Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Monday Musings: Politics, Likability, and Beer

The other night in a Senate debate held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, faced off against his challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. At the end of the debate, which was, by all accounts, a brutally hostile affair, one of the moderators asked the candidates what, if anything, they found admirable about their opponent. Barnes answered by saying that Johnson was a devoted family man and he respected that. When Johnson had his turn he said that Barnes was raised well by his parents. “What puzzles me,” he went on, “is why did he turn against America?”

To their credit, the audience in the theater booed lustily.

Autumn has arrived in Tennessee, bringing azure skies, cool breezes, and crystal clear nights, and coaxing yellows and reds and oranges from our foliage. This time of year, my thoughts turn to bird migration, to baseball’s postseason, and, yes, to politics. I am reluctant to go there in a post, and yet I also feel I can hardly avoid it. We are living in such a fraught, dangerous time. In our current climate, I honestly believe the fate of our republic, not to mention our planet, is on the line each time Americans go to the polls.

I am old enough to remember when, during the 1980s, pundits speculated that part of Ronald Reagan’s incredible popularity was attributable to his down-to-earth demeanor. He was a candidate, analysts said, who people, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, would like to have a beer with. (One can only assume the poor grammar in this analysis was meant to reinforce the idea that people drinking beer with friendly politicians pay no attention to syntax.)

In contrast to the dispassionate, moralizing Jimmy Carter and the slightly dweeb-ish Walter Mondale, Reagan was cool, charming, charismatic, and other things that start with “c.” (Although, surprisingly, not “competent” or “coherent” or “compassionate.” But that’s a subject for some other post.) People liked Reagan, even if they didn’t always agree with his policies.

This likability, the “let’s have a beer with him” explanation for political success, came up again in 1988, not because anyone really liked George H.W. Bush, but because no one could imagine Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis even drinking a beer. And also, to be fair, because of the picture of Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a helmet that made him look like Rick Moranis from that scene in Ghostbusters where he’s wearing a colander on his head.

Bill Clinton was seen as more likable than his Republican opponents: the elder Bush, and then, in 1996, the irascible Bob Dole. But nearly everyone in the country agreed that the candidate they really wanted to have a beer with was Ross Perot, the third-party gadfly who mounted insurgency campaigns in both ’92 and ’96. To be clear, it wasn’t that people really liked Perot, but given the crazy shit he said when sober, folks were eager to see what they could get him to say if they plied him with a few brews.

George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns fully revived the “who would you like to drink with?” conversation, in part because old George was a party boy in his younger days and likely would have known the best bars, and in part because his two Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, were blue-blood scions of privilege and wealth, who came across as self-righteous, all-knowing prigs. (Understand, please, that I supported and voted for both of them. I say this from a place of love. Really.)

Barack Obama, with his effortless cool and star power, was the obvious choice in both 2008 and 2012. John McCain, his first opponent was a war hero, but he had nearly as little charm as Bob Dole. And Mitt Romney was and is Mormon, meaning he doesn’t drink at all, rendering moot the question of who was likely to be the better bar mate.

Finally, we come to the election of 2016. Trump against Hillary. Both candidates were deeply unpopular. Neither candidate engendered much enthusiasm in the “who would you like to have a beer with?” measure. And in 2020, the idea that anyone not ideologically aligned with one of the candidates might deign to have a beer with him . . . well, that was pretty much unthinkable. Which kind of brings me to the end of my joking and to my actually-rather-serious point.

Politics have long divided Americans from one another. A glance at popular vote margins through our history show a nation that is more often than not split fairly evenly between (or among) Presidential candidates. Yet today’s America feels particularly tribal. It’s hard to imagine any MAGA Republican setting aside partisanship to say, “Yeah, I’d love to have a beer with Joe Biden.” And no Democrat I know would willingly sit at a bar with Donald Trump.

I will admit that I have always thought the so-called “have a beer” test a foolish way to choose a President (or a Senator, Governor, or Representative). I vote on the issues, and I look for candidates who have gravitas, who are thoughtful, erudite, and analytical. I really couldn’t care less if they seem like a fun drinking companion. Sure, it might be a bonus, but that’s all.

