Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 16, 2018

Looking For a Political Bell Curve


By David K. Shipler


            Here is a simple illustration of what’s wrong with Congress. The graph below, plotted from an assessment of Senators’ voting records by The New York Times, shows the deep chasm in the moderate middle where bipartisan compromise and true governing can take place. Both Democrats and Republicans are clustered far outside that center, making negotiation on major issues difficult. We have just seen a result of this in the stalemate over immigration.


 
Chart by David K. Shipler. Data Source: New York Times


            Voters of various stripes will surely look at this and say, well, I’d like even more Democrats to shift to that liberal left, or I’d be pleased to see more Republicans at the far right of the graph. Fine. When we get to the ideal world, count me in the first group. I’d be glad to see a more liberal, or “progressive,” drift. But the country isn’t built that way, and it cannot be led effectively from either end of the spectrum, or with the current barbell-shaped political distribution. We need a traditional bell curve, where the line bulges in the center and tapers off at both extremes.
            Around that central axis there would still be sharp disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the size and function of government, the regulation of business, the environment, immigration policy, budget priorities for the military versus social benefits, the makeup of the judiciary, and other matters. But more members of Congress clustered near the center would indicate less dogmatism and more flexibility; they might even be willing to listen seriously to the other side’s arguments.
            As things stand, bipartisanship doesn’t mean compromise. It means opponents getting just about everything they want and giving up practically nothing. If it leaves hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers” in limbo, so be it. If it explodes the deficit, as the spending authorization passed last week will do, no problem.
The Republicans cut revenue by enacting big tax cuts, then raised spending by joining with Democrats to increase funding for everybody’s favorite causes, from military and border security on the right to domestic social welfare programs on the left. In the kind of expanding economy that we have today, this could be an expensive gamble. It looks to many economists like a prescription for inflation and therefore tighter money with high interest rates. The stock market took note and trembled.
            Only the conservative fiscal hawks cried foul, and they would have had more credibility had they not voted against the revenue side of the balance sheet in the tax-cut bill. You don’t need a balanced budget to be financially responsible in government—in fact, heavy borrowing at low interest rates during an economic downturn would have been prudent timing, and the congressional Republicans shouldn’t have opposed it. But now that rates are likely to rise and the economy is heating up, they go into an orgy of borrowing so they (and we) can have what we don’t want to pay for.
            In a bizarre paradox, President Trump submitted a slash-and-burn budget that would go counter to the tax-cut and spend-more bills that he had just signed. He and his radical right budget director, Mick Mulvaney, are doing their best at dismantling much of the federal government, especially the non-security agencies that protect Americans and enhance their lives in myriad ways.
 Since Trump is a clumsy, erratic figure who inspires disarray, his budget has already been dismissed as a figment of his worst imagination, a proposal that cannot pass. Yet its main themes appeal to that hump of Republicans way to the right of center. Many of them know that if they don’t take a hard line against programs providing food, medical care, housing, and other protections for the poor, and if they waffle on gun control, abortion, immigration, or other wedge issues, they will face strong primary challengers on the right.
The Democrats this year confront similar problems on the left, where pro-immigration activists are already dismayed at the Democrats’ willingness to pass a spending bill without resolving the crisis looming over some 800,000 “Dreamers”—the young people brought by their parents illegally to the US as children. The waiver on their deportation issued by President Obama has been set by Trump to expire March 5.
Trump keeps changing his position, but this week he is demanding a bill containing his “four pillars” of immigration reform: eventual citizenship for the Dreamers, an end to the lottery system that favors immigrants from underrepresented countries, an end to family unification (“chain migration”) through immigration, and billions for the border wall that Mexico would definitely pay for under Trump’s campaign promise. This four-point bill of extreme demands got only 39 votes in the Senate.
The problem of decades remains: The middle ground on immigration looks unattractive to most Democrats and a good many Republicans, especially those vulnerable to primary challenges from the left or right respectively.
Senators are less susceptible than House members to parochial politics, since they don’t come from gerrymandered districts where primaries, not general elections, often determine who goes to Washington. If the Supreme Court rules this term that districts drawn to favor one party or another are unconstitutional, more heterogeneous districts might result, forcing candidates from both parties to navigate toward the middle.
That would affect the House and state legislatures. To change the US Senate, you’d have to redraw state boundaries—a whimsical notion indeed. A more uplifting effort, by American voters generally, would be to cultivate a common ground of tolerant compromise where better qualified citizens would be eager to run for office and, once there, arrange themselves in a bell curve of mutual respect. It’s not too late.

