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Was 2017 the Craziest Year in Politics Ever?

Imagine what future political historians are going to make of 2017. A president under investigation for allegedly helping a foreign adversary help him win the election, talk of impeachment, Twitter becoming the place where government policy is announced, and a wave of sexual misconduct in Congress that has taken down members from both chambers and both parties. Was this the worst year ever? Politico asked some of the nation's best historians for their take. Here are the highlights (the president or presidents in parentheses are the ones they are most known for studying):

  • Robert Dallek (LBJ/FDR): Twenty-seventeen is certainly one of the most distressing years in American presidential history...Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who never fell below 50 percent approval in the Gallup Poll during his 12-year presidency, Donald Trump has been stuck at between 36 and 42 percent. Nor have we seen so unproductive an administration, with more unfilled campaign promises, than Trump's. Trump also has the unenviable distinction of being the only first-year president to have his administration under scrutiny by a special prosecutor. This has been a year to remember in presidential history.

  • Ron Chernow (Grant): [In 1865,] the Great Emancipator and head of the Republican Party was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a Democrat and an unapologetic racist, throwing American politics into turmoil. The Ku Klux Klan loomed just over the horizon. The events at Appomattox Court House had briefly promised regional harmony, but the radical change in leadership at the White House hinted that the deep fracture between North and South would harden into a permanent feature of our national life, a source of lunacy that bedevils us to the present day.

  • Adriane Lentz-Smith (Wilson/LBJ): This past year, 2017, has looked more like 1919 than most Americans would like. White supremacy is again in fashion in the executive branch, and the president shows little interest in protecting the nation's most vulnerable citizens. This is disheartening but not unprecedented. Yet, when we tell ourselves that things have been worse, we must also remind ourselves that we once made them better. We can—we must—do so again.

  • H.W. Brands (Truman): Several other first years have been crazier, if that means surprisingly eventful. In Lincoln's first year, the Union fell apart and the North and South went to war. In FDR's first year, the welfare state was born. In George H.W. Bush's first year, the Soviet empire started to crumble. In George W. Bush's first year, the 9/11 attacks introduced America to global terrorism. Trump's first year is a yawner by comparison, except that he won't shut up and let us snooze.

  • Jacqueline Jones (Lincoln): The year 1860 was crazy in a terrifying way. In the mid-19th century, partisan politics was akin to a blood sport, pursued by a small, privileged electorate consisting almost exclusively of white men. Yet in 1860, virtually all Americans understood that the results of the presidential election that November would affect every single person regardless of who they were or where they lived.

  • Leo Ribuffo (Carter): [T]he award for the most tumultuous year we should remember goes to 1968. It wasn't all sex, drugs, and rock and roll. American deaths in Vietnam peaked at nearly 17,000. Assassins killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Amid the urban uprisings following King's murder, the fires in Washington, D.C., were the worst since the British attacked the city and burned the White House in 1814. Richard Nixon was elected president after campaigning as a moderate, which in a way he was because segregationist George Wallace, on his right, got 9.9 million votes..

  • Vanessa Walker (Ford/Carter): This past year has made a strong case for the "craziest year" in American politics. While most presidents have preferred at least the veneer of respectability, the current administration seems to delight in the specter of open dysfunction and provocation. Still, in our never-ending whirl of scandals and crises, let's not forget the final year in office of Richard Milhous "When-the-president-does-it-that-means-it's-not-illegal" Nixon. Nixon started the last year of his presidency with covert support for the coup in Chile that toppled one of the strongest democracies in the hemisphere in September 1973. This was followed quickly by the Yom Kippur War in October, resulting in the OPEC embargo and oil crisis. And humming away in the background was the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the country's (then) longest conflict. And then there was the Watergate scandal: gross abuses of executive power to intimidate domestic political opponents, obstruct justice and undermine the constitutional separation of powers.

  • David Greenberg (Nixon): It's hard to think of a more chaotic year in contemporary American history than 1968. After years of mounting social discord over civil rights, civil liberties, changing codes of behavior and the war in Vietnam, many citizens now firmly believed—be it with hope or dread—that a revolution was nigh. The year began with the Tet Offensive, which convinced many Americans the war was unwinnable, and ended with the presidential election victory of Richard Nixon, a man whose political career had been said to be over just six years before. In between, turbulence reigned.

  • Nicole Hemmer (Coolidge/Eisenhower/Reagan): No year can compete with 2017 in terms of the volume and pace of news. But in terms of chaos, 1920 would be a solid competitor. The world was in chaos. The Great War had ended just weeks before, and it was still uncertain what, if anything, would emerge from the rubble. In the first few months of the year, Congress voted first against joining the League of Nations, then against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the state of world affairs, and America's role in them, an open question. At home, social and economic chaos reigned. The U.S. military rapidly demobilized, bringing four million troops home without any plans for their reintegration. Agricultural markets, buoyed by the war, collapsed, triggering a farming depression that would last for two decades. Massive strikes, which had started a year earlier, continued to roil American industry. This mass unrest triggered fears of anarchy and communism that led to America's first Red Scare. The Justice Department organized raids of questionable constitutionality, rounding up thousands of leftists.

