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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

The Democratic Debacle

 It is still too early to know what the outcome of the post-debate controversy about President Biden's candidacy for re-election will be.  On the one hand, no leading Democratic politician has yet called for him to step down--a sad contrast in my opinion to 1974 when, for different reasons of course, prominent Republicans abandoned Richard Nixon.  On the other hand, stories indicate that leading donors--once again, a constituency that the White House is more likely to respect--still believe that the party needs a new candidate.  I am taking a moment, however, to say that the behavior of Biden, his family, and above all the people around him and the DNC leadership disgraces the Democratic Party.  They seem motivated by a feeling of total entitlement, with no regard for the fate either of the party or the country.  If they succeed in getting Biden renominated, they will deserve his defeat, no matter what it turns out to mean for the country.

Three quarters of the population, polls show, think that Biden is too old to continue n office.  The debate proved to most of us that they are right.  But he and his family and his staff don't care.  They simply repeat their mantra that the nation has to re-elect him in order to prevent the catastrophe of a Trump victory.  I agree that the Trump victory will be a catastrophe, but it does not follow that we have to rally around Biden now to avoid it.  Instead, it makes it all the more essential to come up with a stronger candidate than Biden to prevent it.  

From Bill Clinton through Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and now Biden, Democratic leaders have combined neoliberalism on the economic front with progressive stances on social issues and lip service to New Deal principles, confident that this proves them more virtuous than the Republicans.  This will be the third election in a row in which they assume that the nation must prefer them to Trump.  There is however no such mandate.  A new poll now shows Trump a few points ahead in New Hampshire--and let us not forget that a simple switch in New Hampshire to Al Gore would have given him the White House without Florida.  Evidence from New York also suggests that Trump may do considerably better in the popular vote in blue states, and thus in the nation as a whole, this time.

Throwing the Democratic nomination open now would take over the news cycle from the issues of Biden's age and Trump's latest outrage, a most welcome event.  The country would love to see some new blood in the race and watch the spectacle of candidates fighting it out, perhaps even in multiple ballots, which last occurred in 1952.  Do not forget that Abraham Lincoln, who was not even a true national figure in early 1860, emerged from such a battle in the Republican convention of that year.  But today, I read, the Biden forces want to give him the nomination via DNC ballot even before the convention meets. They originally made this plan to meet a deadline fixed in Ohio, but Ohio has lifted that deadline  The only reason to use a DNC vote now is to quash opposition to Biden before it can get off the ground.

The moment of national crisis that Strauss and Howe first predicted thirty years ago is here.  It requires us all to think first of the fate of the nation, not of ourselves.  The Biden White House is failing that test.

Friday, June 28, 2024

How we got here

 The catastrophe of last night's debate is simply one more milestone in the gradual collapse of the American political system as it developed from the 1930s through the early 1960s.  We cannot go back and redo these decades, and the collapse may get worse before it gets better.  Yet we perhaps experience some catharsis by tracing the tragedy, just as we must face more and more death as we grow older, all the while knowing that life will continue.

How did Donald Trump become a candidate for president in the first place eight years ago?  Our professional politicians became complacent and lost touch with the American people.  Neither party seriously opposed the changes instituted by Ronald Reagan and consummated under Bush I and Clinton: the tax cuts on the rich, the failure to control spending on elections, and the collapse of the effective regulation of Wall Street.  Meanwhile, the influence of television on elections replaced well-thought out prose with images as the currency of politics.  We stopped paying much attention to what the average politician said--something that never happened in the age of radio.  Trump understood slogans and sound bites, and he made his reputation as a reality TV host.  Neither Jeb Bush nor Marco Rubio nor Hillary Clinton could, as it turned out, defeat him.  Clinton also suffered because of Barack Obama's very sluggish response to the financial crisis, his failure to do much about the changes that had brought it about, and his adoption of most of George W. Bush's foreign policy.  The Republicans nominated their outsider, Trump, in 2016, while the party establishment defeated the Democratic outsider, Bernie Sanders. Trump won.

And how did Biden become the next president?  Here I must return to one of my well-worn themes--the catastrophe of the modern vice presidency and its effects.  Hubert Humphrey, George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, and Joe Biden had all tried for their party's nomination and failed dismally at least once, and Walter Mondale had never tried for his at all.  Yet each of them, after subsequently being chosen as vice president, immediately became the front runner for the nomination in the next election.  The vice presidency (and Hillary Clinton's eight years as first lady) earned each of them the necessary name recognition and the access to leading contributors that they needed. The two most successful Democratic politicians since John F. Kennedy--Bill Clinton and Barack Obama--did NOT win the nomination because they had been vice presidents.  They relied on real personal appeal.  

