Friday, February 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Elections

“Our responsibility as we are about to celebrate the centenary of 1916 is to finish the work of the men and women of 1916 and of 1981. That means working to build the republic envisioned by the Proclamation and the leaders of that time but suited to the needs of the 21st century.”
—Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, last August
Isn’t it such a relief that the election is finally here and that there will henceforth be no more campaigning?

In your dreams, says you. The bloody election is still more than eight months away.

If you live in the States and are sick to death of all the campaigning and mud-slinging and politicking and do not know how you will survive until November, consider this. Ireland is having a general election today. It was called three weeks ago, and it was only then that the campaigning began. Now the campaigning is over. Doesn’t that sound good to you?

Yes, I am taunting you. This is the sort of thing that makes Americans go on about how everything is better in Europe and Americans should do things more like the Europeans. I call this “the grass is always greener on the Emerald Isle” syndrome. Point of clarification: the grass always is literally greener here than just about anywhere else, but that is actually irrelevant to the point I am going to make.

The fact is that, in all western democracies, the campaigning never stops—ever. Politicians always have their eye on the next election—even when they won’t know what the actual date of that election will be for years to come. But I will concede that there is something civilized about having a discreet and limited time period for official campaigning. The presidential nomination process in the United States seems completely crazy, but I don’t know how you shorten it, given the country’s political system and the sheer size of the nation. If the U.S. had a European-style parliamentary system like Ireland or the UK, the presidential election wouldn’t be quite the big deal it is now since the presidency would be more of a ceremonial position. Instead Paul Ryan would be the head of government. People who say that America should be more like Europe never seem to think about that.

The point is, though, in the parliamentary system you do not waste months and years nominating candidates because your candidates for national leader are always in place. They are already in the parliament, running their own parties. Each political party’s internal leadership contests are the de facto primaries for nominating the prime minister or, as he’s called in Eire, an Taoiseach.

The incumbent in today’s election is a man from the very county where I live (Mayo), Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael. He started out as a school teacher, a profession that seems strangely prevalent among certain pockets of Irish politicians—an interesting contrast to America where every officeholder seems to be a lawyer. Fine Gael is what political scientists call a heterogeneous party which, as far as I can tell, means that it makes up its positions as it goes along. (It is usually described as “center right.”) Another heterogeneous party is Fine Gael’s main rival, the Fianna Fáil party, which has spent more time in government than any other—at least until it had the bad luck to be in charge when the whole economy collapsed and the country had to be bailed out by foreigners. Historically, power has been passed back and forth between those two parties, which have their roots in the two sides of the bloody civil war of 1922-23.

At the moment there is an interesting parallel between the political climate here and in the States. One major party (Fianna Fáil) got discredited for its role in the financial crisis, not unlike the way the U.S. Republicans got wiped out in 2008. That paved the way for the other major party (Fine Gael) but voters became unhappy with them because economic problems persisted, not unlike the way Democrats have seen their congressional and state positions shrink under the Obama administration. And, just as Donald Trump has swept in to fill a political void left by the major parties in the U.S., a lot of support in Ireland has flowed to smaller parties and independent candidates.

The question here today is whether Fine Gael and its coalition partner (the Labour Party) will hang on—possibly with the support of a third party—or whether some new combination of parties (maybe even arch-enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in an unholy, sorry I mean, grand alliance) will end up forming a new government. No one expects any single party to get an outright majority. Things do not look good for Labour. Opinion polls suggest that it may suffer the same fate as the now virtually non-existent Green Party which made the mistake of going into coalition with Fianna Fáil in the waning boom years. What has some people (like me) nervous is that support for the Sinn Féin party has grown since the last election and it is entirely conceivable that it could wind up as part of a new governing coalition.

Sinn Féin is different from other Irish political parties. For one thing it doesn’t elect its party leader so much as rubber-stamps him. It has had the same leader, Gerry Adams, since 1983. Can you think of a single political party in the non-communist/non-totalitarian world that has had the same leader for 33 years? Another difference is that it holds parliamentary seats in three different jurisdictions—the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, the Westminster parliament in the United Kingdom and in Dáil Eireann in the Republic of Ireland. Can you imagine the Democrats or the Republicans having a branch in Toronto? But the most singular thing about Sinn Féin is that it is the only political party that has, for most of its existence, been closely associated (some would say has overlapped) with a terrorist organization. The standard way of describing the party was always as “the political arm of the IRA.” That would be the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the same group that waged a campaign of violence against British authority in Northern Ireland and in Britain. After the Northern Ireland peace agreement in 1998, the IRA theoretically went away, although in hindsight it appears to have merely morphed into a more traditional kind of criminal organization. Every so often, some disreputable behavior, either past or present, on the part of some supporter of the republican movement comes back to dominate Irish headlines and make things awkward for Sinn Féin.

Interestingly, as a competitive political party, Sinn Féin has adopted the trappings of a movement of the far left. Consequently, it has always had potential appeal for, on one hand, those who are strong on Irish nationalism and independence and, on the other hand, those who favor a strong centralized government. That—along with a history that evinces comfort with using violence to achieve political aims—seems to me to be a very bad combination. I am as frustrated as anyone with the apparent lack of good choices in the Irish political arena, but I hope Irish voters have the good sense to stick with parties that at least respect personal liberties.

