Sunday, June 25, 2017

No mas

Bloomberg throws in the towel



So much for the good fight, Mayor Bloom's retreat is the equivalent of giving up after 7 rounds in what one hoped would be a long fight.  Of course, the former New York mayor appears to have tentatively announced his own run for President in 2020 in the process, but who will support a guy who now says, "Let's just hope that Donald Trump is a good president of the United States?"

The funny thing is that the Russia investigation is finally starting to heat up.  The President was forced to admit that meddling took place, but in typical Trumpian fashion passed the blame off on Obama for not having responded sooner.  In fact, the Obama administration announced several times during the campaign that Russian hacking and meddling had taken place, but the media was too caught up in the many personal scandals surrounding Trump to care.  As a result, Russian hacking was relegated to the back pages.  Now, it seems Trump and his accomplices are actually starting to worry.

This is the time to turn up the heat, not "sit back" and wait four years to see how all this shakes out.  Of course, Mayor Bloom supported the rights of others to continue their protests, but he seems to believe it is a lost cause.  "The public has spoken," apparently in reference to the recent House special elections in which Republicans successfully defended all their seats.

If anyone thought Bloomberg was going to be their champion against Trump they were sadly mistaken.  Like Trump, he's only looking after his own self-interests here despite putting on a big show regarding the Paris Climate Agreement, in which he vowed to cover America's dues.  One wonders if the former mayor will still honor his pledge?

So, what gives?  Did Trump threaten a nasty tax audit or find some other way to twist Mayor Bloom's arm into submission?  Or, maybe Donald just threatened to sit on him?

Donald has long claimed to have the dirt on everyone, having once threatened the Ricketts family on the campaign trail.  He not only got the Chicago Cubs owners to cease and desist in their campaign against him but to support him in the general election.  Will we now see Bloomberg invited to the White House to take part in Trump's economic forums, sitting next to Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos?  It's truly amazing how Trump has all these billionaires eating out of his hand.

My guess is that they are sniffing rough times ahead and are looking for whatever tax breaks they can get out of Washington.  It was only a matter of time before we faced another recession and with Trump that will come sooner rather than later.  He's done nothing to spur the economy or anything else of note in his first 150 days, despite his tweets to the contrary.  Rather than stand up to him, our billionaire class is caving in.  Content to ride out the storm with all their major personal assets safely hidden away in offshore accounts.

The rest of us will have to go through Hurricane Donald as we went through Hurricane George nine years ago.  We should know by now that our elected leaders never learn from their mistakes, repeating them ad nauseam.

Even more nauseous is having Bloomberg lecture to us on The View that we should work together with a guy who clearly doesn't have the better interests of this country at heart.  Trump has shown that time and again.  I can only hope that Democrats won't be as sanguine as Mayor Bloom or we just might be forced to ride out this storm for eight instead of four years.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

District 6




It is understandable that the Democrats saw a ray of hope in this Georgia district after Hillary nearly took it in the 2016 Presidential election (47-48 per cent).   It is a traditionally red district that looks like it is shifting demographically, even though Tom Price handily won re-election as US representative.  All they had to do was find someone who would secure the Democratic vote, and maybe take 5 per cent of the disgruntled Republican vote.

Enter Jon Ossoff, a guy no one outside of his circle of friends had ever heard of.  He is young, charismatic, articulate, although some saw that as a fault.  He very nearly took the election in the first round of voting with 48 per cent.  The Republicans had no less than six candidates to fill Price's shoes and they split the remaining 52 per cent of the vote.

Karen Handel emerged from the conservative heap to be the GOP representative.  She is the mirror opposite of Ossoff in every way, relying solely on the Republican political machine to carry her to victory.  Ossoff raised an unprecedented amount of cash during the campaign because Democrats across the country rallied behind him, pouring over $20 million of contributions into his coffers.  The GOP belittled these efforts, claiming Ossoff wasn't representing Georgia but rather California, attaching him to Pelosi in the same way Democrats attached Handel to Trump.

