Monday, August 14, 2017

And Now for Something Completely Different

The Rose Mary Stretch
We might as well at least get a little humor out of these crazy time.  So, let us go backward in time to an earlier and more innocent era.  Watergate, say.  Famously when White House tapes were subpoenaed, one of them turned out to have an 18 1/2 minute gap.  Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, insisted that she had accidentally erased erased it.  When asked how, she said she accidentally hit record instead of play and had her foot on the play pedal when the phone rang and she reached for it and -- well assumed the position represented above.  And held it for five minutes (not 18 1/2 as I had previously believed; she disclaimed all knowledge of 13 of those minutes).  This led to jokes about the "Rose Mary Stretch" and that she missed her calling as a secretary -- she should have been a contortionist.  Closer investigation determined that the tape had multiple erasures.

All of this came to mind when Jared Kusher submitted his security clearance form indicating no foreign contacts.  And then had to correct it multiple times, ending up with over 100 such contacts.  One can plead faulty memory to a foreign contact or two when the total is extensive, but to have over 100 contacts and forget every single one shows a degree of mental insufficiency that is clearly disqualifying to begin with.  So instead he claimed that some nameless staffer prematurely hit the send button before he had completed the application.  This did not call for so elaborate an act of contortionism as the Rose Mary Stretch, but was otherwise about equally plausible.  There are two ways to submit the application.  One can either print it out, sign it and submit it, or one can do it electronically.  Electronic submission is much like any electronic submission these days.  It requires the applicant to complete each screen successively and then requires the applicant to review and certify before submitting.  It seemed to me that there had to be some sort of joke in there that the unnamed staffer was actually the ghost of Rose Mary Woods (now deceased).

The Steve Bannon Stretch
But then White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave his now-infamous rant in which he accused Steve Bannon of, let us just say, an act of contortionism that even Rose Mary Woods might have found challenging (if she had had the equipment for it).

So between Rose Mary Woods' accidental contortionist erasure of the tapes, Jared Kushner's equally implausible accident in sending his security clearance before it was complete, and Steve Bannon's alleged contortionist talents, there has to be some sort of joke to be made.  I just can't figure out what it is.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why Won't Trump Denounce Neo-Nazis?

All Twitter is abuzz with the question -- why won'd Donald Trump condemn the neo-Nazis in Charlotteville, Virginia?  He has consistently fudged the question, first giving a general denunciation of hate and violence "on all sides" but refused specific questions on the subject.  Then a White House spokesman denounced white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Trump's behalf but couldn't get the President to put his name on it.

The neo-Nazis recognized the coded message for what it was:
Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. 
He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides! 
So he implied the antifa are haters. 
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. 
He said he loves us all.
 And, it should be noted, this is an established pattern with Trump.  During the election, he refused to dissociate himself from David Duke.  On Holocaust Remembrance Day, he issued a statement not even mentioning Jews.  And while at first some were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, chalking it up to inexperience, his staff made clear that the omission was intentional.

So, why?  Certainly he would pay no political price for renouncing neo-Nazis.  Republican politicians everywhere did it.  Vice President Pence and many Cabinet members denounced them.  Even Trump's water carriers in the right wing media (at least its more mainstream portions) denounced the outbreak.

Fox New ran the headline, "Neo-Nazi Website Praises Trump Response," followed by their verbatim quote.  The Drudge Report ran the headline, "Make America Hate Again."

Neo-Nazis are negligible as a voting bloc.  The vast majority of Americans would probably never even notice whether Trump included Jews in his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And the vast majority of those who did notice would respond with outrage.  Neo-Nazis probably count for even less among donors than among voters.

As for Trump's base, they are very sensitive about being called racist.  They interpreted Obama's "bitter clingers" remark, not merely as patronizing and offensive, but as outright hate because it accused them of racism.  And as for Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment, the less said the better.  But that is all the more reason why Trump supporters would want nothing to do with neo-Nazis -- because those are the real racists and deplorables and they don't want to be sullied by the association.  Yes, it seems fair to say that the constituency for neo-Nazis in this country is too small to be politically significant and that Trump would gain a whole lot more than he would lose by denouncing them.

So why won't he.  I can only see one possible reason why he would be willing to pay the political price of associate with neo-Nazis.  He agrees with them.

The Other Reason to Drop Regime Change

So, one reason not to pursue a policy of regime change is that it tends to lead to anarchy and civil war.  The other reason is that it encourages maximum intransigence by hostile governments.

Think about it.  If you tell a hostile foreign leader, "We want your head on a platter.  To settle for anything less would be appeasement," your chances of getting any sort of concession will be none.  Any government's primary objective will necessarily be its own survival.  No matter what else is or is not on the table, any government the world over will consider this one thing to be non-negotiable. If we make clear to a foreign government that we consider it ceasing to exist is non-negotiable and no concession whatever on its part will be met with a favorable response from us (appeasement and all that), it should hardly come as a surprise that they are unwilling to make any concessions.

