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Posts published in April 2019

Too smart to be president . . .

johnson

I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”
“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.
The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.
 

A call for course correction

stapiluslogo1

Is there a more spectacularly successful organization in Idaho than the College of Western Idaho? From its founding barely a decade ago, it now serves more than 31,000 students in southwest Idaho, its astounding growth a demonstration of the overwhelming need for its services and at least in part the institution’s ability to scale up.

But there are red flags, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Boom periods, when they occur, often are critical transition points whether for a business, or state, or nation - or college.

The College of Western Idaho seems to be coming up on a fork in the road, and its trustees have a responsibility for thinking hard and thoroughly about what they do next. Their decisions in the next two or three years could affect this college, and a large chunk of Idaho, for a long time to come.

The latest and largest red flag came in the form of an April 16 letter from the faculty senate of CWI to the board of trustees. This kind of letter is not unheard of in higher education, but it usually comes when the institution is undergoing critical, and often negative, shifts and adjustments.

Like some other letters of its kind, there’s a concern about administrative blowback: “There is a culture of fear that there will be retaliation for speaking out against administration.” The letter noted that a poll of faculty resulted in a lack of confidence in the college president and interim provost. And not just the administrators: “Faculty came into the 2018-2019 academic year feeling unheard by the trustees … Now more than ever it was obvious that faculty’s voice was being ignored, filtered and discouraged.”

Manifestations were cited. “We want to be involved in conversations and to be able to ask questions. However, on multiple occasions when we have questioned decisions, our Interim Provost has told us if we don’t like to it to find a new job. For the record, we don’t want to find a new job. We love working at CWI. … Many faculty chose to come to CWI over a university because teaching and students are their priority. And in the past, it has felt like students were the priority.”

It goes on: “It does not feel like that anymore. More and more our college feels like it is moving toward a public ‘for-profit’ institution. In fact, our new Provost comes to us with a for-profit institution background.”

The letter does get into more specific concerns as well. Some of them are inadequate professional status (“quotas on rank for faculty”), and many members of the faculty have come to believe they will be seeing pay cuts next year. The reasons for thinking so weren’t specified, but the allegation was made clearly and seemingly without need for further support.

But some concerns are broader, such as a proposal to crunch semesters into eight-week terms. That “decision was made without asking our students or our community if this is a change they want. We worry that we may be risking success at the ends of innovation.”

And the letter makes a bigger-picture point as well: “Students and faculty are the best ambassadors for CWI to the community. If administration does not realize this, no amount of branding or marketing will help.”

And here we come to the pathway fork. What the letter seems to outline is a management approach aimed at short-term cost cutting, possibly moving in the direction of a for-profit model, at the likely expense of academic quality and student benefit. The letter suggests the development is relatively new, but gaining ground.

The letter is one perspective of what’s happening at CWI, and no doubt there are others. But if the point of the letter is anywhere near right (there’s been no substantial response yet from either the administration or trustees, who may well have a differing view), then a bust of some kind could follow the boom. (Maybe the pair of community votes against CWI bond issues were an early warning signal.)

The window for course correction before that happens won’t stay open for long.
 

Talking about Brad

schmidt

It was a rushed lunch since all the fraternities had gotten together, but Skip wanted to grab a sandwich before O-chem at 1:30. “You got any turkey?” he asked Blanche, the cook.

“They’re all labeled out there, just look.” She didn’t roll her eyes.
Skip got one with the white meat and dropped his satchel to eat.

Scooter high-fived him with a “Haaayy” and grabbed a pink meat sandwich. “I love Blanche’s ham sandwiches.” And he plopped down next to Skip.

“So, isn’t that cool that the governor was a Phi Delt?” Scooter started.

“Yeah, but he’s a Republican.”

“What difference does that make? He’s a bro!” Another high five.

“At least he wants to make Idaho a place we want to come back to.” Skip offered.

“Yeah, and I heard he defended us from the initiative attack.”

“Huh?” Skip asked through a mouthful of white bread.

