Campaign 2018: This Year it Wasn’t “THE ECONOMY. STUPID!”

Some of my great Democratic friends were disappointed in the election results and some are walking around with big smiles on their faces.  For the former, my guess is that they were caught up in both “irrational exuberance” and a burning desire to see voters reject Donald Trump in all his forms – especially longing for a big Senate win and sweeping the table. For those who see the silver lining, they came in with reduced expectations of the election, especially after 2016, and they were happy with Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives, picking up seven governorships and around 400 state legislative seats, despite the losses in the Senate.

After all, gaining what now looks like 40 House seats is an extraordinary feat not seen for the Democrats since the 1974 Watergate class.  Republicans had exceeded that number in both 1994 and 2010., when they won 54 and 63 House seats, respectively. And the defeat in the Presidential election of 2016 was a wound that would not heal.

But even to call the mid-term election of 2018 a “mixed bag” for the Democrats would ignore the elephant in the room.

When have we ever seen such a shift when the economy was doing so well  —  unemployment under 4%, growth rates up, consumer confidence the highest since 2000?  When has the party in power gotten so clobbered with the economy humming and more and more voters seeing the jobless numbers dropping and the stock market rising?

Let’s look at the history of elections when the economy was doing well or doing badly.

When unemployment was hitting close to 10% in 1982 during Reagan and also 10% under Obama, the off-year House losses were 26 under Reagan and 63 with Obama. When the economy was booming in 1998 under Clinton, his party actually gained seats in the off year, despite his personal scandals. And that unusual Republican defeat led to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s resignation.

In Presidential elections, John Kennedy won in an economy coming off the 1958 recession, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide in 1980 with a miserable economy of high inflation, negative growth and high interest rates and unemployment. Bill Clinton won in 1992 with the campaign mantra of “It’s the economy, stupid” after a recession, a tax increase that Bush promised never to implement and concern about the job market. And, of course, Obama won in 2008 mainly due to the greatest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.

All elections are not won or lost on the economy, of course. Candidates matter. A. domestic crisis like Watergate mattered.  Foreign policy can matter – Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, even Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 helped Democrats in that off year.  But there is no question that the economy and people’s feelings about their personal situation matter a great deal.

That is why this election was such an outlier.  If Trump had not been the pariah he was to so many Americans, his party would not have suffered the loses it did with such a strong economy.  One can argue just how much credit Trump deserved for the job growth, the bump in the gross domestic product, and the boost in consumer confidence. Many point out that much of the good economy was a direct result of Obama’s policies, yet Trump is in office and he benefits from the positive numbers, regardless of whether he caused them.

A more traditional Republican president would have been able to ride a positive economy to a much different result. Trump made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!

So the bottom line is that Election 2018 was far more about the revulsion and rejection of Donald Trump’s Presidency and a lot less about the state of the economy.  In that sense, this was a very unusual and abnormal election —  not unlike Trump himself.

 

McCain and Trump—What a Contrast!

This is a Facebook post from the week of John McCain’s funeral  —

 

t is hard to imagine a more stark contrast than we are witnessing in American politics, indeed American life, with John McCain and Donald Trump this past week. In over two hundred years our nation has experienced heroes and certainly villains, but the passing of a decent, committed, devoted American whose values and actions exemplified the very best of our nation who is now vilified by a man who has disgraced that nation and those values should serve as a lesson for years and decades to come for all of us. How have we reached such a point that many of our fellow citizens don’t see the contrast between these two men and what defines America? Let us hope that this aberration lasts a very short time and we return to a democracy where honor and decency and civility prevail.

John McCain was the Naval liaison in the late 1970s and worked closely with us in Senator Frank Church’s office. He even met his wife Cindy while on a trip to China with Church on a stopover in Hawaii. Over the years he demonstrated a deep and unwavering desire to battle for his country, to truly put America first. Many of us disagreed with him on many issues but never, ever questioned his patriotism or his heroism. As he is laid to rest with tributes and honors well deserved, let us not fail to draw the real lesson of his life and draw the real meaning of the contrast with the meaningless life of Donald Trump.

