It doesn’t have to be all about impeachment

Donald Trump would like the world to think that the Democrats are so committed to impeaching him that the important work of the country is not being touched.  But there are elected officials, including officials in high places, who are staying focused on work. At least on the House side.

Hundreds of bills have passed the House, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who gleefully (for him) calls himself “the grim reaper,” won’t even bring them to the floor.  All the Senate seems willing to vote on are judicial nominations, and, from a doctrinaire conservative perspective, they’re remaking the federal judiciary, potentially affecting people’s lives for generations.  Meanwhile, bills are languishing on election security, prescription drug pricing, higher education, defense, health care, climate  change, gun safety and renewal of the Violence Against Women law.  Even some Republican senators are aggravated by the McConnell’s death grip on substantive legislation.

All is not bleak though. Massachusetts Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield, the powerful and highly respected Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is one of those working on a bipartisan basis and even with some members of the Trump administration to reach consensus on some important parts of a legislative agenda.  His committee shapes policy in areas of taxes, trade, health care, pensions, Social Security and Medicare, and more.  And he tries to do it on a collaborative basis.

Speaking to business leaders on Thursday at a New England Council breakfast, he reported great progress on the new trade pact involving the United States, Mexico and Canada, the successor pact to NAFTA, which he sees as an improvement.  A key sticking point has been enforcement of fair labor practices, and Neal has brought AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer together to work out differences. Negotiators, he said, are “90 percent there.”  Neal has also left D.C. to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador to move the pact forward.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Neal says, is determined to get to yes on this improved trade pact but also pledges mitigating global trade’s negative impacts on sectors like manufacturing.  One important step was House passage of the Butch Lewis Act, which Neal helped to write and which would protect pensions of workers whose companies are dislocated by global competition. Thirty Republicans supported this bill, which passed but now, like so many others, awaits Senate action.

Neal jokes that he doesn’t subscribe to the old adage, “Never let sound policy get in the way of a good vendetta.”  He remains furious that Trump’s tax bill was passed without any public hearings or committee input, but he has set aside his deeply held opposition to work in a bipartisan way with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on technical corrections. He has  worked to educate him on the importance of extending the earned income tax credit and creating a more robust child credit.  Grassley, from Iowa, looks to persuade Neal on a biodiesel bill.

Neal likens his approach to the horse trading of longtime Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and his working relationship with Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff Jim Baker.  And, when Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pressed Neal on the USMCA trade treaty, Neal let him know he was, in exchange, looking for agreement on an infrastructure bill. Though we don’t see enough examples of this kind of give-and-take, Congress has to be about bipartisanship, even in our highly polarized, gridlocked times. It’s why the elimination of earmarks makes legislating more difficult.

Neal applies the same give-and-take philosophy at home.  With Republican Governor Charlie Baker potentially looking for federal dollars to help in a major fix of the MBTA, Neal has made it clear that the “price” will be the Governor’s support for much needed, upgraded rail service going west from Worcester to Springfield.  This is what makes government work for everyone.

It’s also why I’m opposed to the use of quid pro quo as the driving language of the impeachment debate. Quid pro quo isn’t the issue. It’s what, for whom and why. The issue is Trump’s bribery, extortion and violation of the public trust, taking for himself a benefit from the public purse, that is at stake. Quid pro quo is a neutral term, part of what turns the wheels of the legislative process.

Despite today’s grotesque polarization, not started by Trump but certainly fueled by him in the most incendiary way, and despite how many in the media feed off the combustible dynamics,  there are some political figures still interested in governing.  Their efforts need better coverage from columnists, beat reporters and cable news bloviaters, to support the substantive outcomes that can derive from bipartisanship and, at the same time, to restore a small measure of sanity and optimism to those whom government is supposed to serve.

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Ed Markey’s climate change work needed in US Senate

Massachusetts voters who care about climate change will want to return Ed Markey to the U.S. Senate.  He has worked on the issue for decades, well before many  of the rest of us were taking seriously the impact of fossil fuel-generated CO2 on the earth’s atmosphere. If you understand the existential threat that confronts the planet, or if you’re just becoming “woke” to the issue, you will be well served to listen to the presentation Markey recently made at Tufts University   at the Tisch College of Civic Life.

