It sounds right. It's not driven solely by technology, the way my old professor worried it might be, even if it's driven by it a good deal. Mostly it's driven by a craving for power and an utter lack of scruples or shame. Any way you slice it, it sounds like the stuff of a new dark age.
In the wake of yesterday's deadly vehicular attack in Manhattan, President Trump, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others have called for the accused attacker to be handed over to the military, for him to be sent to Guantanamo Bay and for his Miranda rights and other due process protections afforded to him under the Constitution to be disposed of.
This is not new, of course. Men in Trump's McCain's and Graham's position have long sought such Constitutional rollbacks for terrorist suspects of a certain kind (though, curiously, not for terrorist suspects of a different kind). They most famously obtained such things after 9/11, with the passage Patriot Act, the advent of black site torture and interrogation centers and the imprisonment of terrorist suspects and men designated "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, with its attendant permanent, trial-free detentions.
Not that those were their only efforts in this regard. In 2010 Senator McCain sponsored the "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act," which called for placing terrorist suspects -- including those whose alleged criminal acts occurred on American soil -- in indefinite military custody for purposes of interrogation, during which time their Constitutional rights would be suspended. Calls for similar measures are often renewed following acts of terrorism.
The common thread: fear and distrust of the American criminal justice system. A belief that, somehow, our centuries-old institutions are unable to handle such cases. This is a baseless and pathetic claim. Our criminal justice system has repeatedly shown that it is capable of dealing with terrorism suspects. In contrast, our habit of throwing detainees into secret detention sites and dispensing with due process and the rule of law has been a miserable failure.
Federal civilian criminal courts have convicted hundreds of individuals on terrorism-related charges since 9/11. These convictions include those resulting from investigations of terrorist and criminal acts by those with identified links to international terrorism and include several high-profile terrorists such as the “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, the "Times Square Bomber" Faisal Shahzad and Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. In contrast, military commissions have convicted only eight. All of those prosecutions took years and cost millions. In the end, three of those convictions were overturned completely and one overturned partially.
Some who advocate for military tribunals doubt the security of a U.S. courtroom and stoke fears about the safety of the populace near where suspects are held, but such claims are baseless. Federal prisons hold hundreds of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses and none have ever escaped. None of the federal districts which have held or tried terrorism suspects have been attacked in retaliation.
Others say that the seriousness and high-profile nature of the crimes demand a different sort of justice system. This, however, is exactly what terror suspects want. They want to be martyrs, figuratively if not literally, and want to appear as though they have gained the special attention of our highest elected officials. When they get it -- when we publicly freak out like Trump, McCain and Graham are and put them before army officers in a special proceeding -- their supporters can cast them as warriors, taking on the United States government and the United States Army. When you put them in a courtroom in a federal courthouse, they're just criminals. Their crimes cast as simple murder, not an act of war.
There is a greater flaw with the calls for military tribunals and the denial of suspects' rights than their lack of efficacy, however: denying due process rights to our enemies defies the very values we are fighting to protect.
The Constitution is not optional. Indefinite detention, suspension of basic rights and the deprivation of Due Process flies in the face of American values and violates this country’s commitment to the rule of law. Sacrificing our principles in the vain hope that doing so will make us safe has only made us weak. Weak because it sends the message to our enemies that our most sacred ideals are not strong enough to withstand external threats. Weak because it sends the message to our would-be allies that we do not stand for that which we claim to stand and that our words and promises carry no weight.
A man attacked innocent people in New York yesterday, and he should be held responsible for his crimes. Attacking our Constitution, our federal courts, the rule of law and the bedrock values upon which our country was built is no way to do that. Indeed, doing so more effectively wages war on America and its institutions than anything a criminal terrorist suspect can ever hope to accomplish.
President Trump and Congressional Republicans are pushing for massive tax cuts, reportedly to the tune of $1.5 trillion. This may sound good to you because, hey, who likes taxes? But it won't benefit you. It'll benefit corporations and the wealthy. More importantly, it won't benefit America. Indeed, it'll actually harm most Americans and will prevent us from doing the things we need to do as a country to make it better.
You need not get too far into the details of it all to know that the Republicans are offering a bad plan, though. No, all you need to do is to realize that, in selling their plan, they're lying to you. In fact they've offered lie upon lie upon lie. When someone lies to you, repeatedly, about what it is they plan to do, you know they're up to no good.
Let's take a look at the lies Republicans are telling about their tax plan.
Trump and Republicans are selling this as a benefit to all Americans, but the proposed cuts are almost exclusively for the rich:
They're lying to you about who benefits from their tax cuts. If they told the truth, no one would support them.
They're doing this while claiming that we are “the highest taxed nation in the world.” In fact, we are among the lowest-taxed developed nations in the world, and our current tax burden is near the lowest it's been in this country in the past 35 years.
