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Monday, March 27, 2017
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  • BLOOMINGTON –  The challenge our political leaders face is how to get through the thicket of conflicting principles, interests and dogmas in our sprawling democracy. As you watch the healthcare proceedings on Capitol Hill, imagine what things might be like if we lived in more functional political times. In particular, what if Congress were run by pragmatists? It would not change the issues at hand. On the one side, you’d have the Republican majority in Congress, which for the most part believes that the healthcare system should be left to the private sector. On the other side would be Democrats who, to varying degrees, see an important role for government to play. What would change would be how the two sides reconciled their differences. Rather than maneuver the proceedings for political gain or worry first about their political bases, they’d be dead-set on a healthcare overhaul that improved the system and was politically sustainable.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Many sources of information today cater to a narrow political view, making no pretense of objectivity. Their goal is to incite, not inform. What’s needed is a common base of knowledge we can use to forge agreement. The job of being a citizen, and being a member of Congress, has gotten much harder of late. As sources of information proliferate and “news” not actually grounded in fact grows common on social media, Americans have to work to sort reality from fiction and insight from disinformation. This is a challenge for our representative democracy. And we’ve only begun to grapple with it. Why should too much information be a problem? Let’s start with what I consider to be the most important skill in a representative democracy – not just in government, but within private organizations as well – building consensus. Without forging agreement among people who see the world differently, it’s difficult to move governments and organizations forward.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Public confidence in government can be regained only through exemplary performance. With so much turmoil in Washington and around the country these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the crises of the moment. These are, indeed, worth our attention, but so are longer-running developments that threaten the health of our representative democracy. I want to lay them out in one place, so that the most serious problems confronting our system don’t slip from our attention. First, it has become very hard to make our system work. Our country is so large, so complex – and, at the moment, so polarized and divided – that it’s tough to make progress on the challenges that beset us.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The responsibility for making this a better country lies with each of us.  As a country, we make a habit of looking forward, not backward. But I’m going to ask you to turn your attention back a few weeks, to Barack Obama’s Jan. 10 farewell address to the American people. I’ve been reading presidential farewell speeches for many years. Most of them give good advice. This speech, however, was exceptional. It can be read with benefit by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, because it says a lot of things that we need to hear about our system and our country. I hope that for some time to come, this speech will be a topic of conversation in classrooms, at church socials, and around the table at local service clubs. Why? To begin with, the speech is filled with confidence in ordinary people and respect for what workaday Americans can accomplish. This is a founding value of our country – both a promise and a call to civic arms. Our rights, the former president notes, “have never been self-executing.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – The problem is not just the politicians. It’s us, too. There are a lot of dire predictions about our representative democracy out there. We’re just past a presidential election campaign in which candidates complained about a rigged political system. Now, commentators worry about the imminent failure of the American experiment. I don’t agree with these predictions of calamity. Our representative democracy is not on the verge of collapse. But I do see stresses and tensions that should concern anyone who cares about our system of self-government. Our representative democracy has been remarkably stable and successful for over two hundred years, but that is no guarantee it will survive and prosper.
       
  • BLOOMINGTON – Cooperation between the President and Congress should be far more assured than in the last six years. But the commitments and promises made during the campaign will be very hard to carry out. As hard as the campaign might have been and the transition is proving to be, Donald Trump’s challenges are really just beginning. Governing after a toxic election in which the results awarded him an ambiguous national mandate – his opponent, after all, got more votes – will require finesse, a clear-eyed view of his role in the world, and no small amount of luck. There is no question that, come January, President Trump and the Republican majority in Congress will be in firm control of the government. They will be able to call the shots on policy, and cooperation between the president and Congress should be far more assured than it has been for the last six years. He will soon find, even under these circumstances, that the commitments and promises made during the campaign are going to be very hard to carry out.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We’re faced with a fundamental disagreement among state governments as to how they should treat Americans’ most basic right. One of the more intriguing aspects of this unusual election year is the extent to which the underpinning of the election itself — voting — has become an issue in its own right. An act that we used to take for granted is increasingly being called into question. Just look at the headlines from the past few months. Russia, it seems clear, was trying to meddle in the process, sowing confusion and distrust about the integrity of the vote and about the vibrancy and fairness of our democracy. There have been questions about the cyber-security of voting infrastructure across the country — “States Unprepared for Election Day Cyber Attack,” ran the headline on a Politico story 10 days before the election. There are worries about the fragility of our voting system in general, what with its patchwork of procedures, obsolete machinery, and increasingly complex training requirements for poll workers. And, of course, you’ve got the cries from one of the presidential candidates that the entire system is rigged against him.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We should change the nature of presidential debates to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff. We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers. The contest is close, and the chance to watch the two candidates spar with one another face to face makes for entertaining television. This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. They get tremendous coverage throughout the media universe, both while they’re taking place and in the days that follow. They let the voters see the candidates under pressure and gauge their performance. As scripted as they can sometimes seem, they still let us watch the candidates think on their feet. They’re serious events, and are certainly more substantive than campaign speeches and television commercials. It’s true that they don’t usually change the trajectory of a race, although we won’t know until election night whether this year’s debates played a role in the outcome. They can reinforce enthusiasm, but it’s rare that they create it from scratch. Yet I think our focus on debates, at least in the form they currently take, is misplaced. It’s not so much that they reward one-upmanship, a quick wit, and clever zingers, although they do. Rather, I think they don’t actually help us make a good choice.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We have to be able to disagree in this country without tearing into and trying to destroy the opposition. The politics of demonization that characterizes this election will make it very hard for whoever wins office to govern well. This campaign year has been full of twists and turns. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone on Nov. 8. So talking about what comes afterward seems premature. But it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m worried. This is not about who wins the presidency. I’m concerned about the aftermath of this campaign season and how hard it’s going to be for our next set of elected officials, from the President on down, to govern. Let’s start with the belief expressed by a lot of people, including some candidates, that the system is “rigged.” This is a perilous way to treat the country’s political system; it sows distrust in future election results, de-legitimizes winners, and undermines the government’s credibility. If the charge takes hold, it will put political stability at risk.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Does the ubiquity of information available through social media really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics? I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. One question I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?” For many years, I had a set answer: Read one or more of the respected national news sources, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Economist, etc. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be woefully inadequate now. Younger people, in particular, get far more of their information from social media than from traditional news sources. The internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well-informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs, all of it instantly available.