You will be impressed by the depth of his scientific understanding, the authenticity of his passion, his capacity to legislate on all aspects of the issue and, despite his sometimes problematic staccato delivery, his ability to communicate the urgency of the need for action.

Challenger Joe Kennedy is definitely one of the really good guys, smart, articulate, personable and, as I have said before, even exhibits an attractive humility rare for a politician. Until now.  It’s as if a heretofore-suppressed Kennedy gene has risen to insist its possessor take advantage of the opportunity to run against the older man, regardless of the consequences.  Other than a nod  to youth, there is no reason to deny to America’s preeminent climate change legislator what may well be a last term and where his subject matter knowledge and legislative experience could be decisive.

If the Democrats can take back the Senate, hold the House  and capture the Presidency, Markey will have an opportunity to lead this country away from a dystopian environmental future and set us, our children and grandchildren on a more sustainable path.  It’s pathetic that the $20+ million about to be spent on this Massachusetts Senate race (and the money that will be spent to pick a 4th district successor to Kennedy) won’t be available to help target GOP candidates elsewhere who could tip the balance in the Congress’ upper chamber.

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Is Hillary Clinton playing into Trump’s and Putin’s hands?

Neither Jill Stein or Tulsi Gabbard is a classic Manchurian candidate, destined to lead the US while controlled by  a foreign power, but they are both at least–  to use the term devised by Vladimir Lenin to describe unwitting allies of nefarious propaganda campaigns – “useful idiots.” They’ve been or are being used by Russian operatives and should be called out as such. But Hillary Clinton is the last person who should be delivering this message.

In her 2012 and 2016 races, Green Party presidential candidate Stein was a frequent guest on RT, the Russian government-controlled English language broadcast, and its online outlet, Sputnik. She sat at the Vladimir Putin’s head table at a well publicized 2016 dinner and afterwards echoed Russian talking points in some of her messaging.

The Mueller report in its indictments of Russian meddlers took note of their insidious support of Stein. A Senate intelligence committee investigation similarly documented how Russia used social media to help Trump and hurt Clinton by inflaming right-wing conspiracy theories and working to foster distrust among and suppress the vote of African- Americans and other left-leaning groups. An NBC investigation echoed those findings. Shortly before the 2016 election, trolls connected to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency used a fake Instagram account called “woke Blacks” to push the Stein candidacy, exhorting “grow a spine and vote for Stein.” Although the total votes changed may have been relatively small, the combination of voter suppression and Jill Stein advocacy helped contribute to Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory margin in the whisper-close election.

It’s not clear whether Jill Stein will run again this year, but Russian troll farms allied with Vladimir Putin are hard at work pushing the candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard. As I noted last week, over 40 percent of Drudge Report “poll” respondents picked Gabbard as the last Democratic debate’s winner, more than the combined totals of Biden, Sanders and Warren. Another NBC news analysis, last February, noted how Russian influence operations “celebrated Gabbard’s announcement” and praised her private meeting with Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. NBC claimed Kremlinologists tracking Moscow’s digital operations observed “what they believe may be the first stirrings of an upcoming Russian campaign of support for Gabbard.” White nationalists,  including former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, have also embraced her candidacy. Gabbard has distanced herself from some of her Alt Right claque, but I’m unaware that she has renounced unequivocally any  Russian support she may be benefiting from.

Her soft spot for notorious authoritarian leaders doesn’t stop with Assad. Her rhetoric concerning international human rights abuses would be more believable if it weren’t so selective. Look at what she’s said about Egypt strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Remember her courtship by Steve Bannon and her willingness to consider working in the Trump administration.   Check out her apparently uncritical embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a man with blood on his hands for his treatment of non-Hindus. She opposed House Resolution 417, including language designed to encourage Indian tolerance toward non-Hindus. As media critic Dan Kennedy pointed out, questioning sources of Gabbard’s support is neither unfair nor without foundation and CNN’s Van Jones is way off base in his melodramatic expression of outrage.

