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Imposing order in Democratic chaos

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“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the cowboy comic Will Rogers famously said. “I am a Democrat.”

Democrats fight among themselves, argue about the future of their party and display a genuine affinity for forming a circular firing squadron whenever an election looms. Joe Biden is being attacked for saying he actually believes in bipartisanship. Bernie Sanders is too old and too socialist, but even he struggles to explain what his brand of socialism really looks like. Kamala Harris was a tough-on-crime prosecutor and that is somehow a liability. I could go on, but you get the drift.

The 23 angry Democrats now running for president is all the proof required that the Democrats are no “organized political party.”

So, since no one is asking, I offer a Democratic Manifesto for both national and Idaho Democrats to impose some order on the chaos.

First, the basics: Every election is about the future. Donald Trump made the 2016 election a referendum on his version of the future, which ironically — or cynically, or manipulatively — was actually about recreating a vision of the country that never existed. “Make America Great Again” was his slogan. It’s time for Democrats to make him eat those words.

Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter squirm in 1980 by asking a question Democrats should be asking: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Trump partisans will point to a strong economy, but the micro answer to Reagan’s question is clearly: No.

Karl Rove, the politically smart but ethically challenged brain behind George W. Bush, always had a formula: Attack your opponent at his point of greatest strength. John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran, while Bush arguably dodged the draft, so in Rove World the correct response was to “swift boat” Kerry with attacks on his military record and patriotism. Trump is oh so vulnerable to the same approach and, best of all, a Democrat need not distort the record as Rove had to in order to pin his ears back.

Imagine a Democrat with this line of logic: Let’s talk about that Mexican-funded wall. Is immigration better than four years ago? Trump will soon have been in office for three years. He had both houses of Congress for half his term — what’s he really done?

Well, he tweets a lot. He thinks he’s tough on immigration, but he hasn’t fixed a thing and, if anything, it’s all much worse than when he started. Trump is a failure at the border.

Trump was going to end our endless wars, but how is that going? He’s incompetent and hasn’t fixed a thing. He hasn’t Made America Great; he’s made the presidency all about himself.

Biden may be making a major mistake, as he demonstrated this week, in questioning Trump’s intelligence and morals. That cake is baked. Only Trump’s diehard 40 percent think he’s anything approaching intelligent and as for morals, well just ask Sen. Mike Crapo who said he couldn’t support Trump after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and then supported him. There is little margin in emphasizing something everyone knows: Trump isn’t all that bright. Everyone knows he’s sleazy and he lies all the time.

I’m not sure the young mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, will be or should be the Democratic nominee. But he certainly has demonstrated an understanding that elections are about the future. “We face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another,” Buttigieg said this week in a meaty speech on foreign policy. “I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and our world.”

Second, appeal to reason and understand that politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. There is not a person in the country today who voted for Hillary Clinton who is going to vote for a second Trump term. The president is defying a law of political gravity, a very simple law: Expand your base, attract new supporters and keep what you have. Trump has turned those ideas upside down. He’s hoping to win a second term by purposefully not expanding his base of support.

The only way this strategy works is if Democrats fail to reach out to the few independent voters who remain or if Trump succeeds in depressing the large and, I would argue, growing anti-Trump vote.

One way to appeal to these folks is to respond to Trump with a bumper sticker slogan, some variation on: “Time for an adult in the White House.” Even many of his supporters cringe at Trump’s rants, incoherent insults and nonstop lies.

Third, understand that the modern Democratic Party is defined by its broad coalition, while what passes for the Republican Party is an older, white ideological movement that at the moment stands only for Trump. The Democratic future in this election and the next is the demographic reality that younger Americans, people of color and women will increasingly decide American elections.

This would be the place where I throw down the gauntlet to Idaho Democrats, a beleaguered, largely leaderless group that has been operating without a strategy for more than 20 years.

Here’s the bumper sticker: Youth, Women and Hispanic Americans. Idaho Democrats don’t just need a strategy; they need a long-game strategy, one that strives for real political relevance in 10 years. Younger Idahoans, people in high school and college today, should be the core of that strategy.

Then organize, organize, organize. And aggressively bring many more young people into the political process. It would not only be the right thing to do, but it offers a path out of the wilderness.

It’s an old fashioned notion, I know, but I still believe most elections come down to a question of fear versus hope.

Trump won, as every Republican since Reagan has, by emphasizing division, despair and decline. Against a flat-footed, yesterday candidate such as Hillary Clinton it worked. In the moment of reckoning coming soon we’ll see if it works again.

(photo/Biden in Alabama)
 

A nothing burger

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Nine days ago Robert Mueller III, the decorated former Marine Corps officer, the former assistant attorney general who prosecuted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and helped put crime boss John Gotti in jail, the former FBI director, the life-long Republican finally spoke.

