Tag Archives: politics

Historical Patterns of Party Power


As I have watched and read about the events of the last week unfold, from the confirmation hearings to the inauguration to the marches around our nation, I was most struck by one graphic in The Wall Street Journal, published on p. A5 of the U.S. edition on January 21, 2017. This graphic shows the distribution of power between Republicans and Democrats in the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives from the Eisenhower era to the present—essentially, for my entire life.

I’ve pasted a copy of this graphic above. Here is a link to a PDF of the graphic, if you need better resolution to view it. The information in this graphic really deserves some time and thought—and better commentary than I am able to give.

We are a nation of divided power, and have been for most of the last forty years. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter could count on Democrats in the legislature to back them (and vice versa—Congress could count on a President of the same party to sign their bills). But since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980—now 36 years ago—here is the sum total of the periods in which we have had a Presidency united with both houses of Congress:

  • Bill Clinton got two years, 1993-1995
  • George W. Bush got six years, 2001-2007 (if you count the Vice-President breaking the tie)
  • Barack Obama got two years, 2009-2011

Only ten of the past thirty-six years have seen our executive and legislative branches united. Four of those years have had Democrat leadership, and six have had Republican.

And now Donald Trump in 2017 . . . for how long?

Another fact jumped out at me from this visual. Congress was a Democrat institution from the 1950s until the 1990s. I knew this intellectually, but seeing it in red and blue in this graphic hit me in the face. No wonder there was a steady trend toward more liberal policies through that forty-year era.

I remember watching the election returns in November 1980 with some conservative coworkers (who were more conservative than I was at the time). As it became apparent that the Republicans would take the Senate, they became increasingly elated—something was happening that most of them had not seen in their adult lives. They were giddy with the possibilities.

The shift toward Republicans began in the Senate with Reagan in 1980, but it didn’t infiltrate the House until Bill Clinton’s administration. The Democrats took Congress back in 2007, and kept it through the first two years of Barack Obama’s administration. Given their forty-year history of control, they must have felt they were taking back their birthright (though, of course, it never was that). But our memories are not so short that we forget that Democratic hubris during the passage of the Affordable Care Act led to the loss of first the House and then the Senate.

As I perused this chart, I wondered if there wasn’t more moderation in both parties when the Democrats could count on holding Congress. There was certainly more breadth to both Democrat and Republican legislators in that pre-Clinton era. Now that both parties can see the possibility of having the majority in the legislative branch, they pander more to their bases. As each takes power from the other, they try to capitalize as much as possible on enacting their goals in the short-term, because they cannot count on the long-term. And they do everything they can to blame the other party, in the hopes of swaying voters to give them back (or let them keep) the reins.

Perhaps we need to consider how parliamentarian systems transfer power without total lurches from one extreme to the other. Or how to deal with those lurches when they happen. The U.S. does not have any institutional memory on how to cope with total shifts in power.

Of course, Donald Trump comes to his term in office as an outsider, with few connections to the Republican Congress that will serve with him. I wonder how his populist strategy will fit with the Washington insiders. Will he reap the benefit of a compatible legislature, or will he distance himself from the Republicans in Congress he will need to implement the changes he says he wants?

Those are my major takeaways as I look at this historical picture of our nation’s distribution of power.

What thoughts to you have about this graphical history of U.S. politics?

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After the Election, Let’s Hope for Reconciliation, Not Gridlock

Well, the election last Tuesday didn’t produce gridlock, as I had hoped for two weeks ago. Frankly, when I wrote that post about gridlock, I fully anticipated a Clinton victory. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting that outcome, but that was what I thought would happen. I hoped for gridlock to contain the continued Democratic excesses I think have occurred in the last eight years.


Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Now that the President-elect is Donald Trump, do I still hope for gridlock? No. I am no more of a fan of Donald Trump’s than I was before the election, but I now hope for reconciliation.

I hope Republicans can develop a reasonable agenda. Not an agenda that pushes too far right. Not a wacky foreign policy that abandons our nation’s position in the world. But an agenda that earnestly works to improve the economic standing of all Americans.

