Mountain Snail

Stuff Ballard Wrote

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I wish Sanders hadn’t run

Citizen-Times, May 2016

I wish Bernie Sanders hadn’t run for president.

I have no quarrels with most of Sanders’ beliefs. He sees a future for America that all of us should hope for.

And he’s right that historic changes, like women’s suffrage and civil rights, happened out of great movements, not incrementally.

And it’s apparently true that he was an effective leader as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He wasn’t just talk.

My concern is that Sanders can open the gate for a Republicn to win in November. And that would mean a far-right Supreme Court for decades – and American oligarchy.

As I talk to Sanders believers, more often than not, I hear strong anti-Hillary feelings – some so strong they would not vote for Hillary if she gets the nomination.

And if Sanders does win the nomination, I worry that America isn’t ready to elect a 75-year-old “Democratic Socialist” whose non-religious belief in God sounds like old-time humanism.

I wish he weren’t in the race, but he is. I wish he’d feel satisfied and go home, but he won’t.  He’s doing too well.  So I guess I’ll just wish away the worst-case, Republican disaster.

Ambition to be president

News-Record, August 23, 2017

“The brash and undeserving forge ahead.”

This is a quote from somebody, I forget who. Google doesn’t carry it. It has come to my mind on occasion over the years.

I thought of this saying recently when I heard about people who have begun to organize to run for president in 2020 – setting up committees and schmooozing big Republican donors.

I don’t know a lot about these people, but one thing I do know: they are ambitious.

I don’t have anything against ambition. If I were to speak to high school students, I’d urge them to be the best they can be. I admire entrepreneurs.

But I don’t think we get the best candidates for president from a pool of people with ambition for power or self-fulfillment or other ego-driven motives.

A Republican observer used an interesting phrase to describe this kind of person: “If the Republicans have lost a lot of seats in the Congress, and they blame Trump for it, there are people who will emerge who are political opportunists.”

I’d like to see both parties set up search committees to seek out people who would, simply, make the best president – smart with vision and problem-solving skills, team-builders, articulate speakers. I’m convinced there are humble, tough-minded people who would fit the Founding Fathers’ ideal.


Dictator Donald

August 15, 2017

In 1925, three years after he took power in Italy, Benito Mussolini took the title, Duce. When Adolph Hitler took power in Germany, he took the nickname, Fuhrer.

After Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1939, he called himself El Caudillo.

All three titles mean the same thing: “leader.”  And all three titles were specifically used to mean, “dictator.”

So here I am one marning watcing TV news, and there is President Trump addressing a hall full of ecstatic followers in West Virginia. Idly sipping coffee and listening to Trump’s usual rant at the media and the Special Prosecutor, I heard him say:  “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership you won.”

Oh no, Trump used the L-word!

We all know how Trump admires dictators. Putin, he said, has been “far more of a leader” than Obama. Kim Jong-un is a “smart cookie.”

He ran the privately owned Trrump Organization like a dictator, and it‘s clear that’s how he thinks the presidency should be run.

I smiled over my coffee that morning, however. Mussolini and Hitler both proved themselves inept in the end, but they had the political skill to gain power. Trump has proven himself inept at the beginning. Dictator Donald? Nah.

Sea level rise is unlawful!

Asheville DailyPlanet, September 2017

This column asks one multiple-choice question: Are Republicans in Raleigh: (a) cynical, (b) ideologically berserk, (c) stupid, (d) pathetic, or (e) all of the above? Before you answer, read the case study that follows.

North Carolina has had a Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) since 1974. From their website, “The commission designates areas of environmental concern, adopts rules and policies for coastal development within those areas, and certifies local land use plans.”

In 1996, a science panel was added, organized by Dr. Stan Riggs, a distinguished geologist at East Carolina University, to advise the CRC on inlets, beaches, sea level rise and storm patterns as they make their long-range plans.

It’s a terrific idea. North Carolina has 2100 square miles of low-lying coastline and inadequate barrier islands, and here’s a government commission with critical responsibility receiving the best available scientific advice.