February 11, 2018

Korean Kremlinology


By David K. Shipler

            The camera angle was perfect, and it was surely no accident. Caught in the same frame, diagonally in the row behind an unsmiling Vice President Mike Pence, sat Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the opening of the Olympics in South Korea. Neither, it seemed, dared to look at the other, exchange words, or shake hands.
            One interpretation is that Mr. Pence wants to stay alive politically, and that Ms. Kim wants to stay alive, period. Although she’s rumored to be a close and trusted adviser to her older brother, he has shown no compunction in terminating high-ranking individuals, including relatives, who present a threat to his power or deviate from the prescribed path. And Mr. Pence has thinly disguised presidential aspirations; the last thing he needs is a picture of himself shaking hands with the avowed enemy.
            It is a peculiar tradition in international relations that showing basic courtesy to your adversary is regarded as a concession, as if a hello or a handshake—not to mention actual conversation—were a grand reward to be conferred only in exchange for some prize from the other side. This kind of thinking has prevented the start of many negotiations where one party or the other demands that certain preconditions be met before talks can begin. Sometimes that works, but often it produces silence and misunderstanding.
            The “messages” sent by military actions or visual gestures are usually brittle and dogmatic, lacking the nuance essential to sophisticated approaches across the gulfs of hostility. Whenever the US suspended bombing North Vietnam during a discreet outreach toward launching peace talks, for example, Hanoi interpreted the cessation as pure propaganda aimed at making a warlike America appear conciliatory. When the outreach failed and bombing resumed, the North was convinced it had been right.
            Similarly, North Korea’s joint appearance with South Korean athletes in these Winter Games has been dismissed by the Trump administration as propaganda, aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington and undermining Washington’s campaign to isolate the North further for its threatening nuclear and missile program. It couldn’t also be that the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim, emboldened militarily, is looking not for domination but for security?
            Watching the VIP section at the Olympic ceremony was like gleaning policy by studying  the lineup of Soviet Politburo members atop the Lenin Mausoleum, and counting the missiles marching past in a parade through Red Square. (Soon, for President Trump’s entertainment, we’ll get to count American missiles rolling along Constitution Avenue.)
As the Korean teams marched together under the neutral flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pence and his wife remained seated, a technique he copied from the pro football players so vilified by President Trump. Too bad Mr. Pence didn’t take a knee.
            How will his defiant gesture be interpreted? As a rebuff to North Korea? As a rebuff to both Koreas? As a statement of opposition to reunification—or to peace on the peninsula? Take your choice. But you can bet that North Korea will see it differently from what the United States may have meant.
            As later histories often reveal, misunderstandings during acute tension can lead to absurd miscalculations that look comical in retrospect—or highly dangerous. Several episodes during the Vietnam War were revealed at a joint 1997 conference in Hanoi of former US and North Vietnamese officials.
            Comparing notes, they discovered what a pivotal mistake Washington had made in reading elaborate meaning into a coincidence more than three decades earlier. On Feb. 7, 1965, several months before US ground troops were deployed to South Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces attacked an American advisers’ compound and airfield at Pleiku, killing eight Americans and wounding numerous others. On that day, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, happened to be in Saigon assessing the military situation for President Lyndon B. Johnson. And on the same day, the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
It was the first attack directly on Americans, and since it coincided with the Bundy and Kosygin visits, Washington read it as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the US began bombing North Vietnam.
Americans at the conference asked why Hanoi had made the assault then. Across the table, Lieut Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a former deputy of the North Vietnamese Army’s political department, then stationed near Pleiku, explained: “This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander,” he said, who had acted under general orders to do it when ready. The assault by 30 commandos had been planned long in advance; the timing was coincidental. “We did not know Bundy was in Saigon. We were just attacking,” said General Hiep. He told me during a recess that Kosygin “was not pleased” but apparently didn’t feel free to say so publicly.
This came as a revelation to Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, who had led the way in organizing the 1997 conference. Had he known about the accident of timing, he said, “I think we’d have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam’s aggressiveness.”
Mutual suspicion is a lens through which innocent mistakes can be distorted into assumptions of malice. As one effort to get negotiations going, for example, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador on Dec. 6, 1966 to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this had been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. ''We waited the whole day,'' he said, ''but the US Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the US bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations.''
Today it would be wishful thinking to imagine that North Korea wants negotiations that might lead to a reduction or elimination of its nuclear arsenal, which is clearly regarded as a deterrent against an American attack. But at the brink of war, amid mutual vilification, the chance of miscalculation is high. If there were ever a moment for direct dialogue to reduce the probability of military accident, this would be it. At least South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited by Ms. Kim, at the behest of her brother, to visit Pyongyang, where even fruitless talks might ease tensions.
As for the US and North Korea, perhaps secret communications are ongoing, although no such indication could be seen in Mr. Pence’s frosty demeanor in the vicinity of Ms. Kim. Contacts wouldn’t be technically hard to arrange. North Korea has a delegation in New York at the UN, and both countries have embassies in third countries, where their ambassadors or other staff could converse—provided they didn’t get confused about where they were supposed to meet.