Watch Out for the “Trump Economy”

Trump’s Destruction of the U.S. Economy

 

Let’s face it.  Few people really like Donald Trump.  His supporters even complain about his tweets, his super-ego, his treatment of others, particularly women, African Americans and Hispanics.  They don’t like his chaos in the White House, his over 2,000 lies and his incessant name-calling. For most, the words Trump and President don’t really deserve to be in the same sentence, let alone one followed by the other. The latest New York Times poll of historians and political experts ranks him dead last, below James Buchanan, after just one year in office.  This is truly terrifying.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/19/opinion/how-does-trump-stack-up-against-the-best-and-worst-presidents.html

 

 

So why is he still “in the game?”

 

What you hear from his supporters is that he is a “business guy” who is good for the economy. What you hear from Trump is that he inherited a “mess” but look what has happened since he took over!

 

Actually, the economy he inherited from Barack Obama has propped him up.  Most presidents who preside over good economic times reap the benefits politically. It was, of course, President Obama who inherited a mess – a collapse that spiked bankruptcies and unemployment levels and nearly led to the collapse of the auto industry.  Falling housing prices, our financial institutions going under, international chaos that nearly led to a full-blown depression.  Obama’s leadership brought the car out of the ditch and back on the road to where we are today.

 

But, ever since Trump started his campaign, he had been preaching doom and gloom culminating in his “American Carnage” speech at his inauguration.  Up until a few months ago he had been bragging about the stock market rise in 2017 (less than Obama’s by the way), the low unemployment, the rise in consumer confidence.

 

So where are we headed now? That is the real question.  Trump’s taking credit for the exalted stock market looks pretty absurd, as it is now headed downward.  His tariffs on steel and aluminum coupled with Gary Cohn’s resignation has dealt a further blow to the stock market and the international economy.  Even if one argues that NAFTA and other trade agreements have hurt the U.S. it is hard to justify Trump’s policy of targeting our friends and letting our adversaries (China) off the hook.  And starting a trade war is definitely not, as he maintains, a good thing.  So, he has taken a stable economy and upended it with his latest policies.

 

Also, for those of us who adamantly opposed the tax give away to the wealthiest Americans we are going to see these impacts with huge deficits, cuts in Social Security, Medicare and the social safety net.  Plus, who will pay for it  —  the middle class, of course. How can we justify a $1.5 trillion tax cut when we know that the top 1% will get 82% of the benefits?  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gop-tax-bill-wealthy-benefit_us_5a381cf4e4b0860bf4aa4b6c  And it will blow a hole in our deficits.  Republicans know this and they, once again, will rely on the Democrats to fix the problem down the road.  As we did with the Reagan policies and the Bush tax cuts, when Bill Clinton grew the economy that led to budget surpluses.

 

The point is that Trump’s impetuous policies on taxes, spending, and trade will remove whatever economic benefit he inherited from President Obama.  So what will he be left with to prop him up?  Not much.  The real question is when will these policies come home to roost – by November 2018?  November 2020?  My sense is that those who bought in to Trump’s salesmanship and promises will be sorely disappointed sooner rather than later.  He has no leeway with the “likability” factor and once his misguided economic policies take hold the emperor will have no clothes.

Trump on Immigration: Not Only Immoral, But Economically Dangerous

n Immoral Immigration Plan

Trump’s immigration proposal is unethical and economically short-sighted.

 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Jan. 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m.

An Immoral Immigration Plan

The debate on immigration is, in many ways, a false one. The fear and loathing created by Trump and his allies does not comport with reality. Rapists are not pouring across our borders, gangs are not taking over our cities and towns, Americans’ jobs are not being overwhelmingly supplanted by immigrants. To create such a narrative is not new to the United States – witness the anti-Irish hysteria of the mid 19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and prejudice against Italians, Germans and Poles over the years.

For the so-called pro-life, pro-family party, it is hard to comprehend that Trump and his conservative Republican colleagues want to tear apart families, spend billions persecuting productive, honest immigrants, and banish dreamers, parents and their relatives. Not only is this policy inhumane but economically counterproductive when immigrants are contributing so much to America.

Let’s look first at the Dreamers, the 800,000 people brought here as children who are now between 16 and 35-years old. The vast majority, 97 percent, are employed or in school. Over 900 currently serve in our military. They are also police officers, firefighters and our teachers. According to a letter signed by 600 of our top CEOs, deportation of the Dreamers would cost our economy $460 billion.



