Monday, February 19, 2018

What If Mitt Romney Had Won the 2012 Election?

Seeing as how it's President's Day and the current occupant in the Oval Office is about as presidential as a four-year old in a time out, I thought I'd spend a little time and ponder an important question. What if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election?

Look, I know it's never a good idea to engage in revisionist history and I am somewhat concerned about the plethora of liberals who have gone all googly-eyed over the rash of conservative writers that are leading the anti-Trump movement. Steady on, people, they may hate Trump, but it was only a couple of years ago that these same bastions of conservatism were focusing their laser beams on Obama and the Dems. Look up some of Jennifer Rubin's pieces from, say, 2015, if you have any doubts. Some of my brethren have even gone so far as to say out loud, and with a straight face, that they miss George Bush. If you're looking for a reality check, this skit by Will Farrell on SNL should more than suffice.

But, all that aside, I believe I can deliver and honest and objective assessment based on what we already know about the events of that year. Looking back on my writings, what stands out for me was how Romney was trying to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wanted to run on his record as a Republican governor in a blue state, which I always thought was his strongest argument to make to the electorate. On the other hand, he was running against Rick Santorum, a man who makes Mike Pence look like John Kasich. I once wrote an open letter to Romney in which I implored him to stop trying to move to the right of Santorum. "Air can't run to the right of Rick Santorum," I said.

I wasn't alone in my chastisement. David Frum wrote just before the election, "Mitt Romney's campaign has been one long appeasement of the most selfish and stupid elements of the Republican coalition, and the instinct for appeasement will not terminate with the counting of the votes next Tuesday." Yet Frum still believed that, if elected, Romney could lead effectively, because while he may have pandered to his base to get the nomination, that was not who he was at heart. "Massachusetts Mitt - the Mitt who hurled himself into the battle for universal health coverage within his state - also came from someplace real."

In the end, it was the pandering that cost him the election. After a brilliant performance against Obama in that first debate in Denver where the country finally had a chance to see what Frum called Massachusetts Mitt, Romney couldn't help himself. He had so boxed himself in during the primaries that he was unable to successfully pivot to the center.

But what if Romney had been able to make that transition? What if, instead of picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, he had chose someone like Rob Portman from Ohio? What if, instead of campaigning on repealing Obamacare, he chose to run on fixing it? What if, instead on demonizing Obama like so many in his party were doing, he decided to compliment him on some of the things he had done right and stressed that the country needed someone who could improve things?

I actually think had Romney run that type of campaign, he could've beaten Obama; not by a lot, mind you, but, as we learned in 2016, it doesn't take a lot to win a presidential election. Sometimes it doesn't even take a majority of the popular vote.

So what kind of president would Mitt Romney have made? Well, I tend to agree with Frum. Policy wise, I think it would've been very difficult for him to have pulled his party to the center. The forces that are currently running things over at GOP Central make Barry Goldwater look like Nelson Rockefeller. Romney's tax cut would undoubtedly have been passed, and regulation after regulation would've been undone. As for Obamacare, as we found out in 2017, it's a lot easier to run on repealing something than it is to actually repeal it. I suspect Romney would've had the same difficulty dismantling the ACA in 2013 as Trump had last year.

What I do think could've happened is that Romney would've incorporated some of what was in his law to shore up the law. I actually think the exchanges would be in better shape. Call me optimistic, but I think Romney would've had just enough common sense to know that kicking twenty million people off healthcare to prove a point was a sure fire way to make him a one-term president.

As for foreign policy, I think Romney would've been more hawkish than Obama, but not by a lot. Remember, Obama was hardly a dove. The one thing I will give him credit for: he was right about Russia. They were, and are, our number one geopolitical threat. It's time to admit the painful truth: Putin played Obama, the same way he played Bush.

On the world stage, Romney would've been a fairly accomplished president. In spite of his policy proposals, he would've been well received and well respected. Of course, given how Cadet Bone Spurs has comported himself, that's hardly a high bar. He would've been pro-trade and anti-tarrif, the exact opposite of Trump, and he would've strengthened ties with our allies instead of undermining them. And while I don't think the economy would've grown any faster with him at the helm than with Obama, I do think it would've been in good enough shape that Romney would've won a second term.

