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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, October 31, 2020

China, the West, and the Pandemic

 The New York Times reports this morning that life in China has returned almost to normal and economic growth has resumed.  The worldometers web site that I rely on for COVID data reports that the US has now suffered 709 deaths per million and the major European countries between 600 and 800 (except for Germany, which is much lower 1t 125), while China has suffered 3 deaths per million, Japan 14, and South Korea 9.  China, with 1.44 billion people, reports 4,000 deaths, while the US, with 331 million or so, reports well over 200,000.  These astonishing figures, in my opinion, show where these various nations stand in the development of modern civilization.

Beginning in the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment provided not only a concept of individual rights, but a framework for disciplining a population.   Laws were now passed, and had to be obeyed, for the common good, and taxes paid for public goods.  During the nineteenth century these trends dominated both the relatively authoritarian states of continental Europe and the emerging elected governments of the United States, Britain, and eventually France.  After Japan encountered the modern west in the 1850s, new Japanese leadership eventually decided that it had to adapt some western institutions to remain an independent nation.  The ideas of the Enlightenment eventually reached both Russia and China via one of their extreme offshoots, Communism, and transformed their societies as well.   

The influence and impact of these ideas peaked in the first half of the twentieth century.  In two extraordinarily destructive world wars, they enabled modern states to mobilize men and resources on an unprecedented scale.  During the 1930s, when dictatorships took over so much of the world, many questioned whether democracies could effectively compete with them, but the Second World War proved that they could. Both Great Britain and the US combined free economies and political institutions with very high taxes, conscription, and unprecedented economic mobilization, and emerged as two of the victors in the struggle.  They fought explicitly for ideals of freedom and democracy, and those ideals spread over more of the world in the aftermath of the war--even within the British Empire.  Within the west, highly disciplined societies--economically and culturally--survived for another twenty years after the war, until the mid-1960s.  Then, the American state embarked upon a catastrophic adventure in Southeast Asia, just as a major cultural rebellion began.

I have often cited a famous speech by Mario Savio, then 22, at Berkeley in the late fall of 1964 as emblematic of that revolt.  Savio, who had joined the Mississippi Summer voting registration project a few years earlier, found an equivalence between the plight of Mississippi's black citizens on the one hand, and Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying a world-class education free of charge--on the other. Both, he said, were fighting the same oppressive machine, and that idea apparently found a lot of resonance in the audience, however absurd it seems now.  It signaled, in any case, the beginnings of a world-historical shift, a revolt against nearly all of the restraints that society had imposed upon the citizenry, in return for providing unprecedented benefits.  In the next few years and decades, it shredded all sorts of behavioral codes, involving dress, hair style, the use of language, sexual behavior, and the public expression of emotion.  Some of these codes were oppressive; some had been recognized for centuries as the price of civilization.  The rebellion also became race-based, gender-based, and sexuality-based, as more and more groups rebelled against simply being treated like everyone else and claimed various kinds of authority based upon their demographic.  The attack on authority extended to intellectual authority, and we can see now, when political leaders freely challenge scientific authority on matters of life and death, where that was ultimately going to lead.  Meanwhile, in a parallel development, private economic interests mounted a long, determined, well-organized fight against mid-century economic restraints, cutting top tax rates by almost 2/3 and eventually freeing the financial sector and giving it a license to create new wealth for itself. 

It is fitting that a public health crisis has laid bare our system's inability to cope with a national problem, since public health measures such as quarantines were among the first major initiatives of modern states.  When infectious diseases ranked among leading causes of death, the citizenry had to accept draconian measures to stop them.  That era ended with antibiotics.  It is also significant that we have failed to develop desperately new antibiotics, both because the public no longer takes the threat of infections seriously enough, and because the corporations who control our medical care can't make enough money developing them for it to be worthwhile.  Whether they can develop a really effective COVID vaccine remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, the Chinese, the Japanese, the South Koreans and others have proven that they have the will to use the old methods to fight a fatal infectious disease, and that the old methods still work.  A mixture of testing, isolation (which we aren't practicing formally at all), and contact tracing has worked well enough to allow their economies to resume to normal, while we are still desperately struggling and moving into a new wave of infections and deaths.

