The meaning and the drama of Trump’s budget


In the glory days, with Bob Dole

Newt Gingrich lives in President Trump’s first pass at a federal budget.

The purpose of a budget – government, corporate or household – is to put vision in numbers. First identify the goals, the strategies to execute them and their projected costs, then set income to a level required to act on whatever priorities are realistic.

When Gingrich became House speaker in 1995, he inverted the formula. Said the speaker, the budget is first a number, then strategies to meet whatever goals can be addressed within that number. He argued that families and businesses operated the same way – apportioning fixed income to needs and desires.

Noble as that may sound, that’s not how households or businesses operate. Families borrow – mortgages, car loans, credit cards – to fulfill a vision. Corporations meet a plan by borrowing from banks, selling stock and issuing bonds.

This week Trump followed Gingrich’s notion in releasing a 53-page outline of the one-fourth of federal spending devoted to discretionary spending: The first principle is the number. The president said he would increase defense spending $54 billion and cut non-defense discretionary spending by the same amount, maintaining a total discretionary budget of $1.065 trillion. (Discretionary is the part of the budget that Congress sets each year covering the goods and services government buys; mandatory, which constitutes nearly two-thirds of the current $3.9 trillion budget, is transfer payments based on criteria: Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions, other income-security programs.)

Perhaps sometime later the administration will outline a vision, but so far Trump’s has only a slogan, to make us great again. How these choices do that he has not articulated. We are left with a number: $54 billion switched from non-defense to defense.

About Trump’s increase for the Pentagon, the budget “blueprint” has 11 bullet points: “accelerate the defeat of ISIS”; address “pressing shortfalls”; build a “more lethal joint force, driven by a new National Defense Strategy.” The defense secretary has released no strategy. That will come later.

The corresponding cut in non-defense programs has even less justification. Budget director Mick Mulvaney, while denying the link between school lunch subsidies and student performance, said agencies would be deciding on the specific cuts. His bullets were illustrative, I suppose.

For example, the Agriculture budget “Provides $6.2 billion to serve all projected participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).” The amount is a projection of grants to states, which administer the program according to eligibility criteria. Maybe it’s enough to serve “all projected participants.” The House and Senate Appropriations committees last spring allocated $6.35 billion, the same as the year before, asserting that an improved economy led to declining expenditures. This year? We can’t tell, because the blueprint doesn’t include the usual detail, such as underlying macroeconomic assumptions. The White House has hired no economists, the Agriculture Department has no secretary (nominee Sonny Perdue submitted his required ethics paperwork a few days ago), and it’s unclear whether the department, with no political appointees at the helm, participated in Mulvaney’s projection. So $6.2 billion is just a number. Which takes us back to the Gingrich paradigm: set the number, then see what it buys.

It’s not entirely the Trump administration’s doing. The federal budget process has long been broken. Congress used to pass one annual bill covering all mandatory programs – statutory provisions that specified changes in law affecting spending – and 13 appropriations bills covering more or less logically grouped areas of discretionary spending. For years, though, Congress has failed to do so, because it could not square the popularity of programs against an arbitrary number to assemble voting majorities. Instead it has bundled the appropriations that didn’t pass by the start of the fiscal year into a “continuing resolution.” It has passed two CRs for fiscal 2017; the latest expires April 28, leaving five months to go in the fiscal year. If Congress had done its job, the White House could have focused on other issues, perhaps putting a team in place and submitting a supplemental appropriation. But it didn’t, so we have a half-baked proposal out of an amateur White House with no articulated policy behind it.

The unveiling of the president’s budget has always been a pageant, a day of drama for Congress, reporters, and affected interests. The real work came before, when the agencies assembled their requests according to directives from the White House, and after, when Congress got to the business of modifying the previous year’s appropriation according to its priorities.

For this year’s show, the White House’s role was to generate headlines – “NEA to be abolished! EPA budget slashed!” But it only means what Congress decides it means. In the best case, that will be determined as the Appropriations committees weigh the value of programs against a number. The vision of a more or less perfect union will be revealed in the results.

Posted in Congress, federal budget, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Degrading our ‘City Upon a Hill’


John Winthrop

The phrase “American Exceptionalism” always irritated me, as it was about waving the flag while ignoring a history that, checkered like most countries, began with slavery, our original sin, and continued with Manifest Destiny, the doctrinal foundation for a genocide. In 2012 Mitt Romney wrapped his campaign in exceptionalism, that we are “a great champion of human dignity and human freedom,” sidestepping our manipulation of other countries, often with troops. If the phrase were narrowed to refer to our civic freedom and rule of law, well, that’s the heritage England bequeathed to its colonies in North America and Australia/New Zealand, and we share it with much of the developed world. We aren’t that exceptional.

