Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Stakes Are Mortal — Charles P. Pierce on Joe Biden’s run for the White House.

It is a troubled time in America. Institutions are tottering. Widespread discontent is evident in the streets. There is a profound lack of faith in our ability to govern ourselves and in the ability of our leaders to solve the crises that seem to be growing by the hour. The president is embattled. He is besieged. His re-election seems uncertain. In these desperate hours, a veteran leader, a former vice-president, steps forward and offers himself in service to his country. He assures us we are strong enough to meet all these challenges, and that we are a better people than we have demonstrated ourselves to be. He says:

“…your responsibility is greater than ever. The nation is in grave difficulties, around the world and here at home. The choices we face are larger than any differences among Republicans or among Democrats, larger even than the differences between the parties. They are beyond politics. Peace and freedom in the world, and peace and progress here at home, will depend on the decisions of the next President of the United States. For these critical years, America needs new leadership. During [my] years in Washington, I learned the awesome nature of the great decisions a President faces…I have had a chance to reflect on the lessons of public office, to measure the nation’s tasks and its problems from a fresh perspective. I have sought to apply those lessons to the needs of the present, and to the entire sweep of this…century.

And thus did Joe Biden announce his candidac…no, wait. That’s Richard Nixon from 1968.

Here’s a better one.

Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy and Korea and in Valley Forge for this? Listen to the answers to those questions. It is another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non shouters, the non demonstrators. They’re not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they’re native born and foreign born; they’re young and they’re old. They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America. They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.Like Theodore Roosevelt, they know that this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it’s a good place for all of us to live in.

And thus did Joe Biden announce his candidac…no, wait. That’s Richard Nixon again, accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1968, after having failed to be elected president in 1960, and after having failed to be elected governor of California in 1962.

Joe Biden is not Richard Nixon. (Although, to be fair to the historical record, they once held the same position on busing.) He is not history’s yard waste. He does not teem with angry angst and delusions of persecution and self-esteem that can be measured in a teaspoon. He enters the 2020 presidential campaign with a lifetime in politics to defend, and with eight years of being Barack Obama’s vice-president that served to take much of the edge off that lifetime of politics. In his campaign announcement video, he makes clear that he learned about the politics of this perilous moment from those eight years as Obama’s wingman.

I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen. The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake.

That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States. Folks, America’s an idea—an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth. It guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity. It gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.

This is Biden channelling the spirit of Obama’s famous breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a speech that subsequent history—and Mitch McConnell—have fed into the shredder, and a speech that the election of this president* proved to be woefully naive and, quite honestly, as full of shit as the Christmas goose. The fact is that many of us are not better than the politics we see today, that this moment in time is not as aberrant as Biden says it is. In 1968, Richard Nixon subtly stirred the same politics of resentment while simultaneously saying he would bring us together.

The current president* just doesn’t bother with the second part, is all. We indeed are in a battle for the soul of this nation and one of the major fronts in that battle is just what the soul of this nation truly looks like. That question remains wide open.

Does Biden recognize this? Does his vaunted appeal to regular Joes and Janes blind him (and us) to the fact that a lot of those people have been digesting the ideological crud spooned out to them for so long that they’ve developed a taste for it, that a lot of the salt of the earth hath lost its savor? The arc of Joe Biden’s long career almost perfectly traces the rise of conservative politics that culminated inevitably in the election of the current president. It tracks precisely the end of the Roosevelt coalition and the powerful salience among those same voters of appeals to racial and cultural hatred. It follows in close harmony the endless attempts by the Democratic Party to backtrack on its most profound principles in order to bring back people who have been taught to hate it day after day on their radios and television sets, and by the politicians who have convinced them that their lowest impulses are their highest triumphs, and that the better angels of their nature wear brass knuckles and carry a sap under their robes. To argue that we are better than the politics of the Trump Era requires a whopping offer of proof. Is Biden able to provide it?

Standing in this same place a third of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a Nation ravaged by depression and gripped in fear. He could say in surveying the Nation’s troubles: “They concern, thank God, only material things.” Our crisis today is the reverse. We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things–such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.

Richard Nixon said that on a cold day in January of 1969, seven months before Americans landed on the moon and a year before he first approved a plan devised by an ambitious young fascist named Tom Charles Huston to use the intelligence apparatus of this country to spy on political activists and political opponents. Eventually, he rescinded that plan, formally, but several elements stayed active within the government. In 1972, he was re-elected in an unprecedented landslide.

Joe Biden is not Richard Nixon. Neither is he Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. He is joyful where Nixon was paranoid and where Obama was cool and considered. He is not grossly cynical, nor is he imperturbably rational. He is as he always has been—an incurable optimist whose burbling good will occasionally run ahead of his syntax and his ideas. He believes we are better than we keep proving ourselves to be. He’d better be right, because the stakes are mortal this time around.