Not only is this a serious detriment to our communities, to the talent pool that is thriving, but it is unnecessarily cruel. Most of these Dreamers have no connection to the country they came from as young children and identify totally as Americans. This should not even be an issue for debate in our Congress or used as some sort of bargaining chip by President Trump – we should not put these people in a political vice where their lives and future get squeezed, due to no fault of their own.

So it is about morality as well as about America’s economic well-being. It is about being honorable and it is about being pragmatic. It is about bringing out the best in our country and adhering to our values.

In a larger sense, the debate over immigration is about setting a course that acknowledges that prejudice against people due to their color, ethnic and religious backgrounds or country of origin simply does not make logical sense. It should be about establishing a policy that creates a system of immigration and a path to citizenship that works for our country. Certainly, it means controlling and securing our borders as well as setting reasonable quotas, but what we don’t need is a panic that divides us, results in draconian policies and has such a high economic and human cost.


We need to get back on the track of comprehensive immigration reform that solves the problem, not exacerbates it. This takes leadership from the White House and, most important, bipartisanship in Congress. It also takes grassroots support and pressure.

Once we accept the contributions of immigrants to our economy that job should be a lot easier. The success of immigrant entrepreneurs is widespread and growing. According to CBS News immigrants have started twice as many businesses as those born in the U.S., and one-third of companies that went public (2006-2012) had at least one immigrant founder. Furthermore, over half of the 87 private companies worth over $1 billion have immigrant founders. Seventy-six percent of new patents involve immigrants. Most important, according to the George W. Bush Institute, “when immigrants enter the labor force they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise the GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the ‘immigration surplus’.”

This, actually, is the history of immigration, a rising tide that lifts all boats. Now that unemployment is low, illegal immigration has slowed dramatically (both Obama and Trump pointed to historically low numbers!), serious criminals are being caught and deported, it is time to face up to a path to citizenship similar to what was proposed in the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2005.

What a tribute to two great senators it would be if our country could move forward and break through with serious legislation. It is long past time.

The Year of Living Dangerously Under Trump

The Year of Living Dangerously

After one year in office, Trump has proven he’s incapable of being president.

 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Jan. 18, 2018, at 4:00 p.m.

The Year of Living Dangerously

Yes, we are one year in and, using the trite phrase, it seems like an eternity. But before I provide my view, I urge the readers of U.S. News and World Report to take a moment and look at the entire editorial page of today’s New York Times devoted to Trump supporters.

It is a well-chosen collection of defenders of Donald Trump. The Times has provided a real sense of why many support him, even those who may question some of his behavior. They all make strong arguments from various points of view. As a Democrat, I don’t agree with their arguments on a whole host of issues but they are argued respectfully and well. By turning over the entire editorial page, the Times has elevated the public debate and contributed to a civil dialogue much needed after this past year.

It is more than difficult for me to accept the Trump agenda on taxes, immigration, race and civil liberties, health care, the environment and energy policy, Iran, Korea, NATO, you name the issue. In my view, he is digging so many holes that it will take a rational, reasonable, pragmatic administration and Congress many years to undo the damage.

But we can argue and have disagreements about the policy choices.


The fundamental problem that has become more and more clear as this very long year has unfolded is that we have a president who is not really a president. Donald J. Trump is uncontrollable, unhinged, undisciplined and as his chief of staff, General Kelly, describedhim yesterday, “uninformed.”

According to CNN, we know from polling that he is the least popular of the last nine presidents at this stage in his presidency. We know that this hasn’t changed much from the campaign. We also know that this is the most polarizing approval rating dating back to the 1950s. And according to a Pew Research Center poll last August, only 16 percentlike his conduct as president. I can’t imagine it has improved much since then.

We saw in the New York Times letters from Trump supporters and other sources that there is a real concern from many about his tweets, his statements on race, his “shithole” comments, his continuing “un-presidential” behavior. The Wolff book, the leaks from former and current aides, the daily barrage, the continuation of nasty rhetoric and name calling directed at political adversaries (and sometimes friends!) is getting more than old. The public is growing tired of his average of 5.6 lies a day and his reliance on “alternative facts.”

