Clarity in New York

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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate before the New York primary. Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The events of the past two weeks that culminated in the primary in New York have provided much needed clarity to the race on the democratic side. To be sure, a close result in New York (which it would have been had Sanders won) would have done little to alter the delegate math, but a loss for Clinton would have suggested that she was a weak frontrunner. In any case, what interested me more than the actual result of the primary were the events leading up to the primary and what it informed me about the candidates. Here are my three main takeaways:

1. Sanders is unprepared for the office he seeks. Sanders’ interview with the New York Daily News was very revealing. On issue after issue, he was unable to answer how he would accomplish what he promises in his stump speech, including breaking up the “too big to fail” banks, punishing corporations that move jobs overseas, and interrogation of enemy combatants. In several cases, he even admitted to not studying the issue deeply. Sanders wants a political revolution to usher him into office. But what happens the day after the revolution? How would he transform principle to policy? Throughout his campaign, Sanders has questioned Clinton’s sincerity to help Main Street because she is too closely tied to Wall Street. But what of Sanders’ sincerity? His proposals are already considered politically improbable. Within this context, his inability to provide a framework for how he would accomplish his goals demonstrates that he is not ready for the job he seeks. How is he better suited to help Main Street when he is not prepared?

2. Sanders’ speed date with the Pope. Throughout his campaign, Sanders  has portrayed the impression that he does not pander, and will not bend to special interests, unlike his opponent who would say anything to get elected. Take for instance, Clinton’s changing views on the keystone pipeline, and the TPP. Yet, when confronted with the possibility of defeat, Sanders has done just that, i.e. pandered. The first time this was on display was when Sanders was courting the African-American vote in South Carolina. A memorable moment for me was during a town hall, when he awkwardly suggested that the senate was refusing to consider a supreme court nominee because of the color of Obama’s skin. Similarly, the unexpected detour to the Vatican two days before the must-win primary in New York, was a desperate move for a photo-op with the Pope. Sanders even “penned” this strange Op-ed in the Washington Post in which he annotated a previous speech given by Pope Francis. The Vatican quickly rebuffed these overtures, and said that there would be no meeting. In the end, the five-minute audience that Francis granted Sanders on his way to the airport made for good press, but I think for the Pope. It made him look like a polite man who while averse to political theater, also did not want to turn away a fan. While ultimately unimportant, these events did clarify that Sanders is ultimately an ambitious politician, and one who does what politicians do to win elections.

3. Hillary Clinton is “the establishment”. In 2016, “establishment” has become a dirty word. In a year, where candidates from both parties have vigorously tried to demonstrate their independence from Washington, Clinton has embraced it. First, she actually surrendered the more exciting “outsider”label to a candidate who has been part of Washington politics for longer than she has. She then hugged both Obama’s policy platforms and the democratic party tightly, and ran proudly as a democrat. It paid off. She locked in more than 10 times as many super delegates as Sanders has. The effects were on full display in New York. Both sitting senators of New York, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, endorsed her and campaigned for her. So did mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, was the warmup act for her victory speech after the primary. The message was clear here – the democratic party wants her to be the nominee. One may wish that the party would have wanted someone else. But one can also be sure that if she became president, democratic officials throughout the country will have her back. It is hard to imagine that Sanders doesn’t “Bern” a little because of the support she enjoys. But will she succeed in utilizing that support to govern effectively?

The result in New York further solidified Hillary Clinton’s status as the presumptive democratic nominee for president. With her current support among superdelegates, she could win the nomination without winning any of the remaining contests. The question for Sanders now is what does he want his candidacy to mean?

Blogging the democratic debate

I decided to try and put down what I thought about the democratic debate as it happened. The debate was sponsored by Univision, Washington Post, and Facebook. The longest discussion was on immigration. But I don’t think it moved anywhere. The truth is that comprehensive immigration reform is a major democratic party platform, and neither candidate will abandon it. So despite all the rhetoric, there isn’t much daylight between the two.

The debate then moved to a long back and forth about the bank bailouts and Wall St. Amidst the usual arguments that the candidates have had over the last 7 debates or so, the moderator wanted to know what really Sanders’ problem was with Clinton giving paid speeches to Wall St.? Does he believe that she said something in private that would compromise her objectivity as president? His answer was yes (although he didn’t say the word). To prove otherwise, he said, she should release her transcripts of all her speeches, especially because they were heavily paid for. I think Sanders’ point here is more about Clinton, the person, than it is about policy. The essence of his argument is, she got paid by Wall St., so she cannot be objective about them.

