Ignorance is a Lousy Public Policy Strategy

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Yes, this is (part of) America.  

Some public policy trends jump out at you (the opioid crisis, for instance, or the impact of social media on the country’s coarsening public conversation). Others are too subtle for easy detection, which means that major shifts go unnoticed until it’s too late to do anything about them.

And, sometimes they are right in front of you. Like one of those optical illusions of a duck-rabbit mutant, it just takes squinting your eyes a bit to see.

Such is the case with two seemingly unrelated stories in Wednesday’s Washington Post that have far more in common than you might think. The first is a report about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ previously undisclosed efforts to push a citizenship question into the 2020 Census; the second is an opinion piece by three leading philanthropists decrying the lack of charitable support for Puerto Rico in the wake of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

As the op-ed notes, last fall’s storm took more than a thousand lives and caused “the longest blackout on our country’s history.” The piece highlights the shameful reality that, in addition to the inadequate government response to the disaster, the philanthropic community has not stepped up:

Yet corporate and foundation support of Puerto Rico in 2017 stood at only $62 million, according to data collected from the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Compare that with the $341 million in support after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas, and the $128 million after Hurricane Irma, which badly damaged Florida. Thanks to these investments, as well as a much more robust government response, Texas and Florida were back on their feet in a matter of weeks. Puerto Rico, however, continues to struggle to meet basic needs 10 months after the storm.

Why the lack of support for the U.S. citizens who call Puerto Rico home? The op-ed argues that “[f] or many mainland U.S. foundations, Puerto Rico somehow isn’t “American” enough for regional or local funding.”

But it’s not just foundations – and it’s not just a matter of not considering Puerto Rico “American” enough. Many Americans don’t even think Puerto Rico is American at all.

A 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.. It’s no wonder that support for aid to Puerto Rico is not as high as that for U.S. states affected by natural disasters: Americans are notoriously skeptical of foreign aid. If you think that Puerto Rico is no different than, say, Haiti, or Sri Lanka, or Rwanda, well….

Surely, part of the issue is old-fashioned prejudice: to some Americans, Puerto Ricans don’t look like what an American should look like. But it’s far more than that: the Morning Consult survey found that the  percentage of young people who don’t think  Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. is higher than the rate among older Americans. Since younger Americans typically have a more expansive view of what it means to be an American, than their ignorance about Puerto Rico’s Americanness is likely a function of ignorance more than racism.

And it’s a function of the fact that civics is increasingly left out of the grade school curriculum. As the National Education Association notes:

Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to “core subjects” under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.

Consequently, the NEA points out, only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.

When Americans view Puerto Ricans as not their fellow countryfolk but as foreigners, and donate less (and place less pressure on their elected representatives to help), it’s clear that ignorance of basic civic facts has real-world consequences.

Which brings us to that other article, about the Commerce Department’s efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The big news in the story is the revelation that Secretary Ross apparently misled Congress about his involvement in pushing for the question. The issue is highly controversial because opponents view the question as an attempt by the Trump administration to reduce the Census count in places with large immigrant populations, as immigrants would be less likely to participate for fear a visit from ICE. This, in turn, could reduce population numbers in blue states, affecting everything from reapportionment of Congressional seats to federal funding formulas.

Whatever the arguments for or against a citizenship question, there can be little doubt that such a question will depress participation in the Census. Which means that the 2020 Census would not provide a complete and accurate accounting of the nation’s population and demographics.

If you think it’s bad that millions of Americans don’t know who their fellow citizens are, it’s many times worse if the government doesn’t understand. Actively pushing to make the Census less accurate is the bureaucratic equivalent of sleeping through civics class – but much, much worse. It’s ignorance on an epic scale.  And it would make effective policymaking extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger trend towards making ignorance great again. Whether it’s labeling all media “fake news,” shooting up a restaurant due to demonstrably false assertions (such as notion that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria) or sabotaging the Census to achieve political ends, there is a move afoot to make the U.S. a fact-free society.

Ironically, those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest are the very ones who are pushing this agenda and supporting moves like the Census citizenship question. But loving your country requires knowing it, too. You can be a patriot. Or you can be willfully ignorant. You can’t be both.

Our Three-Party Government


Paul Ryan’s announcement today that he is not running for re-election is a sudden – though not entirely shocking – capstone to an eventful political career: vice presidential candidate, Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee chair, Speaker of the House.

