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President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Elko ahead of the midterm elections on Oct. 20, 2018. (Charlie Ekberg/The Nevada Independent)

One of the mistakes young trial lawyers often make is forgetting that their job is not about arguing. It’s an easy mistake to make in an adversarial system where personalities and egos have a way of intruding. But I have seen more attorneys (plenty of whom are old enough to know better) do real harm to their clients because they fight to fight, and wind up undercutting the position they were supposed to be fighting for because they lost track of their ultimate goal in the heat of combat.

The question – in law or in anything else – always must be, “What does it mean to win?”  In politics, the answer should be, “We enacted and successfully executed policies which improved the lives of our citizens in meaningful, measurable ways.”  Instead, of course, the answer always winds up being, “We won an election,” and nothing else ever really flows from that.

Hypocrisy has always been baked into politics – it’s not like politicians being held in low esteem is anything new. But the total incoherence we see today seems to be something of a new level. Or maybe it’s just that with the Democrats’ caucus coming up, we’re all getting fire-hosed in the face with it. And the irony is that failing to choose which battles are worth fighting is how you ultimately lose wars.

Take criminal justice reform, which I have long argued is a missed opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to find common ground, a powerful vehicle for selling a philosophy which restricts the power of government overall, and most importantly, good policy if it’s done right. Nevada Democrats have accomplished a tremendous amount on this front, and while I personally think some of those “reforms” swung the pendulum too far on the other side of the proper balance between individual liberties and public safety, much of what they accomplished was long overdue corrections resulting in more just penalties for various offenses, and more redemption opportunities for people who want to turn their lives around. In doing so, those (mostly) Democrats strove to limit the power of government over people’s lives.

To the extent that some of the reforms went too far, Republicans share some of the blame. By vigorously opposing any reform measures as being the product of “the session of the felon” or whatever rhetoric they were using, they lost their seat at the table and their more righteous objections were more easily ignored.

Then enters President Trump into this arena, who helped drive the effort to pass significant criminal justice reform on the federal level. I’m sure his opponents will find things to quibble over about it, but no serious person can deny that the First Step Act is a substantive reform effort that shares much in common with Nevada efforts on the state level. Mr. Trump is now using this legislative achievement to argue for re-election (both here in Nevada and nation-wide), just as Democratic legislators in Nevada will no doubt do in their own campaigns.

So it is really too much to ask for the same people who would give local Dems credit for criminal justice reform to also give that same credit to Trump?  In a sane world, we certainly would. Sadly, we do not live in that sane world.

***

I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, because without a public policy record of achievement (or lack thereof), the only way you could judge the man was by his absurd rhetoric and well known character flaws. 

But in the years since, he has incontrovertibly built a record of achievement – in addition to criminal justice reform, the economy is very good, aggressive trade negotiations seem to be paying off, unemployment is at historic lows, ISIS is no more and terrorists are being killed at will, and war with Iran or North Korea did not materialize, in spite of the most fervent hopes of the allegedly anti-war protesters who were SOOO very excited to dust off their old bumper stickers from 2003. We lead the world in reducing carbon emissions. From a conservative standpoint, things get even better in terms of slashed regulations and federal judicial appointments. Even if your argument is that the President is only building on the past successes of his predecessor, isn’t that a good thing?  “Keeping good things going” is not always as easy as it looks.

There’s plenty to not like still – rhetoric matters when you’re the president, the national debt continues to pile on, and I have decidedly mixed feeling about the immigration debate. I don’t trust most politicians, and this president is no different.  But what is the alternative?

The Democrats now swarming Nevada seeking caucus votes have one goal above all others – ousting the president. In doing so, they find themselves completely unable to acknowledge any of the successes that have been achieved in the last three years, apparently lest they feel like they tamp down the Trump-hate they think they need to drive turnout. If you’re a tribalist, that’s just another day at the office, I suppose. But for the rest of us, the dystopian picture Democrats paint of the USA in the Trump era is so obviously false, that the only conclusion is that these people either don’t know what’s actually happening in their own country, or are lying about it. Either way, how do they hope to build credibility with anyone outside their tribe?

Who among the Democrats will enact policies which improve my life?  Build economic opportunities rather than expanding dependency on government programs?  Respect the rule of law or the principles of due process (the impeachment debacle and the shameful character assassination attempts of Justice Brett Kavanaugh should make anyone leery of today’s Democrats in charge of day-to-day criminal prosecutions of people who have far less political power)?  Keep America safe without overcommitting our military? Protect the rule of law at our borders? Based on the Iowa caucus disaster, what confidence can we have that massive government programs of infinitely greater complexity will be executed well, even if they are great ideas in theory? Nothing we’ve heard from any Democratic presidential candidate this year has given me any confidence in any of these areas.

And speaking of “great ideas in theory,” because I can read a history book and pay attention to current events, I’ll crawl over broken glass to vote for anyone, Trump included, over someone foolish enough to offer socialism as a solution to anything. Bernie Sanders hasn’t has a fresh ideological position since 1848, and the fact that he honeymooned in the Soviet Union should be as disqualifying as a candidate from prior generations who celebrated their nuptials in Nazi Germany. 

For the group of Nevada Republicans urging their fellow party members to rally to Democrats to oust Mr. Trump, what are they giving me as a reason?  Again, how will my life – and the lives of my children or my neighbors, improve under any of the current alternatives?  How would conservative principles or policies truly be improved by such a seemingly self-destructive plan?

***

There is and always has been a soap opera (or maybe pro-wrestling) aspect to our politics. Over-the-top rhetoric, personality clashes, and tribalism are part of the human condition, and so are also part of the way we chose our leaders. 

But it should remain only “part,” and in the end, I remain optimistic that this is still so. In the end, good policy is still good politics. The proverbial potholes need to be filled. Government institutions must be managed effectively and efficiently. Our tax dollars should be spent responsibly. 

I have become increasingly indifferent to which team occupies elected positions over the years, and the massive increase in voters who refuse to align themselves with either major political party tells me I’m not alone. Our politicians at all levels should take note of this. Run for office because you want to accomplish something, not because you want to be someone (or beat someone). Work with anyone of any party who will help achieve those solutions. Acknowledge successes of your adversaries, even as you argue you can build upon those successes and get wins in other areas where they have been less effective. 

Smarter politics will lead to better policy, and vice versa. We’re already seeing national politicians failing to understand this, and failing us as a result. Will our state and local candidates fare better as their races heat up later this year?

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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