The Asian success seems to owe as much to cultural as to political factors, since both Communist China and non-Communist South Korea and Japan have shared in it.  Those nations may also be drawing on a Confucian, bureaucratic tradition of discipline that goes back many centuries.  This shows that these nations can impose a discipline on their people which we cannot.  They have also shown in many ways (as have some of the western European nations) that they can still mobilize impressive resources for infrastructure projects, which Britain and the US have had much more trouble doing.  It fascinates me, by the way, that the three victorious nations in the Second World War--Russia, Great Britain, and the US--have all seen spectacular declines in civic virtue and political effectiveness as their postwar generations have taken power.  Perhaps they were too spoiled by victory to appreciate the qualities that had been necessary to achieve it.  Like so many generations in so many nations, they took their parents' achievements for granted, and let many of them slip away.

Faced with a worldwide crisis, these Asian nations have proven that they have authority effective enough, and citizens obedient enough, to cope with it.  Some of the leading western nations have not.  No matter who wins the election on Tuesday, the related problems of authority, discipline, sacrifice, and the common good will remain very serious in the United States.  We will have to solve at least some of them, I think, to function effectively in the decades ahead.  It is interesting that the nation seems prepared to turn to Joe Biden, an exact contemporary of Mario Savio, but one who grew to young adulthood and launched his family life and career without ever being seriously touched by the great revolt around him.   We will not return to world of the 1950s, but we need to take some steps in that direction to remain a leading nation--or even, perhaps, a functioning one.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Biden Administration?

 More than a month ago I was listening to two of my favorite people, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, talking about the state of the nation, and McWhorter referred to the book he is now finishing about wokeness.  He said that the text already refers to "President Biden," on the assumption that Biden will defeat Trump.  I was riding in my car when I heard that, and I yelled loudly, "NO! DON'T DO THAT!" because it struck me as tempting fate.   We don't know who is going to win, and we don't know how long it will take to confirm their victory.  Yet fivethiryeight.com now gives Biden a very solid chance of winning--around 85%--expects the Democrats to add a few seats in the House, and gives them a better-than-even chance of controlling the Senate.  This column on that site asks what Democratic control would lead to, and spends most of its time predicting that centrism will triumph.  While stressing once again that we do NOT know what is going to happen on November 3 and after, I will make a few suggestions of my own.

If Joe Biden wins, he, like Barack Obama, will take office at a moment of profound economic crisis.  That means to me that he will face the same test that FDR did in 1933 and that Obama did in 2009: to show the American people, within two years, that he has materially improved their lot.  Because Roosevelt passed that test, his large majorities in the House and Senate increased further in 1934 and again in 1936.  (We'll look a little later at what happened after 1936.)  Obama, on the other hand, passed a stimulus that might have kept things from getting worse, but did not rapidly make them get better, and then put all the Democrats' time and energy into the ACA, whose benefits would take years to become apparent.  As a result, in my opinion, he lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election and had to fight a series of holding actions for the rest of his two terms.  Democrats at the moment are so obsessed with Donald Trump, that they are discounting the possibility that the Republican Party might have a renaissance without him.  If a Biden Administration can't rapidly help the American people in this new economic crisis, adding jobs and protecting mortgage holders (as FDR did) and renters, another 2010 looks to me quite possible.  Biden will, of course, face unprecedented deficits when he comes into office thanks to Trump's tax cuts and the pandemic, but he has already promised to increase taxes on incomes over $400,000. To that I can only say, the higher the better.  Anything like this will require doing away with Senate filibusters--and that is the one sweeping institutional change that I recommend.