His constant boasting and his efforts to boost his own ego seem to know no bounds. By calling himself a “stable genius” he becomes a laughing stock. Much like the late Sen. William Scott of Virginia when he called a press conference in the 70s to deny he was the dumbest member of Congress! The article on Scott, written by legendary journalist Nina Totenberg, appeared in a small publication and the press conference gave it national prominence. Much like Trump, Scott threatened to sue for libel but decided against it because he thought he would lose. This was not unlike Trump’s silly, legal machinations over the publication of the Wolff book, “Fire and Fury,” which of course also backfired.


Many felt that Trump, once he was inaugurated, once he occupied the White House and sat behind the Oval Office desk, he would transition, understand the gravity of the office and “be” a president. He would not lounge for hours in the morning and evening watching Fox News, calling friends, and beating it out of town to play golf day after day. Many thought he would read briefing papers, that he would absorb the history of his office by occasionally reading a book and he would assemble a group of competent, knowledgeable advisers. After a year, it is hard to come to the conclusion, as many sensed during the campaign, that he has the temperament to be an effective, competent, knowledgeable president.

Donald Trump has not exceeded expectations, rather his demeanor and his approach over this past year has only raised more questions. Yes, it has only been one year, a year of living dangerously.

Trump vs The Constitution and American Values

Trump vs. America

The president is substantively and symbolically chopping away at everything America holds dear. 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Jan. 4, 2018, at 2:40 p.m.

Trump vs. America 

I just saw the great movie, “The Post,” about the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers’ history of the Vietnam War. It was also very much about the war between the Nixon White House and The Washington Post and Nixon’s attempt to control a free press. I worked on the Daniel Ellsberg trial and remember those days and the court battles that lead to the Nixon downfall.

Well, here we go again. Donald Trump’s lawyers are not only trying to get a cease-and-desist order against Steve Bannon but today are attempting to stop the publishing of Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” This would also include release of excerpts and summaries of its contents.

Are they crazy over there at the White House? Sadly, most are coming to the inescapable conclusion that the answer is clearly “yes.” Trump is acting like a petulant, petty head of Trump, Inc. whose only response is to attack and sue. He is reverting to his previous role, where disgraced Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s consigliere and Trump adviser, the noted pugilist Roy Cohn, taught him “the art of the deal.” As Trump said, “All I can tell you is he’s vicious to others in his protection of me, he’s a genius.” Now, Trump seems to think that as president he can employ the same tactics by his new set of lawyers to make his problems go away.



Instead he is making things worse, much worse. This is a White House caught in constant melt-down. This makes the Nixon White House look like a well-oiled machine, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate. Trump is rapidly destroying not only himself and the presidency as we know it, but undermining the free press and our constitution.

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This is serious business now. This is beyond tweets and an unhinged president. This is beyond rants and temper-tantrums. This goes way beyond adult daycare. We have a president who believes there are no consequences to his actions.

Whether it is moving us closer to war with North Korea, or preventing people from voting, or shutting down environmental protection, or funneling more money to the wealthiest of Americans with a budget busting tax cut, this is a president who substantively and symbolically is taking America down.

The evidence is building, even for those who may favor many of Trump’s policies, that something may have to be done to put the country back on track. Whether it is the Mueller investigation, the congressional committees’ probe of links with Russia, the constant lying by the president and his aides, the unraveling of a bizarre and destructive mind, things are coming to a head.

It is not too far-fetched to believe that all the court battles, the investigations, the questions of mental capacity will lead to his cabinet, his vice president and Congress determining that the 25th Amendment should be employed. Trump is on the slippery slope to being forced from office. At the very least, he is looking down the barrel of devastating loses in the 2018 elections, Republicans leaving his sinking ship and reasonable people coming to the inescapable conclusion that the gig is up and Trump must go. Four years is far too long for this presidency.

The Republican Tax Bill: Destroying the Legislative Process As We Know It

A Congress of the Lowest Common Denominator

Republicans trashed the democratic process and decades of legislative decorum in crafting tax reform. 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Dec. 18, 2017, at 2:50 p.m.

A Congress of the Lowest Common Denominator

What a mess. This tax bill fiasco is the latest example of a Congress that cannot govern. A legislative body that cannot legislate. An elective body that constantly disappoints the electorate that put them into office.

