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The Speed of Governance

Author: Gary Hart

William Becker, the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and a former colleague at the University of Colorado, raises an interesting and important question: is the speed of change generally and technological change particularly outrunning our ability to respond with public policies when required.  In other words, is governing too slow when the world all around us is experiencing revolutionary change.

Here are some examples Bill provided with his question:

“Regulators and electric utilities are scrambling to keep up with the rapid growth of rooftop solar energy. Several states are embroiled in controversies over how to compensate customers feeding energy into the grid.

“One or two ideas on how to address the lag-time problem. For example, lawmakers could give more discretion to elected leaders to make policy adjustments when the need arises. If Congress or states decide to price carbon, they could give public officials the power to adjust carbon prices within a specified range when an adjustment is needed to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“Another possibility would be for the federal government — the White House perhaps, or the Congressional Research Service — to have a standing futures group that analyzes trends and issues periodic public analyses of what’s on the horizon.

“The futures group could draw on the analyses already being done and scattered across agencies — DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review, the military’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Climate Assessments, weather trends from NOAA, earth science analyses from NASA, and so on. FEMA might weigh in on weather disasters, Agriculture on national soil and water conditions, etc.  The key would be to make the information as localized as possible so that state and local officials can act on it.”

So, as he shows, there are ways to speed up governance by anticipation, rather than delayed reaction.

Conservatism works when circumstances are quiet.  It is frustrated when the world we experience requires adaptability.  New realities require new policies and methods.  As Heraclitus wrote more than two millennia ago, you can’t step in the same river twice.

Here a distinction is important: fundamental principles abide and should not be tailored to fit changing circumstances.  But what must change to accommodate new realities are programs and policies.  A warming climate is foremost among those new realities, as are nuclear proliferation, a host of new technologies, the opioid epidemic, the rise of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the list goes on.

It would be convenient if simple slogans, rely on markets for example, solved all problems.  Were that so we would have affordable health care for all Americans without Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and so forth.  The same would be true of climate change.  Leave it to the markets.

Alas, markets cannot and do not solve all problems.  There are many realities, old and new, that simply cannot be addressed by reliance on the profit motive.

But when the changing times require a public policy response the institutions of government cannot be stymied by rigid ideologies, old slogans, and rhetoric.  The Government of the United States is not functional.  Its elected representatives in the executive and legislative branches have substituted slogans, and worn out ones at that, for ideas and solutions.

Public anger is directed at those who refuse to adapt, to compromise (on policies, once again, not principles), to put nation over party, even though the voters who elected these officials more often than not did so out of partisan motives.  You can’t have it both ways…rigid partisanship and functioning government.

The Founders clearly understood that the government they created had specified duties and responsibilities, but they did not design it for maximum efficiency.  Checks and balances were all about preventing the consolidation of power in a few hands.  Nevertheless, in a revolutionary era such as we are now experiencing public institutions must function effectively and should use state of the art technologies to help do so.

Why is it that we can lead the world in sophisticated military equipment but not do so in the areas of domestic need, such as health, energy, and environmental protection?

Given current political stalemate, it is difficult to imagine a concerted effort to increase the speed of governance.  If your slogan is that “the government is the problem” then you have no interest in making it operate more effectively.

A crisis of one kind or another will, sooner rather than later, force us to decide as a nation.  Either we agree to make our government more effective at dealing with dramatically changing conditions or we insist on dysfunctional governance and accelerate the long, slow decline into mediocracy and join other major political powers throughout the ages, powers who shuffled off the stage of history for their refusal to deal effectively with new realities.

 

Protecting the Boats

Author: Gary Hart

Dunkirk is a haunting movie on several levels in the sense that it stays with you and its scenes recur during the long nights.  What follows is not a movie review but rather a review of why it has that quality.  Many will see it as a war movie, albeit one of the best, but others like me cannot let it go because of what it says about humans in combat and the moral lessons derived from them.

I’ve known many military men and women of all ranks and stations.  None is more distinguished than an Air Force pilot I am privileged to know who, after serving too many years in a Vietnamese prison, returned to achieve the rank of General.  I thought of him while watching the movie and afterwards sought his response to it.