February 3, 2018

Spying on Americans

By David K. Shipler

            The truly serious problem behind the controversial memo released by the House Intelligence Oversight Committee is not so much political as it is constitutional. It is the flawed process of secret intelligence warrants that enable government authorities to do end runs around the Fourth Amendment. That broader issue underlies the question of how the FBI got a warrant to eavesdrop on Carter Page, one of President Trump’s campaign aides.
            Now that Republicans have suddenly discovered their keen interest in civil liberties (albeit for political reasons), they might well revisit their unyielding support of the loosened standards for obtaining warrants that they pushed through in a panic right after 9/11. With the acquiescence of Democrats, the Patriot Act—opposed by only one senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—shot holes through the sensible restrictions on monitoring Americans’ communications.
            First, a bit of history. The Framers, reacting to the British use of writs of assistance to search whole towns for contraband in colonial times, wrote the Fourth Amendment to guard against government intrusion into a citizen’s zone of privacy. Although the word “privacy” does not appear in the Constitution, it is heavily implied and is woven into numerous court opinions.
            Significantly, the Bill of Rights assumes that the people possess rights inherently, not that they are given rights by the government. The Fourth Amendment declares: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
            The terms “unreasonable,” “probable cause,” and “particularly” are among the most commonly debated in criminal cases where searches produce evidence that defense attorneys seek to suppress. Did the police officer act reasonably? Did she have probable cause to believe that such evidence of a crime would be found at a specific time and place? Was the search narrowly tailored to focus only on that purported evidence? And so on.

January 29, 2018

The Shifting Threshold of Outrage

By David K. Shipler

            Fifty years ago this week, Americans who had believed their leaders’ optimistic lies were stunned by the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s lightning assault on scores of South Vietnamese towns and cities. An enemy squad even managed to enter the US Embassy compound in Saigon, giving Hanoi and its Vietcong surrogates a propaganda victory—but not the military victory they had sought. Their forces took heavy casualties as the Americans and South Vietnamese pounded them back.
            Furthermore, the expectations of the North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, were not fulfilled. As he later revealed, he had predicted that the South Vietnamese army would collapse, the civilian population would rise up in rebellion, and the United States would scale back sharply.
            Yet the American public was not struck by the collision between Hanoi’s goals and the results on the ground. Rather, what pushed much of the country to the threshold of disillusionment and outrage was the collision between American officials’ rosy assessments and the North’s capacity to mount countrywide attacks. Just weeks before the Tet Offensive, the US commander, General William Westmoreland, declared boldly, “We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view.” Then the disastrous reality came into view—the prospect of a grinding stalemate at best. It was a psychological turning point in the war.
            That threshold of outrage has risen in recent decades; it now takes a higher dose of deception and corruption to generate sufficient disgust to produce change. President Trump’s chronic lying—he uttered some 2,000 blatant falsehoods and misleading claims during his first year in office—cost him nothing during his campaign. Nor did his boast on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” His obvious racism—commending some “fine people” who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and preferring immigration from Norway instead of “shithole” countries in Africa—has not crushed his support among Republicans in Congress or his core of voters.

