The Dog Days of Trustworthiness

Of all people, the Clintons know there are no mulligans in the game of politics. So why didn’t they act sooner to address what appears like conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and their government roles and ambitions?

Of all people, the Clintons know there are no mulligans in the game of politics. So why didn’t they act sooner to address what appears like conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and their government roles and ambitions?

Questions of trustworthiness dog the Clintons, and they shouldn’t be surprised.

As the fall presidential election approaches with Hillary Clinton in the lead, the Clintons have begun to position themselves for returning to the White House. They have put someone in charge of the transition and begun to discuss separation from the Clinton Foundation.

The only problem is they are late to the party.

After questions arose about pay-for-play influence-peddling, the Clintons are talking about drastically shrinking the size of the Clinton Foundation if Clinton wins the election. Hillary, Bill and Chelsea would leave the foundation's board, and Bill Clinton says he will stop fundraising for the foundation.

Fine, but why didn’t these declarations come much earlier? Why didn’t they exist when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state? Instead, they came after big-headline stories about possible favors and special access for Clinton Foundation donors. There may very well be an explanation for the favors and access, but there is hardly an excuse for not anticipating this would be an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Worse, the allegations fit to a larger narrative of the Clintons as political insiders who play loose with the rules.

The Foundation flap overlaps Hillary’s Clinton's painfully chronic email fiasco. The latest twist involves former Secretary of State Colin Powell denying that he encouraged Clinton to use a private email server. He says he gave advice on managing private email after she already had set up hers. It’s not an indictment, just another off-center, not-quite-true explanation that inflames Hillary haters and creates a media feeding frenzy.

If Clinton was facing anyone but the unpredictable and inexplicable Donald Trump, she may find herself in a political free-fall. Trump has picked up the issue and could make it his comeback cause. Even if Clinton wins the presidency, these apparent ethical lapses and tone-deaf media responses could deny her a solid mandate and weaken her ability to govern.

James Carville, the hominy grits political guru who guided Bill Clinton, tried to explain the Clinton predicament in an interview on the Today show with little success. You have the feeling that in private, Carville scolded the Clintons for failing to vet their vulnerabilities a long time ago as opposed to allowing these stories to become the equivalent of slow-drip campaign chemotherapy.

The Clinton Foundation has indisputably done much good. As a former president, Bill Clinton has used his status and clout to good effect and worthy ends. Yet, Hillary Clinton’s ambition to become president, strongly supported by her husband and daughter, should have aroused the usually keen political instincts of this very political family. They should have looked forward to contemplate Hillary’s historical presidential quest and proactively recognized and removed obstacles and provided clear, accurate explanations for behavior that raises eyebrows, even among supporters.

Yes, right-wing critics have dished out disinformation – or at least information without any supporting data – about Hillary Clinton, most recently about her health. But all the more reason to have your guard up, not in hibernation. In the game of politics, the Clintons, of all people, know you can’t declare a mulligan.

Now Hillary Clinton is left with pulling a heavy ball and chain of suspicion through the final 75 days of what seems like an indeterminable presidential campaign. It didn’t have to be like this. And it would be a shame if the Clinton Foundation wound up paying the price.

The Dids and Didn’ts of Congress

Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Due to earlier than usual presidential nominating conventions, federal lawmakers are in the middle of a seven-week recess – one of the longest summer breaks in the legislative branch’s history. With Congress out of town for another month, here is a look at some of the things it did and didn’t accomplish, and what to expect when it returns in September.

Congress Did:

Get Out of the Gates Early

The House typically kicks off the appropriations process, but that was held up by a GOP intraparty dispute over top-line spending levels. So the Senate took the wheel and got off to the fastest start in the modern budget era when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its first spending bill in mid-April. The full Senate made more history when it passed the first appropriations bill on May 12, the earliest official start to the appropriations process in the chamber’s history.

Find Success in Committee

Each chamber moved all 12 (24 total) annual spending measures out of committee for the second straight year and onto the full Senate and House floors for consideration. Things were looking good early on, however, much of their committee success is attributed to unofficial agreements to hold off on controversial policy riders until the spending bills reach the floor. Unsurprisingly, just eight of the 24 bills approved by appropriations committees have made it past a floor vote to date.

Address the Opioid Epidemic

Both the House and Senate, with overwhelming bipartisan support, cleared the final version of legislation aimed at combating opioid prescription and heroin abuse, which President Barack Obama quickly signed into law. In addition to a few policy provisions, the bill creates a number of new grant programs to be administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. However, it may take some time for this new money to find its way to local health departments and law enforcement agencies. Funding for the bill’s grant programs is dependent on appropriators designating money for them. Although some spending bills include money to address opioid addiction as a whole, only the House measure to fund the Justice Department includes specific money for those programs.

Reauthorize the FAA

After months of negotiation and just two days before expiration, both chambers eventually came together on a package to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs at current funding levels through September 2017. This measure is the result of both chambers abandoning their original, more wide-ranging and controversial FAA bills in favor of a short-term continuation. In addition to continuing current FAA programs, the bill contains a variety of policy measures that aim to increase airport security while easing security lines and further regulating drone use. 

Congress Didn’t:

Return to ‘Regular Order’

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, party leadership vowed to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process and expected to spend this summer touting their successes to constituents. Unfortunately, there were too many partisan and intraparty hurdles to clear in fiscal year 2017 and “regular order” was nowhere to be seen.

One of the biggest obstacles from the start was the refusal of certain House Republicans to embrace the bipartisan budget agreement reached last December that set the top-line spending level at $1.07 trillion for FY 17 defense and domestic discretionary programs. Conservatives voted against the compromise measure in December, but the agreement passed because former Speaker John Boehner relied on Democratic votes to win passage. Conservatives still oppose the plan and spent recent months pressing the Republican Caucus to present a plan that reduces mandatory spending by at least $30 billion.

Without a budget agreement in place, House appropriators were procedurally allowed to move forward in May and began marking up spending bills at the $1.07 trillion level. Unfortunately, that turned out to be just the first obstacle. Repeated attempts by members of both parties to attach controversial policy riders to spending packages after they cleared committee proved to be the demise of the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process. Lawmakers spent days and weeks engaged in contentious debate over spending levels and policy issues, all while the White House issued veto threats on multiple measures should they eventually pass.

With time running out before the new fiscal year begins on October 1, “regular order” is now a fond memory. When lawmakers return in September, they’re expected to abandon the normal appropriations process and seek a continuing resolution to avoid another government shutdown.

Address the Zika Virus

Months ago, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion from Congress in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus domestically. Congress did not promptly comply. After weeks of partisan bickering and disagreement, negotiations finally fell apart in June and Congress left town without approving any funding for the mosquito-borne virus. Now, both Democrats and Republicans have spent most of the summer blaming each other for the failure and remain no closer to an agreement.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has since shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, for Zika-related prevention and treatment.

Pass Gun Control Legislation

Following the Orlando massacre, House and Senate Democrats persistently demanded action to address the recent spate of gun violence. Their frustration culminated in an extraordinary sit-in on the House floor, refusing to yield until House Speaker Paul Ryan promised floor votes on a myriad of gun control measures.

Keeping in line with the theme of the 114th Congress, there was ultimately no legislative action taken. However, it may not be the end as some Democrats have promised to keep introducing gun-related amendments to future legislation until a version is passed.

Fill Supreme Court Vacancy

Republican leadership decided not to hold confirmation hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the American people should  “appoint” a nominee by voting for a new president this fall. If Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House, McConnell may be tempted to allow confirmation of Garland to proceed in a lame-duck session.

