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Saturday, September 23, 2017
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  • BLOOMINGTON – Our nation is in a dark period. Can we pull ourselves out? Keep this in mind: Our institutions are far more durable than any single president or any single historical period. An interesting thing keeps happening to me. Every few days, someone – an acquaintance, a colleague, even a stranger on the street – approaches me. They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period? For the many Americans who respect representative democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, there’s reason to be concerned. The president is off to a rocky start; he’s unproductive and undignified at home and derided on the world stage. Congress struggles to get its bearings. In the country at large, forces of intolerance and division are at loose on the streets and on the nightly news.
  • BLOOMINGTON – One reason I consider myself fortunate to have led a life in politics is that, over time, I’ve had a chance to work with nine presidents. From Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama, I’ve talked policy, politics and, sometimes, the trivial details of daily life, with them. I met JFK twice for brief conversations. I don’t know our current president, but I’ve gained valuable perspective from his predecessors. Johnson was a deal-maker, always trying to figure out how to get your vote. He came into office with a clear vision of what he wanted to do, and on the domestic side notched accomplishments unmatched in recent decades. Yet he was brought down by the Vietnam War, a war he could neither win nor quit. Richard Nixon, one of the more complex personalities to inhabit the office, often spoke to me about his mother and her home in Indiana. Highly intelligent, brimming with energy, extremely ambitious, he was also uneasy in social settings and could be vindictive. He focused intently on policy, especially foreign policy, and yet had a flawed moral compass.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The heart of representative democracy rests in the communication between the electorate and elected officials. We should make this conversation more fruitful and effective. Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do – but we have to exercise it. I don’t just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or shooting off a letter or email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative – in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or wherever else you can meet – and holding a real conversation. We don’t do this often enough, perhaps because most people think it’s impossible to arrange. It’s not, although it might take patience to get an appointment with a busy representative. And to my mind, it’s the most effective way for citizens to communicate with their representatives. This is important because the heart of a representative democracy does not lie in its electorate, or even its elected officials. It rests in the communication between them, in the give and take that allows each to understand the other.
  • BLOOMINGTON – There’s no shortage of threats to our democracy. Russian meddling in elections, the vulnerability of state voting systems to hacking, politicians’ assaults on the media, and political leaders’ growing fondness for policy-making in secret – all of these pose a real challenge to our system’s viability. As worrisome as these are, there’s one problem that may be the greatest threat of all: Americans’ loss of faith in politics and democratic institutions. This has been building for decades, dating back to the Vietnam War and Watergate, and the long-term economic challenges – recession, inflation, widening inequality, the shifting nature of work, a series of financial crises – that grew out of that era. It’s rooted in our system’s apparent inability to overcome deep divisions in the country: Urban and rural, liberal and conservative, the mass of ordinary Americans and the elite, divides over race and ethnicity and gender politics and... well, you know the list as well as I do. The truth is, in the face of this teeming, complicated, diverse society, our political institutions have performed inadequately.
