Sunday, January 20, 2019

Weekend Roundup

The shutdown, or as David Frum put it, "the President's hostage attempt," goes on, revulsing and alienating government workers and the public on top of the revulsion and alienation they first felt when he took office and started to self-destruct the government. (The exception, or so we're told, is the ICE border agent union, which relishes the idea of moving from the backwaters of law enforcement to the closest thing we've ever had to Hitler's SS.) As I've noted before, the first and foremost job of every Chief Executive is to keep things working. In many regards Trump had already broken the organizations he was responsible for running before he shuttered offices and halted paychecks (e.g., see the story below on EPA prosecutions). His new cudgel is blunter, and dumber.

The first thing that popped into my mind when Trump insisted on shutting down the government is that this is why we don't negotiate with terrorists. Except I couldn't use that, because I believe that we should negotiate with terrorists, with hostage-takers, with all manner of brutes and bullies. I'd even be willing to quote Winston Churchill, something about "jaw-jaw" being better than "war-war." But Trump sees this as a test of power, to be resolved by bending Congressional Democrats into submission. The reason terrorists have such a poor reputation for negotiating is that, like Trump, they're insatiable. Republicans have played this budget chokehold card many times since 1995, always coming back for more, so what Trump is doing is completely in character. The difference this time is that Democrats didn't win a major election just to let Trump trod all over them. They were voted in to resist Republican tyranny, and this is their first serious test.

One thing I feel I need to decide this week (or, let's say, by the end of January, at latest) is whether I'm going to try to write my unsolicited advice book for Democrats in 2020. Say it takes three months to write, two to get edited and published, that gets us to July, by which time we'll probably have a dozen Democrats running for President. (I'm counting four right now: Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, and Tulsi Gabbard; Wikipedia lists more I wasn't aware of, plus an announcement pending from Kamala Harris tomorrow.) But that's just a measure of how soon what Matt Taibbi likes to call "the stupid season" will be upon us. I have no interest in handicapping the race, or even mentioning candidates by name. I'm more interested in historical context, positioning, and what I suppose we could call campaign ethics: how candidates should treat each other, the issues, the media, the voters, and Republicans. And note that the book is only directed toward Democrats who are actually concerned enough to get involved in actual campaigns. Even there, it won't be a "how to" book. I don't really know anything about running a campaign. It's more why we need candidates in the first place, and what those candidates should say.

Some rough ideas for the book:

  • I'm thinking about starting off with a compare/contrast between Donald Trump and George Washington. They are, by far, the richest Americans ever to have won office, and otherwise couldn't be more unalike (unless I have to deal with GW's ownership of slaves, which suggests some similar views on race). The clearest difference is how we relate to money, and how we expect politicians with money to serve.

  • I'd probably follow this up with brief compare/contrasts between Trump and selected other presidents. I might find various presidents that offer useful contrasts on things like integrity, diligence, intelligence, care, a sense of responsibility, a command of details, tolerance of corruption. I doubt I'd find any president Trump might compare favorably to, but it might be helpful to make the effort.

  • Then I want to talk about political eras. Aside from Washington/Adams, there are four major ones, each dominated by a party, each with only two exceptions as president:

    1. From 1800-1860, Jefferson through Buchanan, interrupted only by two Whig generals (and their VPs, since both died in office, Harrison especially hastily).
    2. From 1860-1932, Lincoln through Hoover, interrupted only by two two-term Democrats (Cleveland and Wilson).
    3. From 1932-1980, Roosevelt through Carter, interrupted only by two two-term Republicans (Eisenhower and Nixon/Ford).
    4. From 1980-2020, Reagan through Trump, interrupted only by two two-term Democrats (Clinton and Obama).

    There's quite a bit of interesting material I can draw from those periods. Each starts with a legendary figure, and ends with a one-term disaster. (I suppose you could say that about Washington/Adams as well, but that's a rather short descent for an era.) In each, the exceptions substantially resemble the dominant party. But the Reagan-to-Trump era does reflect an anomaly: each of the first three eras started with a shift to a broader and more egalitarian democracy, whereas Reagan was opposite. Each era had a mid-period nudge in the same direction (Jackson/Van Buren, Roosevelt, Kennedy/Johnson, but also GW Bush). Of course, the anti-democratic tilt of Reagan-to-Trump needs some extra analysis, both to show how it could run against the long arc of American history and why after 1988 it was never able to post commanding majorities (as occurred in previous eras).

  • I then posit that in 2020 the goal is not just to defeat Trump but to win big enough to launch a new (and overdue) era. This will be the big jump, but I think if Democrats aim big, they can win big -- and it will take nothing less to make the necessary changes. This is possible because Republicans, both with and without Trump, have boxed themselves into a corner where all of their beliefs and commitments only serve to further hurt the vast majority of Americans. It will be tough because Republicans still have a stranglehold on a large segment of the public. But this spell can be broken if Democrats look beyond the conciliatory tactics and marginal goals that marked the campaigns of Obama and the Clintons.

  • At some point this segues into a lesson on the need for unity and tolerance of diversity within the Democratic Party. I'll probably bring up Reagan's "11th commandment," which served Reagan well but has since been lost on recent Tea Partiers and RINO-bashers (although the post-election fawning over Trump suggests that Republicans will come around to backing anything that wins for them).

  • I'll probably wind up with a brief survey of issues, which will stress flexibility and feedback within a broad set of principles. I can imagine later doing a whole book on this, but this would just offer a taste.

Book doesn't need to be more than 300 pages, and could be as short as half that. It is important to get it out quickly to have any real impact. I would consider working with a co-author, especially someone who could carry on to do much of the promotion -- something I'm very unlikely to be much good at.

While I can imagine that this could be worth doing, I can also think of various reasons not to bother. The obvious one is that I haven't been feeling well, having a good deal of back pain, and having a trouble with my eyes -- things that have taken a toll from my normal workload over the last few months. I also seem to be having more difficulties coming up with satisfactory writing. I spent a lot of time yesterday trying to write up a response to a particularly annoying Facebook rant, and never did come up with anything I felt like sharing. I am especially bothered by self-destructive arguments I see both on the left and the right of the Democratic Party spectrum, and this sometimes tempts me to throw up my hands and leave you all to your fates. On the other hand, sometimes this tempts me to think that all the help you need is a little clarity that I fancy I can provide.

Just knocked this much off the top of my head, in two sets of a couple hours each, so this is very rough. Next step will be to try to flesh out a bit more outline, maybe 3-5 times the length, with a lot of bullet points. That would be the goal for the next 7-10 days. If I manage that, I'll circulate it to a few friends, then make a decision whether to proceed. The alternative project at this point is probably a memoir, which is something that can take however much time it takes (or however much I have left).

Comments welcome, and much appreciated.

Meanwhile, some scattered links this week:

Ask a question, or send a comment.