What to Expect:

A Continuing Resolution

Congress is slowly coming to terms with the reality that the fiscal 2017 appropriations process is a goner and a continuing resolution (CR) will be needed to avoid a government shutdown on October 1. This will be lawmakers’ number one priority when they return in September, but there are a few things that could get in the way of a timely agreement.

A CR is a stopgap funding measure meant to fund the government temporarily in the absence of appropriated funding levels. Thus, the primary battle will likely take place over how long the CR will last. For the last two years, lawmakers have agreed on CRs extending to December 11, giving them enough time to put together a final omnibus appropriations package. That may not be an option this year as conservatives would rather push a CR push spending decision into March 2017 to bypass the lame-duck session and avoid a trillion-dollar omnibus.

Further, intraparty disputes over the top-line spending limit and partisan scuffles over Zika and gun control are also expected to complicate the CR discussions come September.

Criminal Justice Overhaul

Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he will take up legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system this September. The Speaker has identified a number of bills being marked up by the Judiciary Committee as part of the package that will see the floor next month. These individual measures will come together in a package to change everything from sentencing requirements to federal criminal procedures.  

Zika Funding

Despite their failure before recess, recent Zika cases in the United States will surely highlight congressional inaction and may force some kind of political agreement. House and Senate Republicans agreed on a $1.1 billion conference report, but Senate Democrats ultimately blocked the measure citing controversial “poison-pill” amendments. Among them are provisions that would ease EPA regulations and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving any Zika money.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

Clinton Joins in Zika Finger-Pointing

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the Zika blame game as she condemned Congress for failing to provide funding to combat the deadly disease after a Texas infant died from Zika-related complications.

In Februrary, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spread of the Zika virus abroad and prepare for its feared arrival in the United States. Despite multiple proposals from both chambers in the following months, Congress left town in July without an agreement on Zika funding. 

Negotiations came to a screeching halt when Senate Democrats blocked a last-ditch, $1.1 billion package to fight the virus. Democrats were on board with the funding level, but pulled their support when provisions were added in conference to relax EPA regulations, protect the flying of the Confederate flag and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus.

With Congress in the middle of its seven-week summer recess, a newborn baby in Texas with Zika-related birth defects has died. The news comes alongside four new Zika cases reported in Florida.

While both parties have spent the past few weeks blaming one another for inaction, Democrats have taken a new approach. Several top Democrats, including President Obama, have urged Republican leadership to cut the recess short and return to Washington to pass a bipartisan measure at the funding level requested by the administration.

After the news in Texas broke, Clinton joined the blame game. In a speech in Florida, Clinton urged Republicans to come back to Washington and “pass the bipartisan funding package the Senate passed.” Clinton was referring to the original $1.1 billion compromise package reached by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA), absent the controversial policy riders that emerged in the conference report.

Republicans have yet to budge and repeatedly point to the proposals Democrats rejected. In a recent op-ed, House Speaker Paul Ryan writes, “[Democrats] blocked our plan not once, but twice – a blatant ploy in an election year.” The Speaker added, “Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.”

Although the recent Zika cases may not cause Congress to trim its recess, Zika funding will certainly remain a hot topic when members return.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, to be used for Zika-related prevention and treatment.   

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

 

The Slow Suffocation of U.S. Market Competition

Elizabeth Warren says competition is dying a slow death in the American marketplace, hurting consumers, small businesses, innovation and workers.

Elizabeth Warren says competition is dying a slow death in the American marketplace, hurting consumers, small businesses, innovation and workers.

While Donald Trump’s poll numbers slump and Hillary Clinton continues to stumble in explaining her use of a private email server for official State Department business, Elizabeth Warren has plopped a major public policy option on the table. She has called for stronger antitrust action to restore competition to U.S. markets, from banks to cable operators to technology companies and health insurers.

In an election punctuated by insults and insinuations, Warren said, “Today in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy and threatens our democracy.” It’s only surprising that the presidential candidates haven’t raised the topic.

Warren gave the keynote speech at New America’s Open Markets program the day after she appeared alongside Clinton to endorse her. Her premise was that “reigniting competition” in a broad range of increasingly monopolized markets will benefit consumers, small businesses and workers.

“The first problem is that less competition means less consumer choice,” the Massachusetts senator said. “When consumers can purchase similar products from multiple competitors, they force market players to constantly seek out new ways to reduce prices and increase the quality of goods and services to get their business.”

Lack of competition “can lock out smaller guys and newer guys,” she said. “Google, Apple and Amazon have created disruptive technologies that changed the world, and every day they deliver enormously valuable products. They deserve to be highly profitable and successful. But the opportunity to compete must remain open for new entrants and smaller competitors that want their chance to change the world again.”

Revenue of Top 200 U.S. Corporations as Percentage of Total Business Revenue, U.S. Economy, 1950–2008

Source: Data for the top 200 corporations (see notes) were extracted from COMPUSTAT, “Fundamentals Annual: North America” (accessed February 15, 2011). Total revenue was taken from “Corporate Income Tax Returns” (line item “total receipts”) Statistics of Income (Washington, DC: Internal Revenue Service, 1950–2008).

Source: Data for the top 200 corporations (see notes) were extracted from COMPUSTAT, “Fundamentals Annual: North America” (accessed February 15, 2011). Total revenue was taken from “Corporate Income Tax Returns” (line item “total receipts”) Statistics of Income (Washington, DC: Internal Revenue Service, 1950–2008).

When competition declines, small businesses can be wiped out. Warren cited the “Walmart effect” created by a single company delivering more than 30 percent of the products Americans consume and controlling critical supply chains.

Key Facts From Warren's Speech:

  • The number of major U.S. airlines has dropped from nine to four in the last 10 years, due to consolidations. Last year, those four airlines brought in a record profit of $22 billion.
  • Five companies control more than 83 percent of national health insurance market.
  • CVS, Wallgreens and Rite Aid own more than 99 percent of the drug stores in the U.S.
  • Four companies own about 85 percent of the U.S. beef market, and three control nearly half of all chicken in the U.S.
  • More than half of all cable and internet subscribers in America have service through Comcast, which has consolidated by buying up rival companies.

Concentrated markets tend to lead to concentrated political power, Warren asserted. “This is a big one, and it should terrify every conservative who hates government intervention.... Concentrated markets dominated by a handful of powerful players, on the other hand, don’t produce the consumer benefits that flow from robust competition. Instead, benefits are sucked up by a handful of executives and large investors.” Their lobbying, in turn, focuses on protecting their market advantage and resisting restoration of competition.

The ultimate victim of market concentration, Warren said, is America’s middle class. People at the top get richer, she claimed, while others struggle. “Concentration is not the only reason for rising economic insecurity, but it is one of them. Concentrated industries result in concentrated profits. It’s the ultimate price squeeze."

Her solution is to hold the line on what she called anti-competitive mergers, give close scrutiny to so-called vertical mergers and require all federal agencies to promote market competition. Warren also believes that businesses can’t be allowed to become “too big to fail.”

“For much of our history, Americans organized and protested against the forces of consolidation,” Warren concluded. "As a people, we understood that concentrated power anywhere was a threat to liberty everywhere. It was one of the basic founding principles of our nation. And it threatens us now.”

The market threat Warren points to is easily of greater consequence to average Americans than Mexican immigration or careless handling of sensitive emails. In the 90 days between now and Election Day, perhaps it will be mentioned on a presidential stage.