Unfortunately, the second round shook out the same as the first round, with Handel getting all 51.9 per cent of the conservative vote.  Ossoff remained at 48.1 per cent, despite a much higher turnout which had raised expectations of an upset in the making.

This election will be sliced and diced for the next several weeks, especially now that Pelosi is under fire for having gone 0-4 in special elections to fill vacant House seats.  Granted, these were all deeply red districts, but surely the Dems could have knocked off one Republican given how poorly Trump's administration is doing.

You would never know it to hear Trump.  He thinks he single-handedly won the day for Republicans with his election-day tweets.  For him it was another great victory for the Trump brand!  Yet, it was precisely his vulnerability in this district that Democrats were hoping to exploit.

The only thing that made this election close was that Karen Handel was "charismatically-challenged," as Bob Dornan once said of the 1996 Presidential field.  Like Trump, she was an awful candidate, but conservative voters would sooner accept one of their own than they would a rank liberal outsider who didn't even live in District 6.

I'm not sure if Ossoff chose to run on his own volition or if he was put up to it by Democratic strategists.  He has a fine political pedigree, having interned for John Lewis and spent five years as a national security aide to Hank Johnson, Democratic representative from Georgia's fourth district, where he lives.   He also produced a documentary for BBC Three exposing the atrocities committed by IS in Iraq.

Ossoff grew up in District 6, which made him eligible to run as its representative, but from the beginning he was portrayed as an outsider, beholden to national Democratic interests and not local interests.

Oddly enough, Karen Handel was seen as closer to District 6 roots, despite having grown up in Washington, DC, and Maryland, and serving as deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle, whose husband Dan was Vice-President of the United States.  Karen eventually settled in the Atlanta area, serving as Georgia Secretary of State.  She immediately decided to purge voter rolls, which led to voter suppression allegations from the ACLU and other organizations.  No matter, Republicans were determined to secure their power base.

She's one of these groomed candidates, like Sarah Palin, put up by conservative political action committees to fill seats where they need them.  Karen has far more experience than Sarah, who rose from mayor of Wasilla to governor of Alaska virtually overnight, but nevertheless Karen really has no idea what being a US representative entails.

Of course, the bar for serving in Congress has been lowered considerably over the years to look at this rogues' gallery.  It no longer seems to matter how much experience you bring to the table.  What's most important is that you fit the new conservative profile.  Much is made of how Ossoff raised far more money on the campaign trail than Handel, but she clearly had the advantage when it came to Super PACs.  Neither would have gotten where they were without outside money.

Republicans complain that much of Ossoff's contributions came from outside the state.  Yet, there wasn't this outcry when Arizona Sheriff Arpaio raised over $12 million for his re-election bid last year, most of which was outside money.  When a local or state election becomes politically important, the playing field expands and Republicans know that as well as anyone.

The big problem here is that the Democrats lost after having invested so much money and effort in getting young Jon Ossoff elected.  It doesn't matter that the Republicans had to call in its heavy hitters and resort to terrible scare tactics to fend off the challenge in what was considered a safe district for them.  Close only counts in hand grenades and horse shoes.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The White Rabbit




It feels like we are following the white rabbit in Trump, as we slide deeper into an alternative version of reality that changes from one day to the next.  An "unpresidented" amount of innuendo and misinformation spews from the White House, largely through his never ending stream of tweets, which he regards as his way to skirt the "dishonest media."

There are a few polls and news sources he likes.  Rasmussen is generally favorable to him, currently giving him a 50 per cent approval rating, which he boasted on twitter as "great news."  I suppose when you spend so much time in the red, it's a boost to see a daily tracking poll give you an uptick.  The bounce appears to come from the way he handled the Shootout in Alexandria, which got favorable press almost across the board.  Even Stephen Colbert paused to thank Trump for his appropriate response.

