Friday, February 26, 2016


It can’t really be happening, can it?

It is coming up on two years since I finished writing my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’ in which I voiced my concern about the direction the American political system had drifted in and now I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. This is a classic case of the need to be careful what you wish for. I argued for a fundamental change in the American political system and that appears to be on the horizon now, except not in the way I envisaged it.

I saw the danger for the USA primarily coming from the dysfunction in the Beltway and the resulting inaction on any of the major challenges the nation has to deal with, not from a completely unqualified contender at the top of the GOP leaderboard for the 2016 presidential elections. I have long maintained, and still do, that it matters less who occupies the White House than it matters who controls Congress, the governors’ mansions and the State legislatures. The President of the United States can only do so much on his/her own. That part our founding fathers definitely got right. They did not want another king or emperor in charge with imperial power and unbridled authority. But that does not take away that the leader of the free world can still exert a lot of influence on how the world turns, for better or for worse.

In the first place, POTUS is also commander in chief with fiduciary control of the military might of the USA, including its nuclear arsenal. We all want a judicious, steady hand on the nuclear button here at home as with our potential adversaries.

Second, as we are momentarily reminded, POTUS nominates the members of the third branch of government, the Supreme Court and the Federal Appeal Courts. And the judiciary exerts more and more influence on American life by filling the void as the Congress fails to tackle the most important issues facing the nation.

Third, POTUS represents the country in meetings and negotiations with foreign powers and global institutions.

Finally, POTUS has it within his/her power to dominate the public discourse by using the bully pulpit and the free media attention that comes with it. That is what a demagogue values most.

In this context, the primary imperative for any new ascendant to the presidency of the United States is ‘to do no harm’. If you review the record of the 44 presidents the republic has endured, then it is hard to argue that more than a handful of them have been transformational in a positive sense. But generally they have been able to avoid doing great harm to the country, in a way like Hitler has done to Germany, Stalin has done to the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong has done to China. Most US presidencies have been forgettable and done harm only in the sense of wasting time and squandering opportunities. 

But that may change if the American people don’t come to their senses and keep Donald Trump from becoming the nation’s 45th president. If Trump gets elected and follows through on some of his most outrageous campaign statements about the Middle East, North Korea, China, Russia and Mexico, America will be in a world of trouble the likes of which we have not ever seen before. Max Boot and Benn Steil elaborate on this in an excellent article in the upcoming issue of the Weekly Standard under the title ‘Selling America Short’.

Who can, in good conscience, vote for a candidate for the highest office in the USA (if not the world) who speaks in vulgar, insulting and demeaning slogans only, who promises action no US president is authorized by the constitution to undertake and who refuses to address with any specificity the question what he will do to deal with the most formidable challenges the nation faces?

It is time to suspend our disbelief. The betting world gives Donald Trump better than even odds to not only grab the Republican nomination but also then to proceed and beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. The only authority that can prevent that from happening is not the RNC, the DNC, the FBI, the IRS or the Supreme Court (unless, of course, the IRS audit surfaces tax evasion or other irregularities or the FBI finds evidence of malfeasance at the Trump University), but the American voting public. However, there is a real danger that a significant voting block will be so disenchanted with a Trump-Clinton contest that they don’t bother to go to the polls, which will definitely be in Trump’s favor because his supporters, smelling blood in the water, will not pass up this opportunity.

Do we really want to make the White House the home of a 24/7 reality show, the mother of all reality shows, and make America as disrespected as Italy was under Silvio Berlusconi? Do we really want a narcissistic, idiosyncratic, apprentice at the top of our federal government? If not, let all the voices of reason speak out before it is too late. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


The death of Justice Antonin Scalia had not been announced for more than three hours or his succession at the Supreme Court turned immediately into a political brawl. It made me observe that, If politicians have no respect for the solemnity of the moment when we should pay tribute to and celebrate the life of a great societal leader, how can we ever expect them to respect their lesser constituents who vote them in and out of office?

Could the people who represent us in elected office, and those who want to be elected, not wait until Justice Scalia had been laid to rest before politicizing his passing in a most distasteful display of partisan posturing?

No doubt, we will hear some of these loudmouths eulogizing Antonin Scalia in the most pious and reverent terms when the funeral service will be held this Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. How hypocritical will they sound when from one side of their mouth they will put this defender of the constitution on a pedestal, while from the other side of their mouth they proclaim, in defiance of the constitutional mandate thrust upon them, that they have no intent to offer the President Obama their advice and consent when the President fulfills his constitutional duty to name a replacement for the departed Justice. What a display of irreverence for the giant champion of the originalist, text based, interpretation of the US Constitution!

Even Paul Ryan, although the House of Representatives has no role to play in the confirmation of appointees to the Supreme Court, could not keep his powder dry and publicly endorsed the refusal by the majority leader in the Senate to deal with the nomination of Scalia’s successor if brought up in this last year of Obama’s presidency.

I am sympathetic to so many tenets of the Republican ideology, like a limited, efficient and disciplined federal government that cedes to the States in most areas of public governance, but I feel zero affinity with the political zealots that are now the most vocal prophets of the right wing demagoguery of what once was the Grand Old Party.

For the Republicans in Congress to respond to Scalia’s death the way they have over the last few days, they must have supreme confidence in two things: that they will regain the White House in the November election and that they will continue control of the Senate. Why else are they, at what could very well amount to a high political cost, so adamant that they will not consider an Obama nomination, even if the president comes forward with an eminently qualified nominee? By their myopic, populist zeal, they are almost daring to be denied by the voters in November. And then what?

