In the Absence of Policy

This election was never going to be about policy. This isn’t 1968 with talk of getting out of Vietnam, one way or another, or restoring law and order, demanded by that mysterious silent majority, although Donald Trump has mentioned that. This time everyone does want to get rid of ISIS of course, and arguments have been made about the best policy to do that, but a lot of that is posturing, at least from Donald Trump. Bombing the shit out of them isn’t policy. That’s just signaling his character – what he’s selling this time. Hillary Clinton does talk policy a bit – alliances and strategy and methods – but people’s eyes glaze over. Perhaps people don’t want policy. People want attitude. That’s what they vote for, and that makes “character” everything, and Hillary Clinton just took a big hit:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money – either personally or through companies or groups – to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to the Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

Donors to the Clinton Foundation had a better than fifty-fifty chance to talk with the secretary of state, which looks bad even if it’s not bad:

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.

It’s all perception, and of course Trump and Pence and the Republicans are predictably outraged. The legal issues may be vague but this speaks to her character, or lack of it. Or it doesn’t. Paul Waldman argues that this latest Clinton email story just isn’t a scandal:

Are you ready for the shocking news, the scandalous details, the mind-blowing malfeasance? Well hold on to your hat, because here it is: When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, many people wanted to speak with her.

Astonishing, I know.

Here’s the truth: every development in any story having to do with anything involving email and Hillary Clinton is going to get trumpeted on the front page as though it were scandalous, no matter what the substance of it actually is.

And the substance, as Waldman sees it, is this:

Let’s briefly summarize what’s so earth-shaking that it gets front-page treatment on both the New York Times and the Washington Post today, not to mention untold hours of breathless cable news discussion. There are actually two stories in one.

The first is that a federal judge has ordered the State Department to speed up its review of approximately 15,000 previously undisclosed emails that the FBI retrieved off of Clinton’s server. We have no idea what’s in them. It could be something horrifying, or it could be utterly banal. My money’s on the latter, but it’ll be a while before we know.

The second story is that Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Waldman looks at three specific requests sent to Clinton aide Huma Abedin:

A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.

Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.

The Crown Prince of Bahrain, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

And that’s it. If there were anything more scandalous there, have no doubt that Judicial Watch would have brought it to reporters’ eager attention. So: Nobody got special favors and nobody got “access,” except for the second-highest-ranking official of an important U.S. ally in the Middle East (Bahrain is, among other things, the site of an American naval base that is home to the 5th Fleet and the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command). While Bahrain has donated money to the Clinton Foundation to fund a scholarship program that the Foundation administers, it’s safe to say that the Crown Prince meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State is not an unusual occurrence.

Now add this perspective:

Clinton was wrong to use a private system for email while she was at the State Department. Among other things, it was a violation of departmental policy. It will also be remembered as one of the most colossal political screw-ups in modern times. In an effort to save herself the hassle of endless FOIA requests and lawsuits from the likes of Judicial Watch (I don’t believe her assertion that she wanted to use a private system for the sake of convenience), she created monumental political trouble for herself, to the point that it’s the one thing that might keep her from winning the White House.

But that doesn’t mean that any story touching on her emails deserves screaming headlines and dark insinuations, and this one certainly doesn’t…

If we find cases where someone actually received some favor or consideration they didn’t deserve, then depending on the details, it might actually be scandalous. But an email discussion of Bono’s wacky idea to send U2 concerts to the International Space Station is not a scandal.

Still, it beats talking about policy. Policy is damned hard. You have to think things through and decide what’s both reasonable and possible, and that’s not exactly Trump’s thing. Caitlin MacNeal of Talking Points Memo covers Trump’s latest difficulties:

During a series of interviews Monday evening, Donald Trump appeared to reverse his mass deportation policy, saying that he will do the “same thing” as President Obama regarding deportation but “perhaps with a lot more energy.”

