The Democratic Party has a great friend in the White House.
And before I go any further on the main point, may I jump onto the rickety soapbox of the Grammarian? To my friends on the Right, please stop saying “the Democrat Party.” It’s the Democratic Party. The shorter version stems from GOP leaders attempting to turn the party name into a petty insult. Republican candidates have been urged to use such trigger words since at least the 1940s, and “Democrat Party” was a particular favorite of Joe McCarthy. (Did you see how I worked McCarthy into this? Clever!) Let’s make a deal, if I don’t say “the Republic Party,” will you agree to stop sinning against grammar for petty political reasons, and say “the Democratic Party?” Good, I’m glad we could clear that up. Now where was I..?
As a former congressional candidate this may seem like an odd thing for me to say, but folks, you are paying way too much attention to our national government, and way too little attention to the state and local governments.
Some weeks ago I wrote on the topic of what I called “bold hypocrisy” and argued that too many of our national leaders – your own partisanship can help you decide which ones – are guilty of some pretty stunning levels of hypocrisy. And so it will likely come as no surprise, dear reader, when I state that the current administration has engaged in some of the most stunning hypocrisy since the days of Mr. Nixon.
It’s a key, not a button. That is how you launch a nuclear tipped ICBM. You turn a key.
My military career started off as a missile launch officer, one of the “finger on the button” people, except there wasn’t a button. To utterly destroy the enemy, to reduce civilization to cinders, to seal the fate of millions required the turning of a key.
Our current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been accused by some of not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Donald Trump has given the American people compelling evidence (on a number of occasions) that his mental perspicacity may not be at the high level of other occupants of the White House. He likely never even uses the word “perspicacity,” though that may be a low bar, given that I don’t either, unless my Word thesaurus suggests it.
We have just seen a week in which a Republican United States senator and our president engaged in a very strange and very public squabble, unthinkable in previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Sen. Corker from Tennessee took a swipe at the president, who promptly whipped out his phone to tweet a childish and petty attack at a senator of his own party. That senator then tweeted back a comment comparing the White House to a day care center without proper supervision.
When I awoke this Monday morning, it was my intention to write another column for Wednesday that would hopefully offer a few thoughts on political happenings or unusual events in our national or state capitols. I had no plans to write on guns. I’m a gun owner myself, as well as a former military cop. I’m also a middle-of-the-road moderate (which means here in Colorado Springs I’m often seen as a leftist; in grad school I was viewed as a right-winger), and a westerner, and I don’t usually get as excited about the gun issue as some. So, I had no plans to write on guns. Then I turned on the morning news.
Do you know the name George Santayana? I suspect not, unless you are a student of late 19th and early 20th century Spanish philosophers. Heck, I had to look him up myself, and learned that he was born in Madrid, was educated at Harvard, and died in Rome in 1952. You may not have heard of old George, but I very much suspect you heard a phrase he is credited with first uttering, something like: Those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. There are other versions, of course, but the basic thought is that if we don’t remember the lessons taught to us by our own history, we may well repeat the same mistakes.
Every American president, from Washington to Trump, has lost sleep over, complained about, and been furious with, the news media. While the language of the times has changed, presidential declamations regarding the Fourth Estate have been a constant over the years, only varying in intensity as particular POTUS outrages rose and fell.
And of course, it is no secret that President Trump finds great fault with much of the American news media. With the exception (usually) of Fox News, Mr. Trump has castigated the press corps in terms generally not seen in prior administrations, culminating with the declaration that the press is the enemy of the people. The press seems most intent on reporting those stories that Mr. Trump would most earnestly wish they did not, all the while creating what he has declared to be “fake news” with abandon.
It may not come as a shock, therefore, that the Trump administration is, according to inside sources, considering four separate but related legislative proposals that could simultaneously address his campaign promises regarding illegal aliens in the United States while also curbing what his administration considers reckless press behavior.
The first three legislative proposals, dealing with illegal aliens, has several specific proposals the president feels will simultaneously decrease the number of illegal aliens in the country, while also boosting the president’s ability to deal with the current and any future alien issues, and to keep us safe. Within these three proposed laws are provisions that would make the path to citizenship more challenging, and therefore would help ensure that only the very best immigrants are allowed to become citizens. For example, the legislation would increase from five to 14 years the period necessary for an alien to become a full U.S. citizen with full voting rights. Therefore aliens with little true interest in becoming true and good Americans would be removed, while those with the character and the quality we want, will stay for the long haul.