Gabbard’s race for President appears to be going nowhere. Were she to be transformed instead into a well-funded dark money/dark arts independent candidate, she could, like Jill Stein in 2016, play a disruptive role. But she doesn’t need to run as a third party candidate (which she said on August 29 she wouldn’t do)  to be a factor. All she needs is a platform to make claims like Assad and his ilk are not enemies, push Putin talking points about America and NATO as warmongers, and reinforce Trump’s fear-mongering presumption that all Moslems are terrorists. She could stay in the race until the convention and give a powerful and memorable speech delegitimizing our democracy and have Russian operatives from now to next November amplify her message with a social media-driven counterfeit grassroots campaign.

Enter Hillary Clinton, who just transformed an important issue of legitimate public concern into a distracting sideshow.  She’s understandably still angry with Stein for her 2016 spoiler role and with Gabbard for her steadfast support of Bernie Sanders. Russian meddling and the Americans whom Putin may manipulate are a serious matter, but Hillary’s baggage undercuts her value as an effective Cassandra.

As Justin Amash (I-Mich.) the first Republican Congressman to endorse impeachment, said, Hillary Clinton’s attack suggesting that 2020 Democratic hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was being groomed by Russia to run as a third-party candidate,  “only helps President Trump‘s reelection efforts” and “bolsters Trump’s ‘hoax’ nonsense.” Gabbard doesn’t have to be a traditional Russian asset. Simply being “a useful idiot” featured on sites and bots used by the Russians to poison public dialogue and distort our political process can position Gabbard as a disruptive factor in 2020.

For Hillary Clinton, an otherwise highly intelligent person, to insert herself wittingly as the messenger of this insidious intrigue effectively makes her a Donald Trump asset and a boon to Vladimir Putin. Somewhere Vladimir Lenin is laughing his head off.

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This week’s poll: Charlie Baker still coated with Teflon

The Massachusetts Governor was halfway through his second term. While things were going reasonably well, he was still dogged by dramatic shortcomings in the Department of Children and Families, fraud at the state drug lab, and incompetence with the online state health insurance system, and a growing unease among the public that, despite his personal charisma, state government was not living up to promise.  The Governor was Deval Patrick.

Today, it’s the eminently likable Charlie Baker who presides over a government system equally noted for continued troubles at the Department of Children and Families, especially in the foster parent system, terrible public transit, rogue behavior at the state police, massive failings at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and a continuing frustration that state government is just not doing its job.

Yet, despite the manifold troubles, Charlie Baker continues to be the nation’s most popular governor, with favorability rating at 73 percent, that according to The Morning Consult Poll of Massachusetts.     

It’s rather jaw-dropping.  Just 16 percent disapprove of Baker’s performance, and it’s not just in this one poll.  In a range of national polls over time, Baker has consistently been at or near the top.  Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ranks second, with 68 percent approval.  Vermont Governor Phil Scott is third, but was the first Republican governor to support impeachment proceedings. Baker was second.  Interestingly, nine of the ten most popular governors are Republicans.

Unsurpassed as a campaigner, Deval Patrick as governor, with a pack of agency scandals,  failed in gaining a Baker-like widespread public embrace. A year before the end of his second term, Patrick was viewed favorably by just 52 percent of the public.  (This actually represents an increase over his first term, when, thanks in part to the downturn in the Great Recession, his favorability rating was just 36 percent.)   

Some have speculated that Republican governors, especially in blue states, are appreciated for the contrast they provide with Donald Trump and their willingness to speak out against him.  But the contrasting poll numbers of Baker and Patrick speaks more to their brands: Baker, the corporate executive with proven management skills (despite substantial agency mismanagement), and Patrick, an inspirational leader with less managerial capacity.