They're lying to you about how heavily we are taxed. If they told the truth, no one would support them.
The lies about our tax burden and who would benefit, however, pale compared to the lies Trump and the GOP are telling about the alleged benefits their tax cuts would bring. The claim is the same one we've been hearing from Republicans for nearly 40 years: if you cut the taxes for businesses and the wealthy, the economy will grow and, eventually, it'll benefit the middle class and the poor. That tax cuts will thus "pay for themselves."
This is the "supply side" theory of economics, which used to be called "trickle-down economics." George H.W. Bush called it "voodoo economics" back in 1980, and he was absolutely right to do so because it's more akin to religion than it is to economic theory. Republicans repeat the supply side claim like a mantra, but there is zero connection between tax cuts and economic growth. Anyone who tells you that there is a causal relationship between tax cuts and economic growth is simply lying to you.
They're lying to you about tax cuts causing economic growth. If they told the truth, no one would support them.
While the benefits of these cuts are the stuff of fantasy, the costs are all too real. They will lead to massive cuts to infrastructure spending, education, medical and scientific research, child care, job training, the arts, our national parks and public lands and a host of safety net programs that help families make ends meet in tough times. This is not just theoretical: the three states which have rolled out tax plans like Trump's -- Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma -- have been thrown into economic and budgetary chaos. The promised growth never came then and it won't come now.
They're lying to you about what slashing taxes and public programs did to Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. If they told the truth, no would would support them.
It gets worse, though. Republicans acted like deficit hawks back when Obama was in office, but now that a Republican is in office, they suddenly don't seem to care what impact these tax cuts will have on our federal deficit and the national debt. I actually don't mind too much about that -- the handwringing over debt and the deficit has always been misleading and overblown -- but I care what the Republicans think about it.
That's because after those tax cuts balloon our debt and deficit, Republicans will suddenly pretend to be fiscal conservatives again and they will look to you and me to fix the problem they've created. They'll say that we need to cut Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and a host of other social services to cover for all of those tax cuts they gave their rich donors. As a result, this whole thing -- the tax cuts combined with the services cuts -- will constitute as massive gift to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.
They're lying about what the tax cuts will mean for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. If they told the truth, no one would support them.
It won't just be those entitlement programs which get slashed, however. If you give $1.5 trillion to corporations, hedge fund managers and the very wealthy, you forego any hope of doing the many other things necessary to build our country and to make it a better place both for our generation and later generations.
These are not just items from a wish list. They are the sorts of priorities and initiatives that form the very foundation of a civilized society. They are, contrary to what Trump says, the very things which make America great. Republicans say we don't have the money to do these necessary things, but they say we can give $1.5 trillion to the wealthy?
They're lying about about the need to invest in our country and in our people. If they told the truth, no one would support them.
When someone tells you lie after lie after lie, do you believe that they have your best interests in mind? Do you believe they have nothing to hide? Do you stand behind them and support them?
Of course you don't. So why on Earth should anyone support Donald Trump and the Republicans' tax cut plan?
Are you watching the World Series? Oh, I'm sorry, "The World Series Presented by YouTube TV?" If you are, than you're well aware of just how intrusive the ads are this year. Some distract the viewer from in-game action. Others make one question whether the media covering the Series is bought and paid for.
I wrote about it all this morning over at the baseball site.
Pat Tiberi's announcement last week that he was resigning his seat representing Ohio's 12th Congressional district came as a major surprise to most people. It wasn't so surprising, however, that there weren't three or four Republicans who immediately said they'd run to replace him. The 12th is a gerrymandered district, so most Republicans assume that all they need to do is win a primary and they'll have a job for life. I'm sure many were waiting for this opportunity.
And maybe the smart money should be bet on a Republican to take the seat. Tiberi won the district with two-thirds of the vote last year. It's only been held been held by a Democrat for one term in the past 76 years, and that was before it was redrawn to its current, Republican-friendly boundaries. Add in the fact that Tiberi himself has over $5 million in his campaign war chest and no campaign of his own to run, and one might assume that whichever of the GOP hopefuls emerges out of the special election primary will waltz to victory.
Republicans, however, should not count their chickens before they hatch. For two reasons: one mathematical, one practical.
In a vacuum, the district leans pretty hard to the right. Tiberi, as I mentioned, won it with 66.6% of the vote. Much of that, however, represents the district's support of Pat Tiberi specifically, not support for just anyone with an R next to their name. Tiberi is a nice guy and people like him, so he has always over-performed the partisan split in the district.
This is born out in the numbers. OH-12 has a Cook PVI of R+7, meaning that, Tiberi's large election margins notwithstanding, it's only seven points more Republican than the nation as a whole. Donald Trump won the district with 53.2% of the vote to Hillary Clinton's 41.9%. Mitt Romney won it with 54% of the vote in 2012. Yes, that reveals a pretty solid GOP lean, but it's not the sort of lean one sees in the impenetrable Republican fortresses elsewhere in the country.
