southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Rock Bottom – Trump & Charlottesville

In a presidency filled with the lowest of lows, Trump’s reaction to the turmoil in Charlottesville is inarguably its nadir.  On an occasion that called for clear and unequivocal leadership, Americans were met with a response that was simultaneously tardy, tepid, confusing, lazy, childish, intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt.  This was Trump’s chance to resurrect his flailing presidency.  And what a chance he had.  This was low hanging fruit; the proverbial hanging curveball over the fat part of the plate.  This was simple.  Disavow racism, bigotry, and white supremacy specifically, in the plainest and strongest of terms, without nuance, ambiguity or equivocation.  Full stop.  Who could screw that up?

Trump could, and he did, with immaculately flying colors.  In doing so, he has rendered himself illegitimate for the balance of his days in office.  His moral compass has been exposed as so sorely lacking, how can one possibly trust what he has to say with regard to North Korea, or ISIS, or climate change, or healthcare, or tax policy, or any other pressing issue of the day.  The false equivalency of suggesting that the white supremacist protesters spewing hate are somehow on the same plain with the folks protesting that hate is either supreme ignorance, profound stupidity or unquestionable bigotry.  Of course, it could be all three.  Neither option is a good look, particularly for the President of the United States.

While the abdication of leadership was breathtaking, it was hardly surprising.  Trump consistently shrinks on the biggest stage.  His predecessor was just the opposite, always rising to the occasion.  Think of Newtown, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, and the countless other times that tragedy tested a nation.  President Obama was at his absolute best when guiding a wounded people through turbulent times.  He was the steady captain of a rocking country amid the swaying seas.  He extended a warm and empathetic hand in an effort to heal, while also displaying an unwavering resolve to seek justice based on our shared American values.

Can you picture the Obama response to Charlottesville?  I can.  It is clear as a Carolina blue day in my mind’s eye.  In addition to empathy and resolve, he would have systematically laid out the intellectual framework for removing certain statues from the public square.  He would have provided the historical context to support such an argument.  He would have acknowledged that there would be fellow Americans with whom he would not agree.  Nonetheless, respectfully, he would have eloquently made his case on moral, rational and practical grounds.  And, in the end, every American, whatever their political stripe, would have known exactly where and why President Obama stood in a particular place – based on reason, intelligence, history, justice, liberty and the general good of the country.  The difference with Trump is as striking as it horrifying.  How could a statement of such gravity be given so little thought and preparation?

I will leave it to historians to shed appropriate light on Trump’s assertion that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are tantamount in historical significance to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  The faulty comparison is ignorant at best and obtuse at worse.  The latter two men played pivotal roles in creating these United States, while the former undertook to destroy it – all in the name of upholding the wretched institution of slavery.  It does not take a molecular scientist, or even a man of high conscience, to comprehend these less than subtle differences.

The events in Charlottesville have resigned me to ponder the nature of progress.  Perhaps we were inevitably destined to retreat after the triumph of Obama.  Indeed, politics often hinge on the fateful swing of the pendulum.  But this time was different.  Trump was not a reaction against 8 years of a Democratic president.  Trumpism was a reaction against 8 years of the first black president.  It was a recoiling of pent-up frustration from folks who feel that their grip on power, on society is hopelessly slipping away.  In some ways, what we saw in Charlottesville were the desperate actions of an ideology fighting for its very survival against the tides of progress.  The substantive, and wholly disconcerting, difference at this point in history is that this otherwise moribund ideology has been given a newfound legitimacy by the Office of the President of the United States.

Progress is frequently halting, almost never linear, but always finds its due course in time.  And so it shall be again, but not without action.  It is our job to stamp out hate and bigotry wherever it exists and in whatever form it takes.  But, even more than that, it is high time to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment as it relates to our politics.  Summoning our best Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Hume, we must demand a politics centered around rational thought and reasoned debate at the expense of political debasement and personal degradation.  We should hold as a standard Obama’s composure, nuance, ability to think deeply before responding appropriately.  We must relegate to the dustbin of history Trump’s haste, thoughtlessness, scorn for reason, and reliance on division, fear and ad hominem attacks.

These ideals are achievable if we demand it, and we must.  Now is not the time for hand-wringing and silent despair.  To the contrary, the present time calls for hopeful action and principled resistance.  Obama took us two steps forward in the American journey; Trump is simply our one step back.  The question now is how far back we are willing to go, for every step backward in history is not equal in stride or duration.  We have to do the hard work required to reverse course.

Charlottesville is rock bottom for Trump, but it can be our call for a renewed sense of purpose, possibility, moral clarity and political vigor.  America will recover from Charlottesville, just as she will recover from Trump, but the speed and scope of the recovery is up to us.  Out of darkness there will be light; let us be sure that our light shines brightly and boldly enough to smother the darkness ahead.

August 19, 2017 Posted by | Charlottesville, Democratic Party, Obama, Politics, President Obama, President Trump, Republican Party, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Search for Light: Reflections on the Election of 2016

There is always light to be found in the darkness – a nugget of opportunity, a sliver of hope to be clutched and pursued in an otherwise bleak reality. I held fast to this eternal maxim as I watched the election slip hopelessly through the fingers of Hillary Clinton and into the waiting hands of Donald Trump on Tuesday night.

While the pundits and strategists perform the quadrennial political autopsy in a search for answers, I begin a search of my own. I am looking for that light – the proverbial silver lining in the foreboding clouds overhead.  Admittedly, this exercise will not come without its challenges.  I supported Hillary Clinton for president with every fiber of my being and every ounce of my soul.  I believed, and continue to believe, that Secretary Clinton was better qualified, better prepared, more experienced, more nuanced, more decent and more stable to step into the role of president as compared to her opponent.  To my mind, the distance between them on all of these counts was cavernous; it was not even remotely close.

I was hopeful that Hillary would score a resounding victory at the ballot box – a complete and utter repudiation of all that Trump represents, e.g., hatefulness, divisiveness, anger, fear, indecency, inhumanity, vulgarity, lack of humility, machoism, disrespect, ruthlessness, and lack of intellectual curiosity and rigor, to name a few. Instead, these objectionable attributes carried the day.  Still, there must be light hidden in the darkness of these events, I reassure myself, for there always is.  Surprisingly, I have found my answer, and the light, in the painstaking, and often painful, task of exploring the post-mortem polling data.

As I digest the exit polling, and its meaning, I am smacked in the face by something that we all inherently know. Our country is profoundly and deeply divided, along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, geography, religion and education.  We have been living with this stark reality for my entire adult life.  It is nothing new.  But, for some reason, I had not fully processed the depth and severity of our divisions, and the dire consequences should we not seek to heal them.

All Americans should be appalled and saddened that we so often vote in monolithic blocks. White folks vote for one candidate while people of color vote for the other; women largely vote differently from men; there are sharp differences in the voting habits between those with a college degree and those without; city dwellers can be expected to vote contrary to rural voters; Northerners versus Southerners; East and West Coasters compared to the Heartland; and the list goes on.