Well all right (an opponent once told me), suppose we don't insist to the leader that we want his head on a platter.  We are open to his going into exile and will only insist on his head on a platter if he refuses.  But that doesn't work for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, we are also working on having fewer and fewer countries willing to admit deposed heads of state.  For another, if just the guy at the top goes into exile, it is not real regime change, but merely a coup.  The name at the top changes, but the "deep state" remains unchanged.  On the other hand, if you insist on overturning the deep state, then aside from the dangers of civil war an anarchy, you have countless lower level functionaries who don't have the option of going into exile and will fight to the last because they have no choice.

These considerations are especially strong when dealing with a state like North Korea that has nukes. Saying we want you to give up your nukes, but we still won't agree not to topple you is the sort of proposal unlikely to be accepted.  Well that's fine, many hardliners will say.  We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it.  We don't want any agreement with North Korea even if they do give up their nukes; we just want their government to be gone.  Well first of all, it should be obvious by now that refusing to talk to the North Korean government is not going to topple it.  Assuming we can topple the North Korean government without open war, it should at least be obvious that we can't do it on a strict time table.  So presumably while we wait for the North Korean government to fall, it will continue developing more nuclear bombs and missiles.  Presumably we would prefer for it to spend its last days doing something else.

But even more to the point, why would it spend its last days doing something else if it knows for a positive fact that those are its last days.  When the Senior Bush was gearing up for war with Saddam Hussein, he informed Hussein through a back channel that if Saddam used biological or chemical weapon on US troops, we would not stop at driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but would go all the way and depose Saddam.  Implicit in such a warning is a promise not to depose Saddam if he refrains from using chemical or biological weapons.  If our plan is to topple him regardless of what he does, then why not use chemical weapons and to take out a maximum number of us along with him?

Likewise it seems most plausible that the North Korean government, even if it does develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting us, will refrain from using them for fear of retaliation.  (Certainly they have been deterred from invading South Korea so far).  But if they are absolutely certain that we are going to topple them regardless, then suddenly deterrence stops mattering. Why not at least take as many of us along with them as possible?

And, any number of critics have pointed out, we haven't helped ourselves here.  Saddam Hussein didn't develop nukes, and we deposed and hanged him.  Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and agree do to cooperate with us in opposing Al-Qaeda, and we deposed him him and allowed him to be murdered.  Now we can explain why that is different and, in particular, that in the case of Qaddafi the revolt had already begun.  But somehow I don't thing Kim Jong-un is going to be impressed.

So I will ask again, for the love of Mike, can't we please stop treating some governments as so far outside that pale that no concessions on their part will meet with a favorable response by us?  It is a sure-fire formula for ruinous escalation and war.

Can We Please Abandon All Policies of Regime Change

For a change, I am not directing this post at Donald Trump, but at the "Blob" in general.  And speaking to the Blob, I can only say -- for the love of Mike, can we please drop all policies of "regime change"?

And just for the record, I have not gone full-on Jeanne Kirkpatrick, saying that no revolution can ever be justified, that would should go to any lengths, no matter how bloody and savage (and certainly not limited to, say, 500,000 troops in South Vietnam), to prop up friendly dictators.  But I have come to the conclusion that she has a point about revolutions being a horrible, bloody business, and the mere overthrow of a bad ruler not being any guarantee that anything better will replace him.  But it has become clear that most rulers facing overthrow will dig in and resist and cannot be dislodged without overthrowing the entire state. And that the overthrow of the state leads to a power vacuum that is typically filled by very nasty rival armies, with the nastiest of all most often winning out.

This folly appears to have grown out of our victory in the Cold War.  It was obvious to all that the Communist governments of Eastern Europe were completely without domestic support or legitimacy, propped up only by the threat of Soviet intervention.  Unsurprisingly, once that threat was removed, all Communist governments in Eastern Europe quickly toppled without a shot being fired (except in Romania).  What was surprising was easily Communism was ultimately toppled even in the Soviet Union.

What American conservatives, especially neoconservatives, missed was the long, slow grind that had been wearing down the Soviets since then end of WWII, the profound internal weakness that was present even as they feared the Soviets were on the verge of world conquest, and the utter rottenness and corruption that had been undermining the system for decades.  Recognizing that the whole system was held up solely by repression, they failed to recognize just how quickly it would break down once the repression was even mildly relaxed.

Neocons were in the position of having greatly feared Soviet power and been convinced that the Soviet Union was much stronger and more ambitious than we feared, much militarily stronger than we were, and on the very verge of -- well, it was not quite clear what they were on the verge of, except that it was going to be very, very bad.  They eagerly threw themselves behind Ronald Reagan, the only politician who seemed to share their alarm, and in the early days of his Presidency, he not only lead a major military buildup, but gave a lot of scary talk about the Soviets being on the march.  By the end of his second term, the Soviets were in full retreat, although Communism did not actually fall until his successor's time.*  Having greatly overestimated Soviet power, conservatives in general and necons in particular, concluded that the Soviet Union had been a vast colossus striding across the world on the verge of conquest, only to be beaten back by Ronald Reagan's toughness, and to assume that any other government could be just as easily overturned.

