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

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 Day Mitt Romney Lost The Election

On Monday, September 17th, 2012, Mitt Romney’s electoral prospects spiralled from grim to non-existent.  For this was the day that Romney lost the 2012 presidential election.  A video shot at a private donor fundraising event surfaced surreptitiously in which Romney explains to those present that approximately half of all Americans will not consider voting for him due to their reliance on government handouts.  President Obama, according to Romney, has all of these folks locked in the proverbial bag.  The problems with these ridiculous statements are copious; however, I will focus on the two most egregious.  First, Romney’s assertions are utterly and completely false from a factual standpoint.  Secondly, from a political one, his statements (or misstatements) are as inarticulate and, well, stupid as any that could possibly spill from a presidential candidate’s mouth. 

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Mitt Romney told the room full of donors.  “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

While these statements are factually inaccurate (which I will explore below), I can imagine a scenario in which Romney is able to convince himself, and others, that they are true.  Imagine you’re Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee:  For the past year you’ve been unable to grab a clear lead in the polls against someone you view as incompetent and who has been unable to get unemployment below 8 percent or reach a reasonable debt-reduction deal with Congress.  Which would you prefer to believe?  That you’re not good enough, not smart enough and doggone it, people just don’t like you?  Or that the incumbent Democrat has effectively bought off half the country with food stamps and free health care?

What Romney said next, however, is harder to explain.

“These are people who pay no income tax,” he continued, “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

For starters, let’s disregard the completely asinine myth that 47 percent of Americans are tax-evading moochers.  Of the 46 percent (not 47%) of Americans who were expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60 percent of them were working and contributing payroll taxes — which means they paid a higher effective tax rate on their income than did Romney — and an additional 20 percent were elderly.  So more than 80 percent were either working or past retirement age.  Allow me to borrow a recent phrase from Bill Clinton, Romney’s contentions don’t pass the “arithmetic” test.  But, of course, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

In my view, however, the comments winning the dubious award for “most damaging of the day” were as follows: “My job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Oh no he didn’t!  Romney gone wild!  When Romney said this, he didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors.  Far worse, he confirmed the worst suspicions that voters possess about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.  Not to mention that he suffers from the chronic and deteriorating condition known as “foot in mouth disease.”  Put the two together and you can hear the grand dame herself, Ann Richards, quipping “Poor Mitt, he can’t help it.  He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

The hidden paradox here is that having less money means you have to take more responsibility for your life.  You can’t pay people to watch your kids, clean your house, or build your family a car elevator.  You can’t necessarily afford a car at all or a washing machine or a home in a good school district.  That’s what money buys you—goods and services that make your life easier.

That’s what money has bought Romney, too.  He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom.  As we say in the South, “God bless him!”  No one begrudges Romney his wealth.  That’s the dream.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill.  The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives.  They’re drowning in it.

So this begs the question: Why do the poor around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich?

The underlying answer, in part, is this: The poor consume an enormous amount of their mental energy just scraping by.  They’re not dumber, lazier or more interested in being dependent upon the government.  Put simply, they’re just cognitively exhausted.

As economist Jed Friedman wrote in an online post for the World Bank, “The repeated trade-offs confronting the poor in daily decision making — i.e. ‘should I purchase a bit more food or a bit more fertilizer?’ — occupy cognitive resources that would instead lay fallow for the wealthy when confronted with the same decision.  The rich can afford both a bit more food and a bit more fertilizer, no decision is necessary.”

The point here isn’t that Romney is unfamiliar with cutting-edge work in cognitive psychology.  It’s that he misses even the intuitive message of this work, the part most of us know without reading any studies—it’s really, really hard (and not much fun) to be poor.  That’s because the poorer you are, the more personal responsibility you have to take.

Romney, evidently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve really had it hard.  “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a former auto executive and governor told the room full of donors—apparently with a straight face.  “Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.”  These are either the words of a man blind to his own privilege or who will say anything to get elected.  Either way, it ain’t pretty.

Now let’s turn to the reasons that Romney’s ill-fated diatribe will also prove to be political suicide.  Many of those voters housed within Romney’s 47% are seniors and veterans—two constituencies who have been reliably Republican in recent elections.  The truth is many of these folks have absolutely no intention of voting for President Obama at all.

One major reason for the growth of the federal government in recent years has been that entitlement spending per beneficiary has increased, and so has the number of beneficiaries as baby boomers have retired.  Yet senior citizens — who benefit from federal programs, on average, far more than younger people — have become more Republican over that same period.  Seniors actually voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008 by a slightly higher margin than they did for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

In the 2010 midterm elections, their Republican margin increased even more, to a whopping 21 points.  And in the latest Rasmussen poll, Romney still leads President Obama among seniors by 19 points.  But in light of Romney’s recent comments stating his belief that 47% of Americans are stigmatized by their dependence upon government, how many seniors will he lose?  My guess is that the hemorrhage among seniors will be significant, particularly in crucial battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.