In fact, had Romney won in 2012, I seriously doubt the whole Trump movement would've gotten off the ground. Clinton would've still run in 2016 and lost, though in this case she would've lost both the electoral and popular vote. And I actually think that having a stable man in the White House might've encouraged a few of the remaining moderates in the Party to take more of an active role in policy making, especially in the House where the Freedom Caucus has had pretty much a free reign. It also might've incentivized some centrist Democrats to seek bi-partisan consensus with their GOP counterparts. In an ironic sort of way, maybe some of the polarization that has come to define Washington over the years might've been lifted.

Then again, who knows? Maybe Romney would've turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. A more polished version of shit-for-brains, with just enough horse sense not to be a total asshole. In that case, he would've been a one-term president. Either way, the country would've been spared the embarrassment of the last thirteen months.

Isn't it nice to dream, especially on President's Day?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Putin and the Social Media Threat To Our Democracy

The indictment handed down by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller of 13 individuals and 3 organizations is the first physical evidence we've seen that validates what every intelligence agency has been saying for over a year: that Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 election. The indictment reads in pertinent part:
Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.
The platforms that the defendants used to post their derogatory information were primarily Facebook and Twitter, and the malfeasants go all the way back to 2014. According to David Graham of The Atlantic, "the goal was simply to create division and chaos by exploiting existing cleavages in American society—or as the indictment puts it, operators were instructed to create 'political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.'"

There's nothing new in the employment of these tactics. Political parties often use them on their opponents to gain an advantage. In 2012, for instance, Democrat Claire McCaskill's campaign ran two ads: one for Republican Todd Akin, calling him the most conservative Republicans in the race; the other against the establishment GOP candidate John Brunner, questioning his commitment to conservative values. Guess which one won the Republican nomination? And guess which one McCaskill beat in the general election?

What differentiates this particular episode is that this wasn't some politician looking to manipulate the opposition's voter base; this was a foreign government infiltrating the very fabric of American society to influence the outcome of an election in furtherance of its objectives. And that's what makes it a crime.

But, as it turns out, Trump wasn't the only candidate the Russians aiding. The indictment reveals that they were trying to help Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, as well. These were some of the ads that were run on Instagram and Facebook:

"Choose peace and vote Jill Stein. Trust me, it's not a wasted vote."

"We cannot resort to the lesser of two evils. Vote Bernie."

Other ads attempted to depress voter turnout among African Americans by encouraging them to stay home rather than vote for "Killary." Hashtags like "Hillary4Prison" and "Clinton FRAUDation" began popping up on Twitter in the run-up to the election.

I remember the "Lesser of two evils" memes very well. If I had a dollar for every time one of them popped up on my Facebook page, I'd have enough money to fill my gas tank for the next three months. Sadly, this and other memes like it were being forwarded by friends who in all likelihood never knew they were being played. Even now, many of them still are reluctant to come to grips with the reality that a foreign government might have influenced their opinion about a presidential candidate.

As far as the Jill Stein memes are concerned, if you add up all the votes she received in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, they add up to more than the margin Clinton lost to Trump by. So much for not being a wasted vote.

And that is why all us should be VERY concerned, because Putin is not done fucking with us. Yes, Mueller issued an indictment. So what? You actually think that means anything to him? So long as he has his puppet in the White House, we can expect more Russian interference in our elections.

Even now, his bots are actively trying to manipulate the gun debate in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida by taking a pro-gun position. Without a credible defense against these attacks, they will only continue, if not intensify.

And that's why all of us need to be on guard. Since this president has abdicated his responsibility as commander in chief, it is up to us to safeguard our democracy. Regardless of who you support, be suspicious of anything you read on social media that makes outlandish charges against politicians that might not be substantiated by the facts, even if those charges reinforce your preconceived notions. Go that extra mile to verify the validity of claims before forwarding them to your friends. I have been as guilty of this as anyone.

We still don't know who will be running against Trump in 2020, but this much we can take to the bank: Putin will do everything possible to undermine anyone he perceives as a threat to him.