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments,” Mueller said at the conclusion of his less than 10 minutes in front of the cameras, “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

During a Boise TV interview a few days later Idaho Sen. Jim Risch dismissed Mueller’s statement as – he actually said this – “a nothing burger.”

Near as I can tell Risch, or for that matter no other member of the Idaho congressional delegation, has said anything about the substance of Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference or the efforts by the president to obstruct the investigation. They’re all like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes television show – they see nothing, nothing.

Yet, if you actually read Mueller’s report you’ll understand his detailed analysis of ten different and very specific instances when Trump sought to impede the Russia investigation. First by firing the FBI director and then ordering Mueller’s firing, a decision he lied about and told others to lie about.

Then, as the report says, “the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.”

And here is Mueller from his “nothing burger” statement: “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”

Risch leads the thoroughly effete Idaho delegation in his unrelenting effort to minimize Russian electoral interference and Trump obstruction. In February, as reported by the Idaho Press, Risch said he was not worried about any threat from Russia, calling it “the most overrated country on the face of the planet.”

In March Risch dismissed the attorney general’s initial summary of Mueller’s report – we now know that summary was highly misleading and designed to confuse and minimize the findings – by saying: “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report.” Later in his statement, Risch criticized Democrats and the media, calling claims against the president a “charade.”

When it was first disclosed that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had talked about sanctions with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration Risch’s only comment: “I have thoughts, but I’m keeping them to myself.” Flynn, of course, later admitted to lying about his Russian contacts and still faces jail time. The former Ada County prosecutor has been silent as obstruction – denying subpoenas, resisting court orders, hiding documents – continues across the Trump Administration.

In his rare public statements addressing specific presidential acts, from North Korea to tariffs to Russia, Risch always toes the Trump line and dismisses any inconvenient truth. “I really don’t believe Trump acts in ways that help Russia,” he told the PBS NewsHour.

When questioning former FBI director James Comey, who was fired, by Trump’s own admission to “take the heat off” the Russian investigation, Risch dismissed the president’s statement that Comey just “let Flynn go” as nothing more than a “hope” by Trump.

For the record, the Mueller’s report lists Trump’s “let Flynn go” comment as its very first example of presidential obstruction.

Conservative columnist George Will compares the “supine behavior” of Republicans like Risch and the rest of the Idaho delegation to “fragrant memories” of pre-World War II American communists who performed amazing mental gymnastics to keep on the right side of Josef Stalin.

Or perhaps the more apt comparison is to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recently repeatedly refused to admit that Trump’s “birther” attacks on Barack Obama were racist. This is the awkward reality of Trump’s enablers, the partisan promoters like Sen. Risch: if you admit the truth you risk earning the president’s ire (or that of his all-accepting base) or you can, as the senator choses, find a way to repeatedly justify and dismiss any damaging evidence of Trump’s actions, even when that evidence is accumulated by a Republican former director of the FBI.

After all, who you gonna believe? A president who uses lies as a governing model or your own eyes?

Set aside, if you prefer, clear and compelling evidence that the president of the United States tried repeatedly to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, lied about it and influenced others to lie. One thousand former Justice Department officials are on the record saying he did.

Set aside, as Mueller’s report says that the Russian government’s interference was clearly designed to help “presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”

Set aside that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” the help. Set aside that the Russian “social media campaign” and the Russian military’s computer hacking operations “coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government.”

And set aside one of the most politically intriguing details of this whole spectacularly un-American affair, that the Trump campaign shared with Russian operatives its own polling information before the election. Mueller’s investigation was unable to figure out what happened to this information because the special counsel “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”

Paul Manafort, the guy who apparently shared the polling information, is in jail and isn’t talking.

Set all that aside and consider again what Mueller left us with: “There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Then ask yourself: What has Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee) done about that? The only possible answer is nothing. Then ask yourself why?
 

Focus …

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It is often said – and correctly so – that we live in tumultuous times. Our devices spew forth a never-ending avalanche of information, much of it of dubious veracity. The “news cycle” is non-stop, populated by presidential tweets and cable news talking heads that aim not to inform, but mostly seek to agitate and “win” the narrative story line of the day.

The wheat is easily lost in the chaff. Disinformation and misinformation flourish. It can seem impossible to keep up or make sense and it is increasingly likely that we miss the important, while overwhelmed by the irrelevant.

Here are three stories that hit my screen in the last week, stories that seem to me to demand urgent attention and comprehensive political action.

