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Friday, May 27, 2022
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  • BLOOMINGTON – Recently, a couple of reporters at The New York Times published an intriguing story about conversations between House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of his leadership team. It was shortly after the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol, and they were talking about what to do about then-President Trump.  His conduct, McCarthy said, had been “atrocious and totally wrong.” Moreover, wrote Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin in their article, McCarthy “faulted the president for ‘inciting people’ to attack the Capitol, saying that Mr. Trump’s remarks at a rally on the National Mall that day were ‘not right by any shape or any form.’” He added, “I’ve had it with this guy.” Burns and Martin have since published a series of articles on the subject, including McCarthy’s fears that some of his more extreme colleagues could themselves incite more violence. Not surprisingly, there have been plenty of denials, but the two reporters have countered with one key point: They have the audio recordings.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Having just watched a Supreme Court nominee supported by a comfortable majority of Americans draw just three Republican votes in the Senate, you could be forgiven for thinking bipartisanship in Congress is a thing of the past. And in the case of Supreme Court nominees, you’d be right: The last time a nominee got over half the votes of the opposition party was in 2005, and you have to go back nearly three decades—to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993—to find one who drew votes from almost all senators. But if you look carefully, there are plenty of signs that bipartisanship is still possible in Washington. President Biden recently signed into law a bill reforming the Postal Service, which drew strong support from both parties in Congress. The same happened with a measure that keeps companies and universities from shielding themselves against lawsuits for sexual harassment. And both houses have passed a package aimed at boosting American competitiveness, again with support in both parties. There are other examples, as well, but you’ll notice something about them: They’re not focused on hot-button issues like voting rights or gun control or immigration. This is in no small part because in the Senate, a measure effectively needs 60 votes to pass—which means neither party can get bills approved without members of the other party.
  • BLOOMINGTON – An interesting thing happened after Russia invaded Ukraine. Though U.S. standing in the world had taken a knock after the much-needed but chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was no question where the world’s democracies would turn for leadership in the Ukraine crisis. As much of Europe and Asia has found a new resolve on behalf of democratic values, in the time since the war began the U.S. has been front and center in rallying them to the cause. This is a role we’ve played—with ups and downs—for many decades. It became fashionable not very long ago to argue that the US’s preeminent role in world affairs has disappeared, but it’s harder to make that case at the moment. There are other world powers, of course, China and Russia notable among them. And it’s also true that after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public’s taste for big-power projections of force has diminished. Yet as the democracies of the world look forward, the U.S.’s leadership role remains indispensable. With all of our problems – and we have no shortage of them – there are several reasons we’ve retained that position. The first is that, in the end, we know what we stand for: personal liberty, justice, economic opportunity, a sense of morality in world affairs.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Maybe it’s the perspective a long life brings, but I find myself eyeing with some skepticism the glut of “personal brands” that assault us every day on television, in print, and through social media. Entertainers, celebrities, politicians striving for acclaim, artists and writers who’ve mastered the public-relations game, journalists and media stars who are building their national profiles, all are “important” in terms of the attention they garner.  But are they actually important? In some ways, of course, the question is impossible to answer. Each of us has our own definition of what matters and our own approach to what makes a public figure significant. In the end, it’s a subjective question, the sort of exercise that makes for a fascinating family discussion or friendly debate: Who’s really important, and why? My own list would start with some obvious choices. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — these men (and others, of course) created the United States, not just as a political entity but as a set of ideals and political values that, over time, reshaped the history of the world.
  • BLOOMINGTON – When Congress returned to Capitol Hill last week after a recess, it faced a changed world from the one that existed when its members left town. Not just because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as dramatic as that has been, but because of the response to it. Before the invasion, Europe was fractured. So, of course, was the United States and nowhere more so than in Congress. Now? Europe is acting with remarkable unity of purpose, while Congress, if only on Ukraine, is showing levels of bipartisan agreement we don’t get to see very often. It’s impossible to know how long this will last, but it seems a safe bet that these tumultuous few weeks will leave a lasting imprint. What’s key to remember about Congress is that of all the policy-making bodies in Washington, it’s the one that’s in closest touch with the American people. And many Americans have a visceral reaction to bullies. So, although there was some disagreement from the Right, there’s overall been strong congressional and popular support for the tough stance taken by the Biden administration. Even Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, said, “There’s broad support for the president and what he’s doing now.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – Around the country, states have been taking on the task of coming up with new lines for congressional districts. And with about two-thirds of the districts for the next decade mapped out, a recent New York Times analysis found something discouraging. The people drawing redistricting maps, wrote Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti, “are on pace to draw fewer than 40 seats out of 435  that are considered competitive based on the 2020 presidential election results.” To be sure, it’s not like we used to live in a political paradise of competitive districts, where each voter could believe that he or she might make a difference. Even in the best of times, the bulk of House districts leaned toward one party or another. Politicians always want a district drawn for them that gives them the advantage, and over many decades both parties have amassed great expertise at creating districts whose voters suit them. Still, a decade ago there were 73 competitive districts, which was hardly ideal but was certainly better than what we’re facing now. As one former Republican member of Congress tells Epstein and Corasaniti, the parties are “taking the voters out of the equation. November becomes a constitutional formality.”
