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Thursday, September 23, 2021
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  • BLOOMINGTON – With the arrival of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 9/11 Commission, which I co-chaired with former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean. Not just the work the commission did, but the work it didn’t do – and the work that remains to be done. The commission was formally established in November of 2002, though it didn’t start in earnest until the following spring. It consisted of five Republicans and five Democrats, all of whom had held high federal or state office, or had served the country in other fashion. We were helped by an extraordinary staff whose members had been selected on merit, not political affiliation. Over the course of 18 months, we reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and conducted 1200 interviews, issuing a final report in July of 2004. There is plenty of reason to be satisfied with the commission’s work. In the midst of a hyper-charged political atmosphere, we conducted our inquiry in an open manner, pursued consensus, strove to take a cooperative, rather than confrontational, approach, and above all managed to rise above partisan differences to work together as a team.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Most Americans alive 20 years ago remember where they were on September 11, 2001. They remember the airplane hijackings, the attacks, and the collapse of the Twin Towers. They remember the nearly 3,000 who perished. As our nation refocuses on that searing event, it will be tempting to pay attention to the lessons we’ve learned in the decades since when it comes to dealing with foreign threats and to homeland security. These are, of course, crucial. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we also learned some important lessons about Congress and how it works, and about the benefits to the country of a truly bipartisan approach to difficult issues. I say this because I was honored to serve as the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, along with former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. Over 18 months, we reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and conducted 1200 interviews. We sought to be independent, impartial, thorough, and non-partisan, and joined our commission colleagues, equal in number from both sides of the aisle, in issuing a bipartisan, unanimous report. During that inquiry we learned many lessons that are still valid today. We learned, for instance, that there’s a thirst for accountability in this country.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Maybe it’s just a professional preoccupation, but I’ve always been intrigued by why voters cast their ballots as they do. I’ve never made a formal study of it but have talked with plenty of them over the years, and one thing sticks with me from those conversations: There’s no one thing. People find a myriad of interesting, and sometimes idiosyncratic, reasons for voting this way or that. Some care mostly about a single issue – abortion, say, or climate change – and if a politician doesn’t meet muster on it, they don’t even give her or him a second glance. Or they care about a candidate’s ideology or party – conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat – and don’t feel much need to look beyond the label. For some decades, split-ticket voting was fairly common; that is, voters chose a Republican presidential candidate and a House Democrat or, less commonly, a Democrat for the White House and a GOP House member. This has grown much less common in both federal and state elections. As ideological camps have hardened, party affiliation is part and parcel of who many people are.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Call me naïve, but I’ve never quite gotten why some politicians want to limit voters’ ability to cast their ballots. Sure, I know that plenty of people like to flip the classic Clausewitz quote and say that politics is war by other means. All’s fair, etc., they insist. But the cornerstone of representative democracy, the base on which everything else rests, is the people’s right to cast an informed vote to choose our leaders. There’s no argument about this; it’s just a basic right. Which means that the more Americans we hear from in the voting booth, the fairer and more representative the results. So, in my book, getting creative about restricting the ability to cast a ballot is pretty much an admission that you can’t win in the marketplace of ideas. Over the course of our history, despite fits and starts, we’ve moved steadily toward expanding people’s ability to vote – from white men with property only, to allowing women, Black people, Native Americans, and people 18 and older to cast ballots. Yet here we are in 2021, still in a pitched battle over this most basic of democratic rights, fought out this year in the state legislatures, Congress, and the courts, the same venues that have seen this issue for generations.
  • BLOOMINGTON – No matter how hard we try, we really can’t avoid one another. We live in a world where what takes place somewhere else on the globe has a very good chance of affecting us, along with many others. The pandemic, of course, is a useful – if sobering – example. A virus that infected humans in one city in China spread with breathtaking speed around the world, beyond the power of governments, or anyone else, to stop it. Not surprisingly, the forces of globalization generate benefits, challenges, and difficult problems, all of which must be confronted, often simultaneously. Take, for instance, nuclear proliferation. It’s dropped out of the headlines but stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction is an ongoing priority for any U.S. administration and the world. Even with major international agreements in place for the last half-century, nine countries have nuclear weapons (three since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty went into effect). It was once feared there would be many more, so U.S. and international efforts have been successful; still, a number of countries are on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons.