I’m having second thoughts, thanks to Donald Trump.

If the United States is exceptional, it is because our founders declared it into being, along with certain unalienable rights (in fairness, Romney noted those too). For a century we have been exceptionally powerful. But what has made us unusual if not unique is the way we have grown: with a (mostly) open door to immigrants, who give us their extraordinary ambition; the world’s model of privately and publicly funded universities that draw students from around the globe; and a government that partners with private enterprise to foster discovery and risk-taking while ensuring that the external costs, such as pollution created in pursuit of profit, are not borne solely by the public. The Trump regime threatens all of it.

I am saddened by his disrespect for the rule of law and norms of governing, for the separation of powers, for his predecessors’ legacies. But I am most troubled by his attitude toward and actions on immigration – the executive orders and excessive discretion granted to ICE – and the atmosphere they create.

We know that we are a nation built by immigrants – and that many have resisted waves of immigrants that didn’t conform to their sense of identity. Antipathy birthed the Know Nothing party in the 1850s and led to restrictions climaxing in the 1924 Immigration Act, whose purpose, the State Department concludes in a history of the era, “was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Impetus for the Immigration Act of 1965 was our recognition that as leader of the free world, we lacked moral authority as long as discriminatory restrictions on country of origin remained. The law barred any preference for or discrimination against “the issuance of an immigrant visa because of . . . race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” At the signing on Liberty Island, President Johnson said the law “corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation” counter to the Declaration’s self-evident truths.

The intent of Trump’s two executive orders – to ban Muslims (his campaign promise) from certain countries – is contrary to the spirit and letter of the 1965 act. The orders also are ineffective as counter-terrorism measures, according to a DHS analysis reported February 24; it found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Evidence that the ban has nothing to do with national security emerged in a news report this week that the administration would cut Coast Guard and TSA funding to pay for the border wall.

The changes to deportation enforcement are worse. Ripping parents with long-ago misdemeanor convictions – or no convictions at all – from their communities, at incalculable cost and misery for their American-born children, has sown fear and disruption across the country.

The world becomes more interdependent, but we imagine we can spin a cocoon. International business and tourist travel has dropped. Students are reconsidering whether to come to American universities. A trickle of foreign nationals is heading north of the border. Silicon Valley companies are looking to Vancouver, where the foreign-born workers they recruit are welcome.

That we are the “city upon a hill” passed from the Sermon on the Mount to America’s creation myth and on to Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Kennedy, King and Reagan. Still aboard ship en route to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, future governor John Winthrop preached:

We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.

What byword are we creating?

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Upon an inauguration, advice from an altar to democracy

lincolnIf Donald Trump asked me what he should consider in composing his most consequential address yet, I would advise him to go read the two greatest speeches in American history, which are conveniently inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, behind an enormous stage that’s been erected there in his honor. I visit often, especially since November, to deepen my perspective on where we are in this continuing experiment.

On the Memorial’s south wall is the Gettysburg Address, which if Steven Spielberg is to be believed every Union soldier memorized. The president delivered it in November 1863, four months after the battle, when Union victories were crystallizing the U.S. government’s overwhelming advantages but also that the war’s course was far from over.

Lincoln’s public objective had been shifting since he wrote Horace Greeley in August 1862 that “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” The month before, he had shared with his cabinet a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he viewed as a military measure (freeing only slaves in rebel territories). Its preliminary issue, after the costly victory at Antietam in September, effectively changed the goal of the war. At Gettysburg 14 months later, his short address transformed its meaning.

The Address is a declaration. The war, Lincoln said, had become a test of the proposition that all men are created equal. He spoke over, and yet answered, South Carolina’s rationale for the Confederacy: the right of one identifiable group of people to determine the lives of Others and have the federal government uphold the Constitution’s Article IV clause that compelled states to return fugitive slaves. At his first inaugural, Lincoln had evoked the mystic chords of memory and the better angels of our nature to argue that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed. At Gettysburg, by contrast, he dedicated the Union to “a new birth of freedom” – from slavery and of democratic government of, by, and for the people.