He told the Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he plans on following existing immigration law and focusing deportation efforts on “the bad ones.” His comments Monday evening appear to be a reversal from harsher comments he made earlier in the campaign season. Reports over the weekend indicated that Trump would soften his stance on immigration, and the Republican nominee cancelled an immigration speech planned for Thursday. But on Monday morning, Trump had insisted he was “not flip-flopping” on immigration.

O’Reilly asked Trump if he is changing his policy on mass deportation.

“I just want to follow the law,” Trump replied before mentioning his weekend meeting with Hispanic leaders. Reports out of that meeting suggested that Trump would change his policy on deportation, and Trump said those reports were wrong.

Yes this is hard, and you might end up where everyone else ended up:

“We’re going to obey the existing laws. Now, the existing laws are very strong. The existing laws, the first thing we’re gonna do, if and when I win, is we’re gonna get rid of all of the bad ones. We’ve got gang members, we have killers, we have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country,” he said on Fox News. “As far as everybody else, we’re going to go through the process. What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country, Bush the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m gonna do the same thing.”

His policy now is “Me Too!” That’s not going to please his base, but in some way he’s still his own man:

The Fox host also brought up Dwight Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” through which the former president deported hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and dropped them off in remote areas of Mexico in the 1950s. Trump had cited this effort earlier in the campaign, but disagreed with O’Reilly’s assessment on Monday that Trump planned to “emulate” Eisenhower’s model.

“I said that it’s something that has been done at a very strong manner. I don’t agree with that. I’m not talking about detention centers. I have very, very good relationships with a lot of people, a lot of Hispanic people. We’re talking about it. We are going to get rid of the bad ones. The bad ones are going to be out of here fast. And you know, there are plenty of bad ones, gang members, gang leaders,” Trump told O’Reilly.

“They are going to be out of here so fast, your head will spin. As far as the rest, we’re going to go through the process, like they are now, perhaps with a lot more energy and we’re gonna do it only through the system of laws that – are in existence,” he continued.

So, what’s so special about him? He’ll do what’s being done with more energy? Ah well, he still has that wall: 

And when asked if he is softening his stance on immigration during a Monday night interview with Cleveland television station WEWS, Trump said he was focused on “security” and touted his plan to build a border wall.

“We are suggesting safety. We are suggesting security. We don’t want people killed at the border. We don’t want people coming into our country that shouldn’t be here. I want people to come into our country, but I want them to come in through a legal process,” he said. “We’re gonna have a wall. The wall is necessary.”

Okay, he is special, but Greg Sargent sees a muddle here:

Donald Trump is currently running an ad in four swing states that graphically depicts the southern border as being overrun by dark hordes. It flatly states that in Hillary Clinton’s America, the borders will be “open.” And it promises a hyper-tough response from President Trump, which is illustrated with cops carefully scanning the border and images of helicopters patrolling for fleeing invaders.

This represents the larger tale that Trump has been telling about immigration for the last year, one that is central to his whole candidacy: Unlike our current, feckless, “politically correct” leaders, who are not enforcing immigration laws and as a result allowing undocumented immigrants to snatch jobs from Americans, only Trump is tough, savvy at management, and “politically incorrect” enough to do what really must be done: Expel all undocumented immigrants as quickly as possible, to Make America Safe And Great Again.

But in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, in which he responded to reports that he’s backing off of his vow of mass deportations – a promise he’s made many times – Trump basically admitted the whole story he’s been telling about immigration for the last year is a big scam.

Consider what he admitted:

1) Trump tacitly conceded that our borders are not “open,” and that our laws are being enforced. In saying that “Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country,” by using “existing laws,” Trump admitted that in fact, under Obama, the borders are not open, and the laws are being enforced – Obama is in fact deporting people at a high rate. Those are extraordinary concessions, given that his entire candidacy rests so heavily on precisely the opposite assertions.

2) Trump tacitly admitted that Obama’s enforcement priorities are correct. In saying that “the first thing we’re gonna do” is “we’re gonna get rid of all the bad ones,” Trump basically endorsed what the Obama has been doing for the last five years – prioritizing the use of enforcement resources to remove the most serious threats, while temporarily de-prioritizing the removal of the rest. This amounts to another important concession: That this act of prioritization is not tantamount to a refusal to enforce the law – contradicting a claim Trump and Republicans have been making for years – and is consistent with the enforcement of our immigration laws.