A second proposal would address head-on the challenge of dealing with potentially harmful aliens being allowed to live in the U.S. almost indefinitely during immigration hearings on their status. This new law would give the president the power to label aliens from countries “at war” with the United States as “enemy aliens” who could then be promptly deported. Thus a process that once took months or years could be shortened to perhaps days, while increasing the president’s power to keep us safe.
Likely the most controversial of the four proposed laws would give President Trump an important new power to deal with the “fake news” phenomena. In the 21st century, traditional news media outlets have morphed into a huge number of news operations, from social media to blogs to internet radio and more. Thus, the traditional limits placed on media in the past — largely self-regulated commitments to truth and balance — are nearly all gone. Anyone with a computer and an opinion can create the impression of being a news source with no responsibility to the truth, with nary a consequence for false and harmful reporting. Thus, today all too many “news” outlets are spreading what might be called sedition rather than beneficial information. Therefore, the final proposed law attempts to return to the news media that which is lost — a consequence for dishonesty.
The proposal would make it illegal to write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the president, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against either the hatred of the people of the United States, or to stir up sedition, or to excite unlawful combinations against the government, or to resist it, or to aid or encourage hostile designs of foreign nations.
While recognizing the importance of a free press, President Trump hopes that this new legislation will impose on the press that which it self-imposed for generations — a commitment and obligation to the truth. Clearly, he argues, the modern press cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and such a failure is far too dangerous to ignore in an era of instant communications.
Taken as a whole, with these four legislative proposals, President Trump hopes to take care of the preverbal two birds with one stone — a reduction in the number of illegal aliens while also ensuring an increase in the quality and “wholesomeness” of those immigrants allowed in, while also returning the press to an era of integrity, fairness and honesty.
So what do you think? Sound good?
I am guessing, gentle reader, that as you read the previous paragraphs you found yourself either in agreement that the time has come to get tough on the issues of illegal aliens and press sedition, or you were concerned that these proposed laws were not the answer. And perhaps, as you perused, you heard an echo from the past?
I hope so, because, of course, there are no such proposed laws. The Trump administration has most certainly shown a distain for the press, and the president did, in fact, once tweet that the press was the enemy of the American people. So it almost makes a bit of sense that these “new” laws might be considered by those at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is something that seems fitting in these laws and our president’s point of view.
These laws are not, however, new. They come from one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history. The four laws I described above are what were known as the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” These laws, passed by the Congress and signed by President Adams, sought to reduce the influence of Thomas Jefferson’s political wing, and those that admired the French. The Acts were purely a political power grab — an effort to keep the Federalists in power while keeping Mr. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans at bay. Some 14 individuals would be charged under the Acts and a couple ended up in jail, before common sense prevailed. Since that time, our nation has accepted that we want immigrants (though, of course, within a proper legal framework) to come to our nation, and we definitely don’t want any one person, a president or other, to have the power to declare by fiat a person to be an enemy of the state. And it is most certainly an American value that criticism of the government is a deeply protected right.
But in this hyper-partisan time, when disagreement is often declaimed to be un-American, I worry that some readers might have supported the powers I proposed to give President Trump in the 21st Century. Making it harder to become a citizen and making it easier to punish “bad” media members might sound appealing to those who feel themselves oppressed. But please consider the implications to your own freedom should those you oppose achieve high office while vested with such powers.
It is normal and proper to become frustrated with the media, be you the POTUS or a fry cook. But please consider carefully the full implications of any reductions in press freedom. Mr. Putin, an authoritarian leader with powers comparable to those described above, may claim a popular mandate, but without a free press one can never truly know. Our current president has, in my view, far too often expressed an admiration if not an affinity for Putin. I find this very troubling, and I urge the reader to consider the implications of a US President with such powers.
While the alien and sedition acts might seem a fitting tool for 2017 to some, I hope to most it offers a moment of pause and a deep reflection on the implications of too-powerful a president. The echoes of history can teach us a great deal. A clear lesson would seem to be that freedom is the value most worth defending. And without a free press we may be only a few steps away from a Putin in the White House.