The word is that Ryan is leaving out of a desire to spend more time with his family – he has three school age children – and out of a sense of accomplishment, particularly last fall’s massive tax cut. But it’s no secret that Ryan was never in love with being Speaker. He had to be coaxed into the role when his predecessor John Boehner stepped down in 2015 and Republicans couldn’t agree on anyone else to replace him.

Ryan’s tenure as Speaker will be remembered for his ability to garner respect (albeit grudging at times) from all wings of his fractious party. But his speakership, and that of Boehner, reveal another important truth: there are really three parties in Washington. And none of them have a working majority.

There are the Democrats, of course, who are unified by a loathing of Donald Trump and essentially nothing else.

There are the Republicans, the establishment party of Wall Street and Big Business, supporters of robust international engagement and free trade.

And then there is that third party: nationalist, nativist, pro-gun, anti-trade. And very, very angry.

Born from the ashes of the Republicans’ 2008 electoral collapse, it first took shape as the Tea Party, riding a wave of fury over Obamacare and the financial bailout. The Republican Party co-opted this group long enough to secure a House majority in 2010 and a Senate majority in 2014. But like a parasite that subsumes its host, the Angry Party has all but conquered the GOP.

Despite a membership that is estimated at around just 30 or 40 members, the House Freedom Caucus – the institutional home of the Angry Party – has wielded undue influence over the House Republican Caucus. On issue after issue they have stymied efforts by Boehner and then Ryan to strike deals with Democrats and even Senate Republicans. They are credited (or blamed) for driving Boehner from the Speaker’s chair, and have made Paul Ryan’s life miserable ever since.

Of course, the Angry Party’s greatest triumph came in 2016, when Donald Trump, who channels the anger of the Angry Party better than anyone, not only won the Republican nomination, but saw the GOP coalesce around him. Other than a manic desire to slash taxes, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are as different in temperament and style as two people could possibly be,. Yet it was Ryan’s ally and fellow Badger Stater, Reince Priebus who as Chair of the Republican National Committee gave Trump legitimacy by getting the party behind him once the nomination was locked up. Ever since Trump’s election, Ryan has chosen a path of gently rebuking Trump when it was absolutely necessary, but otherwise working hand-in-hand with him on major issues.

For Ryan, as with Boehner, the political calculus has been clear: pass legislation backed by the Freedom Caucus and watch it die in the Senate, or secure Democratic support and risk being overthrown.

In that sense, both Ryan and Boehner were less leaders of a majority party, and more akin to prime ministers, cobbling together a coalition government of two separate parties who don’t particularly trust each other, but need each other to succeed. As most nations with parliamentary systems can attest, coalition governments are very hard to maintain over a long period of time.

Paul Ryan tried to keep the coalition together. But it’s hard when all the passion is with one side. And as Ryan joins the ever-growing list of establishment House Republicans not seeking re-election, the uncivil civil war between the Reductions and the Angries will enter a new phase. Undoubtedly, the next Republican leader will need to have the support of the Freedom Caucus. It is not out of the question that the next House Republican leader will actually be a member of the Freedom Caucus, giving the Angry Party control over two of the three policy-making centers of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping they can keep their warring factions cohesive long enough to win back the House in November.

Either way, Paul Ryan’s greatest legacy might be being the last Republican Speaker of the House for a long time.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Talking ≠ Governing


Two events this week suggest that the next president of the United States will have an incredibly low bar to meet to be a success. The reactions to them suggest that a lot of folks are ok with that. And that’s a problem.

Let’s review: on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey gave a (genuinely) inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards. Then, on Tuesday, President Trump allowed the media to televise his hour-long meeting with bipartisan leaders of Congress to discuss immigration and other matters.

The reactions from the press and others was near-rapturous: the Oprah 2020 bandwagon short into hyper speed. People started parsing her every utterance about clues to her policy inclinations. Lots of observers argued that, if you’re going to have a celebrity as president, why not someone who can inspire? As CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, “You could close your eyes and imagine that speech being given in Iowa, let’s say, or as a campaign kickoff.”

Meanwhile, the Trump meeting/press gaggle was must-see TV on the cable networks. Clearly intended by the White House to prove that the President is not, as Michael Wolff’s book suggests, an unstable moron, the stunt appeared to (mostly) do the trick. For a day, the public discussion about Trump was not about his daily work habits or stream-of-consciousness tweeting. With two Democratic leaders cleverly seated on each arm, Donald Trump looked, well, like he belonged there. Pundit Michael Medved tweeted that “the session today should end all talk (for now, at least) that he’s not ‘mentally fit’ for the job. Today, he looks unequivocally presidential.”