As the conservative commentator, William Kristol, wrote in the Weekly Standard: “It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters — especially, of course, seniors (who might well believe they are entitled to heath care, a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they’re not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan.  So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.”

Ouch, lambasted by Billy Kristol.  That’s like Obama getting slapped down by Oprah in the New York Times editorial page.

Mitt Romney’s hopes of becoming president have become precipitiously dimmer following each gaffe throughout the summer and into the fall.  However, on Monday, September 17th, his presidential aspirations became officially defunct.   My mom used to tell me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.  I think my mom would advise Romney that if he didn’t have something reasonable and well thought out to say, say nothing at all.  Of course, if followed, that advice would make for an awfully quiet campaign.  I don’t think I’m going out on a flimsy limb here when I say: Stick a fork in ole Mitt, he’s done.

September 20, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, 47 percent, Mitt Romney, Obama, Republican Party | , , , | 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

Life Is Good Again!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written almost exclusively about the debt ceiling/budget deficit debate raging in hapless Washington, DC.  Doing so has been at once frustrating, draining, demoralizing and, often times, downright disgusting.  After having written each column concerning the debt ceiling issue, I’ve felt as though I should take an immediate shower in an effort to cleanse my body and soul from slimy Washington.  Frankly, it has been depressing.

But all is not lost in my world – not by a long shot (or pass).  On Monday, the National Football League ended its 4 1/2 month lockout by coming to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that will remain in effect for the next decade.  Forget that our country is spiraling towards credit default for the first time in her history, the knowledge that there will be football in just over a month is cause for celebration.  Break out the champagne and glow sticks – it’s party time!  But why exactly is a celebration of such epic proportions in order?

To answer this question one must consider life without football as many of us were doing during the protracted lockout.  Many of us were left wondering how we would cope with life’s many trials and tribulations come this fall and winter without football serving as our diversion from reality.  It’s already bad enough having to pass the dog days of summer with baseball alone as our escape.  Although we had yet to lose a single game to the NFL lockout, the mere possibility of such an occurrence was leaving men (and many women) all over this great country in a cold sweat. 

In addition, the NFL lockout was producing all sorts of pressing questions.  For instance: What am I going to do at work now that I don’t have to manage my fantasy team?  And now that I don’t have to intensely study and meticulously scrutinize the spread and over/under of each game, what should I do with all the left over brain power?  And speaking of left overs, what shall I ever do with all the extra money I save from not being able to gamble it away?  Last, but certainly not least, was this question: What in the hell am I going to do on Sunday afternoons (and Sunday nights, Monday nights and some Thursdays) anyway? 

The potential answers to these important, indeed critical, questions sent chills down the collective spines of men everywhere who were beginning to envision Sunday afternoons spent shopping at the mall, doing yard work or other intolerable chores or, worst of all, visiting the in-laws.  To these loyal football fans who were inching ever closer to the proverbial ledge, I say congratulations that these nightmares will never come to fruition – at least not for another decade.  If that alone is not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. 

I am extremely grateful that the negotiations between the NFL and the Players Association (NFLPA) weren’t led by President Obama and Speaker Boehner.  If this were the case, undoubtedly, we wouldn’t be seeing football anytime soon.  Thank God for Jerry Richardson – the owner of my Carolina Panthers who led the owners’ negotiating efforts – and DeMaurice Smith – who represented the players’ interests – for their ability and willingness to compromise and achieve the best possible deal for their respective sides.  It seems to me that the president and House Republicans could learn an awful lot from the NFL in terms of negotiations and compromise. 

Perhaps the answer is to elect those involved in the NFL negotiations as our new political leaders.  Roger Goodell – the NFL Commissioner – could serve as president with Jerry Richardson as Vice President.  Obviously, DeMaurice Smith would make a fine secretary of state given his superb diplomatic skills.  The NFL players could round out the Senate and House of Representatives.  Now, I bet we could get a debt deal.  And don’t worry about President Obama and Speaker Boehner.  The NBA is still engaged in its own messy lockout – they would be perfect for that job.

So now that we fans know that there will be an NFL season, it is time to put on our home team hats and make completely irrational, unfounded predictions regarding the success of our teams.  One of my good friends from back home in North Carolina is the best at this that I’ve ever seen.  He shall remain nameless; however, his hometown team is the Cleveland Browns.  And every year this friend of mine honestly believes that Cleveland has a shot at the Super Bowl.  And, of course, every year the Browns fall far short of even making the playoffs.  But what’s life without hope, right?

I, however, only make predictions based on facts.  I am one of those rare football fans grounded completely in reality.  My Carolina Panthers were the worst team in football last year, compiling a 2 – 14 record.  Armed with this information, I am now ready to make my prediction for this year’s team.  Based solely on reason coupled with my daily briefings from Panthers super-fan and my super-friend, Landon Betsworth, mark my words:  The Carolina Panthers will win the Super Bowl this February in Indianapolis.  They will win by a stomach-churning score of 27 – 24 on an Olindo Mare (really? push John Kasay out the door) last second field goal.  And whom will they beat?  The Cleveland Browns, of course.

