Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Trust Gap

One of Obama's biggest accomplishments was negotiating a deal to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. The reasons countries want nukes is not unknowable or unhinged; it's coldly pragmatic. While conventional armies are hugely expensive, nukes are cheap. No country could hope to build a conventional war machine that can compete with the US's. If they fear this large, menacing hegemon that routinely bombs or invades foreign countries, the quickest and most effective check is nukes. All of this perfectly basic, obvious calculation.

The cornerstone in the Iran deal was trust. Over years, Obama was able to convince Iran that the US would not behave capriciously. The US convincingly communicated that the reason Iran might want nukes--the threat from the US--was smaller than the pain of sanctions. Again, pragmatically transactional thinking.

Enter Trump, a lunatic with a middle-schooler's understanding of geopolitics.. Just by threatening to blow up the deal, he demonstrates that the US is no longer worthy of that trust. The US now looks like a dangerous, unpredictable actor. Unless things change quickly, the GOP's jejune lust to appear "strong" will probably convince Iran to restart the program. Any rational country would. And the truth is, they probably should. Even reasonable diplomats couldn't plausibly argue that the US is worthy of trust. We're just not. And other countries will begin to take action that reflects their well-placed mistrust of the US.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

How Progress Happens

A word or two about the politics of Bernie's Medicare-for-all proposal. A number of people are rightly excited about making sweeping, systemic change to American healthcare. (Everyone, far right to far left, agrees it sucks.) The center-left reaction against it is predictable: "but it can't pass right now.

This is a terrible argument because it misunderstands how politics works. It's as if mainstream Dems imagine you can secretly build political momentum for a policy goal and then, only once support is overwhelming, announce the goal. Of course, the opposite is true. Support for policy objectives has to come first. You have to agree on a policy and then build the coalition to pass it. Sometimes this takes months; sometimes decades.

What Bernie's plan does is set the goal. Now we begin to build the coalition to make it happen.

As an addendum, there's an irony here; the far left made a similar mistake 8 years ago. Then, supporters of Obamacare pointed out that progress had to be made; failure meant no further attempts for a decade or so. Conversely, even an imperfect plan would move expectations for real socialized medicine possible. The far left was adamant that Obamacare was a neoliberal sellout and would have killed it. Yet here we are, eight years later, *having built support* for a better plan, now in a position to push for it.

This is how politics works. It's a very slow, compromised, and unsatisfying process--and that's when it's successful.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Transition Letters

CNN has released a copy of the note Barack Obama left for Donald Trump in the Oval Office. This is a tradition dating back some time. (Even the NYT is vague on this point--"part of a long tradition"--and my four minutes of Googling did not reveal how long.) We now have the four most recent, and while they all contain a similar spirit, they are also wonderful reflections of the men who wrote them. Here they are, with a bit of commentary.

George HW Bush to Bill Clinton, 122 words
The elder Bush was famously laconic, not atypical for WWII-era military men. It illustrates Bush's habit of mentioning slightly awkward things in the midst of very pro forma communications, some of them quite revealing. In the longest passage of this short note, he wanders into what is clearly a fresh bruise as he was leaving office--the constant criticism. The comment about loneliness also seems apt for a Greatest Generation president.

JANUARY 20, 1993  

Dear Bill,  

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.  

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.  

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course.  

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.  

Good Luck — 

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, 122 words
Nobody enjoyed being president more than Bill Clinton--evident in his final paragraph. Not only does he look back on his burdens as exaggerated--for a president who managed to get impeached, they were not insubstantial!--but "sheer joy" is not what the presidency looks like from here. It's also amusing to see him offer a bit of the old Clinton spin there in the second paragraph.

JANUARY 20, 2001

Dear George, 
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.  

Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.  

You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.  

The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible. My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.  


George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 107 words
Of course Dubya's note was the shortest of the bunch; of Bush few will say, "he was an eloquent man of words." His note to Obama is nevertheless both revealing and surprisingly personal. Bush betrays not just the hurt he felt, but his approach to dealing with it (God and family), both of which seem totally consistent with how he governed. Both he and Obama signed with their initials, an interesting coincidence.

January 20, 2009

Dear Barack, 

Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life. 
Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.  

There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your "friends" will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.  

God bless you.  


Barack Obama to Donald Trump, 279 words
Obama is one of the few presidents whose natural mode is writing, not speaking, so it's no surprise his note is more than twice as long as any of the others. It's unusual in a few ways, though that's largely because of the unusual figure inheriting the job. His four pieces of advice are very specific and pointed (and lawyerly), and I can't imagine him giving any of this advice to Hillary Clinton or even Ted Cruz. His note is undated, uniquely among the group, and also uniquely, mentions both wives (Michelle and Melania) specifically. In much shorter notes, the other three presidents divulged more of themselves than Obama, the most guarded president in my lifetime. Finally, more than the other presidents, Obama understands and frames the role in historical context (which is unusual; you'd think they'd all have that top of mind as they left the White House for the final time).

Dear Mr. President - 
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure. 

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don't know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years. 

First, we've both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It's up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that's willing to work hard. 

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend. 