Baker certainly lacks Patrick’s warmth and rhetorical flourish.  As I wrote years ago, Baker’s immediate goals on taking office were rebuilding relationships with the Commonwealth’s cities and towns, a process he dubbed “blocking and tackling.” He’s prioritize management problems and work collaboratively with leaders across the state and beyond.  (Collaboration is central to survival in a one-party Democratic state.)  And he’s equally at home with the nuts and bolts of identifying and pursuing solutions as he is in the feel-good ceremonial parts of the jobs. Often criticized for lacking big bold vision, he is also praised for his practical incremental improvements.

There’s talk of Baker seeking a third term.  Attorney General Maura Healey would be the strongest Democrat to take him on.  But there’s a long list of terrific Massachusetts attorneys general who have reached for the corner office but stumbled on the threshold. (If they’re doing the job right, as in, Bellotti, Harshbarger), they often alienate support needed for moving up.)

While I wouldn’t rule Healey out, I wouldn’t rule out a Charlie Baker third term either.  Massachusetts residents seem to like split government, a moderate Republican (think Frank Sargent, Bill Weld and Mitt Romney before he turned right to run for President) balanced by our overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.  2022 is a lifetime away, but, at this early date, I don’t see any evidence that Charlie Baker wouldn’t be able to prevail again. He has time to iron out the wrinkles in the state police, RMV, DCF and be on the way to getting the trains and buses running on time.

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Democratic debate better than expected

Despite 12 candidates shoe-horned on the stage, last night’s debate was important. Health care was a key issue in the 2018 mid-terms, a winning issue for the Democrats. Nothing has changed since then. But drilling down into the details is crucial if the vision of health care for all is to become reality. The debate helped to clarify the differences between the Medicare-for-All candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the Medicare-for-All-If-You-Want-It candidates,  like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. They’d offer a public option but wouldn’t deprive tens of millions of Americans of their private coverage if that’s what they choose– as as with workers who won that option in hard fought union negotiations.

If you liked Elizabeth Warren going in, you were pleased with her staying on message and not wilting under increasing attacks by more center-left (read, incremental change) candidates.  If you thought her approach to Medicare for All is a costly “pipe dream,” damaged by eliminating patients’ ability to choose private insurers, then you were exasperated that you never got answers on how much her vision will likely cost and who is really going to pay more while losing choice. At least Bernie Sanders will answer the question, saying, yes, taxes will go up but premiums and co-pays will go away so net costs to the middle class will go down. Still,  details on his bill’s total costs, which Warren supports, and estimated by  Biden at more than $30 trillion over a decade, are still fuzzy.

Perhaps Warren fears Trump will lift her candid response out of context into a TV ad and “Harry-and-Louise” her on the issue.  He surely would. But now she risks sounding like another George Bush “read my  lips, no new taxes” politician and undermining her reputation for rigorous intellectual honesty and refreshing candor. Warren  has plans for some of the most pressing public policy challenges and proposes sources to pay for them. But, on this issue of transcendent importance, she’s disappointingly opaque. Opining that there are many revenue streams that can be used doesn’t cut it. She insists she won’t raise costs for “the middle class,” but will the revenue stream from taxing billionaires and corporations be enough to cover health care plus all her other social programs? Those who’ve worked with Warren say, notwithstanding her  rhetoric, she can be pragmatic. It’s time for her to pivot.

Amy Klobuchar had her best night by far, was eloquent in her closing remarks and was the only candidate to address other looming health care costs such as the financial burden of long-term care for an aging population. Both she and Pete Buttigieg were composed but assertive, articulate and strong, leaving doubt only as to whether they can actually translate the performance into  poll standing. Buttigieg has done well with fundraising, but Klobuchar risks missing out in in the next debate. It would be unfortunate if her performance last night were the high point of  her campaign. If  either of the two were to get  more traction, will their new supporters come from Warren’s college educated donors  or from Joe Biden’s working class heartland, with whom they are more philosophically aligned?

If you went in really liking the best of Joe Biden, thinking he’d do fine if elected President but fearing he’s not up to the challenge of sustaining a top-notch campaign, your doubts probably remain.  His moments of righteous anger against Donald Trump are outweighed by his garbled responses and tortured syntax, what one TV commentator calls “word salad.”  You hold your breath rooting for him to be more cogent but rarely getting there.  You want to protect him from the exposure but scream at him for not being better prepared to answer questions about his son’s capitalizing professionally on his father’s position. One looks for a shining break-through moment in each debate, but it never comes.  So the putative leader has gone from solid first place to a more tenuous grip shared with or just behind Elizabeth Warren.