I can only think of one candidate for the U.S. Congress I ever agreed with on nearly every issue. And it was me, during my own run for the House in 2008, here in Colorado District 5. And even then, I’d have second thoughts as I got new information. I’d re-evaluate what I thought was best for the people of CD-5 and Colorado. I committed to, if elected, working very hard to represent my constituents properly.
Of course, therein lies the rub – what does it mean to properly represent the people? Some people will say that true representation is when you do what the people want you to do. Others disagree, and assert that you should do what you think is in the best interest of the people, even if that leads to a decision that is politically unpopular at the moment. Which is correct?
When I taught political science at the Air Force Academy, I would talk to the cadets about the “delegate vs. steward” models of representation. The delegate model says that the elected official is to be just that – a delegate who simply votes in the way the people who elected him or her want. Government by popular opinion. Makes sense, right? Simple!
But the steward model says that, once elected, you are exposed to more and better information about the details of the issues. Therefore, you should vote in the peoples’ best interest, even if that is a momentarily unpopular position. The argument goes like this – you follow your doctor’s guidance when you are sick because you assume that your doctor has more information than you do about your illness, and that he or she is better positioned to tell you what to do, even if the medicine tastes bad. So, if you elected your senator or member of Congress, you presumably sent that person to D.C. to do a deep-dive into the issues so that they can make an informed decision – one that you presumably would have made, had you the time and information available to you. So, act as a steward of the public trust. Makes sense, right? Simple!
So which is correct? I used to tell my students that if they were ever stuck for an answer to a question from me in class, the odds were pretty good that if they said “Sir, that depends” they’d have a better than average chance of being correct. Because in politics, lots of things depend. We like the delegate model when we know exactly what we want our elected representative to do. Heck, we pay their salaries! So vote like I want you to vote! It’s so simple!
Unless, of course, it depends. Because some issues (cough… health care…cough) are famously complicated and a too-simplistic evaluation can lead to a bad decision and bad policy. Just as you want your doctor to have extensive knowledge of obscure health challenges, we want our representatives to also have extensive knowledge of policy issues. What should be our policy toward Saudi Arabia? Toward Israel? On climate change? Heck, on which bridges to fix first? How about nukes? Do you want to deploy nuclear weapons on the basis of deep and insightful thought by, say, 30-year defense expert Sen. John McCain, or should we use your gut feeling? I say we need experts to do deep-dives into the subject and come back with a vote that is in our best interest. We need a steward. Mostly. Usually. Except when we don’t.
During both my own run for Congress, and the four years I spent as a Senate staffer, working on thousands of military and veteran cases I often saw the challenge of delegate vs. steward representation. I took calls from hundreds of Coloradans demanding that my boss vote a particular way on a particular issue because the correct course of action was “obvious.” Of course, about half the callers disagreed with the other half on what was the obvious solution.
In class, the “delegate vs steward model” was a useful tool to help teach the concept of representation. In the real world, every elected official bumps up against the implications of the model every day. So which is correct? As I said, both and neither. There are issues wherein the representative will usually vote in line with the perceived will of the people back home. These tend to be the “simpler” things, such as the bills now racing through Congress for hurricane relief. But the more complex issues will nearly always lead to a difficult decision for the representative. Do you vote the way the people want you to today, or do you vote in what you believe is their long-term best interests, even if it ticks off folks back home at the moment?
I believe, based on my own personal experience, that most elected representatives are good and honorable people, at all levels of government, doing the very best job they can do. There are exceptions, but most are good folks. And I particularly admire those who take the unpopular stand because they feel it is the right thing to do in the long run, even when there might be more immediate electoral consequences. In my old Senate boss’s first campaign, he was asked about a vote he might be asked to take, and would he still favor the bill if he knew it would cost him the election. He said yes, and he meant it. I think we need more of that courage. We need more stewards when being a delegate would be easier. And we need more voters who take the time to become better informed on the issues, and who therefore understand how rarely issues are just black or white, especially in the long term. Because that’s where, to borrow a phrase from a terrible old movie, we will spend our lives – in the future.
So, after 1,021 words, I argue for our elected representatives to vote more often with their minds than on their poll numbers. But, remember that I lost my election, to a gentleman who seems far more tilted toward the delegate model. Perhaps that’s the lesson? I rather hope not.