And this is new. The Republicans made the calculated decision to craft one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in decades in secret. They determined that they were not going to hold hearings, they were not going to call expert witnesses, they were not going to collaborate at all with Democrats. In fact, they shut out many of the Republicans until the very end. No wonder the latest Real Clear Politics average of congressional approval stands at 14 percent.

Never mind that this produced a horrendous excuse for a tax bill – exploding the deficits, providing corporations and the wealthy with the lion’s share of the cuts and ultimately harming the middle class. According to The New York Times, the top one-tenth of the 1 percent see their after-tax income rise the most, followed by the top 10 percent, with the middle 40 percent of wage-earners and bottom 50 percent seeing the largest drops. This is reverse Robin Hood at its worst.


Make no mistake, the only way to pass a turkey like this is to throw regular order out the window, truly change how Congress does business and destroy any semblance of normalcy when it comes to legislating.

If this process was even suggested when I worked in the Senate in the 70s or even any decade in the 20th century, Republicans and Democrats would have been up in arms. Can you imagine a majority leader such as Democrat Mike Mansfield or Republican Howard Baker agreeing to this? The Everett Dirksens or the George Mitchells or Bob Doles or Bob Byrds or Tip O’Neills or Bob Michaels or any leader of either party would have revolted.

Congress has not operated this way, at least until now. Major pieces of legislation went through a process – various bills introduced, committees assigned to examine and study the drafts, open hearings on the proposed legislation, witnesses called suggested by the majority and minority, mark up of the legislation and on to the floor for debate. Then a real conference committee made up of leaders from both parties, from both houses, would meet to iron out the differences. This simply did not happen with this tax bill.


The destruction that this tax bill has wrought is not just the sad substance of the legislation, but how it was passed. This is the ultimate destruction of the democratic process on Capitol Hill, something that the press, the pundits and the historians should focus on and do so soon. If this is repeated again and again, as seems likely, we will see our legislature disintegrate from the greatest deliberative body to a standing joke. The ends will come to justify the means and substance and civility be damned.

In the end, process matters. If our democracy disintegrates into warring factions where one side ignores the rights of the other and insists on jamming through legislation without due process, we will not survive. What is to prevent Democrats if they take control of both houses in 2018 from giving as good as they got? Why would they not undo what the Republicans have done by the same process the Republicans employed?

The Republican leaders and this poor excuse for a president decided to throw out the rule book, to ignore good governance, to condemn the Congress to the lowest common denominator of a dictatorial legislative body. This is not normal. This is not right. And this should not stand. Let us hope that it is a bad aberration and we will get back to regular order sooner rather than later. But I am not holding my breath.

The Reverse GI Bill (AKA: The Republican Tax Bill!)

The Reverse GI Bill

Republican tax reform will gut decades of work to make college affordable.

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Nov. 28, 2017, at 12:00 p.m.

In June of 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by the American Legion to provide benefits for returning veterans. By 1956, 7.8 million vets had used the GI Bill for their education. In many ways, this legislation became the engine of economic growth in post-war America. It was an integral part of achieving the American dream. Education was viewed by those of all political persuasions as a key to success, to competing in the world, to personal fulfillment.

So, what has happened to that commitment to education?

Sadly, we see poll numbers that show anything but a bipartisan commitment. In just two years, according to Pew, we have seen the percentage of Republicans who believe “colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in this country” plummet from 54 to 36. We have watched as Republican legislatures and governors in states like Arizona and Alabama and Louisiana and Kansas and Wisconsin put in place drastic budget cuts for higher education. Eighteen states cut funding per student by more that 20 percent, and eight of those states cut it by over 30 percent.


Now the Republicans in Congress want to get into the act with this tax bill that demeans, demotes and denigrates our students. The House bill reduces tax benefits and savings for all college students by $65 billion.

The Republican tax bill:

  • Repeals the interest deduction for student loans. This affects over 12 million borrowers.
  • Repeals the $2,500 tax credit that middle-class parents can take.
  • Will force graduate students to pay taxes on the tuition waivers they receive, forcing many to leave school.
  • Places a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments that exceed a specific limit, which will affect over 150 colleges and reduce the funds these institutions have for scholarships for needy students.