So there you have it: for the 46th president to succeed, he or she needs to give rousing speeches and hold meetings without throwing food at people like a colobus monkey. In other words, the president needs to look and sound the part.

The problem is, there is a hell of a lot to the job that a good speech or meeting doesn’t show.

In many ways, politics is like other professions: if you don’t do it every day, it looks a lot more glamorous than it really is. Most lawyers would tell you that the reality of lawyering is not what you see on Boston Legal: a lot less confronting witnesses in tense courtrooms and a lot more poring over case law and endless depositions. Doctors don’t spend the bulk of their time straddling patients on gurneys in the ER, performing tracheotomies with a pen as the blood gushes everywhere. (If you’ve ever had a rectal exam, remember that it’s not much fun on the giving end, either.)

Being a successful president demands a set of skills and a temperament that the cameras don’t capture. For starters, you need a good understanding of policy. Although it’s Congress’ job to write the bills, the president isn’t there just to sign them. Presidents need to be able to get on the phone with members of Congress and make the case for their agenda. And since lawmakers get to specialize in certain issues through the committee system, presidents need to know enough about a wide array of issues to hold their side of the argument. Presidents need to understand the intricacies of legislating, knowing, for example, that when a Senator asks you to support a “clean DACA” bill, she means a bill that does not include funding for a border wall. If you can’t figure these things out, the legislators will win every time, advancing policies that won’t look like yours.

Presidents also need to make sure their public pronouncements don’t undermine their bargaining positions. No member of Congress wants to back politically sensitive legislation if they think that the president will change his mind and leave you isolated. That requires having the discipline to stick to a position, even when you hear all the voices on the other side pushing you in the other direction with well-thought points. Without a clear sense of where you stand and why, every argument will sound convincing. And if you get a reputation of telling one side one thing in private and something else to their opponents, nobody is going to listen to you.

Don’t presidents have policy advisors to help them navigate the intricacies of legislation? Yes, but its’ not their name on the door of the Oval Office. When a vote is on the line, a recalcitrant Senator does not want to hear from a White House staffer. Putting the full weight of the presidency on the phone can do wonders for twisting arms. And since it’s not uncommon for advisers to disagree with each other, the president has to make the final call, which can be even more difficult when some advisors have hidden agendas of their own.

More than that, presidents need the temperament and discipline to make calls on issues that pop up out of nowhere, with at times limited information. Does North Korea really have the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland U.S.? If the U.S. comes out in support of the Iranian protesters, will that help, or will it raise expectations of support America can’t possibly fulfill? Meanwhile, there are nearly 200 other nations and international alliances looking for guidance – and asking for favors – from the U.S. If Angela Merkel calls to discuss Syria, she doesn’t want to hear a speech or be a prop in a photo op.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with good optics; part of the president’s role is to rally the public, use the bully pulpit, demonstrate the power and prestige of the office through Rose Garden ceremonies, State of the Union addresses and the like. All that matters.

And there is nothing wrong, in of itself, with political neophytes running for office. To be perfectly fair to Oprah, she may very well have the skills and temperament to be a good, or even great, president (and she hasn’t even said she’s running).

But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Trump Era, it is that politics is a discipline, and like, being a doctor or lawyer, success demands a lot more than what you see on TV. Perhaps had someone informed Mr. Trump back in 2015 that life as Commander-in-Chief is a lot less glamorous (and a lot harder) than what it looked like in Air Force One, it’s entirely possible that right now he’d be spending lots of time playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, watching Fox and Friends and tweeting insults at Hillary Clinton (in other words, the same as now, but without the nuclear button).

The real danger comes not from celebrities and other political neophytes running for office. After all, anybody can run for president if they meet the qualifications in the Constitution. And having prior government experience is pointedly not one of those requirements. Rather, the danger is that the voting public makes choices based on superficiality.

Imagine a scenario where the President is little more than a figurehead, with no capacity to make tough decisions, leaving those decisions to unelected (and unvetted) advisers. Or worse, a President who knows little but thinks he does, making fact-free and poorly thought-out pronouncements that divide the country and reduce faith in government.

We can probably survive one of those, but not another.

2018: The Year in Review

strpJoin Capital Zoo as we peer into our crystal ball and review the year that’s about to be:

January 4: President Trump claims that the voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape is really Hilary Clinton’s. Congressional Republicans demand an investigation into Clinton’s sexual assaults.

February 11: Soohorang, the official mascot of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, is banned for blood doping.

February 20: President Trump signs an executive order requiring all federal agencies to pay government contractors in Bitcoin.

March 4: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces that actors credibly accused of sexual assault or harassment are ineligible for Oscars. As a result, the Academy Award for Best Actor goes to Stormtrooper #2 from The Last Jedi.

March 14: Video surfaces of President Trump thanking Vladimir Putin for throwing the election to him. Congressional Republicans call for the appointment of a special counsel into Clinton.

April 7: Fresh off his Oscar win, Stormtrooper #2 wins season 26 of Dancing with the Stars.

April 20: The Homeland Security Department finishes construction of Trump’s border wall. However, due to a precipitous drop in the value of Bitcoins, the contractor is underpaid. As a result, the wall is thirty inches tall.



May 2: Lin-Manuel Miranda premieres his new musical, Trump, in which he successfully rhymes “Scaramucci” with “Pair of Guccis” and “Grab her tushie.”

May 5: President Trump rolls over his phone in bed, accidentally tweeting out 280 characters of gibberish. It is retweeted 784,000 times.

May 6: CNN devotes its entire day of programming to analyzing Trump’s tweet.

May 17: Stormtrooper #2 gets his own talk show on NBC.

June 1: The alt-right movement, suffering from a profoundly hostile public image, changes its name to “Crabtree & Evelyn.”

June 2: Ivanka Trump announces her new line of body lotions will be sold exclusively at Crabtree & Evelyn. It is not immediately clear which one she is referring to.

June 18: Special counsel Robert Mueller announces his team has found definitive proof that President Trump personally colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Congressional Republicans commence impeachment hearings on Hillary Clinton.

June 20: North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un opens a Twitter account. Surprisingly, most of his posts are Stranger Things fan fiction and retweets of Bobby Flay recipes.

June 28: Hillary Clinton releases her next book, What Happened During the What Happened Book Tour, and its follow-up, How What Happened Happened During the What Happened During the What Happened Book Tour Book Tour.

July 6: Steve Bannon announces he is temporarily removing himself from public life.

July 7: Steve Bannon’s neighbors report seeing a six-foot tall chrysalis growing in Bannon’s living room, accompanied by a strange vibration.

July 15: House Republicans demand the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Special Counsel Robert Mueller. House Democrats respond by calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Special Counsel  investigating the Special Counsel.

July 25: The Department of Labor reports that 63 percent of working-age adults in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area currently are employed by special counsels.

August 3: The Trump administration issues a directive to agencies banning additional words, including “education,” “organic,” and “Mueller”

August 12: Looking to bolster their offense, the New York Yankees acquire Tectron X47, a sentient 15-door tall cyborg developed in Japan for a three-year, $591 million contract.


August 28: The Homeland Security Department acknowledges that, due to the devaluation of the Bitcoin, its 30-inch tall border wall was built out of blocks of government-surplus cheddar cheese.

September 1: The Border Patrol reports an unusually large number of feral mice entering the country illegally.

September 16: Every starting and back-up NFL quarterback gets a concussion, forcing the League to cancel the rest of the season. In an unrelated development, Colin Kaepernick begins working as a Jimmy John’s delivery boy.

September 23: Steve Bannon finally emerges from his chrysalis as a matterless black aura that floats above the surface of the Earth, menacing all who stand in its path, but mostly Jared Kushner.

October 2: Vice President Pence confesses that he once made eye contact with a woman who was not his wife and announces his immediate resignation from office.

October 10: President Trump’s first nominee to replace Vice President Pence is withdrawn when, during his Senate hearing, he fails to correctly identify the United States on a map.

October 15: President Trump’s second nominee to replace Pence is withdrawn when, during his Senate hearing, he admits to being Vladimir Putin with a fake mustache and nose.

November 6: The battle for control of the Senate comes down to Arizona, whose election is thrown into chaos when feral mice, having fully devoured the government-surplus cheddar cheese border wall, eat through thousands of paper ballots.

