It Isn’t Just WHAT, It’s Also HOW

As conversations prompted by the presidential primary season devolve into name-calling and efforts to excavate every clumsy observation or error in judgment made by the candidates, it may be time to step back and point to some of the very real, very bipartisan problems Americans have understanding the public policy process.

Politically, we Americans really are bipolar: policies are either good or bad, brilliant or stupid, obvious or obviously ridiculous. Shades of gray? Middle ground? Complex? Perish the thought.

Worse still, we fail to recognize the difference between policy prescriptions and the policy process–that is, the difference between setting a goal and having a strategy for achieving that goal–a workable strategy for overcoming the obstacles and getting from wherever it is that we are to the place where we want to be.

Where we want to be and how we get there are very different questions, although listening to American political discourse, you’d never know that.

The problems with our “good vs. bad” approach are especially visible in the current, heated arguments about charter schools. To begin with, too many participants in those arguments conflate charter schools–which are public schools–with the private, mostly religious schools that have benefitted from vouchers. The issues raised by these two approaches are very different, although you’d be hard pressed to find recognition of those differences when reading angry Facebook diatribes.

But simply recognizing that charters and vouchers are different animals is also insufficient.

A while back, Doug Masson–one of Indiana’s most thoughtful bloggers and a member of a public-school board–pointed out that the difference between “what” and “how” is especially relevant to the performance of charter schools.

Advocates and critics of charters alike make a distinction between charters that are for profit and those that are non-profit. (Research suggests to many of us that educational institutions shouldn’t be run by for-profit ventures, for a variety of reasons.) Masson notes that the distinction requires a closer look. If the management company hired by a non-profit is for-profit, the fact that the school itself is non-profit is probably not very meaningful.

Masson then homes in on a very significant “how” question: what sort of regulatory framework is likely to ensure the success of a state’s charter schools?

There seems to be some evidence that charters can produce positive outcomes under the sorts of tight regulation Massachusetts has. Indiana is absolutely not going to impose that kind of close regulation and I’m guessing the charter advocates aren’t going to be supportive of that sort of regulation going nationwide.

He quotes from the Harvard Political Review:

“It appears that Massachusetts’ charter laws are responsible, at least in large part, for the superior performance of the state’s charter schools. Indeed, Massachusetts prohibits for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs), and its process for authorizing charter schools is particularly rigorous. According to Alison Bagg, director of charter schools and school redesign at the Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts is one of the few states in which the Department of Education serves as the sole authorizer of charter schools. “You have some states that have hundreds and hundreds of charters schools, all authorized by these districts or non-profits,” Bagg explained to the HPR. In Massachusetts, by contrast, “it has been historically very difficult to get a charter,” and the state has been recognized by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers as “one of the leaders in charter school authorizing nationwide.”

The charter renewal process is also quite rigorous, according to Bagg. The state monitors charter schools closely and has the ability to close charter schools that have achieved poor results—a practice that is not universal across states.”

Of course, that’s Massachusetts.

In Indiana, by contrast, we get a school corporation like Daleville sponsoring the Indiana Virtual School charter which then takes state money for kids who are dead or have long since moved out of state.

That’s because Hoosiers don’t have a legislature that understands–or cares about– the importance of “how.”

How To Choose A Candidate

There’s a reason I keep repeating “vote blue no matter who,” even though the presidential candidates the Democrats are fielding all have their flaws–and it isn’t simply because Trump represents the worst of the worst.

Several years ago, someone asked me how I would choose between two unpalatable candidates for office, and I shared my simple formula for making such choices: I vote for the candidate who is pandering to the least dangerous people.

We all know that Trump is deeply corrupt, as well as monumentally ignorant. We also know that his egomania, racism and narcissism outweigh any actual policy preferences–that in order to feed his massive ego, he will adopt whatever positions he thinks will be rewarded with attention, power and the adoration of the misfits who attend his rallies.

Trump, who has been both a Republican and a Democrat, found success pandering to the people with whom he feels most comfortable–white nationalists and corrupt businesspeople– constituencies that dominate today’s GOP.

