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Trump is No Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater or Wallace (Washington Examiner) August 7, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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The hype of a presidential campaign — on steroids this year with a pandemic and an economic crisis — means a silly season is upon us. Among the silliness are claims that President Trump is similar to some other Republican president, such as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, or a controversial losing candidate from the past, namely Barry Goldwater or George Wallace.

Sorry folks, but Trump is sui generis — his own man.

Trump says he “learned a lot from Nixon,” to which Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean says, “hooey.” Trump’s foreign policy reminds some of Reagan, while others are quick to say Trump is no Reagan. One columnist finds parallels between Trump and Wallace, while others debate whether Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party parallels that of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

To all this, I say: Pump the brakes. There is no modern presidency like Trump’s.

I start from the premise that there are two kinds of Republican presidents: prophets and pragmatists. The prophets, similar to John the Baptist of biblical times, emerge from the wilderness with fervor and a philosophy. Goldwater was such a prophet, seeing dangers in a growing federal government, with its invasions of personal liberty and states’ rights. So was Wallace, a Southern Democrat, with his singular focus on law and order, fueled by racism. Prophets rarely win popularity contests, and the country was not ready to elect either Goldwater or Wallace, though Goldwater did pave the way for Reagan, another conservative.

The list of Republican pragmatists is longer, and they enjoyed greater electoral success. Nixon talked the conservative talk of law and order, but he was also the president who walked a big government walk and gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and wage and price controls. President George W. Bush tried to split the difference between philosophy and pragmatism, calling himself a “compassionate conservative” when he campaigned for the presidency, but following Sept. 11, he grew federal spending dramatically, cut back on individual rights, and threw in a large increase in prescription drug support for seniors. A businessman, Mitt Romney was a classic pragmatist, unable to establish a conservative philosophy as a candidate, and accused rightly of flip-flopping on issues.

Reagan was the rare exception to the prophet versus pragmatist rule, embracing a little of both. He had a strong conservative philosophy, but he was able to make enough deals with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and others to keep the government moving ahead. His pragmatism was evident in his famous statement about compromising with Congress: “Half a loaf is better than none.”

A businessman who had never run for office before his presidential campaign, Trump is a kind of pragmatist, doing what he thinks makes sense in the moment. Yet, his business was essentially a family business, built on his father’s money and his own fame and branding. So the art of compromise and deliberation, or the management of a large bureaucracy, was never a part of Trump’s toolkit.

As it has turned out, Trump won his office not so much to govern, as Nixon and Reagan did, as to extend his brand and build his base. In the coronavirus crisis, he largely turned things over to the governors but continued to cajole and harass them from his platform. His only major legislative win has been tax reform, with another major promise, overturning Obamacare, out of his reach. Unlike Republican presidents before him, his key tools of leadership have been executive orders and his Twitter account.

What we wonder is how much of this change from Nixon and Reagan to Trump is Trump himself, and how much of it may be a function of the times in which we live? In an era of political hyperpartisanship, Trump has shown us that tools of mass communication are still readily available to a president when compromise has become a dirty word and actual governing seems too difficult. In that sense, these are not times that Nixon or Reagan experienced, nor is this a presidency that springs from their legacy.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:



Is Freedom on the Decline? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) August 4, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Each year Freedom House measures freedom around the world using several criteria. Unfortunately, its recent report showed the 14th consecutive year in which freedom worldwide has declined.

The world is full of more dictators and citizens possess fewer political rights and civil rights. Ethnic and religious groups are under fire. 64 nations lost ground on the freedom scale last year, with only 37 making gains.

Surprisingly, the U.S. is not the bastion of freedom you might think. Its score on the freedom scale is going in the wrong direction, from 89 two years ago to 86 this year. Nearly 50 other nations score ahead of us. Outside interference by Russia challenged our free and fair elections, while religious and minority groups battle for rights.

You can question the criteria, but whenever there is a test of freedom, we want the U.S. to score well.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Is Freedom On The Decline?

When Is A Mask More Than A Mask? (Washington Examiner) July 22, 2020

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Many crises of the still-young 21st century are readily associated with symbols or pictures. If I were to show you a hanging chad, for example, it would bring to mind the presidential election crisis of Bush v. Gore in 2000. Surely, planes crashing into the World Trade Center in 2001 powerfully depict the story of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terror. Shrinking icebergs bespeak climate change; a pile of colorful pills, an opioid crisis; a police officer on George Floyd’s neck, a cry for racial justice.

Oddly, then, the obvious symbol of the current crisis, COVID-19, is a mask, a simple blue mask previously worn only by medical professionals in a dentist’s or doctor’s office. Remarkably, this mask has become a symbol not just for the health crisis itself, but it has also triggered crises of trust, law, politics, and culture, just to name a few. How did a simple mask become so much more than a form of medical protection?