July 28, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Debt Ceiling, NFL, NFL Lockout, Obama | , , , , , | 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

Has Obama Lost His Voice?

My first memory of Barack Obama was watching him deliver the now famous speech on the floor of the 2004 Democratic National Convention nominating John Kerry.  At that point, Obama was a candidate for the United States Senate and had yet to splash onto the national scene.  But on that night, splash he did.  I recall being mesmerized by this newcomer as he eloquently proclaimed: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America!” 

During the 2008 presidential campaign I was once again impressed by the rhetorical genius of then candidate Obama as he framed each debate with the precision of a surgeon.  He was artful and careful with the placement of each word – indeed each syllable – so as to make the most persuasive argument.  At a time when the Democratic Party needed its next great communicator to articulate the party platform to the public, Barack Obama was undoubtedly that candidate.  He was our voice.

That is why I have been unpleasantly surprised by President Obama’s inability to articulate certain policies and positions in a way that would curry better favor from both Congress and the public at large.  I was profoundly disappointed with the president’s effort to sell and fight for the healthcare reform bill – the primary policy objective of his early presidency.  If you are reluctant to fight tooth and nail for your signature piece of legislation, for what will you fight?

I recognize that the healthcare reform bill did ultimately pass – albeit barely – but it did so largely due to the Democrats having large majorities in both chambers of Congress as opposed to exceptional presidential leadership.  Even with the benefit of the bully pulpit, the president allowed the Republicans to frame the debate and gain traction with ridiculous claims of death panels, the end of Medicare and, of course, the onset of socialism.

 This all leads to the president’s press conference today where he attempted to scold the Congressional Republicans into action on the debt and budget crisis.  I use the term “scold” loosely as President Obama will never be confused with President Truman on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 calling Congress back into session and in the process earning the moniker, “Give ’em hell, Harry.”  I think it’s safe to say we won’t be shouting “Give ’em hell, Barry” anytime soon!

I very much admire President Obama’s ability to make precise, analytical arguments based on sound reason and factual evidence, but I would contend that this isn’t always the best approach in dealing with Congressional Republicans or persuading the public.  And even though I think the president’s even-keeled, calm, cool and collected approach to decision-making often serves him well, there are times when the bully pulpit should be utilized to full effect.  Today was one of those times.

It is unfathomable to me that Mitch McConnell – the Senate Republican Leader – can stand on the Senate floor and with a straight face claim that during the last two years the Obama Administration has led the country into financial ruin.  And, as a result, Mr. McConnell arrogantly asserts, Congressional Republicans will not consider raising revenues by ending tax cuts for oil companies, hedge fund managers and the super wealthy.  Does Mr. McConnell suffer from amnesia or simply selective memory?  Does he not remember the previous eight years prior to President Obama taking office?

As I recall, it went something like this.  Former President Bush inherited a substantial budget surplus left by former President Clinton.  Mr. Bush took us into one war of necessity in Afghanistan, and subsequently took us into another war of choice based on exaggerated evidence (to be polite).  Disregarding our involvement in enormously costly military engagements, Mr. Bush still insisted that Congress cut taxes across the board to the lowest levels since the 1950s where they still remain today.  These historically low tax rates produced a decade in which we endured the worst economic growth in 50 years.   As a result of all this misadventure and misguided priorities, President Obama inherited a gigantic budget deficit and lousy economy.  While it’s true that the Obama Administration has certainly added to the deficit in an effort to stimulate the sagging economy, the disastrous Bush-era policies are primarily responsible for our deplorable fiscal situation.

Setting aside the blame which is, without doubt, shared by both parties, the fact remains that the budget crisis is indeed dire and deficit reduction measures need to be enacted sooner rather than later.  Of course, a reduction in government expenditures is a part of the equation; and to that end, the Democrats have agreed to massive spending cuts to many of the social programs that their Democratic base care about so deeply.  For their part, the Republicans have consistently made clear that increasing revenues through tax increases on the top tax brackets is not a topic for discussion or negotiation even though most reputable economists agree that spending cuts coupled with revenue increases is the only way out of the current fiscal mess.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are master technicians at framing the debate, spinning the argument and winning the messaging war.  They are proving to be just as successful in this regard concerning the budget crisis as they were during the healthcare debate.  President Obama should not allow the Republicans to get away with being largely responsible for our massive financial troubles, on the one hand, and then proclaiming that they have no intentions to compromise or make sacrifices to find a legitimate and sustainable solution, on the other. 

Every president has access to the bully pulpit; it is one of the major perks that accompany the office.  The successful ones – including Reagan and Clinton as recent examples – use it skillfully, almost ruthlessly, to their benefit.  It is time for this president to rediscover what got him elected – his ability to communicate.  Reframe the debate, Mr. President, and hold Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell accountable for their recalcitrance and lack of leadership.  In short, find your voice.

June 30, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics | , , , , | Leave a comment