While it's a small sample size, in special elections held since Trump was elected, Democrats have improved upon Clinton's showing by an average of 10 points. Democrats are improving upon the Cook PVI lean by an average of 12 points. If that happens in this district -- and there is nothing to suggest that Trump is any more popular here than he is in other districts -- it's a Democratic win.
No, OH-12 is not a friendly district for Democrats, but the popular incumbent is leaving and this environment is bad enough for Republicans that the district is no Republican gimme. A friend of mine who studies and writes about congressional elections for a living has a looked at all of this and tells me that, in his view, a solid Democratic candidate has a one in three chance to take it. That's way, way better than usual. More tea, anyone?
All of that is interesting enough, but elections are won by candidates and campaigns, not math. On that count, any Republican looking to succeed Pat Tiberi has to prove to voters that he or she can accomplish something voters want them to accomplish. Given the circumstances of Tiberi's resignation, however, it's hard to imagine a Republican making a credible case in this regard.
Tiberi was one of the most powerful and influential members of the Republican caucus. He was plugged in to senior Congressional leaders and held a key post on the Ways and Means committee. He was so powerful and important that Paul Ryan personally entrusted him with repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Tiberi, however, is reported to be "frustrated" at his inability to advance his agenda and is weary of the "grind" and "public battering" he's endured while trying to do so. If Pat Tiberi, with all of the power his seniority gives him, cannot further his agenda in this Congress under this president, what on Earth makes any of his would-be Republican successors think they can do any better?
Yet that's the case they'll have to make. Any candidate who wishes to inherit Pat Tiberi's political legacy will have to convince voters that they'll be better able to advance Tiberi's agenda than Tiberi was. "I'm way better positioned to push the agenda of the nine-term guy who just quit than even he is," seems laughable for a rookie Congressman, but it's an even harder argument to make if you expect that nine-term guy to campaign for you and to shoot you some of the money from his war chest.
So what's the alternative for a Republican? He or she could chose to run on a different sort of Republican agenda, I suppose. That presents its own tough choice, however. Tiberi is pretty mainstream as far as Republicans go, so anyone moving to his left would have a hard time winning a GOP primary. Moving further to the right and adopting a more Trumpist agenda, however, would likely be poison in this district and in this environment. Where does that leave them? Having to argue that they are, basically, just like Pat Tiberi but that Pat Tiberi was the wrong man for the job. This despite 66% of the district thinking he was the right one less than a year ago. That's a tough sell.
A much easier sell is the one a Democratic candidate has to make: (1) that however nice a man Pat Tiberi happened to be, the agenda he championed was the wrong one to begin with; and (2) Donald Trump and what he stands for is not what the 12th District of Ohio stands for and that what is most needed at this juncture is someone who will fight him. Given how poorly the agenda of Paul Ryan and Congressional Republicans polls, the former proposition is not as hard as it may have seemed a few short months ago. Given the 14% spread between the number of the people who pulled the lever for Pat Tiberi and Donald Trump in 2016, the latter portion of that is not a particularly hard sell.
Regardless of that calculation, I am convinced that any candidate with strong values and integrity --- any candidate who vows to work tirelessly to make America a better place -- stands a strong chance of victory regardless of their party label. Specifically, a candidate who vows, credibly, to do the following can win even the toughest district:
People didn't vote for Pat Tiberi because of his agenda. They voted for him because they liked him and were in the habit of voting for Pat Tiberi. His over-performance of the district's leanings and the district's relative distaste for Donald Trump establish that. Given Tiberi's failure and resignation and given the fact that Trump has alienated a large number of the people who voted for him and is utterly toxic to anyone who didn't, the game has changed in OH-12.
Has it changed enough for a Democrat to win? It'll be tough, but I think it's doable. If the right candidate emerges, it might even be easier than many think.
The drive between New Albany and Granville, Ohio used to take you down a two-lane country road, but traffic eventually got heavy enough to where they needed to make it a freeway. They did that about six or seven years ago. As far as freeways go it's fine. It cuts through the country and, though it'll likely change the area sometime in the near future, there hasn't been too much in the way of development along the route just yet. It's still a nice country drive. The barn where my wife keeps her horse is out that way so we're on that freeway a lot.
There is one thing on the road that sticks out, though:
This house sits just east of the exit for Route 310, right up against the freeway. It's looked like that since about the time the freeway went through. "O.D.O.T.," stands for Ohio Department of Transportation.
