November 12, 2019

Quick Evaluation of Democratic Presidential Candidates

As of this writing, ten Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination have qualified for the November 20 debate being held in Georgia. Below, I offer quick evaluations of those candidates. Take this for what it’s worth. Keep in mind that I am a liberal Democrat. I list the candidates in alphabetical order.
Biden Too tired
Booker Too conciliatory
Buttigieg Too green
Gabbard Too Republican
Harris Too aggressive
Klobuchar Too nice
Sanders Too socialist
Steyer Too fickle
Warren Too leftist
Yang Too monomaniacal
It was difficult to characterize some of these candidates. This was especially true of Booker, whom I considered labeling too urban, though it’s unclear just what that means. On the other hand, Biden, Sanders, and Warren could each be characterized as too old. Sanders might also be tagged as too grumpy. Buttigieg could also be considered too smart, which might or might not be a problem. We are unlikely to see Williamson on the November debate panel, but it is too tempting not to note that she is too weird, another ambiguous characterization.

Thinking about (and researching) these people has clarified my thinking somewhat. I will, of course, vote for the Democratic candidate, irrespective of who that may be. That said, I hope that person is not Biden, Gabbard, Sanders, Steyer, or Yang. I find myself being more kindly disposed toward Booker, Harris, and Klobuchar. At this juncture, however, I doubt that Booker will win the Democratic nod.

Perhaps the November debate will narrow the field.

November 6, 2019

One Flaw in the Warren Medicare-for-All Plan

At long last, Elizabeth Warren has revealed how she plans to pay for her plan for universal health care. Her plan is expensive and complex, but it is not the usual smoke-and-mirrors proposal we are used to seeing in political campaigns. Her plan might actually work (or not). Of course, even if Warren is elected president, her plan will be passed by Congress only when hell freezes over. One has to wonder why Warren even bothered.

I won’t evaluate the plan here, which has been much criticized in the press. (See, for example, this analysis by The Washington Post, which is more positive than most evaluations.) I only want to comment on one aspect of Warren’s scheme.

The plan finds $8.8 trillion—for effect, we should write that as $8,800,000,000,000.00—by requiring employees currently paying for medical insurance to pay nearly all of that money to the government instead. (It isn’t clear whether employers who do not provide a health insurance benefit are let off the hook.) I object to this on philosophical grounds.

That employer-provided health insurance is widespread, though hardly universal, in this country is something of a historical accident. During World War II, employers found it hard to attract workers. Many men were fighting the war, and wage-and-price controls didn’t allow employers to compete for labor by raising salaries. The federal government, however, ruled that offering health insurance as a fringe benefit did not constitute raising wages. (Wikipedia offers an explanation here.) Thus, a new incentive for potential workers was born.

Those wartime wage-and-price controls are long gone, of course, but the offering of fringe benefits continues to be a mechanism by which employers compete for labor. Although one could make a case for increasing salaries and eliminating fringe benefits completely, I only want to address health insurance here.

In the abstract, it has never made sense to associate health insurance with employment. Yes, workers need health insurance. But the need for insurance does not vanish if a person is not employed.  In recent times, obtaining health insurance as an unemployed individual or as an employee without benefits has been difficult (or impossible) and expensive. This situation has been improved by the Affordable Care Act, but it is hardly ideal. Hence, the allurement of Medicare-for-all or something like it.

The Warren scheme of extracting trillions of dollars from employers may seem attractive, but it maintains a nexus between employment and health coverage that does not and never made sense. The plan raises other questions. What about employees who never paid for health insurance? Have they no obligation under this plan? Employees now can change their health coverage of employees or even eliminate it completely. What happens to this option under the Warren plan?

Of course, these questions are irrelevant, as the Warren plan will never be implemented. As a practical matter and as a campaign promise, only restoring Obamacare to its original form, undamaged by Trump administration depredations and enhanced to include a public option makes sense in the near term. Democratic presidential candidates need to point this out.

November 5, 2019

Let’s Kill Daylight Saving Time

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” That was the famous line from a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine, a product manufactured from cottonseed oil and first marketed in the early 1950s. (For those too young to have seen one of these commercials, you can view a sample here.) When it comes to local time, however, fooling Mother Nature is almost a necessity. The question is how much fooling is appropriate.

It is relatively easy to determine noon at any point on the earth. It is the time at which the sun is highest in the sky. Of course, this means that noon occurs at different times at different longitudes. Roughly speaking—we needn’t concern ourselves with the “roughly” business here—we can divide the period between two successive noons in the same place into 24 intervals, each of which represents an hour of the day. This is all well and good, but this system of timekeeping has the consequence that even places that are close to one another have clocks that do not agree.