The politicians for whom we vote tailor their messages to surgically target these disparate groups depending upon the audience. What’s worse, these same politicians pit one group against the other, stoking the anger, hatred and division among them.  Donald Trump performed this task masterfully and mercilessly in this election; and while he did it more brashly than most, almost all our politicians do it, Hillary Clinton included.

It is in this awakening that I have found my light. It took the painful experience of this election, and the light it shed, to drag me, kicking and screaming, to the recognition that it is my duty to do everything in my power to heal and, ultimately, bridge the divide in our country.  A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Abraham Lincoln’s wise words concerning the health our republic over 150 years ago are as relevant today as they were then.

I plan to give President-Elect Trump a chance; he deserves the opportunity to succeed in a way not afforded President Obama by the Republicans. Like Jeckyll and Hyde, I am hopeful that Candidate Trump transforms himself into a President Trump who dignifies the weight of the office.  Donald Trump might be a good president; he might be a bad one.  Either way, if his election shines a light brightly enough on our nation’s divisions that they are fervently and collectively addressed, then the outcome of this election might well have been a blessing in disguise.  To borrow a germane phrase from my girl, Hillary Clinton, we are always stronger together!  We must work hard to make this so.  Otherwise, we will retreat to our respective corners of society, walking through life with only those of like mind, and thereby completely neglecting to engage the wonderful wisdoms, insights and experiences that others have to offer.

To be clear, I am not seeking a world in which we all think and act alike. Our differences are not only healthy, they are beautiful.  The truth is most Americans want the same thing, we just have different views on how to get there.  Divergent opinions argued through robust debate is at the very heart of our democracy.  But, we have to find a way to disagree without being disagreeable.  Otherwise, our divisions are bound to expand, deepen and become more firmly entrenched.  Perhaps, irreversibly so.

Sadly, the debate of ideas (I use that term loosely) surrounding the Election of 2016 was less worthy of a presidential campaign and more closely resembled a playground fight amongst teenagers. In lieu of important policy discussions, Trump’s chief focus was convincing the electorate that Hillary deserves a jail sentence, and Hillary condescendingly referred to a swath of his supporters as “deplorables.”  No segment of American society is deplorable, but the tone of the debate certainly was.  That has to change.

Moreover, I am not in denial that every society from the beginning of time has experienced divisions, often deep fissures. America is no different on this score.  However, we must fight for an America where our divisions are rooted not in hatred and misunderstanding, but instead based on a healthy exchange of ideas.  I do not believe this to be an idealistic dream drowning in naïveté.  To the contrary, I believe it is not only achievable, but quite doable, with hard work – blood, sweat, tears, careful listening, common understanding and a recognition of the other.

So, then, where do we go from here? First, we must demand from our leaders, prospective leaders and each other that there is never another election as, well, deplorable as that of 2016.  Future candidates for office, particularly the presidency, must do far less name calling and do far more in the way of explaining their policy positions.  Referring to your opponent as “crooked” does not add value to the conversation, where expounding on your plans for entitlement reform, immigration reform, tax policy, and so on, certainly would.

I believe that simply improving the tone and tenor through which we debate competing ideas would go a long way in patching the gaping holes of division in our society. It would affirm in the minds of all Americans that, while we may not agree on every (or any) issue, we are all on the same American team.  The good news – the beaming light from this election – is that we do not have to wait for our political leaders to show the way in this regard, lest we might be waiting until the Cubs win another World Series.  Each and every one of us can live this truth in our daily lives.  We can try to be more tolerant of our neighbor’s viewpoint on a particular issue.  We can ask questions to try to better understand their views.  We can make every attempt to put ourselves in their shoes so as to better understand the foundation of their views.  We can listen, and listen hard.  Then, if need be, we can disagree with those same views without being hateful, angry, indignant, reactionary, condescending or divisive.

We can do it, America; we can repair the busted seams of our society. We can stitch the frayed fabric that separates the New York City lawyer from the Upstate farmer; the inner-city Philadelphia school teacher from the coal miner in central Pennsylvania; the biopharmaceutical worker in the Research Triangle Park from the factory worker in western North Carolina; and others who seemingly have few commonalities and shared values.  It is not a lost cause, unless, of course, we want it to be.  Unless we are content to live perpetually in an Election of 2016 world.  I, for one, never want to see the likes of it again.

There is light in this election. It is that we can set aside partisan differences and come together to say never again.  Never again will we be subjected to a thoughtless campaign that tested our patience but never our intellect.  Never again will we accept a campaign based on the lowest common denominator instead of appealing to our highest aspirations and ideals.  Never again will we be divided into disparate groups like political pawns instead of being showered with well-reasoned arguments supported by facts and data in an effort to garner our votes.  Never again will we allow fear and division to be the primary political tool used to win an election at the expense of hope, inspiration and ideas.  Never again will we be made to endure an election so dirty that we feel the need to shower at the top of every hour.  Never again will America’s light be so dimmed by such a vile political campaign.  Never again, America, never again; for we are better than this.

I close with a final word to my fellow Democrats: do not despair or hang your heads for too long. There is light in this election, but it cannot be seen if your eyes are closed.  Do not worry about the next election, whether it be 2018 or 2020.  Rather, let us learn as much as we can about those who did not vote with us.  Let us recognize why we did not appeal to these folks, and understand how we might reach them in the future.  And let us now press forward with the hard work of bridging the deep divisions in our country, so that we are in a position to earn future votes from Americans of all walks of life – every creed, race, religion, gender and socioeconomic status.

If we fight to make this so, America’s light will shine more brightly than ever, and so will our party’s.  Lift up your heads, friends, there is light in the darkness.

November 12, 2016 Posted by | Democratic Party, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Politics, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The South Shall Rise Again – If We Fight For It

In contrast to many of my friends and colleagues, I was far from disconsolate immediately following the elections earlier this month. There is no shame, I figured, in losing an election from time to time, and, quite often, outside forces – macroeconomic factors, events in foreign countries, unforeseen domestic occurrences, etc. – can render a political party helpless at a particular point in history. Furthermore, it is well documented that the party of the sitting president most often loses seats in Congress in off-year elections, especially in the sixth year of a presidency. Unlike some, maybe most, I did not view the Republican wave as either a repudiation of Democratic principles or wholesale approval of Republican ones.

After all, where minimum wage increases were on the ballot (a Democratic policy priority), each referendum passed with flying colors. What’s more, it was four conservative states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – joining Illinois in supporting wage hikes while at the same time largely supporting Republicans for office in those same states. Put simply (and forgiving the schizophrenia), the elections were more a measure of the national political climate than policy preferences.

The more I delved into the results, however, the more unsettling the picture became. Let’s start with my home state: North Carolina. Admittedly, it was difficult to watch Sen. Kay Hagan lose her seat, but I was somewhat heartened that North Carolina provided such a close race despite the toxic political environment for Democrats, and despite watching other Democrats lose far worse in other states (often bluer ones).  Unfortunately, however, the “heartened” part of me quickly dampened in the knowledge that someone in the mold of Thom Tillis remains electable in North Carolina.