Yet, His Trumpness wasted no time undermining this moment of unity by tweeting his anger over finding himself now under investigation for obstruction.  Something that would have probably been ignored by the press for a few more days had he not immediately called attention to it.

I was listening to political scientist Michael Genovese on CNN this morning.  He commented on the degree to which Trump calls attention to himself in his tweets.  Whether consciously or otherwise, he is distracting himself from his duties of office.  All this self-pity comes across as "un-presidential," not to mention narcissistic.  It opens him up to allegations and investigations that probably wouldn't have taken place if he could only keep his tiny little fingers off his cell phone.

It's become a serious problem, as the investigation is not so much into his possible collusion with Russia as it his attempt to obstruct justice with the many threats he has issued in the Oval Office and on Twitter.  A few weeks back he hinted that he had taped his conversations with James Comey, and now Congress is considering a subpoena to force him to admit whether he actually did so.  Naturally, our dear president is now saying he was only joking.

More and more the joke is on him, as was presented in an audio tape from "Down Under" where Australian PM Turnbull was cracking quite a few jokes at Trump's expense.  One can only imagine what the next phone conversation between Trump and Turnbull will sound like.

In the meantime, Trump delivered on his pledge to Cuban-Americans to tighten the grip on Castro's Cuba once again.  The recent executive order serves to remind us that whenever in doubt repeal another Obama executive order.

Like so many of his executive orders, it is self-defeating.  After more than five decades, President Obama finally acknowledged that the embargo had failed and reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba, with the hope Congress would repeal the Helms-Burton Act in its next session.  It was a measure many Republicans lauded, including Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford and other Congressional members who joined Obama on his trip to Havana.  With the flourish of his Cross Century II black lacquer pen, Trump has once again showed how terribly insecure he is in the White House.

So who is this "White Rabbit?"  Is he there simply to distract us from far more pernicious measures soon to appear from the bowels of Congress, or is this just the kind of game he likes to play so that he can see himself in the news 24/7?

Trump appears to go by the adage that any news is good news as long as the focus is on him.  He relishes these twitter wars, considering it his political wrestling ring.  He rounded off his 86.7 million followers on social media to 100 million, I guess so that Katy Perry wouldn't have any edge on him, although Katy's following is on Twitter alone.  With Trump you have to add together every outlet from Snapchat to Youtube to Facebook to Twitter to come up with a number in the same ballpark.  Safe to say many of them are duplicates. This tells you a lot about our POTUS, who gauges his popularity by what he presumes to be his fan club.

Fact of the matter is that anyone can follow Trump and many do so just to troll him, given some of the responses he gets on Twitter.  Everyone from J.K. Rowling to former WH photographer Pete Souza trolls Trump on social media, usually to devastating effect.  No matter, as far as Trump is concerned it all adds to his subscriber list, which is why I have assiduously avoided addressing Trump directly.  It's bad enough I still get White House e-mails, which I have since relegated to the spam box.

The guy is so thin-skinned yet seems to exhibit no shame, which is a pretty hard thing to pull off.  You would think that a man of his wealth and stature would be above 10-year old bullying on social media, but obviously not.  As you recall, Melania promised to ayberbullying as first lady.  She can start with her husband.  I'm sure his WH staff and personal lawyers would greatly appreciate it.

In the meantime, we just keep following the white rabbit, even if he appears to have no particular time table.  For Trump everyday is his Unbirthday!  Of course, the best "unbirthday gift" of all would be to finally see him held accountable for his actions.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Guns, politicians and anti-vaxxers




America is in such a state of denial it is hard to know where to begin, but I'll start with a little fray I had on facebook with an American friend living in Sweden over vaccines.  Like me, he is an expatriate, but has isolated himself in some remote part of the country, living the spiritual life he longed dreamed of.

