Monday, June 22, 2020

134 Days--On 3Quarks.

By Michael Liss

Had enough of the 2020 election? Take heart, there are just 134 days left until Vote-If-You-Can Tuesday. That’s less time than it took Napoleon to march his Grande Armée into Russia, win several lightning victories, stall out, and then retreat through the brutal winter, with astronomical casualties, all the while inspiring the equally long War and Peace and the 1812 Overture.

Who will win? My renowned tea leaf collection seems a little wilted today, but it still says that absolutely nothing is out of the realm of possibility. We really could go anywhere from a 2016 redux to a Democratic sweep. Given the vintage nature of the two candidates, you can’t even rule out a variation on the West Wing Leo McGarry scenario. Expect the asymmetric.

Under any circumstances, the electoral math would have been fascinating. Conventional wisdom has always been focused on the six Obama 2012 states that Trump flipped in 2016 (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Iowa). A key portion of the “Biden Electability” argument was based on his presumed appeal in those states. They would be the battleground because that’s where the winner would be determined.

It’s fair to say that fate, in the form of a pandemic and the country’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, has taken a hand. There are now multiple pathways for each man to reach 270, including several really unusual routes. The recent polling for Trump has been brutal. His top-line favorability numbers have taken a hit, particularly in the areas of race relations and handling COVID-19. That’s been further reflected in the horse race, where Biden has a roughly ten-point lead nationally.

Of course, 2016 showed in excruciating detail just how national polls can be woefully inaccurate in predicting where the Electoral College will end up. It’s reasonable to expect that past is prologue for even greater Democratic margins in places like New York and California, given the way Trump revels in messing with the Blue States. Unfortunately for Joe, once again, when you dig down deeper, you can see that many of the critical state polls are less decisive than the national ones. Joe leads, sometimes somewhat improbably (North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia) but often barely. He’s within the margin of error in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and could easily whiff on all three. A 2.1% advantage in the popular vote left Hillary’s candidacy in smoldering ruins. I’ve seen some estimates that Biden could have as much as a 4% advantage, and still lose. 

Still, in an environment where Trump’s base support is nearly unshakable, Biden’s edge is notable. The prospect of his holding here, or even running the table, is not completely out of the question, just long odds. Biden’s absolute peak might exceed Obama’s 2008 win (365 EV) with a slightly different mix. The more probable outcome is that present polling numbers are truly of the moment, and that moment is the nadir of Trump’s fortunes. If that’s true, not only does Trump have the ability to grab back some of “his” states, but also can target at least two Biden ones. Both Minnesota (with added volatility because of George Floyd) and Nevada (casino-dependent and hurt by the shutdown) are possibilities.

If this all weren’t so incredibly important, it would be abstractly fascinating. For years, political scientists have been talking about how virtually every election has become nationalized, even when voters, in selecting their team, seem to be voting against their own interests. Consensus is out, angry tribalism is in. 2016, with its Trump-Clinton car-wreck of the unthinkable vs. the unlikeable, was the culmination of this movement. Never have a pair of candidates been so detested by so many—yet nominated.

2020 was shaping up to be much the same. Although none of the potential Democatic contenders generated nearly the visceral reaction that Hillary did, Trump was already peppering them with insults, and Trump-aligned social media spreading some poison. Suffice to say three-plus years in the White House had done nothing to mellow him. A great many people thought Trump would be a moderate businessman who would break some eggs, but in the end govern center-right. They were wrong. Vote Trump, you get deep dark dead-red Republican, with a potent dose of malevolence. That’s who he (now) is, and there are tens of millions who find that appealing. There are plenty more who would have liked the policy wins wrapped in a prettier package, but think what’s in the box looks good. When we talk about Trump’s base, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just MAGA-hatted attendees at one of his jumbo rallies or the near-monolithic support he gets from Evangelicals, but also transactional voters like seniors who want order and business people who let the bottom line guide them. A key to understanding Trump’s appeal is that he also gives, he doesn’t just take, and those who get don’t often refuse out of principle.

As long as these folks find their fulfillment (for emotional or practical reasons) in Trump, he has nationalized the election to an extent not seen before. You are either in the Trump Tent (and that includes Republican candidates for other offices) or you are the enemy. It’s all Trump: Trump dominating the screen(s), Trump meting out pain and pleasure, Trump using his incumbency for all it’s worth. That’s what Democrats anticipated as they lurched their way through the primary season. That, along with the confounding fact that, despite their strong performance in the 2018 Midterms, there was plenty of evidence that Trump’s strength in the states he had flipped in 2016 was holding.

Biden’s astonishing resurrection after the South Carolina primary on February 29th altered the emotional dynamic, but did little to change the basic math. It was still Trump’s game (and Trump’s Senate to investigate Biden on Trump’s behalf). While Biden was perceived as more electable by Democratic Primary voters, I think Trump and his brain trust entered mid-March with a feeling of confidence. Joe was feeble and battle-scarred, and they relished the idea of pulverizing another artifact of the Obama Era. They didn’t realize they were sitting on a viral stew (actually, two, the other being George Floyd) that could fundamentally change the landscape in the blink of an eye.
Trump was about to be tested by an issue no amount of Trumpiness would make go away.

Sometimes, there really are those 3:00 a.m. phone calls. I’m going to make two suggestions that seem mutually exclusive but I believe are true. First, Trump fumbled terribly in his initial response to COVID. He blustered, pointed fingers, suggested it was a hoax, picked fights with Governors, and obstructed his own government from helping. Second, it doesn’t matter, at least politically.  At worst it’s a flesh-wound for his campaign. A lot of elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, didn’t quite grasp the threat early on, and, while most of them didn’t use a bazooka on their critics, I think the public has internalized Trump’s excesses and are rarely moved by them. By the time we reach November, most aren’t going to blame him for March, April and May.

What will be important is what happens over the next 133 days, where it happens, and when. Absolutely no one can tell you with any degree of certainty what infection and fatality rates are going to be next month, much less in November. Nor can they predict whether more effective treatments or a vaccine will become available. The best that the best and most experienced minds can do is talk about probabilities.

Trump is going to have to rely on his extraordinary luck. One thing we learned from the initial public reaction to news of the virus and government attempts (or non-attempts) to get in front of it was how site-specific it was. Philip Klinkner, in an article for Vox, pointed out that “Clinton counties make up a slight majority of the US population, but so far they have seen 76 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 80 percent of the deaths.” He goes on to say, “This means Democrats and Republicans have experienced the pandemic in objectively different ways. These differences are already shaping the nation’s pandemic response—and may well influence American politics for years to come.”

Klinkner’s article was published on May 1st, and he was prescient. The divide continued to grow as new data came in, showing that the greatest infection and fatality rates were in Blue States and among the elderly and minorities. Trump’s base remained remote from the crisis, except in reacting to remediation efforts. Their resentment at restrictions and the economic implications, stoked by the President and his allies in the media, intensified. Even recent spikes in infection rates in reopening Sunbelt states haven’t yet caused universal alarm in the places they should, or action. These hands-off choices represent gambles by Governors like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Doug Ducey (Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona) that the number of the seriously ill will stay below the rest of the population’s pain threshold.

Their gamble is Trump’s gamble. If he wins it, not only will he regain his grasp on some of those wavering states, but he will also put some others, presently in Democratic hands, in play for himself and other Republican candidates. The public in general has consistently supported reasonable restrictions to blunt the curve of the disease, but its patience is not infinite. People want to get back to the lives they led in early March. Trump (and Trump-supporting Governors) are telling them they can.

Timing is critical. First, Trump wants things to loosen up enough to force Biden to abandon his McKinley-esqe “Front-Porch Candidacy,” which allows Joe to husband his physical resources for the home stretch. Biden’s measured, Presidential responses, on COVID, on George Floyd, and on anything else, either in public, or from his home, are driving Trump nuts. He wants Biden to step into the (non-virtual) ring, and has been ridiculing him for his weakness. So far, Biden hasn’t taken the bait, but he will have to if conditions improve. Both his team and Trump realize his vulnerability.

