30 Dec

Portland’s top food city title rests on a policy recipe that could change

Portland’s Christmas present got delivered a few days early this year.

In fact, you could say we got served.

Last week, The Washington Post, after a year-long, cross-country, multi-million-calorie survey, pronounced Portland the top food city in the country. In the eat-off, we topped runners-up San Francisco and New Orleans, which is like outdoing Los Angeles in movie stars or Beijing in pollution.

We’d make an acceptance speech, but you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.

The Post was impressed by how seriously Portland takes breakfast – although everyone knows it’s the most important meal of the day – and, since its critic visited in summer, our spectacular ingredients. His visit to the Saturday farmer’s market at Portland State seemed almost a life-changing moment.

And, of course, he was struck by the local attitude, noting “Few American cities do quirk as deliciously as this one,” which is probably a better municipal slogan than “Keep Portland Weird.”

Over the past 30 years – and there was a time when Portland, despite being located at the intersection of Dungeness crab and fresh berries, was not a particularly interesting place to eat – there has indeed been an explosion of both imagination and diner responsiveness, changing our food scene as dramatically as the invention of the food cart pod.
But the dazzling Portland food scene has also been driven by other elements, aspects that people might not think of when they’re walking the streets waiting for their device to vibrate to say their brunch table is ready. Our restaurant renaissance has been driven not only by our attitudes but by our atmosphere, and some of that atmosphere might be changing right beneath our tables.

Portland’s great advantage has always been not only its ingredients and its ingenuity, but its affordability. Chefs have come here from New York, San Francisco and Seattle not just for the hazelnuts, but because it was possible to open a restaurant here without being a hedge fund manager’s hobby. (It was even possible to be a chef here and own a house, something difficult to imagine within 50 miles of downtown San Francisco.) Around here, a restaurant could pay its rent without charging $35 an entrée, a flexibility unimaginable in more tech startup-ridden zip codes.

And somehow, Portland concepts like Pok Pok, Stumptown and Little Big Burger are now expanding to those other places, if sometimes with a change of ownership.

Portland’s affordability, of course, is now eroding, along with the chances of finding an available apartment. Even with our emerging alternative restaurant development plan – food cart to storefront – there might be fewer opportunities for national-level innovation.

(On the other hand, the impossibility zone of home ownership around San Francisco has now widened to 100 miles.)

We’ve also held to a policy maintaining the quality and availability of ingredients: the urban growth boundary. Unlike many places, Oregon has insisted on preserving its farmland; you can’t rely on climate for everything, especially these days. Portland has indeed drawn all kinds of people to all parts of the food process, giving us farmer’s markets where you can buy kale grown by a liberal arts major. But it’s an intentional policy decision that causes hillsides south and west of Portland to grow pinot noir grapes instead of condominiums, and it’s a policy that needs to be constantly reaffirmed.

Our ingredients can be threatened in other ways. What should be the peak season of Dungeness crab – the landmark Northwestern seafood, the favorite of James Beard, the landmark Northwestern food monument – is currently postponed all along the West Coast, due to a toxic condition caused by unduly warm ocean waters. Unless someone turns down the heat in the ocean, this could happen some more.

Even for the top food city in the country, ingredients and opportunities need to be protected and encouraged.

And, even if our food scene is currently awash in national media love, our bounty needs to be showcased, for the world and for us.

Ron Paul, the prominent Portland food figure who died last week, spent the last decade and more promoting the James Beard Public Market, now taking exciting imaginative shape as a downtown riverside space and statement displaying the richness of our food world. It’s a complicated project, with a multi-ingredient financial recipe, but it would not only enrich our eating experience, it would be a world-class showcase for everything we treasure about Oregon’s menu.

And as Ron Paul told us for years, and The Washington Post reminded us last week, we have a lot to showcase.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/27/15.

30 Dec

Legislature could ward off Armageddon, and make some tax progress

Oregon being Oregon, we may not have a close presidential battle next year, even if Donald Trump is the White House choice of the party of Lincoln. We may not even have much of a governor’s race, since nobody who’s ever been elected to anything is running against the incumbent.

But we do have a pretty good chance for a nasty fight.

“It probably will be Armageddon,” suggests state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, “or as (Senate President) Peter (Courtney) says, Antietam.”

Being where we are, Oregon didn’t have any Civil War battles back in the 1860s, so to have one come to us would be striking.