I've always assumed it had to do with some dispute arising out of the condemnation of property to build the freeway, but I've wondered what the specific story was for years. Today I did a little searching and found this, written by a man who says that he spoke to the owner a few years back:
The owner's side of the story was that ODOT used eminent domain compelling him to sell the portion of the property they needed for the freeway, but that they refused to purchase the entire property, including the part on which the house sat. His problem, though, wasn't that he was stuck with a house right next to a freeway. That would be bad enough, but at least understandable. Rather his problem was that the portion of the property they compelled him to sell included the leach field for the house's septic system and the remaining parcel that the house sat on was too small to install a new leach field that would meet local code. So he wasn't just left with a house next to a freeway, he was left with an uninhabitable house next to a freeway.
It's been a while since I practiced law, but the foggy parts of my memory related to these kinds of cases suggest that there is likely a bit more to this story. Local juries determine land value when there is dispute, and they almost always tend to overpay landowners who challenge state valuation in condemnation cases. In light of that, the state usually comes in with high offers to begin with. Maybe he was screwed on the parcel with the house, but I suspect he came out fine overall after they bought the parcel they needed for the freeway. There's plenty of injustice in this country, but rural landowners tend to do OK financially speaking when the bulldozers come to plow places like Licking County into the 21st century, even if they are inconvenienced or displaced.
Regardless of the specifics, I've always been struck by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house. While I suppose most people who see it think of it as nothing but an eyesore, I'm amused by it. Both at its existence and by the fact that it's lasted in the state it's in for so long.
Some quick searching shows that the deed was redone in 2007, with the current owner conveying the house to himself, likely in connection with whatever it was ODOT did with respect to their other land. For tax purposes, the house is only worth $800, with annual taxes on it running around $13, which the owner has faithfully paid. While the house is uninhabited, a quick search of property records shows that the owner of the house lives in similar but slightly larger home two miles away. It's neat, tidy and inviting. It's also close enough to the old house that it's no inconvenience at all for him to go put a fresh coat of paint on his "O.D.O.T. Sucks" sign whenever necessary. Which he clearly has, by the way. The house faces south and the sun would've bleached those orange letters pretty badly by now if he had let it be. Today, however, they're as vibrant as the day they first went up. My wife took that photo when we drove past yesterday afternoon.
I wonder who will blink first. The owner could, if he wanted to, simply abandon the basically worthless property. If O.D.O.T. grows weary of the sign, it could restart negotiations with the owner to see how much it would take to get him to either give up the land or, at the very least, bulldoze the house or cover the sign. The county could maybe get involved too, perhaps creatively reassessing the value of the property -- it's right next to an exit, so might it be rezoned for a gas station? -- raising the owner's tax rates to the point where he's no longer able to cheaply maintain his sign. Given that an influential new neighbor is moving in just a couple of miles up the freeway soon, maybe someone else will come to the table too.
In the meantime, I'll continue to drive by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house a few times a week, acknowledging that, yes, it's an eyesore, but smiling that it's still there. Not because I take the landowner's side, necessarily. I don't know him and I don't know the specifics of his beef. No, I smile because we live in a world where powerful forces always seem to win, conformity always seems to reign and anything old, small, unique or just plain weird seems to get plowed over, literally or figuratively.
The fact that someone on the wrong end of the plow's blade has basically held his middle finger up like this for close to a decade gives me hope that the powerful forces' victory, even if inevitable, won't always be easy.
I awoke to the news that my congressman, Pat Tiberi, is planning on resigning this week, less than halfway through his ninth term.
Since turning this site's attention from personal to more political matters early this year, I've spent considerable time criticizing him for his political cowardice, his lockstep association with Paul Ryan and the manner in which he's allowed himself to be a useful idiot for Donald Trump. If you hit the "politics" tab over to the right, you'll find no shortage of criticism of my soon-to-be former congressman. It's no secret that I am not a fan of his.
Normally at times like this, however, people will lower their rhetorical weapons and talk about the outgoing politician's good works and good qualities, giving his political obituary the same positive, soft-focus treatment one sees in actual obituaries. Indeed, in the coming days I expect there will be no shortage of "Pat was a decent man and tried to do the right thing," talk both from his political allies and political adversaries.
I have no interest in that.
Yes, from afar Pat Tiberi always seemed to be a nice and basically decent fellow and I can recall no scandals, political or otherwise, attaching to him. That, however, should be the most basic expectation of a public servant. Contrary to what the professional political class believes, one does not earn kudos for simply avoiding infamy or for not being a crook.
Politics is not -- or at least should not be -- about any one public official's personal values or qualities, his friendships or even his character. Politics is about one thing: using the democratic process to implement policies and provide the sort of governance which make life better for people. Politicians should be judged based on what they have done to advance the interests of the men, women and children they represent and to make our world a better place. They should also be judged, negatively, based on what they have done to harm those interests and to advance the agenda of those whose interests conflict with the betterment of society as a whole.