Where Gettysburg is a declaration of purpose, the Second Inaugural, on the Memorial’s north wall, is a humble inquiry into God and fate, after the president had written thousands more condolence letters. Lincoln never mentions the country by name, as if the inquiry might apply to any people. He identifies “a peculiar and powerful interest” – slavery – as “somehow the cause of the war,” before zeroing in on the contention. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,” he says, before shifting to the passive expression, “and the war came.”

Then come the musings: that neither side anticipated the war’s cost and duration, nor “a result less fundamental and astounding”; that both read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and invoked His aid against the other; that “it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Then the proposition: If slavery were ordained, but now God willed to abolish it and so gave us this war as the price of having upheld it, is that not also God’s will? The question sets up Lincoln’s answer, the greatest sentence ever written about the American experience, capped by a fragment of the 19th Psalm: “Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” We have yet to sink that wealth.

The closing is well remembered: a plea to bind up the nation’s wounds. But the power of the speech is in Lincoln’s question and answer: If we are but bit players in God’s design who strive to honor it though we do not know it, perhaps we should be less certain of our judgments and more mindful of our obligations: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

What question might the president-elect pose to us in his inaugural? Is he reflecting on his post-election tweets, and how they have exacerbated our division and degraded his standing (as measured by “phony polls”)? We are far more diverse than were our forebears when Lincoln spoke at the Capitol. Americans no longer read from the same Bible nor pray to the same god. Would that this next president be less certain of his judgments and, with malice toward none and charity for all, embody “all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Posted in Uncategorized

The Electoral College: Will no one rid us of this meddlesome relic?

hamiltonOn the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the Electoral College is expected to demonstrate not only its uselessness but its destructiveness by choosing for president a candidate who lost the national popular vote by more than 2 percent. It never worked as theorized; its relationship to federalism is dubious; and its existence contravenes the 14th Amendment. It is a relic that should be abolished.

The purpose of the electors, according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, was to buffer the passions and ignorance of common voters – who in 1788 were limited to white male property owners – by allowing “a small number of persons” who would “be most likely to possess the information and discernment” to pick the president. Thus the Constitution empowered the states to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the electors, who were proscribed from holding any office.

At the time political parties didn’t exist. Hamilton’s Federalist partner, James Madison, hoped they never would. In Federalist 10, Madison warned, “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man”:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

An Electoral College, the Framers contended, would rise above those divisions. It was a nice argument, but reasoning together was not the elector’s purpose. Of greater concern were the mechanics of conducting a popular vote. (By 1796, when Adams faced Jefferson in the first contested election, only eight states held a popular vote.) But the most important factor was how to account for slavery. The three/fifths compromise (counting three/fifths of a slave for purposes of House apportionment) helped work out the composition of Congress; the Constitutional Convention extended the principle to picking the president.

Hamilton’s rationale for electors fell away as our political parties matured; electors pledged to support the candidate of their respective parties. The parties choose the electors on slates that represent the respective presidential candidates, resulting in the custom (and in 29 states and D.C. the law) that electors follow their state vote, winner-take-all. (Maine and Nebraska require electors representing House districts to follow the popular vote of the district.)

Fifty years ago we experienced momentum for reform in the wake of the adoption of universal suffrage: Poll taxes were prohibited under the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964; the next year Congress directed the federal government to enforce voting rights denied on account of race. Separately the Supreme Court’s one-person/one-vote decisions, culminating in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), reasoned that under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, states were required to accord citizens equal representation in drawing legislative districts. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests . . . [I]f a state should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the state should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the state, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted.

Two years after Reynolds, in 1966, Delaware petitioned the Supreme Court to sweep away the state laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won their states regardless of margin as a violation of due process. In its brief, Delaware noted that the “state unit system” of electing the president is part of an integrated national process, in which each state’s citizens are affected by the methods of all other states. It argued that the system gave a candidate with 49 percent of the vote zero representation in the electoral count, contrary to the Equal Protection Clause. It also argued that small states were overwhelmed by big ones:

A citizen of a small state is in a position to influence fewer electoral votes than a citizen of a larger state, and therefore his popular vote is less sought after by major candidates.