What Americans broadly across the political spectrum did not see was just how much of a disaster the fall of Communism was for the former Soviet Union.  That it lost its hegemony in Eastern Europe; that the non-Russian Soviet Republics broke away; that the European countries it once had dominated and even former Soviet Republics Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania jointed a hostile alliance; that revolt broke out even in the Russian province of Chechnya most Americans understood and saw as cause for celebration.  Might we perhaps understand why the Russians might disagree?  What Americans were also too self-centered to miss was also just how disastrous the fall of Communism was in Russia -- massive decline in economy and living standards, a significant drop in life expectancy, the rise of an oligarchy of gangsters, 70% of the male population becoming alcoholics under the stress and so forth.  The rise of Putin was a response to this disaster, because at least he restored order and began some economic recovery (much of it driven by high oil prices).  As for Putin -- well, he is not certainly not as bad as Stalin or Mao, and I will defer to people who know more on how he compares to later and more decadent Communists.  The point here is not that it would have been good for Communism to stay in power, but that its fall was more complex and messy, and less the result of pure willpower on our part, than the Blob may widely believe.

I move on to George H.W. Bush (the Senior Bush), one of our most successful foreign policy Presidents, but not without his mistakes.  Critical among his mistakes -- he assumed that losing the war in Kuwait would bring down Saddam Hussein. That was a reasonable assumption.  Many dictatorships have been brought down by losing wars; it was not unreasonable to assume that Saddam Hussein would be among them, particularly when his army was shattered and his ability to maintain power by repression severely diminished.  And, in fact, Shiite and Kurdish revolts broke out against him, but Saddam's army proved strong enough to crush them, and he remained in power.**  Bush, Sr. then made the critical decision to declare that Saddam Hussein was equally dangerous whether he had a functioning army or not and therefore to commit himself to a policy of regime change in all but name.

This led to a long, painful standoff with Saddam Hussein, sanctions on his country that led to a major decline in living standards and rise in infant mortality, and a seemingly intractable standoff that the Blob feared would ultimately end with the sanctions breaking down and Saddam reconstituting his weapons program and once again becoming a threat.  This, in turn, led to a conventional wisdom widely held in the Blob that if only our forced had gone ahead and removed Saddam from power, we could have removed this threat and all would have been well.  Like all counterfactuals, this one was impossible to prove or disprove.  Other people spun other alternative scenarios.  For instance Dick Cheney in 1994 defended the failure to depose Saddam:
Because if we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off.
The Bush, Jr. Administration decided to correct this perceived mistake by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. This is as near as one can get to a controlled experiment to see what would have happened if the US had decided to go all the way, and it soon turned out exactly the way Cheney had predicted nine years earlier.

Alas, the Blob did not learn anything from that experience and persists in its assumption that intervention always works out well.  If they have learned anything from the Iraq War, it is that when you topple a government, you should have a plan in place to replace it.  That is worth something, I guess.

Well, then, the Blob is confident that Obama's foreign policy was a disaster because he did not act more forcefully to topple the Assad government in Syria.  What were their plans to replace it?  While the Blob is certain that Obama should have done something.  They are somewhat divided on whether "something" means to have armed the "moderate" opposition sooner or to bomb Assad after he used chemical weapons.  What exactly Obama would have achieved by bombing Assad is far from clear.  Possibly he would have convinced the Russians that direct intervention in Syria might risk a direct confrontation with the US and thereby dissuaded them from propping up Assad.  If so, then bombing the Assad government might have led to its defeat. Arming the opposition more thoroughly and earlier might also have brought him down.  But did we then or do we now have any plans for what was supposed to replace the Assad government once it was gone?  In all probability, if we had successfully toppled Assad, what would have followed would be anarchy and fighting among the multitude of rival factions taking his place.

Certainly that was the case when Obama successfully toppled Qaddafi in Libya.  The country disintegrated into anarchy.  To the extent that the Blob cares, its answer is that we should have done more to plan for the post-Qaddafi future.  The Blob is notably unclear what that would have consisted of, other than putting boots on the ground.  Is that what they favor in Libya?  In Syria?

The same goes no less for North Korea. Plenty of people call for regime change.  No one talks much about what is to follow.  Living on the other side of the world, we can afford the luxury of trusting that if the North Korean government falls, all will be well.  China and South Korea, living on North Korea's borders, are not so optimistic.  Both assume that if the North Korean government falls, the results will be anarchy, an imploding failed state, and massive a massive refugee crisis. Given what we have seen of falling dictatorships so far, that seems highly plausible.  To the extent that advocates of regime change in North Korea have any plans, it is that North Korea would be annexed by South Korea.  There are two obvious problems with that plan.  One is that China views South Korea as ultimately hostile and fears hostile troops along its border.  That might be overcome by an agreement to withdraw US troops (with North Korea gone, what need for them?) and appropriate security guarantees for China, a policy of "Finlandization" of South Korea, etc.