On that score, Pat Tiberi is a failure and should be remembered as a failure. He has taken millions from the health insurance industry, the financial sector, pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists and he has made it his mission to do their bidding. Time and time again he made it his top priority to advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable. He has steadfastly refused to make himself accessible to his constituents and he has largely gotten away with it because his district is one of the more heavily gerrymandered districts you're likely to come across.
Among the things Pat Tiberi never did, and what his successor must be committed to doing:
If Pat Tiberi's political career had even attempted to embody any of these values and ideals, I'd be sad at learning about his impending resignation. He has, unfortunately, sought to undermine these values and ideals, often aggressively so.
As such I am quite happy to see him go and eager to welcome anyone who will take his seat and use it to make America a better place.
I've spent a lot of time beating up on "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance over the past year or so. My review of his book is here and some further stuff on him and his political writing is here and here, in case you've missed it. The short version of my beef with him: while his personal story may have been compelling enough for a decent memoir, he and others have attempted to use that personal story as disingenuous cover for an odious political agenda.
It's not a new political agenda, mind you. The gist of it involves blaming the poor and downtrodden for their misfortune, which has long been a talking point of the conservative establishment of which Vance, a Yale Law graduate who worked for a hedge fund in Silicon Valley for years, is quite firmly a part.
The twist is the use of Vance himself and his dubious hillbilly bonafides to provide absolution to anyone who would prefer to look away. "It's not your fault that poor people in flyover country are screwed," Vance has told both conservatives and liberals alike, "they've done it to themselves!" Upon being told that they all exhale in relief, content in the knowledge that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away, their guilt assuaged because, hey, a hillbilly said it was OK for us not to care. It's almost genius, really.
As coastal elites have gotten off on Vance's guilt-free rural poverty porn, Vance himself has been plotting a political career. Now relocated to Columbus, Ohio, he strongly considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. While he ultimately decided against that, he has surrounded himself with the sorts of advisors and donors, both in Columbus and nationally, who anoint political stars. He's writing Op-Ed pieces, spoken at political luncheons and has gone on the lecture circuit. It's the usual stuff a future candidate does.
Vance, however, claims that he has a particular problem for a Republican in middle America: he does not support Donald Trump and did not support him during the election. This "problem," of course, will increasingly be seen as a strength the longer Trump stays in office and the lower his popularity plunges. Vance, no idiot, knows this quite well and will likely continue to position himself as a Republican Party savior, seeking to take it back from the insane fringe that has taken it over in the past few years.
There's only one problem with that. He's buddying up to Steve Bannon, who is angling to get Vance installed as the next head of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation:
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
You can endeavor to heal the nation of its Trumpist fever, or you can work with the leader of the alt-right agenda who parted with Trump because he wasn't extreme enough. Likewise you can work to elevate the voices of the overlooked people of poor middle America, as Vance has claimed over and over again that he desires to do, or you can fall in with Bannon, who has worked tirelessly to exploit these people into backing his twisted, white nationalist delusions. You cannot do both.
What J.D. Vance decides to do in this regard is his own business. It's a wonderful time for all of the rest of us, however, to stop listening to Vance and to stop believing he's some fresh new voice of reason who can bridge the vast political, cultural and social divides in this country. Because once you start taking meetings with a guy who blows up bridges and brags about doing it, you've opted out of the "bringing us all together" business.
UPDATE: I have some other ideas on politics and bringing people together. It's a decidedly more inclusive view of the world than whatever it is Bannon and, by extension, Vance is interested in pursuing.
This morning the President of the United States, in response to an accurate news report that made him look bad, threatened the license of a national broadcast network:
It happens to be the broadcast network that employs me. I'd hope, however, that such a thing angers people who don't work for NBC. I mean, I get that he's mad, but the most powerful member of the United States government threatening the media because it criticized him is, if not the most un-American thing ever, certainly in the top-10.
I'm pretty sure if Obama had said this about Fox News in 2010 there would be talk of impeaching him. Short of that, it'd dominate the news cycle for several weeks and be cited in the rants of conservatives for years and years. Now, I presume, we'll just chalk it up to "Trump being Trump" and stagger on to the next unnecessary crisis he creates or legitimate crisis he neglects.
In the meantime, Trump can take my NBC WordPress login from my cold dead hands. Or whatever it is people say in such situations. Sorry, I'm new to this "living under a petulant dictator" thing. We all are.
The mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead on Sunday night is, on one level, shocking and on another unsurprising.
It's shocking in its violence, its cold-blooded calculation and its scale. Shocking in a way that something so awful must always be shocking to anyone who values and cherishes human life. Shocking to all of us who have not become numb to gun violence. To those of us who cannot and will not allow ourselves to become numb to it, because to allow this increasingly common and increasingly deadly sort of tragedy to become just another news story which holds our attention for a few days before being forgotten is to abandon our very humanity.