New York State, as the petition’s named defendant (which then had the most electoral votes), responded that the Constitution granted every state the right to set the manner of appointing electors. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Meanwhile members of Congress, the American Bar Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were advocating a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The Gallup poll found a majority of legislators in 44 states favored it. Beginning in 1966, Senator Birch Bayh led the congressional effort for direct election, including a run-off if no candidate received 40 percent. The Indiana Democrat continued his campaign until he was defeated for reelection in 1980.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s apparent election, defenders of the Electoral College have opined that presidential candidates would ignore small states in favor of big ones. That’s irrelevant because, to paraphrase Chief Justice Warren, presidents represent citizens, not states. The 14th Amendment dispatched the notion that we are citizens of our respective states first, and it granted us equal rights as Americans.

Contrary to every other electoral contest, from U.S. senator to county commissioner, our system of electing the president allows a winner not determined by who gets the most votes. Twice in 16 years, we have countenanced that system. As former senator Bayh wrote: “Direct election is the only system that counts every vote equally and where the voters cast their ballots directly for the candidates of their choice.”

Posted in Electoral College, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, Voting, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , ,

‘Change’ vs. our ossified process: It’s no contest

birmingham“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King’s distillation of abolitionist Theodore Parker’s sermon is one of his most famous quotations. It resonates with us because we assume the universe is moral and think we have evidence: The images of Birmingham’s police dogs and fire hoses flooded our TV screens, we rose up, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; Alabama troopers beat peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Johnson declared “We shall overcome,” and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s another theory: The universe has no morality, it operates on energy. As specks of matter, we too operate on energy, and we invent our morality based on sermons and experience – thus our particulars of morality vary. In this election, Donald Trump was aligned with the energy of the nation, albeit benefitting from an Electoral College that he once called “a disaster for a democracy.”

Trump’s success is evidence for transformational teachings (Werner Erhard, Tony Robbins, Abraham-Hicks): He was singularly focused on the prize, and he let nothing get in the way. When Hillary Clinton or a debate moderator recited his words recorded in videos, he denied them. No space for shame, he maintained the goal.

Studying his face during the first presidential debate, I thought: his words are unimportant, his anger resonates among his supporters. Their energies are aligned. Trump used the wrong word in saying Clinton lacked stamina, but he had the idea: her energy was no match for his, as seen in their rallies. The general, like the primaries, was about him.

We’ve seen this. After the 2008 election of the coolest president ever, we felt awesome to have chosen an African-American. But within months opponents used their outrage to create the tea party and sweep Congress in the midterms, while the president’s supporters stayed home. They roused themselves for him in 2012, and then in 2014 the country experienced historically low turnout. Turnout estimates for 2016 are down again. It’s not morality, it’s energy.

Knocking on doors on election day, I met an Afghan-American, here for 22 years. His entire household (with three grown daughters) had voted Hillary. But he said, assuming her victory, “Nothing will change, and I want change.” After chatting about the nature of presidential power, my friend asserted, “America is blessed by God,” adding, “Everything will be okay.”

Well, that too is a belief. But what if God (assuming He exists) has no investment in a particular outcome? He set up the game and gave us free will to play it as we choose. Our land, like others, is blessed with natural resources, which we have well exploited. But we are entitled to nothing. Each of us has made an infinitesimal contribution to a country that was bequeathed to us, and we have the collective power to build on it or to blow it away. My friend, being from Afghanistan, knows all about that.

Our divided country has had frequent reversals of power over more than two decades. Again we have handed full control to the Republican Party. As in 2000, the presidential “winner” received fewer votes than the “loser.” For 10 years we’ve had wave elections, whipsawing the government about what we want. Presidential candidates pledge to sign orders undoing those of their predecessors and appoint judges to reverse precedents. How fickle of us!

But next year Congress will remain about the same. Trump transition teams feature the same interests that presided under George W. Bush – but with less public-office expertise. And the Supreme Court, whose vacancy Senate Republicans will have held open for a year, will retain the same conservative majority that’s held since the 1980s.

Despite the cries for “change,” particularly from the Rust Belt, we got the same ossified politics we’ve experienced since the fortunes of the working class began shrinking 40 years ago. These seesaw results are likely to continue because our dysfunctional process remains. One may argue for removing some of our checks and balances. I suggest a different tack: Abandon our situational ethics and make every vote count, so that results are not determined by who stays home. How do we do that?