Hass is talking about a likely November battle over IP28, a largely labor-sponsored initiative that would sharply increase gross receipts taxes on companies doing more than $25 million in annual business in Oregon. It would bring in $2.5 billion a year, increasing the state general fund by more than 25 percent.

Not, of course, without a fight.

Maybe even Antietam.

“We should see if there’s a way to get everyone to put down their swords,” says Hass hopefully. “There’s a history in Oregon of legislatures putting less extreme measures on the ballot, and Oregonians have chosen the less extreme measure.”

Putting something else on the ballot, either during the February short session of the legislature or in a spring special session, would require a lot more activity than anybody’s seen so far. Hass, chairman of the Senate revenue committee, is trying to stir up interest, but so far the effort hasn’t been crowded.

“We need both chambers,” he points out. “We also need a governor to be out there.”

And you need something to put on the ballot.

In Oregon, where for decades government has been underfunded while the tax share paid by business has dwindled, the answer might well be a gross receipts tax, successful in many other states. With a constitutional limit on the property tax and a practical limit on the income tax, a transactions tax may be the only place to look.

“There’s some common ground,” says Hass. “The only real difference is the rate.”

That is, of course, not a minimal difference. But as Ben Unger, executive director of Our Oregon, the labor-led alliance promoting the initiative, points out, “People who say we should do something else don’t have another idea.”

And it has taken us a while to get to this point. Over 25 years, it has become clear that no level of economic growth is going to solve Oregon’s public finance problems, as we slowly work our way down the state school spending rankings and seem steadily rooted toward the bottom of the state higher education spending rankings.

“Very few people don’t think we need more money for schools and services,” argues Unger. “It’s not like we haven’t had a bajillion conversations on this.”

Any compromise conversation, he says, would have to be at a certain level. “It would have to start with the same principles, and an agreement on the problems we have to solve,” he says, including “a recognition of the scope of the problems we have.”

In other words, keeping the liquor stores open a few more hours a week probably won’t do it.

At this point, Oregon seems headed for a hard, divisive battle next fall, possibly an Antietam – although that bloodiest Civil War battle at least didn’t include TV attack ads, which the tax initiative fight is likely to produce bountifully in October.

Unger anticipates “tens of millions” could be spent against the measure. “I’m confident they’ll have more,” he says of opponents. “We’ll have enough to run a significant campaign.”
Nobody thinks we could arrive at general agreement on a new revenue package; we haven’t managed it in 30 years. But having an alternative on the ballot could ease the atmosphere, and maybe even result in something productive getting passed by the voters.

Without some kind of alternative on the ballot, the Our Oregon measure might win, enacting a historically large tax increase – likely combined with a sizable minimum wage boost – which could have a bad effect on the Oregon economy. On the other hand, the measure might lose, leaving Oregon schools and government in the same underfunded, inadequate state they’ve occupied for decades – which could also have a bad effect on the Oregon economy.

It might be good to have a third option.

Asked when the third option would be needed, Hass suggests, “Yesterday.””

Or, as we’ll be saying shortly, last year.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/30/15.

24 Dec

This year, Santa finds a different smoke coming from Oregon chimneys

Coming into Oregon on Christmas Eve 2015, Santa immediately noticed a change in the atmosphere.

This year, there was a different kind of smoke coming up from the houses.

And the visions weren’t of sugar plums.

Santa, who for obvious reasons keeps a close eye on market variations – he uses Frosted Windows software – had already picked up on a new development in the Oregon gift wishes. He’d noticed he’d been getting a lot of requests – and these letters to Santa were not in crayon, but laser jet-printed – for products like Sinsemilla Santa and Polar Pow.

These were not easy wishes for Santa to grant, since the North Pole is not a prime growing area – we’re not talking Josephine County here – but after 2000 years, Santa has, so to speak, connections.

And it did make it a little easier for him to fill the stockings for state and local government, whose letters to Santa had all requested, as they did every year, more revenue. The changed legal situation also brought local officials another Christmas gift, since there were a lot of lists they no longer had to make, let alone check them twice – once for sentencing, once for parole.

It did, of course, make it a little complicated for Santa to keep up his own list of who was naughty and nice, but then the standards for that changed every year; Santa had a standing committee of elves constantly readjusting the ground rules. By the standards of 1897, when The New York Sun assured Virginia that there really was a Santa Claus – the editorial still appeared every year in the Claus corporate mission statement – virtually everybody in the world in 2015 would receive lumps of coal.