Be smart, be strong, be resolute.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Clock Is Ticking

I was all set to write about the budget deal when news broke yesterday that Rachel Brand, the Associate Attorney General and number three official at the Department of Justice, had decided to resign. Last December, I wrote that in the event that Donald Trump were to fire Rod Rosentsein, the person in charge of supervising the Mueller investigation would be Brand. Now that she is gone, that duty would likely fall to Solicitor General Noel Francisco.

In case you haven't heard of Francisco, he's the attorney who represented former Virginia governor Robert McDonald in his bribery conviction appeal before the Supreme Court. The Court eventually ruled in favor of McDonald and overturned his bribery conviction. Beyond that, we don't know a whole lot, especially how he would react were he to be ordered to fire Mueller. Back in 1973, we know how that Solicitor General reacted. Robert Bork complied with Nixon's order and the resultant Constitutional crisis threw the country into chaos.

Consider the events of the last few days: A deeply misleading and inflammatory Republican memo designed to undermine the Russia investigation was released by the White House, while a Democratic rebuttal was quashed; Andrew McCabe was forced out as Deputy Director of the FBI; a sitting president actually accused legislators who didn't applaud his State of the Union speech of treason; Rachel Brand has jumped ship; and Rod Rosenstein is a dead man walking.

To add insult to injury, Trump now wants a military parade, just like his buddy Vladimir Putin has in Russia. Seriously, if the prospect of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't scare the shit out of you, I honestly don't know what would. This man isn't a president; he's a dictator in waiting.

We have seen a concerted effort by this administration to attack and castrate the institutions of this country, all with the aiding and abetting of a Republican Party that has now forfeited any shred of credibility it once had. With few exceptions, every one of them has become complicit in this slow-moving and deliberate government coup. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and, yes, even Reagan has now become the party of Trump.

And while all this is going on, Trump's approval numbers have begun to inch upward. He is now hovering around 42 percent, according to the RCP average, up from a low of 35 percent only a few months ago; proof positive that the public is beginning to get impervious to his antics. Lenin was right when he said a lie told often enough becomes the truth. Dana Milbank may have put it best when he quoted Jonathan Swift: "Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after it."

There has always been a method to Trump's madness and every magician knows it full well. Put enough balls in the air and the audience becomes distracted. The fact is that since he launched his campaign in 2015, Trump has lied so many times that it has become impossible to keep track of them. The Washington Post has compiled a list that is well into the hundreds; at this point, it might as well be in the thousands for all the good it will do. At some point, people simply tune out the chatter, which is exactly what Trump wants. No matter how dysfunctional his White House may be or outrageously offensive his tweets get, all that has been baked into the equation. This con-artist extraordinaire has pulled off the biggest con of his life: he has managed to normalize his behavior to such a degree that a good chunk of the population has tuned him out.

And that is what despots do right before they seize power in a country. First they attack the institutions tasked with holding them accountable; next they embolden co-cospirators to draw up an alternative narrative they can then peddle to the masses. That is precisely what the Nunes memo was intended to be. It was never about protecting the rights of Carter Page from unjustified surveillance; it was about creating the myth of a deep state out to subvert the will of the people, thus giving the chief executive the excuse he needs to eliminate those who were part of the conspiracy, e.g., Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller.

And it has worked brilliantly. A recent poll found that less than half the country believes the Russia investigation is fair. That is down significantly from last fall when an overwhelming majority of the country felt it was. What that means is that Trump could conceivably fire Rosenstein within the next few days and then order Francisco to get rid of Mueller. With House Republicans and Fox News giving him cover, he could ride out the shit storm indefinitely. Even if Democrats manage to retake the House in the midterms, Trump would still be safe because it would take 67 votes in the Senate to convict him and there's no way Senate Republicans would allow that to happen.

Last month in a piece for Politico, John Dean pondered what might've happened if Richard Nixon had had an entire news channel and a Republican-controlled Congress at his disposal.

"There’s social media, there’s the internet; the news cycles are faster. I think Watergate would have occurred at a much more accelerated speed than the 928 days it took to go from the arrest at the Watergate to the conviction of Haldeman and Ehrlichman and [John] Mitchell, et al. There’s more likelihood he might have survived if there’d been a Fox News."