I find this a great political strategy on Sanders’ part, because his point has stuck, and Clinton has never really been able to shake it off. But philosophically, I don’t think it has merit. By Sanders’ argument then, because some labor unions endorse Sanders, could the argument be made that he cannot be objective about them? Can it be said that he will always side with a union’s position no matter what the situation? As another example, let us consider the case of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (“The Wall Street Bailout”) that Sanders likes to talk about. The bailout included relief both for Wall St. and for automakers. Sanders says he opposed the bill because it bailed out Wall St., but that he supports rescuing the auto industry. But if he is right to claim that Clinton voted for the bill because she is married to the interests of Wall St., then it should be fair for Clinton to claim that Sanders opposed the auto bailout. Moreover, does his vote not mean that opposing Wall St. was a greater priority for Sanders than saving the auto industry and its jobs? And objectively, isn’t saving the auto industry corporate welfare, something Sanders likes saying he opposes? In reality, lending transactions (credit) that banks mediate are perhaps the most important mechanism that runs the global economy. Yes, the risky and predatory lending practices of banks were a major underlying factor behind the recession. But the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was not about rewarding banks. It was about stabilizing the global economy. I agree with Sanders’ cause that the behavior of Wall St. banks brought about the biggest economic collapse in a generation. However, I also feel that the way Sanders spins the issue is a mischaracterization of events. Clinton’s vote for the bill was still the responsible thing to do.

Finally, there was some back and forth between the candidates about college tuition and health care. In the midst of this, the moderator asked Clinton what economic policies she would pursue to specifically help Latinos? Clinton listed some general policies that would help all Americans but even when pressed, she could not come up with something specific that would help Latinos. Sanders talked about education and his youth employment program, but again this was also general. However, I thought that it was telling that neither candidate really had a good answer. Another moment I thought was revealing was when the candidates were asked about how they would accomplish anything on climate change, given republican opposition. I hated Sanders’ answer that it needs a political revolution. There is no political revolution that is happening …and if it is happening, it is not happening among the democrats! But Clinton too stuttered her way through what I thought was an unconvincing answer about how she could get some sort of a bipartisan consensus. To be blunt, for all the talk about helping Main St. and climate change, neither candidate had anything concrete in terms of solutions.

Then the topic again turned towards American relations with Latin America, and the moderator pulled out a video of Sanders from 1985. Thats when I yawned and turned the TV off. As far as the optics go, I think Sanders fared better than Clinton. He seemed to have more speaking time (it felt that way), and I thought she missed several opportunities to make relevant points against Sanders’ positions. But overall, I thought that the outcome will depend largely on Clinton’s ground game on March 15. It is still her election to lose.

A collective responsibility

Every election has a dominant issue. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, and Obamacare were some of the top issues in 2008 and 2012. While I wait for the dominant themes of this election cycle to crystallize, I also feel that none of these issues will be resolved if the dysfunction in Washington is not fixed first.

The one thing everybody agrees on is that “Washington is broken“. The approval rating of congress has rarely topped 25% in almost five years. Not surprisingly, everyone that is running for president claims either to be an “outsider” or that special insider that is in Washington, but not of it. But if politicians are to blame for the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, what about the voters that elect these politicians? Aren’t they also responsible?

To me, the dysfunction in Washington is an extension of the deeply polarized views of the voters. The main consequence of this polarization is the creation of an elected class that will not agree on anything, and therefore will accomplish nothing. Effective government in the United States requires putting one’s agenda in the context of the size of the mandate they receive. For instance, the margin of Obama’s victory in 2012 was 51% to 47%.  In theory, there are at least two solutions for implementing such a mandate: (1) Let the majority rule. In other words, if a party wins the election, let them vigorously implement their agenda. This is accomplished by letting all bills pass on a simple majority basis; or (2) Pass bills through constructive negotiation with the minority, given that the minority still represents a very significant portion of the population.

In this regard, the constitution of government in the United States clearly favors the second option. For instance, power in the government is distributed between congress and the president, and in many instances, the party that controls the presidency is distinct from that which controls the majority in congress. Additionally, the constitution provides important protections for the rights of the minority, especially in the senate. One would expect that these checks and balances would induce politicians to collaborate and work vigorously towards reaching a consensus. Alas, politicians today have chosen stalemate over consensus, and it is my opinion that the process by which voters select these elected representatives is a major contributing factor to the dysfunction in Washington.