(Not that Santa still gave out lumps of coal, what with global warming. Not too many Christmases from now, Santa’s North Pole headquarters was projected to become an underwater workshop, which was a problem since reindeer couldn’t swim. He was currently exploring replacing them with polar bears, although so far the bears had not responded well to being reined to the sleigh.)

Still, actually flying into the newly changed Pacific Northwest airshed was a new experience for Santa. He appeared to be feeling especially jolly. His deep “Ho-ho-ho” seemed to be turning into a high-pitched giggle. He wondered whether he had ever really looked at the sky before, and he was feeling a vague relief that there were no laws defining impaired driving standards for operators of flying sleighs.

Fortunately, the reindeer knew the way, but flying in and out of the smoke, they seemed to be showing some effects themselves. Dasher was still dashing, but it looked like Dancer was now actually dancing – he seemed to be performing a kind of Reindeer Robot – and Santa feared that Blitzen was blitzed. Seeking to stabilize the squad, somewhere over Eugene Santa put his arm around Rudolph and whispered, “I love you, man.”

Santa had been aware – Santa was aware of everything, including when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, and what medications you’re taking to try to change the situation – that Oregon had legalized medical marijuana years before. But since Santa was immortal, he’d never had any medical problems – although he was interested in reports that marijuana could help with a back strained from carrying sacks full of toys, or an upset stomach that shook like a bowlful of jelly.

And after all, anyone looking at the illustrations could see that he’d always had his pipe.

It was, of course, a different world. But you don’t go from being St. Nicholas of Smyrna, a small town in 4th century Asia Minor without even a decent mall, to becoming the CEO of an international Arctic-based gift conglomerate with countless merchandising partnerships without learning some things about change and flexibility. Santa remembered, for example, the strains of doing the job during Prohibition, when a lot of people seemed to think that a flying sleigh coming over the Canadian border was a rare business opportunity. Recently, certain organizations had contacted him about installing surveillance cameras.

Looking through the smoke rising over Oregon, not all of it coming from chimneys, Santa thought about all the times he’d realized – in Smyrna, at the North Pole, in so many department stores – that people had constantly changing definitions of comfort and joy.

And throughout the state of Oregon on Christmas morning 2015, good little boys and girls awoke to what seemed definitive evidence of Santa’s visit:
All the cookies left out had been thoroughly munched.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/23/15.

21 Dec

Combined Oregon efforts point to some progress on hunger

The bare hungry numbers, as usual, sounded grim.

As Oregon Food Bank head Susannah Morgan noted in her State of Oregon Hunger remarks Wednesday, there are still a lot of hungry people here using emergency food – as in 800,000, or a fifth of the state.
It’s a very crowded holiday table – or maybe a very empty one.

“But there is good news,” noted Morgan.

“It’s not getting any worse.”

The number seeking help has stopped spiking – which is a considerable improvement over all the years, through the 1990s and during the Great Recession, that Oregon spent in food free fall.
Since then we’ve achieved a better economy – a smaller percentage of families visiting food pantries include someone unable to find work – and Oregonians have also stepped up their public and private efforts to help.

Over the same time – maybe not coincidentally – we’ve become a national food capital, with Portland profiled this year in The Washington Post among America’s top restaurant cities. Oregon’s had an explosion in people who care about food, of support for hunger from people in the food business, of increasing donations to the food bank from people growing some of the most spectacular produce in the world.

The common image of the food bank is a canned food drive, said Morgan, but “Within the next two years, one in every two pounds of food we give out will be fresh. We’re moving from a network of Seven-11s to fresh fruit and vegetable stalls.”

This sounds about right for a place where vegetables in restaurants have biographies, a state that’s been a pioneer on farm-to-fork with rising quality on both ends.

And last week, the effort marked another advance. Congress passed a budget – itself a cause for surprise and celebration these days – that included some direct benefits to help people get something to eat. After years of cliffhanger last-minute one-year renewals – a lot like the federal budget itself – tax provisions to encourage food donations were expanded and made permanent. To Lisa Davis, senior vice president of government relations for the national food bank alliance Feeding America, “This is a huge win!”

Besides making several other key anti-poverty tax credits permanent, the budget deal also includes a small increase – the first in years – for TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which sends some federal money to the states to help operate programs. Considering that national hunger statistics haven’t quite recovered to pre-Great Recession levels, it’s all the kind of direct-to-table help that too many Oregonians – and Americans – still need.

The mix also had a particular ingredient.