Exactly how Biden became the front runner in 2020 after two disastrous showings in Iowa and New Hampshire is not clear to me.  Uncle Google tells me that two books have been written about that campaign, but I can't check them now.  I do suspect that Kamala Harris--another disastrous presidential candidate who became vice president and heiress apparent--dropped out before the New Hampshire vote, after threatening Biden's standing with black voters, in exchange for a promise of the vice presidency.  James Clyburn, another venerable member of the Democratic establishment, swung the mostly black Democratic vote in South Carolina for Biden, and he was on his way.  He won the election because a bare majority of the country was sick of Trump. Now, if he stays in the race, he will probably lose it because the nation is sick of him and knows he isn't up to the job.  He will also lose because he, like Clinton and Obama, assumed that the free market would indeed fix the economy.  Richard Nixon in 1971 imposed wage and price controls because he knew that inflation threatened his re-election.  Biden looked helplessly on while inflation destroyed his approval rating.  

Something else has changed in the Democratic Party in the last 60 years.  Harry Truman in 1945 called for national health insurance, and in 1948, for civil rights legislation.  Faced with a conservative coalition in Congress, he could not bring either of those proposals even to a vote--but he stuck to them for the rest of his presidency.  They became part of the Democratic program, and Kennedy and Johnson eventually got them through.  Bill Clinton gave up his health care plan after one Congress's worth of failure.  Obama's cap-and-trade proposal suffered a similar fate.  Biden has balanced some environmental initiatives with new opportunities for the fossil fuel industry.  No one believes that the Democrats can accomplish much anymore.

Now, Biden has shown that he does not have the mental acuity we expect as a president.  Not only did he suffer one complete breakdown over Medicare, but he could not credibly explain what he was trying to say about the social security cap.  He let Trump bring him down to Trump's level, so that in the last part of the debate they began arguing about who was the worst president of all time.  Yes, nearly everything that Trump said was false--but is that so surprising?  Our academic elite gave up the idea of truth several decades ago, in favor of the idea that everyone has the right to their own truth based on their own life experience, and that the concept of truth itself is just a political weapon.  If they will not stand for truth, who will?  What does it mean when, as I pointed out here, a former Washington Post executive editor and a former head of CBS news announce that journalism has to move "beyond objectivity?"  

Our system worked when we still valued intellectual integrity and understood the need to control our emotions.  The great attack on those traditions began in the late 1960s and has continued until now.  We can keep them alive as individuals, but the tide is running in the other direction.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

In honor of the great Willie Mays, and the United States of which he was such a big part

 To commemorate Willie Mays's death, I refer readers to this post from two years ago.

  And to those baseball fans wondering about how great he really was, I recommend this excellent video.

  Thank you for everything, Willie.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Who runs the Democratic Party?

 At least since the 2022 election, it seems to me, average Democrats have made clear to pollsters that they would prefer a different presidential candidate to 81-year old Joe Biden.  I have written before that Biden's rise to the White House tells a lot about what is wrong with American politics.  During his very long Senate career, Biden combined a cozy relationship with corporate interests--many of whom headquarter in Delaware for legal reasons--with the ability to make appropriately liberal noises on a variety of issues.  He eventually tried twice for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, and demonstrated no appeal to primary voters on either occasion.  Then, however, Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.  Like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore--three of whom had also tried and failed to win their party's nomination for president--Biden immediately emerged as a very serious presidential candidate.  I have speculated before that the vice presidency confers both national name recognition, and access to leading donors.  Being first lady did the same thing for Hillary Clinton.  This week, the New York Times printed a remarkable story enlightening me as to how important donors can be.  

The story focused on Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful ex-studio head in Hollywood, described in the piece as "one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation." The story, by Peter Baker, does not tell us how he and Biden got to know each other, and it doesn't say anything about Katzenberg's role in the 2020 primary campaign.  Perhaps it was enough that Biden succeeded Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic establishment.  Both Biden and some of his staffers, we learn, talk to Katzenberg, a dynamo, several times a week.  He helped put together the State of the Union address.  The real point of the story is this:  a number of other major contributors, apparently, shared average Democrats' concerns about Biden when he announced his candidacy for re-election last year.  Katzenburg took on the mission of persuading them that Biden was up to the job, partly by bringing them into the oval office to see him in action themselves.  And that apparently worked.  None of them backed another possible candidate, and none ever emerged.

Before 1960, leading politicians in both parties, not campaign contributors, played the most important role in deciding who their candidates would be.  Franklin Roosevelt carefully cultivated Democratic leaders around the country while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932, and that secured him the critical 1932 nomination for president.  Theodore Roosevelt was far more popular than incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, but he could not overcome the opposition of party leaders and win the Republican nomination.  (The party professionals paid dearly for supporting Taft in that case, as the Democrats won control of the government  handily.)  Richard Nixon owed his career to his cultivation of Republicans around the country.  In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince local party leaders like Richard Daley in Illinois and David Lawrence in Pennsylvania that a Catholic could win the election and would not hurt their local parties in order to get the nomination.  These party professionals were in day-to-day contact with ordinary voters.  Today's contributors are not.  The only national politician with a sincere, devoted following among the electorate is, of course, Donald Trump.