The Trade Lesson the Wine Industry Taught

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Before last week's Democratic National Convention, Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, was best known for defending the auto industry and trying to give her in-state wineries an online edge.

At the convention, Granholm gave one of the most under-reported speeches of the week in which she identified herself with the frustration of dislocated manufacturing workers, but said they need a champion with plans, not promises.

Critics panned the part of her speech where she re-imagined lyrics from music legend Carly Simon with, "You're so vain, you probably think this speech is about you." But that missed the heart of the speech, which touched the national nerve about how to address the many people left behind by economic progress.

"I'm a fierce Democrat. But I know there are Democrats and Republicans across the country who want to create jobs in America. Liberals and conservatives. Public sector and private industry. Because we're not in this alone – we're all in this together."

Granholm recalled how Michiganders like her resented how globalization shifted good-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying nations overseas. Her response: Quit bitching and start pursuing advanced manufacturing opportunities.

Then the Great Recession hit and the U.S. automobile industry went into a death spiral. "In 2008, we elected a Democratic President for us to work with," Granholm said. "And you know what he did? He saved the American auto industry. And then that renewed auto industry paid America back in full. And that's what we can do when we work together."

In simple terms, the former governor of Michigan spelled out the plan to address the impact of global trade, international financial flows and technological innovation. Stop complaining. Don't yield to fear-mongering. Trust people with real plans and the guts to implement them.

"Some people are worried. Some people are angry. I get that," Granholm said. "But the answer isn't to tear our country down, it's to build our country up. Not to build walls that keep the rest of the world out but to keep building the industries and universities that the rest of the world wishes they could get into."

Hillary Clinton has stumbled in her attempts to deliver the message that Granholm capsulized in a paragraph. It was perhaps the best testimonial Clinton could have received.

Granholm learned about economic togetherness the hard way. During her governorship, Michigan enacted legislation to allow Michigan wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan residents, but it also prohibited out-of-state wineries from the same privilege. Wineries challenged the law, and one like it in New York, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing Michigan and New York argued in Granholm v. Heald that states had carte blanche authority to regulate liquor sales and distribution. A majority of the Supreme Court disagreed and said the dormant Commerce Clause prevents unfair restraint of trade between states.

The chastened former governor who appeared on the DNC stage in Philadelphia bore the scars of trying to give the home team an even greater home field advantage. "Our great country spans a continent," she said, "but we're all connected to each other, no matter where we live. When a miner in Virginia has the dignity of a new job in the advanced steel industry, we all have dignity.... When the autoworker in Detroit builds the electric vehicle, that drives all of us forward.”

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Michelle Obama’s Breakthrough Speech

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

Presidential nominating conventions are runways for politicos to show off their stories and styles. Occasionally, there are breakthrough speeches that launch political careers or send them to new heights.

Ronald Reagan went from revered actor to governor of California and serious presidential timber with his speech to the GOP National Convention in 1964. Barack Obama emerged from the relative obscurity of an Illinois state senator in 2004 to become a U.S. senator and a serious presidential contender in 2008.

Michelle Obama may have scored a breakthrough moment Monday at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Some commentators rank her remarks as among the best convention speeches in decades. While Hillary Clinton’s nomination broke through the penultimate glass ceiling in America, Michelle Obama’s speech broke through to reach the hearts of millions of Americans.

Poynter broke down the First Lady’s speech and credited its strong appeal to Obama’s use of the first person, touching anecdotes and a narrative built around “kids.” These qualities gave her speech universality and made it much more than a stump speech in support of Hillary Clinton.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Obama set the tone in her first paragraph: "You know, it's hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace — the traits that we've seen every day that he's served our country in the White House."

She kept her central narrative personal. "I also told you about our daughters — how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we've had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women — a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school."

And about the first morning the Obamas were in the White House, she recalled, “I will never forget that winter morning as I watch our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

Perhaps her most memorable line was, “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high” and the most touching anecdote was about the young black boy who wondered whether President Obama’s hair felt like his, prompting the President to bend over and let him find out for himself.

Apart from the technical skill, beautiful writing and polished delivery, Michelle Obama’s speech transported listeners far beyond the current political battlefield into what it means to lead a nation and the stakes of presidential decision-making.

"What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that's what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere." 

Whether Michelle Obama elects to pursue a political career of her own after the Obamas leave the White House, her speech turned fertile groundwork. She will be known for planting a vegetable garden, pushing for school lunch nutrition and supporting the families of military veterans, but perhaps she will be best known for the speech she gave on a platform in Philadelphia in 2016 that wrapped up to its conclusion with:

"So don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth."

'Obamacare’s Kindest Critic'

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Republicans are convening in Cleveland this week and can be expected to bash Obamacare nonstop, but constructive criticism of the Affordable Care Act came last week from an unanticipated quarter – Barack Obama.

Signing his critique as Barack Obama, J.D., the President described how his legacy achievement could be perfected by adding a public health insurance option and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug rates, which is currently prohibited.

The New York Times called Obama “Obamacare’s kindest critic” and said his suggestions have the appearance of a memo to his hoped-for Democratic presidential successor, Hillary Clinton.

“Presidents usually wait until their memoirs to review their work,” the Times editorialized, but in this case Obama used the sixth anniversary of the act to make observations about his handiwork in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Health care costs are still too high, he wrote, and 29 million people still lack coverage.”

One of Obamacare’s “failings” is an incomplete expansion of Medicaid in 19 states that chose not to accept federal financial assistance to pay for expanded coverage.

But Obama points to the actual failure of providing coverage for 9.1 percent of the U.S. population. Obamacare reduced that total from 16 percent, but there are still people who can’t afford health care, often because they lack the money for co-pays and deductibles in addition to health insurance premiums.

Unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned hard on a Medicare-for-all health insurance plan that captured a lot of attention and rekindled interest in a single-payer system. Obama’s recommendation to add a public option to the health insurance exchange is a more targeted version of the idea, which possibly could win bipartisan support if aimed at rural areas with few private-sector health insurance choices, the Times said.

Clinton has expressed support for a public option. The Times notes Clinton has also voiced interest in allowing Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to enroll in Medicare.

The Obama view on Obamacare is that it isn’t going away any time soon, but it should be improved and perfected as part of a continuing drive to put a blanket of health insurance coverage over all Americans.

Not everyone agrees. Leading Republicans continue to call for repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with something else, which has largely been ill-defined. The Obamacare health care exchanges are under pressure as costs continue to rise and some insurers lose money. Efforts in Oregon and elsewhere to promote coordinated care and integration of physical and mental health care have registered some positive results, but are still in an extended trial stage. Employers have largely retained private health insurance coverage for employees, but have blunted cost increases by opting for plans with higher deductibles and co-pays and trimmer provider networks.

“What Mr. Obama has done is unusual – asking someone else to burnish a legacy of which he is personally proud,” the Times said. “If the candidates (and Congress) pay attention, his request may also do a world of good for millions of Americans for whom decent health care remains out of reach."

Hoyer Lays Out Congressional Reform Agenda

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

Lack of confidence in Congress is one of the biggest problems in the country that gets little attention on how to fix. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has offered up an agenda to address the perception that Congress is dysfunctional.

“It’s not an ideological agenda,” Hoyer says. “It’s a pragmatic agenda.”

In a speech to the Georgetown University Law Center, the Maryland Democrat called for an overhaul of the campaign finance system, enhanced voting rights, changes in the redistricting process and improvements in government technology.

“We can’t fully tap into our economic opportunities,” Hoyer said, “if we don’t make sure government works, too.”