Biden has another equally important and almost unprecedented task: to show that the federal government can function effectively.   At least three of our most important cabinet departments, State, Justice, and Interior, have been sacrificed to Republican prejudices and Trump's political needs.  The Post Office is also in serious trouble and the EPA has essentially worked for four years to put itself out of business. The FAA appears to have let us down badly over Boeing's 737 Max.  Instead of simply handing out jobs based on demographic balance, Biden needs to find ambitious, determined men and women who can get these institutions back on track, and give them the authority to do so.  That is what both Lincoln and FDR did in our previous crises.  It would help our political culture and our media culture enormously if we could get the public focused on what the government is actually doing.

Action on immigration is extremely important as well.  In the last debate Biden called for a path to citizenship for our 11 million (if not much more) illegal immigrants, who now live in terror of deportation.  This is essential for many reasons, not least because it will allow them to become voters, with vast consequences.  In the meantime, however, I do not think he should be in a hurry to restore the new flow of immigrants into the country to much higher levels.  We coped more easily with the Great Depression, as I have pointed out many times, because Congress in 1924, five years earlier, had already brought immigration almost to a halt.  A similar pause now might also serve us well.

On the foreign scene, Biden will undoubtedly begin with well-publicized meetings with our NATO allies to show that we once again support that alliance.  He would be well advised to put forward some vision of normal relations with China, including a willingness to compromise on some of our differences about maritime rights.  He might also give some thought to continuing the peace talks that Trump has gotten underway in Afghanistan.  Stopped clocks are right twice a day, and neither the Afghans nor the nation need that endless war.   

Climate change is at least as serious as Biden made it out to be in the last debate, and he certainly needs to put serious proposals forward to deal with it, as well as returning to the Paris Accords. Yet there will be enormous resistance to truly drastic steps.  I would recommend that he make this a three- or four-year project, beating the drum, stressing the terrible effects such as wildfires that we are already dealing with, and accepting anything he can get right away without sounding as if the problem is solved.  Several of Roosevelt's most impactful measures, such as the Wagner Act and Social Security, passed in 1935.  That's a precedent to keep in mind, one that might also apply for serous financial reform.

Democratic activists, meanwhile, are pressing for new steps to change the political balance in both Congress and the Judiciary.   One is electoral reform, which has already gotten through the House and should be pushed through the Senate.

Activist Democrats are pushing for more radical measures to change the political balance in both the Senate and the judiciary.  Such attempts were also common in the era of our other divisive crisis, the Civil War.  The Republicans increased the size of the Supreme Court under Lincoln and then decreased it again to prevent Andrew Johnson from filling a seat, only adding another justice after Grant was in office.  Lincoln during the war made a concerted effort to get new western states into the union to balance the south after the war was over, and Johnson stopped it.  The  admission of new states remained profoundly political all the way up until 1912, when New Mexico and Arizona (that had been territories for about 60 years) finally came in.  I do not think that returning to such measures would improve our political climate.  In the Senate, it might be easier just to win over a majority of voters in certain hitherto red states (as is already happening in Arizona and perhaps Georgia) than to make D.C. or Puerto Rico states.  Regarding the Supreme Court, we should remember that FDR's attempt to pack it in 1937 was the greatest disaster of his administration.  The controversy tied up the Congress for the first six months of his second term, before ending in a humiliating bipartisan defeat, and his huge majorities secured only one important piece of legislation before he lost them in 1938.  The same thing could happen now.

Never, in my opinion as an historian, has our government worked as badly as it is working now, and never has public interest in it fallen so low.  Rather than focus on specific measures, we need to show, once again, that it can work.  If a new administration does that many new things will become possible.  If it cannot, then the Trump Administration will become just one symptom of a long, possibly terminal decline.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Supreme Court and American Democracy

 On both sides of the political aisle, Americans see the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court as a potential turning point in our history.  A 6-3 majority for the well-organized conservative bloc may overturn the Affordable Care Act, reverse the decision in Roe v. Wade, and possibly (although I think this is less likely), undo federal protection of gay marriage in Oberkfell v. Hodges.  Any of these steps would give an anti-democratic Republican Party huge victories in major national issues--but I do not think the situation can be blamed on the Republicans alone.  It reflects a long-standing desire of both sides to use the court system in general and the Supreme Court in particular to accomplish goals that the ordinary political process will not allow them to reach.  Rather than try to pack the court if the Democratic Party regains control of the government next month--a precedent that could make the whole situation worse, not better--it might be better to reconsider the proper limits of the court's role.

