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Sunday, September 20, 2020
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  • 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. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – These are uncertain, divided times for our nation. Unemployment is at mind-boggling levels, a virus we still don’t fully understand is stifling the course of ordinary life, many businesses are struggling, nationwide protests continue against systemic and deep-seated racism, and local policy makers face rising questions about policing and public safety. It’s no surprise that this is one of those rare moments of national reflection about our future course. It’s also a moment of great attention to our political system, because that’s how we’re going to work these things out. For me, this raises a fundamental question: What are politics and government all about, and how do we use them to make progress on such fundamental issues? At heart, I’d argue, our political and economic systems try to provide an environment that enhances each person’s quest for happiness and a good life. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – Over the last few years, the health of American democracy has come under great scrutiny. Polling routinely shows that Americans are concerned that democratic institutions aren’t working as well as they ought to. Inevitably, this brings up the question of whether we can mend our problems or if the system of representative democracy itself is fundamentally broken. I’m biased. I served as a representative for a good bit of my life, watched the system from the inside with all its faults and all its glories, and believe firmly in it. Our strengths as a nation – our wealth and culture, our opportunities and human resources – developed in an environment that was built from our founding documents, giving an ever-greater swath of Americans the opportunity to reach their potential, solve the problems that face their communities, and work together to move their neighborhoods and their country as a whole forward. It’s allowed us to experiment, to approach issues pragmatically, and to shift approaches if the first or second or third doesn’t work.

  • BLOOMINGTON – Like most Americans, I have always considered the United States an exceptional country. We possess a political system built on checks and balances, an ideal of giving voice to ordinary people across a diverse land, and a Constitution that favors finding common ground among them. Our economy, at its best, offers opportunity, rewards innovation, and makes it possible for people from humble circumstances to succeed and thrive. Our civic spirit, despite hiccups and political conflict, has over the long haul pointed us toward tolerance, broadening civil rights, and encouraging participation from the neighborhood to Capitol Hill. Recently, there has been a spate of public musing about “the end of American exceptionalism.” This is not new; conservatives have been lamenting our “decline” for years, while there are significant portions of the population for whom the promise of America never quite became real. But the coronavirus has laid bare a country fumbling for a response; a federal government that, despite pockets of brilliance, has failed overall to protect and offer guidance to Americans; a health care system that has been forced to scramble for the most basic supplies; and an economic downturn that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on the lives of middle-class and wage-earning Americans. Yet even before this crisis, there was reason to question whether the U.S. truly is exceptional. This is worth spending some time on, because in the coming months of this election year you’ll no doubt hear grandiose claims about the U.S.’s virtues.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We’ve seen plenty of evidence lately of the deep polarization in this country. Even in the midst of this crisis, national politicians, the political parties, and their adherents are finding plenty to fight over; even as, for the most part, ordinary Americans have been remarkably united and many governors and mayors have worked hard to handle the coronavirus pandemic competently and guided by expert advice. The question as we look ahead is whether the trends we’d been seeing before the pandemic will reassert themselves, or instead there will be some sort of reset. Because those earlier trends are extremely worrisome. For years now, it’s been common for politicians to label their rivals as unpatriotic and illegitimate. The deep freeze in cross-aisle relations in Congress had made progress there extremely difficult, though the crisis has given congressional leaders and members of the Trump administration no choice but to keep bargaining until they hammer out agreements. Other trends are equally problematic.
  • BLOOMINGTON - If you feel like Congress has become less productive, less functional, and more partisan… you’re right. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it’s changed over the years since I served there in the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and several issues help explain why it often struggles to get things done. Heightened partisanship may top the list. Congress has always been a partisan organization; we’ve seen tense battles throughout its history. But now they’re more intense and occur more frequently. Members tend to see issues predominantly, though not completely, through a partisan lens. This is reflected in their voting patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, votes in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other occurred roughly one-third to one-half the time. Starting in the early ‘90s, that percentage rose into the 60 and 70% range. Add to this increasingly split control of Congress, with one party controlling the House and the other the Senate, and agreement becomes exceedingly difficult to find. In many ways, this reflects the country at large. 