“There’s been a very strong Oregon component to the package, especially on the Senate side,” said Jon Stubenvoll, director of advocacy at the Oregon Food Bank. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, made a priority of the tax extenders. As ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, Jeff Merkley focused on the food spending measures.

The OFB provided some reinforcements. “We reached out to food banks with members on the subcommittee,” explained Stubenvoll, listing the Maine food bank with Sen. Susan Collins, the Missouri food bank with Sen. Roy Blunt and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, and the Alaska food bank with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, on the Appropriations Committee.

“We’ve been working with them for a long time,” said Stubenvoll, “and today the stars aligned.”

To raise Oregon from the bleak hunger depths it recently occupied, and up toward the statewide nutrition levels envisioned by Morgan, a lot of stars have had to align. That’s included the labors of the food bank, with a donation level that makes it one of the largest by volume in the country, helped by a sustained effort from large parts of the Oregon food world. It’s involved a steady lobbying drive in Salem, and the commitment of the Oregon congressional delegation.

And there’s a connection between the blooming Oregon of superstar chefs and upscale food carts and what Morgan calls “the desire of people to feed their families good food.”

Now, she says, “I firmly believe that Oregon will be the first state in the United States to end hunger,” setting a striking goal for a place that just a few years ago was the hungriest in the country. “We grow food here, we think about food, we talk about food. We can do it.”

To Morgan, the combination of who we are, what we value, and what we do about it points us toward a goal particularly suiting this season:

We could send hunger on holiday.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/20/15.

21 Dec

Nothing Trump can say can turn off his Republican admirers

Making predictions about the Republican race is like betting on which leaf will fall next. For months, political experts have been predicting that Donald Trump was just about to deflate, because that last thing he just said had to be fatal.

Except it never has been, and Trump’s polls – the only thing he really likes talking about – continue to hold up, and even to rise. It seems there is nothing Donald Trump can say that will turn off Republicans, who apparently spent the entire Bush administration admiring “The Apprentice.”

So it’s hard to imagine that anything that happened Tuesday night is likely to change anything. Trump’s high points were explaining that yes, he really would go after the families of terrorists – he explained that you’ve got to be tough – and that sure, he would indeed close parts of the Internet to get at Isis.

Senator Rand Paul, among others, pointed out that there was a Constitution, but Trump was undaunted.
He explained, “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”

Will Donald Trump describing anybody who worries about the Constitution and freedom of speech as “foolish people” change the mind of any Republicans?

Nothing has so far.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 12/19/15

19 Dec

Racism not the only legacy from Woodrow Wilson

Nobody doubts that Woodrow Wilson was utterly and deplorably racist.

But before we start chiseling the early 20th century president’s name off buildings, maybe it’s worth remembering what else he was.

Citing Wilson’s wretched racial attitudes, protestors have demanded that his name be taken off institutions such as the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, where he was university president before becoming governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, and Southwest Portland’s Wilson High School.

“We’d have to be ignorant about history to continue to affiliate ourselves with this man,” Wilson history teacher Hyung Nam argued earlier this year.

Wilson administration policies toward African Americans were unquestionably abhorrent. Southern himself, Wilson named Southerners to head the largest government departments, Treasury and Post Office, where they imposed rigid segregation and destroyed careers. He admired the racist movie, “Birth of a Nation” Wilson refused to make the few traditional token black appointments. He rejected Northern objections to his policies, and a White House meeting with black leaders ended in angry disaster when Wilson claimed he’d been insulted.

Adjusting names to fit changing values can be important. Historical revision has shown Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to be a slave trader before the Civil War, a war criminal during it and the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan afterward. Last year it made absolute sense for Jacksonville, Fla., to change the name of Forrest High School to Westside High School. The Memphis City Council even voted to dig up Forrest and his wife from their graves in a city park, proclaiming it no fit site for a public picnic.

Hardly any American past political figures can be said to look good on race, and reading Ta-nehisi Coates’ powerful “Between the World and Me,” it seems unlikely that people a century from now will look admiringly back at us. Two Portland high schools are named after slave-holding presidents (Jefferson and Madison) and at the district’s enrollment high point the list included three more (Washington, Monroe and Jackson). Such leaders are also all over our money. If we want to make statements about how we feel about past racial attitudes, we’ve got a target-rich environment.