  • Abolish the Electoral College, a relic dreamed up to enroll the 13 states in a federal government. A Wyoming vote has three times the value of a California vote (the ratio of the state’s eligible voters to its Electoral College representation). “Swing state” would be a dead concept.
  • Adopt mandatory voting. All citizens must check in at the polls, though they can still decline to cast a ballot. All the litigation around voter ID would go away because self-interested office-holders wouldn’t be able to suppress the vote. In Australia the system has pushed candidates toward the ideological middle, because the impetus is no longer to energize the base but to go where the votes are.
  • Reduce gerrymandering. Two methods: create non-partisan citizens commissions to draw congressional district lines (Arizona’s survived a Supreme Court challenge in 2015, after its legislature sued because it didn’t like the result); and/or adopt proportional representation, in which an area within a state, or a whole state, is represented by multiple members of the House of Representatives (apply the same concept to state legislatures).
  • Reapportion the U.S. Senate to population, just as state senates were required to do under a series of one person/one vote Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. Vermont residents have 40 times the Senate representation as do Texans.

How to make it happen? Get energized.



Posted in Congress, election campaign, Electoral College, gerrymandering, U.S. Constitution, Voting | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Jim Crow makes a last stand in the Old Dominion

“Don’t boo. Vote.” – President Obama at the Democratic Convention


Virginia House Speaker William Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment

The struggle to do just that goes on, as illustrated by three recent court decisions.

In two federal cases, appeals courts struck down voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina. In the Texas case, the Fifth Circuit on July 20 affirmed the trial court’s finding that the 2011 law had a racially discriminatory effect, as 608,000 registered voters – about one in 20 – lacked the required voter ID and faced obstacles to obtaining one in violation of the Voting Rights Act. It remanded the case to District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos for a remedy and reconsideration of whether the legislature acted with discriminatory intent. For North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit on July 29 reversed a trial court, finding the state’s 2013 law (and as amended in 2015) was enacted with racially discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

In their analyses, both appeals courts applied the tests of a 1986 Supreme Court case, Thornburg v. Gingles: whether racial polarization – meaning that the race of a voter correlates with a candidate or candidates – renders minority voters vulnerable to the tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them.

Gingles would have been handy in the third court case, Howell v. McAuliffe, in which the Virginia Supreme Court on July 22 invented a limit on the governor’s authority to restore ex-felons’ voting rights. The plaintiffs, House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, both Republicans, successfully argued that they had standing as to sue Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe and then achieved a reversal of his executive orders restoring voting rights to 206,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences and any parole and probation. The court instructed state officials to strike from the voter rolls citizens who had registered per McAuliffe’s orders, issued in April, May and June.

Under Article II Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution, “No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.” Under Article V Section 12, the governor may “remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction.”

In the 4-3 decision, Chief Justice Donald Lemons wrote that McAuliffe’s orders broke precedent by applying his power to an “indiscriminately configured class . . . without any regard for their individual circumstances and without any specific request by individuals seeking such relief,” contrary to the disqualification provision. To get there, the majority reasoned that the governor had “inverted” the disqualification provision, because under his order, “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be disqualified to vote unless the felon is incarcerated or serving a sentence of supervised release. (Emphasis in original.) In so doing, the governor also violated Article I Section 7: “That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised.”


In their dissent, Justices Cleo Powell and Bernard Goodwyn reviewed the debate around the governor’s clemency power that led to the Constitution of 1870, which remains unchanged: the legislature rejected any limits on it. Next, they wrote, the majority ignored the plain language of the Constitution and the governor’s order, announcing “an innovative ‘rule-exception sequence’ inversion theory.”

As for the suspension clause, the dissenters wrote, the governor “would be ‘suspending’ the law each time he removed a person’s political disabilities,” whether individually or as part of a group. “[T]he people of the Commonwealth have given their consent to the Governor’s suspension of the law within the limitations set out in the Restoration Clause.” They added, “[T]here is no dispute that a governor’s exercise of such clemency power on an individual basis does not violate the Suspension Clause.” In other words, the suspension clause is irrelevant.

But before they arrived at the merits, the court had to grant the legislators (and four other voters) standing to bring the case. That is, under Virginia precedents, they had to “demonstrate a direct interest, pecuniary or otherwise, in the outcome of the controversy that is separate and distinct from the interest of the public at large.”

Powell and Goodwyn, and in a separate dissent Justice William Mims, argued that the plaintiffs “have failed to make any showing of injury in fact. Rather, they merely claim that they, along with every other voter in the Commonwealth, have had their voting rights diluted. Such an injury could hardly be considered personal.”