At least as much to the point, how could South Korea possibly digest North Korea?  When West Germany annexed East Germany, both were modern, industrial states.  East Germany had lived for nearly 50 years under Communism, but East Germans had been well aware of better conditions in West Germany and aspired to them.  Yet there were ample problems.  Bringing East German's economy up to Western standards proved expensive and burdensome. Training people up people without practice in democratic norms was a challenge.  East Germans had never really faced up to their country's past and developed the capacity for self-criticism of the West Germans.  Economic hardship, anger, resentment, radicalism, and even a neo-Nazi movement arose in the East.

But the divergence between East and West Germany was a mere gap; between North and South Korea is a vast gulf.  Granted that the people of both countries share a common ethnic background, the differences of the past 70 years make them foreign to each other to a mind-boggling degree.  North Koreans are nowhere close to ready for integration into a modern, industrial, democratic country.  Existing as a dependent protectorate of South Korea will lead to resentment (probably on both sides).

All of which circles back to my original comment.  Jeanne Kirkpatrick was right in warning that revolution and the overthrow of the state is a massive and catastrophic social upheaval.  What she failed to consider is the extent to which the old government is responsible for these horrors.  And not just because it is the badness of the old government that precipitates revolution.  Bad government cause serious damage to the countries they govern.  Getting rid of the bad government does not repair the damage that it caused to the larger society.  It removes the thing that was causing the damage, but also what was holding society together all damage notwithstanding.  Kirkpatrick said that "authoritarian" (to her, non-revolutionary) governments could gradually democratize with revolutionary governments could not.  A better way to look at it is to see freedom not as an either-or but on a sliding scale.  And to recognize that very few countries are able to make the leap directly from "not free" to "free."  Most need an intermediate period of "partly free," while moving (at the speed they are able) toward freedom.  Moving in the right direction is often better than arriving too soon, only to see everything break down.  Revolution does not absolutely short-circuit this process forever, but it more likely to set it back than to advance it.  Pushing regime change is more likely to lead to anarchy, ruin, and a restart from even further back, while positive change is more likely by slowly coaxing a country back into the community of nations.

*And, in fairness to Reagan, he was well ahead of the curve in recognizing what was happening and was often derided as gullible by neocons who were the absolute last to see it.
**Bush, Sr. did somewhat tardily and under pressure intervene to stop Saddam's forces from invading Kurdistan, allowing the Kurds to achieve de facto independence.  The first thing they did with their independence was to wage a civil war between rival factions, one side actually seeking the aid of Saddam Hussein!  But ultimately the factions partitioned Kurdistan between them and managed a reasonably well-functioning semi-country.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thoughts on the Korea Escalation

So, no sooner to I say that maybe Trump is too self-centered to notice a crisis and that therefore maybe we won't have to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it is over than he proves me wrong.  He has now been (orally) proclaiming "fire and fury" on North Korea and add (again orally) that that threat might not be "tough enough" and tweet that the military option was "locked and loaded."  At this point handcuffing him and stuffing something in his mouth starts to look like a good idea.  Then all he would be able to say would be "Mumble mumble mumble, mumble mumble."  A definite improvement!

And, it should be noted, this is entirely popular with Trump supporters, who think it is an outrage that he is being criticized.  Some simply like the belligerent talk and consider it exactly what makes America great again.  Others think war with North Korea is inevitable, fault Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama for not starting a war earlier (although they never quite come out and say so) and believe that it should be done quickly, before North Korea develops nuclear missiles that can hit us.

It should be noted that what happens to South Korea and Japan does not factor into their thinking. Nothing against those two countries, you understand; they just don't case.  That is easy enough to understand (just look at the evidence).  What may be harder for people on our side (anti-Trump conservatives included) is that Trump supporters see it as immoral to care what becomes of South Korea or Japan.  Preferring depth to breadth has a very dark side, in this case, dismissing any concern over whether Seoul or Tokyo are destroyed as showing insufficiently deep commitment to our own.* And now the Chinese government has proclaimed that it will come to North Korea's defense if attacked, but will remain neutral if North Korea attacks the US first.  What we definitely need now is some sort of de-escalation before things get out of hand.

On the plus side, there is evidence that things will not escalate out of hand.  The U.S. military is not undertaking any preparations for war.  Back channel communications remain open.  And today a neo-Nazi rally in Charlotteville, Virginia, clashes with counter-demonstrators, a presumed neo-Nazi plowing his car into a crowd, and Donald Trump's failure to condemn the neo-Nazis explicitly have pushed Korea off the front pages.  With luck, this latest uproar will distract our ADD patient in chief from Korea and the crisis will peter out.  And so we will see that in case of crisis it is not necessary to handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet, but merely to distract him till things settle down.  We can hope.