  • BLOOMINGTON – A lot of people want what I do from the media and feel they’re not getting it: More facts and fewer opinions; more investigative reporters and fewer pundits; more substance and less fluff; more policy exploration and less politics.  I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I’m a traditionalist. Old-fashioned, even. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder “Is Truth Dead?” on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was. Straightforward, responsible journalism is an indispensable public asset, a cornerstone of democratic life. This is threatened by the trends reshaping the media landscape. With less consensus around information and data, the cohesiveness of our society is diminished.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Using the debt ceiling as a means of reining in excessive spending has not worked. Our political efforts should go toward finding long-term solutions that restrain spending and boost tax revenue. Back when I was in Congress, I got a call from a constituent one day. I’d recently voted to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and the man was more than irate. “Don’t you understand that we’ve got a serious spending and debt problem in this country?” he asked. “Why did you cast this idiotic vote?” He was right about the problem. But he was wrong about the vote. With Congress fast approaching another debt-ceiling vote and yet one more “fiscal cliff” drama taking shape, I’d like to explain why that is. If you ask members of Congress which regular vote they most dread, this one would probably top the list. It’s hard to explain to constituents why raising the debt ceiling is necessary, as indeed I had trouble explaining to my own constituent.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The decision to send troops overseas requires clear eyes, hard questions and specific answers. The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has shown an apparent appetite for the use of force overseas. The “mother of all bombs” dropped on Syrian troops, saber-rattling toward North Korea, deployments of U.S. forces in 10 or more countries — all of this suggests a growing comfort with the idea of putting our troops in dangerous places. Politicians on Capitol Hill have noticed this. In particular, senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, and Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, have introduced legislation to authorize the use of military force against ISIS and other terror groups. This is an effort to assert congressional authority and extend Capitol Hill’s oversight over the use of force by the White House, something Congress has long neglected. “It’s our constitutional duty in Congress to authorize military action,” Kaine said at the end of May. All I can say is, Amen! American soldiers are involved in combat situations in countries all over the globe.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Politics can be messy, but not because it’s tainted or morally bankrupt. It’s messy because it often reflects deep-seated disagreements that are hard to resolve, with merit on both sides. I’ve had a number of conversations recently that convince me our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap. No, I’m not talking about liberals and conservatives, or pro- and anti-Trump voters. I’m talking about people who believe in politics and our political system, and people who don’t. I’ve found this latter view expressed most frequently among young people. In lecture halls and in informal conversations, I’ve spent some uncomfortable hours serving as a human pincushion for their pointed barbs about the system they’ve grown up in. Many are uninterested in politics. They do not see politics as a worthy pursuit or even as an honorable vocation. They doubt our political institutions can be made to work, are suspicious of elected officials in general, and don’t believe that our democratic institutions are capable either of solving the problems faced by the country or of helping them as individuals.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Every few months we have to contemplate the very real possibility that the government might close its doors. Is this really the best we can do? Think about this for a moment. Two days away from a federal shutdown, Congress comes up with a stopgap measure to keep the government operating – for a week. A few days later it arrives at a bipartisan budget deal lasting a bit over four months. This, in turn, moves the president to take to Twitter with the following statement: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” With respect to President Trump, this assertion seems more focused on settling political scores than on the good of the country. There is no such thing as a “good” shutdown. The last time it happened, in 2013, it cost the economy $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s at the time. National institutions get shuttered, federal workers are out of a job for an indeterminate period, federal loans and support for veterans are frozen, state and local governments – and all the businesses, non-profits and community organizations that depend on them – face cash shortages, and the country’s most economically vulnerable must shift for themselves. All that and more happens during a shutdown.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I have significant differences with Donald Trump’s political stances, but I want him to enjoy a successful presidency. It’s good for neither the country nor the world when a U.S. president struggles or fails. Yet I also believe that constructive criticism can help a president grow more capable. It’s in this spirit that I want to take a hard look at the Trump presidency so far. President Trump’s personal and stylistic approaches may have served him in business and on the campaign trail, but are problematic in office. He has an unfortunate tendency to dodge blame for things that go wrong. He makes charges with no evidence to support them and refuses to admit he was wrong. He routinely over-inflates his achievements, as when he recently declared that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days,” an assertion that no one familiar with FDR’s and other notable presidents’ first months in office would accept. Crucially, he does not appear to know how to use or coordinate the levers of American power – economic, diplomatic and political. He appreciates military power, but lacks a coherent, comprehensive strategy and the clarity, consistency, and discipline required to apply one.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Our representative democracy depends on voters developing discriminating judgments about policies and politicians. They can’t do that if vital information is withheld from them. For the last few years, I’ve been keeping a file of clippings about the erosion of transparency and candor in government. I’m sorry to report that it’s getting rather full. This is not a good thing. Public officials should feel strongly obliged to do their business in an open and upfront manner. When you hold public office, the presumption ought always to be in favor of the people’s right to know what’s going on. If you don’t want to be open to scrutiny, then the burden surely has to be on you to say specifically why that’s necessary. This doesn’t seem to be a commonly held view in Washington these days, though the precedent for non-disclosure is bipartisan. News conferences have been rare for Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. During the George W. Bush administration the NSA was wiretapping Americans’ overseas communications based on legal justifications that were withheld from the public. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department pushed to compromise a fundamental principle under which federal agencies made public their rationale for how they interpreted and administered the law.