Not surprisingly, he observed the scenes of a few British Spitfire planes trying to hold off attacking German fighters and bombers wreaking havoc on troops awaiting evacuation on the beach and on the armada of small craft from England’s Eastern shore struggling to extricate those troops.

Most notable was one pilot who was running out of fuel and had to decide in a moment whether to head for home or stay and protect the boats.  Here is my pilot friend’s analysis:

He crossed Joseph Conrad’s “Shadow Line,” the decision point where one chooses to step back and retreat into safety, or step forward to accept moral responsibility, and the risk that goes with it. With a perfectly clear understanding of his fate, he chose to stay and protect the boats until the last drop of fuel was gone.”

He knew he was not going home.

Few of us, absent combat, are faces with this existential decision.  But in other ways this kind of decision confronts us, usually in unexpected forms.  Do I live for myself or do I do my duty and do what is morally right regardless of the consequences.  Do I head for home and safety or do I stay and protect the boats.

When confronted with this character-defining decision, usually there is little if any time for reflection.  So the decision to run or stay usually is a measure of the depth of a person’s heart and soul.  Who am I?  What is important in life?  Do I live for myself or for others?

Although it is popular to assume that all elected officials face a “profiles in courage” decision almost daily, in fact it happens rarely…but it does happen.  Living as we do in an age of careerism where Senators and Representatives bend and twist in peculiar ways to avoid unpopular decisions and to succeed in the next election, there are too few examples of those who place the national interest, what’s best for the nation, over their own political survival.  But I have known those who did and they gave me hope for our future.

It would be good for all of us, from time to time, to look into our own souls to find out who we really are, especially in those long dark nights of the soul.  We may not be that pilot and our decisions may not be that dramatic.  But one way or the other at some point in our lives we reach down into that reservoir of courage and decide: do I head for home and safety, or do I stay and protect the boats.

Distraction as a Strategy

Author: Gary Hart

There are not many reasons why a leader creates chaos.  One might be that he thinks it encourages creativity.  Another might be that he doesn’t know how to manage in any normal or systematic fashion.  But the only rational reason for the purposeful and continuing chaotic turmoil around a national leader is to create distraction.

Assuming this national leader is rational, what is he seeking to distract the public and the media from?  The obvious answer is Russia and the several investigations underway to discover how and why the Russian Government meddled in the U.S. national election last year and whether there was collusion, to use the favorite word of the day, between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign.

As bizarre as it seems, giving a political speech to the Boy Scouts of America, demeaning his own Attorney General, ranting about the failure of his Party to destroy the Affordable Care Act, hiring a strange and disruptive character as White House communications director, and other off-beat actions all have one affect: they keep the Russian investigations off the front page or the lead on the evening news.

The first strategy, that of building a fire-wall of protection by key figures in the new Administration, a fire-wall of Flynn, Sessions, and a “loyal” Comey, fell apart badly, in the case of the first two because of…their relationship with the Russian Government.  In addition, the leader in question, not understanding (perhaps not even having read) the Constitution of the United States thought these individuals took an oath of loyalty to him and not an oath to uphold the Constitution and rule of law even when they operated against his interests.

On the off chance that a strategy of distraction is in fact underway, it can only mean that the leader is willing to disrupt the normal operations of the Government of the United States to keep attention away from the Russia story and that price means the story has to be of some consequence.

If there is nothing of consequence between the leader and the Russian Government, or Russian bankers close to the Kremlin, then the investigations should be welcomed and encouraged just to get the matter behind us so that the Government of the United States can move on.  Skeptics don’t expect much in any case from the Congressional inquiries conducted by members of the leader’s Party loyal to him.  So, inevitably, the focus is on Mr. Mueller and his independent investigation.  If the Russia story is consequential, personally or financially, as many suspect, then that is the investigation to watch.

Presuming, as those who know him well do, that Mr. Mueller is the sole of professionalism, independency, and integrity, if he closes in on an unwelcome truth, we must all be alert.  An effort to impede his project, and particularly a shake-up at the highest levels of the U.S. Department of Justice for the purpose of firing him, will lead to a Constitutional crisis of epic proportions that will shake the foundations of this Republic.