I am not necessarily convinced that Kay Hagan has been a particularly effective freshman senator, but I do know that Thom Tillis is unapologetically regressive (not conservative), in the worst sense of the word, and was not, in my view, a viable alternative.  It was certainly a tough pill to swallow for those who participated in the various “Moral Monday” demonstrations specifically, but also for other North Carolinians who more generally lamented the way in which Tillis steered North Carolina back in time as Speaker of the North Carolina legislature.

Head due south from North Carolina down I-85, and the picture only grows bleaker.  In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is dying a slow and painful death, which has led many national observers to suggest that the Democrats give up on the South entirely. The statistics are stunning and unavoidable. According to the Associated Press, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.” In Mississippi in the 2012 election, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.  Separating ourselves into homogenous voting blocs is terrible for democracy, but even worse for the country. What does it say about our sameness as Americans?

Most cynics point to race as being the predominant factor contributing to this political phenomenon. There is some statistical evidence to support this contention. In March, Gallup reported, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.” While acknowledging that race is a factor for some, I do not believe that it is the deciding factor for most. Though white, Hillary Clinton will not be winning any of these Deep South states, including Arkansas, in 2016. If recent trends hold, however, Ms. Clinton will do very well in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota – where Mr. Obama won quite handily in both 2008 and 2012. So what is the problem?

I believe the Democrats’ problems in the Deep South stem primarily from a lack of, or ineffective, communication and effort. Much like the Republican Party largely writes off the non-white vote, the Democratic Party has given up on Southern whites. They do so at their own political peril. Can the Democrats continue to win the White House without support in the Deep South? Obviously, yes; they have done so the past two elections (excluding, of course, North Carolina and Virginia from the Deep South), and by fairly healthy margins. But electoral politics shouldn’t be the sole driver of who a political party tries to reach.

Based on my experience, I would contend that Southern whites’ aversion to the Democratic Party is less about race and more about culture. I believe southern voters are uncomfortable being associated politically with voters in the Northeast and on the West Coast, whom they view as elitist and quacky. This might sound trite to some, but having grown up in the South, I can attest to the stigma that folks in these parts of the country possess in the eyes of southerners. Moreover, southerners feel as though Democrats, and liberals generally, talk down to them as somehow being inferior. Having spent the past 7 years in the North, I can attest that they are often right to feel this way.

The truth is, folks in the South care about the exact same issues as folks throughout America – the Northeast and West Coast included. They need a good (and fair) paying job, affordable healthcare, good schools for their kids to attend, and, yes, government to be there when adversity strikes. Traditionally, Democrats win on these kitchen table issues. We can win again, in the South, if we can articulate these values in a clear, coherent and persuasive way. But even more importantly, we must show the persistence, perseverance and, candidly, the care to take the fight to the people in the Deep South.

Finally, returning to the suggestion, as some national observers have espoused, that Democrats not waste their time and energies attracting white voters in the South. Perhaps I am biased, or even blinded, by my southern roots, but I emphatically contend that white voters in the South are worth the fight. These are decent, smart, hard-working people (not just my family and friends!) who are fully capable of being persuaded by a transformative message, if it resonates. The damage done is considerable, but not insurmountable. The odds are great, but the cause worthy. The South shall rise again – if we fight for it. And there ain’t nothing wrong with some BBQ and iced tea for our troubles along the way.

November 21, 2014 Posted by | 2014 Elections, Democratic Party, Obama, Politics, South | , , , | 1 Comment

The Hand Iowans Were Dealt

It’s easy to complain about the Iowa caucuses – easy and completely justifiable. Iowa’s caucus-goers have given us the presidency of Jimmy Carter, lent credibility to Pat Robertson’s political ambitions and created a permanent constituency for ethanol subsidies among Democrats and Republicans alike. As friendly and civic-minded as Iowans may be, there’s no reason why a low-turnout contest in a small, rural state should play such an outsize role in every presidential nominating process.

But in the wake of Tuesday night’s Romney-Santorum photo finish and Ron Paul’s strong third-place showing, it must be said that this time around Iowans have discharged their responsibility impressively. Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation, they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.  It’s as if Iowa collectively screamed, “this year, all you other states have to help us put lipstick on this pig!”

This isn’t what you’ll hear from the many disappointed conservatives who dislike all of Iowa’s top finishers – Romney because he’s too moderate, boring and phony, Paul because he’s too libertarian and anti-interventionist, and Santorum for all sorts of reasons (his aggrieved personality, his lack of electability, the taint of Bush-era “big government conservatism,” to name three). But on substance and strategy alike, Iowa’s top three deserved their joint quasi-victory, and the losers likewise deserved their plight.

This was particularly true of Rick Perry, who managed to spend $6 million advertising in Iowa without laying a glove on his competition, and whose reputation as a stud campaigner evaporated in the dead air of his atrocious debate performances. But Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich also squandered significant opportunities: Bachmann by never finding a message more compelling than her promise to make Barack Obama a one-term president, and Gingrich by wallowing in the mix of grandiosity and disorganization that his former colleagues in Congress remember all too well.

At one time or another, all three of these also-rans – as well as Herman Cain, lest we forget – seemed well-positioned to win the caucuses. In ultimately rejecting their candidacies, Iowans rejected a cascade of gimmicky tax plans, flagrant pandering (Gingrich’s denunciation of “big city attacks” on ethanol subsidies took the cake), and desperate appeals to identity politics. And they rejected, as well, the attempt to dress up in the mantle of True Conservatism records that were either threadbare or checkered by cronyism and corruption.

It’s not that Romney, Santorum and Paul ran campaigns free of gimmicks or pandering or that they boast untainted conservative records. And do your best here to separate the fact that it is slightly unnerving that Rick Santorum could fare so well in any election – even if it is the Republican caucuses in Iowa!  But at least Santorum and Paul had a message that set them apart from the rest of the field.

For all the talk about how Santorum’s social conservatism was ill-suited to a campaign focused on the economy, the former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit. From the opposite wing of the party, Paul’s libertarian and anti-war campaign scrambled partisan categories in useful and unexpected ways and supplied an alternative to the ritual chest-thumping that sometimes passes for Republican foreign policy debate.

Meanwhile, Romney’s cautious, calculating campaign managed to simultaneously stake out a plausible domestic agenda while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses first of Perry and then of Gingrich. Romney took few risks and inspired almost nobody, but his mix of substance and savvy largely confirmed the impression that he would be both the field’s most effective general election candidate and its most plausible president.

In an ideal world, Romney’s coronation would be postponed long enough to have a vigorous argument between Romney, Paul and Santorum (with Jon Huntsman getting in on the action as well, perhaps). They would debate foreign policy, domestic policy and the future of conservatism, with the recent losers and their gimmicks cleared off stage. In the real world, however, some of the defeated will hang around – like that clingy friend that can never take the hint to leave the party – and last night’s results probably just set the stage for the swift Romney victory that’s been coming all along.