I hope Republicans preserve the freedoms they value—religious freedom, gun rights, and a broad interpretation of the First Amendment—while also preserving freedoms for Americans who do not typically vote Republican—Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christian minorities, the LGBT community, and others who feel marginalized by the election results.

I also hope the Republican majorities in Congress will reach across the aisle to pull in Democrats’ ideas on solutions to the thorny problems facing our nation. Many Trump supporters only have to remember how they felt after the excesses of the Obama Administration to understand how Clinton supporters feel now. I hope Republicans learned a lesson from how they felt in 2008-2010, when a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate permitted Democrats to enact laws (including Obamacare) without any input from Republicans.

“Turn about is fair play” is not a good governing strategy for Republicans now.

I’m not optimistic. Not about the Republicans’ ability to work together within their party, nor about their ability to compromise with Democrats. I still would not be surprised to see gridlock. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of placing the Presidency and Congress in the hands of different parties. But Democrats in the Senate are likely to use filibusters and other procedural rules to retain a minority check on Republicans. And the Republicans will probably have difficulty uniting around an agenda. Gridlock is still quite possible.

Still, I hope I’m as wrong in my pessimism as I was about Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th President.

What is your hope for our nation in the next four years?

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The Best We Can Hope for Is Gridlock

vote-stars1In some states, voting has been underway for weeks. For the rest of us, we have to endure this presidential election campaign for another eight days. A truly ghoulish proposition this Halloween.

For almost all of us, it has been a miserable year. We have two of the least liked candidates for President in our nation’s history. Both have flaws as candidates, with the flaws evident in their personal traits, in their histories in public life, and in their positions on issues. New evidence of their flaws surfaces almost daily, with the latest being the FBI’s announcement on October 28 of its renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of choosing between two bad options. I keep remembering the quote from Thomas Merton I included in that earlier post: “an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences.”

The more we have learned about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the last year, the more difficult the choice has become. I’ve made my decision. I’ve considered the four candidates on every state’s ballot. I’ve considered not voting in the presidential race (but I’ve rejected not voting at all, for reasons described below). I’m not going to disclose here how I’ll cast my vote in the presidential race, because this year in particular there is no good decision, and I do not fault anyone for reaching a different conclusion than I do.

Instead, the purpose of this post is to urge voters to make independent and thoughtful decisions when they select their choices for all races on the ballot. This is not a year to blindly vote a straight party ticket to avoid making choices in down-ballot races. Whatever the reasons a voter has for choosing a presidential candidate—or for not choosing anyone in that race—there are separate reasons to consider Congressional, state and local races.

Our Constitution deliberately sets up checks and balances on each branch of the federal government. The framers must have considered the potential for unsavory candidates for President. Frankly, having Congress and the Supreme Court as checks on the presidential candidates we have before us this year sounds like a good plan to me.

We’ve had gridlock in Washington for the past six years since Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The split deepened in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate as well. And it hasn’t been all bad. A lot of people fume about nothing getting done in Washington. But getting nothing done is certainly better than getting the wrong things done. Witness the problems with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank after unfettered Democratic actions between 2008 and 2010.

Those of us who were extremely frustrated at the lack of any effective conservative voice in opposition to President Obama between 2008 and 2010 were happy to see gridlock for the remainder of his presidency. Yes, there are important issues that have been kicked down the road for future leaders. That isn’t good, but again, it is better than resolving these issues in the wrong way.

At this point, the best outcome I see for the next four years is continued gridlock. Because I do not trust either of the individuals likely to be our next President to act wisely (meaning, usually in accordance with my beliefs), I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will continue to check actions that do not appeal to the majority of our nation or that go beyond the Constitutional powers granted to the President.

I might hope for compromise between divided branches of government, and perhaps that is possible. But I would be satisfied with gridlock, given the alternative.

