What Leadership Looks Like

President Biden does not have the rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. He isn’t a natural teacher like Bill Clinton, who can explain — ex tempore, no less — the most abstruse concepts in clear and unpatronizing language. He can’t twist congressional arms to pass legislation the way LBJ could like no other before or since. But anyone who paid close attention to his first address to Congress would have recognized real leadership. If it went unnoticed, perhaps that’s because for too long we have been without it.

The opinion pages and TV pundits and bloviators have all had their say; I’ll wager that few if any noticed this gem, tucked into his introductory remarks:

Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.

[Emphasis added.] Investments that only the government [can] make: This is a subtle rebuke to Republicans and free-marketeers. There are in this world some things that only government can do. It isn’t enough to hope that ambitious capitalists will undertake the basic research that leads to so much more; it isn’t sufficient to believe that government regulation is ipso facto oppressive and that corporations can better regulate themselves, with no ill public effect.

Just this past week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined that, “No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing.” This is like saying that no company would ever prioritize its profits over the interests of its customers by, say, cutting corners on workplace safety or using poisonous food additives. Except that it happens all the time. Rubio represents a political party ideologically opposed to government regulation of any kind. The only part of his statement that rings true is its cognitive dissonance.

Things only government can do. This gets at the very purpose of government, of good government. Republicans might be fond of quoting Jefferson — “That government is best, which governs least” — but they emphasize least while paying little or no attention to best. They know quite well that “least” doesn’t mean, as little as humanly possible; it means, just enough to get things right. There are things only government can do: provide for the general welfare and common defense, for example.

But really, that isn’t enough: good government should be aspirational — “We choose to go to the moon”1; good government should rise to the occasion; and good government should set new goals for itself as a nation, for its people’s betterment. Some great things aren’t ever going to be done by the private sector; some things, these things, only government can do.


  1. John F. Kennedy, address at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.

The Unexpected Benefit of Bumper to Bumper Traffic

I am stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. They are fixing potholes up ahead and so two lanes are closed, backing things up for what seems like miles but is really no more than three or four furlongs. Nothing to do but sit; I look around and see the cherry blossoms along the riverfront (to my left) and in the parkland (to my right). Other trees are starting to bud; cyclists enjoy the riverside trail on this first warm day of spring.

In the distance is a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, framed by the George Washington Bridge but not, I know, nearly there yet. I am at 86th Street: the trees don’t yet obscure the prewar buildings up on Riverside Drive, and the Normandy is unmistakable: its Art Deco line takes up the whole block. I think of Nick and Nora, swilling too much gin and having too much fun while they sort out the identity of the Thin Man.

As suddenly as traffic stopped, it starts again: I have arrived at the pothole brigade and make my way past, reluctantly now: eyes on the road instead of on my surroundings, this grand pocket of nature (one of many) tucked alongside the concrete and the steel, the granite and the glass.

The Unthinkable

My Apple News feed includes headlines from Fox, to the mild consternation of my children. “Why do you want to do that to yourself?” Because I want to know what they’re saying; because it can be entertaining (in a Jerry Lewis kind of way); because the tenor and content help illuminate the why and how of our riven social fabric.

A few days ago the clickbait headline screamed: “A woman was angry because of the long wait at the Burger King drive-thru window. Then she did the unthinkable.” Hoping to be surprised, I clicked. I was not surprised that she opened fire through the window. Nor did I think this in any way unthinkable. It was, in fact, all too thinkable: it was in fact exactly what I thought.

A very modest suggestion: Let’s start using words to mean, well, what they actually mean.  An angry woman who arrives at the drive-thru window and pays for the next ten cars? As unthinkable as it is unlikely. That woman shooting into the store? Neither surprising nor unimaginable. This kind of event has become so common it’s not just not unthinkable, it barely attracts any attention any more. We are benumbed: a mass shooting in Boulder is neither unthinkable nor unimaginable.

A woman opening fire through a fast-food drive-thru doesn’t move the needle on our emotional, intellectual, and political outrage. That is precisely the problem — and precisely what the NRA wants.

The Personal Responsibility Party

It has been fashionable at least since the time of Saint Ronald for politicians to speak piously about “personal responsibility.” Since that time, too, it has been generally understood that those who most fervently preach this particular Gospel — including Saint Ronald himself — never mean for it to apply to Themselves; it is only for Others: Black people, poor people, gay people, any people who do not look or behave or think like they do. You know who they are: Those people. Such mind-bending blatant hypocrisy would make an ordinary mortal blush, at least; but our lawmakers are made of sterner stuff, and they make a virtue of denying their own actions. They are miracle workers.