It would be a good time for the members of Congress to be somewhat more introspective of their own shortcomings. If Congress is doing the People’s work, the work they were elected to do, they would have little reason to fear a more activist Supreme Court. One of the main reasons why Antonin Scalia resisted in so many cases to join a majority ruling by the Supreme Court is exactly that he did not want the court to provide cover for legislators who were not doing their job. Scalia was fiercely protective of the separation of powers: let the legislative branch do what is constitutionally theirs to do, i.e. write the law, and let the Supreme Court assure that the law gets correctly and uniformly applied. If Congress does its job and legislates the main political issues of our time, there is much less room and reason for the Supreme Court to step into a law making role.

If the Republicans in the Senate stick to their guns, we can be looking forward to a very long period of having an 8 person Supreme Court (that is if no other vacancies pop up in the meantime). Because, if no action is taken on filling the vacancy on the court during Obama’s tenure, it could easily take a year or more to confirm a nominee coming from the next president, particularly if the next president is again a Democrat and the Republicans retain control of the Senate. Is that good for the nation? It would likely mean that some of the stalemate that has stymied Congress will now be expanded to the Supreme Court.

Of the remaining eight Justices, Justice Bader Ginsberg is in her early eighties and Justices Kennedy and Breyer are in their late seventies. How long can we expect them to continue to serve and, if they, or any of them, resign or die will the Congress just stand idly by? What a dereliction of duty would that be! We can only hope that the voters would punish the culprits by throwing them out of office.

Constitutional scholars have already determined that in the history of the United States, on 13 occasions a vacancy on the Supreme Court has occurred – through death, retirement or resignation – during a presidential election year. So, there is enough precedent for taking up the replacement of Justice Scalia before a new President and Congress is chosen.

Republicans are courting disaster, for themselves, their party, but also for the orderly governance of the nation if they don’t come to their senses and do their constitutional duty to offer the president advice and consent when he, as he already said he will, nominates one of nation’s legal scholars to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


For all the money America will spend on the 2016 elections, I’m afraid it will get very little in return. 
Current estimates are that the presidential campaigns alone will spend at least $10 billion in their efforts to put their candidate in the White House. In spite of the exceptionally long list of republican candidates, after the Iowa caucuses there are only a few credible candidates left with a realistic chance to make it all the way to the White House. That is if you believe, like I do, that a self-declared socialist will not survive the democratic nomination process and that the republicans will back away from committing harakiri with either one of the current front runners, Trump or Cruz.

It is interesting that both sides in this campaign, the left and the right, call out for a revolution. Eight years ago the magic word was ‘change’. Now that is no longer good enough, we need a 'revolution'. The rhetoric has been ‘Trumped up’.

Most of the candidates will make you believe that these will be the most consequential elections of our lifetime (why else would they bother to run?), but I have argued before, and still do, that in the existing American political system, the significance and impact of who occupies the White House is highly overrated by the public and the media. It is astonishing that so many ambitious politicians, and now outsiders as well, are willing to disrupt their otherwise orderly lives by running for the presidency of the United States. Don’t they see how little the last two occupants of that office have been able to achieve in two full terms as president? Don’t they see that Barak Obama is constantly testing the boundaries of his constitutional power, because he is frustrated at every turn in his attempts to get even the most modest parts of his agenda accomplished through Congress? Only to get slapped on the wrist by the Supreme Court. Do the candidates still running for president really believe it, or expect us to believe them, when they say things like ‘when elected president, I will …….’, you fill in the rest? Ask them how they will make good on their promises, and they will all fall silent. Without exception, the stump speeches of all remaining candidates are ‘Trumped up’ in that all promises and representations will be out of the window once the election has been decided and the reality takes over.

Here is my dilemma. I, too believe, that we need a revolution. Just not the one that Bernie Sanders wants to see happen, nor the one that the extreme right GOP candidates – juiced up by the radio talk hosts – are promising us. We need a revolution in our political system before we can revolutionize the political agenda.

First, we need to get big money out of politics. No agenda will have a chance to be implemented as long as our representatives in Congress receive their signals from their campaign donors rather than their constituents.

Second, we need a constitutional amendment that mandates a national strategic plan. As a nation we need to get our priorities straight. We need to forge a consensus on what we want (need) to achieve as a nation over the next 10-15 years. And we need to uncouple the time horizon for our national strategic objectives from the presidential election cycle.

Third, we need to restore fiscal order by putting the horse back before the cart rather than behind it where it currently is. An effective fiscal discipline starts with the process of matching the long term revenue stream for the public sector with the cost of the implementation of the national strategic agenda. In simple terms, you first decide what you want to get done, then you project what it is going to cost you and finally you design a revenue generation system that will get you what you need. America needs a complete tax overhaul in the worst possible way. It is time to shift some emphasis from taxing income to taxing consumption. The time for a value add tax (VAT) like the one that exists in Europe has come. And in the income tax arena two principles need to be observed: it should be fair (proportional to disposable income) and certain (no exceptions and exemptions for the people who can afford expensive tax counsel or for companies that have political clout and can move money around). The bottom line on tax reform is that revenues should be made to match expenditures.

Fourth, a slew of changes in the election process should be considered, to include limiting the time allowed for campaigning, term limits, a one term (7-8 years) presidency, redistricting without gerrymandering and abolition of the electoral college.

Finally, the forming of a centrist third party, moving the Democrats more towards the Sanders corner and the Republicans more towards the Cruz corner would have the potential of breaking the stalemate in Congress between the left and the right and would offer the voters a much clearer choice than they currently have.

Without a revolution of sorts in the political system, none of the candidates who are still in the race can give the voters a good return on their investment in the 2016 election. They will all be powerless to convert their slogans into action and all that will remain is ‘Trumped up’ rhetoric, another public disappointment and an even stronger cry for a revolution four years from now.