The Brookings Institution rolled out a study of four U.S. cities last week, Boise included, that is both fascinating and sobering. In a nutshell the study finds that Boise’s economic engine, the principle power behind Idaho’s sustained economic growth, is fragile and subject to collapse.

The goose that laid the golden egg for the Idaho economic has been high tech, but Brookings starkly notes, in language you rarely hear from Idaho policy makers, that the goose is ailing. Hewlett Packard, which once employed 7,000 in the Boise Valley, now has 1,500. Micron, the homegrown success story, has half the 12,000 workers it paid at its peak. And, “despite Idaho’s generous state subsidies and a long local history as a darling firm in Boise, Micron chose Manassas, Virginia for its newest expansion, a $3 billion dollar investment expected to create about 1,000 jobs.”

“Recent economic growth has primarily come from non-tradable service sectors rather than from growth-sustaining, export-driven sectors,” the Brookings researchers said. “Population growth resulted in part from retirees who drive housing prices, but who have less incentive to fund public goods such as education and workforce development.”

And, not surprisingly, at all levels Idaho’s woefully inadequate educational system is in no way ready to support the kind of jobs that can continue to fuel the state’s economic growth. The Brookings study said “the Idaho Department of Labor projects 49,000 unfilled jobs by 2024, 36,000 of them in science, technology, engineering, and math,” but that the state produced only 2,000 graduates in those fields in 2016. Little wonder decent jobs flow to places with better educational stories to tell.

Idaho’s much ballyhooed efforts to improve college graduation rates have been a demonstrable failure. As Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Reichert noted recently, “With a completion rate mired at 42 percent, Idaho has made little progress toward the 60 percent threshold.” Even if Idaho some how sees a dramatic improvement in college completion rates it likely can’t meet high-tech needs that Reichert said “might take a completion rate approaching 80 percent.”

The second story, with a Spokane dateline, might not seem all that connected to the Brookings study about the state’s fragile future economy, but it is. Associated Press reporter Nicholas K. Geranios’s story was about how far-right extremist groups have never really left northern Idaho and eastern Washington despite the fact that two decades ago, the high profile Aryan Nation’s compound near Hayden Lake was wiped off the map.

Idaho’s national image, with direct impact on the state’s economic vitality, has too often in the past been linked to white supremacist and hate groups. It still is and, at some level, support for those on the dangerous fringe has gone mainstream, or at least what passes for mainstream, in the region’s Republican Party leadership.

“In the county that is home to Hayden Lake,” Geranios wrote, “Republicans last month passed a measure expressing support for U.S. entry of a prominent Austrian far-right activist who was investigated for ties to the suspected New Zealand mosque gunman.”

The woman who made the request of Kootenai County Republicans “was a big promoter of the hoax known as ‘Pizzagate,’ telling her online followers Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats were involved in satanic rituals and child sex trafficking tied to a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.” That conspiracy theory, completely debunked of course, is still being widely promoted by various right wing media outlets.

That Republican Party officials would traffic in such nonsense is cause for profound concern and should immediately be repudiated from the highest levels, including from Gov. Brad Little. That GOP leaders haven’t disowned such behavior will only encourage more extremists to be more extreme.

The third story is related to the second. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) made a deep dive into various efforts to influence the recent European Union elections by what it called “tactical adoption of the ‘Putin playbook’ by non-state actors, from far right online militias to populist parties in their use of automated influence operations.” In other words, far right actors are continuing with renewed determination to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and, as special counsel Robert Mueller made crystal clear this week concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election, also in the United States.

ISD is a collection of business, academic and political leaders dedicated to pushing back against those who are “promulgating hate, division and conflict.” The group succinctly described the methods, including campaigns aimed at “distorting the political debate through the promotion of outrage, amplified by social media (often inorganically) and exploiting the traditional media’s desire to appear impartial to seize the agenda.”

In Europe the groups “build up their own highly partisan media channels” and they “take aim at the courts, forcing judges to retire early as in Poland and Hungary and pack the courts with compliant officers.”

“Public officials that don’t toe the new regime’s line are sidelined or replaced” often with a campaign of “smearing and intimidation, as happened to the Hungarian central bank governor.”

If you don’t believe the very foundations of representative democracy are under assault you’re not paying attention. Which closes the circle back to persistent inadequate attention to education. Without better education at every level, combined with knowledge of how to discern facts from disinformation, we risk being overwhelmed by our tumultuous times.

We must focus on what’s important.
 

One speaks up

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One of the great ironies of modern American conservatism is that the party that claims to champion “limited government” is really in a constant push to expand the scope and power of the executive branch.