An obvious case in point is the (second) impeachment trial of one Donald John Trump. Just listen to the comments of some of the jurors, oath-bound to do impartial justice: Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, suggests that “everyone should get a Mulligan.” One could reasonably infer, then, that Senator Lee’s estimation the fellow who robs a bank (or plans the robbery) should get a pass. As should the intoxicated driver, the junkie, the Ponzi schemer, the serial sex offender. The most obvious problem — but by no means the only one — with this very noble and forgiving sentiment is that Trump’s entire life has been nothing but Mulligans: his pandemic response; his Ukraine phone call (and first impeachment); his “grab ‘em by the p***y” Access Hollywood sniggering (“Just locker talk,” his wife would have us believe); and going back further, his six bankruptcies, his shuttered casinos, his Fair Housing consent decrees. The list goes on and on.

The Party of Personal Responsibility will take none for having created Trump and set him loose in the world; nor, for that matter, does it have the stomach to ensure that he, at least, is forced at long last to face responsibility for his failures and excesses. The late Leona Helmsley famously said, “Taxes are for the little people.” By which she meant, presumably, her many employees (both personal and corporate). Personal responsibility, then, is strictly for suckers. Leona at least spent some time as a guest of the state for her crimes. Republican senators — devout faithful of the Church of Personal Responsibility — don’t appear poised to convict Trump for anything, not even sedition against the United States. To do so would require not just selfless patriotism but a little self-knowledge. And a little acceptance of personal responsibility.

The Party of Stupid

Eight years ago Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal addressed the Republican National Committee at its winter meeting. Barack Obama had just been reelected, defeating Mitt Romney in an Electoral College blowout: 332-206. Jindal exhorted his fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” RNC chair Reince Priebus conducted an “autopsy” of the GOP’s 2012 defeat.

Young people and minorities, the report concluded, viewed the GOP as a bunch of cranky old white men. The party could change its image by deemphasizing social issues and coming out in favor of immigration reform. A set of tactical recommendations got less attention but may have been more consequential: Based on the report’s ideas, the party shortened the primary calendar, reduced the number of debates, and began a huge investment in data and ground operations.

“The Final Humiliation of Reince Priebus” (The Atlantic 7/30/2017)

Over the last eight years the Republican Party has reemphasized social issues and rejected immigration reform. Rather than develop policies that might win more votes, the Republican Party has moved to suppress votes — the votes of minorities, especially. Rather than embrace the idea that among the rights of all Americans is the right to vote, and that exercising that right should be easy, the Republican Party promotes laws and policies that make voting more difficult: removing polling stations, restricting absentee voting, requiring voter ID — these are nothing more than poll taxes and eligibility tests by another name.

In today’s Republican Party, Bobby Jindal is out; Marjorie Taylor Greene is in. Science is out and Jewish space lasers are in. Big-tent rhetoric is out; xenophobia is in. And of course imaginary threats to American sovereignty, security, and stability are all the rage, while actual Russian threats to national security are ridiculed, denigrated, or ignored. And while Mitch McConnell and other “establishment” Republicans would like us to believe that this is an aberration, that the Party of Lincoln has not become the Party of Trump and that rebirth of a vibrant and sane — if conservative — party is not only possible, but inevitable, I have to disagree.

Trump didn’t co-opt the party or turn it to his own use; he didn’t create the infection nor did he drive it deeper: he is, rather, the apotheosis of the intellectual rot that began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran on the risible theory of supply-side economics: lowering tax rates will increase tax revenue. This demonstrably false idea — forty years of experience have proved, over and over and over again, that it just isn’t so — refuses to die. Economist Paul Krugman refers to it as a zombie policy, something which should be dead but isn’t; George H.W. Bush, running against Reagan for the 1980 nomination, rightly called it Voodoo Economics. As realized policy it has been an abject failure each and every time; and yet each and every time tax cuts fail to deliver the promised boom the GOP doubles down. Intellectual honesty would have inspired at least a little soul-searching, a reevaluation of the premise and (one would hope) the repudiation of a false god. Instead the rot spreads, a cancer on the party, devouring its adherents’ ability to think for themselves.