Bernie Sanders was back full steam after his heart attack, though one wonders if his slightly less angry persona was to compensate for having come on too strong in the last debate or if he was tiring as the grueling three-hour debate ground on.  Give him credit: he is a fighter and true to himself.  His calls for a political revolution are authentic, and that’s what makes him scary for older generations and exciting for younger ones. (Remember: if you aren’t a revolutionary by age 30, you have no heart. If you’re still a revolutionary after 30, you have no head!)

Cory Booker wants to slide by on charm and kumbaya values but sounds more and more like a calendar whose monthly pages are dotted with Zen aphorisms. Still, his final comments calling for a return to civic grace are a welcome addition to public discourse. Beto O’Rourke has become a one-issue candidate (guns an important issue, to be sure) and sounded surprisingly flat.  Kamala Harris has never mastered the ability to combine her prosecutorial background with her whiny every-person anecdotes, often about her mother. She was, however, quite stirring on reproductive rights. Andrew Yang has become increasingly sure of himself,  has struck a chord with millenials concerned about the future, and rightfully  called out Warren for diminishing the importance of automation on tomorrow’s workforce. It’s still hard to see him bursting out of the second or third tier.

Among the fading were Tom Steyer (whose campaign and Christmas tie are a tributes to what money can buy), Tulsi Gabbard (whose outrage at conspiratorial attacks on her is at odds with her overwhelming support in the post-debate Drudge poll), and Julian Castro (who remains a good candidate to lead an agency – been there, done that, could do so again).

The greatest unasked question from last night is one  of paramount concern: what would each specifically do as president to combat the existential threat of climate change, what lifestyle changes will be required and what will short and long-term solutions cost. That no one even asked the question was appalling.

The Iowa caucuses are a little more than 100 days off. All the candidates would be better than Trump, many exceptionally better.  We need to keep reassuring ourselves that the grueling pre-primary process will clarify a few behind whom the country can rally in order to preserve our experimental democracy. We need to keep focused, pay attention, support financially to the extent we can and remember how low the incumbent has brought the office of the President of the United States, the Leader of the Free World.  As more than one candidate observed, this election is about who we are and what this nation shall be.

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Learning from history – again

Philosopher George Santayana famously said in 1905 that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill liked the lesson so well that 43 years later he intoned, “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Either wording, we get the idea.  Would that Donald Trump were as respectful of our history and its articulated values!  The 250th anniversary of the American Revolution is still more than six years off, but the Massachusetts Historical Society and a consortium of other organizations are already planning to commemorate  Massachusetts’ pivotal role and reaffirm our commitment to its lessons.

Revolution 250 will focus on developing programs linking the Revolution with contemporary civic education and engagement.  On Sept 17, 1774, Gen. Thomas Gage wrote to Thomas Hutchinson, Gage’s predecessor as Massachusetts governor,  floating the idea of the Crown hiring German mercenaries since “these provinces must be first totally subdued before they will obey.”  Well, they were not subdued, and we did not obey. Even today, we are more inclined to lead than submit.

Ever since the McGovern landslide loss in 1972 (when Richard Nixon won all but one state), some critics have mocked us as “Massachusetts the one and only.” History teaches us to take pride in standing for what we believe in and acting on common principles. Revolution 250’s account of our history will reflect the often-overlooked but important roles of women, people of color, and Native Americans in the fight for independence.

Events here from 1765 to 1776 informed our values, shaped the U.S. Constitution and had an impact beyond national borders.  In addition to traditional lectures, special events,  teacher and volunteer workshops, Revolution 250 will develop digital tools and apps so users can learn on site about historic buildings and locations.