Second, Trump wants to recreate 2016. He craves the adrenaline of rallies filled with mask-less people waving banners and cheering themselves silly. Trump is a master of branding and symbols, and for him, the most important quality to showcase is strength. His gathering in Tulsa just this past Saturday was a critical test. Watch the next two weeks. If he and his followers can get through it with no significant spikes in infection rates, that opens the door for more rallies, and more grievances against “weak” Governors and Mayors who insist on putting public health concerns first. If infections surge, it will be more bad PR, but Trump will try again in July somewhere else. He’s not giving up his rallies, especially as it would be seen as a concession. Trump doesn’t do concessions. 

How does this end? Which side will have a hangover on the Wednesday after? It’s unclear.  Biden is doing a little rope-a-dope, and it’s working for him, at least now. As to Trump, he’s a bit off his game, but still punching, still the apex predator. The basic Trumpian approach to everything, taking credit while refusing to accept responsibility, spiced up with what you saw in Tulsa, remains adaptable to the current situation. More importantly, Trump can also still reach transactional voters: he has a plausible argument that (unduly harsh) restrictions tanked the economy, and it’s his pro-growth policies that will lead us back. He might even get some help from the weather, as the summer heat is predicted to slow the virus.

134 days is a lot of time to get things right. Or it’s too many.  Of course, Napoleon eventually
abandoned the Grande Armée and returned home on a sleigh. It was awfully cold out there.

134 Days was first published at on June 22, 2020

You can also find us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, May 25, 2020

Liberty and Disunion

There is a statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park. It is tucked in at the intersection of West and Bethesda Drives, massive and unmoving, implacable and forbidding. Despite its size, it goes largely unnoticed, except as a meeting point.

Just a few hundred feet to the west of Webster is The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died, and Strawberry Fields, a small memorial inside the Park dedicated to Lennon’s memory. In non-viral times, buses line up near The Dakota, and platoons of tourists pause there for pictures, then walk to Strawberry Fields, then across to Bethesda Fountain. If you happen to be jogging, they will wait until you pass, many with bemused looks at the strange beings who inhabit this odd corner of the universe. Occasionally, a guided tour will take brief note of Webster, but most move on. Such is fame.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Daniel Webster was seen as a giant, one of the foremost statesmen of the first half of the 19th Century. He, along with Kentucky’s Henry Clay and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, were known as the Great Triumvirate of the Senate. All three also served as Secretary of State; all three ached for the Presidency and never quite got there; all three were antagonists, rivals, and sometimes collaborators. Clay was the Great Compromiser. Of Calhoun, the historian Richard Hofstadter said he was “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.” Webster was an orator so esteemed that Stephen Vincent Benét had him besting the Devil himself. 

These qualities all came together in one of the most fascinating and consequential debates in our history, South Carolina’s drive for Nullification, and, eventually, its assertion that it had the right to leave the Union. William F. Freehling called it a “Prelude to Civil War” (in a book of the same title) and, in its issues and its sectional animosities, one can see why. It certainly had high drama—florid speeches, torchlight parades, marching and mass rallies, dueling, armed militias drilling, and the glowering presence of the biggest personality of all, Andrew Jackson.

For all that, it started small. In 1816, the national government adopted tariffs that were intended to protect domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. At the time, it made sense. We were still a new nation, slowly recovering from the War of 1812, needing to support a military, domestic industry, and basic improvements. Yet, tariffs were controversial, particularly in the South. Though facially non-discriminatory, they did have an adverse impact on non-diversified agriculturally-based economies, while benefiting (mostly Northern) manufacturers. South Carolina, perhaps the most extreme example of a monoculture economy, and faced with an erratic market for its crops and steady degradation of its lands, was particularly vulnerable and justifiably concerned.

If Congress had left the 1816 Tariff unchanged, it’s likely the anger would have continued, but on a slow burn. Unfortunately, Congress wasn’t done. The Tariff of 1828 (“Tariff of Abominations”) exacerbated the problem, rather than offer legislative relief. It passed with minimal resistance, probably because the South had much bigger concerns: The rematch between the decidedly unloved John Quincy Adams and Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson. 

Adams’ election in 1824 had shaken the South. All were aware that demographic changes had tilted the Congressional playing field towards the North, but, after 24 years of the Presidency being held by Virginians (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), 1824 reminded them of their vulnerability. Virginians might be a little high-handed at times, but were comparatively safe. New Englanders were arrogant and boorish money-grubbers who held dangerous views on things like human bondage, and might use their power to take swipes at it.

Jackson decisively defeated Adams, but the Tariff was still there, and many South Carolinians wanted it gone. So did Calhoun, who was playing a difficult double game. As first Adams’ and then Jackson’s Vice President, it was difficult for him to advocate policies at direct variance with the President’s. And as someone who hungered for the top spot, it might have been political suicide to take too radical a position in public. In 1828, while the campaign was going on, he had secretly authored his “Exposition and Protest,” which quite explicitly called for nullification of the Tariff, in the context of making a much broader philosophical argument for what we now would call (very) limited government. But that remained a secret, and, in public, he maintained a moderate, more nationalistic face.

Nullification was a challenging concept, but Calhoun was an extraordinarily gifted thinker.  Even skipping some of the intricacies of his arguments, the underpinnings remain resonant, at a time when so many of us are questioning the exercise of government power. Calhoun worried about majority domination in a republican form of government. Invariably, in Calhoun’s thinking, once a group (or aligned groups) gained power, they would exploit their position to reward themselves at the expense of the minority.  Obviously, Calhoun wasn’t the first to recognize this; the Founders themselves had concerns. But experience had told him that the aspirational virtue expressed in Madison’s Federalist 10—a conviction that diversity of interests and opinions would create a dynamic that would foster compromise—had not been achieved.

The answer to Majority Tyranny was either nullification or what Calhoun called a “concurrent majority,” requiring each interest (each state) to consent to legislation. To modern eyes, it seems wildly impractical,  but, at a time when the world was far less complex, and many people thought of themselves as state citizens as well, it had some appeal. 

Yet, there was a core incongruity in Calhoun’s argument, which even he tacitly acknowledged: If you considered the Constitution a contract (as many citizens did, in the Lockean sense of the word), didn’t the states (including South Carolina, the eighth state to ratify) agree on behalf of themselves and their citizens to be bound by laws that were passed by Congress and signed by the President? The Tariff might very well be abominable, but it’s a law, and if you don’t like the law, use the mechanisms in place (such as Amendment or Supreme Court review) to change it.

Calhoun had an exquisitely wrought answer for this: That wasn’t the nature of the contract. The Constitution did not give final “sovereign” authority to determine what was Constitutional to any branch or branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Final authority would have had to have been specifically expressed as such in the document, and it was not. In the absence of an enumerated power, the authority remained with the states, and not as a majority of states, but each individual one. Calhoun considered several approaches, but settled on an elegant one: It is the people—the governed–who are the supreme arbiters over that to which they have given their consent. Consent once given is not consent for all time. The governed may withhold their consent and seek to change the terms of the contract (or any piece of legislation) when they wish, through the mechanism of a state convention. This was the way citizens preserved their rights.

Calhoun was somewhat clairvoyant in his concerns. He grasped that the power to determine, with finality, whether a law is Constitutional, was also a power to shape the law itself. Even the Supreme Court could be controlled by a malevolent majority. This is why, from his perspective, ultimate sovereignty must reside with the governed.

What Calhoun did not address adequately was the practical effect of Nullification. The power to say no turned majoritarianism on its head—to maintain a Union, the many must always yield to the few. While Calhoun professed to be a Nationalist (whether for political reasons or out of belief is not clear) he was, in fact, advocating for a policy that made it impossible for a union of states to be anything more than a casual confederation. 

As radical as this idea seems, it first gave strength to the Unionists in South Carolina by supplying them with an intellectual construct for their position. That allowed them to beat back the radicals who wanted more aggressive action (like secession). But it also contained the seeds of its own destruction because of its inherent instability. Nullification wasn’t reform; it was, in practice, a call for revolution from 50 years of government under the Constitution. Even those sympathetic to South Carolina on the specific issue of Tariffs (or, both tacitly and explicitly, slavery) recognized that there was no national consensus for it.

