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

January 17, 2019

The Solution: A Trump-Pelosi Duel


By David K. Shipler

                If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton or read the book by Ron Chernow, you might have gained some appreciation of dueling, not so much as a method of ritualized murder but as a conflict-resolution device. Of course Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, which is always a risk in political confrontations, at least metaphorically. Yet it didn’t have to end that way. It could have been played more deftly to regain and preserve honor for both parties.
                Perhaps that’s the answer for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as my friend Steve Weisman impishly suggested over lunch in Washington this week. Trump is stubborn, and Pelosi’s scrappy, and they’ve wrapped themselves in their egos as some 800,000 Americans, unpaid during the government shutdown, discover the pitfalls of working for Uncle Sam.
                In Hamilton’s age, Chernow writes, duels following insults were “de rigueur” among those “who identified with America’s social elite.” To restore dignity, demonstrate courage, and avoid being marked as cowardly, rising to the challenge was unavoidable. However, “duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents,” Chernow explains. “The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
                If things went too far and you faced off with pistols, you could “throw away your shot,” that is, aim wildly to avoid inflicting a mortal wound. There’s evidence that Hamilton did just that in his duel with Burr. But the youthful Hamilton of years earlier, alight with revolutionary fervor, sings at the outset of the musical, “I will not throw away my shot!” That’s about both him and his cause. It’s enough to stir the patriotic heart of any American audience, even in our dispiriting time.
 Trump and Pelosi are already dueling with words and actions, so far to a draw. Pelosi is demonstrating why congressional Democrats admire her as wickedly clever. She passes bills to reopen government without taxpayers’ funds for Trump’s wasteful border wall, which he said Mexico would pay for. She needles him with barbed rhetoric, noting that as a mother and grandmother she recognizes a temper tantrum when she sees one.  She tells him to delay his State of the Union address to Congress or submit it in writing as long as the shutdown continues, thereby threatening to deny him the television platform he craves. And he retaliates by denying her military transport to Afghanistan. And so on.
Pelosi’s still not very good at explaining Democrats’ policy positions to the public. The high road would be a detailed Democratic plan, with budget lines, to strengthen border security, absent a wall. And most Americans polled still dislike her after years of caricatures drawn by Republican propaganda. However, if her audience right now is Trump alone, she is hitting close to the target. While he blusters, fumes, and bullies, she aims with more precision. Surely he would never throw away his shot, but he also can’t shoot straight.
In Hamilton’s day, dueling was illegal in New York but not in New Jersey. (“Everything is legal in New Jersey,” says a line in the musical.) So Hamilton, Burr, and their seconds crossed the Hudson to Weekawken. Could Trump get away with it today? Remember that he once bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes.” If the NYPD wouldn’t stop traffic for a duel on 5th Avenue, how about Florida with its stand-your-ground law? Trump’s approval rating might jump if he hit his mark, and if Pelosi won, she’d have Florida law on her side in a credible claim of self-defense.
Would Trump have the guts to take up the pistol? Bullies, as all of us who were ever children understand, prey on the weaker. Pelosi is not weaker.
As the ritual of the duel often forced negotiation, albeit in a dangerous way, it acknowledged the human need for dignity, which in most conflicts occupies a more significant place than is usually recognized. Imagine if Trump and Pelosi got down to business and negotiated over a table set with respect for each other’s dignity.
Or, they could duel in the Rose Garden with water guns. Then we could all laugh at them through our tears.

January 10, 2019

Trump's Foreign Policy Vacuum


By David K. Shipler
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
                                                                                                                   --The Wizard of Oz

            Watching the United States on the world stage today is like suffering from double vision. President Donald Trump strides, postures, and dramatically decrees. Then his subordinates stay approximately where they were before.
Trump credits Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and then the Justice Department indicts a bunch of Russians for doing precisely that. Trump announces a sudden withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, and then his national security adviser, John Bolton, says they’re staying there to fight ISIS and defend our Kurdish allies.
It’s not that Trump has no influence over his own foreign policy. It’s that he has no policy. He has only impulses and whims—not all of which are necessarily bad. But since he detests veteran professionals who have been working on these problems for decades, and since he has let Bolton strip the National Security Council bare, Trump’s tweets are unsupported by any process of deliberation or execution that might actually translate into action on the ground.
Although the president is excoriated for this incompetence, it could someday save us from an impetuous war that he thinks up after watching Sean Hannity. Inertia, the tendency of a body to continue traveling at the same speed in the same direction, is fundamental in government. Whether you’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist who calls it the “deep state,” or a center-to-left citizen who laments the paucity of “adults in the room,” your nation’s well-being these days is protected by the difficulty of turning the ship of state on a dime, as Trump repeatedly tries to do.
It would be interesting to know—and in some future year we might find out—whether the generals and admirals have developed a secret method of resistance to this demented commander-in-chief’s rash orders. There have been reports of their slow-walking certain commands that can be bogged down in logistics and bureaucracy. But what if Trump wakes up early one morning, gets incensed by something on Fox and Friends, and calls in the officer with the nuclear football to obliterate a country that has ticked him off? Is there any subversive understanding in the military about how to defy such an order? If so, would it be treason? Probably, but it might also save the country.

January 3, 2019

Looking for a Political Sweet Spot


By David K. Shipler

                The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is faced with a tricky feat of navigation. It must appeal to the upsurge of national outrage against President Trump from the left while steering a course that will also attract the respect of moderate Americans near the center. And to do that, its committees that draft bills and conduct investigations will need to find an elusive sweet spot where liberal principles meet pragmatic governance—with broad appeal.
                It goes without saying that the behavior of the House Democrats will set the stage for the 2020 presidential election. Trump will vilify them no matter what, but if they give him ammunition by flying off into fits of extreme rhetoric and blizzards of subpoenas, they run the risk of appearing politically vindictive and irresponsible. If such accusations stick, they will stain whatever Democratic candidate emerges as the party’s nominee.
Therefore, every argument and assertion has to be well-phrased and factually unassailable. Every subpoena—and there should be many—has to be carefully supported by legitimate grounds for investigative necessity. No flamboyant grand-standing, no smear campaigns, no positions too radical to woo back independent Trump voters are likely to work.
                Furthermore, whatever positions and policies the Democrats adopt need to be explained and justified better than Nancy Pelosi is usually able to do. She’s an accomplished fund-raiser and herder of the cats in her caucus, and she can get legislation passed. But let’s face it, she’s not a great messenger on broadcast news, the unfortunate test these days of a successful politician. Too often she can’t put a persuasive sentence together. Either she has to practice her lines or let a more articulate Democrat do the talking.
                Liberals are feeling too heady after the mid-terms, with voters having elected Native Americans, Muslims, and record-breaking numbers of women. It’s reasonable to think that the tide has begun turning against a Republican Party bent on dismantling much of the good that government does for the people. But the operative word is “begun,” for this is not a revolution so much as a stirring, perhaps the prelude to a sea change that might mature eventually into a dramatic expulsion from power of the pro-rich, anti-minority misogynists who have diminished America.