In the nineteenth century, the variability in local time was giving railroads fits. Individual railroads “solved” the problem by using the time in one location as the time for all stations on its line. I need hardly explain how this could be confusing, particularly when a given town was served by two or more railroads.

In 1883, U.S. and Canadian railroads agreed to create standard time zones. The standard time in any zone would be the same throughout the zone, and the time in adjacent zones would be exactly one hour earlier or one hour later. This system was codified in law by Congress in 1918. Only at the (longitudinally approximate) center of a time zone would solar noon and standard noon correspond. We were fooling with Mother Nature a bit, but it was for a good cause. Commerce and life generally were much simplified by the adoption of standard time.

Then there is the matter of daylight saving time. It, too, was enacted by Congress in 1918. It has become nearly universal in the U.S., though there are notable exceptions, such as the state of Hawaii. The times that we “spring forward” and “fall back” have changed from time to time, but now, most of the country is on daylight saving time for longer than it is on standard time.

Various rationales have been advanced in favor of daylight saving time, most of them questionable. The ecological argument that the procedure saves energy seems either wrong or insignificant. I have heard that farmers favor changing our clocks, but this, too, is bogus. (Try explaining daylight saving time to a cow.) The main lobby for continuing to observe daylight saving time is commercial interests, particularly the recreation industry. (A golf club or amusement park gains little from an earlier sunrise but may benefit greatly from an extra hour of daylight in the evening.)

I have always been skeptical as to the benefits of daylight saving time. In my post “More Haiku” I wrote, in 2001,


Clocks are set forward,
But we do not ask where goes
The daylight we save.

The relevant question is really where goes the sleep we lose. It is well-documented that the spring time change results in more accidents and more heart attacks than usual. Invariably, people walk into church late after the spring change, and, no doubt, confusion occurs elsewhere. Most people hate the time transitions daylight saving time requires. This dissatisfaction has lead to a widespread movement to eliminate the biannual time changes, a reform that would have to come from Congress.

Unfortunately, most of the agitation for a change in daylight saving time is for making it apply throughout the entire year!  Doing this would be surrendering to the commercial interests that want us to spend more time and money during summer evenings, even if it means that children will be waiting for school buses or walking to school in the dark.

Well, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, and the benefits of daylight saving time are questionable, at best. We should return to year-round standard time. It isn’t quite what Mother Nature intended, but it’s close enough.

October 24, 2019

A Proposed Constitutional Amendment

President Trump’s attorneys have argued that the president, while in office, is not only immune to indictment, but also is immune even to investigation for crimes, including, incredibly, shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. (His attorneys actually have argued this in court!) Moreover, the Trump legal team has asserted that this immunity extends even to the president’s commercial enterprises.  To any rational and intelligent person, these arguments are, to put it in technical terms, totally bonkers. Apparently, however, we must wait until the courts officially declare these assertions of immunity invalid before, for example, Mr. Trump’s tax returns can be turned over to authorities investigating possible misdeeds by him.

Before now, one would not have assumed that the president is, for all practical purposes, completely above the law. The courts may make this clear, but it is perhaps time for the matter to be resolved once and for all by constitutional amendment.

In order to clarify that the United States of America has a president and not a king, I propose the following as the 28th amendment to the Constitution:
Universal Administration of Justice
Neither the President, nor the Vice President, nor any other person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States is immune to Investigation, Indictment, or Arrest for just cause except as provided in Article I, Section 6.
Article I, Section 6, Clause 1 says, in part:
[Senators and Representatives] shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
One may quibble about my title, capitalization, and whether the president and vice president deserve any immunity at all. My wording is not cast in stone; I’m sure it can be improved by constitutional scholars.

Passing such an amendment to the Constitution should be straightforward, but, in the present environment, passage may be opposed aggressively by Republicans. Amending the Constitution to assure uniform administration of justice may have to await the reform or destruction of the Republican Party. Let us not forget the matter once that occurs.

October 16, 2019

Let’s Add a Different Presidential Primary Debate to the Schedule

When two additional Democratic presidential candidates who were not invited to the September debate qualified for the October event, I had hoped that the debate would be conducted on two nights, with six candidates participating in each debate. Clearly, having 10 candidates was too many, and the 12 crowded onto the stage last night were many too many. As usual, the top candidates got most of the air time. As is becoming common, no one scored big, and no one committed fatal mistakes.

We know that Biden, Sanders, and Warren are the current leaders of the pack, but it is also true that there is significant talent in the pool consisting of the nine other Democrats who sparred last night. Each of those other candidates, however, had limited time to talk.

The reality is that early Democratic front-runners for their party’s nomination often do not become the party’s standard-bearer. Think Carter, Clinton, or Obama. (Even Trump himself was an early long-shot.) Unless the seeming also-rans have significant opportunities to be seen in action by the public, the choice of candidates in 2020 will be drawn from among contenders who are too old, too depleted, and too radical.