Presidential primaries were introduced in some states early in the twentieth century, and by 1932, when Roosevelt won a number of them and lost two others, they had some influence.  They seem to have fallen out of favor between `1932 and 1960, but they allowed Kennedy to prove that he was electable even in overwhelmingly protestant areas like West Virginia, and by the 1970s they had become the mechanism for choosijng almost all the delegates. That was supposed to put the power to select the nominee in the hands of the people, but it hasn't.  The only candidate before Trump who used primaries to defeat the establishment's choice was Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, and even then, the establishment split and parts of it went over to him before the race was over.  Thanks to various Supreme Court decisions, money is more powerful in US politics than ever.

It is hard to believe that Katzenberg's influence does not also extend to policy, and he and Biden reacted publicly to the October 7 attacks in exactly the same way: by condeming Hamas and expressing unequivocal support for Israel.  That, however, is much less important to me than contributors' power to choose party's presidential nominee, based mainly on  how the nominee treats them.  Let me be clear: I do not expect any drastic campaign finance reform to change this situation.  This is where history has taken us.  Following up on last week's post, I have written this one to to change the world, but simply to understand it.  That's a paraphrase of a famous man, and I wonder if anyone will recognize it.

Sunday, June 09, 2024


 My birthday, which has just passed, always coincides roughly with the end of the academic year, which even though I am no longer living on an academic calendar still always provokes reflection.  There has been plenty to write about in the last two weeks, starting with Donald Trump's conviction in New York, and including the continuing war in Gaza and a story in today's New York Times on the spread of Islamic terrorism in West Africa--a further step in the catastrophe of US foreign policy that began in Afghanistan and Iraq and spread to Syria, Egypt, and Libya under the Obama administration.  The influence of inflatoin upon the election is also very much in the news.  Yet for the time being I seem to have lost my appetite for analyzing these milestones on our uncertain road.  The enterprise of American journalism, like the enterprise of American history--which has taken up far more of my time--has relied from the beginning on the belief in progress and a story which, while full of twists and turns, is always neaded for a happier ending.  I now find this very difficult to believe. In addition, pointing out what has gone wrong has usually had a corollary: suggesting how we might fix it.  I don't have much faith in solutions that I might propose.

Thus, yes, Donald Trump in my opinion was clearly guilty of the offense of which he was charged, and after reading the judge's charge to the jury I thought that the legal argument behind the case was a lot stronger than many continue to argue.  The evidence clearly showed that he falsified records to make it possible for him to win the election.  Yet months before he did so, his nomination had confirmed the bankrupt collapse of the Republican Party,which had not been able to find a candidate that could defeat him.  Shortly thereafter his victory over Hillary Clinton showed that the Democratic Party suffered from the same problem.  And now, eight years later, Trump leads Biden in the polls and has established himself, I think, as the most personally powerful politician in the country since Ronald Reagan.  And the biggest reason, I think, is that he, unlike any established political figure, has exploited the weaknesses of the establishment order that has dominated our politics at least since Clinton.  Recent focus groups show voters favoring him because they think that we need drastic change, and that only he will provide it.  Is that so wrong?  The conviction will not change their minds.  And whether he is guilty of various charges or not, who can deny that the various trials are indeed an attempt by the establishment to do what it has not been able to do in the broader court of public opinion--to eliminate him as a political factor?

Our establishment's embrace of the global free market, which took its biggest steps under Clinton, with NAFTA, and Bush II with China's accession to the WTO, has probably done more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of millions of hardworking Americans.  That however was not all.  Barack Obama accepted the view of his Boomer advisers that the crash of 2008 did not reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our economy, and that it could be weathered merely with a massive influx of liquidity from the Fed.  The Democrats abandoned the New Deal solutions of putting people to work to fight unemployment and restructuring mortgages to save homes and farms.  The establishment also relies completely on the Fed to fight inflation.  Inflation has dramatically influenced US politics for generations.  It was the biggest reason for the Republican Congressional sweep of 1946.  It hurt Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and in 1971, Richard Nixon, unlike Joe Biden, saw high inflation as a critical threat to his re-election, and actually imposed wage and price controls.  He eventually lifted them, and further inflation helped bring down Gerald Ford in 1976 and crush Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Biden and the Democrats have been in denial over inflation for three years now and I haven't seen a single mention of possible wage and price controls.  We no longer expect our government to act to help ordinary people against it.  The same is true about our housing crisis, apparently the worst since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  Then the federal government took a number of serious steps to encourage the construction of new, relatively low-cost housing around the country.  The housing stock expanded so rapidly that even black Americans, who had to cope with segregation, increased their percentage of homeownership dramatically in the decades after the war.  Now we are hearing nothing from the government about the problem.  In those days the country felt a debt to the young adults who had won the war for us and their families.  Now we have already forced millions of young adults to mortgage their futures just to attend college.  And last, but hardly least, we have lost the common values, the sense of common purpose, and the common identity that in the past allowed us to achieve great things.  

It has been two weeks since I posted something here, and I have very busy weeks ahead.  I may be moved to post again in a week or two, or it may be longer.  Believe me, these observations are very painful to record, but I can't ignore them.  I hope to get to a different place for myself and my faithful readers of 20 years standing, but I don't know exactly where that place will be.  Meanwhile, as Orwell had his garden, I have music, family and friends, and the continuing drama of athletic competition to keep me fully engaged with life.