But we might note that when we say “Wilsonian” (or “Jeffersonian” or “Jacksonian”), when Franklin D. Roosevelt called himself a Wilsonian, the definition isn’t about racial attitudes. “Wilsonian” meant, then and now, the idea that nations could work together in international organizations and cooperation and, by applying principles of self-determination, possibly prevent the kind of mass killing in Europe that loomed over most of Wilson’s presidency.

Wilson, of course, failed to persuade either the American people or the Senate of this, and the League of Nations, the international organization that came out of World War I, went forward and failed without U.S. involvement. But 25 years later, in the midst of a wider, even more savage slaughter, the journalist Gerald W. Johnson wondered if Wilson hadn’t been right: “It is not a pleasant idea, for if he was right, the rest of us were wrong. . . . Dead men scattered from the Solomon Islands to Italy suggest that we may have been wrong.”

Domestically, that same Wilson backed financial regulation and the eight-hour day, and strongly supported diversity – if not exactly what we mean by diversity today. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, and vetoed limitations on immigration. In 1915, when immigrants from suspicious places were attacked not as jihadists but as violent anarchists, Wilson welcomed a group of newly sworn-in citizens in Philadelphia:

“You dreamed dreams of what America was to be, and I hope you brought the dreams with you,” Wilson told them. “… Just because you brought dreams with you, America is more likely to realize dreams such as you brought. You are enriching us if you came expecting us to be better than we are.”

At a time when immigrants make up a larger part of Portland and the United States than in a century, when the ceiling of the David Douglas High School cafeteria is thick with the flags of the dozens of countries that have supplied its students, that Wilson shouldn’t be written off.

There were many different sides to Wilson, and it can be more educational to confront complexity rather than simply seek validation. If parts of Wilson’s story make us recoil, there are also messages of particular value to us today.

We need to remember the racism of Woodrow Wilson.

But we shouldn’t completely surrender to it.

Note: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/16/15.

14 Dec

Transportation package: a road to Congress actually doing something

On the one hand, the most significant achievement by Congress this year is based on imaginary numbers, self-delusion and financial calculations that most of the congressmen who voted for it didn’t believe.

On the other hand, Peter DeFazio doesn’t care.

After all, to pass anything through this Congress, you have to make a few compromises.

An approximately $300 billion, five-year transportation package – a bit delayed, which fits both this Congress and the American transportation system – has actually gone through Congress and been signed, just like the legislative process is supposed to work.

You might almost think this was an encouraging sign for the gigantic federal funding bill that was supposed to pass by this weekend (and didn’t) and hopefully will pass this week, to keep the federal government from holding a going-out-of-business sale.

(Tactical nuclear weapons, two-for-one.)

The transportation package, after all, was overwhelmingly passed by big bipartisan majorities in both houses, and added $80 billion in general fund spending to the revenue from the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 – back when government actually used arithmetic.

“It’s probably one of the very few things that will be a real benefit to the American people that this Congress will do over a two-year period,” said the Springfield congressman, ranking minority member of the transportation committee and Democratic point man on the issue. “I’m surprised how good the policy parts are.”

In fact, he conceded, “I was very wrong when I went around telling people that the only bipartisan thing left in Washington was my small brewers’ caucus.”

Although the year has made DeFazio the central D.C. figure for Oregon’s key priorities: transportation and beer.

In addition to a bill spending some more money on transportation over the next five years, DeFazio points to some elements also of particular interest in Oregon, such as making it easier to find out where a train is going and what it’s carrying. The answer won’t always be something toxic or explosive, but as Oregon has learned, sometimes it will be.

Still, with a flat Republican rejection of raising the gas tax – although higher gas mileage and the increasing role of hybrid and electric cars are driving its value down – the additional funding needed to be provided somehow. It was covered by what DeFazio, in technical congressional financial language, calls “phony baloney funding.”

Or in other words, “They made up a bunch of funny stuff.”

For example, he points out, the bill counts on additional revenue from private collection of tax debts owed the government – although, he notes, it’s been tried twice before, and ended up losing money. The bill expects billions from selling oil from the federal strategic reserve at $90 a barrel – although the week Congress voted on this, the barrel price was closer to $40.

Maybe the federal oil will all be high-test.

So, despite all protestations, the extra spending is likely to increase the deficit – which doesn’t bother DeFazio at all.

“We should be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure,” he argues, “because of historically low interest rates and the needs of the system.”

Considering the state of our roads and the condition of our bridges, transportation needed to be a priority even before a week when Northwest roads turned into a giant sinkhole.