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions -- like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties -- that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it's up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them. 

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They'll get you through the inevitable rough patches. 

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can. 

Good luck and Godspeed, 

Will Trump be in office to write a letter to his successor? Will he have the capacity to understand why such a small act is important and follow through on it? We'll see. Meanwhile, I leave you with images of the letters. Trump has not released the Obama letter, but you can see him brandishing it in the final photo. 

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Monday, August 21, 2017

A few stray thoughts about the eclipse for those of you who didn't have the geographical good fortune of standing underneath full totality.

As the moon became more and more intrusive, subtle changes began happening. The quality of light changed, from that fat, saturated yellow of summer to a thinner, bluish winter hue. The temperature began dropping, too, but not until much of the sun was blocked. One lone, confused cricket started playing. The bowl of sky, which once ran from cobalt overhead to baby blue at the horizon, lost much of its color and became a faded pastel blue with not much gradient.

It was only near the end that the big changes started happening. Darkness fell, but not like night. It was like twilight on a different planet with a silvery sun. If anyone's seen old movies for film shot day-for-night, the impression was something like that.

The sun is unbelievably strong. It was so bright that my camera never captured anything but a circular form, even when it was the barest sliver. The amount of light a tiny crescent provides is likewise shocking--it was an odd, otherworldly sight, but only at the end would one have needed headlights, for example. Even with those impressive glasses--they allow no light through except the sun--my eyes ached in the brightness.

The difference between almost-totality and full eclipse? Roughly the same distance as almost-totality was from no eclipse. When the moon finally locked in place, dropping like ball into socket, some wondrous and literally indescribable change happened. We've all seen pictures of eclipses and they're accurate, to a point. But the image somehow seems so much larger in the sky than the naked sun; the burning silvery corona around the moon is so alive and vivid. It was just ....

Doesn't remotely do it justice. This was during totality.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Legacy of Shame

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Uneasy Compromise of America

Living on the west coast, the origins of the country have always felt bloodless and distant. My impression when I come to D.C. is one of wondrous, tangible incoherence. You walk around the city and you see a country that mythologized its founders as near godlike figures, wreathed in the regalia of Ancient Greece. But walk into the museums and you get the fuller, darker picture. In a town where the majority are black--as are many of the museum staff--we learn of our long white supremacist history, that these founders were as venal and conflicted as modern politicians. On the one hand they mouthed the word of liberty while they passed laws legalizing slavery and limiting those liberties to white, wealthy men. 

Yet the US contains multitudes. It is not possible to slide fully into depression about a country that really does take to heart the effort to create a more perfect union. I visited during pride weekend, so the city was festooned with rainbows, smiles, and, well, pride. The Library of Congress had a wonderful temporary installation of the history of gay civil rights. This, just in view of the Capitol building, where many members want to roll back these rights, and the Supreme Court, where the rights were finally affirmed.

On a stroll down 12th (?) I passed by the President's new hotel, which is as stark a symbol of corruption and decadence as one could imagine. Yet within five months, he's managed to rouse a country that means to check his power, and all the news rumbles with reports about obstruction of justice, lawsuits about emoluments violations, and federal probes. (As I judged cider and beer in Navy Yard--the purpose of my visit--Attorney General Jeff Sessions was being grilled by the Senate.)

What a weird, bloody, contradictory country we live in. It's too big and too populous to ever fall under a single orthodoxy. We live by uneasy compromise, lumbering from one fight to the next, always somehow united by belief in the character of a country that stands for so many different things.

Supreme Court

The Capitol from the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Obstruction of Justice

These are such surreal times. Imagining a president might be impeached or forced to resign after just 117 days is almost inconceivable. But with today's revelation that he asked FBI director Jim Comey to stop investigating potential White House-Russian collision before firing him--a day after the world learned he bragged secrets to BFF Sergei Lavrov--well. At this point it's more inconceivable to imagine him surviving to 2020 than meeting some inevitable, humiliating end.

He's already admitted to obstruction of justice (firing Comey over the "Russia thing"). He's a witless boob who brags away secrets, a man too scattered to learn the rudiments of government. He could easily start an accidental war. His nepotism and petty corruption is transparent, and he's almost certain to have committed major corruption and possibly even treason.

All congressional Republicans needed was a breathing body to sign legislation and act as a pass-through for judicial nominations. They entered 2017 clearly willing to put up with almost any behavior from Trump so long as it didn't endanger their individual seats and accomplished the first two ends. But there was always going to be a point when Trump was too big a liability and they'd turn on him. When we look back from a place of knowledge sometime in the future, I think we'll look at this week and particularly today as the beginning of the end.

If it goes to the full impeachment, we have months of drama left (special prosecutors and/or select committees) before he could be convicted by 2/3s of the Senate. That will grind legislation to a halt and almost certainly kill the chances of the GOP holding both chambers in 2018. Who knows--maybe Pence will cut a deal to pardon Trump so they can get him out by the fall. Self-interest is a powerful motivator, and the dominoes could fall quickly if Republicans see it in their interest to sacrifice Trump.

I really can't believe any of this is happening. I wouldn't buy it for a second in a novel.