January 12, 2018

Trump's Consistent Bigotry


By David K. Shipler

President Trump might be erratic and unpredictable in many areas of public concern, as when he tweeted his disapproval this week—and then, 90 minutes later, his approval—of renewing the government’s authority to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants. His multiple positions on extending permission for Dreamers to stay in the US have been dizzying, and his oscillation between assailing and extolling China seems to depend on how recently the Chinese leadership has feted and flattered him.
But his contempt for people who are not whites of European origin has been as steady as his obsequious adulation of Vladimir Putin and his rampant deregulation of American industry. These seem to be unshakable pillars of attitude and policy, standing solidly against the swirling, impulsive chaos of his White House. Trump has been a dependable bigot, painting entire racial and ethnic groups with the broad brush of prejudice.
Nobody should be surprised. He has a long history. In 1972, federal investigators sent “testers” into a Brooklyn housing development managed by Trump’s company. After a black woman was told that there were no vacancies, a white woman was given a choice of two apartments. Extensive further evidence led to one of the largest civil-rights lawsuits in history.

December 19, 2017

The Business Myth

By David K. Shipler

            Somewhere between the reverence for private business and the excoriation of capitalism there must be a middle ground where the virtues of free enterprise are recognized and its menaces are contained. Finding that territory of moderation seems especially difficult today, as President Trump and the Republican-led Congress move to unchain corporations from the taxes and the regulations that protect social justice, consumer interests, worker safety, and the environment. Meanwhile, the incipient revolution against corporate villainy, now led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, remains alive but marginal.
            So Washington, for the moment at least, has a government of, by, and for the corporate elite, which was hardly enthusiastic about the Trump candidacy. That is the irony of Trump: a rich entrepreneur stirring up resentment toward powerful business, a splashy spendthrift touting himself as the voice of the “forgotten” struggling blue-collar class, which still approves of him after a year of getting nothing except slogans and wishful thinking.
            The wishful thinking relies on an old myth about business, which has two main parts. First, the notion that reduced corporate taxes will liberate cash to flow to workers, in the form of higher salaries and employment rates, has been a matter of debate for decades between conservatives and liberals. Despite the paucity of evidence from the past, conservatives insist that liberating private companies will boost the overall economy by enhancing capital investment. Liberal economists, by contrast, tend to see the gains going to the wealthy stockholders. Companies are expected to increase dividends and buy back shares, which will raise stock prices.

December 13, 2017

Apathy, Alienation, and Low Voter Turnout

By David K. Shipler

            Not to throw too wet a blanket on Democrats’ euphoria in winning a Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad fact that the worthy candidate, Doug Jones, was elected by merely 20.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters—671,151 out of the 3.3 million who could have cast ballots. His unworthy opponent, the accused pedophile, confirmed bigot, and serial violator of the rule of law, Judge Roy Moore, got 19.5 percent of the electorate.
And the turnout was much higher than expected in a special election, a whopping 40.4 percent, versus the 25 percent that Alabama’s secretary of state had predicted. Wow. In this hotly contested race, which mixed morality with theology and ideology, which put control of the Senate in closer balance, and which exposed the tribal politics that afflicts so many Americans, only 6 out of 10 voters stayed home and let others decide. What an achievement for democracy.
The truth is, it is a democracy that we are in danger of losing unless much higher proportions of citizens participate, at the very least by going to the polls. Otherwise, the middle ground is abandoned to the zealous extremists, some of whom will vote away the civil discourse, the tolerance of political and social plurality, and even the legal rights that protect us all.
This is an urgent truth in presidential elections, just as in state and local contests. With the turnout at 59.3 percent in 2016, only 136.7 million cast ballots, out of 230.6 million eligible voters, whether registered or not. So the percentage needed for victory was very low. It took only 27.3 percent of the country’s eligible citizens over age 18 to put Donald Trump in the White House. (Hillary Clinton got 28.6 percent but of course lost the Electoral College.)
Rule by small minorities has been typical, as a look back two decades demonstrates:
1996 – Bill Clinton was elected by 26.3% of all eligible citizens.
2000 – George W. Bush, by 27.3%
2004 – Bush again, by 31.5%
2008 – Barack Obama, by 33.7%
2012 – Obama again, by 30.6%