So choose your candidates for the House and Senate with care. If you don’t have a good option for President, perhaps you have reasonable men and women to vote for in these other federal races. And choose your candidates for state and local races thoughtfully also—these elected officials have a tremendous impact on your daily life, and we can hope that the best of them will be our next national leaders as well. Choose people who will represent you better than the presidential candidates we have.

Whatever you believe, vote on or before November 8. Make your choices thoughtfully and deliberately in every race on the ballot.

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My Political Quandary: How Do I Choose the Good?

american-politics party imagesLike many Americans, I find myself in a quandary, now that it appears that the two main presumptive Presidential candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I find myself wanting neither of the above.

I do not see Mr. Trump as an acceptable Presidential personality, I do not think he has sufficient political experience, and I do not trust that his positions will match most of my own. I do not find his bullying braggadocio attractive, and I do not want to listen to it for the next six months, let alone four (or eight) years after that.

I have disagreed with most of Mrs. Clinton’s positions for more than two decades, I do not think she is a trustworthy candidate, and I despised her husband’s peccadilloes in office and don’t want him anywhere near the White House again. Although she has a good political pedigree, she is as paranoid as Richard Nixon and about as charismatic.

I don’t typically write about religion in this blog, but I find myself reflecting on a bit from Thomas Merton this week:

“We find ourselves more and more backed into a corner in which there seems to be no choice but that of a ‘lesser evil’ . . . . But an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences. When one chooses to do good irrespective of the consequences, it is a paradox that the consequences will ultimately be good.”

Merton continues:

We must recover our inner faith not only in God but in the good . . . In the power of the good to take care of itself and us as well.”

From Conjectures of a Guily Bystander, part 2.

And so I have decided that my task over the next several months is to decide what the “good” is. I will not stoop to picking the lesser of the two evils.

I don’t know yet what the “good” will be for me.

Can I find one of these candidates acceptable? Will one of the two contenders rise above “lesser of two evil” status and make me think he or she will be a good President?

Will a third option become appealing? Who are the other candidates, and what do they have to offer?

Should I choose not to vote in this election? I can’t allow my dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket to harm other candidates for state and local races, but I can choose to leave the first spot on the ballot empty. That may be the “good” this year.

I have until November 8 to decide. Whatever I decide, however, I will remember that I do not need to choose the lesser evil. If I do, it will not have wholly good consequences.

When have you faced only unfortunate choices?


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Politics in the Workplace: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

american-politics party imagesIt seems the Presidential campaign of 2016 has been going on forever, and we still have more than seven more months to go. For those of us in the workplace, every day is a minefield. Do we voice our opinions? Do we stifle others who voice theirs? Just like at the dinner table, politics and religion are difficult topics in the workplace.

1. What laws control political speech at work?

First of all, remember that the First Amendment does not apply to private employers. Employees do not have free speech rights that either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations have to recognize at the office. Therefore, private employers have a lot of discretion in how they address political speech and other expressions.

Indeed, political speech and activities, even away from the job, has cost even high-level employees their jobs. Remember that Brendan Eich was fired as CEO of Mozilla because of a political donation.

However, employer discretion does have limits. The National Labor Relations Act can permit political discussions and distribution of political materials in nonworking areas and on nonworking time.

Moreover, some state laws restrict what employers can do.  Some state statutes protect employees who discuss politics at work or who wear or display political symbols. Other states prohibit disciplinary action or other retaliation against employees who engage in political activities. And many states forbid employers from coercing political action or particular votes by their employees. It’s important to know the law in your jurisdiction.

One commentator has stated bluntly:

Most people have an opinion when it comes to politics. So should employers and HR managers keep such talk out of the workplace?

They can’t, experts say, since attempting to ban political discussions is not only illegal, but also impossible to enforce from a practical perspective. But employers still have a responsibility to make sure workers feel comfortable at work. And it’s a delicate balance, employment lawyers say, because one person’s free speech is another person’s loud-mouthed bullying.