A recent Rasmussen Report on national telephone and online poll revealed only 11 percent of respondents think Congress is doing a “good or decent job,” while 57 percent believe it is a doing a poor job. One reason for the lack of confidence is a prevalent view that most congressional representatives “sell their votes."

Hoyer pointed to the success in attracting large numbers of small donors by the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaigns as a model for campaign finance reform that places limits on how individuals can contribute and includes a discussion of public financing of campaigns. In addition to restoring voter trust in elected officials, Hoyer said campaign finance reform will result in a wider diversity of candidates.

Enhanced voting rights should include automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, vote-by-mail options and tools to combat voter suppression. “Every American who is eligible to vote should be able to vote. Period,” Hoyer said.

He said too much political influence in the redistricting process has led to a majority of safe Democratic and Republican House seats, which in turn has fueled increased polarization. Hoyer recommended “national redistricting standards” that reduce partisanship in drawing the lines of congressional districts.

Joining the 21st century in terms of technology would help federal agencies be as “connected and adaptive as possible,” Hoyer said, to create an “inclusive system of civic engagement.” Hoyer touted his bipartisan Information Technology Modernization Act, which would receive a one-time $3 billion investment to stimulate a wide range of technology improvement projects based on best practices in the private sector.

Hoyer added that more advanced digital systems must be “protected against cyber threats” so Americans have confidence government is “protecting their private data.” And he said a robust online presence by the federal government could allow for direct taxpayer rankings, like a “Yelp for government."

Hoyer lobbed in a couple of additional suggestions that include restoring congressional funding earmarks and removing the ability of a senator to put a hold on an executive branch nomination.

He admitted bringing back earmarks isn’t popular, but he said resumption of the practice would restore congressional decision-making over spending decisions that affect local communities. Hoyer cited an editorial by the Houston Chronicle that said, “A Congress without earmarks doesn’t spend less money. It just means that the executive branch has more control over taxpayer dollars."

Donald Trump and Political Realignment

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The 2016 presidential election will set records for outrageous remarks and insulting tweets. It also may realign the American political structure.

New York Times columnist David Brooks credits the campaign of Donald Trump with teeing up political realignment, less to satisfy ideologues and more as a desperate attempt to win the White House.

In a traditional right versus left alignment, Brooks says odds are against Trump winning over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But in a realigned political landscape, where Trump embraces a mish-mash of right wing and populist causes, Brooks speculates the New York billionaire may have a narrow path to victory.

“His only hope,” Brooks writes, “is to cast his opponents as right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture and global intervention” while “standing as a right-left populist who supports closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture and an America-first foreign policy.”

The notion that this is fantasy was shattered when Britons voted to exit the European Union based on arguments not that different than the ones Trump intones at his American political rallies.

The chaos and economic certainty resulting from the prospective pullout from the EU may give people pause, but chances are that views have already hardened among those who feel left behind or betrayed by 21st Century America.

Brooks openly wonders whether Trump is the leader with the capability and discipline to achieve the political alignment his presidential campaign has lurched toward. “I personally doubt that Trump will be able to pull off a right-left populist coalition,” he says. “His views on women and minorities are unacceptable to nearly everybody on the left. There’s no evidence that he’s winning over many Sanders voters or down-scale progressives.”

“But where Trump fails, somebody else will succeed. And that’s where he is substantively revolutionary,” Brooks concludes. Trump has liberated Republicans from an obsequious reverence to smaller government and put them on a track to support a different kind of government that is more inward-looking. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” could be translated as “Put America First.”

It is hard to know whether Trump is a political savant who conjured this political line on his own or borrowed it from Europe’s cast of right-wing nationalist parties. Maybe it just came to him as the equivalent of a business opportunity to be exploited.

Whatever the source, Trump’s emergence has confused political pundits and confounded political elites because it doesn’t color within the lines; it creates new lines with bolder, shocking colors.

Brooks predicts the rubber will hit the road on the issue of trade. People in the upper layers of the U.S. economy see trade as good, creating consumer benefits, market efficiencies and new-age jobs in fields such as logistics. People in lower layers of the economy blame trade and immigrants for job displacement, loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and regional dislocation.

Brooks said this isn’t an abstract difference, but a tangible one, which can be seen by traveling from Pittsburgh, which is flourishing in the new economy, to Western Pennsylvania where small town storefronts are boarded up. This world reality isn’t newly exploded, but it now has been irrevocably stamped onto the political culture of America.

Clinton may win this fall because of her wider appeal and voter disgust over some of Trump’s egregious views and comments. But she and the Congress, whether still in control of Republicans or not, will face the challenge of governing outside the old political lines and within a realigned political structure.

The Brexit Message for America

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union generated a huge drop in the British pound and shock waves for global stock markets. It should jolt American policymakers to discuss how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not flee from them.

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union generated a huge drop in the British pound and shock waves for global stock markets. It should jolt American policymakers to discuss how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not flee from them.

The Brexit vote sent shock waves throughout the world and raised questions about whether simmering anger over the effects of globalization could lead to Donald Trump winning the White House this fall.

The plummeting British pound and sagging worldwide stock markets provided an immediate warning sign of the portentous moment caused by the vote to leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to step down and allow someone else from his Conservative Party to navigate the departure confirmed the vote has clear political consequences.

But the anxieties reflected in Britain don’t exactly equate to those in the United States. While older, white Britons voted to leave, younger Brits voted to remain in the EU. Trump has won the hearts of older, white Americans, younger voters gravitated to Democrat Bernie Sanders.

A weekend editorial in the New York Times offered an explanation. Economically stressed working class voters blame their plight on trade deals that have profited corporations and banks, but cost them good-paying jobs and economic security. Younger voters feel the same stress and anger over income inequality resulting from a global capitalism, but see value in “economic integration, mobility and diversity.” They favor political action to fix, not flee from, economic dislocation.

There are material differences in the makeup and diversity of British and American voters that make analogies to the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election tricky at best. But the real lesson from Brexit may be the sharp distinction between how older alienated voters and younger anxious voters want to face the future. “Leave” voters in Briton yearned to a return when they fared better. “Remain” voters acknowledged problems, but seek forward-looking solutions.

Trump, who praised the Brexit victory while in Scotland to promote his golf course, is clearly pointing back in time to when “America was great.” The question is how Hillary Clinton can carve her message to resonate with those who want change, but not reversion to the past. The litmus test of her success will be how well she wins over the young voters who flocked to Sanders’ candidacy.

“The lesson for American voters,” the New York Times editorialized, “is to see their economic problems clearly, lest they be manipulated into voting against their own and their nation’s interests.”

Who wins the presidential race in November could come down to, as it has so often, a handful of swing states, several of which are in the Rust Belt, which have borne the brunt of the effects of globalization combined with technological changes and moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump and Sanders have blasted previous trade agreements and strongly opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration. Clinton, whose presidential husband steered through NAFTA, initially favored the TPP, but during the campaign dropped her support.

Opposing trade deals may appease older, alienated voters, but it may not be enough for younger, anxious voters. Opposing the TPP won’t stop trade, any more than Britain departing the EU will halt trade, even if new tariff barriers are erected. So the forward-looking question may be how to take into account and address the inevitable dislocations from globalization.

This question will be of consuming interest to voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it should be a top priority for the entire country because economic dislocation knows no boundary. In Oregon, many rural communities remain in economic distress because of changing policies on timberland management.