But give the people of Iowa credit: They did their best with the hand dealt.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Iowa Caucuses, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obama’s Resurgence: A Credit To Republicans

During the summer, I wrote extensively about the political battle between President Obama and House Republicans regarding the debt ceiling.  At that time, I predicted that the reluctance to compromise on any level by House Republicans would ultimately benefit Mr. Obama.  Fast forward to the present and it’s deja vu all over again.  The President, the Congress and, more importantly, the country at large are being held hostage by an intransigent and frankly childish House Republican Caucus.

The Senate – by a bipartisan vote of 89-10 – passed a measure to extend the payroll tax cut for another two months to allow negotiations to continue regarding how to pay for a full one year extension of the tax cut.  The House – led by Tea Party ideologues – rejected the bill.  Obviously, this stop gap measure is far from perfect, but without it, taxes will increase for 160 million Americans come January 1st.  The New Year’s Eve hangover will quickly be supplanted by a far more severe, longer lasting headache. 

I submit that these two political events taken together have strengthened President Obama’s position and alternately badly tarnished that of the Republicans.  Republican disarray over the debt ceiling debate and extending a payroll tax cut has quickly become part of a bigger political story that has been unfolding for months: the resurrection of President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats heading into the 2012 elections.

After the debt ceiling debacle of last summer, the conventional wisdom among many political analysts was that Obama would go the way of President Jimmy Carter, that Republicans would lose a few seats in the House but retain control, and that the GOP would surge into power in the Senate. In short, Republicans were looking for a clean sweep. That is now a scenario that looks virtually impossible for Republicans to obtain.  Obama is still vulnerable and could lose, but the most recent CNN poll reveals a remarkable turnaround, especially in the past month.

In a mid-November survey, when asked which candidate they were more likely to support, registered voters gave Mitt Romney a lead of 4 percentage points over Obama, 51% to 47%. The mid-December survey found an 11-point switch; Obama now has a 52%-45% edge over Romney. Against Newt Gingrich, Obama has a 16-point lead, 56%-40%. (Ironically, the one Republican candidate who does as well against Obama as Romney is Rep Ron Paul, trailing by the same 52%-45% margin.)  Obviously, polls are but a fleeting snapshot in time; however, this marked  shift toward Obama is significant.

It is too early to tell how much Democratic prospects for the Senate and House have improved, but senior Republicans are worried. Case in point: the Massachusetts Senate race, where a poll has shown Democratic populist Elizabeth Warren grabbing an unexpected lead over Republican populist Scott Brown. Only a few months ago, the Brown forces were supremely confident. Brown has seen how much danger the payroll tax mess can pose for his re-election and was one of the first to condemn House Republicans for rejecting a Senate compromise that had overwhelming, bipartisan support.

For Brown and other GOP candidates in blue and purple states, the hard-liners in the House are playing directly into a narrative that Democrats have been promoting for months: that Washington is broken because the GOP has become hostage to the tea party. With sentiment toward the tea party now running 49%-33% unfavorable in CNN polling, that is potent stuff.  Republican congressional leaders have so grossly mishandled the payroll tax issue that they have made it easy for the charge to stick.

As The Wall Street Journal said in its scathing editorial, the GOP has also strengthened Obama’s central argument that he is the protector of the middle class and Republicans can only be counted on to protect the rich. No wonder the White House is quietly clammering with excitement at these recent developments, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling on House Republicans to pass the two-month extension.  For the Obama White House, Republican incompetence with respect to the payroll tax issue has truly been the proverbial early Christmas (or holiday) present.

Of course, there is another major force at work that has been lifting Democratic hopes, namely, the quality of the Republican presidential race. With less than two weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, it is apparent that no one has captured the imagination of GOP voters. Essentially, we are back to where we started: a prevailing sense that the field is weak while pundits speculate as to whether a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie will get off the sidelines and enter the race.

All primary campaigns draw candidates toward the extreme end of their parties, but this year, with so many debates, there has been a danger all along for Republicans that moderates and independents would also be driven off. (In the CNN poll, moderates now give Obama a sizable lead against every GOP candidate.)

None of this is to say that Obama and Democrats have become clear favorites for next fall. The fluidity we have seen among Republican primary voters may well show up in the general electorate. As Romney has been arguing, the GOP is likely to close its ranks more fully once a nominee has been crowned. The improving tone of the economy — also a factor for Obama — could well be short-lived: As The New York Times reported Thursday, economists tend to think that growth could slow again next year. And that ominous, dark cloud called the euro zone is still hovering.

Even so, we are witnessing an important change in the political landscape — and it could be lasting. Republicans well remember the mid-1990s when they seized power in Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich went mano-a-mano with President Bill Clinton. For a while, Gingrich had the upper hand, but Clinton then outmaneuvered him on two governmental shutdowns — and when the momentum turned in Clinton’s favor, he rode it to an easy re-election. No one should doubt that could happen again.  And Republicans would have no one to blame but themselves.

December 22, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Boehner, Obama, Payroll Tax, Politics, Republican Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Obama In Troubled Waters?

After spending valuable family time vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard and staying ahead of the destructive Irene, Barack Obama returns to Washington, DC this week amidst a campaign for his job that has long begun.  With little over a year until voters decide his fate regarding a second-term, it is high time that Obama join the fight.  Wounded by a stubborn economy, a gyrating stock market and high unemployment, Obama has lost his swagger, that typical lift in his voice.  Not surprisingly, I have read several recent columns that suggest President Obama has virtually no chance of winning re-election.  This assessment may well be accurate unless Obama can clearly and coherently delineate to the American people his impressive successes – contrary to popular belief, there have been many – along with a cogent plan to resuscitate the flailing economy and bring down unemployment.  By doing this, I believe that Obama can all but assure himself of a second-term.

President Obama – and his communications team – should focus on two things with respect to his messaging plan during the upcoming campaign.  First, Obama should portray himself as an executive whose policies, with few exceptions, are supported by a majority of the American public, and are only opposed by Republicans who are beholden to the Tea Party and other fringe elements.  I often read that Obama is a radical and – even more outlandishly – the most liberal president America has ever seen.  For any objective observer, of course, this is ridiculous non-sense.  Many Republican presidents have led a more left-leaning government than has Obama – Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt not the least of which among them.  As president, he’s been a sober, cautious, tongue-shackled realist — a moderate Republican of the pre-Tea Party era.  As such, Obama’s policies have pretty much split the center.

When the Obama Administration reached a debt deal with Congress recently to make a dent in the national deficit, this was only the beginning of a much broader effort because only a small dent in the deficit does this deal make.  Consequently, President Obama has continued to suggest that revenues should be sought by closing tax loopholes coupled with returning the wealthy to Clinton and Reagan-era tax rates.  In fact, he has suggested extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class.  Tax cuts for wage-earners, but not for millionaires and billionaires, have deep, bipartisan support across the land, sensibly and eloquently articulated by billionaire investor Warren Buffet recently in the New York Times, who pointed to the absurdity of his secretary paying a higher tax rate than he.  If Obama can communicate this issue smartly and deftly, the Republicans running for president who collectively said that they would raise taxes under no circumstances even given $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in revenue will wish they had never made such a rigid pledge to extremism.  Take the fight to them, Mr. President, and make the Republicans defend the politics of gross  economic inequality.