  • BLOOMINGTON – So far, this election has put a premium on sound and fury at the cost of true engagement with the issues confronting the country. The next few weeks in politics are a little like the All-Star break in baseball. With the Republican and Democratic national conventions upon us, it’s a good time to step back and assess this year’s election. Which carries bad news for both parties. The Republicans face a steep electoral challenge. If Hillary Clinton carries Florida (where polling shows a very close race) plus the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, she wins. Yet victory for Donald Trump is hardly out of the question. He’ll have to retain the support he already has from white voters, especially working-class whites in swing states,  and try to make some inroads among non-white voters. He’ll also need to hope that third-party candidates take more votes away from Clinton than from him.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We former members of Congress might hold rooting interests on opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree, we want Congress as an institution to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither. I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C., with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you’d expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem? We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree, we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We don’t have many consensus-building mechanisms in our political culture. A lot of groups that used to help do this are weaker now. We may not know who our next President is going to be, but here’s one thing that’s almost certain: He or she will take office with roughly half of the electorate unhappy and mistrustful. The notion that the President speaks for a broad coalition of Americans who are willing to set aside their differences on behalf of a compelling new vision for the country? It’s vanished. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering where it went, and though I still haven’t found an answer, I do know this: it’s not only Washington’s — or even the political class’s — fault. Let’s start with a lament I hear frequently about this year’s crop of presidential candidates: “Is this the best we can do?”
  • BLOOMINGTON – How hard are members of Congress willing to work to fix the institution and address the key issues facing our country? There have been encouraging signs that the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to make Congress function again. They’ve talked about using conference committees more, allowing a more open process for rank-and-file members, enacting separate appropriation bills rather than using omnibus bills, and letting committees lead on legislation rather than hoarding all power in the leadership offices. Perhaps most important, they’ve acknowledged that Congress has many bad habits, and insist that they want to restore a healthy legislative process. This has to be heartening to any American concerned about the level of dysfunction to which Congress has sunk. The question is, how can we tell if Congress is actually fixing itself? For as promising as the rhetoric might be, there’s a long way to go before words and reality meet on Capitol Hill.
  • BLOOMINGTON – You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians. You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician, whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now. Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging – all these combine to make being a politician in a representative democracy one of the most demanding jobs around. Several features of the current political landscape, however, give politics a sharper edge and make it far more difficult to navigate. For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Congress should kick two bad habits: Stop debating about raising the debt ceiling; that’s become a persistent game of “chicken” which consumes time better spent on other matters. And stop relying on continuing resolutions to fund the government. You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March, 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House. For a last-minute, secret backroom deal, that’s not too shabby. It was bipartisan and took modest steps in the direction of political stability and fiscal responsibility. And it was vastly preferable to the alternative, which would likely have produced a government shutdown, the possibility of a default on the national debt, and certain fiscal chaos.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The American people don’t expect a solution to everything. But they do expect a Congress that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House, the demands by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails. Even members of Congress are saying it. “I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now,” one prominent Republican told NBC earlier this month. I’ve been around congressional politics for over 50 years, and I can’t ever remember hearing a member of Congress say such a thing. All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. There are three deep-seated issues that have to be addressed before Congress can play a constructive role in sustaining our place in the world and tackling the tough economic and social issues we face at home.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We face a fiscal crisis of historic proportions. Unless we can stabilize the debt and put the country on a path of sustainable economic growth with prosperity evenly shared, lofty talk of American prosperity and world leadership is just hot air. A couple of months ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a sobering report on the U.S. economy’s long-term prospects. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re headed for the fiscal rocks. Federal spending accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP, the budget analysts note; if current trends continue, that will rise to fully 25 percent by 2040. Revenues will not keep up; they’ll amount to only 19 percent of GDP. Here’s what the non-partisan CBO has to say: “Mainly because of the aging of the population and rising health care costs, the extended baseline projections show revenues that fall well short of spending over the long term, producing a substantial imbalance in the federal budget. As a result, budget deficits are projected to rise steadily and, by 2040, to raise federal debt held by the public to a percentage of GDP seen at only one previous time in U.S. history, the final year of World War II and the following year.” We face a fiscal crisis of historic proportions.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens, people who are eligible to vote, but don’t. Over the years, a fair number of people I’ve encountered have confessed that they do not vote, and I often surprise them by pressing them on why they don’t. We need to modernize the system. Democracies like Australia and Canada invest serious money in their election infrastructure and conduct widely acclaimed elections. Ours, by contrast, is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The stark differences in priorities between the Republicans and Democrats running for president suggests there will be a huge gulf between the parties, with no agreement on how to bridge it. The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication, and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to. To begin, the country is not in a sunny mood. There is a sense that America is adrift, that we don’t quite know how to deal with the forces of globalization, technological change, economic uncertainty, or terrorism. Americans are looking for a leader who can restore confidence.
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  • IU hires Dayton coach Archie Miller
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