Perhaps the rest of the mask crises were caused by the very first one, a crisis of trust. Both scientists and government officials initially indicated that masks would not provide protection from COVID-19 and discouraged their use. When that message changed, first to recommend masks to protect others and then to protect the wearer as well, there was a crisis of trust. Did experts really not know about the efficacy of masks, discouraging their use to protect an already short supply? Is it ever OK for the government to shade the truth for a greater good?

We live in a time when trust in authority is in short supply. Studies by the Pew Research Center show that trust, especially among young adults, is extremely low in elected leaders and business leaders, both in the 30th percentile range. Although trust in scientists rates more highly, most people do not trust the government to do what is right most of the time. Yuval Levin’s new book, A Time To Build, argues that the lack of trust and confidence in American institutions is one of our most fundamental problems, adding that “everybody knows that Americans have long been losing faith in institutions.” So the whole COVID-19 crisis, unfortunately, began in an environment of distrust by raising questions of trust about a simple mask.

From there, the problems began to spiral. In jurisdictions that mandated the wearing of face masks, lawsuits have been filed, claiming such laws are unconstitutional exercises of government power over a person’s freedom and constitute invasions of privacy. Deeper legal questions about the power of government in a crisis or emergency have been raised over the mask. Now, lawsuits have been filed against retailers when they mandate the wearing of masks. In Georgia, the governor and the mayor of its largest city, Atlanta, have gone to court over masks. In our litigious society, the little blue mask has turned out to be a boon for lawyers.

Next, we have the politics of masks. You’re a Democrat if you wear one, a Republican if you do not. President Trump long resisted wearing masks but has now said they are “patriotic.” Previously, he had said that people need to “think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.” Republican governors in states such as Iowa and Georgia have attempted to block municipalities from mandating masks.

Finally, the mask has become a weapon in the culture wars, the subject of bumper stickers and signs everywhere. “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19,” said one sign. “A mask is not a political statement, it’s an IQ test,” says another. We have mask shaming and mask protests. Many restaurants require masks, while others say we will not serve you if you wear one. A Starbucks barista who refused to serve a customer without a mask received over $100,000 in support. The mask war is on.

Unfortunately, the mask has been reduced to a symbol of all the many battles in our society — lack of trust in authority, a litigious mindset, the politics of division, culture wars — rather than what it was meant to be: A form of medical protection. Shame on us.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Whatever Became of Socialism? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) July 8, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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With the news dominated by Covid-19 and racial injustice, you might not remember one of the big stories of the past year: the rise of socialism. Previously a dirty word, socialism became popular among young people and polled well with Democrats.

But now we hear nothing about socialism. Bernie Sanders is gone and the Green New Deal has gone silent.

The fact is, young people were never interested in formal socialism. The same polls showing their attraction to it also showed they prefer a market economy over government control. They really didn’t want socialism, but free stuff: free college tuition, forgiven student loans, help with expensive housing and maybe a guaranteed income.

That agenda is now, quietly, Joe Biden’s platform, without the socialism name. He has embraced versions of all that and more. He is the candidate of free … and expensive … stuff.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Whatever Became of Socialism?

Dual Programming: The Trump Show versus The Biden Show (Washington Examiner) July 7, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Hamilton is not the only performance coming into your home this week.

After four years on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington, D.C., equivalent of Broadway, The Donald Trump Show is on the road, though appealing to smaller audiences. According to a recent Gallup poll, 38% approve of his job “performance” while 59% disapprove, a 19% gap. Even off Broadway, at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, there were empty seats, and the overflow venue outdoors was closed due to the small attendance.

Meanwhile, The Joe Biden Show (really a kind of no-show conducted largely from his Delaware basement) has attracted growing interest. Most of the recent polls show Biden with a significant 8-12% lead over Trump. Biden has also attracted more investors than Trump, outperforming the president’s prodigious fundraising operation each of the last two months and for the last quarter. By those measures, candidate Biden would do well to stay in his basement.

The conventional wisdom is that people are frustrated by the president’s lack of leadership during the coronavirus and protest crises. A president’s campaign for a second term is generally a referendum on his performance in his first four years, so that is certainly an important factor. It is also the case that the strong economy on which the president had planned to run for reelection has been pulled out from under him.

I would say it differently, however. I would argue that having a disrupter for president, one more interested in performance than governing, might have seemed tempting in theory but has been more difficult to pull off in practice. If you remember Trump’s campaign premise, it was that someone outside of Washington needed to come in and “drain the swamp” — or disrupt a corrupt system. As Yuval Levin points out in his recent book, A Time to Build, Trump is the first president who was never formed and shaped by American institutions such as the military, large corporations, the legislature, or a governor’s office. He came to the presidency from a career in a family business and celebrity, so that’s what he knows.