  • BLOOMINGTON  — Sometimes, you just need to step back. The political conversations I hear these days are strikingly negative, dominated by what’s amiss in Washington, by the deep divisions in the country, by President Trump’s actions and the aftermath of his impeachment, and by the difficult problems we face but seem to make little progress toward resolving. There’s a lot of discouragement out there. I’ve done my share of carping, too. But at times like these, I find it helpful to draw back and look for the positives, as a reminder not to lose sight of the benefits we all share as Americans. For one thing, in the great game of world politics I’m pleased to be able to identify with the United States. We are not always right as a nation, though often we are. We have an economy that remains the envy of the world. Even if it’s not the record-breaking marvel the president claims, we’ve enjoyed economic growth over a long period, and despite our problems with wage stagnation, inequality, and rising concern about affordability, our overall performance, both political and economic, holds up well against our chief global rivals, Russia and China
  • BLOOMINGTON — When he was just a young teenage schoolboy, George Washington sat down and copied out 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior.”  Many of these had to do with simple manners. “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife,” reads Rule 100. Good advice at any time. But the first rule the future president wrote down and followed for the rest of his life was especially notable: “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” There are times when I find myself wishing that all of us,  public officials and ordinary citizens alike, would adopt the civil behavior of that particular teenager.  Our politics today too often is strident and polarized. To put it mildly, we do not always show respect to those present, as Washington did, and try to make them comfortable. Often, it’s just the opposite. We live in a polity that seems to reward in-your-face rhetoric and confrontational behavior. Yet civility – respecting the rights and dignity of others – uplifts our common life.
  • BLOOMINGTON  — Here’s a basic truth about people who make decisions on public policy: They rarely have all the facts they want. Over the years, I’ve sat in countless meetings in which, after we’d reached a sticking point, someone said in exasperation, “Well, what are the facts?” We’d all look around the room because, no matter how much information was already on the table, a key fact that would help us move forward was missing. Yet policy has to get made anyway. No one is confronted more often with this conundrum than the president of the United States, though members of Congress can come close. The challenge is that purported facts are dynamic — they keep changing. Additional facts come to light. Others are found to be wrong. Some are clearly reliable, others dubious. Some plain facts are highly controversial, while other “settled” facts are overturned by time. And regardless, they come at high-level policy makers quickly, relentlessly, from all directions, and from all kinds of sources. So how do presidents and others sort through all this? They get a lot of information, of course, by consulting with experts. Every president forms a cadre of men and women he relies on — sometimes limited in number, sometimes quite extensive. In the chances I’ve had to observe these people at work, I’ve been impressed by how thoughtful, well-articulated, and solid the advice presidents receive usually is.
  • BLOOMINGTON  — You know these words, but how often do you stop to think about them? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …” They belong, of course, to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. That remarkable document is not just the blueprint for our political system. Its Preamble is also a profoundly aspirational call to arms. Because when you read it, it’s hard not to ask yourself how we’re doing — at establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, securing the blessings of liberty, and, in sum, creating a more perfect union. It’s especially hard to avoid asking this question now, when the warnings of democracy in retreat are all around us. For many, the creeping authoritarianism that has taken hold in any number of countries — Russia, China, Bolivia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Hungary, among others — seems alarmingly on the ascendant.
  • BLOOMINGTON - To me, it was a thunderclap. Years ago, when I was in Congress, we were in the midst of a tense, contentious debate. Members had gotten irritated, levying charges back and forth, and tempers were rising. It was starting to look like we might just go off the rails. Then one member stood up, asked for our attention, and said to us, “Let’s remember: Trust is the coin of the realm.” His statement at that moment hit me broadside: If we were to have any hope of progress, we had to have some faith in one another — even our opponents. Apparently, other members of Congress came to that same realization. The debate got back on track, with less acrimony and mean-spiritedness. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Our system rests on all sorts of values: Open-mindedness, an informed citizenry, honesty, civility, competence. But at its heart, representative democracy is about how we resolve our differences in order to move the country forward, and if the parties lack trust, then it becomes hugely more difficult to do so. In many ways, trust is at the center of this democratic experiment.
  • BLOOMINGTON  – One of the not-so-small gifts of living in a representative democracy is that you can’t accomplish things alone. Whether you’re trying to get a stop sign put up on a dangerous corner or to change U.S. policy on greenhouse gas emissions, you have to reach out to others. And learning how to persuade, motivate, and involve them – learning the skills of active citizenship, in other words – makes this a stronger, more resilient country. So I want to make a case for building and using those skills by tackling the issues right in front of us. We all live in communities that we know better than anyone who doesn’t live there,  including the policy makers who every day make decisions on larger issues that affect our lives there. Who better than those who live in a particular community to step up, identify its problems, and then work to solve them?