  • BLOOMINGTON – A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made a startling suggestion. He proposed a cross-party 2024 presidential ticket: Joe Biden and Liz Cheney, perhaps, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or another combination of a leading Democrat and an anti-Trump Republican. Friedman’s reasoning is that the U.S. is at a crossroads, and he contends that the main body of the Republican Party “has shown that it isn’t committed any longer to playing by democratic rules, leaving the United States uniquely threatened among Western democracies.” Under these circumstances, he wrote, the country needs a “broad national unity vehicle” that would draw members of both parties. “We all have to be small-d democrats now, or we won’t have a system to be big-D or big-R anythings,” he continued. To buttress his argument, he turned to Israel’s current national unity government, which united members of the right and left in an effort to turn down the heat generated by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to delegitimize the government and judicial system. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s been about a year since Joe Biden took office as president, and though it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions about his performance, it’s not too early to discern some trends. Especially in light of how Biden positioned himself in the 2020 campaign and, I believe, how he still sees himself: As a centrist and a moderate who can unite the country by bringing professionalism to the White House and make the federal government work. He began his presidency with, overall, a lot of good will. Many Americans longed for an end to the tumult of the Trump presidency and, as Biden himself put it, a return to normalcy. But since last year, the polls have shown him losing favor in Americans’ eyes. In part, this was inevitable. He’s had to try to buck a very tough political climate, facing intense political division, the country’s unending culture wars, a riled-up opposition determined to thwart him, a pandemic that throws the country a new curve every time it seems to be settling down, and an inflation rate that has many Americans looking for someone to blame.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Decades ago, it was easy to talk about “the promise of America,” as historians and boosters did regularly, and have most people understand what you meant. These days, I worry they’d look at you as if you’d taken leave of your senses. Even before the pandemic threw us back on our heels, many people here and abroad increasingly viewed our country and its system of representative government as outdated, flawed, and in decline. They question whether it deserves to be perpetuated or to serve as a beacon for others. And yet, while there’s room to be chastened and reflective about this shift, what it really means, I think, is that as Americans we have our work cut out for us. Because our system – which really did produce a nation that served as a beacon and a model for others – was put in our care by the people who created it. If this country is to flourish and fulfill its promise, it’s we the people who will have to do it. So what does “the promise of America” actually mean? In its details the answer differs from person to person, but looked at broadly it’s really two promises.
  • BLOOMINGTON – With a $1 trillion infrastructure package on the books and the Biden administration’s $1.8 trillion “Build Back Better” measure preoccupying the Senate after passing the House, government spending is very much on Americans’ minds. In public meetings, I frequently hear people say that government’s share of the economy is too big, and it’s likely that voters’ feelings about federal spending in particular will figure prominently in next year’s elections. If you look ahead, even beyond the current debate on Capitol Hill, there’s no question that there will be intense pressure to expand even further. To deal effectively with climate change, reckon with the impact of an aging population, handle the health care needs of Americans post-pandemic – these are problems that will demand a role for government. Which, in turn, will mean more spending, more bureaucracy, more opportunity for corruption, and less space for the individual enterprise that fuels economic prosperity. The U.S. is not alone in this. “On current forecasts,” The Economist wrote recently, “government spending will be greater as a share of GDP in 2026 than it was in 2006 in every major advanced economy.” 
