Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who said that?

I read a fine short biography of a famous man recently. Some things, however, jumped out at me -- a deja vu moment.

Here are three quotations from the great man:

1.“All of you know nothing; I alone know something. I alone decide.”

2.“My course is the right one, and in it I shall continue to steer. We are destined for greatness, and I shall lead you to glorious days.”

3.“Beware the time when I shall give the orders.”

And here is advice on dealing with him from his closest friend:

4.“[He] takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him. He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself. He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. [He] wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous. To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. …He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time by someone of importance. You will always accomplish whatever you wish so long as you do not omit to express your appreciation when [he] deserves it. He is grateful for it like a good, clever child...We two will always carefully observe the boundaries of flattery.”

Who said that?

The three quotations in italics are from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who [mis]ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918. The advice was given to Foreign Minister Berhard von Bulow by Wilhelm's longtime friend, Count Philipp zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. The book, Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life, by John C.G. Rohl, who earlier had written a 3-volume life of the kaiser.

Sound familiar?

Friday, February 10, 2017


Lyndon Johnson, by all accounts, was a big, egotistical, profane, domineering man. So is Donald Trump. Both men showed a keen sense of their opponents' weaknesses. Both men bullied others relentlessly. Both men were obsessed with television news about themselves.

But there are significant differences. Lyndon Johnson knew how government works and how to make it work for him. Donald Trump is clueless, careless, incurious, and thus likely to be ineffective.

One of the Senators I worked for was like LBJ in many ways: big, assertive, temperamental. Over the years I observed, however, that he didn't lose his temper, he deployed it --for impact and effect. And it often worked.  Johnson, too, deployed his anger and his affection for strategic effects, and they often worked.

Too bad -- for him -- that  DJT lacks the skills and qualities of LBJ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson

President Trump now has a large portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, Some of his closest advisors, including Steve Bannon, have labeled him a Jacksonian, mainly on the grounds that he will be a populist and be politically disruptive.

Some historians like H.W.Brands have disputed the comparison. I think, worry actually, that Trump may practice the worst of Jackson's policies.

Remember, Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States and the economic regime it had created, sending the United States into the worst depression of its early history. Trump has sharply criticized the Federal Reserve, head of our current banking system, has expressed indifference to the idea of a default on our national debt, and seems intent on tearing down our existing structure of trade agreements.

Remember, Jackson famously defied the Supreme Court, refusing to enforce its decision in an Indian claims case. Who believes that Trump would enforce a court order against any of his key policies, such as the immigration ban?

Remember, Jackson forced the removal of Indians from their eastern lands, sending thousands, many of whom died, along the Trail of Tears. Trump's orders have already led to the removal of legal immigrants and visa holders; and he seems ready to deport thousands of nonviolent, law-abiding people lacking proper documents.

With that kind of record, Jackson falls far short of political sainthood in my view. I hope that Trump does not follow that model.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

politicizing the NSC

President Trump has signed an order -- National Security Presidential Memorandum 2 -- setting forth the procedures for the National Security Council's operations. The basic outline is the same that has been followed since 1989, the Scowcroft modelof an NSC, a Principals Committee, Deputies Committee, and Assistant Secretary level groups, here called Policy Coordination Committees.

The most notable deviations from prior practice are the inclusion of the Chief Strategist [Steve Bannon] as a standing attendee and a provision saying the Vice President may preside when the president is absent. There is a longstanding tradition that domestic political arguments are not supposed to be made in NSC meetings even if they are important considerations for the president. Inclusion of Bannon makes that tradition harder to maintain. Designation of the Vice President suggests that President Trump envisions greater than normal absence from NSC deliberations.

A curious omission from the order is any mention of the proposed National Trade Council. In prior administrations, foreign economic policy was handled by staffers dual-hatted with the NSC and the National Economic Council. Under Trump, foreign economic issues are to be handled by the NSC, with the president's economic advisor chairing the Deputies Committee for such issues. The administration really needs to clarify those lines of authority.

Another omission is any mention of the Science Advisor, who under Obama was specifically empowered to be involved when science and technology issues were considered.

I regret the blurring of the line between political and national security advice and the likelihood that this will further politicize national security policymaking.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

trade war powers act

Under the Constitution, Congress has the primary power over trade. Since he 1930s, however, lawmakers have delegated much of its power to the president. Many of existing trade laws have sections that would allow President Donald Trump to do most of his proposed policies, including tariffs and import restrictions.

Conservative Senator Mike Lee of Utah wants to recapture some of that trade power with his new bill, S. 177, that would require congressional approval of many of the presidential actions under those trade laws.

I like the idea, but I think it would work better if it gave Congress power to veto those trade actions, the way current law allows a legislative veto of international arms sales.

I agree with the key purpose of the bill: if a president wants a trade war, Congress ought to be involved.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

illegitimate presidents

I have long worried about America's political polarization and hyper-partisanship. It is especially troubling that every president since 1992 has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by many in the political opposition -- Bill Clinton for winning with only 43% of the vote and for  later impeachable conduct; George W. Bush for taking office despite fewer votes than his main rival and only after a questionable decision by a politicized Supreme Court; and Barack Obama because so many people falsely believed -- and still believe -- that he was not born on U.S. soil. Now we have Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by a sizable margin in an election where FBI statements and Russian hacking may have played decisive roles.

Journalism professor Andres Martinez documents this sad phenomenon in the Washington Post, but offers no remedies. Nor can I. It probably doesn't help for Cong. John Lewis [D-Ga.] to call Trump an illegitimate president, but it probably doesn't hurt either since doubts are already widespread.

What's even sadder is the distrust that has grown up among ourselves with large fractions in each party saying that the other party is dangerous to America and claiming that they wouldn't want their children to marry someone who voted differently.

I guess we need some trust-building and civility reinforcing efforts before we descend into hatred and violence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I come from a card-playing family. My parents preferred canasta and pinochle, and I recall many happy nights at our mountain cabin, shuffling and dealing.Once we were stranded almost 24 hours on a train blocked by an avalanche; we passed the time playing cards. In high school, some classmates taught me bridge -- a game where play counted more than luck; you could win even with low cards. Once I learned bridge, I never went back to the other games. [And I'm not skilled enough at deception to play poker.]

In bridge the players bid for a contract -- the number of tricks they'll take -- either in a suit or "no trump." Cards in the trump suit beat higher cards in other suits. In no trump contracts, the highest card of the suit led wins the trick.

That's how I think of "trump" -- a kind of wild card. As a verb, it means to prevail over even the best of others. There are other phrases, of course, like "trump up," which means to exaggerate or deceive.

I expect the headline writers to pun a lot on the word in the next few years. I'd settle for a new deal.