Discussion in Congress was heated, and, in late December 1829, Senator Samuel Foot (CT) lit a match by introducing a resolution calling for an inquiry into limiting the sale of public lands in what was then the Southwest. Over the course of the next few months, nearly half the Senators weighed in, several multiple times, and on many more issues than land. The speeches became public spectacles; the galleries were filled; and, as an added touch of drama, Calhoun attended in his (then) role as Vice President and President of the Senate. The emotional climax was the debate between Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Webster. Hayne gave a good account of himself but stumbled a bit on nullification when he declared that the state legislature, rather than a state convention, could nullify a Federal law. Webster pounced. On January 26, 1830, he rose and, over two days, carefully dissected the internal inconsistencies of Haynes’s argument. Then Daniel Webster did a Daniel Webster:
When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union…Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured…but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land…Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!
The gallery, the entire Chamber, stayed silent as Webster resumed his seat. He had accomplished an extraordinary feat. With one burst of eloquence, he had yanked the discussion from Calhoun’s astringent intellectualism into something deeper and more emotional, a pride of place and country. Nullification was a coldblooded political tactic. Webster drew people to a higher calling.

Webster’s speech might have been a turning point, but, in hindsight, you can see he may also have accelerated the crisis. On February 5, 1830, George McDuffie, a South Carolina Congressman (and later Senator and Governor), introduced a bill to roll back the 1828 and 1824 rates. It was tabled by a decisive margin, demonstrating anew the futility of South Carolina’s hopes to get Congressional redress. A month of debate had moved its cause backwards, and some who hoped to work through the system now began to despair that more aggressive action was needed.

At the same time, relations between Calhoun and Jackson deteriorated. On April 13, 1830, at the annual Jefferson Day celebration, several toasts were made that supported the minority veto. Jackson would have none of it, and came armed with his own. He bade the crowd rise, fixed his fierce gaze on Calhoun, and toasted “Our Federal Union—It must be preserved.”  Calhoun, clearly shaken, was only able to offer “The Union—Next to our liberties, the most dear.”

The Nullifiers had boxed themselves in. The radicalness of their proposal and the intemperate language with which they often expressed themselves alienated others in the South who might otherwise have been sympathetic. Jackson himself was a moderate on the Tariff issue and urged his allies to make some accommodation, but both he and the South Carolinians must have realized that the contest was no longer just about collecting duties, it was about power, theirs, and his.

With nowhere else to go, the South Carolinians turned on each other, with the Nullifiers and the Unionists in pitched battle for control. The Unionists’ early upper hand evaporated as passions rose, and the Nullifiers’ superior organizational skills began to have an effect. In the summer of 1831, the pressure on Calhoun to out himself was finally too much to resist, and he issued his Fort Hill Letter, announcing to the nation his support of Nullification. Historians differ over whether this was an implicit acknowledgment that his presidential aspirations weren’t succeeding, or an attempt to be seen as a regional champion and win the White House that way. In either event, it drove a final wedge between him and both Jackson and Jackson’s supporters. Calhoun ceased being a national candidate.

On October 26, 1832, the State Legislature, now dominated by Nullifiers, passed a law authorizing a State Convention to be held a month later, to consider actions proper for the State to address in the absence of satisfactory progress. The Convention met in November, after Jackson had won reelection, and with no meaningful resistance from the Unionists (many of whom boycotted it), passed a sweeping resolution. After reciting a list of grievances, the resolution declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void and made it a penal offense for a federal or state officer to attempt to enforce them after Feb. 1, 1833. The Legislature was directed to pass any laws necessary to effectuate this, and to protect a citizen if he refused to pay duties. Any attempt by the federal government to enforce the laws would be considered a justification for South Carolina to secede. Governor Hamilton and the Legislature made sure that wasn’t the end of it. In a barnburner of a speech, he reinforced the idea of secession, and called for an army of at least 12,000 men. The Legislature passed the necessary enabling legislation and added something of its own: a “Test Oath” of exclusive obedience to state laws for all state officeholders (a remarkable demand given the Nullifiers’ complaints about majority tyranny at the federal level).

The Fire-eaters were exultant. They thought of the signing of the new ordinances as akin to that of the Declaration of Independence. Robert Hayne resigned from the Senate and was promptly elected Governor, and Calhoun resigned as Vice President and was selected to be his replacement. Hayne’s first speech exceeded Hamilton’s in passion and radicalism, and, by all accounts, many of his listeners were swept away by his fervor.

Perhaps this was the highwater mark. Reality began to close in very rapidly. The expressions of support that were expected from their fellow Southerners were notably absent, and several state governments were quite critical. And there was that man in the White House, who was not known to appreciate resistance.

Jackson didn’t wait long to react. Quietly, he gave orders for the military to prepare, while taking steps to minimize direct engagement so as to avoid the possibility of an inadvertent shooting war. Publicly, he gave his Annual Message to Congress, declaring that Nullification would endanger the Union, and expressing confidence that extant laws were sufficient for him to deal with it, but also encouraging Congress to review the Tariff laws and lower existing rates.

If South Carolina drew any comfort from this, he dispelled it quickly. On December 10th, Jackson took on Nullification and Secession with all the forcefulness and clarity of purpose for which he was known. In his Nullification Proclamation (largely written by Secretary of State Edward Livingston), he said,
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
In case anyone thought his views on secession were any more nuanced: “[D]isunion, by armed force, is TREASON.”

The issue could not be more clearly drawn. To Jackson, his duty was clear, as was his understanding of the Constitutional “contract.” Once a law was duly enacted, the remedies available were through Constitutional Amendment or a ruling by the Supreme Court, not Nullification. But, the Nullification Proclamation wasn’t just a closed fist. If you read it through, you will also see Jackson appealing to South Carolinians’ sense of shared nationhood and their place as both heroes of the past and beneficiaries of a great American future.

January of 1833 was a blur of action. South Carolina speechified and planned, recruited and drilled. Jackson let it be known that he was willing to take command personally, to squelch the rebellion. Both sides wooed the undeclared Southern States, and both knew that the first one to commit a violent act could cause those states to tip in the opposite direction. In Washington, Jackson grimly prepared for the worst, but quietly looked for a less confrontational resolution. 

Delicate, difficult, but not impossible, and, at this critical moment, Jackson showed remarkable balance. The stick was his own iron will, and his request to Congress to give him additional authority in what came to be known as the “Force Bill.” The carrot: He encouraged the introduction of a Tariff reform bill.

Into the middle of this jumped Henry Clay, recently thoroughly thrashed by Jackson in the 1832 election. Clay was no fan of the President, and opposed the Force Bill, but relished the opportunity to be peacemaker, and privately worked with both sides, including directly with Calhoun. Calhoun played a public role as well, in a two-day performance ardently arguing against the Force Bill and for what had become his obsession, the logic of state sovereignty.  Then Webster rose to challenge Calhoun, defended the Force Bill and the compromise Tariff, and the circle closed. Deals were made, the Compromise of 1833 was set, and, on March 2, 1833, Jackson signed both the Force Bill and the Tariff Reform Bill, and South Carolina obliquely accepted it by pretending some of it didn’t quite exist. All the players congratulated themselves on their victories.

Happy ending? Calhoun maintained his allegiance to his theories, and was known to expostulate at great length to anyone within earshot. Clay found himself defined by his opposition to Jackson, but remained in the Senate, eventually becoming a Whig. He tried three more times for the Presidency, winning the nomination once more, in 1844, only to lose the general election to John Tyler. As for Webster, he ran for President in 1836, but ended up a fringe candidate. Later he was a credible Secretary of State, then returned to the Senate and worked with Clay on the Compromise of 1850. In a final irony, he was considered far too friendly to the South and lost political support closer to home.

South Carolina? The fire never went entirely out, and, if you think about it, the tension between Majority rule and Minority rights can never be fully resolved. All we can do is try to act in good faith, and, by doing so, engender trust.  It does seem like a thin reed at times.

Liberty and Disunion was first published on Memorial Day, May 25th, 2020 at

You can find it there, and other original work by Michael Liss.