The Supreme Court's power to test both state and federal laws against the text of our Constitution, and to strike down laws it finds in conflict with that text, was, I think, inherent in the text of the Constitution itself.  For most of the pre-Civil War era, however, the court used that power very sparingly.  The great exception was the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which, as I tried to show in a much earlier post, used an ahistorical reading of precedent to try to stop all regulation of slavery in the territories, and implied that slavery was legal all over the United States.  The modern era of legislative jurisprudence, as one might call it, began after the Civil War, when conservative justices (and they were all conservative for much of the late 19th century) began using the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process to outlaw state attempts to regulate their economy, including wages and hours legislation.  Such rulings continued through the first four years of the New Deal, when they took down major New Deal laws, and they led to FDR's court packing plan, which failed dismally in Congress but convinced some moderate justices, led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, to help affirm the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act to forestall a greater constitutional crisis.

The broadening of the court's power entered a new phase, however, in Brown vs. Board of Education, when in 1954 the Warren Court ruled that school desegregation was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  While the definitive work on that case, Richard Kluger's Simple Justice, showed pretty clearly that the authors of that amendment had not intended to outlaw segregated schools, the decision certainly reflected the broader purpose of that amendment, namely, to secure truly equal status for former slaves, which it defined specifically as citizens.  In addition, Kluger showed that Chief Justice Warren, recognizing the gravity of the decision and the enormous impact that it would have, worked very hard, and successfully, to insure that the decision would be unanimous, even though the court at that time included several white southerners.  The subsequent history of school desegregation in this country, however, shows how hard it is to impose such a change by judicial fiat.  After decades of litigation, including 1970s decisions that approved school busing in some cases to promote integration, 69% of black children attend schools that are predominantly nonwhite.  In parts of the Deep South, integration led almost immediately to the creation of a separate system of private "Christian" schools for white students, leaving the public schools almost completely segregated, and often underfunded as a result.

During the next 15 years, the Warren Court issued a series of decisions that extended the reach of judicial power to try to transform various aspects of American life along more liberal lines.  Several were based on the relatively new idea that all state legislation might be tested against the Bill of Rights, and at least one critical decision, on reapportionment, relied on relatively abstract ideas of justice.  In the realm of criminal justice, Mapp vs. Ohio (1961) excluded evidence that had been seized without a warrant, Gideon vs. Wainwright guaranteed every defendant a lawyer, and Miranda vs. Arizona forced law enforcement agencies to inform defendants of their right to counsel and protection against self-incrimination.  Reynolds vs. Sims and Baker v. Carr ordered states to apportion all their legislative districts according to population, rather than to favor rural districts against urban ones.  Engel vs. Vitale (1962) outlawed organized prayer in public schools.  New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it almost impossible for public figures to win libel suits in state court.  While I certainly agree with the goals of all these decisions, every of them aroused considerable resentment against the courts because they bypassed or overruled the political process within states, and started the Republican assault upon the independence of the judiciary.  These precedents had another impact.  By continuing to test various specific state laws and practices against broad provisions of the U.S. Constitution, they encouraged a whole new style of litigation to which several generations of activist lawyers have devoted their lives.  Rather than organize politically or run for office to try to achieve worthy goals, they look for ways to secure them in the federal courts, and thereby weaken our democratic processes.

The expansion of judicial power took a new step forward in 1973, when the court handed down Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal all around the country.  I personally regard that decision as tragic, even though I agree with its goal, because, when it happened, the political process was already attacking this issue with some success. The nation's two most populous states, New York and California, had already legalized abortion.  That was beginning to trigger a nationwide political fight over the issue, but I think it's very likely that they would have maintained that right and that other states would have followed suit.  Instead, Roe v. Wade made abortion advocates complacent, energized at least three generations of opponents to an extraordinary extent, and turned abortion into a critical national political issue that has distorted our politics ever since. Furthermore, new state laws and new federal court decisions have narrowed the right it decreed to such an extent that in much of the country it is almost impossible to secure a legal abortion, and a market for back-alley abortions has been created once again.