“Yeah, didn’t you know? All those Californians wanted to make Idaho pass initiatives and he fought that off.”

Skip swallowed. “I heard he vetoed the bill about initiatives.”

“Yeah!” Scooter did another high five. “Our man! Phi Delt!”

Blanche came out. “You guys take another sandwich. They going to waste.”

Scooter grabbed another and said, “And he said he really wants Idaho to be a place for us to work and raise our families. Ain’t that cool?”

“Sure,” Skip agreed. He looked at the pile of sandwiches. “I just wonder if I can make a living here in Idaho.”

“Hey,” Scooter frowned. “Just get a job from the old man. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Skip paused. Scooter had never really learned much about his bro’s; Skip decided to tell him.

“Scooter, my dad is dead. My mom is a school teacher and I want to get into med school. Idaho has the lowest pay for doctors in the country and the hardest acceptance rate to med school.”

Scooter looked down. “Sorry man. That’s tough. My old man has a ranch, so that’s what I’ll be doing.”

Blanche brought over two paper plates of sandwiches. “You boys take these.”

“Thanks Blanche.” Skip offered. “Did you get to hear the Governor?”
She looked puzzled.

“He came to talk to all of us this morning. He told us how he wants to make this state a place where we can raise our kids. Yeah, Brad Little was a Phi Delt!” Fist bump.

Blanche looked down. “I was cooking for you all.”

Skip asked, “Where are your kids Blanche? Are they still in Idaho?”

She looked at him hard, then she looked at Scooter. “Yeah, you Phi Delts are the ticket.” And she turned away.

As she ambled back to the kitchen, Scooter murmured to Skip, “Hey man, don’t ask her about her kids.”

“Why not?” Skip was blushing.

“Well, I’ve heard she’s raising her grandkids. Something about her daughter in prison or something.”

Skip looked down. Scooter grabbed his bag. “Gotta go, Poly Sci at 1:30.” He took his sandwiches and left.

Skip picked up his satchel and went into the kitchen. Blanche was leaning over the sink. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Blanche, I’m sorry.”

She let the water run over her hands and the pot she was washing for a while then she turned to the young man. “You don’t got nothing to be sorry for.”

“I’m sorry if my question caused you any pain.”

Blanche looked at the young man a long time. “It’s OK.” She smiled. “Sure was nice you all got to hear from our governor.”

Skip thought about what he’d heard. The governor so full of confidence and advice for the young fraternity and sorority members, about coming back to Idaho and making the state better. It had felt inspirational.
“I believe he wants to make this state better.”

Blanche looked down. “I just want my family to be better.” And she turned back to the pots in the sink.
 

Socialism yesterday, today, tomorrow

mckee

The term “socialism” has always been an enigma to Democrats. Its basic theory forms the underpinnings of some of the most long-standing, valuable, and endearing programs of our country and yet the Democrats treat the term itself as an anathema in a political campaign – as if it is the worst thing one could say about a candidate or his or her promises.

In the arena of political debate, the Democrats leave the definition of terms to the Republicans – and they get it wrong. With eyes tight shut and both ears firmly plugged, the far-right poohbahs and cognoscenti loudly maintain that socialism is a misguided, experimental theory that has never worked anywhere or at any time; that if any part of it is adopted in the United States, it will inevitably lead to ruin and despair. Republicans then apply the term to every idea or program proposed by every Democratic running for anything.

The Republicans are wrong in the modern application of socialism, but no one ever calls them upon their errors. They confabulate socialism with communism, and then use the horrible post war conditions of Eastern European autocracies or the corrupt and ineptly managed Venezuela as their examples of socialism run amok. But modern socialism is not communism, and the failures are more due to the consequences of the repressive totalitarian regimes and the corrupt and incompetent administrations rather than to any economic inadequacies of socialistic principles. But rather than take the Republicans on in any debate over these mistakes, the Democrats, individually and collectively, simply run off and hide.