*Cue Jonathan Haidt to explain why caring whether Seoul or Tokyo are destroyed simply demonstrates liberal moral myopia and excessive focus on harm avoidance to the exclusion of all other values, and if you look at it with a more balanced set of values, really any harm to South Korea or Japan are less important than maintaining loyalty to one's own.  Yes, he annoys me sometimes.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

How Do You Measure the Worst President Ever?

At least it pissed off liberals
When George W. Bush was President, I was dismissive of claims that he was our worst President.  James Buchanan, after all, left some very small shoes to fill, as did Andrew Johnson.  With Donald Trump, though, I am no longer so sure.

Here is how it is.  Our greatest Presidents are the ones who hold power under conditions of adversity and rise to the challenge.  The Big Three, Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, were all Presidents under conditions of extreme peril.  The near-greats -- Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, Truman, etc -- also presided over important and difficult transitions.  Charles Krauthammer once said that our only really distinguished President under conditions of peace and prosperity was Theodore Roosevelt.  Our worst Presidents, by contrast, were ones who faced conditions of adversity and did not rise to the occasion.  Think Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, etc.  Presidents under conditions of general peace and prosperity tend toward the middle of the pack, not having the opportunity for either greatness or ruin.  Trump has taken power, if not in the middle of the Eisenhower era, at least under reasonably peaceful, reasonably prosperous conditions.  For him to rank down there with Buchanan or Johnson, he would have to do something truly disastrous, like start a nuclear war.

But it seems to me there is another way of rating Presidents, one that at least tries to remove them from the historical accidents they encountered and and look at their personal characteristics.  What characteristics does this or that President have and how would they have played out in other circumstances.  Obviously there is a lot of speculation called for here, but there are some things in each President's tenure that look like something deeply ingrained in his (or, someday, her) character that would have been there under other circumstances as well.  We can change our "what if" evaluation of Presidents accordingly.

Take Eisenhower, for instance.  Dwight David Eisenhower presided over general peace and prosperity, as well as a relatively tranquil time in domestic politics.  He undertook no major initiative and therefore never really made his mark as outstanding, but he was certainly popular while in power, and many historian are suspect he may have been underrated.  Well, Eisenhower got us out of the Korean War, and he resisted pressure to intervene in Vietnam.  Truman despised him for truckling to the McCarthy wing of his party during the primary, but once in power he shut the McCarthy wing down pretty effectively and made peace with the New Deal.  It seems a reasonable assumption that Eisenhower deserves a good deal of credit for the peaceful times, both domestically and internationally, that occurred on his watch.

Rating disastrously in real time, but better under this metric is Herbert Hoover.  Although I have  come to understand how poor decisions by Hoover in the wake of the stock market crash mightily contributed to making the Great Depression as bad as it was, Hoover was the captive of a conventional wisdom that was intuitively satisfying but disastrously wrong -- one which said that if families have to cut back, then government should too, and that maintaining the value of the dollar when it came under pressure was vital.  Such harmful conventional wisdom proved too strong to resist even during the most recent economic crisis, despite an abundance of economic research and theory warning against it.  In Hoover's time, not only was such conventional wisdom intuitive satisfying, there was no framework of thought for going against it.  That framework would be invented precisely as a result of the disaster that came from leaders such as Hoover following conventional wisdom.  In other words, there is no reason to believe anyone else would have done any better in Hoover's place.

Hoover's predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, like Eisenhower, presided over general peace and prosperity and had no major achievements.  Many conservatives these days see Coolidge as an ideal President precisely because he never did anything.  Others fantasize that if only he had been President in 1929, he would have done nothing and saved us from the disaster of Hoover's (limited) intervention.  Many liberals suspect that Coolidge encouraged speculation on the stock market and thereby contributed to the crash.  I guess my ultimately evaluation would be that it is easy to imagine Coolidge and Hoover swapping places and everything turning out exactly the same as it did.  In that case, Hoover would preside over peace and prosperity and would get credit for it because of his administrative brilliance. Coolidge would preside over the crash that followed, and lead to countless counterfactual speculation that the Depression could have been avoided if only one with such first-rate administrative competence as Hoover had been in office.  Hoover was a Quaker, with a Quaker's opposition to war. He opposed our role in World War II, so he would have been disaster if he had been President during Hitler's rise.  On the other hand, he would have been useful to have on hand if there had been the need to stay out of a war.

James Buchanan, like Herbert Hoover, was President at a time that would have been challenging to even the best holder of that office.  Keep in mind that his inaction in the face of southern succession took place after he was a lame duck.  One can argue somewhat plausibly that it was reasonable for Buchanan to believe that he should not undertake any course of action that would lock in his successor and limit his freedom of action.  Can anyone honestly say that another President in his place would have acted differently?  Or that if some other lame duck had acted differently, the results would have been good, rather than to lock Lincoln in to some unwanted course of action?  On the other hand, Buchanan had a long-standing record as an appeaser of the South, to the extent of pushing for the admission of Kansas as a slave state against the wishes of its inhabitants (and of two territorial governors that he personally appointed).

