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So there’s an article in the New York Times today, regarding a survey conducted for the American Political Science Association of 140 “political experts”. These political scholars were asked to rate all of the United States presidents, up to and including the Current Occupant.  And as one might have expected, President Trump is listed as the single worst president of all time.  In fact, Democratic-leaning scholars gave him a rating of only 8 out of a 100.  There was a considerable gap to the second worst president, James Buchanan, at 16.  The average was 50.

A few things about that: First, it seems a little early to be rating officially the current President good, bad or indifferent. It reminds me a bit of when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for apparently breathing and not being George W. Bush.  Trump’s off to a poor start, and I think he’s not a good guy, but the grade one year for almost any president is really “Incomplete”. (On that note, I also think it may be unwise to even rate William Henry Harrison’s 30 days in office at all.) When his time is over, I expect Mr. Trump to have earned his place near the bottom of the pack. But it’s early yet.

Second, these ratings say as much about the scholars as they do about the presidents. President Obama is rated eighth in this same survey – sixth by the Democratic scholars with a score of 78. That is not a reserved judgment; that’s hero worship.  It’s as if they were using it for group therapy during their unexpected political exile.  The idea that these are much more than political opinion polls is further belied by the fact that those Democratic scholars also rated Bill Clinton over winner-of-the-Cold-War Ronald Reagan.  (Which is nothing new.  In 1996, presidential historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger rated all the presidents and found Reagan 26th out of then 42, six behind Clinton. It’s hard to view such ratings with a straight face.

In conclusion, this is not in any way a defense of the Current Occupant.  I think Trump’s had a poor start and is likely to have a poor end.  But it is an observation that the American Political Scientists Association appears more interested in being a participant in the political contest rather than an unbiased scholarly observer.  When you wonder why some on the right question the reliability or trustworthiness of those in the academy, a survey like this provides evidence.  Look at where they rate those they like, whether accomplished or not – Wilson, Clinton and Kennedy – on the one hand, and those they don’t – Reagan and Coolidge. It’s not an unbiased survey; it’s a political document by political people who want you to think they’re not.

– 1TF

 

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I’m amazed I even need to say this – government is serious business and needs to be conducted by serious people.

The President has conducted his presidency in a manner that his political opponents abhor. They see his policies as misguided and/or mean-spirited and his manner as boorish.

Fine.

But at the State of the Union, his opponents matched him by not even perfunctorily applauding his entrance. The guy hadn’t even said anything yet. His speech wasn’t a sea of red meat. Yet the silence followed, even during announcements of good economic news and salutes to American heroes. It was surreal. And viewers who saw it, saw “those people don’t want to work together.”

But of course, never discount this President’s ability to overplay his hand. President Trump recently called the Democrats’ actions at the State of the Union “treasonous”.

Treasonous. Treason is a crime punishable by death in this country.

One can reasonably call the congressional Democrats’ actions at the State of the Union a lot of things – misguided, angry, rude, foolish and juvenile. But it was not treasonous. And it is politically poisonous for this nation’s commander-in-chief to accuse them of treason. Many Democrats love this country; they just hate its leader. Ronald Reagan (who would be 107 today) would have just laughed off the Democrats’ disdain; he’d a give a wink to the voters that said “see what they’re like, the poor devils?” and the country would have laughed with him as he became even more popular.

Trump has no talent for humor, so he couldn’t do this. But he could do the next best thing, which is to keep quiet. The Democrats made a big mistake at the State of the Union. Trump should have just left it alone.