And you can find and me on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, April 27, 2020

Biden's Binders: We Select a Veep-On 3Q

By Michael Liss

That Fifties-looking gent to your right is John J. Sparkman (D-Alabama) who was Adlai Stevenson’sSouthern Manifesto, in emphatic opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education.
running mate in 1952. Sparkman served in Congress for more than 40 years, the last 32 of them in the Senate. While not a star, he was associated with several pieces of important legislation and became Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and, late in his career, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a committed segregationist and, in 1956, signed the Southern Manifesto, in opposition to Brown vs, Board of Education

Not the best look in what was then an evolving Democratic Party, and the party bosses who made the decisions in those days knew it. When it became time for Ike to crush Stevenson again, Sparkman was replaced by Tennessee’s more liberal Estes Kefauver, who did not sign the Southern Manifesto. Sparkman remained in the Senate, where he served for 23 more years.

This scary-looking guy to your left is John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who, during a truly extraordinary career that included being a Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War, also managed to sneak in two terms as Vice President under two very different Presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. You are going to hear a lot over the next few weeks about “chemistry” between Joe Biden and his running mate. Suffice it to say that John C. Calhoun never had chemistry with anyone, except perhaps of the combustible kind. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Calhoun disagreed constantly, particularly on the enforcement of federal laws that South Carolina found not to its liking (including the juicily named “Tariff of Abominations”), which led Mr. Calhoun to resign the Vice Presidency during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

I bring you these little worm-eaten chestnuts as an appetizer before today’s entrée, the coming vetting of either the next Vice President of the United States, or the next footnote to history. Sparkman’s and Calhoun’s experiences came to mind when it was announced that this is the week when Joe Biden’s team starts seriously thumbing through his binders of women. Since I have written kindly about Joe in the past, I thought he’d appreciate the input. Mr. Vice President, give me a call.

Who are these women? Here, in no particular order, are names that have been floated, bandied about, speculated on, trial-ballooned, and obsessed over: Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Ambassador Susan Rice, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, Congresswoman Val Demings, Nevada Senator Katherine Cortes Masto, Wisconsin’s Senator Tammy Baldwin, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and primary opponents Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris. Biden has also said nice things about the two New Hampshire Senators, Jean Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.

All of them have strengths and weaknesses, but the most obvious past-is-prologue observation we can make is that even the best Vice Presidential choices are usually not difference-makers. It’s still about the top of the ticket, and Trump is still Trump, still selling a knowledge-free adrenaline-filled lifestyle brand to his still uber-loyal customers. Biden, on the other hand, is Mr. Kumbaya, a healer who also offers the radical idea that expertise and competence belong in the White House.

Of course, there won’t be any good vibes (or competence) unless Joe wins, and, in what is likely to be a brutal cage match with absolutely no rules, that is not going to be easy. Since he can’t out-glitz the Glitz King, he will look to improve his chances in a more conventional manner: Pick a running-mate who offers one or more of (a) youth and energy (please, no Tim Kaine duller-than-dull types), (b) can step into the Presidency if the need arises (and be a standard bearer in 2024), (c) offer a leg up with an important constituency, and (d) maybe (although history really doesn’t bear this out) give an advantage in a couple of critical states. Simple, right?

Trump himself did that (in a Trumpian way) in 2016. Having absolute confidence in his own abilities to run everything, he picked Mike Pence for his connection with the Evangelical community, and, more importantly, with megachurch pastors who were in the business of being faith leaders. Trump saw a demographic he could swallow whole, despite his sybaritic personal history. Pence was the vehicle able to put meat on Trump’s message, which basically came down to “I’m the sinner who is going to give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.” Of all the promises Trump has made, this is the one he’s kept, probably because it’s the easiest—it takes nothing at all from him personally, and he gets his most loyal bloc. The Pence selection was a masterstroke.

Which of the potential Democratic nominees will produce the greatest marginal gain? That’s for Biden’s braintrust to figure out. But there is also a more subtle calculation that has to go on: With whom can Biden generate some chemistry? The ticket is not a marriage of equals. Presidents have vast power. Vice Presidents attend funerals and ribbon-cuttings, along with the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate. The Framers themselves placed so little importance on the position that, until the adoption of the 25th Amendment, there was no mechanism for replacing a Vice President, and no fewer than 16 vacancies went unfilled, several for years.

Because of this, the Vice-Presidential candidate must walk a tightrope between deference and establishing her own bona fides. Most successful pairings resolve this through the construct of ticket-balancing, giving both defined roles so they can play their parts without stepping on each other’s toes. Ike-Nixon and Reagan-Bush I (uniting both wings of the GOP), Bush II-Cheney and Obama-Biden (linking a younger, more charismatic candidate with age and experience) and JFK-LBJ (covering all the bases, including regional preferences and religious differences) are all good examples. The most notable exception to that is Clinton-Gore, but Clinton’s pick sent a calculated message that was right for the moment—after 12 years of conservative government led by senior citizens it was time for generational change. (I’ll never be able to get “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” out of my head.)

All of those tickets had one thing in common which won’t be applicable to Biden: The President was the star; the Vice President the character actor. JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were all generational political talents. Joe Biden is not. This could make him unusually vulnerable to the “Too Much Voltage at the Bottom of the Ticket” problem, when the voters pine for the Veep more than they do the person in the top spot. This happened to McCain with Palin (until she self-destructed), and to an extent with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, John Kerry and John Edwards, and even Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.

Enough of the appetizer, time to get to the meal.

The New Hampshire Contingent: Realistically, there is no chance that either Jean Shaheen or Maggie Hassan will be selected. Whatever their stature, their seats would be filled by the (loyal) Republican Governor, Chris Sununu. With the Senate possibly in play, and Mitch McConnell taking the institution to new lows on a regular basis, regaining the majority is essential. While it’s not impossible that Joe would risk a Senate seat for some nominees, I don’t think he will for either of them.

Val Demmings: Her star rose during the House Impeachment hearings, but I think she’s overhyped if people are putting her on the short list. She’s an African-American former police chief who will drive Trump’s base bonkers, but with only three years of experience at the national level, it’s hard to argue she’d be ready. I don’t know how you risk an unknown at a time like this.

Those were the easy ones, now it gets harder.

Susan Rice: My initial reaction was, “no chance,” given that her nomination would cause Senate Republicans to writhe with feigned indignation and restart the Show Trials on Benghazi (Part 83). But Rice is accomplished and credible (and African-American if Biden thinks that’s important). This is a serious person who is more than capable of handling the Presidency, but I still think it’s a long shot.

Michelle Lujan Grisham and Catherine Cortez Masto are really interesting choices. Both are Latinas, and selecting one would be an acknowledgment of the growing impact of the Latino vote, particularly in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Beyond that, both are able, popular in their home states and credible candidates. I’d rate Masto a bit ahead of Grisham. She has state and national experience: two terms as Attorney General before her election to the Senate. Joe also might need her. Nevada could be a difficult place this year for Democrats, depending on how the COVID-19 situation plays out. The Governor, Steve Sisolak, is a Democrat, and he’s getting slammed for the economic drain from any stay-at-home orders in a state where leisure and gaming industries (and their enormously deep pockets) play such a big role. Grisham and Masto are my dark horses.

Stacey Abrams has some star appeal, she’s very smart, very assertive, could help motivate the African-American vote, and, theoretically could put Georgia in play. But her biggest drawbacks are that she’s never won any election beyond the state legislature, and she lacks higher-level experience. Competence is on the table after a chaotic first term of Trump, particularly in light of his COVID-19 response. Experience doesn’t confer competence, but lack of it might be seen as a fatal flaw. I’m going to go against the grain on this one and say no. At this moment in time, she’s not the right pick.

The Tammys, Duckworth and Baldwin. They have different profiles. Duckworth is from Illinois, and, if the Democrats have to fight for that state, then Trump is waltzing towards reelection. Duckworth’s personal story is compelling; Purple Heart winner (double amputee) and first incumbent Senator to give birth while in office, but she hasn’t really been a star electorally. I don’t know if she adds enough. Baldwin is interesting: Wisconsin is going to be a bloodbath, regardless of the nominee, and if she can help deliver it, that could be crucial. She’s also gay, and that creates an interesting dynamic in an election in which social issues are going to be one of the drivers of Trump’s base. I like Baldwin more than Duckworth: she’s more Progressive than Duckworth (and that might be important to Sanders and Warren supporters) and she also comes across with more gravitas. The risk to a Baldwin nomination is putting the Wisconsin Senate seat at risk in a special election (don’t forget, the other Wisconsin Senator is the thoroughly unappealing Ron Johnson).