As a celebrity president, Trump is more about tweets and speeches than legislative accomplishments or policy programs. As campaign veteran Karl Rove recently pointed out, he has yet to tell the American people what he would do if elected to a second term. His presidency is not about agendas and policies but about him — his values and his frustrations, which his base shares. But it’s difficult to run a government that way, and in the end, that’s what we have traditionally expected a president to do.

Along comes Biden, then, who seems to know how to run a government. His career has been shaped by the Senate and the vice presidency. In the face of recent challenges, Biden has released specific plans about what he would do with the coronavirus challenge, for example. His communications tend to be more about policies and programs than his personal grievances and frustrations. He appears to be interested in governing.

Frustration and disruption have their place, but it is difficult to lead an institution from that base. Leadership as performance has long been a part of politics, but never has a political leader tried to invest so much in those without showing more interest in policy and governance.

It appears that The Trump Show may not be renewed for an extended run. Critics have never liked it, but now, except for his stalwart base, even audiences seem to be weary of it. A non-performance from an experienced candidate’s basement seems poised to overtake the rallies and tweets, the disruption and grievance of the Trump candidacy.

As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, however, “A week is a long time in politics.” We’ll have to keep our eyes on the stage and the basement for another several months.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


From and For: The Prepositions of Freedom (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) July 3, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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When Independence Day comes around, we mostly celebrate what we’re free from. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed our freedom from the King, from his abolishing our laws and taxing us without consent.

But the other side of freedom is to ask what we are free for? What is it we want to do in a positive way with our freedoms? We are free, the same Declaration said, to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That same dilemma faces Americans now as we celebrate another Independence Day. America seeks to be free from the interference of other countries, from undue interference even from our own government. Of course we’d like to be free from viruses and face masks and racial injustice.

But to accomplish that, we must accept the responsibilities of freedom. We must be free for living as responsible citizens every day.

Happy Independence Day!

To listen to the audio

David Davenport: From and For: The Prepositions of Freedom

Where Did Socialism Go? (Washington Examiner) June 29, 2020

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Whatever happened to last year’s political rage, socialism? Was it one of those musical one-hit wonders that soared briefly but then flamed out? Was it the political equivalent of a new television program that bombed after only one season?

With the news flooded by stories of a pandemic and racial injustice, it may be difficult to remember the hot political news of 2019 and early 2020, but it was a newfound taste for socialism in America. Once a dirty word, socialism began to receive a fresh look, especially from young people. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 51% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 had a positive view of socialism, rising to 59% among young Democrats. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 65% of Democrats held a favorable view of socialism. President Trump included a warning about the rise of socialism in his 2019 State of the Union message, saying that “we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism.”

Under the label “democratic socialism,” the doctrine began to make inroads into politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, was leading in the polls for the Democratic nomination for president, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another socialist, drew national attention for her bold proposal for a “Green New Deal.”

But now? Crickets. Even with both the COVID-19 pandemic and racial protests underscoring income inequality, we hear very little these days about socialism. I doubt you have even heard of Howie Hawkins, who is running as the Socialist Party candidate (and also the Green Party nominee) for president. The “Green New Deal” is rarely discussed these days, and even Bernie Sanders’s ideas draw little attention, a meager legacy for someone who was twice runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So what happened to socialism? To answer that question, we must first recognize that young people never really wanted socialism in the first place — in fact, they didn’t even understand it.

Young voters are not interested in moving to a system in which there is collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, which is the very definition of socialism. In fact, in one of the earlier surveys showing that young people admired socialism, they turned right around and said they preferred a market economy to one run by government by a 2-1 margin. When Sanders mentioned Denmark as a model in the 2016 campaign, that nation’s prime minister felt obliged to clarify that his country was not socialist but rather was “a market economy” with “an expanded welfare state.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Young people do not want high taxes or a managed economy. They want free stuff. They want student loans forgiven, free college education, and help with expensive housing, transportation, and healthcare. While we’re at it, maybe even a guaranteed annual income. And guess what? All of those things have now moved into the Democratic vocabulary — but notably without the socialist label.

Joe Biden intends to cancel all undergraduate student tuition debt for borrowers who earn up to $125,000 per year. He has also said he would make public college and university tuition-free (millennials’ favorite word) for families making less than $125,000 a year. Not limiting free stuff to millennials alone, Biden has also spoken in favor of lowering eligibility for Medicare from age 65 to 60. He describes healthcare as a right, not a privilege, and favors portions of the “Green New Deal.” Having once supported a federal balanced budget amendment, he now says we need to spend whatever it takes to address the pandemic and its effects on the economy.