-1TF

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So, according to Yahoo News, some guy, a public health employee of Los Angeles County, delivered horse manure in a Christmas package to Steven Mnuchin’s house in Los Angeles as a protest against the tax bill. This is a quick back-of-the-envelope list of why this stunt was foolish:

1) It plays right into the idea that liberal extremists are rude exhibitionists who just don’t other, more square, people very much. Giving somebody – anybody – the digested leavings of a horse – really? Just thoughtless and unkind. And despite what the sender thought, really unfunny (see #3)

2) The letter of protest along with the manure was signed, “The American People”. It is highly presumptuous to do almost anything in the name of “The American People”. “The American People”, like any group of 300 million people, have a hard time agreeing on virtual anything of controversy. Think about it – the war in Afghanistan, single payer health insurance, nuclear power, Taylor Swift as an artist – the American people have a range of opinion on each. To claim to speak for all of them on any matter – especially one like this millions of them will lose money and millions more will get it – is an exercise in moral narcissism.

3) As I imagine the sender well knows, senior public officials get regular threats against themselves and/or their families. That’s why this letter wasn’t funny. Somebody had to figure out this package contained merely horse manure. Officials had to x-ray the thing because it could have been, and occasionally is, something more dangerous. So this package and its contents needlessly messed up the workday of some poor employee not named Steven Mnuchin (who wasn’t home and likely went on his way blissfully unaware of any security concerns).  Furthermore, it needlessly cost taxpayers money.  I figure the sender, being a public health official in Los Angeles County, would consider public funds scarce enough.  I don’t see why he thinks he has the right to make them even more so.  Unless of course, like in paragraph #2 (so to speak) – moral narcissism.

At the risk of costing the taxpayer another fifty cents, Mr. Mnuchin might want to have a short note sent to the sender to thank him for his gift and letting him know the Secretary would be using it to improve his daffodils.  Such a delicate response might be noteworthy for the presence of a little good-natured humor and its lack of Trumpian sound and fury.

Look, I’ve got a few issues with the tax bill and more with Mr. Mnuchin personally. He strikes me as a guy who was born fabulously wealthy and had his path through Goldman Sachs blazed for him by his father and older brother, so he never had to struggle or worry about finances like regular Americans. He’s not the person whom I would have chosen for Treasury Secretary. No matter. Despite what the sender might imagine, this wasn’t funny or even clever. I would be upset if this had been done to any member of any administration. It is no way to treat a public official or really, anybody.

-1TF

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Politico reported on widespread speculation on Capitol Hill that then aging and ailing senior senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran (R-MS), may retire early next year. (h/t politicalwire.com)

Should that happen, the Magnolia State’s governor, Phil Bryant, will have the responsibility of choosing a successor. This writer respectfully implores the Governor to appoint someone who won’t embarrass the state or the Republican Party. Please avoid the debacle that occurred next door. When Jeff Sessions resigned his seat in Alabama, the embattled then-governor Robert Bentley appointed the attorney general that had been investigating Mr. Bentley for ethics and law violation. How that was not investigated for obstruction of justice, I know not. That mal-appointed senator, Luther Strange, never, ever should have accepted something of value – namely the Senate seat – from the governor he was investigating. Strange managed to lose a primary to disgraced judge Roy Moore, who then managed to lose the seat to Democratic prosecutor Doug Jones. The whole thing was just a perfect storm of depravity and incompetence.

Please, Governor Bryant, should the moment present itself, choose someone who won’t embarrass your state. Choose someone who can withstand a primary challenge from anyone who would embarrass your state. Cast a wide net in your search.  Get caught looking for someone other than a white male.  I’m not saying you can’t choose a white male; the best candidate may wind up being one.  But your pool of contenders should look like the citizens of Mississippi, who last I checked, included about 1.5 million females and more than a million African-Americans.  I’m a pro-life conservative; I would hope any new senator would be as well.  But there are conservatives with whom moderates can work, and conservatives who only speak to their base and turn off everyone else.

I wish Senator Cochran good health and that he and his family have times of peace and love in the days ahead.  Meanwhile, I suspect that the Governor will have to make an important choice.  There are plenty of right-of-center, inclusive possibilities.  Choose wisely, Governor.