See Political Debates in the Workplace: Where to Draw the Line, by Susan Milligan, published on the SHRM website on May 12, 2015. This may be an overstatement, but it’s worth considering. And it’s probably true in some jurisdictions.

Whatever the law, remember that employers can set productivity and behavioral standards. Even in states with limits on employer responses to employee political speech and action, an employer can discipline or discharge an employee for legitimate, business-related reasons. Therefore, if an employee engages in behavior that interferes with the workplace or with his job duties, or if the employee is disruptive or violates some legitimate work policy, the employer can take action.

As with most policy-oriented actions, however, employers are on firmer ground if they apply their policies uniformly, without any discriminating against any protected group or based on the employee’s party or other political persuasion or position. It is easy for political activity to get mixed with race, gender or religion, so claims based on these protected categories are quite possible, if an employer isn’t careful.

2. What should managers do?

Susan Milligan suggests the following three tips:

  • Set the tone from the top by making sure managers respect the views of others.
  • Encourage in-person interaction. Technology makes it tempting to communicate by email—another vehicle for heated political comments—but talking face to face is more likely to improve people’s behavior.
  • Establish a culture of civility. All discussions—including political discussions—should be respectful and should abide by the company’s anti-harassment and other behavioral policies

Having a written policy about political expressions (speech, apparel, buttons, and other symbols), is a good idea, so that employees understand what is and is not acceptable in that workplace. The policy should cover not only oral discussions but also written communications, such as email and social media. Furthermore, employers should respond to employee complaints about political disagreements, just as they would to any other complaints.

3. What should employees who want to be politically active do?

Find out whether your employer has a policy and what it says. Most employees will probably decide not to push the limits of what is acceptable during work hours.

We’re all in this for the rest of the year, regardless of our political opinions. A little respect and civility can go a long way, on this issue as on so many others.

When has an upcoming election or a political issue caused problems in your workplace?

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Picking a Supreme Court Justice—Always Political, Increasingly Partisan

Sup Ct wikipedia image

Supreme Court building, from Wikipedia

I have always thought that Presidential elections were more important for the regulators and the court appointees that the person elected made than for the individual’s personality or executive presence. The situation we find ourselves in now—picking a Supreme Court justice in the middle of a contentious election year—proves my point. The next Supreme Court justice is likely to serve for decades longer than President Obama . . . or than his successor, for that matter.

A non-attorney friend asked me what I thought about the debate over picking Justice Scalia’s replacement. This is an expanded version of what I told her.

Of course, President Obama can nominate a replacement. He can do so at a time of his choosing between now and when his term expires. He will probably do so soon, as he is entitled to do.

And the Senate is responsible for vetting that nominee and making an informed decision whether to approve or disapprove of that person. But there is no requirement that the Senate do so within any particular timeframe. And time is on the Republicans’ side in this situation.

Waiting a few months to make a decision on whether to hold hearings only makes sense from the Republican perspective. Waiting even longer to schedule a vote on the nomination also makes sense.

By mid-summer we will know who the Democrat and Republican nominees for President will be. Much can change between summer and November, but knowing who the nominees are will help the Senate assess what is likely to happen if they don’t appoint President Obama’s nominee. More information is always better for decision-making. It’s possible that President Obama’s nominee will seem the lesser of two evils and will get confirmed. It’s also possible that the Republicans will stall or vote down the nominee. All of this is their perogative to decide, as is the timeline.

Which is why I thought it was silly for Senator McConnell to announce immediately after Justice Scalia’s death that President Obama shouldn’t nominate anyone and the Senate wouldn’t act on any nomination the President did make. Why bother? Unless Senator McConnell thinks his statements will induce President Obama to name someone completely acceptable to Republicans. Which is doubtful.

The best thing that President Obama can do for the country is to nominate someone who has a known middle-of-the-road judicial record. Someone the Republicans might even approve of. But I doubt that happens.

(Well, actually, the best thing that President Obama could do in my opinion is to find a clone of Justice Scalia. But I know that won’t happen.)

