It’s easy to get discouraged with the political scene, and we focused on a rash of negative developments in last weeks entry. Time’s running out for the 115th Congress, 12/17/18.
Meanwhile, the leaders of this country’s political/business/academic/media establishment are pursuing their own self-serving agendas while telling everyone else not to worry because everything is under control. Ship of Fools, Tucker Carlson, 2018.
Carlson seems to place all the onus on elitists who run the country and have aligned themselves in opposition to Trump, e.g., the eight figures (apparently caricatures of Maxine Waters, Bill Kristol, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham , Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton and Jeff Bezos) shown in a picture on the front jacket, crowded into a tiny craft that is on the brink of going over the falls.
Well good, serves them right, except if the ship of state goes over the falls so will the rest of us. It behooves us to pay attention to what’s going on, therefore, and sound off if we disapprove – as SAFE has been doing since 1996.
Recognition is also appropriate when political and thought leaders do things right, and this week’s entry will consider some actions on the positive side of the ledger. Enjoy!
A. Build that wall – We reported on the developing impasse over border wall funding last week. Congressional Democrats seemed determined to block a $5 billion request for border wall funding, offering only a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the departments that hadn’t already been funded for FY 2019 running. Congressional Republicans seemed ready to go along. The president wasn’t happy, but many observers doubted he would force a partial government shutdown during the holiday season. Time’s running out, op. cit.
At the proverbial last minute, the president announced that he would not sign any funding legislation that didn’t include money for a border wall (or other physical barriers). He further urged the House to pass a bill meeting his specifications, which was belatedly done. House passes $5.7 billion for Trump’s proposed border wall, Ryan Saavedra. Dailywire.com, 12/20/18.
The House bill was blocked in the Senate, triggering a partial government shutdown (representing 25% of discretionary spending) that began at midnight on December 21 and will remain in effect until the two sides resolve the issue. Meanwhile, a messaging war is raging as to which side is to blame for this state of affairs. Federal shutdown begins, Lisa Mascaro et al., apnews.com, 12/22/18.
In our view, the leaders on both sides misplayed their hands.
The president repeatedly said border wall funding was imperative, but he (1) acquiesced in one delay after another, and (2) kept sending mixed messages as to how he would react if Congress didn’t meet his demands.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell promised the issue would be resolved to the president’s satisfaction, but it always seemed that action should be deferred until some later point in the legislative calendar. Was their real intent to “yes” the president to death while sabotaging his position?
Democratic congressional leaders expressed adamant opposition to border wall funding, but they had advocated similar expenditures in prior years and offered no convincing arguments for changing their position now. Given the enormous sums spent by the government for other purposes, the claim that this proposal was “too expensive” seemed laughable. Could it be that they were against border wall funding simply because the president wanted it?
As for who does deserve credit for taking a principled stand on this issue, our vote would be for the conservative legislators and commentators who feared the president was about to break his “build that wall” promise and collectively declared that caving on this issue was not an option. Kudos to Rep. Jim Jordan & Mark Meadows of the House Freedom Caucus, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and many more for making the point clear. Trump’s last chance for a wall, Michael Reagan, townhall.com, 12/22/18. Now's [the president’s] time to put up or shut up. If he doesn't stand his ground now against Pelosi and Schumer, and if he doesn't get serious funding for the wall, his political base will say goodbye.
Determination matters in politics, and when issues arise that can’t readily be compromised they should be debated on the merits – cutting through the procedural niceties and phony talking points. Hopefully, that’s finally going to happen re border security, and if it does the shutdown will definitely have been worth it.
B. First Step Act – For all the talk about partisan gridlock, Congress does pass significant legislation from time to time. And two major bills got enacted last week, even as a partial government shutdown was brewing over border wall funding.
One of the measures was the “farm bill,” a mammoth ($867 billion over 5 years) spending package for the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (better known as food stamps) and a host of agricultural subsidies, etc. After provisions passed by the House to expand work requirements for certain food stamp recipients had been deleted in the Senate, the amended farm bill sailed through both houses of Congress and was signed into law. Government business as usual, nothing to celebrate here!
Then there was the First Step Act (S. 756) dealing with federal prison reform, which represented genuinely remedial legislation.
One of the leading FSA proponents was Jared Kushner (a senior White House adviser and Ivanka Trump’s husband), who had been working behind the scenes on this project for nearly two years - his interest reportedly sparked by personal experience. Inside Jared Kushner’s personal crusade to reform America’s prisons, Jordyn Phelps, abcnews.com, 4/8/18. Kushner’s drive was born from first-hand experience with the federal prison system when his father, Charles Kushner, spent a year behind bars in 2005 for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions. Kushner, 25 years-old at the time, found himself thrust into the role of leading his family’s business, and frequently traveling to visit his father at a federal penitentiary in Montgomery, Alabama on the weekends. More than a decade later, people close to the younger Kushner say he sees now it as his God-given responsibility to use his position and influence to affect change.