This is all unsurprising, however, because our laws and, increasingly, our very values, practically ensure that events like those that unfolded in Las Vegas will occur again and again. I'll get to the laws shortly, but it's worth talking about the culture of guns in America for a moment.
There is, obviously, a long and rich history of gun ownership in America. We are a nation born of the fighting of armed civilians marshaled into a revolutionary army. We are a nation whose land was explored by hunters and frontiersman. We are a nation populated by farmers and sportsmen and the children and grandchildren of farmers and sportsmen, the vast majority of whom were and are responsible and law-abiding members of our community. Our history -- and the largely rural character of America for most of that history -- forged a culture in which owning firearms, while never a requirement of responsible citizenship, was most certainly compatible with it. Where I grew up, in Michigan and West Virginia, there was hardly a household that didn't have at least one hunting rifle in it. I'm sure a lot of you grew up in similar circumstances.
Recently, however -- very recently -- there has been a marked shift in what it means to be a gun owner in America and who it is that owns most of our guns. Some have referred to this as "extreme gun ownership," in which people own a dozen, two dozen or perhaps scores of guns, including quasi-military weapons and hundreds upon hundreds of rounds of ammunition. This dynamic, which has resulted in a full 50% of all guns in our country being owned by 3% of the population, is perfectly legal, of course.
But however legal it is for a person to stockpile weapons like this, it's worth scrutinizing why they do so. Yes, a small portion of these people are genuine collectors. I suspect a much larger proportion of these people, however, own numerous weapons for what amount to philosophical reasons. Many of these people -- and I know a good number of them personally and professionally -- are afraid of something, be it rational or irrational. A fear egged on by the gun lobby and a conservative media that has convinced a wide swath of Americans that there are enemies hiding around every corner and that our government is their greatest enemy of all. I further suspect that we will find out that the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock -- who likely owned all of his guns legally -- harbored fears like these. Fears which, even if they did not lead him to commit mass murder, inspired him to compile a private arsenal, which in turn allowed him to carry his rampage out far more readily.
We can legislate until our pens run dry, but we will not stop the next Stephen Paddock unless we truly understand how a person can come to live in a state of such suspicion and fear that they feel it necessary to stockpile private arsenals that have only one deadly purpose. Until we understand how a country that was once comprised of households with some hunting rifles became one in which owning a dozen or more military-inspired guns became a lifestyle choice. We must, as a nation, come to understand how something that was, until very recently, thought of as a tool, became a symbol of so many people's personal politics and identity.
Achieving such an understanding may not be a simple matter, but it may not be as tough as passing new gun laws, which are obviously not easy to implement or change.
Part of this is by design. While, as a lawyer, I disagree with the legal notion that the Second Amendment confers an absolutist, unquestionable and un-regulatable individual right rather than a collective right of action (the words "a well-regulated militia" seem to be the only words in the Constitution conservative judges seem to think mean nothing) the fact of the matter is that any broad-based effort to ban certain types of firearms or to broadly restrict gun ownership in this day and age would be met with intense political opposition and legal challenge. Likely successful legal challenge, mind you, thanks to the current makeup of the federal judiciary, its view of the Second Amendment and the deep pockets of the National Rifle Association which has the entire Republican Party under its control and much of the Democratic Party living in fear.
The fact, however, that wide-ranging gun regulations seem legally and/or politically impractical in the current environment does not mean that there is nothing that can and should be done. Indeed, there are a host of common-sense regulations that we can and should pursue that do not violate the Second Amendment as currently interpreted but which would go a long way toward reining in the scourge of gun violence plaguing our country.
One of these is obvious, if only in hindsight of the tragedy in Las Vegas: outlawing devices that allow semi-automatic guns, which are legal, to be transformed into automatic weapons, which have been illegal to manufacture for civilian use for over 30 years. This relates specifically to “bump stocks,” which are attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire faster, mimicking the action of automatic weapons. Under no set of circumstances should a person be allowed to legally acquire devices which convert a legal weapon into one that is essentially identical to those which are illegal. Thankfully, there appears to be some movement this week on that very issue.
Beyond the currently newsworthy topic of bump stocks, we should work to pass laws or regulations, on the state or federal level, as appropriate, that fall, generally, into three categories:
None of these sorts of regulations would take guns away from law abiding citizens or infringe on the their rights under the Second Amendment. All of them would work to keep guns from falling into the hands of violent criminals and discourage those who would seek to inflict mass casualties.
Ultimately, though, there are many complex, historical and cultural factors which have led us to this regrettably violent place in our nation's history. As such, there is no one thing that can be done to drastically reduce gun violence in this country, let alone eliminate the threat of a mass shooting. Anyone who promises that they can put an end to such things is not being honest with you.
We can, however, do many things, each of them modest in and of themselves, that work to add a much-needed dose of common sense and responsibility to an issue which has, increasingly, led itself to intense, emotion-based polarization and special interest group-fed partisan rancor. We should start to do so, immediately.