  • BLOOMINGTON – If we are to rebuild and sustain public faith in our democracy’s integrity, we need an investigation conducted in the light of day, by people who seek the truth and have standing and legitimacy on both sides of the political aisle. The recent announcement by FBI Director James Comey that his agency is investigating links between members of President Trump’s campaign and Russia has upended Washington. Yet there needs to be an even stronger and broader investigation to get to the bottom of what happened. There are really two questions at hand. The first involves Russian meddling in our election and their attempts to manipulate the outcome. They clearly have the ability to affect the public debate and public perceptions, and maybe hack the election itself. And it’s not just us; they appear bent on meddling in elections in other Western democracies as well. This is serious stuff. The Russians are trying to manipulate the very foundation of representative government, free elections and the integrity of our institutions. They want to weaken our system. It’s crucial to understand exactly what they’re up to, the capabilities they possess, and how effective they’ve been.
  • BLOOMINGTON –  The challenge our political leaders face is how to get through the thicket of conflicting principles, interests and dogmas in our sprawling democracy. As you watch the healthcare proceedings on Capitol Hill, imagine what things might be like if we lived in more functional political times. In particular, what if Congress were run by pragmatists? It would not change the issues at hand. On the one side, you’d have the Republican majority in Congress, which for the most part believes that the healthcare system should be left to the private sector. On the other side would be Democrats who, to varying degrees, see an important role for government to play. What would change would be how the two sides reconciled their differences. Rather than maneuver the proceedings for political gain or worry first about their political bases, they’d be dead-set on a healthcare overhaul that improved the system and was politically sustainable.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Many sources of information today cater to a narrow political view, making no pretense of objectivity. Their goal is to incite, not inform. What’s needed is a common base of knowledge we can use to forge agreement. The job of being a citizen, and being a member of Congress, has gotten much harder of late. As sources of information proliferate and “news” not actually grounded in fact grows common on social media, Americans have to work to sort reality from fiction and insight from disinformation. This is a challenge for our representative democracy. And we’ve only begun to grapple with it. Why should too much information be a problem? Let’s start with what I consider to be the most important skill in a representative democracy – not just in government, but within private organizations as well – building consensus. Without forging agreement among people who see the world differently, it’s difficult to move governments and organizations forward.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Public confidence in government can be regained only through exemplary performance. With so much turmoil in Washington and around the country these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the crises of the moment. These are, indeed, worth our attention, but so are longer-running developments that threaten the health of our representative democracy. I want to lay them out in one place, so that the most serious problems confronting our system don’t slip from our attention. First, it has become very hard to make our system work. Our country is so large, so complex – and, at the moment, so polarized and divided – that it’s tough to make progress on the challenges that beset us.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The responsibility for making this a better country lies with each of us.  As a country, we make a habit of looking forward, not backward. But I’m going to ask you to turn your attention back a few weeks, to Barack Obama’s Jan. 10 farewell address to the American people. I’ve been reading presidential farewell speeches for many years. Most of them give good advice. This speech, however, was exceptional. It can be read with benefit by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, because it says a lot of things that we need to hear about our system and our country. I hope that for some time to come, this speech will be a topic of conversation in classrooms, at church socials, and around the table at local service clubs. Why? To begin with, the speech is filled with confidence in ordinary people and respect for what workaday Americans can accomplish. This is a founding value of our country – both a promise and a call to civic arms. Our rights, the former president notes, “have never been self-executing.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – The problem is not just the politicians. It’s us, too. There are a lot of dire predictions about our representative democracy out there. We’re just past a presidential election campaign in which candidates complained about a rigged political system. Now, commentators worry about the imminent failure of the American experiment. I don’t agree with these predictions of calamity. Our representative democracy is not on the verge of collapse. But I do see stresses and tensions that should concern anyone who cares about our system of self-government. Our representative democracy has been remarkably stable and successful for over two hundred years, but that is no guarantee it will survive and prosper.