Another fallacy that seems to haunt the Obama Administration is the assertion that the health care bill is a radical one.  Let’s be clear: it is not, and not by a long shot.  It falls far short of being a government-controlled program in the mold of most other civilized nations.  If they so choose, most Americans can keep their trusted private coverage.  The so-called individual mandate — requiring everyone to have at least some coverage — grew out of Republican think tanks, and, of course, was famously institutionalized in Massachusetts by Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  Again, Obama should take this fight directly to the Republicans who so readily criticize him for having the audacity to do something about the dire health care situation.   Approximately 50 million Americans live with no health care at all.  If that’s the status quo that Republicans are willing to accept, then Obama should make them own the injustice, highlighting Republican candidate Rick Perry’s Texas, where one in four citizens are without this basic human right, which the rest of the industrial world enjoys.

President Obama should also speak with clarity about his significant successes in foreign policy which have far surpassed those of President Bush.  The obvious success to which the president can point is his resolute determination to bring Osama bin Laden to justice; and incidentally, his brave decision to authorize the stealth attack which took the life of the world’s most wanted terrorist.  Now comes the news today that on August 22 a drone attack killed al Qaeda’s #2 in command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.  Those same drone attacks for which Obama has been so roundly criticized from both the left and the right.  According to the Washington Post, al- Rahman was bin Laden’s channel to the world.  They talked about everything including strategy, personnel, operations and political setbacks.  Whatever thread still held al-Qaeda together passed from bin Laden through to Rahman.  President Obama has arguably made more progress against al-Qaeda in his short time in office than President Bush in his eight years. 

Perhaps President Obama has been most criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike regarding his policy toward Libya.  Liberals were disappointed that Obama was engaging America in yet another military engagement at all.  Republicans chided the president for not utilizing the full force of the American military to dispose of Qaddafi.  Instead, Obama decided to encourage the rebels in their revolutionary efforts and provided unwavering support for NATO intervention in Libya.  But most importantly from a strategic standpoint, Obama took care not to make America the face of the intervention (the bombings), thus the operation garnered broad world support including from other Arab nations.  As a result, the Libyan rebels were made to be the heroes and America wasn’t viewed as the enemy by the world at large.  This was the brilliance of the Obama strategy and the key difference between the Bush Doctrine and that of Obama.  

The Republicans, however, were in no mood to give the president any credit whatsoever for the major success in Libya.  Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina penned a letter last week in which they say the following:  “Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”  I suppose Senator McCain and Senator Graham have already forgotten how utterly ineffective this same approach proved to be in Iraq and Afghanistan.  An amnesia diagnosis is unlikely; I, on the other hand, detect a really bad case of sour grapes.  Either way, Obama should take this success directly to the American people and allow them to decide the preferable approach in foreign policy.  For me, it’s simple: it’s hard to argue with success.

The second tack for the Obama campaign is a simple one – highlight the lunacy of the opposition.  I will not use this space to once again argue against Republican policies that are, at least on some level, defensible.  I can understand that Republicans want smaller government (even if it means worse government) and lower taxes (even if it means an unequal tax structure).  Of course President Obama will differentiate himself from the Republicans from a policy standpoint on these issues.  But he should also address with the American people the issues by which the Republicans are simply fanatical.  For instance, the leading Republicans who are vying to take Obama’s job continually deny the existence of basic science, scoffing at everything from evolution to the global consensus on climate change.  Will they take on gravity next?   In the same week that scientists announced the discovery of fossils 3.4 billion years old, evidence of explosive growth of early life through evolution, Rick Perry referred to evolution as “a theory that’s out there.”  A theory?  Perhaps he still believes the Earth is flat and is the center of the universe.  Those were theories.

On social issues, most of the Republican candidates want to amend the constitution to take away rights from gays and pregnant women.  What’s more, in his book Rick Perry suggests that we eliminate the seventeenth amendment which grants American citizens the right to directly elect their senators.  And, of course, Perry famously suggested that the state he serves as governor, Texas, secede from the Union.   Furthermore, sensible business leaders are working with the Federal Reserve to help cure what ills a sick global economy.  Yet one leading Republican candidate, Ron Paul, wants to abolish the central bank.  Another, my favorite (as you know by now) Rick Perry, has threatened physical harm of some vague sort against the chairman, Ben Bernanke.  These types of irrational, irresponsible and somewhat strange positions should be used by the Obama campaign to their advantage.  I doubt the majority of the American people are going to give much credence to a candidate that can’t tell fact from fiction.

Undoubtedly, President Obama will face an incredibly difficult fight for his job over the next year and change.  And maybe I’m more optimistic about his chances than most, but I truly believe that the empirical evidence points to substantive successes for the Obama campaign to tout.  Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton attempted to comprehensively reform our dysfunctional health care system.  Obama did it.  President Reagan tried to oust Qaddafi as Libya’s cruel dictator.  Obama did it.  President Bush claimed that he wanted to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”  Obama did it.  Obama repealed the archaic “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy, appointed two female Supreme Court justices, passed an important financial reform bill, a stimulus bill and compromised with Republicans to reduce the deficit.  Yes, admittedly, he has made mistakes and should focus intensely on job creation.  Yet given the circumstances present when he assumed office, President Obama deserves a second-term and he will get it if he can communicate his successes to the American people while highlighting the rigid ideology and irrationality of his Republican contenders.  The president, in my view, has all the cards.  The question now is how effectively he can play his hand.

August 29, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Libya, Obama, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Perry | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Pragmatic Centrist

Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached in conjunction with the administration.  But their collective vitriol was directed not at the Tea Party – or even the Republicans –  but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a president because of his persistent tendency to compromise.  Actually, this has been a recurring theme ever since Obama took office.

As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is an illogical liberal fantasy that if only the president would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his prose.  In this view, writes Chait, “Every known impediment to the legislative process – special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion – are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”  In this way, many of my liberal friends are just as irrational, petty and thoughtless as their conservative counterparts.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment regarding Obama.  Liberals now view the president as a parent might view a rogue child: I can hear my mother now, “At what point did that boy go so wrong?  And to think…such promise…”  The disdain for Obama amongst some liberal circles is almost palpable.  “I have no idea what Barack Obama … believes on virtually any issue,” Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama’s tendency to take “balanced” positions. Westen hints that his professional experience – he is a psychologist – suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease.  I have a suggestion for Mr. Westen:  grow up already!

Let me offer a simpler explanation: Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.  Yes, it is important to stand on principle; but it is more important to ultimately reach a deal that moves the country forward.  That is what leadership is all about.  President Obama doesn’t have the luxury to stand in the corner and whine about not getting his way as the Tea Party has so conveniently perfected.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps, and in my opinion, it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by only one vote.  He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks.  He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.  And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things.  But it’s far more likely he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars in the hopes that will jump-start the economy.  Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.