  • BLOOMINGTON  — I was talking with a friend the other day about immigration. It’s one of the most divisive issues of our time, and we, too, found ourselves divided. “Our country is full,” he quoted President Trump, who said this back in April. Let’s improve the country with the people we already have, my friend added. I had a quote, too, and it’s one I still believe in. You’ll find it on the Statue of Liberty. “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome,” it reads. And then, of course, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I welcome new immigrants and want this country to set aside the nationalistic appeals and racial prejudice that often accompany calls for restrictions. And I believe firmly that immigration makes us stronger as a nation and represents the best of what we stand for. This country is a defender of individual rights, a beacon of tolerance and equality, and a champion of the notion that offering opportunity to all who live here, regardless of national origin, yields the innovation and hard work that drive our economy and culture.
  • BLOOMINGTON  – You’re probably chuckling already. Seriously? “The joy of politics”? That was pretty much the reaction I got the other day when, in the middle of a conversation about how confrontational, adversarial, and downright unpleasant politics has become of late, I suggested that it could be both fun and a source of satisfaction. Yes, of course there are always irritations and inconveniences. And the often mean-spirited tone of today’s contentious politics is well beyond anything I encountered when I was in office. But none of this erases the satisfactions that also come with the territory. They start with the people you can meet in the political arena: Able, ambitious, articulate, often at the top of their game. They may be friends or foes, but the foes aren’t usually permanent; sometimes they become friends, as the debate moves along to other issues and you find yourself sharing common ground. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – A wave of protests is roiling Moscow. Millions of people, young and old, have been crowding the streets in Hong Kong. In Britain, members of the Conservative Party took to open revolt over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to sideline Parliament on Brexit. If democracy is dysfunctional and on the ropes worldwide, as many voices currently insist, you’d have a hard time making the case from these headlines. In fact, at a time of concern and, in many quarters, cynicism about democracy and its prospects, they remind us of a basic truth: People want a say in how they’re governed. As Winston Churchill put it back in 1944, “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” To be sure, “democracy” is hard to define. The UN says that democracies are where “the will of the people is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states,” but that’s a broad definition.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Sometimes, you wonder if the world is doomed to descend into autocracy. Certainly, that’s what the coverage of the past few years suggests. We read about the nations that are already there, like China and Russia, of course, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Or about countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Poland that are nominally democratic but have been trending less so. What strikes me most about this discussion of a global decline in democratic norms and values, however, is how little coverage has gone to places where democracy remains robust. How much do you read about countries that are performing well on this front, places like Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Finland, or Australia? Asking the question pretty much answers it. These are strong, stable democracies. They have a healthy electoral process, their governments function admirably, political participation is robust, and civil liberties remain core to their identity. Amid concerns about democracy’s future, they’re shining examples of its staying power. There’s no question that there’s reason for concern. 
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  • Coats calls for bipartisan election oversight commission
    "The most urgent task American leaders face is to ensure that the election’s results are accepted as legitimate. Electoral legitimacy is the essential linchpin of our entire political culture. We should see the challenge clearly in advance and take immediate action to respond. The most important part of an effective response is to finally, at long last, forge a genuinely bipartisan effort to save our democracy, rejecting the vicious partisanship that has disabled and destabilized government for too long. If we cannot find common ground now, on this core issue at the very heart of our endangered system, we never will. Our key goal should be reassurance. We must firmly, unambiguously reassure all Americans that their vote will be counted, that it will matter, that the people’s will expressed through their votes will not be questioned and will be respected and accepted. I propose that Congress creates a new mechanism to help accomplish this purpose. It should create a supremely high-level bipartisan and nonpartisan commission to oversee the election." - Former national intelligence director and Indiana senator Dan Coats, in a New York Times op-ed published Thursday morning. 
     
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  • Woodward on why Coats didn't speak out on Trump
    Bob Woodward, the author of the new book “Rage” discussed the way in which President Trump diminished former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former DNI Dan Coats and why he thinks Mattis and Coats have not publicly spoken about the president. “It’s almost a book in itself,” Woodward said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday. “This was a man who was a senator from Indiana. He was retiring and he was offered this job from Mike Pence, and felt he could not say no. He went in with these Republican values and was stunned, shocked and, in a way, just ground down from Trump’s refusal to accept reality.” Woodward said that at one point Mattis and Coats talked after a National Security Council meeting. “Mattis says that Trump has no moral compass. And Coats says, ‘Donald Trump,’ their leader, ‘does not know the difference between a lie and the truth.’ They were in the latter phase of their lives. (Trump) pulled all of these stunts in a way that led them to the point where, in Coats’s case, his wife Marsha said to him, ‘Look, Dan, God put you in this job. You’re not just failing the country, yourself and your family, but God and you need to get organized.’ Trump expelled him when it did not serve Trump’s purposes.”  - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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