Trump is no Nixon; he's far worse. Nixon, for all his flaws, did not cut the legs out of the institutions of his day. In fact, as politicians go, he was about as mainstream as they get. He took the U.S. off the gold-standard, established relations with Communist China and started the EPA. Were it not for the personal demons that led to his downfall, he might've gone down in history as one of the more effective presidents of the 20th century. Nothing in Trump's resume suggests he has the capacity to be anything other than an abject failure.

It was professor Halford E. Luccock of the Yale University's Divinity school who in 1938 said, "When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism'".

The clock is ticking. If Trump gets away with firing Mueller it won't just be the beginning of a Constitutional crisis; it'll be the end of the Republic itself. Anyone who truly cares about democracy should be deeply concerned by what is going on here.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

From the Deep State To the Deep End

Former FBI Director James Comey summed it up best: "That's it?"

Seriously, this is what Republicans were hanging their hats on? Three and a half pages of hysteria over what amounts to nothing substantive. The argument that Devin Nunes was attempting to make - that the FISA warrant the FBI obtained on Carter Page was politically motivated, and that without it the whole Russia investigation would never have gotten off the ground - fell flat on its face.

Let's take it step by step.

1. The Steele Dossier that Nunes cites in the memo as being financed by the Clinton campaign was originally compiled by a company called Fusion GPS at the behest of a conservative website being funded by a major donor to then Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio for the expressed purpose of collecting damaging information on Donald Trump. Once Trump secured the nomination, Fusion GPS was then hired by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, but for some unknown reason they never used any of the information they had on Trump. Whether it was politically motivated or not, some of the allegations that Steele makes in the Dossier have been corroborated, a fact Nunes failed to disclose in his memo.

2. Nunes' claim that the Dossier was the primary reason the FISA warrant was granted is dubious at best. No FISA judge would grant a warrant based solely on one source. The fact that the memo admits the warrant was renewed three times indicates that the FBI must've had physical evidence that they would've been required to turn over to the Court to maintain the warrant. Another omission by Nunes.

3. As Nunes' own memo stated, the FBI started its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election a full four months before the FISA warrant on Page was granted. In fact, it was information the Bureau had obtained about George Papadopoulos - another Trump campaign advisor - that triggered the investigation in the first place. Page himself had been a subject of interest for the FBI going all the way back to 2013.

4. Nunes goes out of his way to impugn the integrity of FBI agent Peter Strzok over retrieved text messages that showed bias against Trump; yet he conveniently left out the fact that it was Strzok who drafted the memo that Comey used to reopen the Clinton email server investigation eleven days before the 2016 election. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that up in Chappequa, the Clintons have a much different opinion of Mr Strzok's intentions.

5. The mention of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is the real motive behind this memo. It was Rosenstein who signed off on one of the renewals in the FISA warrant on Page. Last year, Donald Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but was thwarted by one of his attorneys. He now knows he can't fire him directly, but if he could somehow get rid of the man that Mueller reports to - Rosenstein - and appoint a replacement that would either "limit" the scope of Mueller's investigation or get rid of him altogether, that would solve the problem for him. While we still don't know whether Trump would actually be dumb enough to go through with this hair-brained scheme, thanks to Nunes, he now has the excuse he's been looking for.

All this means that if I'm Rod Rosenstein, I'd be very worried about my job right about now. And if I'm Robert Mueller, I'd throw this investigation into high gear as soon as possible. Time is of the essence. Mueller needs to subpoena Trump immediately and get his testimony on record. If there's a case to be made for collusion, obstruction of justice, money laundering, or all of the above, Mueller must make it while he still can. He may not be able to indict Trump, but his report to the Department of Justice will be a public record for future - hopefully Democratic - Congresses to review.

And that's what keeps the GOP up nights. The idea that one day, before he leaves office, Trump may find himself in the same predicament that ensnared Richard Nixon in 1974. That's why Nunes has been frantically searching for anything he can get a hold of to stave off what deep down every Republican knows is coming: the moment where they might have to vote to impeach their own president.

We are now entering a tipping point: a Constitutional crisis now seems inevitable. The only question that remains to be answered is whether this country will survive the ordeal. This isn't Watergate; it's Watergate times a hundred.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Vladimir Putin is laughing his ass off and putting the finishing touches on his plans to interfere with the 2018 midterms.