If anyone looked in a different direction, they would see that every democratic country of the industrialized world operates upon at least some underpinnings of socialism. When one compares the economic achievements of these modern western democracies, the results are quite different than what the Republicans represent. Modern socialism puts the emphasis on regulatory controls rather than government ownership. It does not mandate government ownership of all business; it does not negate the profit motive; and it does not forbid the accumulation of wealth. It allows for substantially free markets with ample room and opportunity for individual innovation and achievement, so long as the results are not oppressive or unfair and so long as benefit to the community is not ignored.

The strongest examples of successful socialistic economies are in the Scandinavian countries of Northern Europe. When one examines the economies of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, and the economic history these countries have enjoyed since the end of World War II, one finds that all are thriving under fundamentally socialistic principles operating within the sphere of democratic governance. According to a recent study by The Heritage Foundation, they are all equal to or ahead of the United States in most quadrants of economic measurement, including not only their average standard of living but in sustained growth, economic freedoms and in the levels of contentment of their middle classes.

The emphasis in modern socialism is on economic guarantees, individual protections, and in safety nets rather than government ownership. It maintains that benefit to the community is or should be a necessary element for anyone utilizing the resources of production and exchange – whether by public or private means – meaning that the aggrandizement of private business must include a public benefit objective along with the accumulation of wealth and realization of profit as being a necessary goal to be achieved.

Although we claim to be a free market, capitalist-based economy, we already incorporate many of these modern, socialist based concepts in our laws today, and we have steadily done so since the turn of the 20th century. Public schools, fire departments and police are socialistic institutions that no community would do without. The early anti-monopoly and unfair competition laws enacted in the 1900s were ground-breaking innovations of the day and were quickly followed by government regulations establishing minimum wages and maximum hours, protection against child labor, requirements for workers’ compensation insurance and unemployment compensation, and laws and regulations pertaining to safety in the workplace. Social security benefits and Medicare health coverage for the aged and disabled are so firmly established, they are considered to be untouchable by even the most extreme right winger. More recently, we have added laws and regulation for the protection of the disabled, towards equality of women in the workplace, and of preventing discriminatory practices towards minorities. The debates today are not whether to keep these programs, but how best to maintain and improve them to the better benefit of all. The socialistic underpinnings are seldom even mentioned.

All of these laws, collectively, could be considered cornerstones of modern socialism –and virtually every one of the laws in the areas summarized were brought about by Democrats, over the objection of Republicans, upon the objection of creeping socialism.

With all of this background, it should be no surprise that Bernie Sanders continues to attract huge crowds of young voters accepting with enthusiasm his version of socialism. Even more dramatic is the cadre of new members of Congress who were elected in 2018 and who are openly advancing the notions of democratic socialism as part of their basic platforms. This, despite the strong efforts of the media, the Republicans, and even members of the mainstream Democratic party to convince them otherwise.

The newer generations of voters, who do not have the experience of the cold war with its frightful examples of the Iron Curtain countries struggling to industrialize under the repressive communist rule, have no reason to instinctively run away from the concepts of socialism. The result is a new wave of voter beginning to think about the differences between Republican and Democratic governance in a more insightful fashion, ignoring the clattering outrage of the old arguments by the simple process of accepting a new banner for Bernie’s ideas – “Democratic Socialism.”

Despite all this, whenever the specter of socialism rears up in political campaigns today, instead of debating the Republicans head-on over any of their foolish premises, the Democratic candidates still go hide. They twist themselves into pretzels to avoid having some proclamation or campaign promise of theirs besmirched with the awful sobriquet. It is bad enough for a Democrat to have to put up with being termed a “liberal,” (which is also left for the Republicans to define) but to be caught off guard and tagged a “socialist” without solid cover to hide under is considered a campaign-ending blunder.

Except for Bernie Sanders, every one of the top line Democrats seeking to unseat the old fool in 2020 is running away from the arguments of democratic socialism. Biden, Harris, Warren, Booker, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and O’Rourke have all been pointedly quoted as saying they are not socialists, that their programs are not socialistic, and that socialism is not something that is needed in U.S. With the Democrats avoiding any debate on the matter and running away at even the mention of the word, the entire subject of socialism is still left to the Republicans to shape and mold as they wished.