  • Joshua Zeitz (LBJ): Americans today are living through turbulent and unsettling times that will test the elasticity of our political traditions and institutions. But we've endured worse. No one knew it better than Lincoln. In 1861, democratic politics in the United States came very close to a breaking point. Eleven states seceded from the Union, leading the Senate to expel 11 members, including former Vice President John C. Breckenridge. Thousands of Army and Naval officers renounced allegiance to their country. In response, the president summarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus (something he most likely did not have the constitutional authority to do), not just in the rebellious states, but also in Maryland, which remained in the Union only after he placed roughly one-third of the state legislature behind bars.

  • Heather Cox Richardson (Lincoln): Every time the U.S. government swings too far toward oligarchy we have a political crisis as a small minority tries to retain power in the face of an angry and growing opposition. This tension gave us 1860, as well as 1932. It also gave us 1890. In May of that year, Republican congressmen yelled and cheered as they passed a major revenue bill that gave rich businessmen everything they wanted. They had forced the bill through, ignoring regular order, Democratic amendments and the voters to whom they had promised financial "reform." As congressmen celebrated, a Democrat yelled across the aisle: "You may rejoice now...but next November you'll mourn."

  • Jack Rakove (Madison): In ordinary times, crazy is not a useful variable of social science or a helpful framework for historical analysis. But of course, ordinary historical time ended 13 months ago (and counting, day by day, hour by hour, tweet by tweet), and the question arises: Is this the craziest year in our nation's political history? The working historian can readily identify other years that were patently more momentous, and we can justify their importance by invoking all those factors that we spend our scholarly years studying. But in the realm of craziness, 2017 has no contenders...No worse joke has been played on the American people than the very fact that tens of thousands of eighth-graders have a far better grasp of the Constitution than Donald Trump, even though he swore a sacred oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" it on January 20, before the record crowds he deluded himself to see assembled before him. That's not just political craziness; it's truly meshugah in every sense of the term. Just try to imagine a conversation with Jefferson, Madison, either Adams, or Abraham Lincoln—strong constitutionalists all—on one side of the table, and the current chief executive on the other. That would be crazy, too!

Obviously, the Civil War years, the Vietnam War years, and the post-WWI transition to modernity were all popular choices. But it is Rakove who seems to have most nearly gotten what Politico was going for. There are many years where the president has been one player in a much broader drama that swept across America and/or the world. As Lincoln famously observed, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Trump's craziness, by contrast, comes at a time when there is no obvious overarching national crisis and emanates almost entirely from him. In that way, he is surely sui generis. (V & Z)

Trump's New Targets: The USPS and Amazon

As we have noted several times now, whenever Donald Trump is on vacation at Mar-a-Lago (which is a lot of the time), he has extra time for tweeting. It would seem that his standard bugaboos—Barack Obama, Crooked Hillary, Robert Mueller, kneeling NFL players, the fake news—are played out a bit, because from out of left field, he came up with this on Friday:

Actually, this probably wasn't out of left field. There must have been a report on Fox, or NewsMax, or one of the other outlets Trump monitors about how Amazon is scamming the USPS.

In any case, this is yet another example of Trump (apparently) being ignorant of both business and civics. From the business end, Amazon actually has a greater ability to self-distribute than any other online retailer. So, a price change designed to hurt them would actually hurt their competitors more and would, in turn, lead to higher prices, less commerce, and fewer jobs. This would seem to be the opposite of the President's platform. Meanwhile, from a civics perspective, Trump doesn't seem to be aware that the USPS is a semi-public corporation regulated by the government. That includes the prices that it is allowed to charge. If those prices are to be increased, the USPS Board of Governors must make a recommendation to do so. Unfortunately, they cannot currently do that, because all nine of the appointed seats on the board are vacant. And they are vacant because nominations have not been forthcoming from...Donald Trump. (Z)

Trump Outlines Immigration Demands

Donald Trump did not limit his Friday tweeting to the USPS. He also used the social media platform to lay out, apparently, his current position on immigration reform:

Trump seems to have forgotten at least four things:

  • He already made a wall-free deal on DACA with the Democrats
  • He said it was up to Congress to figure out DACA, and to send something to the White House for him to sign
  • Jeff Flake's vote on the tax bill was bought with a promise to fix DACA
  • A lot of Republicans in Congress have no interest in paying for a wall

Add it up, and Trump is overplaying his hand. There is much bipartisan support for a DACA fix, and there is very limited support for a wall. What will eventually happen is that Congress will reach a wall-free deal, and will send it to Trump. At that point, he will either have to contradict his past promises, or he will have to back down from Friday's declaration. Either way, he ends up with egg on his face (and, most likely, with an aggravated base). (Z)

Russia Snubs a Senator, Senators Snub Back

Three senators—Jean Shaheen (D-NH), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and John Barasso (R-WY)—were planning to visit Russia. Now it's not going to happen, because Russia denied a visa to Shaheen. The Russians didn't provide a reason, but since Shaheen has been a consistent supporter of measures to fight Russia's hacking and trolling, and has fought for a ban on the Russian Kaspersky Lab software for all government computers because she believes it is spyware, one can make a pretty good guess what the Russian's issue with her might be. In solidarity, the two Republicans canceled their trips as well. The lawmakers were not planning to meet Vladimir Putin. In fact, they weren't even invited. They were planning to meet civil society groups, possibly some of which are not in Putin's good graces.