He likes to post anti-vaccine memes on facebook.  One of his favorite news bites is of the Amish living just fine without vaccines and any other ties to the pernicious world around them.   Yet, the Amish aren't so secluded.  In fact, their children attend local schools, and many parents have their kids vaccinated.  However, the vaccination rate is low in some of these Amish counties, which is why there was a measles outbreak in Knox County, Ohio, in 2014. 

Back in 1996, Andrew Wakefield published an article in a medical journal linking the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella) to eight cases of autism.  The highly specious article was quickly debunked, but these types of stories have a long after-life, fueling more stories on the Internet, which have led many parents, not just Amish parents, to question vaccines and the MMR vaccine in particular.

The story probably would have died had not Donald Trump picked it up on the campaign trail.  Back in September, 2015, he linked vaccines to autism in a rambling answer to a question posed by Jake Tapper at an early Republican presidential debate.  However, my friend in Sweden is also an anti-Trumper, so it seems this issue cuts across political lines.  For some, it is part of a homeopathic need to do away with big Pharma all together, and vaccines are linked to Big Pharma.  Trump hasn't let the issue go, selecting none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head a "vaccine safety commission." 

When I pressed my friend on this, he said his biggest concern is the high mercury level in vaccines.  So, I did a little research and found that pharmaceutical companies use Thimerosal, which contains trace amounts of ethylmercury, as a preservative in vaccines.  They have been doing so for decades.  The CDC says that the level is so low that it is eliminated very quickly.  But, it has been ingrained in our heads that any level of mercury is too much, and so the mere thought of it being in a vaccine is enough to frighten parents.  As a result, the CDC recommended that Thimerosal be taken out of vaccines in 2001.  Those companies that kept it as a preservative were required to label their vaccines accordingly.

End of argument?  No.  Like so many questionable claims they persist, and it is hard to get them out of your head no matter how much information is presented to the contrary.  

The same can be said for the gun control debate.  No amount of information is going to convince "the second amendment people," as Trump referred to gun rights activists on the campaign trail, that there is a real danger in the country.  It isn't so much the amount of firearms in circulation that is the problem as it is the open-carry and stand-your-ground laws that have been passed in so many states.  Guns are now on full display, making it that much harder to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.

One would like to think that the Shootout in Alexandria might turn some people's heads, but conservatives are woe to admit guns are the issue here, but rather a man deluded by liberal ideology who took his anger out on Republican legislators at a softball practice game.  One of those shot was Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who is responsible for getting votes on House bills.  You, might remember that Frank Underwood started out as a Whip on House on Cards.

Surprisingly, no talk that Scalise's staunch defense of the American Health Care Act, which threatens to cut 23 million persons off health insurance might drive a 66-year old man over the edge.  Instead, everyone from Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama is being blamed for having inspired James Hodgkinson to "go postal."  

Conservatives rarely are willing to admit any culpability in such incidents, which is what makes it surprising that Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, said that Trump is partially to blame for the shooting because of the high level of hateful rhetoric that came out of his campaign.  One of the most hateful presences in Trump's campaign, Ted Nugent, has apparently took pause from the incident and says he is no longer going to incite hate.  This is a guy who once threatened to kill both Obama and Hillary Clinton at a rock concert.  

Like so-called Conservatives, so-called Liberals come in all stripes.  The interesting part to me is how the two ends of the spectrum seem to circle back on each other, making our political views a closed loop.  Some issues are harder to define politically than others.  Vaccines seem to be one.  By contrast, gun control appears to break along strong political lines.  Sadly, neither is very easy to resolve.

Many parents still insist on throwing caution to the wind by refusing vaccines for their children, committed in their belief that Big Pharma is putting all sorts of unhealthy things into them, or worse there is some X-Files conspiracy here.  With guns, it is more a misplaced sense of our historical right to bear arms that drives "the second amendment people," twisting the Bill of Rights into a personal issue.  Either way, politicians have learned to exploit these deeply emotional issues for their gain, until something like the shootout in Alexandria happens.