Only one candidate so far, besides Bernie, has addressed the place that socialism might play in a presidential campaign. Pete Buttigieg’s direct answer to CNN’s Jake Trapper, in response to a question about Trump’s declaration that the U.S. would never be a socialist country, is illuminating. Mayor Pete observed that the word “socialism” as losing its power, and that today, it was more likely to be “the beginning of a debate, not the end of a debate. You can no longer simply kill off a line of discussion about a policy by saying that it's socialist,” Pete said, “If someone my age or younger is weighing a policy idea and somebody comes along and says, 'You can't do that, it's socialist.' I think our answer will be, is it a good idea or is it not?" Yeah, Man! Here is a response to the Republican’s challenge that makes sense!

Nevertheless, the Democrats are starting out this silly season just like always – by ceding the high ground of the debate – the definition of terms – to the Republicans and trying to maintain that there will not be even the taint of socialism anywhere to be found in their promises and programs. This means that they will have no place to go when it comes time to roll out the details of their programs and actually put meat on the bones. To attempt to argue that solutions can be reached to the problems at the core of the Democratic Party’s agenda without reference to socialism or socialistic principles is sophistry. When the Democratic candidates start rolling out the details of their programs, the socialistic elements are going to be obvious. This means the candidates are going to get caught, which means the insidious result will be a weakening in the structure of the Democratic position.

The point is that no one is advocating the overthrow of capitalism. The solutions to be offered in all of the programs to be advanced are going to be in the area of socialistic protections and provisions to be added our existing systems: additional protections to the markets from unfair tactics and rigged or artificially dampened opportunities; additional protections to individuals against exploitation or abuse; and additional safety nets where required in the event of unsustaining cyclical reversals. It does not really matter whether we term the results we expect after adding these devices to be free market capitalism with a degree of socialistic protections or socialism with an overlay of free market capitalism. The point is that our economy now exists and is going to exist into the future with elements of both capitalism and socialism, as both are necessary and essential to the operation of the society to which we have become accustomed.

Given all of this, it is pure foolishness to start the argument with fully one half of the topic declared completely off limits for discussion.

Isn’t the practical solution obvious yet?
 

Commemorations

jones

Every year, there are days we remember for better or for worse. They play an important part of who we are--birthdays, wedding anniversaries, historic events, accidents and illnesses, triumphs and tragedies. Yearly remembrance of the important days in our lives allows us to reflect on how they have affected us--to appreciate the good events and to avoid a repeat of the bad ones. April 11 is an important day for me.

On the positive side of the ledger, the 11th of April is the birthday of my wife and dearest friend, Kelly. Although I won’t reveal which birthday this is, I can say that she has been a wonderful partner in our journey together. In addition, she is an accomplished writer and a great help in my journalistic endeavors. Kelly is just in the process of publishing her fifth novel and has been tremendously helpful in getting my second book--a Vietnam remembrance--ready to go to press.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget what happened on April 11 fifty years ago in the former Republic of Vietnam. The convergence of two extraordinary events has left me with lingering questions regarding that troubling war.

I lived and worked with South Vietnamese forces at the Tay Ninh Province Headquarters (Sector), about 50 miles northwest of Saigon. The Communists routinely fired artillery rockets and mortars at Sector, but were rather poor marksmen. The night of April 11, 1969, they got extremely lucky. A rocket landed in one of the buildings where our Vietnamese allies had negligently stockpiled about 240 tons of mortar and artillery shells, other explosives and ammunition of all sorts.

The place blew sky high, killing about 80 South Vietnamese soldiers, 50 suspected Viet Cong or draft dodgers, and more than 10 civilians. It was a rare and extremely tragic event. I would likely have been part of the casualty count but for the fact that my superior, Major Painter, insisted I stay the night at my unit’s base camp about two miles away. That evening I’d gotten an award for helping a local orphanage and when I started to return to Sector, the Major strongly urged me to stay and play poker with the other officers. I’d only spent two duty nights away from Sector in the six preceding months.