By the time of Roe v. Wade, Richard Nixon, who in 1968 had campaigned explicitly against many of the Warren Court's decisions, had appointed four new members of the Supreme Court.  By 1976, a conservative majority was using the Bill of Rights to invalidate major liberal legislation.  In that year, Buckley v. Valeo held that the federal government could restrict a candidate's use of his own money in his election campaign, and two years later, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the court struck down a Massachusetts law designed to keep corporate money out of politics. These decisions laid the foundation for even more sweeping ones down the road.

In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the court struck down laws against sexual relations between gay people, and twelve years later, in Oberkfell v. Hodges, it established a right of gay marriage in every state.  The former decision strikes me as a straightforward application of the equal protection clause, allowing consenting adults to choose their sexual partners.  The latter, while just in my opinion, remains open to the same criticism as Roe v. Wade.  By the time it was handed down the political processes in many states had already legalized gay marriage and that would have continued.  As it is, gay marriage, as we shall see, is now under attack from another Constitutional angle.

The appointment of two members of a new generation of conservative justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, by George W. Bush--who was forced by his own party to abandon what would probably have been a more moderate appointment--allowed the court to move three critical areas of policy in a conservative direction, each time by a 5-4 vote.  In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court overruled more than two centuries of precedent and almost completely eliminated a state's right to regulate the possession of firearms.  Citizens United v. FEC (2010) essentially ended any restrictions on corporate spending on election campaigns, overturning a century of federal laws.  And in Shelby County v. Holder(2013), the same 5-4 majority invalidated the key preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act--perhaps the most obvious judicial usurpation of legislative power in the history of the Republic.  The 15th Amendment explicitly gave Congress the right to enforce itself by appropriate legislation, and the Voting Rights Act had repeatedly been renewed by large Congressional majorities.  The court majority threw out the provision simply because they, in contrast to Congress, did not regard as fair or necessary any longer.  Numerous states have passed legislation attempting to reduce voting in response.

No one, really, should be surprised that both political powers have tried to bend the enormous power of the Supreme Court as it has evolved since the Second World War to their own purposes.  Democrats are especially frustrated at this moment, first, because luck as well as electoral politics have given Republicans so many more court appointments than Democrats over the last 50 years, and secondly, because the Republican Senate majority shamelessly used its power four years ago to deny President Obama an appointment that rightfully belonged to him, and having made sure then that Justice Scalia would be replaced by another conservative, they are making sure now that Justice Ginsburg will be, as well.  The situation we are in, however--in which the appointment and confirmation of federal justices may well have become the single most important thing that the President and the Senate do--reflects a long deterioration of American democracy, which has taken so many decisions out of the voters' hands.  

Eleven years ago, the political scientist James MacGregor Burns--then 92 years old--published a remarkable history of the politics of the Supreme Court, Packing the Court, which I reviewed at the time.  Burns as a college student had lived through the battle between the Court and the New Deal, and that had left him with a firm belief that the Court should not be allowed to invalidate acts of Congress. That book railed against the enormous role of the Court in our political life, and looked forward to the day when a President might defy its attempt to invalidate a law. That, it seems to me, might be a more effective step for a new President Biden to take than a new attempt to add justices to the Court, if the Roberts Court, as seems fairly likely, does confirm the argument that Roberts himself made when the ACA first came before it, and tries to invalidate the ACA on the grounds that without the tax that went along with the individual mandate, it is now unconstitutional.  