We should be calling this “the reverse GI Bill” – how to undermine the American dream. Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, wrote in The Washington Post, “The bill would, in one fell swoop, set back by decades the effort to make the cost of college more affordable for individuals from all walks of life.”

If anything, this legislation seems to be punitive, an appeal to the extremist Republican base, a sop to the Trump vision, an absurd anti-intellectual effort. In a recent story, the Post quoted a former Arizona legislator who believes “liberal professors teach ‘ridiculous’ classes and indoctrinate students ‘who hang out and protest all day long and cry on our dime.'” Donald Trump, Jr., went further, according to the Post, in an $100,000 paid speech in Texas: “Hate speech is anything that says America is a good country. That our founders were great people. … We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country.”



I can’t imagine who listens to this drivel, and it’s even harder to imagine any responsible member of Congress who buys into such inflammatory rhetoric that results in a clear and present danger to higher education. Who, in good conscience, truly believes that we should drastically cut funding that leads to an educated citizenry, vibrant economic growth, better jobs and a future for those who desire and deserve the best we can offer?

When Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, he made this comment: “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

We are letting our people down. Sadly, we are moving into an era when we devalue higher education, when we deny the critical opportunities to our young people, when we slash and burn what has been most dear to us since the founding of the republic. Is this really the road we want for America’s future? Inconceivable.

Virginia Election: The D.C. Echo Chamber Got It Wrong…Again!

Washington Is Talking to Itself

Political insiders’ off-based predictions about the Virginia governor’s race showed the limits of the D.C. echo chamber. 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Nov. 20, 2017, at 2:00 p.m.

Washington Is Talking to Itself

Another wild and crazy month in our nation’s capital. More Trump tweets to opine about; tax bills flying every which way; sex scandals to titillate; indictments of the rich and famous (or infamous) over the Mueller Russia probe; political books to occupy the cable chattering class and provide more excuses to rehash the 2016 election.

But most important for the political junkies, we had another November election day to dissect.

I won’t rehash all the conclusions and theories from the aftermath but I will just make one central point: The insider, pundit class once again appears to have gotten it wrong. The echo chamber that is Washington talking to itself seems to have missed the basics.

A headline in a Washington Post blog post captured it: “Why Ed Gillespie is Surging in Virginia.” Some polls reported a close race and articles were written about the impact of Gillespie’s negative ads on gangs, sanctuary cities and child molesters. Many in the press talked to themselves and not to those in the campaigns who were knowledgeable.

It all culminated in a MSNBC “Morning Joe” segment the day before the election when the panel was asked whether Democrats would win – New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore: “I don’t think so. I think it’s Gillespie;” MSNBC host Ari Melber: “It doesn’t look like Northam wins;” host Mike Brzezinski: “You’re losing on the party issue. … The party is weak.”

Another MSNBC pundit, Krystal Ball, who had run a pretty pathetic losing campaign (35 percent) for Congress in Virginia but is supposed to know the state, said on “AM Joy” that the people “don’t know where Northam stands on issues” and there is a “tremendous lack of enthusiasm” for him. She clearly needs a new crystal ball!

It wasn’t just that the so-called insiders called it wrong, it is what they focused on: the gossip in the Donna Brazile book, the focus on Northam as too soft-spoken, the so-called battle between liberal-moderate factions in the Democratic Party. Pardon my language, but this was all crap. The Washington insiders failed to read the impact of the health care issue and the importance voters gave to Northam as a doctor. They failed to understand how strong the anti-Trump sentiment was in Virginia and how motivated Democrats were to vote. They failed to gauge the serious cognitive dissonance between Gillespie’s ads and how he was trying to portray himself as a moderate, independent-from-Trump Republican. That made voters very angry.



I went door-to-door in Northern Virginia before the election and on election day. A couple of things surprised me given the talk I heard for weeks from the echo chamber. Not one person bought up Russia, not one person wanted to discuss Hillary Clinton or Donna Brazile’s book or the so-called warring factions within the Democratic Party. Nearly every identified voter was eager to talk about how horrendous they thought Donald Trump was and how much they liked gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. If anything, they found Ed Gillespie’s ads not believable and over the top. They found the prospect of a Republican who was adopting Trump’s message becoming governor a great motivator to get out and vote. They were energized. No wonder the turnout was about 2.6 million votes compared to 2.2 million four years ago. And no wonder Ralph Northam won by 9 points and got over 300,000 more votes than Gov. Terry McAuliffe received four years earlier.