The nation would benefit from a robust, candid conversation about how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not hide from them.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The 2016 Political Season Just Gets Whackier

A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

Just when you thought the political season couldn’t get weirder, it did. House Democrats staged a sit-in over gun legislation, an Iowa congressman implied replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was racist and a Donald Trump supporter said he saw his candidate’s face on his bathroom floor tile.

Somehow, that last story may be the least bizarre of these three.

Sit-ins were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s as a preferred form of non-violent protest. In an ironic revival, House Democrats, led by Congressman John Lewis -- a veteran of sit-ins of yore -- employed the technique to protest congressional inaction in the face of continuing gun violence. Some 40 participating congressional protesters chanted, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The sit-in followed late-night votes in the Senate on four separate gun bills, all of which failed to get enough votes, even though two of them involved denying access to guns for people on terrorist watch lists.

Congressman Steve King blamed President Obama for a “divisive” proposal to place a black woman, who is one of America’s most famous abolitionists, on U.S. Currency. He said it would be “unifying” to leave the $20 bill alone. The House GOP leadership dismissed King’s idea.

A Virginia man sitting on his toilet swears he saw his man Trump’s face on his bathroom floor. Trump images apparently are everywhere. According to The Huffington Post, a Google engineer vacationing in California saw Trump in the image of a deep-fried churro with yellow frosting. And a series of pictures of droop-mouthed pooches sporting Trump gear are circulating on social media. They're called "Dogald Trumps." 

Ultimately, the sit-in, King’s proposal to scratch Harriet Tubman and The Donald floor tile are mostly sideshows to even weirder stuff. Such as the paltry $1.3 million the Trump presidential campaign has in the bank after a full month as the presumptive GOP nominee. Or spending records that show Trump has paid 10 percent or more of his campaign cash to his own companies. The records also reveal Trump’s campaign bought up $208,000 worth of hats in May, while spending just $48,000 on data management and $115,000 on online advertising.

Weirder still, after withering media coverage that Trump’s businesses have stiffed contractors, sent manufacturing jobs overseas, used bankruptcies to turn losses into gains and profited from huge debt, more Americans trust Trump to run the U.S. economy than Hillary Clinton.

An online group polled 1,000 adult Americans and discovered a majority of men and women wouldn’t sleep with Trump for $1 million. In Trump’s case, the average it would take to convince a woman to have sex with him was $1.35 million. Men only wanted close to $1.1 million. The numbers were a little better for Clinton but not much. Her average price for sex with women was $1.26 million and $1.16 million with men. Bernie Sanders didn’t have a lot of takers either for a mere $1 million.

The weirdest thing of all is that this all occurred outside of a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. SNL definitely will have to up its game.

Street Brawl Heads for Even Darker Alley

The mass shooting in Orlando at a gay night club may have re-ignited a culture war that will turn an election already resembling a street brawl into an even darker alley.

The mass shooting in Orlando at a gay night club may have re-ignited a culture war that will turn an election already resembling a street brawl into an even darker alley.

A hail of gunfire in Orlando may have transformed the 2016 presidential campaign into a full-fledged culture war.

What some see as a hate crime or an act of terrorism, others see as retribution for sin. However you look at it, what unfolded in Orlando turned out to be the deadliest mass shooting in American history. While some are renewing calls for sensible gun control and bans on assault rifles, others are calling for more vigilance against "radical Islamic terrorism."

Presumptive presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton displayed markedly different reactions to Sunday's mass shooting at a gay night club in Orlando.

Presumptive presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton displayed markedly different reactions to Sunday's mass shooting at a gay night club in Orlando.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump took credit for predicting more violence and said President Obama should step down for refusing to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton deplored more gun violence and told the LBGT community she stood with them.

Before the gunman killed 49 people and injured more than 50 others in a well known gay bar in Orlando early Sunday morning, The Wall Street Journal published a piece about what led so many people to support Trump. The bottom line: “people want their country back.”

It was hard to miss the irony that the Orlando shooter, according to his father, was galvanized to buy weapons and undertake his serial killing after watching in apparent disgust two men kiss in public.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick tweeted after the shooting that “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Florida Governor Rick Scott had trouble acknowledging the victims were homosexuals. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to regain momentum after a rough patch in his campaign, Trump scheduled a major speech Monday devoted to terrorism.

The culture war seething through this year’s election runs deeper than disagreements over gay rights. The WSJ piece about “Trumpkins” suggested the election may turn on entrepreneurship versus entitlement, a not-so-coy allusion to “workers” and “slackers.”

Trump has appealed to displaced and often alienated white workers who lost jobs in traditional industries. Trump gets nods at his political rallies when he blames bad international trade deals, government red tape and ill-conceived efforts to combat climate change. He wraps up his platform in the phrase, “Make American Great Again.”

Meanwhile, major news outlets from USA Today to The New York Times have lacerated Trump’s business reputation, claiming he stiffs contractors, workers and even his own lawyers, and profits in his own failures.

Clinton is airing an attack ad calling Trump University a massive fraud. Senator Elizabeth Warren has delivered scathing criticism of Trump, calling him a greedy money-grubber and race-baiter. Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has raised questions about Trump’s moral character. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump’s rant against the judge hearing his Trump University case a “textbook case of racism.”

What already was a street brawl election campaign may have turned yet another corner into an even darker alley.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

A Proposal for Managed Change in Coal Sector

Instead of waging a battle in Congress or courts over the future of the U.S. coal industry, one man suggests a federal buyout that could provide a well-financed 10-year transition to new businesses and new jobs in coal country.

Instead of waging a battle in Congress or courts over the future of the U.S. coal industry, one man suggests a federal buyout that could provide a well-financed 10-year transition to new businesses and new jobs in coal country.

The politics of climate change and the market forces turning away from coal-fired electricity will play an outsized role in the 2016 presidential election. But one man says there is a smart compromise that could put everybody on the same side.

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post, Stephen Kass says the issue of what to do about coal could lose its grimy political messiness if the federal government stepped in to buy out the industry and retrain workers for new jobs.

Stephen Kass, a New York lawyer and professor, says the federal government should buy out the coal industry and retrain coal workers for other jobs. 

Stephen Kass, a New York lawyer and professor, says the federal government should buy out the coal industry and retrain coal workers for other jobs. 

Sound far-fetched or socialistic? Kass, who heads a New York Bar Association task force on climate adaptation, says it is neither. Coal companies, he says, are barely hanging because of competition from lower-priced natural gas and the growing viability of wind and solar power. Coal industry workers may find themselves out of work and willing to accept help finding new skills and new job opportunities.

This strategy, Kass argues, offers more upside than a prolonged battle to sidetrack President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is now stymied in court, but even if implemented would fall short of meeting climate goals agreed to by 195 nations, including the United States, in Paris.

The Kass plan would close down the coal industry over a 10-year period, providing a gentler glide path than sudden plant closures, and giving workers and communities a fixed date for pursuing a new path.

In his op-ed. Kass didn’t explicitly make the point, but could have that a 10-year transition could be a perfect pivot for manufacturers to swoop in to take advantage of a skilled, but soon-to-be unemployed work force with federal money to give them the training for new jobs.

Kass says his plan eclipses liberal and conservative ideology. “Coal plant operators and institutional investors, as well as their lenders, are locked into deteriorating (and most fully depreciated) assets that are losing the competition against natural gas and renewable energy – and facing increased regulation of pollutants independent of climate change initiatives,” he wrote. “These parties might welcome a graceful exit.”

“Even unions, faced with declining jobs and wages in the coal sector, might support a well-financed and carefully designed program to enable workers to pay off mortgages, car loans and medical or college bills and prepare for a more productive future in other energy-sector jobs." 