3) But Trump did not make any meaningful outreach gesture towards Latinos. It’s crucial to understand that Trump only moved in Obama’s direction in a very limited way. While he did endorse Obama’s underlying enforcement priorities, he did not embrace the idea of either legalizing all the remaining lower level offenders or of using executive action to temporarily shield them from deportation and allow them to work, so they can come out of the shadows and pay taxes. Indeed, he repeatedly said that “existing laws” will remain in place. So Trump’s position – as of now, anyway – is that we should prioritize the removal of the most serious offenders, but all the rest should remain subject to removal, which is to say, in the shadows.

This is no policy at all:

All this really means is that Trump – the great fixer – is still not taking a real position on the core dilemma we face. We only have the resources to deport a fraction of the 11 million. And most people agree – many Republicans included – that many of those people are not mere criminals, but rather came here to work and better their lives in a manner consistent with American history and values, and are currently contributing to American life. So what should be done about them?

Democrats say we should focus those limited enforcement resources only on serious criminals, and in order to facilitate that and make our immigration machinery work more effectively in the national interest, we should create a path to assimilation – with penalties – for the rest, rather than continuing to leave them in limbo, subject to removal. Trump basically admitted Democrats are right about the former. He also implicitly conceded that the solution he has offered for the rest for the last year now – their proactive, speedy removal – isn’t going to happen, while still refusing to say what should ultimately be done about them.

Policy is just not his thing:

Trump did not know that he was admitting all of this, because he doesn’t understand the finer points of immigration policy. But that is what happened.

Slate’s Jim Newell takes that farther:

Trump is not familiar with immigration policy, because he’s not familiar with any policy. Building “the wall” is not a policy. It is a project. The wall is a wall.

Newell thinks the problem here is that Trump substituted adjectives and adverbs for policy:

The remark from the O’Reilly interview that’s getting the most attention is his invocation of Obama’s immigration policies: “What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country.” Tremendous. The number of undocumented immigrants that Obama “got out of the country” is far too large for immigration doves and far too modest for immigration hawks. Donald Trump does not know what those policies are. What happened, most likely, was that someone showed Trump a six- or seven-figure number and he thought, “Firm,” but he can’t outright praise Obama’s work on immigration, so he said “perhaps with a lot more energy,” but he also wants to exude a sense of sunniness, so he said “fair.”

Apply the appropriate adjective and adverb and you have a new and unique and impressive policy? That will have to do in this case, for reasons Newell notes:

Donald Trump doesn’t know President Obama’s immigration policy – the things he is doing, the legislation he sought to pass, or the executive orders either in place or mothballed in federal court. He doesn’t know Obama’s immigration policy because he doesn’t know immigration policy, and he doesn’t know immigration policy because he doesn’t know policy. There are no “shifts” in policy, because there is no policy, and there are no details of something that doesn’t exist.

At some point later this month, Trump is expected to deliver another (already delayed) “major immigration speech” outlining his fair, firm, very firm, but fair policies for the good ones – fairer – and the bad ones – like now, but perhaps with more energy. The scrap of paper on which these policies are written will last about as long as it takes him to hear a fetching new adjective.

That’s a bit cruel, because it seems accurate, but Josh Marshall notes the parallel problem on issues of race:

To hear the mainstream media tell it, Donald Trump has spent the last week in a stumbly and maybe not terribly effectual outreach to black people. Republican faux-outreach to African-Americans with the goal of mollifying moderate or educated white voters is a tried and true political move. There’s nothing remotely new about it. The problem for Trumpers is that they have a hard time even staying in character, randomly blurting out angry slurs while trying to execute their faux-outreach. But there’s something deeper and darker going on with Trump himself. It’s not just off-tone. It’s not just rants at African-Americans from lily-white suburbs. What Trump’s doing amounts to trying to rebrand dehumanization verging on hate speech as “outreach.”