Keep your eye on Gretchen Whitmer. Look at the treatment she’s getting—a sustained assault by Trump, by Trump-friendly bots, by right-wing media, by “throngs” of “spontaneous demonstrators” spontaneously funded by dark money and all being given almost leering coverage by Fox and other Trump-affiliated networks. Whitmer has lived a political life—she comes from a political family and spent 14 years in the state legislature before becoming Governor, so she’s used to the public eye. She’s telegenic; she’s smart; she’s tough; and she’s exactly the type of woman with whom Trump cannot cope. But she’s going to be put through a meat grinder the likes of which few people could manage, and she’s making some mistakes. I like her potential (and taking back Michigan would be a huge get for Biden), but she’s a high-risk, high-reward pick.

The Almosts: Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris
Intuitively, you would think that Presidential nominees would look to select a former rival, given that they’ve all been vetted. That’s actually not been true recently. Since 1960, only LBJ, Bush I and Edwards were actually runners-up, and only Biden himself was an early dropout. Some of this may have been because of a clash of egos, but Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report made an interesting observation that Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris, given their failures in the primaries, have already demonstrated their lack of firepower. Still, all three will get serious consideration.

Elizabeth Warren likely won’t be the nominee, although she may stay on the short list for some time. Not only is there a problem with the loss of her seat (Charlie Baker, a Republican, is Governor of Massachusetts), but she showed some troubling vulnerabilities in the later stages of her campaign. She seemed to have lost her bearings, and her spat with Bernie won’t help. She’s also a little vintage—spritely, but still in her 70s. She will be 75 in 2024, and one wonders whether America, after one angry septuagenarian followed by a kindly-but-somewhat dotty one, will really want a third, regardless of her vigor. Warren has another act left in her, but I’m not sure this is it.

Amy Klobuchar rings a lot of bells. She’s Midwest when Biden is going to need every possible advantage there. She’s got a hidden asset in her daughter, who is a terrific surrogate. She’s genuinely experienced (first elected to the Senate in 2006), and she’s good on her feet. She stayed in the race long enough to make an impression, but not so long as to feel stale, and she didn’t strafe Biden when she was in. I don’t necessarily think she’s a soaring political talent, but this is a safe, solid pick for Biden.

Kamala Harris: Also smart, tough, telegenic, with a real (if controversial) record of accomplishment. She did a very shrewd thing with her early exit, sparing herself a lot of fruitless bruising. She does have some issues—there are stories that her campaign was poorly managed, although that would seem to be less relevant in the Veep slot, and she took after Biden on the race issue in their first debate, which might make for some awkward questions. A lot of people think she has the best chance, but I have some concerns. I wonder if the chemistry will be right between them. Harris has a prosecutor’s demeanor that may not play off well against Biden’s gauzier appeal.

I want to close with a different thought. There are at least half a dozen women on this list who would make fine running mates and creditable Presidents. They aren’t the problem. Joe is, and not just because of his age, but because of his caution. Biden is offering a return to civic duty and communitarianism as a cure for what ails us, but where are the innovative ideas about improving people’s lives? There is a tremendous amount of talent in this country, just waiting to be used. Trump has no use for any of it. Joe Biden ought to. He and his running mate can be a conduit to that talent, and, in the process, transform his candidacy, and Presidency, from a mere caretaker to truly transitional.

The Presidency is a gift and an opportunity. It’s up to Biden and his running mate (and potential successor) to tell us what they intend to do with both. They need to start thinking about tomorrow.

Biden's Binders: We Select a Veep first appeared on on April 27th, 2020

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Sitzfleisch And A Movie In The Time Of Plague-On 3Q
by Michael Liss

I am one of those people who cannot sit still. I wasn’t good at it as a child, and as the decades pass, every indication is that I will never be good at it. I suspect I inherited this from my father, who lacked a single iota of Sitzfleisch, and have passed on the gene to one of my children (no need to name names here, she knows who she is and who to blame.)
I did fully disclose this to my wife before we were married, not that she needed to be told. She hangs in there, with occasional  moments of thoroughly merited exasperation. Weekdays tend to take care of themselves, as we both work fairly long hours. Weekends, on the other hand, can be problematic, so I’m fairly sure she likes it when I leave to go running in the park with my group. As I’m not the greyhound I used to be, this can take quite a bit of time, especially when you add in a stop on the way back for some empty calories. Before you know it, it’s almost Noon. Sitzfleisch problem solved, at least until 1:30.
Of course, this was all before Coronavirus, all before I was deemed “non-essential” and even officially old. I’m not sure where this “old” nonsense came from, but the solicitude for my health and wellbeing merely as a function of an arbitrary number is a little hard to take. All of a sudden there seem to be an awful lot of things I’m not supposed to be doing. I never thought “aging in place” was meant to be taken literally.
This is such a petty complaint. In my City, my Mighty Gotham, we are apparently all aging in place, all taking care by taking shelter. This just doesn’t suit us well. Sitzfleisch is for suburbanites.…the kind of folks who drive a football field’s distance for a quart of milk and have 5,000 square-foot homes with enormous refrigerators, storage space, and a game room where the kids can fight with each other from another zip code.

If you live in the City and have a 5,000 square foot home, you have other homes as well, and are almost certainly in one of them. For the rest of us, we have joined the battalions of the shut-ins and shut-downs. Our buildings and businesses are shut down. Broadway and high culture closed. There are barred doors to some of the highest-end retail shops in the world (often announced by plain-white signs on doors). Diners and pizza parlors open for take-out only. Starbucks closed. Thousands of little shops, also deemed non-essential, sadly stare out with empty eyes. Some of those eyes will never see again.   

This nags at me, this sense that Coronavirus will be like smallpox, and, if we get through it, there will still be scars that will not fade. We will be changed.

Teddy Roosevelt once said that “[c]haracter, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Crises have a way of finding the core—some can keep their eyes on the goal and rise above it, others melt down and blather.

We’ve been fortunate here. Andrew Cuomo has risen to the occasion. Fifty thousand health-care professionals have come out of retirement to put themselves in harm’s way. Our cops, firefighters, transit workers, hospital personnel and EMTs have been extraordinary. But what makes this situation far more complicated is that our success in handling this war can’t be solved with just logistics and heroics. The rest is up to us: We need to take care of ourselves and take care of others. We need to be a true community, albeit at a six-foot length.

For non-essential me, working remotely from home, with my essential-but-also-working-remotely wife, this means adjusting to her perceptive (but wildly improbable) suggestion, “You need to develop some Sitzfleish.” I’m still going running, but alone now, so my kinship is reduced to those strangers who pass me (with proper social distancing), and sightings of two regulars, “Bare-Chested Guy” and Mr. G, redoubtable meteorologist for a local TV station.

That 90 minutes of clean air and clear mind helps a bit with the Sitzfleish problem, but it’s only 90 minutes. I need other distractions. I was reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome, but that turned out to be a spectacularly poor choice: how climate change and pandemics brought down the Roman Empire.

I think we would all agree that’s a no, so I turned to Netflix and YouTube, enlisting alongside Horatio Hornblower, in the terrific eight-part series starring Ioan Gruffudd. Duty, loyalty, cannons, duels, Napoleon, bravery, comradeship, Frogs and Lobsters. There was an episode with the plague…but everyone lived. Still, how many times can you watch derring-do and men yelling “fire”?

Quite a lot, as it turns out, but, ultimately, I turned to David Lynch’s astonishing, and astonishingly beautiful The Straight Story. Based on a true story, it literally is about Sitzfleisch—an old man sitting on a small tractor as he drives 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to find and reconcile with his ailing brother. In a perfect bit of casting, Lynch picked Richard Farnsworth (who spent decades in obscurity as a stunt man before an Oscar nomination for Comes a Horseman) to play Alvin Straight.