I suppose Republicans thought themselves immune from such violence, as previously it had been directed largely at Democrats, Gabby Giffords being the most high-profile case.  Fortunately, Scalise like Giffords will live.  Whether his views change remains to be seen, although unlikely.  The most frustrating part is how hard it is to have a rational conversation on such subjects without it devolving into bellicose rhetoric, which is why I don't expect Ted Nugent to hold his tongue as promised, or my American friend in Sweden for that matter.  It's just the way we are.


Thursday, June 15, 2017



The "Ugly American," has become synonymous with the uncouth American traveler who makes no effort to integrate into a country he is traveling through.  Rather, he puts his chauvinistic attitudes on full display, like this man at a Shanghai airport recently.  Fortunately, it seems that more Americans try to be respectful when traveling abroad.

However, this isn't what William Lederer and Eugene Burdick were writing about in the mid 1950s.  They were appalled by the poor attitudes of American embassies in Asian countries, whose ambassadors seemed to have no idea what was going on around them.   The 1955 novel was based on their own experiences, as summed up in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan.  The Ugly American in this case isn't an uncouth traveler, but rather a homely, hard-working man who sees an opportunity to do good in a country that has only seen the worst side of the United States.

Homer Atkins is a millionaire engineer, who tries to initiate projects that actually help people, and some felt he was the progenitor for the Peace Corps.  Apparently, Kennedy spread numerous copies of the book among his staff, hoping to create a similar proactive environment with his state department.  Eventually, this led to the Peace Corps.

From his description, Homer sounds more like a modern-day Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, using his millions to spread relief around the world, counter-acting the policies of his own government. We also see a similar case where Michael Bloomberg has offered $15 million to continue to pay our dues in the Paris Climate Agreement in spite of the current presidential administration's decision to pull out of the landmark agreement.

One assumes Lederer and Burdick would be proud their book had such a profound impact on American foreign policy.  Many ambassadors now take the trouble to learn the language of the country they serve in, as do members of their embassies.  The US Embassy in Vilnius is actively involved in promoting programs to improve the education system in Lithuania at the local level, picking up where the Peace Corps left off in 2002.

Still, there is a lot to question in the way the State Department distributes and manages aid around the world.  USAID has often come under fire for its dubious practices.  A lot depends on the administration in the White House.

I'm looking forward to receiving my copy of the book and hope that we can generate a discussion.  In the meantime, I've checked out the 1963 movie based on the book, with Marlon Brando and Pat Hingle as the main characters, Ambassador MacWhite an Homer Atkins.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Shattered!




Many saw Trump taking out Jeb Bush in the early days of the primaries as beginner's luck.  One by one the others went down in this Hungry for Power Games, including rising star Marco Rubio,  GOP bad boy Ted Cruz, and even a last ditch appeal to reason in Governor John Kasich.  They all proved no match for the Donald.  In the end, he took out 16 Republican rivals!

Maybe this is the reason Republican leaders aren't willing to go after him on Capitol Hill.  Even John McCain, who suffered an inordinate amount of abuse from Trump on the campaign trail despite not running himself, seemed lost in his questions to James Comey.  He conflated two separate investigations seemingly for no other reason than to drag Hillary Clinton once again into this mess.   Even Mackie's Republican colleagues appeared confused and eventually Chairman Burr brought his abstruse line of questioning to an end with a gavel.

There are two separate theories as to why the Republicans are so reticent to go after Trump, who has repeatedly shown he has no respect for the Grand Old Party.  One is that his reality-show-style presidency provides a great cover for them to push through ugly legislation in Congress, like the so-called American Health Care Act.  The other is that they are genuinely afraid of the potential chaos an impeachment trial would bring, as it could potentially undermine the entire party.  After all, there are many in the GOP who went along with him during the campaign, including Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who continue to give him every benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the case, Trump continues to enjoy all the executive privileges that come with being Commander-in-Chief.   To this point, we have been relatively lucky in that he doesn't seem to understand the full magnitude of his authority, repeatedly sidetracked by his insatiable need to tweet.  Even in regard to the Comey testimony, he couldn't leave well enough alone, saying he is 100% willing to testify about his nine separate interactions with James Comey, claiming that the former FBI director is a liar and a leaker.  I'm sure his third-rate lawyer had to gasp when he heard the President blurt this out during a press conference with the Romanian president.