I still think about those who tragically perished in the explosions, particularly every year when April 11 rolls around. The futility of the Vietnam War also crosses my mind.

In January of 2018, Kelly and I visited Tay Ninh City—my first trip back to Vietnam. There were no remaining vestiges of Sector or any sign of the wartime U.S. presence in the city. I expect that most of the Vietnamese soldiers with whom I served had been killed, imprisoned, or fled the country after the Communists took over in 1975. There was no sign of them. But everyone we met was friendly and welcoming, despite the bitter struggle. The people genuinely like America and Americans. It makes you wonder what things would have been like if we had let the Vietnamese work their problems out among themselves in the first place.

I also wonder on April 11, and at other times, what caused the award ceremony to coincide with the Communists’ lucky shot and Major Painter’s entreaties that I not go back to Sector that night--just dumb luck or something more. Whatever the answer, we should use anniversaries of unfortunate events as a time to reflect on how we can help keep ugly things from happening again. The yearly milestone of happy events should be a reminder of the great blessings we have as citizens of this great country. Thanks for making life joyful, Kelly, and happy birthday.
 

It’s subpoena time

rainey

When most of us were kids, we were taught to tell the truth. When we did, things around the household ran smoothly and life was good.

But, occasionally, a lie seemed like the easy way out. Besides, “who’d know?” Most often, Mom or Dad DID know. When that happened at our house, the result usually had something to do with a willow switch, wielded in love, though it didn’t seem so at the time.

Been watching the Congressional hearings of late? Been watching and listening to some of our nation’s “leaders” testify to this and that? Been trying to match a lot of that testimony with fact?

I have. And, IMHO, what’s needed most now, along the banks of the Potomac, is a willow tree - make that an orchard of willow trees - from which many switches could be cut. Many.

Though there are others, two major miscreants stand out: Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Attorney General Barr. Both have wandered so far from the truth their willow punishments alone could account for a tree or two.

The lying behavior of both wasn’t hard to see coming. There’s been plenty of evidence that, when push came to shove, their allegiance would not be to the great responsibilities of their positions but to an arrogant, serial-lying, racist misogynist who would sell out this country for a new hotel site.

Barr, especially, has come dangerously close to performing in a way that would put his law license in danger in the purview of some bar associations. He’s not skirted truth so much as stomped all over it. At the same time, he spewed conspiracy theories and some of the flat-out lies we’ve heard so often from his “master.”

Given a second chance, and sufficient rethink time, to recant one of the most heinous charges, he wouldn’t. Instead, he doubled down on a lie that’s been refuted by investigatory agents in his own department!

Rather than supporting the work of Special Prosecutor Muller, he’s blithely announced formation of yet another team to investigate why the Muller investigation was authorized in the first place. In other words, when the facts - and law - aren’t on your side, try to undermine those who do have the facts.

Barr’s whore-like “testimony” was given to a panel made up entirely of lawyers. All of ‘em. Some were prosecutors in their previous lives. They can spot what Barr was amateurishly trying to do. In the legal professions - and many others - it’s called “ass-covering.”

I have to wonder what Muller is thinking and feeling about all this, especially about Barr’s positing an investigation to try to undermine nearly two years of the Muller team’s work. These guys know each other - worked together. Their professional histories go back years.

What do you suppose Mueller thinks now? He, alone, knows what his nearly two years of work uncovered. He, alone, knows what was in -and what was left out - of his report. He knows far, far more about facts uncovered - facts that can eventually be used by Congress and other authorities to support future prosecutions. Barr doesn’t know that. Yet, there he was, promising an investigation of the investigators and their authority.

Mnuchin shared in that “ass-covering” drivel. The law regarding congressional access to tax filings - anyone’s tax filings - is simple-enough and straight-forward enough - to withstand challenge. But, there he was, trying to buffalo another committee of lawyers who know what he was attempting to do.

He even told the committee he had a “more important appointment” to get to and challenged the chair over when and how he could leave the proceedings. He looked like the damned fool he is. All he accomplished was to anger members of Congress that have many ways of bringing him to heel.