If the pundits and prognosticators had talked to my former partner, Tom King, who has been Northam’s lead consultant in his lieutenant governor’s race and this governor’s contest, they would have gotten a realistic and careful analysis, not spin. As he told me, their polling and research confirmed that Northam was viewed as “calm and reassuring” to voters as well as “substantive, experienced” and “especially qualified as a doctor to deal with the health care issue.” He was, and is, “a solid progressive” but not threatening. On the other hand, Gillespie was much more perceived as the “insider’s insider” and a “Washington politician.”



We in the echo chamber get it more wrong than right on most occasions. Many missed Obama’s rise in 2008, the wave of the tea party two years later, the insanity of 2016. I called Trump’s candidacy “a joke” early on and, like many, couldn’t conceive that America would really elect him. In this election, failing to even consider the possibility of Democrats gaining 15 seats in the Republican-gerrymandered Virginia House of Delegates, the election of the first transgender candidate and the sweep of local races from coast to coast showed the isolation of the Washington echo chamber.

Maybe it is time for us to stop talking to ourselves and actually go door to door, to the shopping malls, to the county fairs and maybe, just maybe, talk to people. As political pros we should listen to the focus groups, watch the participants’ body language and listen to the strength of their words. What we talk about is quite often not what they talk about. Virginia was a clear illustration of how badly the echo chamber was seriously out of touch.

E Pluribus Unum: Who Are We? (reprinted from the Frank Church Institute Conference held in October 2017)

 E PLURIBUS UNUM: WHO ARE WE?

Image of E Plurebus Unum patch
E Pluribus Unum.  Out of Many, One.

These words are on the Great Seal of the United States. They are on every piece of currency and coin we use. It is a motto as old as the Republic, dating back to 1776.

They define America and make us a beacon and example for the world. Or do they? Are we at present—or have we ever been—a welcoming nation to immigrants? Does our history embrace the melting pot and rejoice in our diversity? Do we live up to the inscription chiseled on the base of the Statue of Liberty?

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The answer, it seems, is that it is complicated. Let us examine a brief history, particularly our own political history, and then consider where we are in 2017.

As much as we refer to America as a nation of immigrants, this is only technically true. From the importation of slaves, to the treatment of Native Americans, to the influx of Irish, Italian, German, Asian and other immigrants, to the rejection of Jews fleeing the Nazis, to the current fears directed against Hispanic immigrants, America has not always laid out the welcome mat.

As Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, points out, over 12 million slaves were sent to the New World between 1525 and 1866. Most went to the Caribbean and South America, only about 388,000 were sent to North America. By the 1860 census, however, due to a growing population, the number of slaves in the United States stood at 4 million (out of a total population of 31.5 million). Political and economic calculations up until the Civil War led our leaders to embrace the sad and immoral practice of slavery. This was hardly a shining example of “all men are created equal.”

Now those who hold the power are those who used to be persecuted. While 32 million Americans, about 10% of our population, celebrate their Irish roots on St Patrick’s Day, they were not always treated as equal citizens. Beginning in 1845 with the potato famine, until the late 1850s, nearly two million Irish immigrants came to the United States. The response was strong and immediate by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. They elected eight governors, 100 members of Congress and big city mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Abraham Lincoln took them head-on in a letter written in 1855: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’” Everywhere, the Irish were confronted with “No Irish Need Apply signs and newspaper advertisements.

The Irish were far from the only victims. For Italians, prejudice and discrimination, even lynchings and Catholic Church burnings, confronted them upon arrival. America initially welcomed Germans as teachers of the language in the late 1800s, but as World War I approached that changed radically. The country used Chinese labor to build our railroads and mine our gold, but prejudice arrived with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that lasted until its repeal in 1943. Finally, the Japanese internment camps during World War II are a sad reminder of our treatment of American citizens of Japanese descent.