– 1TF

 

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Yesterday, former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell resigned his position at Harvard to protest the school’s Institute of Politics’ fellowship offer to former Army Private First Class Chelsea Manning, who as PFC Bradley Manning, was troubled by actions of military personnel in Afghanistan and thus passed along secret military information to WikiLeaks.  Late word has come down that Harvard has rescinded that disputed fellowship offer.  I think the school  belatedly made the right decision.

If Harvard is looking to have a transgender fellow for its Institute of Politics, surely the number of transgender individuals is such that Harvard can look a little harder and do better than to hire someone who gave confidential military information to WikiLeaks.  If Harvard is looking to have a Fellow with ground-level knowledge of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are literally thousands of former Marine and Army squad leaders who led troops and interacted with the native population in both peace and war – black, white, male, female, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, etc.  It’s a population large enough that if Harvard looks hard enough, it can pretty much find exactly what it wants ideologically without resorting to someone who gave away secrets.   Plus, they could offer a more granular level of knowledge of what it’s like to be front-line soldier.  Former Private First Class Manning manned a computer at an operations center; it’s relevant, but it’s not front-line knowledge.

I understand PFC Manning’s deep concerns about some ways in which the war was being conducted.  But that’s why there’s an Inspector General in each Army division.  There was a legal way to raise a red flag and it would have been well within PFC Manning’s rights and responsibility to do so.  But PFC Manning chose a path that was illegal and potentially dangerous for fellow American servicemembers.  And that’s just not okay with Director Morrell and the vast majority of American soldiers.

-1TF

 

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Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the nominations of two candidates for positions on the Federal bench. One of them, Notre Dame Law Professor Amy Coney Barrett, was grilled by Democratic members Diane Feinstein and Richard Durbin for being a faithful Catholic. Feinstein, in her best Obi-Wan Kenobi imitation, declared, “the dogma lives loudly in you.” Feinstein, whom I normally respect, displayed a disappointing narrow-mindedness regarding faithful Catholics. She continued, “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I think she’s referring to abortion and forced contraception funding. Perhaps if Barrett had been another, more “in vogue” religion, this line of questioning would be called out on the left. But Barrett’s a Catholic, so she just gracefully had to endure it.

Richard Durbin chimed in asking, “Are you an orthodox Catholic?” Sen. Durbin himself apparently attends Mass at Old St. Patrick’s, a liberal parish in Chicago, and frequently votes at odds with the Catholic hierarchy. He acted confused, saying he hadn’t heard the term “orthodox Catholic” before. That surprised me, because I’ve heard it a fair amount. I suspect he’s heard it, too. He appeared to be feeling out just how conservative Barrett was. She parried his jab by praising Pope Francis, which Durbin appreciated. She also did her best to explain, as if it were necessary, that while she is a faithful to her religion, she is also faithful to the Constitution.

The bottom line is that progressive members of the Senate see Professor Barrett as a threat. She has served as a clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, and may (or may not) be a pro-life judge. Scalia tended to hire one liberal clerk per term, thinking it sharpened his thinking. Barrett was quoted in a 2013 Notre Dame Magazine article as saying scholars on both side of debate had criticized Roe v. Wade for unecessarily igniting a political firestorm, but she also said she found it very unlikely the core finding of Roe would ever be overturned.

Even if Barrett were pro-life, as a federal circuit judge she would be obliged to follow the precedent set down in Roe. But I suspect the deep concerns and probable opposition of Feinstein, Durbin and other progressives isn’t really about Seventh Circuit. Some readers may recall the campaign to destroy Miguel Estrada’s chances of serving on the federal bench. That was because Democrats were afraid the conservative Estrada would later be nominated to the Supreme Court, and they didn’t want to fight against the possible first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. That time it worked out for them; Estrada was rejected and the honor of being the Court’s first Hispanic justice went to the more progressive Sonia Sotomayor. A similar calculus may be working here, with them trying to avoid opposing a smart and reasonable female Supreme Court nominee by stopping her at the federal level.