On the other hand, some Presidents go badly, not because they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, but because of their own character.  Nixon comes to mind.  What is most striking about the Watergate scandal is how utterly stupid and unnecessary it was.  It is at least somewhat understandable for Nixon to have believed that McGovern was a dangerous radical, and that winning the election was not just a political issue, but an urgent matter of national security.  On the other hand, the American people obviously shared the view that McGovern was a dangerous radical, based on the nearly 2-1 margin of victory they gave Nixon.  Our least charismatic, least personally likeable President (at least till Trump came along) nonetheless won the election by a 65-35 popular vote and carried every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Resorting to dirty tricks under those circumstances was just plain nuts.  The resort to dirty tricks might have been understandable if Nixon was behind and running scared, convinced that a McGovern win could be a disaster to the nation.  But any normal politician with a 30-point lead would have recognized that he could afford to be magnanimous, and that if it cost him votes, then at worst he would get a landslide instead of a blow-out.  I have tried asking people old enough to remember Watergate why he did it and the most satisfactory answer I have gotten was that Nixon was not altogether normal.  He was simply not the sort of person who could rest on a 30-point lead and consider it enough.  This leads me to the conclusion that Watergate was not only incredibly stupid and self-inflicted, but was something innate in Nixon's character, and that he would have done something like it regardless of circumstances.

So, mark Nixon as at least one President whose failing was not just bad luck, but innate in his character.  Then there is Andrew Johnson.  Johnson showed up drunk at his inauguration as Vice President and gave an rambling and incoherent speech.  As President, he needlessly ruined relations with Congress by giving a Washington's birthday speech in which he referred to himself 200 times and denounced the Radical Republicans as enemies.  He then alienated the remaining moderate Republicans by vetoing their legislation.  During the mid-term elections, he managed to alienate both parties and campaigned on behalf of a third party he attempted unsuccessfully to create.  For the President to campaign openly went against the norms of the day; Johnson made further enemies in how he went about it.  He called for hanging of Radical Republicans and abolitionists, defended himself against non-existent accusations of being a tyrant, and even compared himself to Jesus Christ and the Radicals to his betrayers.  In this he succeeded in making enemies throughout the North and bringing about a strong swing in the the vote in favor of the Republicans, while even his supporters considered his actions beneath the dignity of his office. The rest of his term was devoted to fighting with Congress, culminating in his impeachment, although the Senate failed to convict.  He sought the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1868, but failed.

Clearly, Johnson was facing circumstances that would have proven challenging even to a much abler man.  But it is equally clear that he mishandled the job at all levels, and that an alternative with even minimal political or diplomatic skills could have handled it better.  It seems unlikely that Johnson would have been a successful President even under favorable conditions.

In this admittedly speculative evaluation of Presidents, going by their general character and ability to have handled the office under different conditions, I would dethrone Buchanan as worst President ever and replace him with Andrew Johnson.  Nixon would also have to rate very poorly on this scale.  And while it is hard to say yet how Trump compares to Johnson and Nixon, he can't possibly rank well.

How Does Trump Compare to My Expectations?

At least it pissed of liberals
I often read articles by an author saying that he or she has opposed Donald Trump for President and believed he would be a disaster, but now he has turned out to be even worse than expected.  Do I agree?

Well, yes and no.  If truth be known, I never tried too hard to game out what a Trump presidency would look like.  Some things are just too horrible to contemplate.  But I suppose I could consider what I dreaded in Trump and see if it came true, and what I did not dread in Trump that came true anyhow.

Well, for starters, I commented that Trump appealed to people who equated obnoxiousness with principle.  In fact, Trump wouldn't know a principle if it bit him in the ass, he was merely obnoxious. Still, I said, if obnoxiousness is the primarily quality one is looking for in a President, Trump was perfect.  Otherwise I couldn't thing of a single good thing to say about him.  That has proven true, with one exception.  Trump's followers have gone from supporting him because they equate his obnoxiousness with principle to supporting obnoxiousness for its own sake.  I didn't foresee that.

But if I didn't give too much thought to what a Trump Presidency would be like, what did I think of him that made him so completely unfit to be President, and how has it played out?

Well, I thought that Trump was utterly ignorant of policy and unlikely to care to learn anything about it.  And given that he has been pushing for any repeal of Obamacare and not even caring about the contents, that has been true.

I expected that Trump would be corrupt with a different kind of corruption, an inability to make any distinction between the public good and his private fortunes and an inability to understand why there would be anything wrong with using his office to enrich himself.  That has been true.

I expected Trump to be utterly incompetent in terms of managing that job.  That has certainly proven to be true.

I expected Trump to be temperamentally unfit to lead, to make his decisions through sheer personal caprice without any serious thought to the consequences.  That has also been true.

I expected Trump to be vindictive and resentful, more than willing to use the powers of the federal government to wage feuds against his personal and political enemies.  That has been about half true -- he has been supremely vindictive, waging feuds through Twitter, threats, and (apparently) through attempted blackmail.  But thus far the "deep state" has prevented him from turning his resentments into actual use of federal power to harass his enemies.