Trump is a symptom — a virulent, violent, repugnant, and highly infectious symptom. So is Marjorie Taylor Greene; and so too are the many elected officials who really do know better — but whose small, craven, pitiable need for approbation directs their legislative conduct. “The American President” provides a little insight here, as it so often does:

Lewis Rothschild : People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd : Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

Boys and girls, you were elected to lead: so, lead. Don’t take people where they want to go: explain to them, teach them, guide them to where they need to go. Leadership, real leadership, is hard. Maybe that’s why magical thinking and doubling down on demonstrably bad ideas are so rampant.

Shocking but not Surprising

Like most people here at home and around the world, the mob insurrection at the United States Capitol disgusted and revolted me. We must hope that this disgraceful coda to the Trump presidency is the death rattle of the Republican Party that enabled it, abetted it, encouraged it, and then stood by while thugs ransacked and defiled the Capitol, killed a police officer, and carried off laptops and national security briefings before being allowed to peacefully leave the building and head off into the night. It is not news to anyone reading this that even after the riot, when Congress reconvened to finish its constitutionally-mandated ritual, there were 140 House Republicans who voted to uphold the bogus objections to Arizona’s certified election results. One hundred and forty: two-thirds of the GOP caucus. Disgrace upon disgrace upon disgrace, and there is no bottom.

No. What we witnessed was not (as GOP hand-wavers and magical thinkers would have us believe) the voice of the people; it was an attempted coup.

No. “We just want an audit,” is not an excuse to riot, to mar public property, to commit mayhem, to murder a peace officer. (And no, “It’s public property,” is not anywhere near the same as, “it’s my property and I can do what I want with it.”)

No. “We heard there was fraud,” is not — as courts around the country ruled five dozen times — a legally recognized standard. Where are the facts? “Hannity told us” isn’t sufficient; show me the spoiled ballots. Prove it. (You can’t, because it’s a lie.)

No. Creating a crisis might create an opportunity for authoritarian crackdown, but it will be remembered in history as wholly illegitimate. Trump’s message to his followers, the recorded video of them breaking windows, staining statues, and defacing walls: it’s not too early to say that these things will join the Reichstag fire in the litany of shameless, shameful, notorious events.

No. Article II does not allow the president to do whatever he wants; we are a nation of laws, not of men — that is what we tell ourselves. No one is above the law — that is what we tell ourselves. The Executive is charged with seeing that laws are faithfully executed — that is what we tell ourselves.

If that is so, there must be consequences. If we believe what we tell ourselves, there must be consequences. Serious, terrible consequences. What is the penalty for treason? (For that is what it was.) Hint: it’s one of only three crimes defined in the Constitution of the United States. And it carries a penalty that the Trump administration shouldn’t find upsetting.

Cognitive Dissonance (Mental Health Edition)

“You will never take back our country with weakness,” says Trump, inciting his mob. Please remind me, because being weak and feeble-minded I have forgotten: who has been in charge of this country these last four very long years?

Cognitive Dissonance (GOP Encore Edition)

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has announced that come Wednesday (6 January 2021) he will object to the certification of the Electoral College result. Purportedly 140 Republican members of the House will do the same. This is not simply madness, it is shamelessly attempting a coup d’etat. Here. In the United States of America, where we fancy ourselves a beacon of liberty to the world, champions of democracy and justice. Does it get any worse than this? One wants to believe, desperately, that it does not. One is certain, after the egregious anti-democratic behavior and unabashed self-dealing of the last four years, that it does, it can, and it probably will. With just over a fortnight left in this worst of all possible administrations, the damage gets worse every day.

The immediate damage is deliberate, and seeks to hamper and hinder the incoming Biden administration even before it gets started (as described here by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). But the more lasting damage will be to our body politic generally, and — ironically, fittingly, and most deservedly — to the Republican Party specifically. The intellectual rot appears irreversible: when elected officials question not simply the legitimacy of an election, but the legitimacy of their own election, something is very wrong indeed. Apparently “democracy” and “free and fair election” are malleable terms. Fair elections are those in which “our guy wins” whereas any other result is ipso facto the result of unimaginable corruption and conspiracy.