This arrangement worked well for 14 years. The meetings, Dr. Riggs said, were “truly exciting learning experiences.”

Let’s see: 1996 + 14 years. Right. The GOP takeover of the General Assembly.

Almost immediately (April 6, 2011) a bill was filed that bars state agencies from adopting any “rule, policy or planning guideline that defines a rate of sea-level change.”

Two weeks after the bill passed, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that sea-level rise at Cape Hatteras and northward is accelerating four times the global average.

And a Scientific American blog quipped: “[North Carolina] can escape sea level rise…by making it against the law.”

But irony and humor were lost on the GOP legislature. They cut the CRC from 15 to 13 members and replaced eight environment-friendly members.

In 2010, the old CRC had issued a report, based on best science, that projected a 39-inch seal level rise this century – enormously relevant data that would have guided how long-lasting roads and buildings should be built and guided where development should not be allowed.

But Republicans dismiss science. They listen to developers and real estate interests, big donors to the GOP, who don’t want negative thoughts to discourage prospects.  And state agencies are doing their bidding.

A year ago, Dr. Riggs resigned from the science panel. Scientists remaining give credit to Riggs for a 2015 report that shows greatest risk in the northern barrier islands, but it got no hearing. “We were playing games,” Riggs said of the panel.

Prior to 2010, North Carolina was a national model for sea level preparation. The new CRC has reversed all that. They decreed that studies would only look at 30-year projections, instead of 100 years, which means preparation for only an eight-inch rise. And they’re allowing outrageous development.

The Raleigh News & Observer tells of one such development: “Sunset Beach West would… have 21 eight-bedroom houses with individual septic systems, wells and power generators next to a state nature preserve in an area with a fragile dunes system and the potential for flooding. The area is so unstable that federal regulations prohibit public utility connections.”

When the town of Sunset Beach challenged the CRC decision, the General Assembly considered a bill to de-annex the development land from the town.

OK, now we’re ready for the multiple-choice question, and since I can’t hear your answers, I’ll give mine.

Cynical? Ideologically berserk? I say the GOP is not being ideological in their actions on sea level rise in North Carolina. I don’t think they are motivated by any beliefs on climate change. They just hide behind ideology. The Republican Party in North Carolina bows down to one idol: keeping power. And that makes a god of developer money.

The people on the coast are the clear losers – those who live there already and the poor suckers who buy houses that will certainly have to be moved. And don’t forget future generations.

Republicans aren’t stupid. Their values are upside down, but they’re very skilled at politicizing everything.

Pathetic? Anyone who admires slippery slime in their politicians would say no, Republicans in Raleigh are not pathetic. And the rest of us would also say no to calling them “pathetic.” We’re looking for a more depraved word.



Conservative reset

Asheville Daily Planet, August 2017

The soap opera “Days of Our Lives under Trump” plays daily to an ever-growing TV audience. Some take it as comedy. Some take it as fantasy spun by the media. Myself, I pay attention to details:  the growing glossary of political cliches, how articulate print journalists are on camera and the awesome intellect of Indian-American pundits (interestingly, a word that came to English from colonial India).

I noticed that hard-shell conservatives in Congress weren’t being very conservative. They betrayed states’ rights by collecting voter records in Washington. To get a healthcare bill through Congress, they threw billions of dollars around like birdseed, with no regard for national debt. And conservative stalwarts, like Charles Krauthammer, were pounding their Republican president mercilessly.

I was driven against my will to write on conservatism and President Trump.

By chance, my colleague who writes across the fold from me in these pages gave us an essay on how well various political philosophies handle “responsibility,” a term mostly defined in his column by what Progressives-Liberals-Socialists don’t have. He gives Conservativism an A+ in “responsibility.”

Mr. Mumpower’s A+ grade is correct. Personal responsibility has been a key principle of conservatism at least since William F. Buckley, Jr. 70 years ago. In “The Conscience of a Conservative” (which I read back when I still was one), Barry Goldwater called it “individual responsibility.”