December 7, 2017

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

By David K. Shipler

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Psalm 137:5

            The city of Jerusalem, whose sandstone facades glow ethereally in the slanting light of dawns and dusks, stands on a spine of hills along the lands of milk and of honey. To the east, the land plunging down into the Judean Desert has been traditionally hospitable to milk-producing goat herds. To the west, the fertile coastal plain along the Mediterranean has been sweet with orchards.
            That is the basic biblical geography. At this intersection of semi-nomadic peoples and settled farmers, Jerusalem has been enriched and burdened by ancient affinities and faiths. Its map today is enhanced and scarred by the overlays of history, religion, and nationalism, a treacherous landscape into which President Trump has now stumbled clumsily.
What forces he has unwittingly set loose we do not yet know; predictions in that part of the world are for prophets or fools. But his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State alone, without also recognizing the Palestinians’ yearning for Jerusalem as the capital of their aspirational state, surely diminishes America’s maneuverability.
It’s hard to see what the United States gains from Trump’s move. For the limited profit of catering to his big donors and his narrow base, Trump has tossed away the American coin of neutrality—as tarnished as it was by years of tilting toward Israel’s interests. Not many Palestinians thought of Washington as truly unbiased, since no previous administration did more than use strong words against Israel’s confiscation of territories for Jewish settlement in the mostly Palestinian West Bank and the eastern districts of Jerusalem. No penalty was exacted: no withholding of aid, no reduction of military support. And now Trump has asked nothing from Israel in exchange for his endorsement.

November 21, 2017

The Moral Vacuum in Tribal Politics

By David K. Shipler

            To anyone na├»ve enough to think that sexual decency should be high on a list of virtues, Donald Trump’s news conference just before last year’s second presidential debate was a puzzling scene. Days after the disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape that had caught Trump bragging about his predatory exploits, four women who had been victims of sexual assault gave him their support. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump had said on the tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. Do anything.” Nevertheless, the four women sat with him behind a table, endorsed him, and assailed the Clintons.
            Juanita Broaddrick claimed to have been raped by Bill Clinton. Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey said he had groped them. Kathy Shelton’s grievance was aimed instead at Hillary Clinton, who had been assigned by the court as defense attorney for a man who had raped Shelton when she was 12. Her resentment was misplaced, since Clinton was plainly fulfilling the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a defendant’s right to counsel.
 Shelton and the others might have been expected to see sexual crimes as transcendent, well above politics. That they clearly did not—that they backed Trump in the face of detailed accusations against him by a dozen women who were brave enough to give their names—was as much a commentary on the state of social morality as Democrats’ impulse had been to wish away the allegations against Bill Clinton.
Rumors and stories about Clinton were in the air before his first election to the presidency, but they lacked the specificity that would have confronted liberals with a hard choice. Although Paula Jones sued Clinton in 1994, two years before his reelection, her accusations didn’t sway many voters. And his sexual liaisons with intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office didn’t become public until after the election. Even then, his supporters generally opposed his impeachment by the Republican-led House and were relieved when the Senate failed to convict him.
“Sexual misconduct,” it seems, is outrageous only when committed by a member of your opposing political tribe. When it’s your own guy, the accusations are fabricated, concocted by conspiracy, discredited by the character of the accuser, undermined by the delay in reporting, or just ambiguous enough to be dismissed as a misunderstanding.

November 4, 2017

The Military Myth

By David K. Shipler

            At a rest stop in Vermont recently, I fell into conversation with two men staffing a table set up by a veterans’ organization. One, about my age, had been an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam during the war. So we compared notes. I’d been an officer on a destroyer at the same time, but in much safer places, half a world away in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
            “Thank you for your service,” he said. No need for thanks, I replied. I had cruised to exotic ports, loved being at sea, and benefitted from responsibility placed on me at a young age. “But you put yourself in harm’s way,” said the other guy, who’d been in the army. I shook my head. I was never in harm’s way, I told them. I was in more harm’s way as a journalist later, in a couple of war zones, Vietnam included. And I served my country much more significantly reporting important news than sailing on a ship through peaceful waters.
            But American society has adopted a narrow view of service. At least superficially, in the pageantry that accompanies sporting events and various public expressions of patriotism, the men and women in uniform are celebrated. Rightly so, in many cases. But what about the civilians—providers of humanitarian aid, human rights observers, news correspondents who have also risked, and lost, their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the mission of assisting victims and informing Americans?
            During the recently broadcast series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, citizens who had sacrificed a good deal to oppose the war emailed among themselves, and sometimes spoke and wrote publicly, in wounded complaint that their contributions to the country had been virtually ignored or, worse, given a negative cast by the filmmakers.