Of course, as long as less popular candidates can accumulate funds from their most ardent fans, they can continue to toil on the campaign trail in hopes of sparking interest among the rest of the electorate. But continuing to sponsor debates that favor the already popular candidates makes it hard for anyone in the rest of the pack to gain traction.

So, here is my idea to level the presidential-primary playing field a bit. Let’s sponsor a debate—it can even use the standard format, even though that could be greatly improved (see “A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate”)—that includes all the major candidates except the top three. In the current instance, that would leave 9 participants, a group that would not include Sanders, Biden, or Warren.

My second-tier debate would allow participants more time to speak and to make their case to the public for their candidacy. Of course, the debaters could simply take the opportunity to trash the front-runners, but I think that either would not happen or would not dominate the conversation. The debate would help Democrats decide which candidates are promising, perhaps surprisingly so, and which should go back to whatever they had been doing. It might even help to winnow the field faster.

What do we have to lose? What about it, DNC?

October 9, 2019

Further Thoughts on Impeachment

I have already written two posts concerning the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump (see “Don’t Impeach Trump” and “Slow Order for the Impeachment Train”). Here, I want to comment on the Trump administration’s reaction to the official beginning of an impeachment inquiry and to add to what I have already said about a possible impeachment.

The Trump Attack on Impeachment

Most readers no doubt recognize that President Trump’s attack on the impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives recently announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is diversionary and without merit. As a help to anyone who might have to argue the validity of what the House is undertaking with a member of the Trump cult, I will set forth the case for what is taking place.

Mr. Trump has argued that the pursuit of articles of impeachment by House Democrats is merely an attempt to nullify the 2016 election. On the contrary, his disparagement of the House action and his categorical refusal to allow co-operation with the inquiry by the executive branch is an attempt to nullify the Constitution itself.

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution reads
The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.1
Reasons for impeachment are set forth in Article II, Section 4:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Not only members of the House but, judging by recent polls, a majority of voters believe that there is a reasonable case to be made that President Trump is guilty of infractions of the sort listed in Article II.

If the president is impeached by the House of Representatives, the Senate is empowered to conduct a trial of the president according to Article I, Section 3, Clause 6:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds [sic] of the Members present.
Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 further clarifies the special status of an impeachment trial:
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Mr. Trump has referred to the action of the House as a “coup,” by which, presumably, he means a coup d'état, which defines as
a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force.
What is happening in the House is, of course, not illegal, not being effected by force, and is certainly neither sudden nor decisive. (Only the Senate has the power to make impeachment decisive.)

Counsel for the president has called the House action “unconstitutional,” but, as illustrated above, this is not the case.

Mr. Trump has also asserted that no impeachment investigation can go forward without a vote to do so by the entire House. The Constitution is silent on such a reputed requirement and no House rule demands it.

Impeachment Consequences

Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, enumerates the consequences of impeachment and conviction:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
This provision makes clear that, if a president is convicted by the Senate, acting on a bill of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives, he or she is to be removed from office and may be subject to prosecution for any crimes committed in office. Because the Senate trial need not involve actual statutory crimes, a cashiered president may or may not face legal jeopardy for actions taken while in office.

In the current circumstances, it appears that President Trump will, at a minimum, be charged with soliciting something of value for his re-election campaign from a foreign party, which is an actual crime. If convicted by the Senate, Mr. Trump could be therefore be prosecuted after leaving office for it, for misrepresenting payment to Ms. Stormy Daniels, and for other offenses.

The removal of the president from office would, of course, elevate Vice President Mike Pence to the presidency. As noted in my earlier essays, this raises the question of whether President Pence would immediately pardon the ex-president for past and future crimes, as President Gerald Ford did for Mr. Richard Nixon after he resigned from office in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.

As it happens, President Pence would not find himself in quite the same position as Mr. Ford. This is by virtue of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment [emphasis added]. 
Mr. Ford could pardon Mr. Nixon because his predecessor resigned. Had the Senate convicted President Nixon and removed him from office, he could have been indicted and tried for obstruction of justice, etc. I see two lessons to be learned here.

First, President Trump can maintain his ability to be pardoned by a President Pence by resigning before he can be impeached and convicted. This is the Nixon strategy. As I noted previously, however, he can only be pardoned for offenses against the United States and could still be prosecuted for violating state (e.g., New York) laws. Trump’s self-importance makes resignation unlikely unless the march to conviction in the Senate seems inevitable.

Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the articles of impeachment drawn up by the House and the handling of those articles by the Senate make a difference. If the president is charged and convicted of only one offense, he could be prosecuted for that offense after leaving office, but he could be pardoned for all other crimes he may have committed. Even if the House impeaches the president for many offenses, the Senate could remove him from office by voting to endorse only one. This could allow Mr. Pence to offer his former boss at least a partial get-out-of-jail-free card.

If Trump leaves office before the end of his term, I hope that he can be indicted, convicted, and imprisoned. In reality, he is most likely to serve jail time by being beaten in the November 2020 election and prosecuted under a Democratic president. In normal times, this would seem the actions of a banana republic, but Mr. Trump’s outrageous behavior might convince citizens that he is simply receiving his just rewards.

Can Trump leave office early and not be pardoned by Mr. Pence? Probably not. Although Mr. Pence’s pardon power is somewhat limited, Trump’s pardonable offenses are legion. Congress could pass a bill—one unlikely to become law—to the effect that a president cannot pardon a convicted or resigned president. The Supreme Could would likely find such a law unconstitutional. Alternatively, though equally unlikely, Congress could make it clear that it would consider President Pence’s pardoning Trump an impeachable offense. This would be kosher, but, removing Pence from office would install Pelosi, a Democrat, so that circumstance seems very farfetched indeed.

I continue to think that investigating Trump, even impeaching him without conviction is the best plan. Democrats in the house can build a strong case against the president. Senate Democrats are numerous enough to keep Trump from being convicted and therefore subject to later prosecution.

NOTE: All references to impeachment in the United States Constitution are discussed in the above essay.

1The constitutional quotations are from the National Archives.

September 27, 2019

Slow Order for the Impeachment Train

Now that the House of Representatives is onboard the impeachment train, everyone is asking just where that train is going. Because Nancy Pelosi indicated that six existing committees, rather than a special impeachment committee, would be responsible for dealing with impeachment of the president, I initially assumed that the case to be made against President Donald Trump would be comprehensive. It seemed reasonable that the Ukraine affair (Ukrainegate?) was, to the Speaker of the House, the last straw, rather than the first incontrovertible high crime committed by the incumbent president. It will make a difference, however, whether the impeachment train leaves the station with a full complement of coaches or departs carrying a single railcar.

Democrats believe that Mr. Trump’s attempt to induce Ukraine to assist in his re-election campaign is egregious and unmistakably so. That this is not so clear to Republican politicians, however, suggests that the outrage felt by Democrats might not be universally appreciated by the electorate. If the House votes impeachment on the basis of Ukrainegate only—some have suggested this should be the case, and Ms. Pelosi has not been entirely clear about how the House should proceed—the case for removing the president may be unconvincing to the American people and to the Senate. The effort, in that case, would be a disaster and might well improve the chances of having to endure a second Trump term.

Since Mr. Trump seems to engage in treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors during most of his waking hours, it seems prudent to draw up articles of impeachment that convincingly portray a president out of control and more concerned with his own welfare than that of the nation. Such a comprehensive indictment is more likely to sway public opinion in its favor. Conviction by the Senate needs only a single infraction found to be a constitutional violation, so the House can improve the odds of conviction by giving the Senate more options to choose from. Besides, to limit impeachment to Ukrainegate might suggest that all the other insults to the Constitution committed by the president are unimportant. That would allow Republicans to suggest that Ukrainegate was merely an aberration, inconsistent with the president’s overall performance.

As much as my sense of justice is bouyed by Nancy Pelosi’s decision to set the impeachment train in motion, I find the development worrisome. I expressed my greatest fear in an earlier essay (Don’t Impeach Trump, July 25, 2019). Were Mr. Trump actually removed from office, Mike Pence would become president and, undoubtedly, would pardon Donald Trump for all past and future offenses, thereby depriving the Republic of the opportunity to indict the ex-president, convict him, and send him to prison.

There is another contingency that could prevent Mr. Trump from getting his just rewards, namely, resignation from office. The House of Representatives might build such a strong case for impeachment that Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon before him, might resign rather than face likely conviction by the Senate. (Admittedly, this would take much change-of-heart among GOP Senators.) Again, in this scenario, President Pence could pardon Mr. Trump and preserve his undeserved freedom.

Ukrainegate revelations are coming out uncomfortably fast. Some people believe this will allow a single-issue bill of impeachment to be drawn up rather quickly and approved by the House of Representatives. Either conviction or exoneration on such a bill would have a bad outcome. It will, in fact, take some time to fully investigate Ukrainegate, though it won’t take forever. It would be better for the house patiently to develop articles of impeachment involving all the incumbent's misdeeds without actually completing the process in time to send the impeachment train to the Senate before, one hopes, a new Democratic president is inaugurated. Slowly building the case against Donald Trump may strengthen public opinion against his presidency without either calling upon the Senate to act or alarming the president so much that he takes the Richard Nixon option.