Friday, October 09, 2020

The Vice-Presidential Debate and the State of American Politics

 I watched the Vice Presidential debate on Wednesday, and I was struck not only by the lack of discipline--which, while not as bad as in the presidential one, was striking--but also by the failure of both candidates even to make any pretense of answering many of the concise and specific questions posed by moderator Susan Page. I decided to look at the debate carefully to see how many questions they actually answered.  Here are the exact questions that Susan Page asked each candidate, and a brief summary of their responses.  I begin with the 12 questions addressed specifically to Senator Harris.

1. "What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn't do? Would you impose new lockdowns for businesses and schools in hotspots? A federal mandate to wear masks?"

A. After criticizing the Trump administration's response, she answered,  "...our plan is about what we need to do around a national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine and making sure that it will be free for all." This I would call a vague bur responsive answer.

2.   "If the Trump administration approves a vaccine, before after the election, should Americans take it and would you take it?"

A.  "If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it."That was a completely responsive answer.

3. "Senator Harris,  have you had a conversation, or reached an agreement with Vice President Biden, about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability? And if not, and if you win the election next month, do you think you should?"  Senator Harris chose not to make any response to that question at all. 

4.  "You know neither, neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has released the sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump's doctors have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you, in turn, is, is this information voters deserve to know? "

A.  "Absolutely. And that's why Joe Biden has been so incredibly transparent."   The Senator denied the premise of the question, and then segued into taxes.

5.  "Senator Harris, the Biden Harris campaign has proposed new programs to boost the economy and you would pay for that new spending by raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Some economists warn that could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs. Would raising taxes for the recovery at risk?"  A. Talking about Vice President Biden's plans for spending on infrastructure and education, she implied that raising taxes would not put the recovery at risk, but she never specifically addressed the question.

6. " What exactly would be the stance of a Biden Harris Administration toward the green New Deal?" Her answer did not mention the Green New Deal.

7.  " Senator Harris, I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked the Vice President. How would you describe our fundamental relationship with China? Are we competitors, adversaries, enemies?"  Senator Harris attacked Trump's policies without answering the question at all.

8. "What's your definition – we've seen strains with China, of course, as the Vice President mentioned, we’ve seen strains with our traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere. What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?"
"Joe, I think, he said, quite well. He says, you know, ‘Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it's relationships there – just think about it as relationships. And so we know this, in our personal, professional relationships – you guys keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who have stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check."  That was a broad and responsive answer.

9.  " If Roe v Wade is overturned, what would you want California to do? Would you want your home state to enact no restrictions on access to abortion?" A.  She gave no answer at all, but segued to Affordable Care Act.

10.  "Senator Harris, in the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?"

A.  "I don't believe so, and I've talked with Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and her family, and she deserves justice." That answered directly but she did not elaborate, turning instead to George Floyd.

11. "If your ticket wins and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what steps would you and Vice President Biden then take? What would happen next?"  A. Senator Harris didn't answer this question at all but merely asked everyone to vote.

12.  If our leaders can't get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

"Joe has a long standing reputation of working across the aisle and working in a bipartisan way. And that's what he's going to do as President." That was an answer.

Totaling up, I find that Senator Harris gave specific answers to just five out of twelve questions: 1, 2, 8,  10, 12.  She implicitly or very broadly answered two more: 4 and 5.  She gave no answer to 3, 6, 7, 9, and 11. 

Now, to Vice President Pence.

1.  "Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?"  The Vice President ignored this question, praising the Trump Administration's response to the epidemic.

2. "How can you expect Americans to follow the administration safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you were at the White House have not been doing so?"

"Well, the American people have demonstrated over the last eight months that when given the facts they're willing to put the health of their families, and their neighbors and people they don't even know first. President Trump and I have great confidence in the American people and their ability to take that information and put it into practice. "  That did answer the question.

3.  " Vice President Pence, have you had a conversation or reached an agreement with President Trump about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability? And if not, do you think you should?"  The Vice President refused to discuss this at all,  and went back to COVID issues.

4.  "You know neither, neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has released the sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump's doctors have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you, in turn, is, is this information voters deserve to know?"