In the past week President Trump, first through a spokesperson, and then personally, demanded that United States citizens lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
We can disagree about the underlying issues which led to him saying this. We can debate the nature of protest and the mode and manner of expression of views with which he takes offense. We can discuss the propriety of sports figures wading into non-sports topics. No matter where you come down on any of that, however, we are left with the President of the United States saying people should lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
No one, no matter their views about the protests or comments of athletes, should find this acceptable. Whether one holds far right or far left views, every last American should find it abhorrent that a government official, let alone the most powerful government official, is demanding people's jobs because he does not like what they believe.
This is not a controversial assertion. It is not a close issue. It is, perhaps, the most basic and fundamental issue there can be when it comes to our rights and our liberties as Americans under the Constitution. It is the entire goddamn point.
This afternoon Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple Inc., said of Apple stores, “we don’t call them stores anymore, we call then town squares, because they’re gathering places.”
Ahrendts' comment could simply be written off as hubristic marketing-speak, but to me it's an unwittingly sad comment about how, in the current age, a luxury goods story can and does serve as a rough proxy for a public square and how, concurrently, civic society continues to be degraded.
While a small number of very rich people have always been able to keep themselves separate and apart from the masses, a larger and larger number of people are using money, technology and education to insulate themselves from the sort of everyday life all citizens once lived. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries available to the professional and technological classes create a situation in which a larger swath of the well-educated and at least moderately well-to-do have created what amounts to a separate class apart from the rest of the country. A class that carries with it insidious assumptions, conscious or otherwise, that the affluent and educated are demographically superior to the poor. Or, perhaps, that the affluent and educated are the only people who even exist.
While, admittedly, there has always been some semblance of a class system in this country, the instances in which people come together in commons spaces -- in train stations, post offices, hospitals, libraries, public schools, museums and retail spaces -- has decreased dramatically. What's more, there was once a time in this country where the class divisions we had were at denied and diminished out of either shame or idealism born of the notion that the United States is not a class-based society. Today that conceit has been disposed of almost entirely, with “success” being increasingly equated with one's ability to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether.
We live in isolated and increasingly homogenous and cloistered communities. We have made it so that those with access to the gifts of the technological age can do their shopping, their banking and their interaction with the government via electronic means without ever having to encounter the general public or, at the very least, the part of the general public unlike themselves. The increasing power of a small handful of technology companies is exacerbating this trend, turning even basic acts of life, such as buying groceries, into a class-based pursuit.
As a result of all of this, the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. We do not come together as a society across economic classes in anything approaching the way we did even as recently as the early 1980s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. This is bad for democracy and social health because, when we do not interact with the whole of society in meaningful ways, we are no longer truly stakeholders in the whole of society. We are, at best, voyeurs, intellectually lamenting that which has befallen our fellow man, yet not really being invested in it in any real sense. When you encounter those in different circumstances than yourself only virtually, you can simply click away. Or you can just choose not to click in the first place.
Which brings me back to Apple. The nearest Apple store to me is in a place called Easton Town Center. It's a mall, but one of those outdoor malls that apes a cityscape, built on what used to be farmland out by the freeway outerbelt. There are storefronts and parking meters and sidewalks and all of that, but it's all private property. While it's a fake city, it holds the sorts of community events -- Christmas caroling, arts fairs, outdoor performances and the like -- that once took place in my town's real public spaces. Except it's not truly a community event given that no one has much business being there unless one is shopping or dining out at one of the luxury goods stores on its premises, and that's obviously not for everyone. And, of course, since it's private property, they can kick out anyone they want to for basically any reason or for no reason whatsoever.
Which certainly puts Apple's claim that its stores, a great number of which are located in places like Easton, are "town squares" in a different light. A light that is sadly telling of what our society has come to in this day and age.
Happy Labor Day: America's most overlooked major holiday.
It's understandable why so many people view Labor Day as not much more than day off from work and an excuse to have a cookout. Generally speaking Labor Day is a reflective holiday, not a celebratory one, and if a holiday doesn't involve gifts, celebrations or specific, defined acts like putting flowers on a grave, people tend to have a hard time knowing what to do about it.
However it's also overlooked by political design. Indeed, the obliteration and demonization of the labor movement is one of the most successful political operations of the past 40 years.
The major components of this operation have been the wholesale scaling back of workers' rights, benefits and protections and the claiming of a greater and greater cut of revenues by ownership over the past several decades. Dealing with that remains the most pressing issue for workers going forward, obviously. It's worth noting, however, that obliterating the very history of the labor movement in the United States has been a key part of that as well.