It is not in the national interest for this to happen.  But the leader in question has given little evidence that the national interest supersedes his own.  He has yet to demonstrate that he is not in office to serve his so-called “base”.  His base is composed of all the people of America.

Aberration or New Reality

Author: Gary Hart

Though it is far too early to consider whether America’s current political circumstance is an aberration or a new reality, it is instructive to contemplate both alternatives.

Aberration: the Trumpian era, whether four or eight years long, is a frolic and a detour, signifying nothing historic except the result of accumulated anger by a significant number of Americans at immigration, globalization, the seismic shift of our economic base from manufacturing to information, a cultural revolution, and perhaps most of all the widening gap between the urban elites of wealth, education, and power and virtually everyone else including a stagnant and eroding middle class.

As with populist eras in our past, this one will run its course when a dispossessed generation has shuffled of this mortal coil, technology creates even more new economic opportunities for the successor generation, the middle class stabilizes and recovers, and optimism regarding the future returns.

Central to the restoration of relative normality will be an age of political reform such as replaced the populism of the late 19th century and introduced an era of good government and citizen participation.  The corruption of our national government by a widening plague of special interests, legitimized by the one of the most unconscionable Supreme Court decisions in American history, and the revolving door available to lobbyists and elected and appointed officials is a powerful reason for our public discontent.

The corruption of the Republic, more than any other single factor, opened the door to the Trumpian era, an era that will not end so long as citizen distrust of government continues to be so wide-spread.  We cannot restore our Republic from the Trumpian era so long as we are adrift on a sea of corruption.

New reality: the Trumpian era represents a permanent departure by the United States from 240 years of democratic government which, though occasionally stumbling, was based on reasonable compromise between two dominant parties, an expanding economy based on manufacturing and industry, and an increasingly willingness to play a statesmanlike role in guaranteeing relative global stability.

The new realities are the election to power of those with little if any diplomatic experience, with only casual observation of governing practices recognizing experience in public life, with disdain for traditional decorum and maturity, with delight in constant turmoil domestically and internationally, with little regard for the opinions of mankind concerning American behavior, and an adolescent glee in perpetual chaos.

This America stretching years and decades into the future is fundamentally a different nation than it has been for well over two centuries.

But if the gap in wealth continues to grow, if walls are built on our borders, if education is privatized and health care unaffordable, if other nations fill the gaps in leadership we are creating, if ice caps melt and sea levels rise, won’t the American people at least restore a legislative branch willing to stop this destructive departure from sound and sensible government.

This corrective works if and only if there remain men and women of statesmanlike stature willing to enter public service.  The most serious consequence of the Trumpian era of new destructive realities is the denigration of public service as a noble calling, especially for young people.  As recently argued, bad politics drives out good politics.

Despite having one Party control all three branches of government, we now have elected officials afraid to hold town meetings, unable to fashion major legislation a majority will accept, cowed into submission by the partisan media megaphone, and afraid of their own constituents.

When was the last time a national leader told us to ask what we could do for our country.

If we have entered an era where the President conducts the public business like a game show host, where he refuses to separate the national agenda from his private business, where he encourages the intervention of a hostile foreign power against his political opponents, and where he claims entitlement to his own set of facts, and if that era becomes the new reality, then the America of tomorrow is no longer the America of history.

Gresham’s Law of Politics

Author: Gary Hart

Several decades ago, three to be exact, I forecast that destructive changes then taking place in the media and their treatment of politics would come back to haunt us.  Particularly, the erosion, then elimination, of any personal privacy for candidates and office holders would have the affect of driving better qualified candidates out of contests for public office and would leave a vacuum to be predictably filled by those without governing experience, knowledge of history, and even familiarity with the workings of our system of government.

In a word, the tabloidization of even reputable news outlets would inevitably lead to a Donald Trump-like president.

Gresham’s Law says bad money drives out good money.  Similarly, bad politics drives out good politics.

Men and women with self-respect, dignity, and character will not seek office if the price to be paid is destruction of all three.  Anyone under the age of 40 or so will have no knowledge of the age of Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley.  Those of us who remember the age of serious journalism find it a stark contrast with the media today.