It amounts to the political equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The concept – expanding the power of the presidency, while seeking to limit power everywhere else in government – may not equate to “first-rate intelligence,” but it certainly has become the mantra of a host of Republicans dating back to at least the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Nixon, of course, made the laughable claim that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” The same logic was applied when then-Vice President Dick Cheney adamantly refused to disclose whom he was consulting with in crafting an energy policy during the George W. Bush administration. Even more importantly Cheney invoked the concept of an ever-expanding power of the executive when he aggressively defended a president’s power to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant.

Remembering what he saw as a diminishment of presidential power during the post-Watergate period and during his time as chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney questioned whether Congress had erred in creating the War Powers Act, a 1973 response to presidential overreach in Southeast Asia. The law was “an infringement upon the authority of the president.” Cheney said, and may be “unconstitutional.” Never mind that the Constitution grants the exclusive power to declare war to Congress.

The effort to expand and then defend executive power has found a new conservative champion in Attorney General Bill Barr. “I don’t know anyone that has a more robust view of inherent presidential authority than Bill Barr,” says Walter Dellinger, who, like Barr, once ran the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. “There is nobody who is to his right on this issue.”

After 40 years of diligent work in and out of government by conservatives like Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and one-time Solicitor General Robert Bork, among others, Barr’s views of presidential power are widely shared by most on the political right.

Yet, these are many of the same people who decried Barack Obama’s widespread and often questionable use of “executive authority” on all manner of policy where he could not convince Congress to act. Conservatives still bemoan, and correctly so, the expansion of presidential power when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the “imperial presidency” in order to respond to the Great Depression. Yet, most conservatives acquiesced – the entire Idaho delegation included – with hardly a whimper when Donald Trump declared a “national emergency” and unconstitutionally appropriated money to build his border wall.

Which brings us to the news of the week. A Republican congressman from Michigan, once a Tea Party darling, defied his party and came to the conclusion that anyone who has dispassionately read the Mueller report would reach. In fact, more than 800 former U.S. Justice Department officials have come to the same conclusion. The president did attempt to obstruct justice to derail the investigation into Russian election meddling and was clearly open to “collusion” even as the special counsel determined the threshold of proving a conspiracy was difficult to meet. Crossing the threshold, of course, was made more difficult, even impossible, by Trump’s own refusal to be interviewed and his active efforts to prevent others from talking or telling the truth.

“They say there were no underlying crimes,” Republican Congressman Justin Amash said in a Tweet that will surely find its way into the history books. “In fact, there were many crimes revealed by the investigation, some of which were charged, and some of which were not but are nonetheless described in Mueller’s report.”

Amash, it must be remembered, was described in March of this year, as “probably one of the most, if not the most consistent and honorable members of Congress that I met in the eight years I was there. He always outlined what he believes in, why he believes in the things that he does and why he makes the decisions that he makes.”

The former Republican congressman who said that was Raul Labrador.

The president of course immediately denounced Amash, the House Freedom Caucus rumbled about how misguided he is and the minority leader made noises about his party loyalty.

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this week that the chief magistrate is not above the law even as he continues to “fight all the subpoenas,” refused to allow even former White House staffers to testify before Congress and, predictably, fights a legitimate request by a congressional committee to review his tax returns, which he promised repeatedly before the election to release. A man not hiding something doesn’t work so hard to hide something.

The attorney general, now largely serving as the president’s personal lawyer rather than the nation’s top law enforcement official, seeks to limit the legitimate investigation of a president plausibly implicated in real crimes. But the argument is a chimera, a constitutional illusion that actually amounts to yet more obstruction of justice.

If you’re a Trump partisan try to put those sentiments aside for a moment and pull out your copy of the Constitution. Ask yourself just two questions. If the name attached to the facts so obvious to Rep. Amash were Obama or Clinton would you see all of this differently? Would the assertions of presidential authority, the idea that the president isn’t answerable to Congress or really to anyone, would this wholesale resistance to transparency be as palatable then?

James Madison, that fussy old Founder, wrote about this in Federalist 51: “If [people] were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern [people], neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The Constitution wasn’t written for angels. It was written to constrain the ugly impulses of men and presidents.
 

The NRA is a fraud

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We learned with certainty this week what the more discriminating among us have known for a long, long time – the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a fraud. The Wall Street Journal, not anyone’s definition of the liberal press, produced the documents that prove how the NRA’s chief mouthpiece, Wayne LaPierre, and a handful of other top executives have scammed the nation’s gullible gun owners out of millions and millions of dollars.

LaPierre has perfected the gift of the grift. The Journal reported that he submitted bills for $39,000 worth of clothing during one – just one – visit to a Beverly Hills “boutique.” As writer Jonathan V. Last noted, it is possible, I guess, to pay $500 or $600 for a pair of pants, but at LaPierre’s rate of spending “that leaves you with close to 80 pairs of pants.” The documents obtained by the newspaper seem to indicate LaPierre, who usually seems more focused on bullet proof vests than Italian suits, somehow racked up clothing bills approaching $275,000, all billed to the Second Amendment loving deer hunters who send checks to the NRA.