The worst thing that President Obama can do for the country is to nominate a radically liberal candidate. That makes the Republicans’ decision to delay or deny the appointment easy. Then nothing will happen on approving a Supreme Court justice until 2017, when a new President makes a new nomination.

The most likely thing that President Obama will do is nominate someone who is quite liberal, but who the Republicans might have a hard time arguing against. A person of color or a woman who was approved for a lower court appointment. Perhaps someone with an unknown judicial record. In that case, the Republicans should definitely take a wait and see approach. Waiting until after Labor Day to make a decision would make sense.

I hope I’m wrong.

The process of selecting Supreme Court justices has always been political—that’s how the Constitution was designed. The President and the Senate both have roles in determining who leads on the third branch of our federal government, the Supreme Court. It might be that the Senate used to defer to the President’s choice more easily than today, but the President made political decisions in making the appointment, and the Senate was free to make political choices in how to respond.

In the last thirty years, the process has become increasingly partisan. But so has every other part of government. The issues confronting our nation today are huge and the divides wide. And we are split roughly 50/50 on these issues. That the Supreme Court has also been split has actually reflected the nation as a whole. If President Obama nominates a centrist judge who is approved, the Court would remain so. Anything else will tilt the Court, and the Republican Senate is unlikely to agree to such a change just before an election.

Which brings us back to my original point—who a President selects for judicial appointments is of critical importance to the nation and to our future.

What do you think will happen with the Supreme Court nomination? (Or should we all just wait and see?)

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Let’s Get Serious About What We Want Out of Government

vote-stars1In just a few short days, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will be making their choices on who they want to see as President for the next four years. Soon, voters in other states will follow.

I have been open about the concerns I’ve had during President Obama’s time in office. But the choices before us do not look like solutions. Both major parties are a mess.

On the Republican side, we have two bullies as front runners, and the rest of the pack runs far behind. Most candidates are rushing to the right.

Where are the candidates who recognize that we must manage the millions of illegal immigrants already in our society, that we must deal rationally with a dangerous world, and that we must substitute well-grounded plans for the government excesses of the last eight years?

On the Democrat side, we have one candidate who comes with heavy baggage and whom many distrust and another who professes socialism. They are rushing to the left.

Where are the candidates who understand that our nation’s fiscal problems cannot be solved by taxing only those making over $250,000 a year, that we must engage in the difficult task of reducing the cost of government, and that entitlement reform is needed to free up funds for other priorities?

And voters in both parties are seeking the anti-candidate, the one with the least experience in working in government. I believe this is one of the worst criteria to use in selecting our future leaders.

We want someone who has never dealt with politics before??? We think our leaders should stay above the fray rather than engaging in compromise??? We trust someone who has never demonstrated an ability to make things happen in Washington??? Who thinks that by declaring “this is what I want” it will happen???

Declaring “this is what I want” does not work in business, and it doesn’t even work in the military where hierarchy is clear. It certainly will not get the job done in our federal government.

It’s time for voters to get serious.

If voters want to debate policy concerns, that’s fine. There can be a debate over the issues of immigration and entitlement and foreign policy.

And if voters want to consider integrity or likability in making their choices, I’d agree those are factors in selecting a good leader.

But we shouldn’t choose a candidate because he or she has never governed before. And if we do, let’s not be surprised when we get someone who can’t govern.

As for me, I’m looking for someone who can work the system, not someone who despises the system. I’m not looking for someone who promises to blow up the system we have now, or who disregards the checks and balances that have served us well for over two hundred years. I’m looking for someone who understands and can articulate the decisions before us and their preferred course of action.

Beyond that, yes, I’m looking for conservative policies and regulations. I’m looking for someone who will support business growth, who believes what I believe, and who is electable. I’m looking for someone who develops rational solutions, who doesn’t always tell voters (including me) what they want to hear.

To date, I haven’t landed on any of the current candidates as someone I would support without qualification. But I have ruled out a few as people I could never support.

What do you look for in a political leader? And what are you doing to help elect such a person?

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