Trump apparently had a hard time finding a lawyer willing to act as his private legal counsel in this investigation.  Some say he was rejected by no less than four top Washington law firms before finally retaining Marc Kasowitz of New York.  Kasowitz has a rather dubious set of clients, but I suppose at this point beggars can't be choosy.  The statement Kasowitz prepared following Comey's testimony was riddled with typos and wrong dates that essentially rendered it nonsense.  He also seemed to have a poor grasp of what executive privilege entails, as Comey was perfectly within his rights to reveal the nature of his conversations with Trump as long as they didn't compromise ongoing investigations.

Maybe Trump has been watching House of Cards where President Francis Underwood finally decides to testify in penultimate episode before Congress only to use the moment to admonish the judicial committee as being just as guilty as he is for abuse of power?  It would certainly make for great theater, but I doubt Congress wants to give Trump an open mic at this point.

It is clear that Trump is not going to be quiet on the matter.  He thrives on confrontation.  The press has been gleefully waiting for this moment to watch Trump punch, or rather tweet himself out of another tight corner.  We saw how he survived a slough of allegations during the primaries and general election.  The danger here is that if he survives, what will be left of our government?  He left an election cycle in total ruin.

The odd part is that Republicans don't seem to care, at least not publicly.  We hear there is a lot of anxiety behind the scenes but Ryan and McConnell put on pretty good poker faces when asked about Trump at press conferences.   So, either they have some sort of exit strategy or taking down the government has been the plan all along.

It really makes you wonder how deep this Russian collusion might be.  Did they sell the GOP soul to the devil in a last ditch hope of turning an election that seemed lost the day Trump descended the escalator?  Or, do they see Russia as a conservative ally in their fight against the Liberal Hegemon Europe has become, hoping to go back to a more conservative world order which they better understand?  Or, have conservatives shrunk so far into themselves that they would rather live in some tarnished past than confront the ever-changing political landscape of the world we live in.  Whatever, the case, the United States is looking a whole lot like the United Kingdom after World War II, seeing its global influence recede with Russia helping to expedite this process.

The irony of all this is that Trump repeatedly said the US had lost its global authority.  The world laughed at us, he would often jibe the Obama administration.  Yet, here we are now literally the laughing stock of the world.  Whether or not some collusion took place between Russia and conservative agents in America, the damage is done.   We showed ourselves to be extremely vulnerable to outside influence.  We allowed fake news stories to carry more weight than real news stories to the point a false equivalence was established between two candidates who couldn't have been further apart politically, ethically or morally.   Trump emerged as the Post-Truth President, where a political candidate could literally get away with saying anything and no longer be held accountable for his words, let alone his actions.

Maybe this is why James Comey didn't trust Trump when he first met him at Trump Tower during the transition period, leading him to keep a journal of their unprecedented number of conversations?   President-Elect Trump was no different than Candidate Trump, a man who curries favors in exchange for loyalty the same way a seedy real estate developer would.   Only now Trump is trying to peddle influence on a much larger scale, considering himself above the law.

Of course, the former FBI director is no boy scout as we saw with the way he undermined Hillary's campaign at the 11th hour by briefly re-opening the investigation into her e-mail server.  Maybe this is what poor Mackie was trying to get to, but couldn't quite figure out the line of questioning?   After all, this was presumably the original reason why Comey was fired.

It is becoming ever more doubtful we will ever understand what actually happened on the Campaign Trail 2016.  There appears to have been many conflicting forces at work and that Russia has become a convenient fall guy.  In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, our faith in democracy has been shattered and that there is little hope of getting it back.