As an example, let us consider how presidential candidates are selected these days. Both democrats and republicans want their candidates to pass a series of litmus tests to establish the purity of their liberal or conservative ideologies, respectively. Of course, each side feels that moral clarity exists solely in their viewpoint, and so they seek the candidate that will most strongly reflect their principles. But in this sea of ideologues, no one ever talks about how they will implement their agenda. Just look at the tax plans of the candidates that are generating the most excitement among conservatives and liberals. On the right, we have Donald Trump’s plan, whose tax cuts will reduce federal revenues by $9.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Unless he pairs these tax cuts with very large (read impossible) spending cuts, his plans would lead to record budget deficits and increase the national debt by $11.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Meanwhile, on the left, we have Bernie Sanders, whose plans will raise taxes and increase government revenue by a whopping $15.3 trillion over the next decade alone. This increased revenue will not be used to pay down the national debt, but rather finance a series of government programs. Obviously, both plans will be dead on arrival. Currently, it is estimated that republicans will retain their majority in the house of representatives. The fate of the senate is less clear, but in the end, it wouldn’t matter anyway. For instance, even if republicans retain the senate, democrats will surely filibuster any plan to cut taxes on wealthy individuals. Similarly, even if democrats win the House and senate majorities, republicans will surely filibuster any tax increases, let alone the massive ones Sanders is proposing to help finance new government programs. With their tax plans suspended, how will these ideologues meet the promises they made to the voters? They will not. And they are being irresponsible, if not dishonest, when they claim that they can deliver on their promises, if elected.

 

In summary, I feel that a major factor underlying the dysfunction in Washington is the triumph of ideology over responsibility. While the electorate hopes for a productive government, it also selects candidates based more on ideological purity than their ability to lead and establish consensus. Our collective responsibility should be to reject candidates with outlandish, divisive, and close-minded proposals, and select those whose plans have the room to maneuver, work collaboratively, and ensure progress through consensus. Only then can we hope to elect effective governments that can truly fulfill their mandates.

The Elephant in the Room

The most intriguing aspect of this election is, of course, the success of Donald Trump. As I watched him announce his candidacy for President of The United States, I was reminded of the time when President Obama roasted him at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011. Trump’s ranting announcement seemed only to reinforce the notion that the sole purpose of his entry would be to allow late-night comedians to thrive for the next few months.
Today, the script has changed significantly, and people aren’t laughing so much. Having won three primaries in a row, Trump has the highest chance of becoming the republican nominee for president, and more importantly, leader of the republican party. It doesn’t seem to matter that Trump’s plan to Make America Great Again simply involves shedding political correctness, and being tough on Mexico, China, and immigrants. But what is most surprising is that the field was stacked with governors and senators, and still it didn’t matter. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, and Rand Paul did not stand a chance. Why?
I think for three main reasons:
(1)  The republican party has not been interested in governing. They have controlled the House since 2010, and both the House and the Senate since 2014. And what do they have to show for it? Not much. The worst thing is that they like to say so themselves. Ted Cruz boasts of his obstructive activities. Marco Rubio doesn’t even see the point of being in the senate, and is running away what little he tried to do. Every bill has been an internal battle, and negotiation with democrats is considered equivalent to surrender. It seems that these senators have forgotten that the President cannot originate bills. And they pledge not to use Executive Actions. So how can they get anything done, that too without negotiating with the democrats? And so they have stood on the podium next to Trump with their thin résumés and no accomplishments. Why do they want the highest job in government when they have failed to contribute to a functioning government?
(2) The major issue for governors (other than charisma) is the “Mitt Romney problem”, by which I mean the problem that candidates who don’t prove their strong conservative credentials (aka, government IS the problem, no taxes, guns everywhere, pro-life, anti-gay rights, etc.) risk losing the republican base during the primaries, particularly in the South. They then have to carefully alter these positions to win back moderates in the general election. This scenario has caused the candidates to take outlandish positions, and often abandon some of their key accomplishments in office. The net result is that their task is reduced to pandering, and not making a case that is rooted in policy and practicality. And it turns out, it is easy to pander. Just compare the policy positions of these governors and senators with those of Trump, and there are hardly any major differences. The only  issue I can recall is a discussion about whether it was acceptable that Russia is working with Assad in Syria (but this issue seems to have died down).  Everyone will lower taxes, produce splendid economic growth, repeal Obamacare, obliterate ISIS, take out China and Russia, etc. Since nothing is rooted in policy, Trump has can sound both tougher (I will build a wall and deport 11 million people), and reasonable (I get along with everybody, Planned Parenthood provides essential services for women, etc.). In other words, Trump has simply “out-pandered” the GOP field.
(3) The Republican electorate wants to win the presidency badly. They are tired of losing to the democrats for 8 years, and given that everybody is essentially saying the same thing policy wise, they want to pick a strongman who can wrest the presidency.

And so, the party of Ronald Reagan could soon crown Donald Trump as its leader. Does anyone have a clue as to what he would actually do if he became president? Now that’s the elephant in the room.