But now come Hawley and with him Ted Cruz and ten more fully Trumpified senators who say they will not accept the outcome, as will 140 Republican members of the House. These people were elected on the very same ballots as Biden, and the inconsistency of their own twisted logic seems to bother them not one whit. We are forced to contemplate two, and only two, alternatives: that these elected officers are too stupid to realize the full implications of their false claims; or too craven to care. And which is worse in a public servant? Do we prefer them feeble-minded, or unscrupulous? Each of these dozen senators was invited to explain on television why they will not accept Biden’s clear victory; each and every one refused the invitation or declined to answer it. To dimwitted and unprincipled we evidently must now add rude. (That a sitting senator would refuse an invitation to appear on television is in itself another oddity.)

Forty years ago the GOP threw its principles overboard in order to win elections: in the place of conservative policy ideas that could be discussed, tested, and adopted (or discarded) as appropriate, the party adopted slogans and demonstrably false claims — the language of ad agencies and mountebanks. Tax cuts will increase revenue! Competition is a magical cure-all for all things political, economical, and educational! New immigrants — to this literal nation of immigrants — are coming to take your jobs! Politics became, in other words, a game. It was no longer about compromising to improve the lives of citizens and constituents; it was about winning elections and achieving, holding, and keeping power.

Decades of empirical evidence haven’t been enough to wipe away these failed ideas, emotional triggers masquerading as  public policy. Our society, our country, our world have all suffered needlessly as a result. We should all hope that the GOP’s most recent self-inflicted wounds prove at long last to be fatal.

Another Day, Another Rebuke

The election has been over for weeks. Any lingering doubts should be put to rest by the decision issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. This should be enough to send the red-hatted MAGA hangers-on packing, but it will not be.

The New York Times reports on the case:

In a strongly worded decision, Judge Brett H. Ludwig, a Trump appointee who took his post only three months ago, shot down one of the president’s last remaining attempts to alter the results of a statewide race. The decision came just one day after the Supreme Court denied an audacious move by the state of Texas to contest the election outcomes in Wisconsin and three other battleground states.

Judge Ludwig’s concluding paragraph is all the more scathing because it uses the dry and colorless language of legal technocrats:

This is an extraordinary case. A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred. This Court has allowed plaintiff the chance to make his case and he has lost on the merits. In his reply brief, plaintiff “asks that the Rule of Law be followed.” (Pl. Br., ECF No. 109.) It has been.

The full decision is here.

Don’t Seat Them

Elections have consequences, intended and unintended. Into the morass of post-electoral fire-breathing and pearl-clutching comes a resolution introduced by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).  Relying on the Constitution — which the MAGA crowd claims to revere — Rep. Pascrell has a simple proposal to deal with the 126 House members who signed on to the bogus Texas lawsuit: Don’t seat them in the next Congress. Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment says, in plain language, that they are ineligible to serve in federal office. Elections have consequences, after all. And those who would subvert our elections should pay a price.

The message to Democrats should be: Ignore the inevitable and insincere wailing about “persecution for political beliefs” that will follow. Don’t seat them. Ignore the tortured justifications for the over fifty lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign or its water carriers: there is no legally or judicially cognizable case and your complaints have been summarily dismissed by every court that has heard them. “We have a right to be heard in court” is not an excuse for willfully wasting time and money. It’s not a lost cause, and certainly not a noble one. It is an attempt to subvert democracy itself and install a permanent government of plutocrats and autocrats. Elections have consequences.

Republicans, we should note, are fond of repeating that elections have consequences. But let’s be clear: when Mitch McConnell piously intones that phrase, he means only the elections that keep him in the Majority Leader’s chair. The elections, in other words, that enable him to stymie legislation so desperately needed by the people of the United States — such as a second COVID relief bill that would enable people to pay their rent and put food on their tables; that would keep small businesses afloat and people employed; that would ensure sufficient PPE for health care workers, that would help the country get through the next perilous year with the coronavirus. But instead of useful legislation he peddles lie after lie after lie. “Compromise,” to McConnell, means, “Come meet me where I stand, while I keep walking backwards.” The House passed a $3 trillion relief bill; McConnell wanted half that; House negotiators moved to $2 trillion and McConnell wanted half that; now the bill on the table is $900 billion, and passage is in doubt. Politics is the art of the possible, but McConnell cynically moves the goal posts and then blames his Democratic opponents for failing to compromise.

Democrats, you have been playing the GOP’s twisted messaging game for a generation. Take charge, explain in plain language what is going on, and exact a price for the GOP’s sedition. Don’t seat them. Change the game, and make new rules. People will notice; you might even improve your majority. Elections have consequences, right?