We can concede that today’s Democratic Party is hardly a monolithic organization of angels and still recognize the superiority of its core beliefs: climate change is real; women are people entitled to control of their own bodies; background checks are not inconsistent with the Second Amendment; African-Americans and LGBTQ citizens are entitled to equality; immigrant families should not be separated; our water should be drinkable and our air breathable; vote suppression is anti-democratic…and much more.

Any Democrat running for political office, from President to County Clerk, needs the approval of the people who have organized around those positions and beliefs. Those are the people to whom all Democratic candidates must pander if they are to have any chance at victory.

I know this sounds cynical, but I am much less concerned with the sincerity of a candidate’s embrace of the Democrats’ core positions than with the fact that he/she must publicly affirm and work for them in order to get elected or re-elected.

Trump is not a bright man, but even he can read the writing on the wall; the Senators who essentially voted to let him ignore the Constitution and the rule of law were elected by pandering to the same bigots who support him. Whether in their “heart of hearts” they recognize and reject the evils they are empowering is irrelevant–so long as they believe they must pander to evil, they are evil.

During the presidential primary contests, people of good will–Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans alike–will have different perspectives on candidate electability. But once a candidate has been chosen, no matter how disappointed we may be in that choice or in the process–we will confront a very simple decision, and not just for president.

We can vote for people running on the Republican ticket–those endorsed by the party whose candidates have no choice but to pander to bigotry and corruption–or we can vote for Democratic candidates who have no choice but to pander to people who overwhelmingly believe in science, reason and civic equality.

This isn’t a contest between individuals. Trump didn’t emerge from a void. There’s a reason  that during the past couple of decades Americans have “sorted” ourselves into two wildly different parties–it is because we hold profoundly opposed understandings of what American “greatness” is based upon. We will continue to be polarized until one of those diametrically-opposed visions of America prevails.

“Vote blue no matter who” recognizes that the 2020 election isn’t about the candidates–it’s about which of those visions triumphs.


Friedman Is Right About Bloomberg And Sanders

I don’t usually care for Thomas Friedman’s columns. It isn’t that I necessarily disagree with his conclusions–although I often do– but he tends to adopt a “let me explain to those of you not as smart as me” tone that I find extremely annoying.

But his recent column about Mike Bloomberg’s candidacy deserves to be read, and read with an open mind. (This is not an endorsement–just a corrective to the predictable circular firing squad sharing the conviction that no bread is better than half a loaf.)

The first point Friedman makes is one with which most readers of this blog will agree: this is no ordinary election. It is imperative that we rid the country of the Trump malignancy, and that goal absolutely must take precedence over everything else. And it won’t just be Republicans versus Democrats.

Because, without doubt, Russia and China also will be “voting” Trump 2020 — for three reasons: (1) Trump keeps America in turmoil and unable to focus on building the infrastructure we need to dominate the 21st century the way we did the 20th. (2) Both Beijing and Moscow know that Trump is so disliked by America’s key allies that he can never galvanize a global coalition against China or Russia. And (3) both Russia and China know that Trump is utterly transactional and will never challenge them on human rights abuses. Trump is their chump, and they will not let him go easily.

Friedman says it is important that we run the right candidate against Trump, and that Bernie Sanders is not that candidate–a claim with which I agree for reasons I’ve previously explained.

Friedman says that Sanders has the wrong solutions to the right problems, but whether as a policy matter Sanders’ solutions are right or wrong is–in my opinion–beside the point. Bernie’s solutions are simply not salable to the wider voting public. Sanders’ popularity is limited even within the Democratic Party–he has a fervent base of at most 27%, which is the only reason he leads a fragmented field– and as I pointed out in the linked post, the popularity he does enjoy has never been tested by the sort of vicious but effective opposition research that would be thrown at him should he be the nominee. (Did he really have to honeymoon in the Soviet Union?)

The great irony is that Mike Bloomberg (also imperfect, as he displayed at the recent debate) would be more likely to actually achieve a number of left-wing goals than Bernie.