He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that we need both tax increases and spending cuts – cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

In today’s New York Times, Jackie Calmes wrote an extremely revealing piece detailing the quickly increasing number of Republican economists who have to come to largely disagree with the current Republican leadership’s economic policy.  Calmes cites two in particular, Martin Feldstein, an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and Henry M. Paulson Jr., Treasury secretary to President George W. Bush, who have publicly expressed their position that the most prudent and effective debt deal would have coupled deep spending cuts with revenue increases.

Several conservative economists have gone so far as to suggest that – at least in the short term – the flailing economy is in need of additional stimulus.  They contend that removing so much energy (spending) from the economy while it remains in such a fragile state will inevitably make the recovery a more painful and prolonged process.  I tend to subscribe to this view.  If I had my way, I would pass a targeted stimulus package that focuses on infrastructure and clean energy spending which would undoubtedly create copious and much needed jobs.  But with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, I recognize that any new stimulus spending is a political non-starter.

In their Iowa Debate last Thursday evening, the eight contenders for the Republican nomination were careful not to offend the Tea Party and its “no new revenues” pledge under any circumstances.  When asked who would reject a long-term debt reduction package that had $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, all eight raised their obedient hands.  While I recognize and appreciate that the Republicans currently competing for the nomination are largely required to act silly so as to impress the rather unimpressive group of Republican primary voters, they certainly aren’t helping to shape the debate from a policy perspective.  Enlightening, they are not.  

In the end, then, was the “compromise” that produced a debt deal a good one?  No, not really.  I wasn’t particularly pleased that revenues weren’t part of a more balanced package.  I don’t believe the president was satisfied either.  But I also believe that Obama was left with literally no other viable options.  President Obama could have held tight to principle and refused to sign the deal while simultaneously watching the country default on its debt for the first time in history on his watch.  Instead, he signed the bill comforted by the knowledge that he does, indeed, live to fight another day.  It was the pragmatic route to take.  You can even call it centrist if you like.  For now, I’ll just call it the right thing to do.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics, Republican Party | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Compromise Really a Dirty Word?

The increasingly frustrating debt crisis debate is like a bad movie that won’t end – like most Nicolas Cage films.  As such, the two protagonists – President Obama and Speaker Boehner – took to the primetime stage last night to convince the public that the other side is more to blame for the current impasse.  The contrasting style and substance of their respective performances could not have been more stark.  While President Obama stressed his continued willingness to compromise with Republicans, Speaker Boehner reiterated his preference for the somewhat sophomoric my-way-or-the-highway approach.  Although both men sufficiently placated their targeted audiences; neither, in my view, was worthy of an Oscar.  

Let’s start with Speaker Boehner with whom I was admittedly slightly distracted by his inability to look directly into the camera.  But that proved to be the least of his problems.  Mr. Boehner’s speech was combative, wholly disingenuous and riddled with inaccuracies.  He suggested that President Obama was the real problem for not accepting the House-passed bill which was written by House Republicans and has absolutely no chance of passing the Senate and is therefore rendered moot.  Furthermore, Speaker Boehner said on several occasions during his speech that the legislation passed in the House was a bipartisan bill.  Of the 193 House Democrats, exactly 5 voted for the bill.  In what alternate universe is that considered a bipartisan bill?

But beyond being generally disingenuous and inaccurate, I thought there were two charges in particular that were just plain dishonest.  First, Boehner claimed, “The president is adamant that we cannot make fundamental changes to our entitlement programs.”  Much to the chagrin of liberals and members of his own party — the president has already agreed to substantive cuts to entitlement programs.  That is not the sticking point — rather, it’s that the GOP is adamant that the burden of the deficit be borne exclusively by people who rely on such programs and not include any increases in revenue from the wealthy.  

In winning the prize for the second most misguided statement of the night, Boehner contended, “The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today. That is just not going to happen.”  That statement doesn’t even make sense.  The debt limit doesn’t control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations.  On the contrary, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.  In other words, if we were not to raise the debt ceiling it would be more like refusing to pay your credit card bill (already spent money) than it is akin to asking for a blank check.

For his part, President Obama was typically analytical, professorial and systematic in his twenty minute address.  He accurately explained that the debt crisis has its origins in the poor decision by President Bush to cut taxes across the board while simultaneously engaging in two military misadventures.  I thought the president deftly invoked his predecessors – Reagan and Jefferson specifically – to highlight our nation’s history and tradition of compromise.  Mr. Obama articulately detailed the differences between the balanced Democratic approach – including steep spending cuts coupled with increased revenues – and the spending cuts-only approach of the Republicans.  It was at this point, however, when the president lost me.

President Obama has consistently advocated a deal in which there would be significant spending cuts but also increased revenues by returning the wealthiest Americans to pre-Bush tax rates and closing egregious tax loopholes for oil companies and corporate jet owners.  Ad nauseam, he has dubbed this solution as the “balanced” approach.  Unfortunately, as negotiations between he and Speaker Boehner have deteriorated, President Obama has endorsed a plan by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, in which no new revenues are raised.  In fact, there are no current plans being considered which call for anything other than spending cuts as a solution to the deficit problems.  So why did the president spend so much time contrasting his balanced approach to that of the Republicans if he now essentially supports a spending cuts-only solution?

In addition, the Reid plan is very similar in construct to a plan being offered by Speaker Boehner.  They both call for approximately $1.2 trillion dollars in immediate spending cuts with no new revenues through tax increases.  Although, predictably, Boehner and the House Republicans do not support the Reid plan now.  It’s as though every time Obama and the Democrats bend to essentially all Republican demands, Speaker Boehner moves the goal post once again.  And, so far, President Obama seems willing to continue to drive the ball in the Republican direction.  This begs the question:  Is President Obama giving up too much in his efforts to compromise with Republicans and avert defaulting on the nation’s debt?  Perhaps surprisingly, I still believe the answer is no.

I say this because I believe that if Obama is able to sign a bill that has passed both houses of Congress thereby averting a major economic crisis he – and his Democratic allies – will be handsomely rewarded by the American people.  The president will be perceived as part of the solution while the Republicans will be rightly viewed as much of the problem.  In essence, the president will take his medicine now and give up more than he would like in exchange for bigger, more permanent gains in the future.  It would be the ultimate Pyrrhic victory for the unsuspecting Republicans.  Quoting Thomas Jefferson in last night’s speech, Obama stated, “Every man cannot have his way in all things.  Without this mutual disposition, we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”  Obama understands this well; and if he can find compromise and sign a bill, the Republicans will learn this lesson the hard way.  

