Let’s Never Do That Again

The U.S. government shut down on December 22 because Ann Coulter called Donald Trump a pussy.  It remained closed for 35 days—depriving 800,000 federal workers of their paychecks—because various right-wing pundits mused that capitulating to Nancy Pelosi would constitute the end of Trump’s presidency as we know it.  And when America’s long national nightmare finally ended on Friday evening—without any particular resolution—the president assured the nation that unless he can claim victory by February 15, he’ll be happy to close the government all over again.

Specifically, Trump opted to bring one-quarter of the federal labor force to a screeching halt because of The Wall—namely, the one along the U.S.-Mexico border whose future construction constituted more or less the entirety of Trump’s presidential campaign, has continued to be the great white whale propelling his administration’s domestic policy and is seemingly the final buoy keeping what’s left of his job approval rating afloat.

As such, “victory” in this context can mean nothing less than the actual building of an actual wall with actual funds appropriated by actual congresspeople.  For Trump to renege on his biggest, baddest campaign promise would pose something near an existential threat to his presidency and, with it, his immunity to prosecution by one Robert Mueller.

Indeed, if the Longest Government Shutdown in History taught us anything, it’s that Donald Trump’s selfishness knows no bounds.  That he will gladly throw the entire country under the bus to assert his own manliness and save his own skin.  That he values nothing so much as his own survival—and possibly nothing else at all.  That he regards his loyal fanbase as a mere prop with which to puff up his own vanity—and, when necessary, as a battering ram against all perceived enemies, foreign and domestic.

Think it can’t get worse?  It can always get worse, and if America’s current chief executive excels at anything, it’s finding the bottom of the barrel and drilling a trap door underneath it.

If you’re looking for statesmanship in the Oval Office, all you can do is look to 2020.

Were you to ask me, here in January 2019, what kind of person I would like to see as Trump’s eventual successor—temperamentally, characterologically—I would simply point to the 35-day fiasco the nation just endured and say, “Someone who would not allow a mess like that to ever occur.”

While I admire elected officials who feel passionately about major issues and express their views strongly and clearly, I would never support a presidential candidate who is so single-minded about a particular policy that he would callously deny a month’s pay to 800,000 American workers in order to get what he wants, exactly the way he wants it.

Nor would I support a prospective commander-in-chief whose official acts are so easily and obviously swayed by a gang of radio and TV personalities whom a supermajority of the public finds repulsive.  Whose self-esteem is so fragile, his innate sense of right and wrong so tenuous, that he will gingerly flush billions of dollars in productivity down the toilet in order to prove that, as a leader, he isn’t entirely impotent.  Whose solipsism is so all-consuming that when he is informed—as Trump was in early 2017—that his tax policy will likely wreck the American economy within a decade, his only response is to say, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.”

What I would like in our 46th president—whoever she may be—is someone sufficiently grown-up to resolve a complex issue like immigration without holding nearly a million federal employees and their families for ransom.  Someone who will negotiate in good faith and not view every disagreement as a zero-sum game.  Someone who will assume responsibility for her failures and share credit for her successes.  Someone who will lead by example and not perpetually be on the lookout for someone else to blame.

Someone who is interested in expanding her base of support, rather than merely solidifying the 30-odd percent of the population who will blindly follow her off a cliff.  Someone confident enough to trust her own instincts, but also humble enough to confide in those wiser and more experienced than she.  Someone who values country over party and understands that we live in a nation of laws and not men.

Will the Democratic Party nominate such a person at its convention in July 2020?  And will America elect her on Tuesday, November 3?

Can we afford not to?

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I Like Liz

Elizabeth Warren spent last weekend campaigning for president in Iowa, and because there is nothing else going on in the world, a large gaggle of reporters and pundits tailed her every move.  What’s more, because Warren has apparently never expressed her views on any political issues—like, say, income inequality, Wall Street corruption or the character of Donald Trump—the media felt it had no choice but to engage in a round-the-clock debate about whether Senator Warren is “likable” enough to be elected commander-in-chief.

Predictably, Warren’s supporters—and women in general—made the utterly valid observation that only female presidential candidates seem to be asked this sort of question right out of the gate—and with some regularity thereafter—while male candidates tend to be asked very seldom, if at all.  What’s more, since the 2020 Democratic primary process will likely be the first with multiple female contenders, perhaps this would be a good time to retire this inherently sexist act of punditry once and for all.

In the interest of political correctness and basic gender equity, this plea makes sense as far as it goes.  As someone who is still slightly miffed at President Obama for informing Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough” in January 2008, I would be positively thrilled if America’s leading news organizations spent more time asking if a candidate is capable and qualified to be leader of what’s left of the free world, and less time treating her like a beauty queen contestant or a prospective member of a college sorority.

However, since nothing like that is going to happen before November 2020, I think the more fruitful conversation we ought to have concerns the meaning of the word “likable,” and whether it isn’t such a bad metric for choosing a leader after all.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because I found him more likable than John McCain.  For instance, I liked Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, and the eloquence with which he argued for its end.  I liked his optimism about America in general and our political system in particular.  I liked his penchant for speaking in paragraphs instead of slogans, and for giving his opponents the moral benefit of the doubt.  I liked his dry sense of humor and Ivy League education.  I liked his seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch.  I liked Michelle.

And yes, I would’ve preferred to have had a beer with Obama instead of McCain.  Why?  Because of the two men, Obama probably would’ve had more interesting things to say—and, unlike McCain, would’ve required a little loosening up before saying them.

Of course, for decades now, the concept of likability in a politician has been reduced merely to that final metric—“Would this person be fun to drink with?”—and for just as long, virtually every wannabe commander-in-chief has done his or her damnedest to be that very person—typically, by running into the nearest bar and ordering a local pint.

While the more sober-minded among us might dismiss this dynamic as silly and counterproductive to our political process—what, pray tell, does being gossipy and gregarious have to do with running the world’s largest bureaucracy?—it’s worth asking why we have such a shallow and limited conception of likability in the first place.

In short:  Why don’t we “like” our leaders for their qualities as leaders, rather than just their qualities (or lack thereof) as regular Joes and Janes?

As a Massachusetts resident who has already voted for Elizabeth Warren twice, I find quite a bit to like about someone who effectively birthed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a decade ago and continues to spend every waking hour defending its core ideals.  I like how Warren imbues every syllable she utters with a combustible, fiery passion, yet somehow always stays on point.  I like how she is wholly unafraid to have her entire personal history gutted in the interest of full disclosure.  I like how she defends the honor of her extended family and its complicated racial history, instead of throwing them under the bus for the sake of political expediency.

As with President Obama, I like how Warren is smart enough to be a law professor at an elite university, yet sensible enough to understand and communicate the needs of those who didn’t even graduate high school.  I like her unabashed liberalism and her implicit belief in a more perfect society than the one we are currently bungling through.

I like how she is fearlessly and head-longingly running for president even as some of her would-be allies are advising her not to.

I like how she willingly makes herself a big, fat target of Wall Street, the GOP and even certain pockets of her own party, earning their hysterical, bottomless contempt, and yet, nonetheless (God help me) she persists.

Oh, and the words “Madam President”?  I find those rather likable, too.

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