As the New York Times documented last Sunday (in what was definitely not a puff piece), for years, Bloomberg has put immense amounts of money behind organizations fighting climate change; he has worked long and hard for gun control (an issue on which Bernie has historically been on the wrong side); he has consistently supported Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights; and he’s been on the right side of issues from immigration, to voting rights, infrastructure, and affordable housing.

Do I agree with every policy he has endorsed? Of course not. Stop and frisk, for one, was both wrongheaded and unconstitutional. But unlike the mentally-ill moron in the White House, Bloomberg acknowledges past errors.  Has he made statements or engaged in past behaviors (especially with women) that should be criticized and will be used by opposition researchers? Yes.

But the real problem many Democrats have with Bloomberg is that he’s very, very rich. It isn’t that he hasn’t always been a Democrat–neither has Bernie. (And unlike Trump, Bloomberg’s positions have generally been consistent–and liberal– even if his self-labeling hasn’t been.) Too many Democrats equate money with evil. But money is ethically neutral. It can be used for good or ill, and if you look at Bloomberg’s charitable choices, he has used his millions to support causes with which most of us overwhelmingly agree.

Let’s get real.

Until the country somehow gets rid of Citizens United and other decisions based upon the Supreme Court’s naive insistence that money equals speech, the obscenely rich will continue to buy our government. That is definitely a very bad thing–but it defines our current political reality. Folks like the Kochs buy control through SuperPacs and back-room deals; billionaires like Nick Hanauer and Mike Bloomberg try to influence public policy or win votes by very publicly spending gobs of their own money. (Money alone isn’t enough to get that job done, as Tom Steyer has learned.)

All I know is that it is absolutely essential to get rid of Trump–to install people who understand how government works, who respect the rule of law, who understand the importance of the environmental and social challenges we face, and who are on the right side of those issues. Bloomberg–like all the Democratic candidates– is right on most issues, and he has three other very important assets: intelligence, executive experience and enough money and political savvy to wipe up the floor with Trump.

So if Bloomberg does become the candidate, don’t rule him out simply because you hate rich people. The saying is: “Vote blue no matter who” –not “Vote blue unless the candidate is a billionaire.”

In the primary, support the person you think has the best chance of defeating Trump, or the person whose positions you most prefer. But in the general, vote blue. No matter who.

I will. Even if it’s Bernie. Hell, I’ll vote blue even if it’s an ashtray. (Or, in my sister’s memorable words, toenail fungus.)




Lies, Damned Lies and Sanctuary Cities

A week or so ago, a commenter to this blog asked for an explanation of Sanctuary Cities and States. The question was understandable, because the Trump Administration–beginning back when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General– has consistently misrepresented the issues involved.

Anti-immigration activists and apologists for the administration insist that “sanctuary” cities and states are places where the rule of law has been suspended — places where evil Democratic-controlled governments have formed alliances with “open borders radicals” (as Sessions once put it) to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from arresting unauthorized immigrants even when they’ve been convicted of crimes.

Back when Sessions was threatening to withhold federal grants from cities and states that dared to declare themselves Sanctuaries, Vox did one of its “explainer” columns, in an effort to dispel misunderstandings on both sides of the political divide with what it termed “the wonky truth.”

The federal government has spent the past 20 years using local government (especially law enforcement) as a force multiplier to help it find, arrest, and deport immigrants more efficiently — and for almost as long, progressives have been trying to reassert local autonomy. At this point, the line between “obstructing” federal law enforcement and simply deciding not to help isn’t as clear as one might expect.

In the courtroom, the fight over sanctuary cities is narrow and technical. Outside the courtroom, it’s a culture war.

One of the problems is that–as the article points out–“Sanctuary city” is not an official government term. In fact, it has no legal meaning.

Lots of people use the unofficial term “sanctuary city” to refer to local jurisdictions (not just cities but counties and sometimes states) that don’t fully cooperate with federal efforts to find and deport unauthorized immigrants. If that sounds vague, that’s because it is, and it gets at the tension between federal policy and local law enforcement generally used to carry out those laws.

One reason for the confusion is that local police departments aren’t legally required to assist the federal government with just any policy the federal government might want to enforce. In 1997, in Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court confirmed that the federal government “may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the State’s officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.”