In addition to Jefferson, the president also mentioned Ronald Reagan as a master of compromise.  Reagan, who served as president from 1981 -1989, is widely considered the patron saint of conservatives; ask a prominent conservative their hero, and odds are they’ll point to the Gipper.  Reagan is perhaps most often invoked by those who cast him as having held the line against tax increases.  Conservatives also hail Reagan as a budget cutter willing to make hard choices to keep spending in line.  And while Reagan somewhat slowed the marginal rate of growth in the budget, it did, in fact, continue to increase during his time in office.  So did the debt, skyrocketing from $700 billion to $3 trillion. Then there’s the fact that after first pushing to cut Social Security benefits – and being stymied by Congress – Reagan in 1983 agreed to a $165 billion bailout of the program. He also massively expanded the Pentagon budget and created the Department of Veterans Affairs, thus increasing the size of government which was antithetical to his political principles.

With respect to the debt ceiling issue, Ronald Reagan raised it 18 times during his presidency.  He often scolded Congress for playing politics with the nation’s credit rating.  Sound familiar?  More shocking, however, is the fact that Reagan raised taxes 11 times during his tenure.  Of course, Reagan took no pleasure in having to raise taxes or the debt ceiling, but he was also not afraid to do so if it were absolutely necessary.  In this way, Ronald Reagan was a very good leader.  But the Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to rewrite the history of his era. 

These facts have largely been lost on the contemporary Republican leadership even as they continue to enshrine Reagan at every turn.  But the reality remains that Reagan was a president who held firm to his principles of low taxes and small government but was also willing to work with his opposition when political and economic realities insisted.  I would ask the Republicans of today the same question Ronald Reagan asked back in 1982 (as quoted in Obama’s speech), “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates and higher unemployment? 

In his address, President Obama lamented the fact that compromise has become a “dirty” word in Washington these days.  Likewise, I imagine that Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson would lament the same.  I’ve written before in this space of my belief that competent leadership requires compromise to solve big issues.  It’s been true throughout our history and will continue to be.  I’m proud that President Obama is still willing to compromise at this late, yet critical hour in the debate.  Don’t worry Democrats – anything lost now will pale in comparison to what can be gained by displaying real leadership, a willingness to compromise and, as a result, avert an economic crisis that will most certainly be felt around the world.

July 27, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics | , , , | 2 Comments

Obama’s Comeback?

On June 30th I wrote that President Obama desperately needed to rediscover his voice, jump-start his fighting spirit and reframe the budget debate in an effort to secure an economically sound, sustainable and just budget deal.  My column that day was in reaction to President Obama’s strategically flawed attempt to scold congressional Republicans into a compromise surrounding the debt crisis much like an exasperated parent attempts to scold a stubborn child into compliance.  My argument was that the president had inexplicably allowed Speaker Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican presidential candidates to control the debate by making erroneous claims and revising history but doing so with effective unanimity and incessant repetition.  The president needed to use his position – and the bully pulpit – to clearly and coherently define the scope of the crisis, the corresponding choices to solve it and the ramifications of those choices.  

In the days following June 30th I must give the president his due credit for displaying sound leadership as it relates to the debt issue and, as a result, reclaiming the debate from the Republicans.  In this time, the president has called both congressional Republicans and Democrats to the White House almost daily it seems for intense budget negotiations – including a rare Sunday meeting last weekend.  Furthermore, the president has positioned himself as the adult in the room by challenging not just Republicans but his own party to find areas of compromise.  By prodding the Democrats to accept massive spending cuts (potentially including Social Security) the president will certainly expend his already dwindling political capital within his own party.  Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in Monday’s news conference saying, “I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done.  And I expect that the other side should be willing to do the same thing.”  Though, as we all know by now, they are not.  

I have come to believe that the Republicans aren’t genuinely committed to reducing the deficit.  It is clear that they are much more interested in the purely ideological and political goals of cutting taxes and shrinking the government.  The Republicans claim that the huge deficit is primarily responsible for the stagnant economy and inability to create jobs.  Like a broken record, they repeat the refrain that we are unethically and tragically saddling future generations – our children and grandchildren – with crippling debt.  But their actions do not match the rhetoric.  

Given their dire proclamations, one would assume that Republicans would be willing to at least consider raising revenues by closing tax loopholes for oil companies and simply returning the wealthiest Americans to Clinton-era tax rates (when the economy was flourishing).  You know, for our children and grandchildren after all.  If Republicans truly believe their own rhetoric with respect to the deficit, why would they not be more willing to compromise in order to strike a deal?  You know, a deal to save our children and grandchildren.  The short answer is the House Republicans have sold their collective souls to the Tea Party who is demanding that Republican leaders stand firm against the president and accept no tax increases as part of any deal.  And given these dynamics, reducing the deficit is not nearly as critical to their re-election hopes as preserving tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate jet owners and absurdly profitable oil companies.

By way of further example, President Obama made a recent offer to the Republicans by which the Democrats would concede $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue raised.  Obviously, that sounds like a pretty decisive win for the Republicans and much of the Democratic base viewed the offer in just that light.  Defying logic, however, the Republicans rejected the plan because it includes tax increases in any form.  Furthermore, with high unemployment and a struggling economy, Mr. Obama pacified the Republicans once again by proposing that any tax increases on the wealthy should not be implemented until 2013.  But these reasonable attempts at compromise by the president have only been met by consistent Republican intransigence and arrogance.

I have a theory as to why Republicans aren’t genuinely interested in deficit reduction.  The Republicans view themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets (although the evidence has rarely supported this claim).  Moreover, the Republicans have done a masterful job of portraying themselves to the American public as the party of fiscal restraint even considering the copious evidence to the contrary.  Given this, it is my contention that Republicans do not want to enable a Democratic president to drastically reduce the deficit, thus, relinquishing some ground on the issue.  The Republicans are elevating party politics well ahead of reducing the deficit which they claim to be of such vital importance.

The proof to this theory lies in the fact that President Obama has made clear that he strongly prefers the biggest deal possible in terms of debt reduction.  The president has consistently said that he does not want to simply kick the proverbial can down the road only to revisit the issue in the near term.  As such, the president was in substantive negotiations with Speaker Boehner in which the deficit would be reduced by $4 trillion over a 10 year period.  Indeed, this would be a serious, genuine effort at deficit reduction.  

Again, given their public declarations of doom for generations to come, one would think that Republicans would be elated to make such a significant dent in the deficit, particularly since it rested largely on spending cuts and not revenue increases.  But, predictably, Speaker Boehner declared that pursuing a comprehensive deal was untenable to House Republicans because it would include tax increases at all.  On grand display once again, in my view, the Republicans are not as serious as their rhetoric implies concerning deficit reduction.  They are serious, however, when it comes to placating the extreme right-wing of their party (maybe the only wing at this point) at the expense of doing what’s right for the country.  So, in essence, the entire country is being held hostage by a rather small, but politically significant, fringe element of the population.  That is who the Republican Party now represents.      