Again, IMHO, it’s time to start printing and distributing subpoena’s and handing them out. Lots of ‘em. The time has come to put Barr. Mnuchin and their cohorts under oath and hang the swords of contempt and lying to Congress charges over their misbegotten heads.

We’re headed for an explosion - or maybe many explosions - in D.C.. The pressure of Trump’s arrogance, outrageous behavior and dislike of any restrictions to his presidential authority, coupled with what has now been proven regarding coverup attempts by his minions, is heating up. Trump, alone, is the subject of 27 formal investigations. Other miscreants around him can account for another dozen or more.

This is all headed - now or when Trump leaves office - to legal charges for many folks in a number of jurisdictions.

Barr and Mnuchin are, quite possibly, the opening act. They may have become the first leaks of “steam” from the building pressures. If so, their shoddy efforts to carry water for a lying president are proof Trump will try to poison truth. That he, and those around him who’ve pledged their fealty to his cancerous presence in our Republic, will do and say anything to protect him.

Get out the popcorn. It’s subpoena time.
 

Tyranny of one-party rule

johnson

In his brilliant little book, On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder offers citizens in a modern democracy 20 lessons from 20th century history. Snyder, a scholar of European history and totalitarianism, wrote the book in 2017 as a kind of “how too” guide for living in troubled times.

Some of the lessons — “believe in truth,” “contribute to good causes” and “defend institutions” — seem self-evident and universal.

But, one of Snyder’s lessons, particularly in light of the debacle that has unfolded over the past few weeks in Boise as the Legislature stumbles from one outrage to the next, seems downright urgent: “Beware the one-party state.”

The historian was writing with modern despots in mind, but he might have been thinking about the arrogant supermajority Idaho voters send to the Statehouse every January to tend to the public’s business. “The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start,” Snyder writes. “They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.”

The speaker of the House, Scott Bedke, or the Senate president pro tem, Brent Hill, would never, of course, admit to using their overwhelming majority to make “life impossible for their opponents.” But consider what they and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have been doing in the name of democracy.

The voters of Idaho passed by an overwhelming majority an initiative to improve the health care of tens of thousands of Idahoans. The voters acted, as their constitution provides, by the time-honored democratic process of advancing a measure directly to the ballot box, bypassing the Legislature. The process was ridiculously transparent. No one in the state who was paying the least bit of attention could have missed the effort to gather the signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive effort, well-documented every step of the way. The policy merits of the idea — expanding Medicaid coverage to more poor Idahoans — was debated right along with the signature gathering.

Nearly every politician in Idaho was forced to take a position on the issue. On his way out the door, former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter endorsed the idea. His successor, Gov. Brad Little, promised to implement “the will of the people.” The voters spoke to the tune of nearly 61 percent approval.

Rarely in recent Idaho history has such a significant policy decision enjoyed such widespread public support. And it is important to remember that all this voter-driven activity came only after the Legislature repeatedly failed to act.

Then came the push back, including a frivolous lawsuit from a shadowy ultra-right “think tank” that the Idaho Supreme Court laughed out of existence. Legislative Republicans devised every possible means to contain the scope of the policy voters approved, insisting on work and other requirements that have already been struck down by courts in other states.

Gov. Little all but admitting that this mess will cost the state a bundle to defend in court, then joined fellow Republicans in defying the clear will of the 61 percent who voted to expand access to health care for thousands of Idahoans. This is not honoring the will of the voters; it’s thumbing your nose at them.

Little displayed real political courage just days earlier when he killed the Republican affront to citizen-driven democracy that all but eliminated the ability to put an issue on the ballot. Little’s logic: A judge would ultimately decide the issue was both prudent and sound. He might have applied the same logic, and respected the voter’s will, by killing the Medicaid work requirement legislation. That would certainly have further prolonged an already egregiously long session, but it might also have forced fellow Republicans to send him a “clean” bill that implemented what voters approved at the polls just five months ago.