Farnsworth’s face alone is worth the visit; the sun has baked it into a pair of knowing blue eyes set in a glorious map of deep wrinkles. Out of it comes a reedy tenor and an almost sideways way of speaking—unlike many actors, Farnsworth doesn’t rush his lines. Alvin’s hips are shot from a lifetime of labor, and he can no longer pass the eye test for a driver’s license, but, when he hears that his older brother Lyle has had a stroke, he’s impelled to make the trip. He sends his developmentally disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, in an exquisitely self-effacing performance) to stock up on wieners and liverwurst (leading to a very witty scene where neither the checkout clerk nor Rose quite understand each other), puts a hitch on a handmade mobile trailer, plants himself on a tractor, and begins his trek.

He doesn’t get very far, the tractor being perhaps even older than he. After a swap into a more roadworthy John Deere, off Alvin goes, up and down gentle hills through the farm country. When the light fails, he sleeps by the side of the road, cooks the wieners with a stick over an open fire, and lights up a cigar. Farnsworth has a wonderful emotional stillness about him in these moments—he’s at home on the road.

The Straight Story is really a series of small, perfect, vignettes. Some are gently comic, but this is not a road movie, and it’s certainly not a bucket-list film. Everyone is treated with respect both by the camera and the script. Lynch is secure enough to let his largely starless cast be themselves and has enough discipline to let the scenery speak for itself.

At some point, while you are watching, you might ask yourself when the action will begin. In some respects, it never does. This is the action. Nothing wasted. Everywhere, there’s simple living, common courtesy, and a friendly hand. Alvin’s a proud man, and independent, and those who help have the uncommon gift of not making it charity.

What you find is that it isn’t charity at all. The movie doesn’t infantilize Alvin because he’s old. He is old, and worn, and physically diminished, but he’s not done. He’s still competent. He can still build things, use a welding torch, a shotgun, and his quick wits and a sharp, knowing eye. All those years of living, the good and the bad, left him something to give, and he does. There’s a tranquil evening with a runaway pregnant teen, a moment in a church graveyard when a priest comes out to talk, a pair of feuding brothers, and a stunner in a bar where he shares memories with a fellow World War II vet.

Everything takes time. Like the gentle score by Angelo Badalamenti (who also did Twin Peaks) and the speed of Alvin’s mower, the story just unfolds with the passing landscape, as he makes his way to Lyle. He survives a mechanical failure and near crash, and, while his tractor is repaired, stays with a retired John Deere employee named Danny Riordan and his wife Darla. The couple’s interactions made me smile, particularly when Darla gently teases Danny about being a soft touch, and lets him know she’s glad she married him—despite what her mother said.

Eventually, Alvin gets back on the road. It’s a long journey, and I won’t spoil the ending for you. I’ll simply say that, in a time of chaos, of isolation and uncertainty, this movie reminded me of things that most of us want—family, friendship, community.

I don’t know what’s on the other side of the Coronavirus pandemic, but I hope it’s something as simple as Alvin’s parting words to Danny:

“I want to thank you for your kindness to a stranger.”

Sitzfleish and a Movie in the Time of Plague appeared first on
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Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Radical Reconciliation: Lincoln's Second Inaugural-On 3Q

He is an enigma. He sits up there in his marble chair, set in a Greek temple, literally larger than life, and he defies us to understand him.

Many have tried. More than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, to say nothing of countless columns, essays, Masters and Doctoral theses. So familiar is the recitation of his story that there is an unmistakable sense of déjà vu when you pick up yet another, turn to a random page, and, after a few words, half-wonder whether the author was unconsciously participating in a form of soft plagiarism.

Yet, if there is any guide to the inner Lincoln, the double-minded Lincoln, the one who could prosecute an incredibly destructive war while engaging in countless acts of mercy, it has to be in the Second Inaugural Address, the one we remember mostly for its closing paragraph, “with malice towards none….”

In this speech, barely 700 words, is the distilled essence of what Lincoln learned through the wrenching years of seeking, and then possessing, the Presidency. He exposes his own inner anguish as he reconciles it. In doing so, in taking responsibility, accepting nuance, and embracing a broader vision, he sets a standard for “Presidential.”

He does all this in about seven minutes.

We know that Lincoln could argue at great length, and brilliantly. We can see that in the transcripts of his debates with Stephen Douglas and his Cooper Union speech. But at his absolute best, here, and at Gettysburg, he is a miniaturist, each word having meaning.

The Second Inaugural begins with just two: “Fellow Countrymen.” Because it is merely a salutation, it is easy to overlook, but this particular choice of words is surely deliberate. In his First Inaugural, he began with “Fellow Citizens,” and used “citizens” a total of six times. Citizenship involves an exchange of rights and obligations, and the First Inaugural, through most of the text, is largely about law and duty. Only in the closing sentences, when Lincoln is appealing to emotion and shared experience, did he switch to “Countrymen.” In the Second Inaugural, when the very idea of who is a citizen has been the subject of a brutal and intense war, Lincoln reaches beyond the formal framework of “Citizen” to a single use of the more inclusive “Countrymen.”

Fellow-Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
You have to be a little flabbergasted at this opening. It is astoundingly prosaic, and certainly could not have been anticipated by the audience. No exulting in the victories of Grant, Sherman, and Farragut, no extended praise of the fighting man in the field, no applause lines. It is both an expression of Lincoln’s self-confidence in his ability to hold his audience, and a foreshadowing, by omission, of the broader message he intends to convey.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.
Again, Lincoln surprises. “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.” The people, his countrymen, whether of the North or South, didn’t want war, but the decision was not altogether theirs.

While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation.

Lincoln is looking towards the future. He does not want to label all Southerners bellicose secessionists and make reconciliation more difficult. So he separates them from the “insurgent agents” already “in the city” (Washington). Lincoln doesn’t name names, but he doesn’t need to. Many prominent Confederate political leaders had influential roles in Washington before Lincoln’s election, some in Buchanan’s Cabinet.

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.
To Lincoln, this was an absolutely critical point. There was more than one moral difference between the sides; slavery, of course, but also a political one. Lincoln is stating what to him was obvious: Not only were the secessionists unwilling to accept his election, but they were planning to resist it by force. The Second Inaugural is a remarkably generous speech, yet on the democratic process and the peaceful transition of power, while Lincoln recognizes imperfections on each side, he will not concede moral equivalence.

One might reasonably point out that Lincoln’s formulation seems to have been a little self-serving, and that the choice was not really binary. Why couldn’t Lincoln and the North simply let the South leave? Or why didn’t they offer even more concessions in an effort to save whatever semblance of the Union they could? Certainly, there was no shortage of plans advanced by well-meaning men trying to bridge the gap.

But here you can see Lincoln holding his ground, because he had grasped something from the beginning that many others missed. He understood the difference between mere political opposition, even intense political opposition, and secession. If he had accepted either a compromise that betrayed the issues he had run on, or secession, he would have confirmed the impermanence of the Union for all time. He had to stand firm. As he had said in the First Inaugural, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” They could choose the Constitutional process, introducing legislation while waiting for the next election. Or, they could opt for force. The next move would be up to the seceding States.
And the war came.
One of the most powerful phrases of the entire speech. Its simplicity, finality, and sense of the preordained is a thunderclap. The war came as a result of bad choices people of influence made even if they made them with the best of intentions. Those people included himself. Did he know in 1861 what he was acknowledging in 1865? He partially answers that in the next paragraph.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
“All knew,” yet Lincoln himself maintained for a very long time that preserving the Union was his first, even his only, motivation. He went so far as to make it clear in the First Inaugural that he would accept a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing that slavery could continue in the South—this, despite his long-held aversion to the institution. Lincoln (to the endless frustration of the Abolitionists) was a man of law, and the Constitution was law, even when it clashed with his sense of right and wrong. “All knew” is an acknowledgement of an internal contradiction. He would abide by his Oath of Office, but he hadn’t really changed his mind since his “House Divided” speech in 1858. “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” If Lincoln knew, if all the language of compromise (even from those who devoutly hoped for compromise) was whistling past the graveyard, then it’s reasonable to assume that he may also have known his election, and not later secession, was a point of no return. The war would come.