  • BLOOMINGTON –  I’ve always been impressed that the Preamble to the Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States.” We’ve heard the phrase so often that we don’t even stop to think about it. But as the proposed constitution was being debated in 1787, there were people who did – notably, Patrick Henry, who in a famous speech to the Virginia ratifying convention asked why the drafters hadn’t said, “We, the states.” By their phrasing, the founders made clear that they were creating a government, as Lincoln later put it, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They were making a case that government should strive for the common good, which they went on to lay out: “Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” Though they also laid out the rights of individuals that government couldn’t touch – speech, religion, the ability to read a free press, and so on – they made clear that there needed to be a balance. “Government is instituted for the common good…and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men,” John Adams wrote.
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s so easy, in the course of our day-to-day lives, to get caught up in the political preoccupations of the moment. What’s the Senate going to do about the filibuster? How should infrastructure money be spent? Is the country going to come out of this year as badly divided as it started? These and many other questions matter a lot—but sometimes, it’s helpful to step back and take stock of what we’ve learned over the course of our history. I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading Jon Meacham’s 2018 book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.” In it, Meacham notes that we’ve been badly divided and knocked back on our heels in the past but have always managed to work our way through those difficulties. He cites a variety of writers and speakers, and a number of them have stuck with me — because they’re both reassuring and a challenge. They remind us that sustaining our democracy is hard work and that its vitality depends on each of us — not just to participate, but to make the effort to understand and talk to people we don’t agree with, and to do our best to discern the facts on which all genuine progress relies. Here they are, with a couple I’ve added on my own that speak to the same issues: “Do not expect to accomplish anything without an effort.” Teddy Roosevelt said this in an 1883 speech called, “The Duties of American Citizenship.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – There’s not much question where the Biden administration’s domestic priorities lie. Getting the pandemic health crisis under control and moving past its attendant economic crisis were always going to be the first order of business for the new White House. It’s what comes afterward – where the administration wants to head, how the American people respond, and what Capitol Hill does with it all – that will give us a sense of whether the country is ready for the kind of change Biden is signaling he wants to bring. To be sure, some of that change has just been enacted into law. The stimulus package that made it through Congress a few weeks ago was an abrupt shift in tone from Washington. Beginning with Ronald Reagan and lasting to some extent even through Democratic administrations, the prevailing view valued limited government action on the economy, tax breaks for businesses and wealthy Americans – on the theory that their investments would ultimately help everyone else – and at best a wary view of the public sector. The stimulus bill heads the opposite direction, taking the attitude that forceful government action is needed in this moment and that the way to prosperity lies in helping poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans. I suspect that a lot of Americans won’t care much about the ideology behind the stimulus bill. They’ll just judge it on whether it works, and in particular on whether the economy recovers and produces jobs, especially jobs that pay decently.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We often think of foreign and domestic policy as two separate and distinct fields. But for an American president, they are inextricably tied together. And as the Biden administration moves forward on its priorities, this is likely to become clear. The reason is that what we do in one area has an impact on what we can do in the other. If we are not strong economically and politically at home – stable, prosperous, free – we are weaker in the world. And for those of us at home, our ability to lead globally is not only of great interest but affects our perception of our own country. There may be concern of U.S. involvement in entangling wars, but Americans also tend to believe that we have much to contribute to the world and that it can be a better place because of American participation and leadership. Many of our allies – the countries with which we trade and that help us build our economy – believe so, too. Yet we cannot carry on major aspects of American policy around the world without the support of the American people, which means explaining what we are aiming for, what we are planning to do, and why we plan to do it. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – With the handoff of power from one president to another, we enter this new phase of our national life in deep distress. We are divided and polarized, struggling to communicate reasonably with one another, and seemingly unable to find common ground on basic issues. Yet the path forward is neither new nor, really, difficult. We all know what needs to happen. We just need to do it. To heal as a nation, we need to return to our traditional ways of doing business. We need to rediscover our skills at negotiation and compromise. We must rekindle our understanding that many people contribute to our progress as a nation and that no one has an exclusive on wisdom. And perhaps more than anything, we need to reassure ourselves that we have the confidence and ability to solve our problems. We have done it in the past. We can do it again. I count myself among those who believe that President Trump’s misconduct should not be ignored, that healthy democracies hold public officials accountable for their actions and do not just sweep them under the rug in the name of moving on. Representative democracies cannot function if political leaders try to overturn the results of a free and fair election when they do not like the result.