To grant standing, the court’s majority were persuaded by the precedent cited by Howell: a 2002 racial gerrymandering case, in which those plaintiffs had shown a “particularized injury” in that, as Powell and Goodwyn noted, they were “denied equal treatment because of the legislature’s reliance on racial criteria.” But that was not present in Howell, the dissenters wrote: The effect on, or damage to, the plaintiffs by “dilution” of their vote with the addition of 206,000 more potential voters is no different than that to any other. The plaintiffs’ interest is indistinct from that of the general public, unless one accepts that all those ex-felons threaten the GOP’s legislative majorities.

What’s ironic in citing a racial gerrymander case to find standing is that the Republican legislators’ interest in McAuliffe’s order is its political effect. As the Fourth and Fifth circuits found, the voter ID laws were racially discriminatory. So is Virginia’s disenfranchisement, a constitutional provision dating to 1830 and emphasized for its effect on “darkies” (future U.S. Senator Carter Glass’s appellation) in the constitutional convention of 1902. As of 2010, 243,000 African Americans – 20 percent of the state’s black population – were disenfranchised ex-felons. Blacks account for 46 percent of the disenfranchised population but 19 percent of all residents. (More than 7 percent of the Virginia’s total population is disenfranchised. Only one state has more disenfranchised residents: Florida, the subject of a prior post, in which I reviewed America’s history of disenfranchisement as a racial weapon.)

In filing suit, Virginia’s GOP complained that McAuliffe, an ally of Hillary Clinton, was attempting to gain a Democratic edge. If that’s the case, the Republicans are trying to limit it – as the Supreme Court articulated 30 years ago in Gingles.

McAuliffe vowed he would not be deterred: he promised to set up auto-pens to sign 206,000 clemency orders. Virginia’s voter registration deadline is October 17. It will be an interesting fall.


Posted in civil rights, Uncategorized, Virginia legislature, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Buchanan, Trump and the high-water mark of the tea party

BuchananIn the summer of 1992, I walked the floor of the Republican National Convention as Pat Buchanan roused the delegates with his “culture war” speech. Embracing the experience as the reporter I was, I felt their fury at having been wronged, denied, marginalized.

Buchanan had begun blowing the dog whistle of racial politics as an aide to candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, the same year segregationist George Wallace won five Southern states. Between his White House years for Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he was a columnist and pundit. That summer of 1992, he had lost his challenge to President George Bush. Now he stood before the convention.

“There is a religious war going on in this country . . . For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” Buchanan cited his support for taxpayer-funded religious schools and school prayer, his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and women in combat roles. He ended by blowing the dog whistle: recalling his meeting with federal troops called up four months before to quell the South Central riots in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”

Most of Buchanan’s bill of particulars is ancient (except in the latest GOP platform). The Pentagon has moved beyond women in combat to a transgendered service. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. Same-sex marriage was the law in 32 states before the high court extended it to the rest.

But five decades after Barry Goldwater invented the Southern Strategy, the children of those targeted voters – identity-conscious, working class whites – have taken over the GOP. The establishment wing remains bewildered by Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t. Without the flip of Southern whites in reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s invocation of “We Shall Overcome,” the GOP would not have dominated quadrennial politics from 1968 to 1992. Had the Democrats not nominated two Southern governors in 1976 and 1992, the GOP run might have continued until 2008, when the new demographic – created by Johnson’s opening of immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America – began to propel a run for the Democrats, who bet on inclusion.

In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns, America is fundamentally changed, but action/reaction remains a law of politics as well as physics. The tea party of 2010 gathered the energy I had experienced in Houston, and the GOP establishment was thrilled to use it. Now the tea party is in control, its earlier constitutional complaints sublimated to racism and xenophobia. Trump led the “birthers.” His presidential platform reflects his “authenticity,” say his voters: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, protectionist. It’s Buchanan’s: “take back our culture, and take back our country.”

Identity politics remains our underlying narrative, but most of the country, including the GOP establishment, has moved on. It embraces immigration and globalization as fundamental to business. Now the establishment has a standard-bearer whose proclamations are at war with its interests. If the Democrats weren’t about to nominate the poster girl for a generation-long culture war, this election would be no contest. In the end, I doubt it will be.

Of course, the Republican Party remains ascendant in the House and many states. It’s been clever with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and it benefits from the clustering of the emerging America in the cities, compacting its political influence, and from the constitutional compromise that gives relatively conservative, sparsely populated states and liberal, urbanized states equal Senate representation. My guess is, after Trump is flushed out, that rather than disturb the marriage between the overseers and the base, the GOP will muddle along for a while yet.

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