The Goldwaters and Buckleys of the past – almost all elite intellectuals – passionately believed in an ideology that included limited government, low taxes, free trade, laissez-faire economics, foreign intervention, strong military and anti-Communism.

Their torch is carried today brilliantly by theoreticians like John Podhoretz and William Kristol. And at a level lower, old-time conservatism fires the blood of millions, definitely including politicians. Their belief is also intellectual, however, not experiential.   When pure conservative principles have been applied to actual governing, they’ve flopped.

The problem is, conservatism is not the way ordinary people think and live their lives. I don’t argue with the viewpoint commonly stated that America is a conservative nation. But grassroots conservatism doesn’t come from the ivory tower.

American conservatives are just like everybody else in America. Practically speaking, they don’t buy into limited government or personal responsibility.   They may talk about Medicaid’s being a giveaway program for their irresponsible neighbors, but dear old Mom is in the nursing home because of Medicaid.

When the GOP planned to whack $800 billion from Medicaid funding in their healthcare plans, I’m convinced Paul Ryan and his ideological colleagues were fulfilling their dreams to force people to be personally responsible.

And when only 12% approve of these healthcare bills, I think it shows that people don’t agree that Mom in the nursing home is their personal responsibility.

Ideological conservatives live in another world from rank-and-file conservatives – so different they shouldn’t both be covered by the same word.

When I was a boy in Georgia, everybody was conservative – in the dictionary sense of hating change. Their patriotism was split between U.S.A. and C.S.A. And later, they jumped from Democrat to Republican after the Civil Rights Act. Evangelical Christians denounced the “liberalism” of northern denominations.

By 1980, the various strains of “conservative” were under the shade of the GOP umbrella. And so it has been.

Then along came Donald Trump.

Ideological Republican conservatives flat-out despised him.   He was a charlatan, they said, a liberal, an opportunist. He preached tariffs, isolationism, universal healthcare and never touching entitlements.   And he praised dictators.

But those Southerners, thrifty rural folk and evangelicals flocked to Trump. Even now, they can be heard saying that critics of Trump are liberals.

Evangelicals, Southerners and ideologues have all shared the conservative label for generations. But only the ideologues care about ideology. For the rest, it’s Trump-brand “conservatism” that’s sacred. They don’t give two hoots for free trade as an issue.

Mr. Mumpower ended his piece with a section, “Political Reset,” but he didn’t say anything about a political reset. In fact, that’s what may well happen to conservatism, whether conservatives like it or not.



The NRA’s double-edged sword

News-Record, August 2, 2017

When Barack Obama was president, the N.R.A. campaigned that the Second Amendment was in the Constitution to protect against the tyranny of government. Obama was called a “dictator.”

Obama is gone, and a friend of the N.R.A. is president – and the Second Amendment has been updated. Ah, it seems the gun issue is a two-edged sword. Now the Second Amendment demands that people protesting the president are the emergency. An N.R.A. recruitment video has appeared:

“They use their media to assassinate real news.   They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.….They use their ex-president to endorse the resistance. All to make them march. To protest.  To bully and terrorize law-abiding people…until the only option left is for the police to do their job and shut down the madness. And when that happens, they’ll use this as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth. I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.”

There are abundant grounds for owning guns, especially in rural WNC. No question about that. But the N.R.A. strategy says, “Fear Democrats. If they’re in power, they’re tyrants. If they protest, they’re dangerous rabble. Stay scared, my friends.”

And by the way, N.R.A., you can tell tyrants when they harass and imprison journalists (like Turkey), replace judges (like Poland) – and crush protesters with clenched fist (like in Tiananmen Square).



Morality and legality

News-Record, July26, 2017

John Podhoretz has been called a “Conservative Lion.” He has long been a no-doubt-about-it conservative theoretician.   He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Then last week, he wrote in the conservative New York Post (about Donald Trump, Jr. and the Russian lawyer):

There is too much focus on the criminal aspect of this event, which might or might not be significant. There is not enough focus on the moral aspect of this event, which is far more significant.”

He used the powerful word “moral.”