And after an extended delay, the transportation package turned into a real opportunity for Congress to achieve something – even, DeFazio marvels, with actual legislative procedure and 97 votes on amendments. The opportunity emerged, he notes, since “The Republicans needed Democratic votes because they have some ultra right-wing types who don’t believe in a federal role in transportation.”

So Democratic House members, despite having their worst numbers since the 1920s, were in a bargaining position. A reliance on Democratic votes helped drive the revolt against former Speaker John Boehner, but it seems to be the only way this House functions at all.

And since nobody expects new Speaker Paul Ryan to produce many Republican votes to keep the federal government from closing down, Democrats are in the same position on the omnibus spending bill. Since both sides are holding firm, this could delay progress even more.

Still, the passage of a five-year transportation package is a sign that sometimes the process can work, and maybe it will work again this year. Of course, this being Congress, nobody is in a hurry.
Asked when he thinks Congress will produce a spending package to keep the government open, DeFazio says only, “Hopefully before Christmas Eve.”

Probably eased with a holiday serving of phony baloney.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/13/15.

11 Dec

Obama invokes a national unity increasingly hard to find

When the United States endured a mass shooting in October, at Umpqua Community College, President Obama came to Oregon.

When we endured a mass shooting last week, he made a prime-time speech Sunday night calling for unity, and for some minimal gun control measures.

In both cases, he advanced basically the same message: Hold on, and hold on to each other. In neither case was it electrifying, but in each case, it wasn’t clear what else there was to offer.

And the two responses cast shadows on each other.

The two atrocities were different, of course. The Roseburg shooting was committed by one of our native loners, someone who cultivates his grievances in his shack or his bedroom, amassing his impossibly elaborate arsenal, with weapons beyond the imagination of the most recent major wars, until he bursts out to wreak vengeance on the anonymous world. Last week’s San Bernardino terror came from two Muslims with a hidden rage, loosing their weapons in a religious war, piling up bodies in tribute to a savagery on the other side of the world.

They were different situations, although in newspaper photos the dead eyes of the Roseburg shooter oddly reflected the dead eyes of the San Bernardino wife who incomprehensibly dropped her six-month-old daughter to be babysat by the killer’s mother before going out to destroy her life and two dozen others.

They were different paths to slaughter, although The New York Times reported Sunday that since 9/11, the death toll from jihadist attacks in the United States has been essentially the same as the toll from white supremacists. The two patterns, plus our constant rumble of school and workplace shootings, led the president to propose two small gun safety measures, although even he must have known the ideas weren’t going anywhere.

His speech came right after the Senate, on a near-party line vote, blocked a proposal to limit gun sales to people on the no-fly list, apparently on the reasoning that people who can’t be trusted with a seat in coach still have a constitutional right to an AK-47. It brought back the president’s response to the earlier shooting, when he flew across the country to try to support Roseburg, only to find people lining his route and hanging off freeway overpasses denouncing him for gun safety proposals.

It makes it hard to know just what can be said after a mass shooting – except just to denounce whoever did it, which most people can generally support.

On Obama’s declaration to take on the Islamic State – “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us” – political opponents attacked it as weak and inadequate, although it wasn’t clear what they would do instead.

Nobody, it seems, really wants to send large numbers of ground troops back to the Middle East, although everyone wants to show resolve – and thinks it would make a huge difference if Obama said the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that he would order the Defense Department to destroy ISIS, raising the question of why nobody else thought of that. He also promised to find out whether we could make sand glow – and if he’s talking about nuclear weapons, maybe we should have an election on that – and by Monday, Donald Trump had gotten to the basics: The United States should admit no more Muslims.

What happens to the 6 million already here – and the thousands deeply rooted in Oregon, where the Muslim Educational Trust Community Center has its grand opening Saturday – is less clear. But this might not be the ideal time to declare them all to be our enemies.

“We cannot turn against one another,” pleaded Obama Sunday night, “by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”

The beginning of any policy, domestic or international, should be “We cannot turn against one another.” But you can look at the reactions to other shootings, and the outbursts on the campaign trail, and wonder if Obama is trying to appeal to a national unity that’s getting very hard to find.

Americans – and France, and Western Europe, and most of the population of the Middle East – face a direct danger. But we’ve faced danger before, and in every case – Franklin D. Roosevelt after the fall of France, George W. Bush after 9/11 – presidents have appealed to our unity and shared values and warned against turning on each other, the warning Obama gave Sunday evening.

This time, the question is whether Americans are listening.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/9/15.