I expected Trump to be a bunch of hot air, making a lot of noise, but utterly ineffectual in actually doing anything.  True, true and utterly true!

I also expected Trump to be the sort of person who in times of crisis we would desperately want his staff to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it was over.  What I failed to understand is the extent to which having a crisis is a matter of choice.  A different President might have made a crisis over North Korea shooting off missiles or Saudi Arabia and its allies blockading Qatar.  Trump has chosen not to.  Trump is proving too self-centered to have a crisis because crises draw attention off of him and onto something else.  So my fear of Trump in a crisis has (thus far) proven unfounded.

So, up to now almost as bad as I feared, but not quite.

But there are two things about Trump that I absolutely did not anticipate.

One was his affiliation with Russia and growing evidence of actual collusion in the Russian hacks and strategically timed leaks of information.  I suspected Trump of many bad things, but being Putin's poodle never one of them.

The other had to do with all the crazy conspiracy theories he spouted, from birther beliefs that Obama was born in Kenya to accusations that Ted Cruz's father somehow had something to do with the Kennedy assassination.  I saw these as cynical ploys to appeal to the base.  It never occurred to me that Trump might actually believe that crap.  But I think the evidence is becoming ever stronger, that, yes, he really did believe that Obama was born in Kenya and that Cruz's father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination and other nonsense that appears on Infowars.  So, which do I prefer as a President, a knave or a fool?  Or father, given that Trump is so obviously both, a cynical demagogue who pretends to believe conspiracy theories to manipulate his gullible followers, or one who actually believes them himself?

And it would appear that I prefer a knave to a fool.  One who lies and merely pretends to believe that claptrap is at least sufficiently grounded in reality to take it into account when necessary.  One who actually believes it is off in a fantasy world that can become a serious problem next time he is called upon to deal with actual issues in the real world.*

So, in short, I avoided as much as possible having specific expectations about Trump because some things were simply too horrible to contemplate.  To the extent that I did have expectations, he has mostly met them.  I have been pleasantly surprised in his ability to avoid disastrous crises, at least so far.  But he he has proven even worse than I feared, both in his affiliation with Russia and his apparently genuine belief in a lot of nutty conspiracy theories.  And now for the disturbing part.  It appears those two things are closely related.

*Of course, he is also quite good at stopping believing those things when they cease to serve his political purposes.

Friday, August 4, 2017

State TV

At least it pissed off liberals
The fever swamps have been with us for a long time.  We are used to lunatic conspiracy theories in places like Infowars.  The line between the radical right and more mainstream outlets has not always been as clear as one might wish.

But it exists.  At least until recently, there were lines that mainstream outlets did not cross.  Fox News might champion Clive Bundy in his standoff with the federal government,  but it could always claim that it was simply concerned about abuses by the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management.  It never went so far as to champion some of Bundy's more radical views, like that the Federal Government had no law enforcement powers at all, and possibly no right to exits.  Fox might play footsy with the birthers, but it stopped short of endorsement.  It might blame ISIS on Obama for his weakness and refusal to confront, but it never endorsed theories that he was a secret Muslim or agent of terrorists.  And the truly nuts-o stuff, like that he nearly nuked South Carolina, was never so much as hinted at.

That was why it came as a shock when Sean Hannity ran a story on Fox that was pure fever swamp.  Seth Rich, a young staffer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was shot and killed in what appears to have been a robbery gone wrong.  Rumor had been running for some time among the fever swamps that he, and not the Russians, was the true source of e-mails released by Wikileaks, with the implication that he was murdered by the DNC in retaliation.  Vince Foster rides again!  It was the sort of story one expected to see in the fever swamps.  To see it in a mainstream outlet like Fox was a serious shock.

Well now the even more shocking story behind the story has come out.  This story didn't just happen, it was published on orders from above.  The investigator quoted as the primary source in the article has filed suit against Fox, alleging that Fox attributed fabricated quotes to him.  According to the lawsuit, the primary actor in moving the story was Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Republican donor, who had ties to the White House and insisted on having the story published. The suit makes clear that the "investigation" had a foregone conclusion -- that Rich, not the Russians, was behind the release of DNC documents to Wikileaks.  The investigator further alleges that he and Butowsky personally met with Press Secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the story.  He further alleges that Butowsky tested him that Trump himself was reviewing drafts of the story and wanted in published immediately, although the investigator had no direct contact with Trump.  The Fox story never exactly accused the DNC of having Rich murdered, by in saying that Rich had been the source of the e-mails to Wikileaks and that prominent Democrats were covering up the circumstances of his murder, that was the very strong implication.  The investigator also alleges that Fox strongly pressured him to stick to the fabricated quotes attributed to him.  Fox has retracted the story, apparently under the threat of suit by Seth Rich's family.

So, it is fair to ask just how far out of line with accepted norms is this story.  Or, to put it otherwise, just how shocking is it?  Not having any access to journalism in the corridors of power, I cannot give a direct answer, but here is my understanding.