  • BLOOMINGTON – I still remember a question I got years ago. It was at a public meeting in southern Indiana, in one of those squat, featureless cinder-block buildings you find all across the country. This young woman stood up and commented that I’d traveled throughout the U.S.  and had met all kinds of people. So she wanted to know: What was my impression of Americans? I didn’t even hesitate: The American people are fundamentally decent, I told her. I still believe this. And when I say it, I’m not talking about a bare majority. Most Americans are good people. Why even mention this? Because at the moment, we live in a country where a lot of Americans don’t believe it. They think fellow citizens who belong to a different political party are at best misguided and at worst, evil. We have public officials who want nothing more than to do a good job and stick by the laws resigning because they’re tired of the threats to themselves and their families. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It would be fair to say that for a good bit of our history, Americans paid scant attention to redistricting. The redrawing of congressional and legislative lines every 10 years, sparked by population shifts captured by the Census, tended to pass unnoticed. Unless, of course, it involved some particularly outrageous instance of gerrymandering. For line-drawers, especially in the age of the computer, this was just fine. When your basic laptop can so easily create any desired political complexion for a district, the politicians who were usually in charge of the process were quite happy to get the chance to choose their voters without much public notice. This would give the party in power in a state a lock on as many seats as possible—never mind the damage it did to competitive elections and, more generally, our representative democracy. An interesting thing happened after the last redistricting round, however. As overt and divisive partisanship ratcheted up around the country, so did public concern about partisan line-drawing. In several states, reform advocates were able to create citizen-led redistricting commissions, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s a cliché to say that everything’s connected. But we live in a world where this is clearly true. Ideas, goods, services, workers, tourists, commerce, communications, drugs, crime, migrants, refugees, weapons, climate impacts … and, of course, viruses; they all cross borders constantly. This is one reason I’ve come to believe that drawing a distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” policy, while often helpful, is also misleading. Globalization essentially means that we can’t escape the impact of what’s happening in other countries and regions around the globe, either at the policy level in Washington or on the street where you live. This is often beneficial. The free movement of goods and services from this country to others builds our economy and creates jobs. Likewise, goods and services produced elsewhere and imported or used here have provided many American consumers with a quality of life that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The relatively free flow of ideas, cultural life, and people with talent, skill, ambition, or all three, have enriched this country and many others. Yet managing globalization is also a clear challenge, because it’s not only the good stuff that goes along with it.
  • BLOOMINGTON – As Americans, we tend—understandably—to focus on the Constitution as the source for our representative democracy. It is, after all, our basic operating document, the blueprint for the system we’ve been shepherding for the last 234 years. But the Constitution did not arise out of thin air; our forebears marked key steps along the way with other documents as well. Here’s a quick tour of some of them. The first was the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620 by 41 of the male colonists, including two indentured servants, aboard the Mayflower after it made land in Massachusetts. There is no historical certainty about who actually wrote it, though it’s often attributed to William Brewster, one of the leaders of the community. It’s not long, and it essentially says that the colonists – who at the time were divided between the Pilgrims, who had intended to settle in Virginia, and the merchants, craftsmen, servants, and others who’d gone along for the ride –would work together to establish the colony and enact the “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices” the colony needed.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be an American, to have a shared stake in this country and its fortunes. In some ways, I suppose the question is unanswerable: We are a vast, diverse country, and we each answer the question in our own way. Yet I also think there are characteristics many of us would recognize, traits in common that resonate across communities and divisions, regardless of our age or political beliefs. You could start, for instance, with a belief in the promise and ideals of the United States, in its Constitution and laws, and perhaps above all in the freedom, independence, and opportunity that many Americans consider their birthright. Yet all along we’ve balanced this quest for liberty with a sense of responsibility to the community around us. As an American, you accept certain responsibilities: To cast an informed vote; to respect the laws and if you disagree with them to work through the system to change them; to defend the Constitution; and to respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others, whether or not you agree with them.
  • 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.
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  • Biden on Uvalde massacre: 'Where is our backbone?'
    “As a nation we have to ask, when in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? Where in God's name is our backbone? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? These kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world. Why?”- President Biden, reacting to the slaughter of 19 kids & 2 teachers in Uvalde, Tex. Democratic Senate nominee Thomas McDermott Jr., said, “Todd Young has done nothing since Sandy Hook. Young has done nothing since Pulse, Parkland, Indianapolis, Buffalo, and now Uvalde – and thousands of Americans have lost their lives. As we grieve the loss of our students and teachers in Texas, Todd Young is sitting in his office collecting donation after donation from the NRA to keep the status quo – all while wishing for thoughts and prayers in hollow statements. Senator, it’s time to act or get out of Washington for those – like me – who do want to stop this violence and save our loved ones’ lives.” 
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