We assume, don’t we, that the world of politics is a lying, selfish, mean, vicious, back-stabbing place. And sadly, we shrug it off – especially if the politician supports our favorite issue.

We shouldn’t. We should look at our representatives in Raleigh and Washington and ask: Do they act with compassion or self-interest? Are they truthful? Do they think about me or about themselves?

I don’t say much about morality because I live in a glass house. John Podhoretz’s column struck me as important. There’s something higher than politics.

He ended his commentary with this: “I’m sure there are people who will defend this [Russian lawyer event], because there are people who will defend anything.”


Daybreak in North Carolina

Asheville Daily Planet, July 2017

The morning sun has not yet risen in Raleigh, but the brightening sky gives us cause for hope, even belief, that it’s daybreak in North Carolina.

The Great Darkness fell just before the 2010 election for the General Assembly, when Republicans corrupted our mailboxes with a million dollars worth of lying flyers. Their slime won. And we’ve had six years of GOP misrule.

A poll taken last May by right-wing Civitas showed 47% of likely voters prefer a generic Democratic candidate to 33% who prefer a generic Republican.

I have concerns about Democratic strategy, but it seems the voters are ready to reverse Republican malfeasance.

They seized power in 2010 as respectable people – no, as righteous people – but immediately they showed themselves to be gangland thugs.  When their first budget slashed funding for public education, the Speaker of the House told a gathering of teachers, “The message from the Legislature is clear–if you stand against cuts to public education, we will teach you a lesson.”

Arrogance on top of greed and indifference. And they were naturals at it, weren’t they?

When they drew boundaries for our 13 congressional districts, the guy in charge issued this criterion: create districts likely to elect 10 Republicans, three Democrat.   When asked why he chose those numbers, he responded, “I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”   Maps drawn for General Assembly districts gave the same lopsided numbers to Republicans.

So they have no fear of the electorate.   Heck, all legislative and congressional elections in the state are decided in advance. Voters might as well take the day off.

But now the night is passing. Venus is shining bright in the east.

Courts slapped down their voter-ID law, almost mocking them – how they brazenly requested data on differences in racial voting behavior and then designed their bill to inconvenience minorities. And courts have ordered redrawing of 28 legislative districts.

They were sheltered from the voters but not from the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a Wisconsin case that closely parallels North Carolina. It’s possible, if not likely, that the Justices will see outrageous gerrymandering as right and wrong, the massive and blatant nullification of citizens’ voting rights. They could set standards that will put an end to extreme political gerrymandering.

That day – oh, that day – we will dance in the sunlight!

Congressional and legislative districts will be competitive.   Everybody’s vote will count.   Voters will decide elections, not the cheating map-makers. Elected officials will be accountable.

And when that happens, the voters will remember.   Oh yes, they will remember Republican self-serving. All the deadheads who went along with their leadership will face the people in a fair contest.

Signs, like the Civitas poll, are favorable.   And we see Democrats making moves.   Candidates are announcing in districts that are impossible now – districts that might have entirely different boundaries this time next year after districts are redrawn.

But I have concerns. I love the signs at rallies that say, “Public Schools Matter” and “No More Tax Cuts for the Rich” and others that focus on RESTORING THE GREATNESS OF North Carolina before the GOP era.

That’s our message – more than the Bernie Sanders sky-pie or the past-tense issues. LGBT don’t need to press for more. And the guns issue has to wait for the American public to reach a conclusion, like they did on LGBT. And extremes with “pro-choice” is not wise.

I don’t think most people in North Carolina believe that Democrats would govern differently from how Republicans have governed.   We ARE different, and we should make the differences very explicit. Like this:


I think our candidates are will run precisely to take back North Carolina for principles of good and right, not politics.   Let this be their message.


“Congress ceases to function”

July 1, 2017

History rarely makes note of Senate Majority Leaders. Henry Cabot Lodge broke through into history because he squelched America’s joining the League of Nations.

In a future time, Mitch McConnell’s weak double chin will illustrate a section in history titled, “Congress Ceases to Function.” History will give some detail: how Democrats followed long tradition and worked with George W. Bush on his tax cut bill, even though they disapproved, to make it better – and then how McConnell shut down the legislative process right after the 2010 election, when Democrats no longer had a filibuster-proof majority.