According to historian and Suffolk University professor Bob Allison,  other states are cashing in on the nation’s revolutionary past.   Utah is spending $70 million to build a replica of Mount Vernon. The Philadelphia Museum of the American Revolution offers visitors the opportunity to throw tea into Boston Harbor and stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree (the huge old elm that once stood at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets, where colonists protested the Stamp Act and other British wrongs.) The city of Montevallo, (population 6600) Alabama is recreating the Old North Bridge in Concord.   Importantly, the Revolution 250 consortium seeks funds to endow the preservation of our original  historic sites to counter their being appropriated by other places for purposes of tourism and economic development.

Certainly there are many possible uses for our discretionary dollars, not the least of which is revitalizing our democracy in the 2020 elections.  Supporting the birthplace of that democracy by donating to Revolution 250 is another option. Their already-rich calendar of events offers ways to reeducate ourselves and enrich our appreciation of the centuries-old history and traditions that permeate our environment and add meaning and understanding to our lives.  Given the ignorance and twisted impulses of Donald Trump, such validation is more important than ever before.

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Impeachment inquiry: serious subject demands decorum

Since becoming president Donald Trump has given members of Congress ample reasons to deem him unfit for office. Time and again his behavior has clearly met the Constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of an impeachment trial. Only hard political calculations kept the House from taking action. Now, after revelations that President Trump may have jeopardized national security in conversations with other world leaders for his personal and political benefit, an impeachment inquiry has begun. Sides have been chosen. Even before more evidence is presented, there are probably enough members of Congress to vote articles of impeachment. And there are enough members of the Senate willing to acquit him, evidence be damned. As I’ve written before, doing this without a reasonable likelihood of Senate conviction and removal from office is a risky proposition.

A clear majority of voters now say Trump did something wrong during a July conversation with newly elected Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump urged Zelensky to probe former VP Joe Biden and suggested not to do so would be unfavorably regarded by the United States, its most important ally, and could hold up delivery of critical military aid previously authorized by Congress on a bipartisan basis. But there is not a strong majority that now believes his behavior warrants removal from office. A clear majority of Republicans and a sizable number of independents stand by him. Without a major shift in attitude of the millions who support him – the enraged Trump base that so scares GOP officeholders—McConnell and his minions will hold firm.

Focus must now be placed on gathering the facts and presenting clear and convincing evidence not just to members of Congress but to the American people. The inquiry must be seen as a sober and serious exercise, not a partisan jamboree. The whistle blower’s complaint offers a roadmap. The awareness of White House staff of the President’s wrongdoing led them allegedly to cover it up by moving the transcript of the phone call to a top-secret intelligence server, not because it was national security sensitive material, but because it would be embarrassing to the President. Disclosure could lead to the smoking gun of the Trump administration. But we’re not there yet.

I haven’t given up hope of small amounts of courage arising on the Republican side of the aisle, but to cultivate that sensibility, Democrats must proceed judiciously, soberly building their case for indictment while not undermining it by sloppiness, excessive passion or, as Adam Schiff did, with his mafia parody introduction, inadvertently giving Trump and his acolytes the opportunity to take words out of context and defend the indefensible. The Democrats are going to have to do a much better job in this impeachment inquiry if they want to increase public support beyond its current level.

To limit partisan grandstanding on both sides of the aisle I recommend that staff counsel instead of members ask questions of witnesses. They should focus the inquiry and be more productive.  This was done during the Iran-Contra and Whitewater hearings.

Changing the hearts and minds of Trump true believers, which would give cover to Senate invertebrates, will be a more difficult task, akin to convincing children that there’s no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny in the same year. As Doris Kearns Goodwin opined on Meet the Press Sunday, the challenge for making an impeachment case is keeping the debate simple and fair. What we need is “a giant civics lesson” that explains clearly why it’s so important that impeachment must be done now instead of waiting for the 2020 election. We need to tell a story, she said, with a beginning, middle and end that you could use to convince a stranger at a bar.

In a land where civics education is not taught and most people don’t understand the fundamentals of the Constitution beyond some cliché phrases, where opinions trump facts, truth is optional and deep fake videos present new realities, it’s a daunting challenge. But we must engage – and engage the right way.

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