A.  "And the transparency that they [the President's doctors] practiced all along, they will continue because the American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their President." Like Senator Harris, the Vice President denied the premise of this question.

5.  "Should Americans be braced for an economic comeback that is going to take not months, but a year or more?" A. Implicitly, he answered no, but he didn't answer the question directly at all.

6.  "Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter and more deadly? And it made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging?"

He answered. no, forest management is  responsible for the first problem and "there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago.

7.  "Vice President Pence, how would you describe our, our fundamental relationship with China? Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?"

"We want to improve the relationship, but we're going to level the playing field and we’re going to hold China accountable for what they did to America with the coronavirus "  That answered the question.

8.  " If Roe v Wade is overturned, what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?"

He was totally unresponsive. Later, he said, "I'm pro-life. I don't apologize for it."

9.  "So, tell us, specifically – how will your administration protect Americans with pre-existing conditions and give access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down."

A.  Rather than even attempt to answer this, he talked about abortion and the Supreme Court instead.

10. "In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?"

"I trust our justice system, a grand jury that reviews the evidence. And it really is remarkable, that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that in a panel grand jury, looking at all the evidence, got it all wrong."  That was a direct and concise answer.

11. "If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as Vice President? What would you personally do? "

He was totally unresponsive, and denied the possibility of losing.

12,  "If our leaders can't get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

A.  " here in America, we can disagree we can debate vigorously as Senator Harris and I have on the stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans." That answer, parallel to question 2, put his trust in the American people to do the right thing.

Vice President Pence, in  my opinion, gave definite answers to questions 2, 6, 7, 8, and 12.  He implicitly answered 4 and 5 but without directly addressing either question in the terms that it was asked. He totally ignored questions 1, 2, 8, 9, and 11. 

I am amazed to find that I gave the two candidates--so different from one another in so many ways--exactly the same grades:  5 directly responsive answers, 2 implicitly responsive ones, and 5 completely unresponsive ones.  Meanwhile, they managed to get into lengthy debates over things they hadn't been asked about, such as the hearings on Amy Comey Barrett for the Supreme Court and Senator Harris's record as Attorney General in California.

All four 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates are available on youtube, and I think that anyone who looks at them at random will be struck by how readily they answer every question that they are asked.  Certainly they may then segue to a talking point--but that is an afterthought.  Nor, I think, did either one of them try to interrupt the other even once during the whole four hours of debate, or plead for extra reply time in contravention to the rules, as Trump, Biden, Harris and Pence all did.   This vice-presidential debate went better better than the presidential one, but I doubt that it did a great deal to restore popular confidence in our politicians and our political system.  It showed two politicians living largely in their own mental universes.


Saturday, October 03, 2020

Presidential illnesses as a mirror of American life

 It occurred to me yesterday, as I breathlessly followed the course of President Trump's illness, that this was the first time since 1955 that I had lived through the experience of a president who clearly might be mortally ill--as distinct from one who had been shot.  On September 24 of that year, President Eisenhower, then vacationing in Denver, Colorado, had a serious heart attack.  I was only 8, but living in a very political household, I remember it well.  Then, yesterday evening, I opened up nytimes.com and found the main page composed entirely of stories related to Trump's illness and its implications.  I decided to look at the New York Times for September 25, 1955, and compare it to today's front page.  The results are quite interesting.

This morning the front page includes five news stories and a timeline of the President's last week that takes up half the space of the page.  All of them are directly related to the President's illness.  The right-hand side of the page begins with a standard news account.  Under that comes an account of the president's movements over the last week or so, focusing on how he might have spread the virus, and under that comes a story pessimistically assessing the president's own risk factors for serious illness.  In column 1, the top story, a "political memo," headlines, "Now There's No Spinning Away the Pandemic's Toll," followed by a story of the possible effects of the illness on the campaign.  