The aim of the legislation was to reduce the population of federal prisons without freeing violent criminals, while implementing programs intended to reduce repeat offenses. These were goals to which liberals and conservatives alike could relate. The FSA passed both the House and Senate by lopsided bipartisan majorities and it was enthusiastically signed by the president. Remarks by the president at a signing ceremony, 12/21/18.
Actually, remarks by the president is a bit off because the president gave many people a chance to chime in – including both conservatives and liberals. For example, here’s part of what leftist A. K. Van Jones had to say:
In a country that is a democracy, we have the right to disagree. *** And when we disagree on immigration, on foreign policy, climate change, we should fight hard. But we have a responsibility, where we do agree, to work together hard. And the freedom of people who are trapped in a broken system, the freedom of people who are trapped in addiction, the freedom of people who are trapped in poverty — those are the people that your Opportunity Zones are targeted at, your opioid policy is targeted at, and your criminal justice policy is targeted at. And when you’re trying to help people on the bottom, sir, I will work with or against any Democrat, with or against any Republican, because there is nothing more important than freedom. So thank you, sir.
And then there was conservative Sen. Mike Lee, whose words bordered on the poetic:
It’s almost hard for me to speak about this without being emotional. In the process of this — this has brought together friendships that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I’m now texting buddies with Van Jones — (laughter) — with Dick Durbin and with Cory Booker. And I speak to Jared Kushner about five times a day. In the middle of dinner, when my phone rings, my family says to me, “It’s Jared, isn’t it?” (laughter)
I sat across from the Resolute Desk from [you] a few months ago, Mr. President, with a few of my colleagues. I was here with Senator Scott, and Grassley, and Graham, and Jared Kushner was there. And as they asked me to explain the bill — what we had in mind — at one moment, I tapped, for emphasis, gently on the Resolute Desk — this great historic masterpiece. And to my astonishment, it echoed. It was loud. I thought all of the sudden that the Secret Service was going to come in and arrest me. But it made a loud noise.
The First Step Act wasn’t endorsed by everyone, and it remains to be seen how its provisions will work in practice. But from where we sit, this looks like a tangible demonstration of the progress that can be made in DC when the players set valid goals and pursue them in a reasonable way.
C. Mattis resignation – Many people were surprised when the president abruptly announced that ISIS had been defeated and he planned to pull US troops (currently some 2,000) out of Syria. Perhaps Defense Secretary James Mattis had been tipped off earlier, but in any case he submitted a letter of resignation to the president on the following day (to be effective on February 28).
We won’t attempt to discuss the merits of keeping US troops in Syria versus withdrawal, let alone delving into the president’s apparent decision to slash US troop levels in Afghanistan. Withdrawal involves major risks in both cases, but there are also risks (and costs) of keeping US troops in these countries indefinitely without a clearly understood goal.
The president made these decisions without consulting with his military advisers, possibly because he had discussed troop withdrawals with said advisers before and wasn’t looking to be talked out of them again. The immediate impetus for the Syria decision was said to be a telephone conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey. Trump call with Turkish leader led to US pullout from Syria, Matthew Lee & Susannah George, apnews.com, 12/21/18.
Secretary Mattis was generally considered a first rate defense secretary, and there has been no shortage of commentary about how much he will be missed. Jim Mattis’ resignation is a terrible loss to America and our allies, Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner, 12/20/18.
So where’s the bright side in this situation? We’re impressed by the manner in which Secretary Mattis conducted himself after concluding that he and the president could no longer work together. Unlike some other government officials that come to mind, he didn’t brood over the decisions that had been made, leak embarrassing information, or criticize the president behind his back. He probably isn’t writing a “tell all” book either, or at least one to be published in the near future.
Instead, Secretary Mattis went to the White House and presented the president with a dignified and thoughtful resignation letter. Syria wasn’t mentioned, only the value of US alliances – no recriminations or regrets – two refences to the president (see below). Foxnews.com, 12/20/18.
•Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world.
•Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these [value of alliances] and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.
Regrettably, the president wasn't willing to let Mattis have the last word and lashed out at him in a tweet. Trump rips Mattis, McGurk after resignations, Ben Wolfgang, Washington Times, 12/23/18.
When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis [from his position as the commander of US Central Command in 2013], I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should. Interesting relationship-but I also gave all of the resources that he never really had. Allies are very important — but not when they take advantage of U.S.
More defensibly, the president has announced a temporary replacement for Mattis (Patrick Shanahan, currently the deputy secretary) and accelerated the change date to Jan. 1. Trump pushes Mattis out early, names new defense secretary, newsmax.com, 12/23/18.
Although Secretary Mattis earned the nickname of “Mad Dog Mattis” during his Marine Corps career, he came across as personally unassuming, energetic, and highly intelligent. We’ll miss him. Semper fi!