And then there’s the gun lobby’s lobbyist’s taste in travel, also amazingly spendy, $40,000 for a one-way flight from Washington to the Bahamas and $1,096 for “Airport Assistance” in Frankfurt, Germany.

The NRA booked legal expenses over the last year of $18.5 million with just one law firm. That is a lot of billable hours, in fact more than $100,000 per day over the course of a full year. LaPierre also billed nearly $14,000 for three months rent for “a summer intern” who reportedly worked at the NRA. That is some rental. Some intern.

Oliver North, the sleazy former Iran-Contra operative, served briefly as president of the NRA before being deposed a couple of weeks ago. He reportedly had a cushy contract worth millions annually. It’s difficult to tell from the organization’s 990 form what if any perks NRA board members receive, but former senator Larry Craig, a dependable shill for the NRA in Congress, is a long-time board member and at a minimum he owns a piece of the current scandal.

LaPierre, living the pampered life style of the “elite” beltway hypocrite, is, of course, the guy who regularly keeps his cash register humming with bombast like this: “It’s up to us to speak out against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.”

There is more, pricy travel, expensive perks, insider sweetheart deals, but you get the point. Expenses incurred by the NRA brass that aren’t “just extravagant and wasteful,” as Jonathan Last wrote, “but … so insane that you can’t even really figure out how they were actually incurred.” An entirely different set of questionable activities has prompted an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.

The NRA’s fraud – conservative columnist Max Boot describes it as a big part of the larger “racket” that American conservatism has become – dates back a long way. My personal NRA inflection point came in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986, three days before the gubernatorial election that year. The NRA was all over the Idaho airwaves that weekend smearing Cecil D. Andrus.

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” – Eric Hoffer

Andrus had, audaciously it turns out, honestly responded to one of the NRA’s “candidate surveys.” A big issue then was whether to outlaw so called “cop killer” bullets, Teflon coated rounds specifically designed to penetrate a bulletproof vest. Andrus said he had no problem banning the bullet since he’d never seen an elk wearing a bulletproof vest. The once and future governor also said he had no issue with bans on military-like assault weapons, the kind that have become the weapon of choice for our regularly occurring school massacres.

The NRA gave Andrus a D-rating in 1986 and put up commercials calling him a threat to Idaho sportsman. The hunter-governor who never met a shotgun or elk camp he didn’t love just wasn’t pure enough for Wayne LaPierre. The gun lobby endorsed Republican David Leroy in 1986, a fellow who knew his way around a Boise courtroom, but a guy no one expected to occupy a hunting camp.

To understand how amazing – or outrageous – those NRA smears of Andrus were you need to know about Andrus the hunter and gun owner. In early October of that election year, Andrus quietly left the campaign trail for three days so as not to miss his annual elk hunt. As his press secretary I was deathly afraid some enterprising reporter would ask me where the candidate was and why he wasn’t shaking hands and seeking votes? In retrospect I should have put out a news release – “Andrus Pursues Mighty Wapiti Rather Than Votes.” He got his elk, by the way.

Andrus once stashed a new 12-gauge shotgun in my office while waiting for the opportunity to secret the firearm into his home. He said if he could get the gun home without Carol noticing she would never know he had purchased another firearm. He had so many guns that one more would fade unnoticed into the gun cabinet.

The four-term governor was the kind of politician the NRA can’t abide, a passionate hunter and gun owner who thought the organization was off its rocker when it came to legitimate restrictions on the kinds of weapons that now regularly kill innocent people in churches, synagogues, schools and on street corners. Thirty years ago he correctly saw that the NRA, faking concern for sportsmen, while serving as stocking horse for firearms manufacturers, had just become one more radical ancillary of the Republican Party. Unlike most politicians he had the courage to say that the leaders of the gun lobby really built their political influence in order to facilitate their own financial enrichment.

For decades the NRA has been the biggest fundraising cash register on the hard right of American politics, whipping up outrage, constantly stoking fear and always depositing the checks. The fraud is finally coming home to roost.
 

Dereliction of duty

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Nearly 100 years ago — April 15, 1922 to be exact — a Democratic senator from Wyoming introduced a resolution in Congress that touched off one of the most significant investigations in American political history. The Wall Street Journal had reported the day before that the secretary of the Interior, a former Republican senator from New Mexico by the name of Albert Fall, an appointee of President Warren Harding, had engaged in unprecedented conduct. Fall had leased to a private company, without competitive bids, U.S. naval oil reserves at a remote field in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome.