What type of war? A war that shattered illusions:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
How revealing a paragraph. Both sides had thought it would be simple, a few skirmishes, bloody the other side’s nose, and it would be over. You can see this jaunty confidence in the editorial pages of newspapers from both regions. Part of what fueled this was arrogance, the North in its sense of material superiority, the South in believing it had better men and better generals. Neither grasped it would be a fight to the finish, Sherman’s “total war.” And neither grasped that slavery itself could be eradicated. Both assumed a status quo afterwards—they would fight over the political question, there would be a winner and a loser, but slavery was there to stay—it was simply a question of whether it would spread, and when.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Something important has happened here. We’ve moved from the secular to the religious. Lincoln shifts language into what almost amounts to a sermon. There is a lot of controversy about this in the academic community. Did this profoundly tested man finally turn to the consolations of religion to soothe his personal pain? We know that virtually every Protestant denomination claimed him for their own. Did he see himself as part of any one of them? Or was he using the then-near universal language of the Bible as a means of communicating civic virtue? There is no easy answer, but whatever his true feelings, the symbolism was potent.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
It is an extraordinary statement, since the obvious response to “judge not” seems self-evident. Of course we judge, and of course it’s wrong. But Lincoln, however deeply felt his moral convictions, is not willing to take this step.  Judge not, because the guilt lies upon all, and parsing out who deserves more is beside the point. Judge not, because slavery did not begin with the Confederacy. It was a disease transmitted to this country in the first boats of the first European settlers. Judge not, because it was present, at some point, in every colony, and the benefits flowed not just to slave owners, but also those who directly or indirectly profited from it. Secession was a political sin that could be laid at the door of the Southern leadership. Slavery was the original sin that all shared, either directly, or as an inheritance.

He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.
The rendering of an account, vengeance, if there is to be any, is not for the North to give to the South. It is permitted to only the morally blameless, those who have suffered the lash.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’
With this, Lincoln brings us to the doorstep. He has searched himself and recognized his own frailties and failures, put aside his personal prejudices and found an emotional framework that informs and even comforts him. He believes he can impart that to his audience, both at the Inauguration, and those as a distance. The duration and cost of the war, in lives and in treasure, will be decided not by battles amongst men, but by simple justice—just what is the price for 250 years of suffering? When that price has been paid, but not until it is paid, the war will be over.

Then, his majestic final words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
He says, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” What is “the work”? Here, I believe, we have arrived at the heart of Lincoln’s sense of history and duty. It asks for more than just the surrender of Southern armies, it demands the North forbear retribution and begin the healing. Bind up the nation’s wounds, repair the breach between all aggrieved parties, and “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Just as he had acknowledged the North’s complicity, he now embraces the Southern people, if not the Confederacy. Lincoln makes no distinction between either Northern and Southern soldiers, or Northern and Southern non-combatants. They are countrymen, and it is the duty of the victor to care for both.

He closes with an even more compelling imperative, greater than military success or political goals. We have offended God and humanity, and to restore our wounded nation fully, we owe a final duty. We must “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

 “With all nations” is not a throwaway. The world has seen the brutality and the appalling loss of life. They have watched, with concern, the North grow as an economic and military power. They are wondering what this comparatively new nation, one they have dismissed as crude and uncultured, will do as a newly muscular young adult. At this crucial moment, Lincoln has told them: a lasting peace, with all nations.

With that he is done. Historians have long debated whether Lincoln’s reputation could have survived a contentious Reconstruction. We might also ask in what light this speech might be considered if Lincoln had lived to see his hopes for reconciliation thoroughly rejected. It was not to be. In one of the great but tragic ironies, in the audience that day, just yards from the podium, was a young actor, John Wilkes Booth. Less than six weeks later, he rendered both questions moot. Lincoln, and the Second Inaugural—each became “one for the ages.”

The Almighty has His own purposes.

Radical Reconciliation: Lincoln's Second Inaugural was first published on March 2, 2020 on the website

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Michael Liss, March 3, 2020

Monday, February 3, 2020

Potions, Poisons and Progressivism On 3Q

The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful Management of which so much depends. —George Baer, President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, during the Coal Strike of 1902.

Whenever I read yet another article about intramural warfare in the Democratic Party over which candidate will be progressive enough for the Progressive wing, I think about that quote.

Know your enemy, know yourself. Do contemporary Progressive politicians really know either? The “old” Progressivism, which reached its zenith in the period between 1896 to 1916, was primarily a social and political reform movement. Faced with the excesses of the unbridled capitalism of the Gilded Age that had preceded it, it did not look first toward redistribution. Rather, it took aim at the pervasive rot that was created as immense wealth was being made in businesses like mining, railroads, shipping, steel, meatpacking, and finance, often at the expense of the working man, the farmer, and the small businessman. From this, it drew its moral force.

We should acknowledge that those fortunes were the product of the efforts of real visionaries, larger-than-life figures like Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, James J. Hill, the Armour and Swift families, J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. Talent aside, though, their successes were enhanced by the sharpest, most predatory tactics, of the type described in Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company, a 19 part series in McClure's Magazine, which chronicled the rise of Standard Oil. Business was not for the faint of heart, and the most successful businessmen were monopolists who went from strength to strength, squeezing every competitor, and every last dollar, out of every transaction.

No matter how entrepreneurial the businessman, no matter how rich the oilfield, no matter how coldly efficient the operator, it couldn’t have been done without grease. Corruption was literally everywhere. State and big-city government often amounted to organized thievery, with bribery and favoritism at every level. Licenses, jobs, concessions and contracts, franchises for the operation of electric street railways, telegraph and telephone lines—everything had a price. The cash reached as high as the federal court system and Congress, with Senators just as prone to having a hand out as local aldermen. And why shouldn’t they? Before the 17th Amendment, Senators were selected by State legislators, and not answerable to the public in a direct election.

There was also a philosophical undercurrent, perhaps too bluntly expressed by George Baer, but shared by many of his caste: a strong sense of Social Darwinism, a belief that good fortune was reflective of a natural superiority and effort, and bad fortune of laziness and immorality. With that as their “reality,” it was thought that government should stay out of the relationships between capital on the one hand, and labor and consumers on the other. If there were to be any government intervention, it should simply be to afford police protection to those men of property.

Just as this philosophy influenced the treatment of gigantic industries, so too did it affect more niche markets, like the one for Patent Medicines. The same forces applied, and the argument we sometimes hear now in opposition to regulation—that the market will self-regulate—was shown to be true in reverse. Those who wanted to play it straight found themselves at an enormous competitive disadvantage. Better to sell something worthless and even dangerous than not to sell anything at all.

Demographics and geography also played roles in creating demand. In 1900, 60 percent of the population lived in rural areas, about two thirds of that on farms. Doctors were not always available, and did not always have either the best training or equipment at hand. Not everyone made the connection that Lister and Pasteur did in the 1850s and 60s, between dirt and infection. As they often lacked adequate anesthetics and were unable to control blood loss, surgeons operated quickly, so nuance was out, making recovery longer and more painful. When they did cut, they did so with bare and sometimes unwashed hands and unsterilized equipment. Not surprisingly, mortality rates were exceptionally high. As to the cities, pockets of wealth supported patrician doctors, but elsewhere, especially in areas that drew large numbers of immigrants, often unspeakable squalor prevailed.

As for even common diseases, running the spectrum of what we would now consider minor to life-threatening, there were no antibiotics, no insulin, and very little in the conventional formulary to cure what ailed people. There was also a strong tradition among rural and immigrant families of self-reliance and the use of home-brewed remedies. Patent Medicines, often packaged and marketed in interesting ways, reasonably priced at perhaps $1 a bottle for multiple doses, and supposedly containing miracle ingredients, were a lot more convenient and cheaper than calling for a doctor. We’ve all seen the prototypical snake-oil salesman in movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Little Big Man, but this wasn’t all hucksters in sharp suits. Sears Roebuck, in its 1892 catalog, devoted more than 30 pages to a variety of pills, elixirs, ointments, and devices.

What did they cure? The better question is, what did they claim to cure? Cancer, Coughs, Consumption, and the dreaded Catarrh. Paralysis and Pleurisy. Tremors, Chills, and Fevers. Rheumatism, pimples, spinal issues, eye sores, ringworm, and dyspepsia. Every claim was served up with a little flair from the emerging world of advertising.