The Mueller Report and “Game of Thrones” — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Among the many oddities in the second episode of the new (and final) season of “Game of Thrones,” none was odder than the disproportion of time spent combating a desperate existential threat versus time spent arguing over the demands of dynastic primacy. After spending approximately thirty seconds on an actual plan to defeat the Night King and his icy undead army (and a terrible plan it was: Bran, you hang out around the old tree and try to catch the king in some kind of mind-meld, and we’ll have the P.T.S.D. victim Theon Greyjoy mind you as you do), far more time was spent on whether a single, and single-handed, knight, Jaime Lannister, might be an acceptable ally to the Stark-Targaryen clans. Accused by Daenerys of having been the kingslayer of her father, and therefore the guy against whom she had sworn vengeance, Lannister gave a strange response. One expected him to say, “Look, your dad was called the Mad King for a reason. He burned people alive and was a threat to existence and decency, no matter what his last name, or what house he belonged to. One thing I’ll never feel ashamed about is helping to expel that lunatic.” Instead, he spoke the language of dynastic squabbling—insisting that he had acted only on behalf of his house and his family—and (in a horrible bit of anachronistic dialogue) got the imposing Brienne of Tarth to say that she would “vouch” for him.

The eloquent relevance of this scene to our current real-world predicament is obvious: too much of the discussion of what to do about an unhinged monarch turns on a modern version of dynastic squabbles—on party politics, on who will do well or badly, on how it will play out for Democrats in the 2020 election, on what it will do to the Republican base, and so on. This squabbling seems, in light of the release of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, irrelevant and even kind of frivolous. What the report reveals is what we sensed but could not entirely know: that Donald Trump has contempt not just for the rule of law but for the idea of law. He is a man who rose to power knowing only loyalty and subservience as acceptable institutional attitudes; a man who, according to the report, asked the White House counsel to “do crazy shit” and then asked him to lie about it; a man who repeatedly tried to obstruct not just an investigation into what he or his campaign might have done but the whole idea of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Those who predicted that Trump was not just another right-wing politician but an opponent of liberal democracy grow chill watching him assert the position—one that was not long ago as unacceptable to Americans as the idea of commending a foreign autocrat’s attempts to subvert our elections—that the Department of Justice should now pursue his political opponents for nonexistent crimes.

That the scale of the danger Trump poses is becoming clearer to more and more people is due to the paradoxical truth that, despite Trump’s endless claims to the contrary, the Mueller report is the least witch-hunt-like witch hunt in the history of witch hunts. Painfully, dutifully, at times in ways almost unduly dainty, the report works its way through the intricacies of its charge, of Department of Justice standards and practices, of what it can fairly conclude, and of what can’t be legitimately pursued. It does so with a sober judiciousness that would be wonderful to read if one were not a little haunted by the fact that not all special prosecutors or independent counsels have previously shown so much delicacy of mind. One recalls that hit of yesteryear, the Starr Report, written, as seemed evident at the time and still more so now, with the sole political purpose of humiliating President Bill Clinton into resigning, even though its own initial charge—to investigate the Whitewater land deal—left it with insufficient evidence to indict.

The finding of the Mueller report, ably occluded by Attorney General William Barr, isn’t that there was no collusion and no obstruction—it’s that there isn’t enough evidence to rise to the legal level of conspiracy, and that obstruction was not a charge that the office was permitted to pursue, in any case, because Trump is a sitting President. And then that—a rather convoluted piece of reasoning—the accusation cannot be unambiguously stated even if it is true, since it is also against the rules to accuse of a crime someone who can’t defend himself in court. The actual point of view of the authors, though, is made clear in their repeated, and rather ornate, return to an otherwise bafflingly opaque formula: if we could conclude that the President was exonerated of the charge of obstruction we would say so, but we can’t. In cash-value, or real-world, terms, they are saying that they can’t properly say that they found obstruction, but they did find a lot of evidence and are passing it along to those who might be allowed to act on it. It’s a heavy hint in the form of a labyrinthine legal argument.

It may be that, in retrospect, the Mueller investigation will be seen to have been unduly cautious. The failure to subpoena Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr., is puzzling. So, too, is the larger failure to compel the President to be interviewed in person, given the almost aggressive absence of responsiveness in his written answers. This seems particularly evident considering that the independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team had no compunctions about subpoenaing Bill Clinton to testify, despite the more trivial nature of its initial charge. (They withdrew it after Clinton agreed to testify.)

But, on the whole, and taken on its own terms, the Mueller report is a powerful and positive document, because it is written testimony to the liberal faith in the power of rules and systems to bring order and justice. Mueller and his team were trying on every page of the report and in every instance to follow the rules, even if the rules they were following forced them into contorted prose and easily misrepresented positions. The rules are worth following, the underlying premise of the report insists, because only in accepting the rules can we insure justice. This is why the language of “norms” and their violation is misapplied to Trump and his conduct. What is at stake here are not “norms,” in the sense of ornamental ritual regularities in the conduct of office. What is at stake are rules—rules meant to insure objective judgment and fair dealing no matter who the subject may be or how you may feel about his or her conduct. These are fair-minded rules put in place by the painfully slow accession of power to procedure, equitable rules put in place over time and that, historically, remain vanishingly rare. As “Game of Thrones” reminds us—it may be the chief reason for the show’s current appeal—the rule of pure power asserting itself exactly as it likes whenever it likes is what most often happens among human beings.

This is why the idea that Mueller cleverly engineered his report to force Congress to act misses the point. Mueller didn’t intend it. The rules did. This is why impeachment—at least attempting to remove from power someone obviously unfit to hold it, whatever the outcome may be—has, within a week, passed from a distant speculative possibility to what seems to many like a primary moral duty. It is being miscast as a prudential act, or even as an act of overdue partisan aggression. Right now, it seems more like collective self-defense against a common danger.

Doonesbury — Outsourcing.