Of course, the major traditional networks and a few quality newspapers do their best to deliver serious information seriously.  But their viewership and readership are slipping under pressure from cable television and tabloid sensationalism.

It was all forecast years ago by Neal Postman who wrote Amusing Ourselves To Death, a prescient look into the 21st century of distraction, celebrity, and a willing, herd-like suspension of citizen responsibility in favor of entertainment.

In some ways it is too easy to focus on a president who does not read, who is obsessed with television, especially cable, and who conducts juvenile feuds on the internet, who demonstrates little curiosity about issues facing our nation today and tomorrow, and whose single organizing principle is to destroy any and every vestige of the previous Administration.

The more profound concern is his “base”, the one-third or so of our fellow Americans who seem to glory in his totally unpresidential behavior.  Political scientists short-hand this as populism, a strain of anti-establishment, anti-traditional, anti-thoughtful behavior.  His genius has been to focus its anger at anyone and everyone who opposes his destructive behavior, who insist on civility, who harshly judge his juvenile, vulgar, and uncouth conduct.

The destruction of civil behavior knows no limit.  There is no positive outcome that would satisfy this populist anger.  Rage is encouraged, including among those dependent on the social safety net he is attempting to destroy.  Behavior against self-interest is irrational and in the end ignorant.

The net result is a downward social and political spiral whose ultimate end is chaos and potential violence.  It is ironic in the extreme that the president’s juvenile anger is focused so much on the media, ironic because the rise of media sensationalism empowered the Trumps of the world.

Where are the leaders, we hear now repeatedly, leaders among the Democrats of sufficient stature to reinstate sanity and maturity over shallowness and intemperance, and leaders among the Republicans who have sufficient courage to say Stop to a president marching their Party off the cliff of history.

If the thesis about Gresham’s Law of Politics is correct, potential leaders of stature and quality are staying home and refusing to submit to the ritual hazing that becoming a candidate for office ensures.

A case in point is the current Secretary of State, formerly head of one of the largest companies in the world, now facing harassment within the White House of his own President, by 30 year olds who refuse to let him select experienced diplomats for senior positions if they have not submitted to kissing the President’s ring and who demand that he take radically unAmerican positions in the world arena including among our closest allies.  His tenure may be brief.

We have the misfortune to live in an American era that drives genuine leaders into exile and rewards the cowardly and incompetent.  Either we rise up and repeal Gresham’s Law of Politics or we are consigned to a destructive period whose end we cannot see.

No better time than the date celebrating the founding of our nation to begin to demonstrate true patriotism and to demand stature and statesmanship on the part of our leaders.

The Future of Anti-Government

Author: Gary Hart

In the Western democratic world, and especially in America, the deepest divide exists between those who view a national government, perhaps all governments, as the indispensable instrument for achieving fairness, opportunity, and social justice and those who view government as a barrier to free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and even freedom itself.

For the former group, who governs and how they govern is vital.  For the latter group, who governs and how they govern doesn’t matter so much so long as the government leaves them alone.  The former group focuses on the inclusiveness of domestic agendas and a positive role for America in the world.  The latter group focuses primarily on national security, military strength, and increasingly on rigid borders.

Looking at the last few months through this lens, little the Trump administration has, or has not, done is surprising.  It doesn’t really matter if the sub-cabinet level of political appointees, the deputies, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries, are appointed or not because who cares if their departments function or not.  This is a Party after all that has featured candidates for national leadership vying with each other for the distinction of how many federal departments and agencies they would eliminate.

That would be a plausible political posture if the candidates in question knew what those departments did.  Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy, a department he now heads.  He is quoted as saying he had no idea how many good things that department does.

I am old enough to remember when ignorance was a barrier to political advancement.  Fancy that.  Now the President is being excused for his self-initiated war on his own Department of Justice because he is “new to government.”

But if you don’t like government and want it gone, what is the harm in not fully understanding what it does and does well.  We have a Department of Justice to, guess what, pursue justice, not to cover the tracks of a President and his coterie doing business, literally and figuratively, with our principal political rival.