-1TF

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I read a rather extraordinary piece in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. It is called “Don’t bother trying to understand those on the ‘other side'”, and is written by a University of Toronto philosophy professor named Mark Kingwell.

Professor Kingwell writes:

“There is a moral baseline that Nazism is indefensible; we ought likewise to recognize that most people can’t actually be reasoned with.” I was with him about the Nazis, but that is quite a left turn in the next sentence.

More:
“The utopia of a rational public sphere is an illusion, and efforts to unearth it – in the form of core American values, Canadian tolerance or some other political chimera – fool’s errands. What we need, instead, is what social scientists call scaffolding.”

In simple forms, scaffolding means things such as air-traffic control, highway roundabouts, exit signage, and queuing conventions – small mechanisms that allow humans to co-ordinate action when their individual interests might otherwise generate chaos. … Why don’t we acknowledge that political belief is also an aspect of human behaviour in need of external control? ”

Professor Kingwell would do well to re-introduce himself to the recent work of Jonathan Haidt at New York University on Moral Foundations Theory. Haidt theorizes that there are several moral values people share – liberals and conservatives agree that fairness and compassion are important. Conservatives also value loyalty, authority and sanctity. So when a liberal makes an assertion based on fairness or compassion, a conservative often can understand from where the liberal is coming. But when a conservative tries to balance those ideas, liberals can’t understand why those other values even matter.

Mr. Kingwell, rather than make further attempts to understand the other (ie. conservative) side, instead seeks to proscribe certain kinds of speech:
“Curbs on speech and strict rules of engagement – no interruptions, no slogans, no talking points – may be the right answer here. We already, in this country, ban hateful speech. Let’s go farther and insist on discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media. We could even ban media panel discussions.”

The sheer impossibility of enforcing such rules makes this suggestion sound silly. What exactly is the penalty for interrupting anyway? There are people on the fringes of each side that don’t listen to reason. But I disagree with Professor Kingwell when he says:
“Classical liberals argue that bad speech should be met with more and better speech, that the marketplace of ideas will short bad stocks and return investment on good ones. Alas, not so.”
On the contrary, I say that most people, given a compelling message and messenger, will take opposing arguments into account. As an anonymous blogger (due to job concerns), I don’t make personal attacks. I think if you do, you should name yourself. I’m sure Professor Kingwell means well, but I found his prescription unconvincing.

He’s not completely wrong, though in that, there are things more than rational arguments sometimes. I have found people are much more receptive to a message if the person making it has led by example. This leads me to another a much more useful Globe and Mail article entitled “I was a neo-Nazi. I know the cure for hate” by Tony McAleer. In short, the answer was compassion. I think Mr. McAleer raises a strong point. He speaks that one of the reasons he joined one of those groups is because it was the first place he felt connected and appreciated by others.  It wasn’t hate that attracted him; it was acceptance.  It mirrored a recent article by a sixty-something Catholic priest in Virginia’s Arlington Diocese speaking with regret of his time with white supremacists in his (pre-seminary) early twenties. It also mirrors the reason a lot of young men of any race join street gangs. One thing I noticed about the Charlottesville marchers – a lot of them were very young. Attack their gross ideology, sure, but don’t write them off as unworthy of salvaging. Many of them are working out personal issues of which hate is a symptom, not a cause. If you want to organize large, peaceful counter-demonstrations, fine.  But I don’t see screaming and violence doing much to help. It is more productive to talk in a manner as to separate the young and impressionable from the hard-core racists. Simply calling those young people – not their actions, but them – “evil” is counterproductive. That isolation and disdain from others is what helped create them in the first place. More isolation and disdain isn’t likely to fix them. Compassion may though.  That’s one of those universal values conservatives and liberals actually agree on.

– 1TF

P.S.  Professor Kingwell raised a point I thought he was dead right on, namely his calling out those who “deliberately misinterpret” what their opponent is saying. I share his exasperation with that, if not his prescription for it.  I hope I have accurately reflected his position on these matters. If not, it’s not deliberate.

 

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