What wonderful names and commanding slogans those ads offered: “Dr. William’s Pink Pills for Pale People,” which claimed to have saved a boy from paralysis, and “Dr. Fenner’s Cough and Cold Syrup,” which even promised to be free of opium, morphine, or any narcotic. “Dr. Ayre’s Cherry Pectoral,” which would cease your cough, strengthen your throat, and heal your lungs. “Kemp’s Balsam,” which urged you not to delay, because it was a “sure cure for Consumption in the early stages,” and was also effective on Whooping Cough and Influenza. If all else failed on the respiratory front, “Smith’s Throat And Lung Balm” was no less than “Nature’s Invincible Panacea.”

Ah, Nature. Cure or kill, so let’s not leave out what nature could have in store. The terrifying tapeworm was one of the scourges of the age, often transmitted through undercooked food or the unwashed hands of unsanitary food preparers (of which there was an abundance). There are, apparently, several varieties of these colorful parasites, going by a variety of intimidating names, like T. saginata, T. solium and T. asiatica. Tapeworms head to the intestinal tract, hang out, feed, and decide to reproduce (in enormous numbers). They also occasionally grow far too large for comfort (or health), and migrate to more unfortunate places in the body. In case you needed a little extra push, in the advertising of the time, tapeworms looked much like Amazonian Anacondas. But, fear not. “Kemp’s Vegetable Pastilles” was ready, and “The Kickapoo Indians Tape-Worm Secret” was “sure to get the head, body and all.”

So many organs, so many opportunities. The Liver was a big one. While the French were supposedly experts in livers, if you had to buy domestic, there was “Dr. M.A. Simmons Liver Medicine,” which cured Indigestion, Biliousness, Colic, Costiveness, Dyspepsia, Sick Headache, Foul Breath, and Sour Stomach.

Health issues, of course, can effect us in so many ways, even in those intimate matters for which one would want the privacy of a doctor-patient relationship, if a doctor were ever around:

Let me start with my own gender: Men, can we speak in a discreet, but straight-from-the-shoulder manly way? Who among us hasn’t occasionally felt lacking in….enthusiasm? Yes, help is on the way: “Glandol” for “lack of vigor,” or if you prefer something a little more daring, “Dr. Dye’s Voltaic Belt.” And, let us be honest, we men can be weak. As we can be lured by a pretty face, the siren call of vice is constantly beckoning. Fear not, my friends; should there be unpleasant medical consequences, a Doctor Clarke of the Chicago Dispensary promises to “promptly, reliably, and thoroughly cure.” Chicago too far? Just purchase “Alternative Juice” from the Seroco Chemical Laboratory, or (and I’m not making this up) “Gono,” which apparently is unequaled in treating “all unnatural discharges.”

Women, draw near. I fully admit I don’t quite understand your issues, but there is someone who does. Lydia Pinkham. Mrs. Pinkham was born in 1819, but, thanks to her remarkable preparations of various herbs and spices (and, in their original form, a bracing dose of something more bracing), she is still with us today (in Walmart!), offering a variety of potions for the various stages of a woman’s life. She had a stern, but comforting face (which adorned every box of her medicines) and an intuitive grasp of marketing at a time before there were women doctors (“Only a woman can understand a woman’s ills.”).

Did any of these things actually work? After a fashion, as it depends what you were looking for. If you wanted a buzz, you were in luck. “Old Dr. J. Townsend’s Sarsaparilla” modestly sold as “The Most  Extraordinary Medicine in the World,” claimed to purify the blood and, in turn, cure a litany of other ailments. Along with the sarsaparilla part of the sarsaparilla, it was anywhere between 18 to 25 proof alcohol. Not bracing enough? “Brown’s Iron Bitters” promised relief from diseases of your liver, kidneys, and bowels, plus malaria, fevers, indigestion, and the ever-dreaded dyspepsia. For flavoring, they added 39 percent alcohol, and, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a chaser of cocaine. Prefer the high in slightly lower doses? “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” (for teething babies!) managed to include both morphine and alcohol.

How did all this glorious dosing come to an end? A confluence of factors led to intense pressure on Congress to break away from the contribution-influenced, laissez-faire approach and step in. Women were organizing and emerging as effective and persistent advocates for a number of social causes—Suffrage, of course, but also things like poverty, racism, and hearth-and-home issues like Temperance and public health. People and, in particular, children were dying, and in very large numbers, from disease-ridden food, incredibly toxic additives (Formaldehyde!) meant as preservatives or fillers, and adulterated medicines. In the Spring of 1905, the magazine Women’s Home Companion published Henry Irving Dodge’s “The Truth About Food Adulteration.” Finally, the slow-developing, but eventually spectacular success of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (about the horrors of the meatpacking industry) brought public outrage to a boil. At the same time, an extraordinary series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams appeared in Collier’s. “The Great American Fraud” painstakingly, and sensationally, laid out the extent of the harm all those good-for-you medicines caused.

But, where to go? The manufacturers were still incredibly powerful, and their influence reached well beyond their friends in the House and Senate. Many general-interest newspapers relied on advertising revenues from them, and those contracts often came with non-disparagement clauses.
As much agitation as there was for change, the time never seemed ripe. The reformers needed something more than just the lurid reporting of horrible facts, and, starting in late 1905, they got it.

First, Teddy Roosevelt finally decided to weigh in, and, on November 5, 1905, he backed what came to be called the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, “[f]or preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”

TR could be a potent force, but he wasn’t the final gatekeeper. The House and Senate needed to go along, and, there, the chances still seemed very slim. The Senate Majority Leader, Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, had absolutely no interest in it, publicly condemned it as an assault on individual liberties, and refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

The bill’s prospects seemed doomed, until help arrived from an unexpected direction—the 135,000 member, normally apolitical, American Medical Association. The doctors weren’t as much interested in food as they were with drugs, but realized the two were intertwined. They made it clear to Aldrich that he was either going to relent, or all 135,000 of those doctors would rally in favor of the bill and tell their patients to do the same. Aldrich yielded, and the bill was passed by the Senate in late February 1906, and sent to the House. There, in a last gasp of the old guard, it was placed on ice for three months, while industry (with the help of the Speaker, Joe Cannon of Illinois, Stockyard Division) did what it could to stall, amend, and defang it.

But the tide had turned. TR was running out of patience, and commissioned another study, confirming Sinclair’s account of the filthy conditions of the meatpacking houses. Then the market itself shifted: the British refused to buy canned American meat, and Germany and France expanded that to any American meat at all. The ladies sent outraged letters, and the AMA urgent telegrams. The House passed it, and on June 30, 1906, Teddy Roosevelt signed it (taking a hefty portion of credit for himself).

This, of course, wasn’t the end. The new law was filled with compromises, and, with regard to drugs, in keeping with the times, it did not actually ban alcohol, narcotics, or stimulants. It did, however, require them to be listed on the label as “addictive,” and that, coupled with a provision that allowed mislabeled drugs to be seized and destroyed at the manufacturer’s expense, gave it some teeth. In 1911, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in United States v. Johnson that the prohibition against making misleading statements did not apply to claims of efficacy, which were merely free speech. As long as you disclosed the “addictive ingredients,” you were at liberty to claim your product cured whatever ailed the sufferer. In 1912, Congress amended the Act in response, but was only able to provide relief where it could be demonstrated that the manufacturer had knowingly made fraudulent claims.

Still, the Progressives had won something important. In a time in which every bit of regulation was considered a threat to the nation by the powerful, they had marshalled the key components of change in any democracy. They had held up a mirror to the problem, gained critical constituencies not present at the start, enlisted people of influence to take up their cause, and persisted. They had shown that government intervention on behalf of the people was, under certain circumstances, the morally correct thing to do.

That was Progressivism’s genius. It did not attempt to end inequality, or just redistribute wealth. Its bigger ambitions were grounded in basic right and wrong: end the corruption, the undue influence, the disenfranchisement, and the predatory behavior that led to injustice and appalling conditions.
It’s a lesson that is applicable today.

Michael Liss

Potions, Poisons and Progressives first appeared on on February 3, 2020

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