During this session of political dry rot, Republican lawmakers also sought to create a partisan advantage on the state’s independent redistricting commission, grabbed office space that has historically belonged to the full-time state treasurer so they can create additional offices for themselves, prevented photographs of a House session that would have allowed reporters to identify lawmakers who wouldn’t otherwise have their votes recorded and had the state police mark off a public meeting room as off limits to the public.

As this was written, some GOP lawmakers were scheming to resurrect their anti-initiative revenge on voters’ legislation. In an absolutely unprecedented move, they sliced the measure Little vetoed just days earlier into four separate bills, hoping apparently that they might force the governor’s hand a second time.

The juvenile games may have reached the height of absurdity even by the standards of this legislative session when a majority of Republicans on the House Education Committee refused to attend a meeting where their chairman wanted to introduce legislation dealing with the school funding formula. Such are the antics of a one-party state where most legislators rarely face political accountability. They behave as they do because they can. It seems hardly a stretch to say this has been the worst legislative session in memory.

The overwhelming Republican Legislature is no longer content to marginalize the often-beleaguered Democratic minority — the redistricting move was clearly designed to target the growing legislative advantage Democrats have accumulated in Ada County — and they openly and blatantly work to punish their constituents.

This binge of partisan nonsense should be placed squarely at the doorstep of Bedke and Hill. They have either lost control of the mechanics of legislative operations or they have been content to stand by as the inmates took over the asylum. Either way, the GOP majority has demonstrated unmitigated disdain for governing and flaunted their responsibility to citizens.

And this is all a piece of one-party rule, an arrogance bred of entrenched, concentrated power, a hubris drawn from the privilege of majority.

The lesson of this legislative session is simple: One party rule isn’t democracy, but it surely is a license to abuse democracy. Left unchecked, the one-party state will treat its voters even worse next time.
 

Longer

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What’s the right length for an Idaho legislative session?

Some wags might argue for zero days. But there’s a real question, and pertinent this year: How long should legislators spend doing their work?

Different states answer the question in different ways. Some larger states, of course, have full-time year-round legislatures, which no one (no one I’ve heard, at least) would propose as the right model for Idaho, or most smaller states. Short of that, what seems to work? Bear in mind that the work of legislating on a state level is essentially similar across most states, even if they’re somewhat larger or smaller than Idaho.

The National Conference of State Legislatures points out that, “In the early 1960s, 17 states did not place restrictions on the length of their legislative sessions. In another 10 states, the limits were indirect.” Later, more states placed limits on the length of sessions, but the deadlines once imposed often have been expanded over time.

Most states meet annually, as Idaho does (Idaho changed from every other year about a half-century ago). Montana and Nevada meet biennially. Utah has a tight limit of 45 days per annual session. Washington and Oregon use a different approach, longer sessions in the odd-numbered year (just following elections), and shorter sessions, mainly budget-oriented, in even-numbered years. Oregon’s odd-year sessions can (and often do) run for 160 days, from February well into summer, but the even-year sessions run only about a month. When Washington’s legislature doesn’t get all its work done on time, as sometimes happens, a special session may be called, and in some years a whole string of those have been called until the work is done. (Session term limits can become theoretical only.)

Idaho doesn’t have hard limits on session length, as some of its neighbors do. Legislative leaders often have marked out “target dates” for final - sine die - adjournment. They’ve been known to hit it; more often than not. This year’s target date was March 25; we see how that’s gone.

The very first Idaho state legislative session, in 1890, lasted 82 days and for many decades held the record for longevity. It had a good excuse; a lot of the mechanics of state and local government had to be set up then, so they actually got it done with remarkable dispatch. After that no session lasted as long until 1967, when a newly-reapportioned legislature - this was the first session to be held following modern-style redistricting - had to struggle with rearranging itself and also with a host of vetoes (39 of them) from a new Governor Don Samuelson, apparently deep in conflict with a legislature led by his fellow Republicans. That 1967 session lasted 89 days.