Agreeing to such an approach would require a level of bipartisanship in Washington that seems unattainable at the moment. But Kass implies a proactive government stance on inevitable change – which can have devastating effects on a significant swath of America – is a worthy ambition that can satisfy liberal and conservative policy appetites. Liberals would see the coal industry shut down without dumping coal workers in the slag heap. Conservatives would respect that business owners received fair compensation for their assets and red-leaning states wouldn’t be left high and dry.

The federal government would score a win by keeping its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a replicable example of how a government can manage a market to achieve an environmental objective without imperiling corporate, regional of personal economies.

This is an idea unlikely to pop up on the campaign stump this summer and fall, but it could be a policy option dropped on the table for a new President and the next Congress.

Electorate Sour on Candidates, Primary Process

American voters are definitely interested in the 2016 presidential election, but many feel disaffected with the front-running candidates, the primary process and the electorate’s own “political wisdom.” 

American voters are definitely interested in the 2016 presidential election, but many feel disaffected with the front-running candidates, the primary process and the electorate’s own “political wisdom.” 

Voter turnout this year rivals the record-setting 2008 presidential election, but it has produced two candidates with historically high negative ratings and a sour taste about the primary process.

When Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders complain that the primary process is rigged, a majority of voters apparently agree with them. According to the Pew Research Center, only 35 percent of registered voters think the primary process produces the best qualified nominees. For Democrats, it’s a meager 30 percent.

Trump supporters are the most glowing in appreciation of the nominating process at 60 percent. Clinton’s backers have more positive views than Sanders’ supporters by a 37 percent to 25 percent margin.

But discontentment with the process and the front-running candidates hasn’t doused interest. Pew says 89 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats have given the 2016 election a “great deal of thought.” Those percentages exceed voter interest in the 2008 open presidential race.

Another interesting finding is that a majority of voters are frustrated, not angry, about government. Pew found 59 percent of voters express frustration, while only 22 percent admit to being angry. Seventeen percent claim to be basically content. 

Of those who are angry, 25 percent are fed up with politicians for failing to keep their promises or acting in a self-serving way, 18 percent are disgusted with political gridlock and 15 percent think politicians are out of touch and not working on their behalf. Four percent are angry because of President Obama, 3 percent because of Wall Street and big business influence and 3 percent because of taxes.

As might be expected, Republicans are more likely to be angry with a Democrat in the White House. Democrats were angrier during the George W. Bush White House years.

A discouraging perspective that emerges from the research is a pervasive view that life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago and that it will be even worse for the net generation of Americans. Research indicates 46 percent of all voters – and 54 percent of white voters – think things in America are worse for “people like them.” That contrasts with only 17 percent of African-American and 37 percent of Hispanic voters who share the same view. There is more agreement across racial lines that things will be worse for the next generation.

It is reassuring that 68 percent of registered voters believe personal insults are “never fair game” in politics. Democrats hold that view more strongly than Republicans, but even Trump supporters agree by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin. Clinton and Sanders supporters are equal in their distaste for personal insults.

Voters by a 75 percent majority believe news outlets have given Trump too much coverage. That is less true, as you might imagine, with Trump supporters, who by a 55 percent majority think his coverage is “about right.” Supporters of Trump’s GOP rivals felt their candidates drew too little earned media coverage. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s backers were the most displeased, with 82 percent saying their candidate got less coverage than he deserved. Overall, 53 percent of GOP voters agreed. Even 42 percent of Trump supporters thought Kasich was shorted.

The study also shows Americans’ confidence in the “political wisdom” of the electorate sharply eroding through the 21st century. As recently as 1997, 69 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in the political wisdom of the American public. Now only 35 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of Democrats have a great deal or good deal of confidence in the public’s political wisdom.

Political Independents Likely to Elect Next President

The surge in 2016 presidential primary voting can be attributed to campaigning that has activated political independent voters. It is very likely the next president will be elected because he or she wins the most independent votes.

The surge in 2016 presidential primary voting can be attributed to campaigning that has activated political independent voters. It is very likely the next president will be elected because he or she wins the most independent votes.

Independent voters may replace battleground states as the key indicator to watch in this year’s presidential election.

Voters who weren't registered as either Republicans or Democrats have contributed to the surge in presidential primary voting. In closed primary states, such as Oregon, they have switched registration so they could vote for a presidential candidate.

Non-establishment candidates, such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, have benefited most from this tide of independent voters, which is the largest voting bloc in the U.S. electorate. According to the Pew Research Center, independents make up 39 percent of total voter registration, compared to 32 percent as Democrats and 23 percent as Republicans.

Gallup has conducted extensive research on who makes up this group of non-affiliated voters and found that a common strain is disaffection with both major political parties in America. Within the independent bloc are voters who lean Democratic or Republican. The rest are true swing voters.

As Trump has shown after he became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee following the Indiana primary, a political party’s base tends to unify. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton – who appears mathematically certain to win her party’s nomination – is still competing in primaries with Sanders, with the next big test coming June 7 in California. Chances are good that Democrats who support Sanders will swivel to support Clinton in the general election when she is the nominee. 

That leaves open the question of who will appeal the most to independents. Trump has demonstrated his appeal to independents, especially white working class males. Sanders’ surprising political viability is the result of melding votes from the Democratic Party’s progressive left wing with strong support from independents, especially young people.

Pew Research shows nearly half of 18 to 33-year-olds are registered as independents. Sanders has ushered a lot of Millennials into Democratic voter registration this year and it will be Clinton’s political task to keep them there and win over their support by November.

NPR reported earlier this year that independents are among the most upset voters in America. They recoil from what they see as political dysfunction in Washington and want to see fundamental change. Older independents are upset at international trade deals, which they believe cost them their good-paying jobs. Younger independents are frustrated by the high cost of college and rising student debt.

When activated, independent voters make a difference. NPR points to the 2012 presidential election in Colorado in which GOP nominee Mitt Romney received more Republican votes than Barack Obama received Democratic votes. Obama carried the state because of heavy voting by independents, especially Millennials.

National polls indicate Trump and Clinton are in a virtual dead heat. Electoral wizards can illustrate how the 2016 presidential election will boil down to a few battleground states, such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia. However, the impact of independents on the race is likely to expand the battleground to more states, including some improbable ones. 

Republican strategists believe usual Democratic stalwarts in presidential elections – such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota – could be in play. Democrats think there is a chance for their candidate in unlikely places like Georgia and Arizona. Independent voters already have shown they can tilt an election outcome in states like Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico and Iowa. In the end, even more states could be up for grabs, depending on who can nail down the votes of political independents.

The 2016 election cycle – which has already ground on for a long time and still has almost six months to go – has been anything but typical. Trump vanquished 16 political rivals and buffaloed the GOP establishment by running an earned media campaign. He said outlandish things and tweeted insults that, in the words for a Ted Cruz campaign aide, “won the day.” Sanders has adopted the role as pied piper of a political revolution, drawing huge crowds to hear him rail against a rigged economy and political system.

The Trump and Sanders campaign styles, combined with some common policy positions on trade and foreign involvement, have aroused political independents. That’s why some Sanders supporters claim he is better positioned to battle Trump than Clinton, who emphasizes her experience and detailed policy positions.

Confusing things even more, Trump and Clinton have historically high negative ratings. They are even likely to go down as Trump and Clinton have already begun trading blows and posting attack ads. Clinton points out Trump’s business failures and brands him a bully. Trump dredges up past sexual scandals involving Bill Clinton and accuses Hillary of being an “enabler.”