  • BLOOMINGTON – If the months since the November elections have shown us anything, it’s that the U.S. is more deeply divided than we’ve experienced in a very long time. This has been building at least since the 1990s, starting in Congress and ultimately coming to be reflected in a polarized electorate, but it’s reached the point where, rather than take pleasure in the success of a politician elected to the presidency, you have to keep your fingers crossed on his behalf. For starters, we now have a Congress, and electorate, divided along multiple fault lines. There are, of course, the partisan differences on the complex challenges that beset this country on climate change, economic growth, the pandemic, policing and racial justice, our policies toward China and Russia. Political groups with opinions on these and other issues are more sophisticated, more active, more insistent, and more aggressive in trying to shape the public dialogue than ever before. Each side tends to be suspicious of the other, viewing their adversaries not just as wrong, but as attacking our national security interests. Now in the mix, though, we also have the divisions stoked by President Trump, whose desperation to hold onto power has led him and his followers to traffic in conspiracy theories lacking any evidence and to reject the norms, principles, and institutions we’ve relied on for centuries to build this nation. There now seem to be two Republican parties in Congress and in the country at large: One that is interested in enabling and appealing to people who reject constitutional democracy, and one that is willing to stand up for it.
  • BLOOMINGTON – When the history of this era is written, special attention should be reserved for the prominent U.S. politicians who dismissed or misrepresented the COVID-19 pandemic for political purposes. The coronavirus has wreaked untold suffering and damage to this country through the deaths it’s caused, the illness it’s produced, the strain it has placed on the lives and well-being of health care workers, and the incredible damage it’s done to the livelihoods and prospects of millions of Americans. It has been able to do this because we had a major failure of government. To be sure, at the state level many governors have conducted themselves with forthright attention to the risks to their populations and have done their best to translate scientific and medical advice into policies designed to save lives while trying to undergird their economies. But at the federal level, with the notable exception of the effort to fast-track research and production of a vaccine, we mostly failed to mobilize resources and take the measures necessary to combat the virus, starting early this year when the virus first emerged on the West Coast.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Like any American who cares about this country, I have a deep interest in the results of this election. But as a politician (I think one never really retires from that job), I take a professional interest, as well. Not only for policy or partisan concerns, but because I’m always interested in how people make up their minds on how to vote. This is an occupational hazard, I think. I was on the ballot 34 times over the course of my career and have spent a lot of time thinking about why people vote as they do. To be sure, we each have our own reasons for where we come down: Sometimes based on policy preferences, sometimes because projects we care about will be advanced by voting a certain way, sometimes because there’s one issue we care about above all others. Still, I think there’s one key factor that doesn’t get taken as seriously as it should, likability. We’ve all heard this notion expressed as, “Who’d you rather have a beer with?” Or, as a group of Democratic women who were planning to vote for Ronald Reagan once explained, they liked the unfailingly gracious and courteous way he treated his wife, Nancy. This is not frivolous. I’d argue, in fact, that “likability” is actually a complex decision.
  • BLOOMINGTON – As the Senate held hearings and debated the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, attention understandably focused on the policy implications of a sixth conservative vote. What got less notice was an important political fact: If she’s confirmed as expected, it will mean a majority of the Court will have been put there by senators representing a minority of the American people. Four justices on the Court already  – Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh – were confirmed by a Senate “majority” put in office by fewer voters than the senators who opposed them. Barrett will be the fifth. In fact, the ideal of “majority rule” in the U.S. is mostly window-dressing these days. The people in power as we head toward the November general election increasingly do not represent the will of the American people.