This is not the first time Russia has barred travel by members of Congress. In 2014, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula. In return, Russian banned then-Speaker John Bohner and then-Majority Leader Harry Reid. (V)

DHS Is Making States Wait 9 Months Before Helping to Secure Their Voting Systems

The Russians hacked at least 20 states prior to the 2016 election, mostly getting into the voter registration database rather than the actual voting machines. The goal of such hacking was undoubtedly to remove voters from heavily Democratic precincts, so as to prevent them from voting. Many states have realized this in retrospect, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security for help in securing their systems for the 2018 election. Such help is not forthcoming with any speed. More specifically, there is a 9-month waiting period before help arrives. Of course, that means any state asking for help now will get it just before the election, which will not leave any time to fix problems that are detected. Also, if it is detected that voters may have been deleted from the rolls, there will be no way to get them reregistered in time to vote.

Much of the problem rests with Congress, which has yet to pass any bill dealing with election security or appropriating funds for searching for and fixing problems. States and localities typically have no budget for cyber security, so they are dependent on DHS, which has some expertise and budget, but not nearly enough to do the job. What DHS has been offering in lieu of actual help is instructions for states and localities to do their own assessments. While that may help a little, it is clearly too little too late. (V)

No, Trump's Approval Rating Has Not Equaled Obama's

On Thursday, Donald Trump pulled a 46% approval rating in Rasmussen's daily tracking poll. Barack Obama pulled the same number in late December of his first year. This has caused some folks, including the fellow who occasionally resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to claim that Trump has now equaled Obama in popularity. Theoretically, that shouldn't be much of an achievement, because the people who are making that claim regard Obama as a terrible president. Beyond that, however, it's not remotely true. put together this graphic showing how Obama and Trump compared to each other in every major tracking poll during their first year in office.

Trump Approval vs. Obama Approval

Of twelve different polls, only two are remotely close, and even those two favor Obama. Further the two close ones—Rasmussen and Zogby—both have pronounced Republican house effects. Zogby has also been called "the worst pollster in the world" by FiveThirtyEight, and has often been hired to conduct push polls. So, the case that Trump = Obama is as flimsy as Roy Moore's chances of being a U.S. Senator. (Z)

Lessons from the Saturday Night Massacre

The Saturday Night Massacre took place 44 years ago, before many of today's voters were born (or if they were born, before they were old enough to understand it as it unfolded). The popular version goes something like this: Nixon fired the special prosecutor who was looking into the Watergate break-in and bingo, the House Judiciary Committee instantly and unanimously voted to impeach Nixon. Unfortunately, the popular version is quite wrong. Walter Shapiro has a good historical piece on what actually happened and when. Here is a brief summary:

In May 1973, incoming Attorney General Eliot Richardson hired Archibald Cox to investigate the Watergate break-in. Nixon immediately began complaining, especially when Cox made it clear that he had every right to look at Nixon's taxes and other matters somewhat removed from Watergate. Then Nixon's taping system was discovered and Cox demanded the tapes. Nixon proposed an alternative: a 72-year-old hard-of-hearing senator (John Stennis) would listen to the tapes and report on what he heard, if anything. Cox refused. On Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead. Then Nixon asked Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and he also refused and resigned. On the third try, Nixon found someone in the DoJ, Robert Bork, who was willing to fire Cox.

A firestorm ensued. On Monday, Oct. 22, 1973, House Speaker Carl Albert (D) authorized the Judiciary Committee to begin examining whether there were grounds to impeach Nixon. The chairman, Peter Rodino (D), complied. But it wasn't until July 1974 that the Committee voted, and even then, 11 of the 17 Republicans on the Committee voted against impeachment. The bill of impeachment passed the Committee only because the Democrats had a large majority on it.

In the 9 months between the Massacre and the committee vote, most Republicans supported Nixon, and that included then-governor Ronald Reagan of California and then-RNC Chairman George H.W. Bush. It was only when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes to Cox's successor, Leon Jaworski, that the storm broke, in part due to an 18-minute gap on one of the tapes. In a sense, that was a smokeless gun. A lot of people concluded that Nixon's refusal to turn over the tapes in the first place, and then the unexplained erasure when he was finally forced to turn them over, was overwhelming circumstantial evidence that he had obstructed justice. Eventually, a true "smoking gun" tape was uncovered; it was recorded three days after the "gap" tape, and on it Nixon can plainly be heard discussing the cover-up. On the day the true smoking gun tape was released—August 5, 1974—the case against the President ceased to be circumstantial. Nixon resigned four days later.

The lesson here is that Nixon held on for almost a year after firing Cox and might have escaped altogether were it not for the tape recordings, and the fact that both houses of Congress had large Democratic majorities. Is any of this history relevant now? We report, you decide. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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