For some independent voters, Trump’s brash braggadocio is his brand, and he’s the kind of disruptive force who could make real change. For others, his race baiting and loose talk about nuclear weapons are too alarming to allow his finger anywhere near the red button.

Many independents agree with Republicans that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy. But others may be repelled by Trump’s controversial references to women and attracted to Clinton’s potential to crack the highest glass ceiling in the world.

Establishment and moderate Republicans will press Trump to tone down his rhetoric on tearing up trade deals and banning Muslims. Sanders and Democratic progressives will push Clinton to be more vocal about confronting Wall Street and embracing ways to make college more affordable.

The red and blue political bases will get behind their respective party standard-bearers. How independents split their votes will determine who becomes the next president.

Toasting the Men from the North

President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

When you mention Scandinavia, you think of saunas, Volvos and Scarlett Johansson. You don’t picture some of the most steadfast U.S. Allies on the planet.

For geographically-challenged Americans, the Nordic nations include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.

Contemporary Viking ancestors are less inclined to conquest as they enjoy a lifestyle, public services and political stability that are the envy of most of the world’s people. One of the most desired destinations for refugees from the war-torn Middle East is Sweden. Bernie Sanders has lionized Nordic universal health coverage. Surveys show Scandinavians are some of the happiest people outside of Bhutan.

All of which contributed to the unusual sight last week of a White House state dinner for five national leaders. In a welcoming ceremony earlier in the day, President Obama praised the five Nordic nations for “punching above their weight.”

“I really do believe the world would be more secure and more prosperous if we just had more partners like our Nordic countries,” Obama said. "There have been times where I’ve said, ‘Why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while, and they could clean things up.’”

The President added on a more serious note, "Sometimes we have a tendency to take our best friends for granted, and it’s important that we not do so."

There is a striking amount of common cause between the Nordic nations and the United States. We share a suspicion of Russian intentions, especially in Ukraine, and concern over climate change and its effects on the Arctic. We agree on the need to combat terrorism and sustainably manage fisheries.

Given diplomatic hierarchy, it is unlikely the prime minister from any single Nordic nation would be feted with a state dinner. However, Obama keenly saw an opportunity to recognize reliable partners as a group. The only thing awkward about the situation was the quick-stepping of the color guard to change flags when each country’s prime minister rolled into the White House portico. 

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement over why the Nordic nations enjoy the prosperity they do. Some say it is because they loosen the reins of government on the free market; others claim it is because government controls the eccentricities and abuses of the free market. It could be both.

But one startling fact is the relatively high level of trust Scandinavians have in their government. The trust isn’t blind. Scandinavians demand transparency. Official records are viewed as public records that anyone can review. Politicians must meet public expectations in the way they behave. They can’t slip off their bikes into official limos.

One analyst said Scandinavians have figured out how to combine right-wing pragmatism and left-wing idealism into a tough-minded, constantly evolving government model. They don’t view government as an obstacle, but as an instrument. Modesty is considered a virtue, but it is born out of necessity. The population of Nordic nations is small, which amplifies citizen engagement.

A former Swedish prime minister compared Nordic economies to honey-laden bumblebees. They have heavy bodies, tiny wings and yet still manage to pollinate plants and produce honey.

Naturally at the state dinner for Nordic officials, the White House was decked out with wooden farm tables and ice sculptures. The men from the north were served braised beef short ribs from Nebraska.

The Unsettled Presidential Election

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

By default or delegate count, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations appear set. However, the campaigns and party unification processes are anything but settled.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump faces high-profile defections from prominent Republican leaders and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton keeps losing primary elections to Bernie Sanders.

Trump meets this week with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has withheld his support from Trump. For Trump’s part, he claims he is ushering in a new-look Republican Party that may make party unity efforts a nice, but not necessary sidelight. That new look also may not include conservatives who say they won’t vote for Trump or Clinton.

Clinton has turned her political guns on a general election showdown with Trump, despite a still vigorous challenge by Sanders. However, just when it appeared Clinton would trounce Trump in a landslide, a poll by highly regarded Quinnipiac shows Clinton is in a dead heat or losing to Trump in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Sanders’ double-digit win in West Virginia this week added further doubt to whether Clinton can attract votes from disaffected white voters and political independents.

Trump and Clinton have the shared distinction of being the two most disliked presidential candidates in recent history. As such, both are having trouble appealing to their respective party bases.  Trump has shaky support on the conservative right and Clinton on the progressive left.

The Trump-Clinton race may come to a battle of identity politics. Trump scores with male voters, while Clinton does well with women and minority voters. Trump does poorly with establishment Republicans. Clinton flunks with younger Democratic voters.

In previous presidential elections, the candidates' experience and what they stood for counted most. In 2016, not so much. Trump touts his lack of political experience and has lurched around on issues like a bumper car driver. Clinton has been criticized for her experience and her wonkish policy views.

After Ted Cruz and John Kasich bowed out following Trump’s decisive primary win in Indiana, Trump told NBC News he looked forward to a principled general election campaign centered on policy. The next day, Trump returned to form and resumed his “Crooked Hillary” refrain. He hasn’t let up since.

Clinton immediately put up attack ads pointing out Trump’s outlandish statements and dubious policies, only to be warned by supportive political observers that getting into a gutter fight with Trump was a losing strategy. Strategists said Trump methodically disposed of GOP opponents who attacked him,  who famously noted that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t cost him a vote.

Perhaps a more troubling concern in the Clinton camp is the political viability of “outsider” messaging, especially when it comes to international trade and “rigged” systems. A West Virginia voter told a reporter after he voted in his state’s primary that he cast his ballot for Sanders because he “spoke the people.” The only other person running for president he would vote for is Trump.

One Democratic pollster said the problem boils down to a good “origin story.” Trump and Sanders pinpoint what and who is to blame. Clinton tells a more complex and conflicted story. Trump has mastered sloganeering. Sanders has powerful sound bites. Clinton has nuanced, detailed policy papers.

Presidential nominating conventions are more than a month away and there are still a few primaries left, including contests in Oregon and Washington. The eventual nominees are clear. How their campaigns will unfold and the odds on either’s ultimate success remain as unsettled as ever.

Taking the Political Bite Out of Trade

Opposition to international trade deals has welled up in both presidential primaries, but few realistic proposals have surfaced to address worker security in the face of unstoppable globalization and technological change.

Opposition to international trade deals has welled up in both presidential primaries, but few realistic proposals have surfaced to address worker security in the face of unstoppable globalization and technological change.

International trade deals have been trashed by presidential candidates in both parties, but realistic alternatives that would do more good than harm have been scarce.

Economists admit globalization of manufacturing and distribution, huge cross-border capital flows and accelerating technology changes have taken their toll on jobs and job security. However, they warn scrapping trade deals and trying to erect trade barriers will create worse economic problems without protecting workers they seek to shield.

A better approach, according to economists, is to increase support, especially in terms of job training for workers who lose their jobs because of globalization or trade deals that favor some sectors at the expense of others.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program exists to provide that support, but is woefully funded compared to dislocated worker programs in other industrialized nations. It also isn’t very practical. The program pays for job training, but unemployed workers still need to earn money to pay a mortgage and put food on their family table.

Increasing funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance hasn’t been a political priority, but the deep discontent that has welled up by working class families all across the nation, as reflected by their votes for “outsider” presidential candidates strongly opposing trade deals, may change that.