Republicans, who controlled the Senate, actually voted to investigate the Republican administration. But expecting the investigation would come to nothing, they detailed the most junior member of the Public Lands Committee, Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, to chair the investigation.
Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal

By the time Walsh was finished cataloging Fall’s corruption and the bribes he received for facilitating the oil leases, the secretary was on his way to jail. Walsh became a political celebrity and Teapot Dome entered history as one of the great scandals in American politics.

An offshoot of the oil scandal was a parallel effort to investigate corruption at the Justice Department, an investigation also conducted by a Montanan, Democrat Burton K. Wheeler.

When the subjects of that investigation stonewalled the Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Congress had the power to issue subpoenas, compel testimony and demand production of documents. As the court noted in a landmark 1927 decision, the memory of James Madison was invoked, “the power of inquiry — with process to enforce it — is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function. It was so regarded and employed in American legislatures before the Constitution was framed and ratified.”

Said another way: Congress’ oversight and investigative functions were legitimately earned amid a huge scandal uncovered by a newspaper and investigated by determined lawmakers. Now, decades later, congressional oversight and accountability is being frittered away amid a host of real and potential scandals by an administration that seems destined to replace Harding’s as the most corrupt in history.

The Trump administration has apparently determined that it will comprehensively stonewall oversight by a co-equal branch of government. The president says the executive branch will resist every subpoena for information, while the attorney general of the United States flips his middle finger to the House Judiciary Committee.

And the United States Senate — where Teapot Dome was exposed, where a corrupt attorney general (Harding pal Harry Daugherty) was forced to resign, where Harry Truman investigated the defense industry and where the crimes of Watergate were disclosed — continues to squander its constitutional obligations to investigate and check the executive branch.

As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “By abandoning the role the Constitution assigns them, to jealously defend the power of their branch of government against encroachments by other branches, Republicans in Congress surrender their duty, their power and their part in defending American democracy.”

Idaho’s two U.S. senators are poster boys for this shameful dereliction of duty.

Jim Risch has had the gavel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now for nearly five months, months when the NATO alliance has been under siege from the White House, when Venezuela has been in crisis, when North Korea has saber-rattled with new missile tests, when tensions have mounted with China and Iran, and when Saudi Arabia has escaped responsibility for the brutal murder of a journalist employed by a U.S. newspaper. Yet Risch has required no testimony on any of this from the secretary of state or other senior administration officials.

Each of Risch’s public statements toes the administration line even as that line shifts and wobbles with incoherence.

Risch is also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee but has no interest in questioning the attorney general or special counsel Robert Mueller on the extensively documented Russian effort to interfere with American democracy.

Mike Crapo is a member of the Judiciary Committee, the committee that recently endured a word salad of obfuscation from Attorney General William Barr on the Mueller report. Crapo, rather than focusing on the substance of the special counsel’s work, used his precious time to question the nation’s top law enforcement official about how the Washington Post obtained a copy of Mueller’s letter taking issue with how his work has been characterized by Barr.

Crapo might have asked, just as one example, about this sentence from Mueller’s report: “Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations.” Crapo didn’t display even a hint of inquisitiveness about the Russian investigation or the president’s behavior, but spent the hearing serving up softballs. His and Risch’s performance is rank political incompetence or, perhaps, it’s something else even more troubling.

Senate Republicans could well be ignoring their constitutional obligations, as the Salt Lake Tribune suggested, “To get themselves on the good side of a chief executive who is so clearly corrupt, engaging in obstruction, campaign and ethics violations, using the presidency as a cash cow for his personal business interests, who disrespects the separation of powers, freedom of the press, the rights of minorities and immigrants and our long-standing international alliances.”

In other words: Crapo, Risch and fellow Senate Republicans have willfully surrendered their own and congressional power for wholly partisan political reasons.

By consistently placing loyalty to a president of their own party above the institution of the Senate and the good of the nation, they mock a sworn oath to “support and defend the Constitution” against all enemies.

Political courage is an increasingly rare commodity these days and playing to the prejudices of your partisan tribe trumps all other considerations. But that is not what the job — or the oath — requires.

While it may seem quaint to invoke the Constitution as a guide to appropriate congressional behavior, it has never been more important to do so. Democracy may well die in darkness, but it also dies when people sworn to protect it ignore their responsibilities and that is what Risch and Crapo are doing.
 

Operating at the fringe

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My father used to joke that every little town has its town character; an odd, interesting or off-the-wall person who everyone in town understood to be, well, a half bubble off plum. But, the place he grew up, so my father said, was different — the characters had a town.

Increasingly it seems that Idaho’s political characters now inhabit their own state. Perhaps it’s in the water or more likely it’s a function of a state dominated by one political party that with some regularity produces a dyed-in-the-wool crackpot and elevates that fringe candidate to high public office.
Idaho Representative George Hansen, “he just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

I’m remembering, for example, the lumbering 6 feet 6 inches of rightwing nut jobbery that for seven terms represented Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District. George Hansen was a member of the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. Hansen was the mayor of Alameda, an eastern Idaho community, before he went to Congress in the mid-1960s just in time to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and everything else that smacked of progress. Somehow it seems fitting that Hansen, whose legislative accomplishments could easily be recorded on the back of postage stamp, was the mayor of a town that no longer exists.

Hansen made a career in the federal government by opposing everything the federal government does. He hated the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and opposed all forms of “federal intrusion into all our lives.” Hansen was so opposed to regulation that he just ignored regulation when it applied to him.

“There was a certain naivete about George,” his lawyer once said. “He never lawyered up. He just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

A Republican appointed federal judge eventually sentenced Hansen to four years in prison and a big fine for defrauding a bank and 200 individuals of $30 million in a wacky investment scheme, better described as old-fashioned check kiting.

But you had to hand it to Big George; he was once and always a salesman — he sold life insurance before turning to political snake oil — and nearly 100 of the people he defrauded so believed in him that they sent the sentencing judge affidavits attesting to their continuing faith in the fallen congressman. Hansen’s “victims are offended that the court would take them as victims,” the judge said, marveling at “that kind of blind allegiance.”

Hansen had barely gone to prison before Idaho was blessed with his worthy successor in Congress, the archconservative Helen Chenoweth-Hage who represented the 1st District for three high-profile, zero-accomplishment terms. Like Hansen, Chenoweth-Hage had a knack for generating headlines, the kind of headlines that often makes out-of-staters wonder just what is wrong with Idaho.
Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage

Chenoweth-Hage was an early adopter of the “states’ rights” cause of the Civil War, and she said Idaho salmon couldn’t possibly be endangered since you could buy salmon in a can at Albertsons. Her idea of good government was to eliminate the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development — not for any particular reason, just because it made a good applause line.

She infamously condemned the “black helicopters” of the evil U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for harassing Idaho ranchers, even though Chenoweth-Hage eventually admitted there was little evidence that such a thing ever happened.

When Chenoweth-Hage tragically died in an auto accident, her obituary mentioned the helicopters, but there was nary a word about any legislative accomplishment.

Idaho has had more than its share of political characters.

Sen. Herman Welker was Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate before Frank Church made him a one-term wonder.

Congressman Bill Sali was another one-termer best — or worst — remembered for linking breast cancer to abortion. Sali once wondered out loud about why he had trouble following what was happening in congressional hearings. Few who knew him were surprised.

Now it would appear Idaho has a new political character vying for a star on the boardwalk of crazy, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. Like Sali, Chenoweth-Hage and Hansen, McGeachin is a product of a one-party state where it’s often enough to win an election by merely ending up on the ballot with a “R” next to your name.

In each of her five elections for the Legislature, McGeachin ran unopposed in the Republican primary and four times ran unopposed in the general election.
Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin with some of her Real 3 Percenter followers.

After 10 years in the Legislature distinguished only by her prominent perch on the outer fringe of the Tea Party right of the Idaho Republican Party, McGeachin ran last year to become Gov. Brad Little’s understudy. She won a five-way GOP primary with less than 29 percent of the vote. Next thing you know, she’s a heartbeat away.

McGeachin has made two big splashes in her first four months in office, on each occasion being photographed fraternizing with Real 3 Percenters, members of a fringe, frequently gun-toting, anti-immigrant, militia-like group. McGeachin, while acting governor, administered “an oath,” the same oath applied to the National Guard, to some of these armed jokers near the Statehouse in Boise. McGeachin had earlier shown solidarity with one of the anti-government types jailed for his role in the Bundy standoff in Nevada.

On the one hand McGeachin’s regular flirtations with anti-government, militia-like groups resembles earlier Idaho fringe politicians who embraced the John Birch Society or the Posse Comitatus movement. But her associations and lack of judgment are also different.

The lieutenant governor isn’t just some legislative backbencher. That she is comfortable with very public associations with the militia movement and its borderline connections to violence and domestic terrorism means McGeachin isn’t really embracing Little’s pragmatic — which is to say serious — agenda. Rather she has gone where too much of the GOP has gone — the radical fringe.

There have been reports of Little’s dismay over his No. 2’s wing-nut behavior, but the governor still recently gave McGeachin a high-profile role chairing a review of state agency services. Here’s betting the governor can’t long have it both ways. Serious politicians shouldn’t long tolerate what can only be described as outlandish behavior, even if being a crackpot has long been a feature of Idaho Republican politics.
 

A surprising politician

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Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson is one of the few politicians these days that can genuinely surprise with his words and actions. He surprised me twice in the last week.

The original version of this column was a lengthy critique of Simpson for his surprisingly tepid parroting of White House talking points related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Almost immediately after Mueller’s 448-page report was issued late last week, and certainly before Simpson had time to digest its content, the Congressman from Idaho’s Second District, dismissed it entirely by invoking the “liberal media and Democrat (sic) leadership” that “have spoon fed the American people a false narrative about Trump/Russia collusion.”

Never mind, as journalist Susan B. Glasser noted, that Mueller has in fact produced “surely one of the most damning insider accounts ever written about a Presidency in modern times,” documenting a “breathtaking culture of lying and impunity, distrust and double-dealing.” If you have avoided reading Mueller’s work you are avoiding your responsibility as a citizen. The Republican special counsel, appointed by a Republican, has produced a document for the ages about the shocking conduct of a Republican president. In his heart of hearts Mike Simpson surely knows this amounts to a very serious matter.

Having known Simpson since his days as Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, I’ve come to expect more of him. He’s not – at least not often – a blind partisan, and unlike his Idaho congressional colleagues he is solution oriented, a real legislator. So Simpson disappoints with his dismissal of Trumpian misconduct, but then he almost immediately surprises – really, truly, amazingly surprises – by delivering what is surely the most important speech by an Idaho politician in at least 15 years.

Simpson was a featured speaker earlier this week at a conference on salmon and energy organized by the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University and he displayed all the political leadership and courage that his admirers have come to expect.

“All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered,” Simpson told a room full of energy producers and users, including the Bonneville Power Administrator, farmers, fish proponents and assorted other advocates. “Look at the number of returning salmon and the trend line is not going up. It is going down.”

It is not enough, Simpson said, to keep salmon from extinction. “We should manage them to bring back a healthy, sustainable population in Idaho.” Simpson said, “I am going to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho.”

Admitting that it won’t be easy or without discomfort, even pain, Simpson essentially threw down a gauntlet to the standpat policy makers who have slow rolled salmon recovery for twenty years, technically operating the Columbia and Snake River system in clear violation of federal law. Simpson did not call for breeching the lower Snake River dams, the chief culprit to allowing juvenile wild salmon to migrate downriver and eventually return to spawn in Idaho, but critically he also did not rule out removal.

The room was silent as Simpson described the region’s dilemma – and the moral imperative – to preserve its most iconic species.

And the silence was more reverential than shocked. More than 400 regional policy makers and advocates were seeing and hearing something that has become so rare these days as to cause a slack jawed response – they were seeing political guts and real leadership.

It was clear that Simpson and his staff – particularly chief of staff Lindsay Slater, who was pivotal to his boss’s historic legislation creating wilderness protection for the White Clouds and Boulder mountains in central Idaho – has thought long and hard about what it will take to break the regional stalemate over salmon. He’s ready to lead a legislative effort to create a new Northwest Power Act that comprehensively deals with BPA’s fragile financial status, the economic impacts for a host of stakeholders, fixes river operations and restores sustainable levels of fish in Idaho.

Simpson also understands that the Pacific Northwest can once and finally legislative fix these seemingly intractable problems with wisdom that originates in the region or, as he put it, “Someone else will write it and impose it upon us.”

Perhaps the best signal that Simpson has embraced the role of salmon advocate was his moving personal testament to the incredible story of the fish. The congressman, who has come to speak passionately of the wonders of Idaho’s unspoiled places, related a story about his own visit to March Creek, the magically tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon, where he watched an adult salmon complete the seemingly impossible voyage from ocean to Idaho backcountry.

“She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek,” Simpson said. “All to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon. It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created. It is a cycle God created.”

A conservative Republican speaking this way is, well, both surprising and remarkably encouraging. Simpson has undoubtedly shocked some who are invested in the status quo. Many of his natural allies may well read his moving account of why we must finally, seriously, passionately engage with real solutions and shudder at the complexities of dealing comprehensively and successfully with energy, fish, agriculture and transportation. But if they discount Simpson’s determination they will misread badly the congressman’s commitment.

Politicians don’t often make speeches like Mike Simpson made this week and, while he surprised me – disappointed me – on Mueller I’m more than happy to salute his courage and commitment to salmon. He’s going to tackle these issues. Take that to the bank. Every one of us who cares about fish, the region’s future, our energy resources and the world we’ll leave to our kids and grandkids should follow his leadership.
 

Too smart to be president . . .

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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.