The vote counting does not even begin until tomorrow and could possibly go on for a few days. The voting system here is somewhat complicated and counting and re-counting (by hand!) goes on until voters’ first and second and third (etc.) choices are all taken into account. So we may not know who is Taoiseach for a while. That seems pretty quaint when compared to the breathless reporting on exit polls at the exact moment that polling closes, as happens in the States.

Whatever way the Irish vote, at least they will soon be able to put their election behind them. Those of us who vote in American elections, however, still have it all ahead of us. And ahead. And ahead. And no end in sight.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Bern and Hill Show

Cooper: “One of the things that Senator Sanders points to, and a lot of your critics point to, is you made three speeches for Goldman Sachs, you were paid $675,000 for three speeches. Was that an error in judgment?”
Clinton: “I made speeches to lots of groups. I told them what I thought. I answered questions.”
Cooper: “But did you have to be paid $675,000?”
Clinton: “Well, I don’t know. That’s what they offered so…”
—Anderson Cooper and Hillary Clinton at a CNN Town Hall on Wednesday

 “As for Mrs. Clinton, look, after all she’s done for us and after all she’s suffered on our behalf, she feels she’s owed the presidency, and who could possibly disagree? Her life is meaningless if she doesn’t get at least a shot, and one can only sympathize. Unless you think, as I do, that people should be distrusted, who are running for therapeutic reasons. Because the presidency doesn’t calm those demons, as her husband has already proved.”
—Author/essayist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
After watching last night’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, my impressions of the two remaining candidates is by now pretty much cast in cement—and, I have to assume, so it is for most voters.

Early on in the campaigning, a friend in Seattle declared that she expected to vote for Hillary Clinton in November but that, until the nomination was actually settled, she was going to be giving her full support to Bernie Sanders. Another Seattle friend told me more recently that she was convinced that her man Bernie was going to go all the way. While I do not share their enthusiasm, I certainly understand it.

If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between Clinton and Sanders to be the next president, I would have to reluctantly elect the former first lady, senator and secretary of state. Her experience and pragmatism give her the better chance to succeed as president. But, looking at the two candidates purely as people, I like Sanders a whole lot more. In debates he engages. He listens to questions and answers them. He does not worry about double-checking his answer to avoid a gaffe. His gaffe-avoidance strategy is to simply tell the truth and to say what he really thinks. His style is that of the guy who has had countless informal debates over things he believes passionately in numerous kitchens and living rooms. Clinton, in contrast, is the kind of speaker who has clearly honed her rhetorical skills by addressing large audiences. She is the type of politician who surrounds herself with acolytes and admirers. When she answers a debate question, you can almost see her filing through the index cards in her brain for the stored paragraph that will suit best.

When it comes to economics and foreign policy, Sanders’s world view is on the other side of the universe from my own. But that does not mean I disagree with him on everything. I have been fascinated by the back-and-forth between him and Clinton through each of the debates about the Glass-Steagall Act. Invoking the name of legislation is always a sure-fire way to make an audience doze off, but this is one law that is really key to the U.S.’s economic problems. This is the Depression-era law that erected a firewall between a bank’s savings business and its investment business. It wisely kept ordinary bank customers from being put at risk by a bank’s shenanigans with perilous financial adventurism. It also limited the consolidation that could go on in the financial sector. It was unwisely repealed during the heady days of a booming economy in 1999 by Republican-sponsored legislation which was signed into law by Bill Clinton. You can draw a straight line from the repeal of Glass-Steagall to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 which popularized the term “too big to fail” and led to massive taxpayer-funded bailouts.

Sanders argues correctly that repealing Glass-Steagall was a mistake and that it should be reenacted. Clinton hedges but she is clearly against reenactment. No wonder the big Wall Street players are pouring cash into her campaign. Her way of establishing her anti-Wall Street credentials is to tout the Dodd-Frank Act as some sort of victory for the little guy. Dodd-Frank merely adds additional layers of reporting requirements to financial institutions that are beyond the resources of small and medium-sized companies. The result has been a massive consolidation in the industry, as smaller banks go out of business or else merge with larger ones. Congress couldn’t have done a better job if it had deliberately set out to make banks too big to fail. And politicians like Clinton almost cannot wait to be in a position to do those guys a favor down the road—even while they use them as whipping boys in their campaign speeches.

To my surprise this business with Clinton’s email server actually seems to be getting serious. Tellingly, when Sanders was given the opportunity to defend her last night, he merely demurred on the basis that there was a process going on. That process is an FBI investigation, and until recently the betting was against the Justice Department taking action because it would look like meddling in the presidential campaign. But now it’s gotten to the point where it would nearly look like meddling if Justice does not taken action.

Clinton’s defense on this problem last night was a perfect example of why people like me don’t trust her—even while admiring her. She pointed out that other (Republican) secretaries of state have had private email accounts. While that is true, it is also completely irrelevant, and it’s an insult to our intelligence that she figures people cannot see that. The fact is that she used a private email account exclusively, but even that is not the salient point. The problem is that she had her own email server—in her own house. It did not have the protection of government security, and we now know that it held a lot of highly sensitive information. It is not an issue of “over-classification” as she keeps saying. Either she did not understand what a risk she was taking with national security—or she simply didn’t care. It was apparently more important that the public never see her communications that melded government business with her personal affairs and Clinton Foundation donor service.

Her home brew server may not be the most egregious or arrogant or illegal act committed by any politician. But the way she has handled it in the campaign certainly exemplifies what is unappealing about Hillary Clinton as a potential president. Even while she is pandering for our votes, she looks out at us and thinks we are idiots.