The Democratic Socialists of America have only 50,000 members and very little political clout. Nevertheless, if you ask where the enthusiasm for socialism has gone, especially among young people, it has been bequeathed to the Democrats who favor the kind of free stuff young voters really want, even if they fail to realize that it’s not socialism.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Will Government Return to Normalcy? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) June 23, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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We all long to return to normal but the big question is whether government will. Our nation has a history of government taking on special powers and more spending during emergencies and never returning to normal.

Two periods in history illustrate the difference. In the 1920s, following a pandemic and World War I, President Warren Harding called for “a return to normalcy.” A decade of conservative presidents, especially Calvin Coolidge, worked tirelessly to bring government spending back to pre-war levels.

But following the Great Depression and World War II, there was no return to normalcy. Instead, the bigger government and higher spending led by President Franklin Roosevelt became the new normal.

Now we ask, will government give up its emergency powers? Will the federal government ever reduce spending? That’s the leadership question facing conservatives now.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Will Government Return to Normalcy?

Bending the Wrong Curve (National Radio Commentary, Salem/Townhall) June 12, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, we have a new vocabulary, including “bending the curve” of the disease to protect the public health system from collapse.

But other curves should be bent upward and not down including America’s civic education.

Recent national test scores show once again that young people do not know American history or how their government works.  Only 24% of 8th graders tested as “proficient” in government and proficiency in history dropped to a pitiful 15%.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly called the test results “stark and inexcusable.”
But these scores have been low for years and little has been done.  It’s time that we require students to study as much civics and history as they do math and science.  It’s past time that we demand our students understand the country they will soon be running.

To listen to the audio:

Davenport: Bending the Wrong Curve

What We Feel Are The Labor Pains Of A Social Revolution (Washington Examiner) June 9, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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A political revolution is rare — a social revolution rarer still. We have not seen a social revolution since the 1960s, and you’d have to go back to the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal followed the Great Depression, to find a political revolution and a social revolution occurring at the same time.

The country is now experiencing the labor pains of what could be its next social revolution. That’s the discomfort and pain people are feeling when 80% of respondents told Wall Street Journal/NBC News pollsters that they think America is “out of control.” Sustained racial protests and massive unemployment, all topped off by a pandemic, will cause that uneasy feeling.

Unlike a political revolution launched by party leaders, the people lead in a social revolution. In the 1960s, it was primarily college students out in front, persuading the country that the Vietnam War was wrong and that the economic and moral values that drove policies were misguided. Political leaders were left to play catch-up, with Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for reelection and Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon left to pick up the pieces, both in Vietnam and on city streets across America. As songwriter Bob Dylan put it, people today are still living off the music and ideas of the 60s.

Likewise today, the people are on the streets and on social media leading the way while political leaders struggle to keep up. This is now the third week of major protests across the country, which have been prompted not only by the brutal death of George Floyd but also by the pandemic laying bare questions of economic inequality and racial injustice. President Trump has chosen to respond to this as primarily a law-and-order issue, and Joe Biden, still mostly in his basement as far as we can tell, has not been out in front.

Another sign that this is more of a social revolution than a political one lies in the nature of the issues themselves. Income inequality, for example, is not something that the government traditionally tries to regulate. Although we have a graduated income tax, it is not structured to take away large sums from the top and give them to people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. If America wants more of a middle class and less of a lower class, it would take a broad movement to get there. With lots of civil rights laws on the books, racial injustice seems to be more in people’s hearts and daily lives than in government policies. Maybe the government can reform the police, but systemic racism is much broader than that.

Two questions follow the protests. Will this social protest lead to a political revolution? The last time that happened, the 1930s, progressives who had long been ready to carry out major change to the economic and political systems and the Great Depression, along with the charisma and political leadership of Roosevelt, created the opportunity. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which came in response to the Great Depression, changed America forever, instigating major government controls over the market economy and, with the advent of Social Security, created the welfare state.

There is little evidence that the ideas and leaders are aligned for that today. It is one thing for the government to take greater control over the economy but another to lead a society out of racial injustice and inequality. There is legislation proposing a “Green New Deal,” but no one is really talking about it as the answer. Biden does not seem to be a revolutionary leader, and a Trump revolution would fly in the face of today’s protests. Young people’s record of turning out to vote is not great either. Only half as many of them voted in 2016 as did older voters.

Will current struggles result in major changes? It is entirely possible given the frustration and feeling of hopelessness felt by many young people and people of color. But strong as they are, protests are only the beginning. It will take a sustained push and more concrete solutions to give birth to a sustained social revolution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner: