August 21, 2019

Please, Not Joe Biden

I am distressed that Joe Biden continues to lead the polls of Democratic presidential candidates. His popularity is the product of widespread name recognition and his association with Barack Obama. But, despite what many maintain, there is no compelling reason to believe that Biden’s present popularity necessarily translates into sure-fire electability.

Any candidate selected by the Democratic Party will achieve strong name recognition soon enough. That person could have attributes Biden does not possess—youthfulness comes immediately to mind—and could lack some of Biden’s liabilities, such as his checkered legislative record.

Biden is certainly not as sharp as he once was—though garbled utterances are something of a Biden tradition—and he may not have sufficient wit to counter Trump’s bizarre, fact-free debating style.

I continue to hope for an exciting Democratic nominee younger than the likes of Biden, Sanders, and Warren. I will work for whoever is the Democratic candidate, of course, but, if the candidate is Biden, it will be difficult for me to conjure up genuine enthusiasm for the party’s standard-bearer other than as a person who is not Trump.

August 5, 2019

Making Credible Campaign Promises

The promises made by Democratic presidential candidates can be exhilarating: free college tuition, affordable health care for all, higher minimum wage, forgiveness of college loans, guaranteed monthly income. Virtually all the proffered policies are programs that cannot be implemented by the president alone, however. They would all require congressional action. That action is unlikely even were the Democrats able to retake the Senate.

This is not to say that Democrats should forego big ideas. Big ideas, even if only aspirational, can inspire voters. What cannot be accomplished today may be possible tomorrow. As Senator Elizabeth Warren asked, why run for president just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for?

Democrats do run the risk of seeming unrealistic and open to the charge of being socialist if nothing they propose appears practical in the foreseeable future. Candidates can increase their appeal in the minds of voters, however, by also (1) talking about their philosophical approach to governing and to particular problems, (2) emphasizing their qualifications for office, (3) exhibiting attractive personal attributes, and (4) telling people what they most certainly will be able to do once they are in the Oval Office.

This last item is especially important in that it allows the candidates to appear thoughtful and realistic, while at the same time implicitly attacking the incumbent. Possible campaign promises of this sort might include any of the following, in no particular order:

  1. Never use Twitter to announce policy, and use it only occasionally to call attention to conventional policy documents, requests for comment, etc.
  2. Commit to holding regular press conferences at least monthly.
  3. Propose cabinet members with demonstrable and relevant expertise, personal integrity, and no significant real or apparent conflicts of interest.
  4. Begin a process of evaluating regulations eliminated or weakened by the current administration, with the understanding that regulations are needed for the just and effective running of our society.
  5. Nominate judges having a mainstream judicial philosophy.
  6. Visit leaders of allied nations early in the presidency to reassure our allies that the United States is a reliable partner.
  7. Halt arm sales to Saudi Arabia pending improvement in that country’s human rights record.
  8. Halt financial support to Israel if that nation will not suspend the building of new settlements and the destruction of Palestinian dwellings.
  9. Declare that Israel and the Palestinians can either negotiate an acceptable two-state solution or Israel must incorporate Palestinian territories into the nation, make Palestinians citizens with rights equal to those of Jews, and denounce the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.
  10. Commit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change and become a leader in seeking to avoid a global climate catastrophe.
  11. Remove all tariffs imposed by President Trump and seek legislation to prevent future presidents from enacting tariffs without congressional approval.
  12. Commit to establishing multilateral trade agreements to facilitate free trade in East Asia and elsewhere.
  13. Declare our acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea and our peaceful intentions toward that country, while maintaining economic sanctions as long as the DPRK maintains an abysmal human rights record.
  14. Begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the understanding that military action will be taken against any attempt to use that country as a base for terrorist training.
  15. Propose a budget that increases money for NASA and regulatory agencies and reduces money for the military.
  16. Restore full diplomatic relations and all financial and travel restrictions on Cuba.
  17. Negotiate disputes with China without the use of tariffs that hurt China but hurt the U.S. more.
  18. Seek an agreement with Iran that will defuse tensions and provide Iran some relief from economic sanctions.
  19. Seek new arms control agreements with an expanded set of nations, including China and Iran.
  20. Offer financial and technical help to Central American countries from which refugees have been streaming.
The above list could easily be made longer, and I have no doubt that items in the list could be attacked by people both on the left and the right. The point is simply that there are things that a president actually has direct control of and can make credible promises about.

Americans would be better served by Democratic candidates arguing about the points listed above and similar matters than the arcane and largely incomprehensible discussions we have been subjected to regarding how the nation might better deliver health care.

Are any of the candidates listening?

July 25, 2019

Don’t Impeach Trump

Robert Muller’s appearance on Capitol Hill yesterday has once more intensified the debate as to whether the House of Representatives—which is to say, the House Democrats—should begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Like so many citizens, my thoughts on this topic have run hot and cold. I have no doubt that Trump deserves to be impeached, an opinion I have held almost since his first day in office. Without hesitation, I signed on to Tom Steyer’s petition to initiate impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to go down that road is informed by unquestionable wisdom, even though I have no doubt that the Speaker of the House shares my view that Trump has earned removal from office. Those who argue that the Constitution demands action by the House, irrespective of whether the president can actually be cashiered, have a point that is difficult to ignore. Given the resistance of Trump supporters to facts concerning the president’s unfitness for office, though, one has to worry that a formal impeachment inquiry would only strengthen Trump’s standing in the polls.

The usual argument for impeachment asserts that, even if the president is not convicted by the Senate, the hearings themselves will have the effect of tilting public opinion against the president, thereby boosting the electoral prospects of the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. This is a questionable concept, as the Mueller Report has not created the outrage it surely should have. It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s testimony yesterday proves more compelling. The House is investigating matters not covered by the Mueller investigation, however, and those efforts may prove more effective in moving public opinion. Were there to be a groundswell of pro-impeachment sentiment in the country, perhaps not even the Mitch McConnell-dominated Senate could resist the public outrage.

One brief answer given by Mueller, however, has convinced me that we should not now nor in the future impeach Donald Trump. Mueller noted that the president could be indicted once he is out of office and the Justice Department’s anti-democratic policy against indicting a sitting president no longer applies. The statute of limitations for obstruction of justice, for example, is five years. I suspect that many more laws, especially financial ones, have been committed by our current president both in and out of office.

But don’t we need to remove Trump as soon as possible, before he can do even more damage to the Republic? Well, yes. But suppose that Trump was both impeached and convicted. Wise Democrats have argued that a Mike Pense presidency, though undesirable, could hardly be worse than a Trump presidency. That’s certainly true, though a President Pense would represent a different sort of calamity.

What would President Pense do on his first day in office? I am convinced that he would pardon Trump for all past and future crimes, citing the pardon of Richard Nixon and the need to “heal” the country. Such a result would be tragic. I want Trump to go to prison, and I eagerly look forward to his perp walk. If that cannot come before 2021, so be it. It will be worth waiting for.

Let House Democrats investigate Donald Trump as much as they want. Let them even begin a formal impeachment process. But for the sake of our Democracy, for our children, and for the sake of world peace, do not pass a bill of impeachment. Let’s really punish the son-of-a-bitch.

July 23, 2019

A Psalm for Our Time (and Our President)

On some Sundays, Bible readings seem more relevant (and even prescient) than others. This past Sunday, we read Psalm 52 from the Book of Common Prayer. Could one find a more fitting indictment of President Donald Trump?

Psalm 52

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness against the godly all day long?
You plot ruin; your tongue is like a sharpened razor, O worker of deception.
You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that hurt, O you deceitful tongue.
Oh, that God would demolish you utterly, topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling, and root you out of the land of the living!
The righteous shall see and tremble, and they shall laugh at him, saying,
“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
I will give you thanks for what you have done and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

July 22, 2019

GOP Debates?

Donald Trump is not the only Republican running for his party’s nomination in 2020, although it is almost universally assumed that he will be the GOP standard-bearer. At least one challenger, Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, is vying for the GOP nod. Other Republicans are reputedly considering challenging Trump. I doubt there will be many alternative Republican hopefuls; I hope there will continue to be at least one.

Donald Trump should be forced to debate Bill Weld and any other Republican candidates who come forward. Trump will not want to participate, as his idea of debate involves only name-calling, lies, and misdirection. In a one-on-one dialog, he will be exposed as the ignorant fool that he is.

If the Republican Party is to be something other than the Trump Nationalist Party, it must insist on one or more televised candidate debates. Actually, I suspect that it won’t, and the transformation of the party that is fond, however ironically, of calling itself “the party of Lincoln” will be complete.

Postscript: Take a look at the Bill Weld Web site referenced above. Weld offers a compelling video that could even convince a Democrat that a Weld presidency would not be a national tragedy.

July 19, 2019

CNN Chooses Debate Lineups

The lineups are now set for the two Democratic presidential debates on July 30 and July 31. They were determined on live TV last night. CNN devoted an entire hour to deciding which 10 candidates would appear in which night’s debate. The network’s commitment to transparency is laudable, but that goal could have been achieved in a five-minute program. Instead, CNN tried to milk as much drama out of the event as possible, no doubt responding to the popularity on TV of the NFL draft and of live lottery drawings.

The procedure implemented last night was not, I would argue, ideal, though neither was it irrational. The 20 available candidates were partitioned into three groups we might label—CNN did not quite label them this way—likely candidates, long shots, and certifiable also-rans.

CNN did not provide its own linear ranking of all the debaters, though it did give a partial list in a posting about an hour before the TV drawing. In that story, “24 Democrats are running for president. Voters and donors like only five of them,” Harry Enten wrote that Biden had 25% support in CNN polling, Harris had 16%, both Sanders and Warren had 15%, and Buttigieg had 5%. Everyone else had 2% or less. In the likely candidates category, CNN, as one might expect, placed Biden, Harris, Sanders, and Warren. The long shots comprised Buttigieg, Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke. In the absence of actual numbers, it seems reasonable that Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke are running somewhat behind Buttigieg and somewhat ahead of the rest of the field, namely the certifiable also-rans.

Three drawings were held for each of the groups, in which the drawings assigned members of the category to either the Tuesday or Wednesday night debate. For maximum drama, the drawings were ordered from least likely to most likely candidates.

CNN assuredly was trying to avoid the obvious imbalance seen in the two debates run by NBC. (See “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” and “The Debate Lineup: An Apology and Further Thoughts.”) Whereas CNN’s procedure may not have been ideal, it did assure that there would not be a varsity and junior varsity debate. Each debate would include its share of likely, unlikely, and long-shot candidates. Combined with the fact that polls are imperfect descriptions of reality—Warren might really have been ahead of Harris, for example—I think CNN deserves credit for learning from experience and attempting to achieve actual fairness.

On the other hand, spending an hour of prime time on determining the debate lineups was surely unnecessary. Too much time was spent having a half dozen commentators remarking on what was going on. Moreover, the actual drawing was unnecessarily complicated.

Each drawing involved two boxes and two sets of tiles. The first set of tiles were labeled with names; the second set was labeled with dates. Each set was selected, shuffled, placed in its respective box, and, in turn, a candidate and a date were drawn. Multiple cameras, we were assured, guaranteed that there was no hanky panky. (I was surprised that the person who filled the boxes was the same person who drew from the boxes, but I really did not fear for any funny business.) My main complaint about this procedure is that the date tiles were completely unnecessary. Why did CNN not simply assign the first name drawn to the Tuesday debate, the second name drawn to the Wednesday debate, etc.? Apparently, the use of the two boxes was seen as more dramatic than the use of one.

A certain amount of explanation was required to make clear to the audience just what was going on. I became impatient after the first two sets of drawings. Rather than simply proceeding to the “third draw,” the commentators speculated about the pros and cons of various distributions of the final four candidates. The time could better have been spent analyzing the actual outcome of the third draw.

As for the outcome of the program, the lineups are decidedly reasonable. I was disappointed in the distribution of the top four candidates. If the procedure I outlined in “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” had been used, Biden would have been teamed with Warren or Sanders. Instead, Warren and Sanders, the third- and fourth-ranked candidates and the two top-tier candidates most like one another, are paired.

Well, the die is cast. Here are the assignments for the July 30 and July 21 debates:
WEDNESDAY NGHT DEBATERS       TUESDAY NIGHT DEBATERS
Joe Biden Steve Bullock
Michael Bennet Pete Buttigieg
Cory Booker John Delaney
Julián Castro John Hickenlooper
Bill de Blasio Amy Klobuchar
Tulsi Gabbard Beto O’Rourke
Kirsten Gillibrand Tim Ryan
Kamala Harris Bernie Sanders
Jay Inslee Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang Marianne Williamson


UPDATE, 7/30/2019. In my original post, I interchanged the Tuesday and Wednesday lineups. They have now been corrected.

July 17, 2019

The Debate Lineup: An Apology and Further Thoughts

It was clear to all that the first debates of the Democratic presidential candidates were unbalanced. Although random assignment was used to determine which candidates appeared on which night, the second debate was more loaded with frontrunners. I wrote about this before the debate and about how the debate assignments could have been improved. (See “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed.”) Apparently, an apology is in order. No, my analysis has not changed, but in my earlier essay, I blamed the imbalance of the two debates on the Democratic Party. Whereas the party did determine who would fill the 20 slots in the two debates, the lineup for each debate was apparently determined by NBC in what might be considered a less than straightforward manner. According to David Byler, writing in The Washington Post,
The network divided the field into two groups: a top tier of eight candidates who were polling above two percent nationally and a bottom tier of 12 candidates who weren’t. Then it randomly assigned four candidates from the top tier and six candidates from the bottom tier to each debate night. NBC wanted two well-balanced, interesting nights of debates, and it used a random component to remove any inkling of bias from the final decision.
Byler wisely noted that “Random processes, while fair in the long run, are often capricious and weird in the short term.” I had noted much the same thing.

A Vox article describes where the debates go from here. The twenty debaters will be determined today. Tomorrow, on live television, CNN will, in some as yet undisclosed random fashion, assign 10 candidates to each of the two debates. The debates themselves will be televised on July 30 and 31.

Byler offers his own scheme for a better distribution of candidates to debates. It is almost as good (and almost the same) as what I suggested in “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed.” My own mathematical analysis, however, offers a slight improvement over Byler’s scheme. Either system destroys the value of the live drawing on television planned by CNN for tomorrow night, however.

Apparently, CNN is taken by the live lottery drawings that have become a television staple. It’s too bad it isn’t equally taken by the concept of fairness.