The contrast with 65 years ago could hardly be more striking.  To begin with, we have to face the difference in scope in the front page then and now.  This morning's has only six different stories, while the 1955 one has eleven.  Three of the eleven relate to the President's heart attack.  The lead, by Russell Baker (later the Times's comic op-ed columnist), gives the medical facts, and gently bur firmly made clear that Press Secretary James Hagerty and the attending physicians were trying to downplay their seriousness.  The second, immediately under the first, by James "Scotty" Reston, the lead political reporter, assessed the heart attack's impact on the coming 1956 election, and suggested that it was quite likely that Eisenhower would not run.  The third dealt with Vice President Nixon's reception of the news. All those aspects of the story remained front page news for days afterwards.  Meanwhile, however, the rest of the world went on and the Times continued to report it.

In column one on September 26 was a story about the fall of President Juan Peron of Argentina, who was about to leave his country for Paraguay.  Underneath that  was the news that the French government had withdrawn an important official from Morocco--still a French colony--because he opposed reforms.  Columns 2-3, coincidentally, were taken up with the first installment of the serialization of former President Truman's memoirs.  (I remember the later serialization of Ike's memoirs, and I wonder when a major newspaper last printed such a serialization.) In column 4, reporter Elie Abel told us that the US, Australia and New Zealand had agreed to maintain their Pacific defenses against Communism, and in column 5, US government sources revealed that the USSR had tested a new nuclear weapon. Lower down the page, the UN reporter told us that the Soviets were busily courting "newly independent lands in Africa and Asia and . . .national groups now seeking independence." The major domestic political story, placed below the fold, dealt with a political fight over government farm price supports.  And lastly, at the bottom of the page, New York's baseball fans learned that Leo Durocher, who had managed the Giants to the world championship just a year earlier--his second pennant in four years--had stepped down from his post, replaced by Bill Rigney.  

What does this rather striking difference prove?

To some extent, it reflects differences in circumstances.  We are in the midst of a presidential election in which President Trump is trailing in the polls.  More importantly, his illness is not simply a personal matter--he has caught the virus that has dominated the news for the last six months and become the major issue in the campaign.  That he himself has consistently downplayed its significance and expressed skepticism about precautionary moves only makes the story juicier. That, however, is only part of the story.

Today's front page evidences Donald Trump's success--not as a president, but as a publicist.  This man, who has been obsessed with publicity for more than 40 years, has successfully turned himself into the focus of all our attention to an extent unmatched by any previous president in my lifetime.  His symbiotic relationship with the media, which he carefully cultivated as a developer and television star, is more intense than ever.  Like the children of an abusive parent, many of us on all sides of the political spectrum have turned him into the main focus of our emotions.  Should his illness prove fatal, I predict an unprecedented round of national confusion--especially since Mike Pence will most certainly not be able to emerge as a strong leader in the way that Lyndon Johnson did after the death of JFK.  We will have lost our rudder, and Joe Biden will have also lost his biggest campaign issue--the need to get a functioning adult into the White House.  

Yet the two front pages also show, I think, that our obsession with Trump is just one part of our more general obsession with ourselves and our own feelings.  The complete absence of any foreign news from today's front page shows how little we have come to care about events elsewhere--or even about foreign reaction to a serious illness of our President. (There is no such story even inside the paper.) The Cold War had many negative consequences, but it also convinced us all that we had to pay attention to political events on every continent, which the average citizen no longer does.  Yesterday was a milestone of sorts in critical bipartisan negotiations about a new economic relief package, but that didn't make the front page either.  Without Donald Trump, it seems to me, the nation's leading newspapers wouldn't know what to write about it, and tens of hundreds of millions of citizens wouldn't know what to think about.  

The experience of the Second World War--in which Eisenhower had of course played a key role--and of the Cold War had given the nation the sense that we were all part of critical enterprises, and the New Deal had given us all a common interest in our economic well being. All that has now been lost.  Should Trump die or lose the election, we shall have a chance to begin again.  Nothing, however, is going to give the nation the sense of common values and purpose that it had in 1955 any time soon.  I can only hope that some younger politicians will recognize the importance of restoring it and start thinking in long term, strategic terms about how it might be done.