Politics mitigated anti-immigrant fervor and brought change by electing new officeholders at all levels. New York and Boston elected Irish mayors starting in the 1880s, which paved the way for the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds later on. Italian politicians rose to prominence in New York City (Mayor Fiorello La Guardia), New York State (Governor Al Smith – of the Ferraro family), and San Francisco (Mayor Angelo Rossi). As America elected more leaders of color and diversity, they began to push back against unacceptable rhetoric. Through political power and influence came change and greater acceptance of diverse, multicultural viewpoints.

Where are we now in America? Unfortunately, not in a very good place.

Due partly to Donald Trump, people are more aware than ever of the role and presence of immigrants, refugees, religion, race and ethnicity. From Trump’s very first announcement, where he railed against immigrants, called them rapists and demanded a wall that Mexico would pay for, Trump put the issue of America’s diversity front and center. He called for a ban on people from six majority-Muslim countries. He has made it clear that his campaign and his presidency will be heavily defined by his hardline policies on immigration. His appeal to disaffected, less educated white voters, living in rural areas carried him to the presidency and form a core part of his base.

In a very real sense, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric kick-started his campaign for President. It played to many who felt left out, alienated and economically harmed by “the system.”  Traditionally, one of the key measurements of the national mood is whether voters believe the nation is headed in the right direction or is off track. In most national polls over the last ten years, 60-70 percent of voters consistently feel that the nation is on the wrong track. Fear dominates and voters are looking for someone or some group to blame. Immigrants, once again, are the preferred target for the new ruling coalition.

With an estimated 11 million people residing in the United States without identity papers, and the inability of our elected officials to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the kindling was ready to be ignited. When the economic crisis of 2008-2009 hit Americans hard, many of whom had not seen appreciable increases in their salaries over the past 15 years, their anger and frustration, especially against immigrants, trade, and income inequality, ballooned. Soon it became visceral and personal.

There are now more than 65 million people displaced by war and conflict. Over 500,000 new refugees have recently been added to this total with Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh. Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen all are enduring protracted conflicts. The plight of refugees cannot be ignored. Yet, the United States under President Trump wants to admit less than 50,000 refugees a year. Moreover, Trump would extend these restrictions to legal immigration as well.

Trump’s effort to single out Muslims throws gasoline on a smoldering fire. Muslims comprise 1.8 billion people and 24 percent of the world’s population. It is worth asking a simple question: how can we survive in an increasingly global, interdependent world if we stoke conflict with one quarter of the world’s population?

Fortunately, there is another path.

Here in Idaho, we have seen a positive example with the success of the Chobani plant in Twin Falls. 1,000 employees from diverse backgrounds, nations, and religious beliefs came together to carry out an investment of over $550 million. Yet, extremist talk show host and conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones and his pseudo-media company InfoWars chose to attack Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya anyway. Additionally, Breitbart and other outlets falsely linked Hamdi to extremism, terrorism and even rape. Ulukaya filed a lawsuit and ultimately received a settlement and retraction from Alex Jones. It is not easy overcoming prejudice and taking on false accusations – Twin Falls has been at ground zero dealing with anti-Muslim activity, as the New York Times recently reported. Fortunately, local government, business leaders and Idahoans from all walks of life recognize the importance and the success of what Ulukaya has accomplished.

The success of immigrant entrepreneurs is widespread. CBS News reports that immigrants have started twice as many businesses as those born in the U.S., that one-third of companies that went public (2006 to 2012) had at least one immigrant founder, and that of the 87 private companies worth over $1 billon, 51 percent had immigrant founders. According to an article from the George W. Bush Institute, “when immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise the GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus.”

It may be that E Pluribus Unum remains an aspiration, but it is worth putting at the top of our political agenda once again. By reaffirming who we are, what we stand for, and the acceptance – indeed embrace – of immigrants, we will be much stronger as a nation and a true example to the world. It takes political courage to resist the demagogues and those who want to close the doors behind them, but we can have security and stability as well as openness and freedom.

The “huddled masses” still yearn to “breathe free” and to contribute to an even better America. It is up to all of us to make that dream a reality.


Photo of Peter FennPeter Fenn worked as an aide to Senator Frank Church on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in his Senate office and on his political campaigns. He co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets and has been a political media consultant, working in all 50 states and internationally, for over thirty years.