Immigration law is federal law. Not only is immigration enforcement not a local law enforcement priority–as the article points out, local police don’t usually get involved with the enforcement of, say, federal tax law either–most police chiefs argue that helping apprehend otherwise law-abiding immigrants is a “net negative” for local law enforcement, because it makes immigrant communities leery of police and less likely to report crimes or cooperate with investigations.

So exactly how much assistance local governments should provide in immigration enforcement is an ongoing fight. At heart, it’s been a policy fight over what local governments should do. But under the Trump administration, in particular, it’s taken on the color of law: the idea that cities are refusing to do something they’re obligated to do.

The Trump administration alleges that local ordinances or state laws that bar the sharing of information about immigrants — like California’s SB 54, which prevents jail officials from telling ICE when a prisoner will be released (in many cases) unless ICE has a warrant signed by a judge — violate the federal law. Cities and states that have passed such policies, however, argue that sharing information about when someone will be released from jail or prison is different from sharing information about their immigration status, so it’s legal for the state to put restrictions on the former.

Whatever the technical legal arguments, the real fight over sanctuary cities or states is political and cultural. As the Vox article notes, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, a number of mayors signaled their “resistance” by declaring themselves sanctuary cities. It was also a way to reassure immigrant residents that while Trump might be making them feel unwelcome in red America, they would always be welcome in America’s (almost all blue) cities.

In response, Republicans have continued to stoke fears with dishonest rhetoric about those “criminal immigrants” and blaming cities and states controlled by Democrats.

Today’s Republicans are waging war with anyone who is  “other.” Meaning anyone who isn’t a white Christian native-born male.  They’re just reluctant to put it that baldly, so they settle for exaggeration and confusion.



There Is Only One Question

Several times on this blog I have quoted a partner in the law firm for which I first worked for his favorite statement: “ultimately, there is only one question, and that is what should we do?”

There’s a lot of wisdom in that formulation. Analysis is critically important, of course–but only if it allows us to determine the appropriate course of action, and then only if we actually pursue that action.

I thought again about that ultimate question when I read a Washington Post article arguing that Trump’s authoritarianism has begun remaking America. White House reporters have described the president as “simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party.”

He is willing to test the rule of law even further and is comfortable doing so, they reported, “to the point of feeling untouchable.”

“If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there’s nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy,” Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney, told my colleagues. “That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”

Those Americans who have watched this administration with growing alarm and horror–among whom I count myself–increasingly are asking for concrete proposals, specific actions we can/should take, beyond the obvious ones of registering people and helping to get out the vote.

It’s not my intention to point a finger, but I get very frustrated by (frequently holier-than-thou/smarter-than-thou) commenters, both here and elsewhere, who are all critique and no prescription–or who are constantly arguing that we should insist upon the perfect and never settle for the merely good.

Is our current situation precarious, thanks to spineless and/or corrupt “party above country” Republicans? Well, they tell us, Democrats are only marginally better, so there’s no point in voting “blue no matter who.”

Are elections insufficient to fix what ails us? They insist they are–but fail to follow up that declaration by suggesting any concrete alternative.

A couple of years ago, a retired friend of mine shared a rule imposed by the firm for which he’d worked. Employees were encouraged to bring any and all complaints to firm meetings, subject to one simple rule: they had to accompany their criticism with suggestions for remedial action. In other words, the rule was “yes, you can bitch about that, but only if you have a suggestion for how we should fix it–how we should do whatever it is instead.”

A few days ago, I attended a meeting of a volunteer committee on which I serve. The members are all older–more “mature”–women. The anger and frustration in that room was palpable–and it was all based upon recognition of what Donald Trump and his collection of gangsters and buffoons have done and are continuing to do to the country. Most of these women were not previously politically active, and several of them had been Republicans. The question that came up repeatedly was: what can we/should we do between now and November?

What will it take to get Americans out into the streets? What can we do to send the cult that was once the GOP the message that we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore?

Save the lofty criticisms for a time when we can afford them, and suggest concrete, do-able actions!

And for heaven’s sake–and the sake of what’s left of our country– vote blue no matter who.