Even most of those who stop for a moment to acknowledge Labor Day are likely unaware that its institution was something of a cynical, political act, taken by politicians and business owners in order to appease workers they had just murdered and brutalized. It was also established in September in order to separate it from the larger international workers' day of May 1. The holiday itself was something of an apology, but also a means of blunting the edge of the labor movement. Those who see workers as the enemy as opposed to a critical part of the American fabric are quite happy that most of us think of today as a day to fire up the grill and go to the pool as opposed to thinking about America's workers. They have made it a point to do that, in fact, and they have been wildly successful in doing so.
Not only does organized labor makes up a smaller portion of the workforce than it ever has, and not only do workers suffer worse conditions than they have in decades, but even pointing this out has come to be seen as somehow subversive. Even a great many of the people who do the working in this country have bought in to the notion — propagated by those who profit from labor — that unions are tools of the communists and giving any lip service to the rights of workers is a suspect and even un-American pursuit. Good, secure jobs with good pay and benefits have come to be seen as rare luxuries for which it is rude to ask, let alone expect. What's worse: many workers themselves have adopted the language of the rich and powerful in this regard, having been convinced that their need to hustle harder than they used to in order to make less in real dollars than they used to is somehow a good thing.
I'm not sure what to do about that, as it's a massive problem with many causes and calls for a host of actions in response to remedy it. But in the meantime, we should do whatever we can to at least commemorate and acknowledge a national holiday devoted to laborers in at least close to the same way in which we mothers on Mothers Day, fathers on Fathers Day, our loved ones on Valentine's Day, our veterans on Veterans Day and those who have died for our country on Memorial Day.
And make no mistake: workers have died for our country too. People die on the job every day and you likely cross a bridge, enter a building or drive on a road that was paid for, in part, by workers' lives every day. People have likewise died in the name of worker’s rights and in the name of keeping more people from dying on the job. Beyond all of that, labor built this country. The labor movement has saved lives that would have been lost and has elevated the standard of living of families. Odds are that, whether you accept it or not, labor and workers in your own family allowed you to get where you are now.
It's worth a day of remembrance, reverence and reflection, at the very least.
President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio because he likes the cut of Arpaio's jib.
He pardoned him because he knows it'll play great with his base. He pardoned him because Arpaio was an early political supporter and because Trump rewards loyalty. He pardoned him because Arpaio provided Trump with a rough blueprint for demonizing Obama, immigrants and minorities as a means of achieving electoral victory. He pardoned him because he shares Arpaio's contempt for laws, courts and political and legal authority that belongs to anyone but himself.
Like anything else Trump does, it was done based on a gut feeling and a selfish desire. If there is any doubt about that, one need only look at the way Trump bypassed the customary pardon process which involves review by the Department of Justice. There was not a ton of thought and analysis put into this. It was a purely personal, purely political act.
In light of that, anyone trudging into the weeds to frame this as some complicated interplay between the branches of government, the nuances inherit in the separation of powers or any of that stuff is selling you a bill of goods. They're doing this either because they support Trump or because, even if they do not, they support people who would have to do something about Trump if the pardon comes to be seen broadly as the disgraceful act that it truly is. When you're a Republican -- even a #NeverTrump Republican -- the last thing you want is for the people you do support to have to spend any time or political capital opposing Trump, because that takes valuable time away from cutting taxes for the wealthy and hamstringing the government's ability to, you know, govern. It also makes them worry that they're committing religious heresy.
But really, it's a simple case. Arpaio and Trump share supporters and share enemies and at a time when Trump feels that he's under attack, he's going to do whatever he can to show strength, to prove he has allies and to rally whatever support he feels he can rally. And make no mistake, he'll rally a lot of people to his side with this pardon because he and his supporters will couch it in terms of "law and order" -- Arpaio was a sheriff after all! -- and people eat up appeals to law and order.
Unfortunately, the growing public conception of law and order is twisted and corrupt. Indeed, "Law and order" has quickly become synonymous with "police," and any effort to oversee and check the power of police is seen as hostile to "law and order." This includes civilian political authority and the courts, which politicians and, increasingly, the public, have chosen to portray as an impediment to law and order as opposed to a necessary component of it.
In this, such vocal support of "law and order" is in direct opposition to the rule of law, which requires checks on the power bestowed upon men, particularly the coercive power of government as manifested in armed police forces. It's a craving for the "order" without the "law." People want cops to "get the bad guys" but increasingly have no respect for the process by which "bad guys" are identified and handled and refuse to accept that the police themselves can ever be "bad guys." Such a view is anathema to a functioning civilian-led democracy. Indeed, it the very definition of authoritarianism.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio. To the extent you approve of this pardon, you approve of a leader using his extraordinary power to vindicate his personal obsessions and to reward his allies. To the extent you believe Arpaio was deserving of this pardon, you do so because you believe that the power of police should be absolute and that the power of the courts to rein in that power is illegitimate. You, quite simply, approve of an authoritarian government.