Another idea kicking around in economist circles is called wage insurance. This involves wage subsidies to workers who lose their jobs so they can afford to take lower-paying jobs while obtaining job training. President Obama mentioned wage insurance in his final State of the Union address earlier this year.

Bolstering the Trade Adjustment Assistance program or enacting some type of wage subsidy doesn’t have the same raw appeal on the political stump as GOP frontrunner Donald Trump saying he will cut better trade deals with China, Japan and others. But his promise, based largely on his negotiating skill as a hotel developer, may not be worth the risk of a costly trade war that triggers a global recession.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has criticized former President Bill Clinton for pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in the transfer of U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Both he and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have expressed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key Obama priority. But neither Sanders nor Clinton have articulated a clear alternative to the TPP, which Obama defends as a roadmap for economic development in the Pacific Rim written by the United States, not China.

Free trade policies have been problematic for labor-backed Democrats and now appear to be a challenge for big business friendly Republicans, too. Protectionism also faces headwinds because American consumers are savvy enough to know that would mean higher prices for goods. Businesses, farmers and workers in states like Oregon and Washington that have export-dependent economies realize protectionism would hurt them.

As a result politicians on both sides of the aisle may be forced to pursue policies that produce tangible improvements for middle-class workers who have been and likely will remain vulnerable to new economic realities.

It is one thing to rail about trade policy on the campaign stump (Obama certainly did in his 2008 campaign), but it is another to stare at the hard realities. The United States remains the dominant world economy, but it no longer commands a position where it can call all the shots. The global economy is more intertwined so a hiccup on the Chinese stock market or refugee flows into Europe can impact the U.S. economy.

Just about everyone has a stake in figuring out trade policy. It may be the most fundamental middle-class American issue. It matters to young people who must navigate careers that don’t have life-time job guarantees. Those at the top of the economic heap may face growing unrest and a sharper shift to the political left if more isn’t done to provide greater job security to a growing group of Americans.

Activist labor programs could be the best defense against worker frustration, the least statist policy and the most popular political talking point. There is a general election coming up this fall to try out this approach.

The Renewed Nuclear Arms Race We Aren’t Discussing

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

Americans worry about the threat of terrorism while being largely unaware of an accelerating nuclear arms race involving Russia, China and the United States.

To the extent nuclear weapons are discussed, it is in the context of the Iranian nuclear deal, North Korea’s relentless efforts to join the nuclear club and a fear that ISIS will grab nuclear material for a so-called dirty bomb. A reignited nuclear arms race between world powers, including the United States, remains in the shadows of a presidential election and public debate.

The topic was brought into the daylight by a recent New York Times article that reported, “The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons.” 

The report added ominously, “The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half century.”

Sobering stuff. It underlines the need for a calm hand, not a twitchy finger in the White House. It also may be why GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump hasn’t repeated his seemingly off-the-cuff comments about helping Japan and South Korea secure nuclear weapons.

The new nuclear race has less to do with building larger bombs than the stealth of surgically delivering smaller ones. The Russians have topped big missiles with miniaturized warheads and are developing an undersea drone that can loft a city-smothering radioactive cloud. China is reportedly flight-testing a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a hypersonic glide vehicle, which would maneuver in space, then twist and careen toward its intended target on Earth. 

The Times report says the United States is also testing a hypersonic weapon and modernizing its nuclear arsenal with "small, stealthy and precise” weaponry that can evade nuclear missile defense systems and pinpoint targets. U.S. officials aren’t denying what’s going on, but they also aren’t playing it up.

After World War II, the Cold War race to stockpile ever-larger bombs on longer-distance missiles was based on the “grim logic” of mutual assured destruction, which meant if someone launched an attack, there would be a massive counterattack that would destroy great swaths of the planet. The outcome was so horrifying, it became its own effective deterrent.

Now, the prospect of less destructive and more precise nuclear weapons could tempt somebody to try them out. Some military experts say miniaturized nuclear weapons could deter terrorist groups, though nuclear arms critics would contend their use could feed the radical vision of ISIS for some kind of apocalyptic battle. 

Development of a new generation of nukes at the moment has more to do with geopolitical anxieties, such as Russia’s flirtation with Soviet-style aggression and China’s ambition to solidify its place as a world power. Russia’s expansion into Crimea and China’s land claims in the China Sea serve as present-day reminders of the tensions that underlie nuclear expansion and modernization and cause all three countries to point fingers as to who’s is responsible for a new nuclear arms race.

The Times report notes that Washington and Moscow have kept their respective nuclear forces on high alert to allow a rapid response if an incoming strike is detected. China is apparently on a path to upgrade its early warning system, raising the overall stakes of a “launch on warning” mistake that triggers a nuclear free-for-all.

Arms control advocates feel like middle managers in a modern, fast economy with little effective role in addressing a rekindled Cold War escalation. The Times quotes Mark Gubrud, a nuclear weapons expert, as saying, “The world has failed to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle and new genies are now getting loose."

The Paradoxical Presidential Power Shift

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

President Obama’s “creative use of executive authority” is a paradoxical power shift caused by a GOP-controlled Congress intent on blocking an “ideological enemy” at every turn, according to Zachary Karabell writing for Politico.

“The long-run effect of Obama enmity,” Karabell says, “has been to enable this president to expand the power of the executive branch, perhaps permanently.” The author of “The Leading Indicators, A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” says expanded presidential power has raised the stakes on who Americans elect to the position.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on the latest challenge to Obama’s authority, which involves his decision to grant temporary work permit status to some four million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children. Obama’s executive orders also have dealt with student loans, workplace leave, minimum wage, deportations, gun violence and environmental regulation.

Republican critics have accused Obama of abusing and overstepping his constitutional powers as President, but Karabell says Obama has filled the vacuum left by GOP inaction. “Republicans are hardly passive victims of an overweening executive,” he writes. “They are, in fact, paying for their own unilateral surrender.”

Unable to repeal or pass an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans have settled for obstructing Obama-backed legislation. However, Karabell says Republicans “also relinquished much of its primary tool, the power of the purse.” “Congress and the White House have not agreed on a budget since 2009 and only at the end of 2015 was an actual budget passed by the House,” he notes.

Karabell speculates Obama may become even more daring as the clock ticks down in his final term in office. Senate GOP leadership’s decision not to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland could lead to appointment without the advice and consent of Congress. Some constitutional scholars believe the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice resides with the President, not the Senate. Such an appointment, if made, would be a political explosion in an already incendiary election year. 

While GOP presidential contenders have wailed about Obama’s executive orders in domestic policy, the real expansion of power, Karabell suggests, has been in national security and foreign military engagement. “The broad implementation of drone warfare (hundreds of strikes over the past five years) would have been stymied were it not for judges and tribunals that have given the executive, CIA and military wide latitude.”

Fear of executive power is hardly new in America. Founding Fathers fretted about it, which led to the creation of checks and balances aimed at preventing it. Of course, those checks and balances only work if they are used. 

Republican presidential candidates haven’t exactly shied away from the notion of unilateral action. Ted Cruz has described a first day in the Oval Office as tearing up Obama’s executive orders, the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare. Donald Trump has suggested pulling out of major international trade deals and forcing the CIA to carry out waterboarding and even more extreme interrogation tactics on terrorists.

“Obama bears his share of responsibility for taking power where he could,” Karabell concludes, “but had the Republican Congress attempted to do more than thwart him, he would not have been able to.”

The upshot of Obama’s two terms in office is to make “who we elect now more important than ever,” Karabell says. “And perhaps Congress will think twice in the future about surrendering more power to the president."