McConnell held the filibuster as a constant threat to anything President Obama wanted to do, so nothing got done. He chose to obstruct rather than compromise. He refused Obama’s call for a bipartisan reaction to Russia’s meddling before the last election.

But wait! There’s an alternative history. Democrats could take over the Senate in 2020 – possible, even likely – and McConnell’s place in history will fade away as Democrats reinstate bipartisanship..

Or the recent drubbing of McConnell’s no-compromise healthcare bill could lead to Bipartisan Now, a mutiny of right-minded Republicans joining right-minded Democrats who shame the partisans on both sides and find a historic solution.



Balancing the checks

Daily Planet, June 2017

President Trump is not writing a fantasy novel, tweet by tweet. What he writes is what he thinks. And some of it is Constitutionally scary. One thing is clear: he doesn’t like to be told what he can do and can’t do. And our Constitution does a lot of that.

Us old folks learned about the Constitution in a high school class called Citizenship. Mine was taught by A.L. Williams, the baseball coach. He kept a stack of blackboard erasers on his desk that he whizzed at sleeping students with a catcher’s snap throw.

He taught Citizenship from the perspective of a WWII veteran who had fought for American freedoms. “Boys,” he would say – girls still had their own high school – “America is the greatest country in the world.” He loved the Constitution..

What we learned in Citizenship has stayed with us. We see our Constitution as flawless. Its system of checks and balances is fail-safe. We assume if one branch of government is abusing power, they will be checked, and balance will be restored.

We learned wrong.

Long before our Founding Fathers and their Constitution, philosophers had written about what came to be called “checks and balances” – the balance between the monarchy, the nobility and the people’s Parliament.

These guys were wildly optimistic. As John Trenchard wrote in 1698: “A Government is a mere piece of Clockwork; and having such Springs and Wheels, must act after such a manner….This whole Mystery is only to make the Interest of the Governors and Governed the same.”

They even argued that it doesn’t matter whether the ruler is good or bad. What matters is the political system they operate in. If government is properly designed, it will hum along like a clock, and abuse of power can’t happen.

Our Founding Fathers bought their philosophy – and borrowed their optimism. They said similar things when selling the Constitution in 1787.

And their confidence was warranted – as long as the Fathers (and one son) had power in the White House, the first six presidents.

Andrew Jackson was number seven. Jackson didn’t respect the system of government established by the Fathers. When he wanted “Indian removal” to the West, Congress obediently passed such a law – because they feared Jackson’s great popularity with the people. When the Supreme Court ruled that a Georgia law to remove Indians was illegal, Jackson said, “John Marshall made his decision; now let him enforce it.” And he proceeded with removal, eventually using the nation’s military.

Jackson was never checked, and balance favored the executive branch. Congress passed Jackson’s economic plan that led to a seven-year depression.

Our system of checks and balances, you see, is not like a clock. It’s manually operated. People must take action.

In the churning days before Richard Nixon resigned, those around him worried that they would come to work and find tanks encircling the White House to keep Nixon in power. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any order from Nixon.

A key element in the Nixon drama should not be overlooked: Nixon believed in the Constitution.  He turned over the tapes when the Supreme Court ordered him to.  He didn’t destroy them or defy the Court.  He didn’t try to call out the military.  He admitted to his chief of staff and press secretary, “I screwed up, didn’t I?”

Trump has tendencies like Jackson, but this is not the 1830s. Congressional Republicans will likely remain timid out of fear of his fanatically loyal voting bloc, unless things really go terrible for the President.  Checks will appear from places not inscribed in the Constitution, like Schlesinger did with Nixon.

And then there’s the media. Ah yes, there’s the media.

Trump will try, try again to monkey with the Constitution to gain his ends. And our country will pin-ball from crisis to crisis.

My question is: What will Trump do as his frustrations build?  Will he quit?  Or will be look around at his millions of loyalists and say, “Hmmm”?


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