First of all, it certainly is not out of the ordinary for an administration to "plant" a story.  White House officials speak "off the record" or "on background" all the time, intending to be cited.  That amounts to planting a story.  Second, such stories contain large quantities of spin and slant, invariably favorable to the subject.  As for how often news stories begin with a conclusion and work backward to reach it, I honestly could not say.  But what is unheard of is for the White House to plant a completely fabricated story and insist on its publication in the face of all evidence.

Furthermore, it is the well-established practice for news media to publish puff pieces in exchange for access.  And it is the normal practice for new media to consult with government even when publishing a story against government opposition, and sometimes to coordinate in order to avoid damage to national security.  But our mainstream outlets would be outraged at the suggestion of the the White House dictating a story, especially a false one.

During the Obama Administration, right-wing outlets sometimes accused the mainstream media of being "state television."  But now Fox really is moving in that direction.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

John Kelly for Prime Minister

At least it pissed off liberals
So, apparently John Kelly is making his mark  as White House Chief of Staff.  He is uttering Donald Trump's trade mark line, "You're fired!" and doing an excellent job cleaning house of a lot of people who badly need cleaning out.  Of course, there will be a significant obstacle to Kelly imposing lasting order until someone figures out a.  way for the Chief of Staff to fire the President.  Assuming firing is out of the question, maybe Kelly can just handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet for the next four years.

Barring that, maybe Kelly can at least figure out a way to kick him upstairs -- convince him to devote his time to playing golf, giving speeches to cheering supporters, holding signing ceremonies of Congress actually manages to pass anything, and tweeting comments about Fox and Friends, but to give up that boring old job of worrying about policy.  In short, maybe Kelly can convince Trump to be a constitutional monarch and allow Kelly to be his prime minister.

Of course, such an arrangement would have its problems. For one thing, Kelly seems to regard democratic politics and dissent with contempt, and to regard authoritarian organizations like the military and the police as having greater virtue.  But at least Kelly knows how to run an authoritarian organization in an orderly fashion; in other words, to offer authoritarianism under law instead of capricious authoritarianism.  For another, Kelly's basic job is to reign his boss in.  Trump is notorious for not liking to be reigned in.  He doesn't actually want to bother with all the work that goes into governing, but he definitely doesn't want to allow anyone else to govern in his place.  The natural result is a godawful mess.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Repeal is Dead. Long Live Repeal! (Or at Least Sabotage)

I bet THAT pisses off liberals
I still don't understand Senate Reconciliation procedures.   I have read conflicting accounts as to whether repeal is dead now that it has been formally voted down, whether it is alive until September 30, or whether it stays alive until Congress passes its next budget resolution (which can, of course, include another call for repeal).  So repeal is either definitely dead this year, dead on September 30, or capable of coming back an unlimited number of times, like a horror movie villain.

Certainly, Donald Trump favors that later option.  He has even made clear that he wants Congress to pass a repeal before it even passes a budget or raises the debt ceiling.  And, while the Senate has decided to stay in Washington for the first two weeks in August, the House won't be back until September begins.  And they don't have a plan for a budget or debt ceiling increase yet, so there won't be a lot of time for repeal.

In the meantime, Trump is threatening to crash the exchanges if Congress won't give him a repeal. That makes at least limited political sense.  If Congress had passed a repeal and Trump had staged an elaborate signing ceremony in the White House and then premiums has soared, subsidies had shrunk, and sick people found themselves priced out, I don't see how Trump and the Republicans could possibly avoid blame.  By contrast, if repeal spectacularly fails and Trump then crashes the exchanges, he can then blame it on the Democrats and Obamacare and say that it would never have happened if only the repeal had passed.  It might seem more sensible in that case for him not to run around announcing that he is setting out to crash the exchanges if he wants to avoid blame, but this ignores the right-wing media's success in creating an alternate reality.  If Trump succeeds in crashing the exchanges he will simply dismiss any attempts to blame him, including quotes of his own words, as FAKE NEWS! and his followers will believe him.

When Trump was set to withdraw from NAFTA, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue presented him with a map showing that the places that supported him would be disproportionately harmed in a trade war.  The message got through and Trump changed his mind.  Let's all give Perdue a hand for a job well done!  I suppose it is too much to expect Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price to do a similar favor for us on what would happen if Trump crashed the exchanges.

Of course, there is another option.  Congress could pass a legislation with some elaborately contrived name to spell out KILL OBAMACARE Act.  It would begin with a preamble calling Obamacare the worse legislation ever passed in the history of the entire known universe and saying that it must be pulled up by the roots, jumped up and down on till it bursts, then scrubbed down with bleach and the furrows salted to make sure it never again pollutes our body politic.  Follow it by a second preamble praising Donald Trump's wisdom, foresight and persistence and assuring him that it would never have passed without his leadership. Then do a few patches and tweaks, some tax breaks for health savings accounts, and a few more minor changes, and assure him that this will deliver such great healthcare people will get tired of great healthcare.  He'll never know the difference.