But given the state of our body politic, I’m wondering if I have been too quick to dismiss the value of this other approach. Not because it’s a great way to choose our leaders, but rather because just being able to think in such terms suggests a healthier state of politics than the one we’re in now. Maybe if all of us could once again imagine clinking glasses with a politician from “the other side,” our country might be better off.

Sadly, I don’t see that happening soon.

And so, I would very much like to sit down and have a beer with Ron Johnson. Not because I think he’d be a fun drinking buddy, but because when he’s not looking, I’d very much like to spit in his glass.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Court Wars

Sometimes I write my Monday posts on Saturday morning. It’s just a convenient time. And so right now I am at my desk, trying to marshal my thoughts, and rein in my emotions.

I am devastated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It pains me that her last hours were spent thinking as much about the political chaos that would follow her death as about her family and a momentous life well-lived. Within an hour of her passing, tributes to her stunning career were already being drowned out by the fight over how and when she ought to be replaced. She deserved better.

And so do we, as a nation. I am enraged by the staggering hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate. In 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, they refused to allow hearings or a vote on Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. It’s too close to the election, they said. The new President, whoever that may be, ought to have the opportunity to fill the vacancy. No, it’s not ideal to leave a seat on the Court open for so long, but this principle is worth the risk. Scalia died in March. His seat remained open for more than a year.

We are now forty-five days from another Presidential election. If the Senate were to follow McConnell’s “rule” on allowing new Presidents to choose a Court nominee, we might have to wait a total of five months. But now Republicans say, There is plenty of time for the current occupant of the White House to select a successor. It would be dangerous to leave the seat open for so long. Fucking unbelievable.

And yet, utterly predictable. Because the real problem is that we have allowed the Court to become completely politicized. The judiciary was designed and intended to be the least political branch of our government. It was supposed to be above politics, the institutional referee between the two elected branches. How far we have fallen from that ideal. Just today, a friend asked me if I could think of any other nation on the planet whose selection of judges was more riven by politics than ours. I couldn’t.

Like everything else in our system of government, in our whole society, all matters pertaining to the courts have become hyper-partisan. It is almost impossible to believe this now, but when Scalia’s nomination came to a Senate vote, he was confirmed 98-0. Ginsberg, as liberal as Scalia was conservative, won confirmation 96-3. I doubt we’ll see another vote like that on a Supreme Court Justice in this century.

Conservatives point to Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork as the start of the Court’s politicization. They claim that liberal Democrats, opposed to Bork’s ideology, misrepresented his record and vilified him. I remember that fight, which took place during my first semester in graduate school, quite differently. Bork’s very nomination was a provocation. Before becoming a candidate for the Court, Bork was best known as Richard Nixon’s Solicitor General, who, on what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. He did this after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out Nixon’s order. By the time of his Supreme Court hearings, Bork had long since revealed himself as a man who placed party before country, and as an advocate for unbridled executive power. He had been a villain to the Left for more than a decade. He never should have been nominated.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter who started the trend. It’s here now. And with McConnell’s brazen disregard for Constitutional norms in the case of the Garland nomination, it has been escalated to full-scale political war. If McConnell pushes through a Trump nominee before the election, or during a lame-duck session after it, and if, as polls currently predict, the election brings a Biden victory and a Democratic takeover of the Senate, I expect Democrats to attempt to change the structure of the Court in next year’s Congressional session. The Constitution says nothing about the number of justices who can serve on the Court, and it grants to Congress wide discretion in creating and maintaining all levels of the Federal Judiciary.

The problem with this is, as soon as the Democrats lose control of the Senate, the Republicans can change the composition again. And so on, until the Court becomes a caricature of itself, and one of the bedrock institutions of our republic is destroyed for all time.

One solution would be for Senate Republicans to recognize their own hypocrisy and refuse to vote on a Trump nominee. It would only take four of them, and I wish I believed that among the fifty-three members of the GOP Senate caucus there are four people of integrity. But I don’t.

That leaves few options and little hope for a near-term de-escalation of the Court battles. I am as pessimistic right now about the future of our system of government as I have ever been. Another legacy of this dark era in our history.

And I end this piece as I began it: with regret that the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a gender pioneer, a brilliant jurist, a champion for the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, and the downtrodden, should be obscured by ridiculous and unreasonable political machinations.

We should be better than this. I grieve that we are not.