We now have a President who believes he can order a federal department, directly or through his appointed Cabinet officer, to quit doing its Constitutional job.  After enough of his Cabinet has recused themselves from doing their jobs, eventually you get down to surviving career civil servants who take their oaths of office seriously.  Then the path of an errant President becomes fraught with peril.  And the peril for this President is only just beginning.

The other major barrier to government by whim and fiat is something quaint called THE LAW.  Turns out those who want to abolish national preserves can’t just do so with the stroke of a pen.  The same is true of public schools, many environmental protections, health care initiatives, and much else the administration came into office to destroy.  Even with a totally compliant Congress, a large majority of Americans are not prepared to dismantle decades of national progress.

Even after a shambolic campaign against “the elites” (in which each of us was at liberty to fill in the blank of the “elite” we loathed the most), it is still necessary to govern, that is to faithfully execute the laws of the land.  And that is where the train is stalled.

Given the unwillingness, or incapability, of the current administration to appoint even unqualified carpet baggers to high executive office, somehow our government continues.  It does so for one simple reason.  It must.  The government of the mighty United States is not being run by the Trump White House or Cabinet, many members of which are still trying to find out what their departments actually do.  It is being run by dedicated and talented civil servants, those “bureaucrats” so loathed by Limbaughland, who show up every day and do the jobs the law and the Constitution require them to do.

The Government of the United States will survive the assaults upon it by Donald Trump & Co.  It will do so because it is stronger than he and his badly confused group are.  It will do so because the American people want it and need it.

Anger Management

Author: Gary Hart

Any search for a pattern to Donald Trump’s behavior to this point would reveal only one serious thread—anger.  For someone used to getting his way or confronting those who will not give him his way, the presidency of the United States is not the position in which to be.

One of the reasons, at least up to now, we have wanted presidential candidates to have governing experience is to determine if they have learned the mature lessons of conciliation, concession, and compromise, the art not of the deal but of consensus by negotiation.  Being head of state of the most powerful nation in history does not guarantee that everyone necessarily gives you everything you want the way you want it.

It took World War II to teach us two lessons: we could not go it alone, and we needed the cooperation of other nations of good will for security but also for economic and political stability.  To structure and maintain international institutions requires a certain combination of skills not everyone, even otherwise successful people, may possess.

Mr. Trump claims his policies are guided only by what is best for America.  He seems not to appreciate that an era of globalization requires America’s interests to be protected by cooperation with, not isolation from, others.  America Alone is a weaker not a stronger America.

Thus, his discomfort in the international arena, especially among our European democratic allies.  Their refusal to accept what he deems to be his “strength” makes him angry and disdainful, thus compounding their collective alienation.

Even with both houses of Congress and a majority of the Supreme Court in his Party’s hands, he cannot get a wall, he cannot simply repeal the Affordable Care Act, he cannot describe a massive tax reform program on a single sheet of paper, he will not be able to convince the private financial sector to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rebuilding the national infrastructure unless he privatizes all of America’s highways, bridges, dams, and public works, he cannot plausibly deny the climate is heating up due to carbon emissions.

He has come face to face with reality and it makes him angry.  But he was elected by angry people and they believe, or at least used to, that an angry president would solve their problems.  That belief is being put to the test on a daily basis, especially with continuing turmoil within the inner circles of the White House.

Petulance is not a quality esteemed in a president.

He rode into Washington determined to rid it of “elites.”  But some elites are elite because they have mastered their trade and know what they are doing.  Wall Street represents the financial elite…and occupies half his cabinet.  The career military is an elite.  Its officers have studied and experienced combat.  Scientists are an elite.  They know and understand medicine, nuclear energy, space, and, yes, the environment.  Diplomats are an elite.  They have dealt with virtually all foreign governments and societies throughout their careers.  Former presidents are a special elite.

When a president thinks he knows all there is to know about virtually everything, what happens when he confronts an elite with whom he overwhelmingly disagrees?  He gets angry.

This is not a mature response, to say the least.  And if confrontation with the military elite is in the works, as some believe, it is very dangerous.