The record wasn’t broken again until another contentious session in 1983, when lawmakers spent 95 days - the same as this year - in session. Then the length eased back, but the average length of “normal” sessions gradually was rising. Adjournments in March almost always were the case before 1983; after that, they more often crept into April.

In 2003 came the longest Idaho legislative session on record, 118 days - another session involving a governor-legislature battle. And then in 2009 another nearly matched it, at 117 days.

Sessions since then have been shorter than those, but most sessions in the new millennium have run more than 80 days, a standard almost unthinkable a generation ago.

This is not to say that they shouldn’t. Legislators in some other states have seen benefits from having a little longer stretch of time to consider proposals, gather information and public comment, and act in deliberation rather than an almost panicked rush to conclude. Legislatures cost money to run, but often not so much as the cost of badly-wrought state law.

So as this 2019 session drags on (as it has, edging closer to record status as it goes), don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. More time can mean better decisions. Personally, I’d rather have my legislators work longer for better decisions.

As long as that’s in fact the tradeoff we get.
 

Political Hell-Raiser

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History is written by the winners, so goes the line; we get accustomed to a narrative of history that doesn't allow for alternative outcomes - or choices. Sitting here today, for example, the story of the 2020 presidential election is yet to be written; two years from now, it all will seem inevitable.

We need those reminders of the mutability of our story and the options before us, and that's the value in the essays and longer narratives of counterfactual (what-if) history. And it's the value in looking at history from a different angle, a perspective that offers a fresh take on what happened and why, and what the alternatives might have been.

That brings us to Political Hell-Raiser, the new book by Marc Johnson, published by University of Oklahoma Press. (Semi-disclaimer here: This is the same Marc Johnson whose columns are appearing here on Saturdays.)

The hell-raiser of the title is Burton K. Wheeler, a U.S. senator from Montana from 1922 to 1946. He was a remarkable figure, and a full biography of him is overdue, but not just because he was one of the leading figures in Congress for a long time. He was also, remarkably, a counter to most of the trends that ran during his political career, and until near the end thrived doing it. He was a radical leftist during the 20s, when the nation veered to the right, and - after working hard for Franklin Roosevelt's election - became a bitter critics of Roosevelt and was identified toward the end more with business interests and anti-communism. (His own view was that he never changed all that much, but the emphasis and perceptions he allowed to grow certainly did.)

He loved political fights, and got into no lack of them, and more than one threatened to rip up not only his political career but private life as well. There was some courage here, no small amount of intelligence and political street smarts and a clear and persistant awareness - even allowing for some change over time - of who he was and what his guiding principles were.

He became best known as one of the leaders in the non-interventionist movement, the group (Johnson generally avoids the term "isolationist" though others might not) which argued against American involvement in a second world war, and helped keep the United States out of it until Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. He was a major national political figure then, and though a Democrat a leading - maybe the leading - thorn in FDR's side. (And FDR was fully aware of it.)

This is a side and perspective of history we don't often get. The prevailing side in American politics in that period is what we ordinarily hear: About the draft toward war, the push by Roosevelt to help0 Great Britain and oppose the Nazis, and the ultimate triumph in 1945. But there was, until Pearl, a strong anti-war movement, and it had no stronger spokesman than Wheeler. After the United States entered into the war, Wheeler's balloon deflated, fast, and after winning four races for the Senate he lost his seat, in the Democratic primary, in 1946: His views were out of step, and widely perceived as being soft on or even sympathetic to the Nazis (though Wheeler personally never was and supported the war once it was declared).

That's the outline, but there's more to the story. We see not only the poorly-informed and even naive aspects of Wheeler's non-interventionism but also the wise aspects to it; he foresaw the rise of a military-industrial complex and the tendency toward militarism, and the threats to freedom and democracy, that war would bring. We see here also some of the often-neglected dark sides of the Roosevelt years, the way the federal government's power was often abused in time of war. The internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry are noted here (and Wheeler was critical of them), but many other bad actions joined them in those years.

Johnson has done fine work here shining a light on a part of American history we often do not see (or might feel uncomfortable examining). Much of it, too much, resonates with American as it is most of a century later.