 

The winning slogan

What a fascinating presidential election cycle this is! After voting for “Change We Can Believe In” in 2008, and “Forward” in 2012, what will Americans choose in 2016? Republicans will decide whether to “Make America Great Again”, make do with simply “Reigniting the Promise of America”, “Heal. Inspire. Revive”, skip 84 years and jump to “A New American Century” or realize “A Positive Vision for America”. Meanwhile, the Democrats, after selecting a young freshman senator to be their leader in 2008 have decided to crusade against ageism. After saying “Yes We Can!” 8 years ago, they will either finally get “Ready to Start a Political Revolution” with a 74 year-old man or look to a 69 year-old lady and say, meh… “I am with her”. The winners in the red and blue corners will then face off for the ultimate prize of “Leader of the Free World”. Let the games begin!

A Prelude to The Debate on Gun Control

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered a packed movie theatre in Aurora, CO, that was screening the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” and started shooting people at random. At the time, he was armed with a shotgun, a civilian version of the military M-16 assault rifle equipped with a 100-round drum magazine, two .40-caliber handguns, and protective armor. Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded. In a final twist, police found Holmes’ apartment booby-trapped with explosives. James Holmes had no prior criminal record and he purchased his firearms legally from licensed gun dealers in Colorado, and also bought more than 6000 rounds of ammunition over the internet.

Sixteen days later, on August 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page, shot six worshippers to death and wounded another three at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, WI, before taking his own life. Page was a US army veteran and was armed with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol that he had acquired legally.

On December 14, 2012, the country was shocked by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In this case, Adam Lanza, 20, allegedly first shot and killed his own mother, then went on a rampage at the elementary school that left 26 people dead, including 20 children, before killing himself. The shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, possessed five guns in her collection, all of which were legally acquired and registered: two handguns, two hunting rifles, and a semiautomatic military-style rifle. Of these, Mr. Lanza took the handguns and the semiautomatic rifle to Sandy Hook Elementary.

On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 200. During the ensuing investigation and manhunt during which the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown were effectively shut down, the suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, allegedly shot and killed officer Sean Collier of the MIT police and engaged in a long gun battle with the police on the streets of Watertown, MA. Tamerlan was killed in the battle, while Dzhokhar was captured the next evening. In addition to possessing explosives, the brothers carried at least one rifle, handguns, and 250 rounds of ammunition. Based on reports from the Cambridge Police Department, neither suspect had a license to own firearms.

Together, these tragic events have galvanized calls for tougher gun control laws. Proponents of such laws seem to identify greater restrictions/regulations on the access to specific kinds of weapons and ammunition as the solution to this issue. Meanwhile, opponents of gun control have quickly counter that such laws violate the 2nd amendment rights granted by the constitution. Furthermore, they argue that new laws only make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to acquire guns while doing little to stop criminals from acquiring weapons illegally. Who is right? Can anything be done to prevent the occurrence of such tragedies? Or they the price of a free society? And what are our current gun control laws and how are they enforced? These are questions that I will attempt to address over the next few posts.

 

RESTART

After my last post, I decided to take a long break from writing about politics. A long grinding political exercise that was the 2012 presidential election had just concluded and I was just about ready to throw up at the sight of another political Ad. The poor souls who had to come on TV and continue talking about politics on Nov.8…Actually, scratch that….they make a lot of money for that…so whatever…anyway, I decided to take a break. During this time, I have often thought about what I want this blog to be about. In the run-up to the 2012 election, it seemed that there was an information overload. The candidates were crisscrossing the country and delivering speeches, giving interviews, and laying out agendas. In addition, the media was also running its own non-stop analysis of the candidates’ positions on every possible issue that could make a difference in the electoral college. The challenge, it seemed, was to sift through all this information and bias, and arrive at a decision on which candidates were more suitable to form the government at this time. Following the election however, a number of these information sources have dried up and it has become difficult to understand exactly what guides our elected representatives. For instance, how did the house of representatives arrive at a particular policy position regarding government spending? How about regarding gun control laws? What kinds of data is the senate looking at while it crafts an immigration bill? How good is this information and how can we find out? Similarly, how can we, the people, obtain and use this information to influence policy? These are some of the questions I hope to address going forward.

Regarding specific topics, one particular area that received very little attention in the last election cycle was American Foreign Policy. The major developments of the last six months, including changes in the European economy, the conflict in Syria, the growing international concern over Iran’s nuclear program, the theatrics of Kim Jong Un and increasing tensions between North and South Korea, the death of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the decision by Raul Castro of Cuba to not pursue another term, the changing political and social climate in Myanmar, and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon, all have enormous implications for American interests, both in the near future and long-term. Meanwhile, on the domestic side, tax and entitlement reform, immigration policy, and gun control laws are being hotly debated by the new congress and will likely also be the focus of the next election cycle. So here we go…