  • BLOOMINGTON – It probably feels like the 2020 elections have been going on for years, and in a sense they have. Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, the political world has been girding for this moment. But more Americans than you might expect have only just begun paying attention, now that we’re in the final weeks of the campaigns. So, this seems an opportune time to look at where things stand, including some basic information that might have gotten lost in all the shouting. For instance, most people know the fundamentals of the presidential election. Trump, the Republican, is running for a second term in office and is facing a stiff challenge from Joe Biden, Democratic nominee and former vice president. There are other candidates out there, like rapper Kanye West and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, but neither will be on the ballot in every state, and both are widely considered by political insiders to be spoiler candidates whose presence helps Trump.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I was talking to a friend not long ago who was pretty down on politics in all its forms. “I actually find real enjoyment in politics,” I told him. He asked if I was nuts. No, I said, there’s a lot of pleasure, even joy, to be found in participating. Case in point, getting the chance to listen to gifted speakers. For many years, I was fortunate to have a seat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, which gave me a chance to observe some of the best orators in the nation. For instance, there was Hale Boggs from Louisiana, the outstanding Democratic leader who tragically disappeared on a plane flight in Alaska in 1972. He was, in many ways, like an actor; he spoke with complete confidence, enjoyed commanding a crowd, and reveled in the performance; you could listen and relax in the knowledge that you were in the hands of a master.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We are a nation adrift. Even before the pandemic and George Floyd’s death, the U.S. was piling on problems with little sense that we had either the leadership or the political will to address them. The coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests have amplified those challenges, throwing older ones into stark relief and adding new ones. I am as convinced as ever that this country has the strength and ingenuity to find its way out. I don’t know about you, but I see rising out of the multiple crises besetting us a bedrock recognition that there is much work to do, which requires a new willingness to overcome the inertia of recent years. Not that this will be easy. The scale of our problems is too immense to resolve them outright. The stark inequities in economic opportunity, policing, and criminal justice that have sparked ongoing protests are too deep-seated for quick fixes – though, hearteningly, there seems to be a widespread conviction among ordinary Americans that change is due. The economy in recent years has done just fine for a relatively small group of people at the top but has left too many Americans fearing that they won’t be able to fend for themselves or their families. These differences are even more glaring now; the pandemic is eviscerating small businesses and upending the lives of millions as larger companies and well-connected entrepreneurs position themselves to thrive. Digging out will be the work of years.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Amid all the troubles occupying our attention, one of the more worrisome is also one of the least visible. It is the loss of public faith in the effectiveness of our representative democracy. While most state and local governments, and certain federal agencies, have maintained public support during the pandemic, concern over our system as a whole is palpable: That it has trouble responding to the country’s needs, is resistant to reform as society evolves, and continues to perpetuate inequality, social immobility, and basic unfairness when it comes to creating more opportunity, liberty, and justice for all. These deficiencies corrode our unity and effectiveness as a nation. Americans increasingly divide themselves into different, often warring, political and cultural camps. Instead of working to create one out of many, they sort themselves into like-minded communities. They narrow, rather than expand, their sources of news and information, seeking those that reinforce their views. These days, we often live in different worlds from one another. Politicians have played a significant role in this. Some, including the president, are bent on stoking division. Many play to their parties’ bases.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I’ve spent a long time in politics, and over those years one thing has remained constant: There are a lot more Americans who criticize government than there are who serve and do something about it. I’ll admit, there have been times when I’ve felt a bit resentful. It’s hard to enter the fray, be expected to listen patiently to criticism from all comers, and then look around to find that many of them are nowhere to be found when it comes to the hard work of improving our communities and our system. But far more than annoyance, what I’ve felt is amazement at the immense but often un-grasped opportunity our system offers. This is especially acute these days, as millions of Americans take to the streets and to social media with passionate intensity, driven by deeply held beliefs or newfound conviction and a sense that it’s time to weigh in.
  • BLOOMINGTON – A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article noting that with the U.S. preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and massive unemployment, “its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.”  Russia, China, North Korea, Iran. All are testing how far they can go, seeking to exploit our weaknesses and fill the vacuum they perceive in world leadership. Our allies, meanwhile, are expressing dismay at the U.S.’s inability to come to grips with the pandemic – symbolized most acutely by the prospect that Americans will be barred from traveling to a partially reopened Europe this summer – and at our withdrawal from world organizations, treaties, and involvement in places where we have traditionally been central to keeping the peace. There are good reasons we have turned inward. As a nation, we have botched the response to the coronavirus, as its recent sharp upward trajectory illustrates. We are still feeling our way through the economic impact, with every likelihood that millions of people will be struggling for a long time. And, of course, street protests, concern about policing, and turmoil over the nation’s racial practices are occupying many people’s attention. Any one of these things would have been enough to try us as a country; all together make this a desperately difficult time. 
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  • Sen. Young won't vote to raise debt limit
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