In this case, Trump’s adjectives and adverbs have failed him:

Trump first got attention with his “What do you have to lose?” line to African-American voters. But as he’s refined the vocabulary, tuned it with his diehard audiences, he’s built a vision of African-American life as a kind of violence porn.

Consider some of Trump’s recent statements about African-American life in this country.

“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.”

(Note that you get this 58% number if you include all African-American high schoolers as unemployed; by the same metric white youth has 50% unemployment.

In North Carolina Trump said African-Americans should vote for him because “the inner cities are so bad.”

You live in “broken homes.”

Last night: “It is a disaster the way African-Americans are living.”

“You walk down the street, you get shot.”

In the course of his speech “appealing” to African-American voters, he riffed, “You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it is safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.”

There’s no policy here, obviously, and some things cannot be fixed by big angry words:

I’ve heard some people describe this as a problem of tone or hyperbole. There are obviously numerous ways to fact-check this garbage. The overwhelming majority of African-Americans do not “live in poverty” – despite that fact that the poverty rate among African-Americans is almost triple that of whites. But all of this misses the point. Trump portrays African-American life as drenched in violence, devoid of any vitality or promise, quite simply, as he puts it, a “disaster.” Along the way is thundering subtext that black voters are incapable of rational political action. The vocabulary, affect and tone signal nothing so much as contempt. “What the hell do you have to lose?” In other words, why do you insist on destroying yourselves?

For Trump, every black American is living in a bombed out housing project circa 1973. And despite the country’s historically low crimes rates, urban crime isn’t at 1980s levels in the Trump world. It’s the Watts, Newark and Detroit riots all at once and every day in every central city in the country.

It’s not too much to say that you could lift Trump’s version of African-American life as disaster porn from maybe half alt-right or white supremacist screeds. He just tacks on a “but I’ll save you” at the end.

And that’s not policy:

I know I’m not breaking any new ground by predicting that Trump’s screeds are unlikely to bring many African-American voters into his camp. But it’s much more than that. It’s aggressive dehumanization, a reduction of real people to ghastly stick figures, not a bungled departure from but actually at the heart of his increasingly white nationalist message.

That wasn’t his stated intention. He was going to win the black vote. What went wrong? Here again, there was no “shift” in policy, because there was no policy, just angry words. This man doesn’t do policy. He’ll win on character. Hillary Clinton may or may have not agreed to listen to people who had contributed to the Clinton Foundation, even if, as secretary of state, she did nothing for them. Donald Trump listens to no one. Fine – forget policy. Let’s make this an election about character. That won’t go well for this guy.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to In the Absence of Policy

  1. One of the many problems in this campaign is that the biggest part of Trumps base – the ones who fuel his crusade – speak in Twitter style. As I see your column on my screen, your first two lines of text exceed the Twitter limit on length (144 characters?).

    On the other extreme, are the deep thinkers, who devote thousands of words and maybe their entire career to their particular passion, and then grade somebody like Clinton only on his or her position on their particular issue.

    In between is everyone else, like the four people I saw at a local coffee shop yesterday afternoon: an obvious family of a Mom and her two kids, perhaps 12 and 16, and Grandma, all happy to be together and chattering away as people tend to do. Oh…almost certainly they were Mexican, speaking only Spanish, the kids were teaching Grandma some basic English words.

    It was the same when we went to see the Minnesota Twins last night, and it seemed like every other player was born in Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico, or Venezuela…. And the people in the stands could care less. If only the Twins would win a bit more often….

    As you know, “America” is not as it is portrayed by what is covered by the media.

    Damn sure, we have our problems, but when I go about my usual day about an hour from now – 6 a.m. – almost certainly I won’t see any of the things that head up in tomorrows headlines (twitter summaries) on the evening “news”.

    I think Hillary has the toughness and the stamina to outlast the idiot fringe.

    I sure hope so.

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