November 10: Paul Ryan relinquishes the Speakership and resigns from Congress to become the official spokesman for P90X.

November 15: Unable to find a candidate who is not the subject of an ongoing sexual harassment investigation, Republicans nominate Stormtrooper #2 to run for Ryan’s Wisconsin seat. He wins and is immediately elected Speaker of the House by acclamation.

December 5: Steve Bannon’s matterless black aura returns to work at Goldman Sachs, where it proceeds to make $5 billion hedging against the government’s use of Bitcoins.

December 30: Calling himself the winningest leader in the history of the world, Donald Trump announces he has nothing left to accomplish and resigns from the Presidency. Without a sitting Vice President, the line of succession falls to House Speaker Stormtrooper #2, who is administered the oath of office by newly confirmed Supreme Court Chief Justice Ted Nugent.

December 31: Billions of people around the world ring in the new year, vowing that 2019 will be a marked improvement over 2018.

Democrats Might be Repeating their 2016 Mistakes in Alabama

polling-station-2643466_960_720With 24 hours to go until Alabamians vote in the season finale of “Who Wants to Elect a Pedophile?” it appears the closing argument from Democratic candidate Doug Jones and his backers boils down to, “Please, please don’t embarrass our state.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) made that pitch this weekend, as did Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby (R). Shelby, though not a Jones supporter, said he could not back GOP candidate and perpetual controversy machine Roy Moore because, “I think Alabama deserves better.”

As the Washington Post’s James Hohmnann recounts today, Alabama’s business and media elite are piling on, too, making the case that a Moore win would set back the state’s economy and reputation:

A pro-Jones Super PAC called Highway 31 has spent $3.6 million on the race. “Don’t let Alabama’s good name be tarnished,” a narrator says in the group’s final radio ad. “Don’t wash it all away. Don’t let Roy Moore become Alabama.”

Even Jimmy Kimmel is getting into the act, donating to Jones’ campaign. The allegations against Moore are so serious that it may end up turning this safe red seat into a blue one. But as they look ahead to 2018, are Democrats falling into the same trap they walked right into in last year’s Presidential election?

While it does not appear (yet) that Vladimir Putin is helping Roy Moore win, the similarities to 2016 are striking – and in a state that Donald Trump won by 28 points, those parallels matter.

In 2016, a sober-minded but generally uninspiring Democrat took on a flamboyant outsider with a penchant for controversy and a sexual harassment scandal – and lost. (Yes, it is unfair to call Jones – who prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham bombers – uninspiring. But is anybody in Alabama talking about Jones right now?)

Like Jones, Hillary Clinton had the support of the “establishment,” and numerous Republicans came out against Trump, warning that he would be a disaster as President. But that did not help with the kinds of swing voters who were drawn to Trump’s burn-the-place-down approach to politics. Many opted to stick it to the establishment. And if that worked for Trump in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, it may very well work for  Moore in Alabama.

Alabama, of course, is the state whose very existence is predicated upon giving elites the finger. It was fourth to secede from the Union in 1861. It also gave us George Wallace, and while Lynyrd Skynyrd is actually from Jacksonville, Florida (h/t Wikipedia), their ode to the Cotton State makes it clear that Alabamians don’t like being told what to do by northern folk.

Consequently, exhortations from business leaders, journalists, celebrities and even the state’s beloved senior senator – all card-carrying members of the Establishment – to oppose Moore may be for naught.

Or worse, may drive some Alabamians to choose Moore.  If you are a conservative Republican who is troubled by the accusations against Moore but nonetheless agrees with him on some issues, being told by elites that everything Moore (and you) stand for will tarnish Alabama’s good name might just be enough of a nudge to get you to pull his lever in the voting booth.

The Alabama race has one other parallel to the 2016 election: Democrats are making the race all about the Republican candidate. And as a result, the Democratic candidate is not making a compelling case for his election. Does anybody in Alabama know what Doug Jones will do for the economy, or national security? Other than being “not-Roy Moore,” it’s not clear what he stands for. That was Hillary’s problem as well. Telling voters that Trump would embarrass our country did not resonate with people worried about pocketbook issues.

Of course, nobody can predict how the election will turn out. And when you go up against a candidate as troubled as Roy Moore, making the election all about Roy may be sufficient.  But this race is, arguably, exceptional. As Democrats start to ponder 2018 and beyond, they need to remember that elections are won or lost on the issues that matter to the voters.