As we know from his monument, Jefferson said about slavery: “I tremble for my country when I contemplate that God is just.”  I tremble for my country when I consider that we have an angry man in the White House.

Enough

Author: Gary Hart

Future generations of Americans will consider with wonder a President of the United States whose sole unifying principle was to erase every achievement of his predecessor.  It may require some time, but surely psychological experts in the not too distant future will find some explanation for behavior which is almost entirely negative and destructive.

As a continuing student of American history, no precedent for this angry and insolent behavior comes to mind.  Could it be that he has absorbed all the years of vitriolic right-wing attacks on America’s first African-American president?  Is it possible that he truly believed the idiotic birther nonsense that launched his political career?  Can he possibly believe that leadership is demonstrated by behaving like a child with a hammer in a china shop?

It may take quite a long time, but sooner or later even Republican Members of Congress must admit that this misguided individual is tearing down not only Democratic achievements but much that their own Party has claimed credit for over the years.

The national conservation and preservation movement was launched, with the help of John Muir and others, by Theodore Roosevelt.  Dwight Eisenhower came to embrace the civil rights movement because to do otherwise played into communist hands.  Some landmark environmental progress was carried out by Richard Nixon.  Virtually all presidents since Jefferson understood the centrality of public education to our democracy.  Republican leaders from the dawn of the Cold War treated the Soviet Union, and even the modern Russia that survived it, with arms-length suspicion.

Where along the way of both Republican and Democratic leaders did America lose its greatness?  And how does abrogation of international trade, environmental, and arms control agreements restore it?

The stature, dignity, and respect for the presidency is not enhanced by childish late-night tweets composed by someone with the mentality of a thirteen year old.

Even as a serious nationwide search begins for a mature, intelligent, thoughtful leader who can undertake the restoration of our Republic, men and women of good will and genuine patriotism must stand up and be heard from.  Enough is enough.

The Disaffected

Author: Gary Hart

Political insiders, practitioners and the media, treat America as a nation divided between two Parties, Democratic and Republican, and two ideologies, liberal and conservative—though those latter terms mean very little any more.  This simplified view makes analysis easier, if not also clearer, and lends itself to sports analogies, winners and losers, and even religious analogies, good and evil.

The difficulty, of course, is that it leaves out upwards of a third or even forty percent of the nation, those who list themselves as independents or who don’t bother to engage in the political process, even by voting, at all.

Political scientists spend time and money trying to profile these non-participants and Parties try to sign them up for membership, largely to no avail.  Discounting the laziness factor and the “plague on both your houses” mentality, it does seem worthwhile, especially in an era of disaffection and disillusionment, to seek some understanding of this third American Party for what it might tell us about the nation’s future.

The rolls of the disaffected have increased in recent times by an intensified attack on the United States Government itself.  Sometime in the late 1970s or early to mid-1980s a pattern formed among candidates for national office, first on the right and then spreading to the left, to campaign against “Washington”, even as the candidates were appealing for votes to go to Washington.  Many of the disaffected noted this irony and marked it down for the cynicism it revealed.

The term-limits movement in the 1980s boomed then disappeared as many who espoused it decided life in Washington was better, after all, than life in Oshkosh.

And repeated pledges by conservatives to “change things”, “drain the swamp”, and “shrink the size of government” came to little or nothing once in power.  As the Republican Congress is now realizing, it is one thing to promise your “base” to repeal the Affordable Care Act simply because it was promoted by President Obama and another thing, to actually get rid of a program offering health care and insurance that millions of Americans want and need.

In addition to the cynicism created by the constant barrage of attacks on “Washington”, there is the blatant deficit of courage.  There are more fingers on one hand than examples of politicians putting the interest of the nation ahead of their political careers.  Try to remember a recent example of a profile in courage, a vote against self-interest, a willingness to condemn presidential conduct that is rude, vulgar, deceitful, or simply juvenile.  Party loyalty is more important than defense of the dignity of the Presidential office.

To paraphrase the immortal Dante, there is a special place in hell for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their silence…and their cowardice.