       
  • BLOOMINGTON – Cooperation between the President and Congress should be far more assured than in the last six years. But the commitments and promises made during the campaign will be very hard to carry out. As hard as the campaign might have been and the transition is proving to be, Donald Trump’s challenges are really just beginning. Governing after a toxic election in which the results awarded him an ambiguous national mandate – his opponent, after all, got more votes – will require finesse, a clear-eyed view of his role in the world, and no small amount of luck. There is no question that, come January, President Trump and the Republican majority in Congress will be in firm control of the government. They will be able to call the shots on policy, and cooperation between the president and Congress should be far more assured than it has been for the last six years. He will soon find, even under these circumstances, that the commitments and promises made during the campaign are going to be very hard to carry out.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We’re faced with a fundamental disagreement among state governments as to how they should treat Americans’ most basic right. One of the more intriguing aspects of this unusual election year is the extent to which the underpinning of the election itself — voting — has become an issue in its own right. An act that we used to take for granted is increasingly being called into question. Just look at the headlines from the past few months. Russia, it seems clear, was trying to meddle in the process, sowing confusion and distrust about the integrity of the vote and about the vibrancy and fairness of our democracy. There have been questions about the cyber-security of voting infrastructure across the country — “States Unprepared for Election Day Cyber Attack,” ran the headline on a Politico story 10 days before the election. There are worries about the fragility of our voting system in general, what with its patchwork of procedures, obsolete machinery, and increasingly complex training requirements for poll workers. And, of course, you’ve got the cries from one of the presidential candidates that the entire system is rigged against him.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We should change the nature of presidential debates to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff. We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers. The contest is close, and the chance to watch the two candidates spar with one another face to face makes for entertaining television. This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. They get tremendous coverage throughout the media universe, both while they’re taking place and in the days that follow. They let the voters see the candidates under pressure and gauge their performance. As scripted as they can sometimes seem, they still let us watch the candidates think on their feet. They’re serious events, and are certainly more substantive than campaign speeches and television commercials. It’s true that they don’t usually change the trajectory of a race, although we won’t know until election night whether this year’s debates played a role in the outcome. They can reinforce enthusiasm, but it’s rare that they create it from scratch. Yet I think our focus on debates, at least in the form they currently take, is misplaced. It’s not so much that they reward one-upmanship, a quick wit, and clever zingers, although they do. Rather, I think they don’t actually help us make a good choice.
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  • Pence presses Donnelly on tax reform as McCain scuttles health bill
    "We will make America safe again. We will make America prosperous again. And to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again." - Vice President Mike Pence, appearing in Anderson to push President Trump’s tax reform plan. Pence made a pitch to Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who attended the speech, saying, "Senator Joe Donnelly we need your help." Pence’s appearance came as U.S. Sen. John McCain announced he will vote against the Graham/Cassidy health care bill, saying, “I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried.” Pence had been lobbying Senate Republicans to support the plan, which is now opposed by McCain and Sen. Rand Paul, with Sen. Susan Collins likely to vote against the measure.
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  • Mike and Hillary
    We’ve watched 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton make the rounds on her new book: “What Happened.” The reaction has been cringes from Democrats hoping to move on, a set-the-record mentality from some journalistic quarters, and taunts from Republicans. Vice President Pence has the best line of all, with this tweet Thursday morning: “The first book that has the question and the answer on the cover.” Good line, Mike, er … Mr. Vice President. It harkens back to those studio days near the Speedway and a retreat to Claude & Annies. - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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