Republicans always contend that we shouldn’t engage in negotiations with terrorists because their ideology overshadows any modicum of reason rendering negotiations pointless.  I tend to agree.  And while I’m obviously not comparing the budget debate with negotiating with terrorists, the principle remains the same; namely, when ideology trumps rationality at all costs, negotiations will prove fruitless.  But that certainly doesn’t mean that the answer is to cave to the insanity.  On the contrary, the answer is to make your case loudly and forcefully to the American people and appeal to their good reason; and by doing so, you will begin to deteriorate the support for the irrational, intractable Republicans.  And as the Republicans lose political support – you can rest assured – they will become better partners at the negotiating table for fear that after the next election they won’t be at the table at all.

I believe we are witnessing the beginning of President Obama’s political comeback.  In the past week, the president has been tenacious yet compromising.  He has been candid and direct in his approach while offering solutions, not just rhetoric.  He has proven himself to be a pragmatic centrist as opposed to an ideologue which I believe is absolutely essential to solving big problems.  Most importantly, however, he has shown impeccable leadership – the kind we have expected of him all along.  Everybody loves a good comeback.  Hold your ground, Mr. President, and you’ll be well on the way to yours.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics | , , , | 1 Comment

MSNBC – the anti-FOX….but is that a good thing?

I have a confession to make: I no longer use MSNBC as my primary source of cable news coverage unlike most of my fellow loyal progressives.  I have become increasingly uncomfortable in recent years as MSNBC has shifted all of their opinion shows to the left in response to the sharp rise of Fox News and its unrivaled success by skewing its news coverage predominantly conservative.  But it took me starting this blog to confirm what I had subconsciously known for some time.  That is, I tune in to MSNBC to garner their take on the daily news because it is comfortable and familiar.  Put another way, I know that I am going to largely agree with Rachael Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.  But then I began to ponder this question: how do we learn, challenge ourselves and expand our understanding of a particular issue if we only seek out like-minded opinions? 

During the Bush years, liberals and progressives, myself included, desperately needed a forum through which our collective frustrations could be vented.  This desire for progressives came to fruition in the form of MSNBC’s most highly rated and signature show during the Bush years – “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann.  Mr. Olbermann undressed the Bush Administration like a ruthless lawyer before the jury.  He was meticulous, well-prepared, armed with facts and extremely articulate in his nightly verbal lashing of Bush Administration policies.  I watched because I perceived Keith Olbermann to be smart, often funny, politically shrewd and, most importantly, right.       

I also value the opinion of Rachel Maddow whom, like Mr. Olbermann (though less caustic), is extremely smart, well-prepared and calculated in her arguments against conservative policies.  In addition, Lawrence O’Donnell – who replaced Keith Olbermann after his contract wasn’t renewed in January – provides an interesting insider prospective having served as an important senior aide to the powerful former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as well as a writer for the political drama The West Wing.  I have never had much use for Chris Matthews as he seems much more interested in hearing himself talk than informing viewers.  And MSNBC caps each night with Ed Schultz who is certainly passionate about the middle class and progressive issues but lacks any interesting qualities and borders on theatrical.  

But generally speaking, it is not the anchors with whom I take umbrage.  The major problem I have with all of these shows is the lack of divergent opinions.  Rarely on these shows have I heard a conservative voice to provide the opposition point of view.  Perhaps it is difficult to book conservative pundits or congressional Republicans given MSNBC’s newfound reputation as being hostile to their views.  But how can a show have a serious discussion concerning a specific issue if it can’t find guests to defend each side of the debate?

I have long railed against Fox News for being the quasi communications arm of the Republican Party.  Fox is undoubtedly partisan and, to their credit, they don’t really try to hide it.  I imagine that even Fox employees often enjoy a good, hearty laugh over a beer (probably imported) when they recite their slogan “Fair and Balanced.”  I had a hearty laugh myself as I watched every single Fox commentator blow the proverbial gasket recently over the hip hop singer Common being invited to perform at the White House.  The collective attempts by Fox News pundits to caricature Common as some thuggish rapper are wildly and absurdly inaccurate.  I should know; I’m proud to say that Common was a frequent guest crooning from the speakers of my college dorm and thuggish rapper he is not.

It is also comical to watch in vain as Sean Hannity tries to put together a rational argument based on something other than pure emotion and vindictiveness against the president.  In a major step forward for Fox News, however, Glenn Beck – the pathologically irrational firebrand – completed his final show last week which was, as usual, filled with blatant inaccuracies, erroneous logic and, in typical Beck fashion, childish behavior as he continued his spat with Jon Stewart even as he exited stage right.  Can progressives continue to rightly discredit Fox News as illegitimate (considering it seems to have employed most former and current Republican candidates for president) if we too have our own network – whether real or perceived?

If conservatives only watch Fox News for their news analysis, they are dumber for it.  But if progressives only watch MSNBC, aren’t we making the same mistake for which we criticize conservatives?  In my view, it is outlandishly narcissistic to assume that we progressives hold the correct position on every policy issue.  There are nuances and intricacies to each policy debate that we should seek to explore and understand.  Republicans are bound to be right some of the time too.  We should at least have the courtesy and integrity to listen to their positions.  Doing so will only enhance our ability to ultimately win the debate.  How can you consistently win if you don’t intimately understand the thought processes and strategies of your opponent?

So I would encourage and challenge progressives to turn the dial over to Fox News from time to time (muting the volume doesn’t count).  Get a firm grasp of how Republicans and conservatives perceive a particular issue – and how progressives might best combat the conservative strategy.    And, of course, sprinkle in some MSNBC – there is nothing wrong with getting your Maddow fix.  You can even check out “Hardball” if you’re willing to listen to Chris Matthews debate himself.   

But, in addition, I suggest giving CNN a try.  While I acknowledge that Wolf Blitzer is so astoundingly boring it often seems as if he is trying to put himself to sleep and John King is as bland as Blitzer is boring, CNN has carved out a nice niche as the truly fair and balanced network.  As such, each segment of debate has both conservative and liberal (and any other) views fully represented.  Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike do not hesitate to appear on CNN shows as there is an inherent understanding of fairness and equal time.  And word has it that Anderson Cooper is moving to the 8 pm timeslot in favor of Eliot Spitzer which should help ratings in the primetime hour.  While CNN certainly has its flaws – boredom not the least of which among them – it should certainly be sprinkled in to your cable news diet in order to provide that seemingly elusive fairness and balance.          

Is it a good thing that two of the three major cable news channels are so clearly identifiable with one of the political parties?  I recognize that at our nation’s founding almost all newspapers had political agendas and were, in fact, biased.  This trend continued throughout much of our history.  But I can’t help but think that what Fox and MSNBC have created can only lead to the further dumbing down of our politics.  Furthermore, I would contend that this situation only exacerbates the polarization and divisiveness in our politics.  The irony is that CNN has lagged behind the other two in ratings and revenue since its decision to remain largely unbiased.  Apparently, most viewers migrate to the network that will make them feel most comfortable and challenge them least.  Our real challenge, then, is to not fall into the trap.

July 5, 2011 Posted by | Fox News, Glenn Beck, Media, MSNBC, Politics, Rachael Maddow | , , , , , | 6 Comments