Then, on top of cynicism and cowardice, there is corruption.  Putting special, narrow, and privileged interests ahead of the common good is a threat to the existence of any republic, including the American Republic.  And corruption, indeed this form of legal and sanctioned corruption, is rampant in our nation’s Capitol.

The halls of Congress are swarming with more than 13,000 registered lobbyists for those special interest and thousands more who hide behind the title of “strategists”.  That number now includes more than 400 former Members of Congress and hundreds more of former Administration officials of both Parties.

They raise and contribute campaign funds and thus trade in the coin of the realm—access.  And the privileged opened door gets you half way home to the lucrative result you want and need.

Many people don’t vote because they don’t think it makes a difference, or they are exhausted from holding two or three jobs, or are looking for work, or are financially or culturally adrift.  But many more choose not to participate in a system characterized by cynicism, cowardice, and corruption.

It is impossible to know where this pattern ends.  Some think it marks the decline of democracy itself.  The more hopeful believe that when we hit bottom politically, there will be a moral revival, a renaissance of civic duty, a return of genuine patriotism.

It is probably too cliqued to say we are at a crossroads of this sort.  But, on the other hand, we may be.

Decline of the Presidency

Author: Gary Hart

For many years it was common, at least for boys then, to hear that “in America, anyone can become President.”  We now know that to be absolutely true.

For those of us who take such matters seriously, however, there was some preparation required.  A serious candidate for President had to know something about how the national economy worked and the basic principles of public finance, diplomacy and foreign policy, and national defense, the three Constitutional duties of a President.

In modern times, from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon Presidents met those standards to greater or lesser degrees.  Private morality was assumed.  But when that assumption failed with Nixon, we then elected a moral President, Jimmy Carter, but even he had traveled the world a bit, served in the Navy, and had been Governor.

But then the standards began to slip.  Though they had been Governors, Reagan and George W. Bush had little familiarity with the world, intellectual curiosity, or sense of history.  Presidents Clinton and Obama qualified intellectually and enjoyed the company of those who had experience and lessons to provide.  But neither had traveled widely and met foreign leaders or had taken the time to study and think about defense and national security issues.

If a presidential candidate seems bright enough and curious enough, voters are willing to hope they can learn on the job what they need to know to govern, and in the case of those who don’t seem interested in books and learning the assumption is that they will surround themselves with smart people.  The fallacy of this assumption is that some smart people also have their own biases and ideological fish to fry.

As we drifted away from the standards set out above and were lowering the bar for pre-qualification for the highest office, it was virtually inevitable that one set of circumstances or another would lead us to elect an almost totally unqualified President.  And so we have.

The incumbent President demonstrates almost no intellectual curiosity, disdains briefings of any kind, boasts that he is smarter on virtually any topic than qualified experts, and with only one or two exceptions surrounds himself with those who know little about their assigned duties or whose sole aim is to abolish the governmental structures established to carry out established statutory mandates in their assigned departments of responsibility.

If we are willing to accept these absolutely minimal standards, then indeed anyone can be President.  Just don’t expect much in the way of wisdom, a sense of history and its lessons, experience in diplomacy (and the inevitable gaffes and embarrassments that lack will produce), calculation in the use of military force, balancing of public revenues with expenditures, or even an understanding of the legislative process.

Many of us in office and beyond have heard repeated pleas from business people: “Why can’t we run the government like a business?”, to which the obvious response is, “Because it isn’t a business.”  Even so, what business would select a CEO who had little or no experience in that business and didn’t seem to mind or want to learn?

The brightest hope, presuming we survive our present experience with a totally unqualified President, is that our society will once again revert to more traditional standards of qualification for the highest office—basic knowledge of the economy, experience in diplomacy, and some knowledge of military history.

Admittedly, this narrows the field of presidential candidates substantially.  But so does any list of job qualifications.  Why should any leadership position in the private sector come with a list of qualifications and the highest public office in the land have none?

My lifelong study of American history suggests that this nation is strong enough to survive our current soap opera psychodrama and emerge relatively stable on the other side.  But even the worst experiences in life hold lessons to be learned, and this current national experience should teach us to take the Presidency more seriously and insist on a much higher standard of leadership