Monday, December 26, 2011

Newt Kills the Umpire

Newt Kills the Umpire

Those of you who read this blog know I have an almost unhealthy appetite for political news.  However, in the spirit of these confessional times, where past acts are absolved when one genuinely (if opportunistically) professes present ardor, I feel I have to be transparent.

I really like baseball.

There is something about baseball that is so simple, so human.  You don’t need a lot-a bat, a ball, a glove, and a ragged piece of open ground. Baseball is like life-the greatest hitters of all time failed more than they succeeded.  You just have to keep trying.  Hemingway wrote about “the Great DiMaggio” as a symbol of perseverance in “The Old Man and the Sea.” Baseball seems democratic and fair.  The people who play it are normal-sized.  There are rules, and brute force doesn’t get to decide who wins and loses.  We have umpires who use their neutral best judgment and call it as they see it, and we accept it and move on, to the next pitch, the next play, the next game, the next season. 

Most of the time, anyway.  In the 1985 World Series, umpire Don Denkinger, erroneously, and infamously, blew a critical call at first base, leading the trailing Kansas City Royals to score two runs and snatch victory from defeat in the 6th game.  The Royals then went on to beat the Cardinals in game seven to win the Series.

For this irredeemable sin, Denkinger reportedly wears a beard, false nose, and large black glasses whenever he nears the city of the Gateway Arch. I happen to root for the Yankees, so I don’t feel this particular event as viscerally as Cardinal fans do.  Notwithstanding that, the intense outrage I experience every time Commissioner Bud Selig gives the loathed Boston Red Sox yet another special favor (Bud loves the Red Sox and bends the rules for them whenever they need it) probably gives me a rough approximation.  Irrational?  Who's irrational?

Kill the Umpire!  And take the Commissioner with him.

Which, inevitably, brings me to Newt Gingrich.  Newt, as everyone knows (because he tells us constantly) is a Historian.  As a Historian, he is able to impart a special intellectual glow, such as that which emanates from polished mahogany bookcases near a Tiffany lamp, to the musty old trunk of the bizarre where he keeps his ideas.

Newt is currently pushing a Gulag for judges whose decisions he doesn’t agree with.  After abolishing their courts, he would haul them before Congress, reduce them to a quivering mass of be-robed tears, have them confess they were enemies of the state (Newt’s been watching those grainy newsreels of Stalinist show trials) and then pack them off to some internment center. 

This is so idiotic an idea that members of his own party, and conservative columnists like George Will, have publically opposed it.  The essence of our democracy is that we have checks and balances between the three arms of government. No one branch can become so powerful that it can dominate.  Our Constitution was designed this way, and the Federalist Papers support this idea.  That’s the deal we made more than two centuries ago.  No one gets to be King. 

Of course, if you run for office, you probably have a healthy ego.  “King” sounds pretty good. But it’s not very attractive to say it.  So, politicians talk about “activist judges” and “original intent” when what they really mean is “I don’t agree with that, and I want to be in charge.”

This all gets pretty tiresome, red-meat lines for the partisans notwithstanding, and as voters, we’ve pretty much given up hope that the winners will go to Washington with an intention to be fair, to find consensus, to govern well and to work for the common good.

Fair is supposed to be the province of the courts. Yes, appointments are intensely political, and the long draw-out confirmation process often shows the very worst of that.  And judges obviously have political opinions and a philosophy. 

But we expect them to be like umpires; to follow the rulebook, to call balls and strikes fairly, to display no favoritism. Obviously, like Don Denkinger, they can blow a call-as a mistake, not a deliberate act of partisanship.

There are three critical, and highly political cases before the Supreme Court that will be decided next summer, right in the middle of the election cycle.  Obamacare, a Congressional redistricting case from Texas, and an immigration case from Arizona.  What is really interesting is that the lower Federal courts have split, and not always on ideological grounds.  Those splits tell you just how much wisdom the Founders really had.  The Supremes will get to make the final call.

And, after they do, and political hay is made, and outrage expressed, we will accept it and move on, to the next pitch, the next play, the next game, the next season.  Legislation may have to be amended and new approaches taken, but no responsible leader who takes the oath of office can simply say, “Forget that, I’m King.” 

Not even Newt.  I hope. 


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stupid Pledge Tricks

Stupid Pledge Tricks

Newt Gingrich has sent a letter in support of marital fidelity to the The Family Leader, a socially conservative group based in Iowa who asks politicians to sign a pledge called “The Marriage Vow.”

If I were Jon Stewart, I would just leave that statement out there, raise one eyebrow, tilt my head a little, and let the raucous laughter fill the set.

But, Mr. Gingrich could be our next President, and, since he seems to have come down with a moderate case of Pledge Disease, or “PD”, I thought it was worth exploring.  PD is functionally different than Acute Panderitis, in part because, with a Pledge, you actually sign something, instead of merely mouthing pieties to be forgotten after the primaries.  A Pledge is serious business.  A Pledge looks a lot like an Oath, and an Oath can lead one down the path of Faust.  What price electoral success?

To be fair, Newt didn’t actually sign the Pledge, he merely wrote in support of all its components.  Other candidates (Bachmann, Perry and Santorum) have actually taken the Oath.   This is a very broad Pledge.  In addition to the promise to be faithful to your spouse, it, with a considerable amount of specificity, touches all the hot button social issues: abortion, gays (in every permutation; gay marriage, gays in the military, gays overseas, gays in showers, etc.)  It calls for “robust childbearing” (again, channeling my inner Jon Stewart, I will leave that to speak for itself.) It’s against Sharia Islam.  And it has an economic plank: in the spirit of giving, it seeks to enact a series of pro-family tax and governmental policies (meaning, preferential treatment for faithful and robust progenitors) and it calls for cuts in government and government spending for everyone else. 

One wonders, how does a very conservative group such as The Family Council come to embrace Newt Gingrich?  President Bob Vander Plaats told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine that although Gingrich’s past is a concern, “part of our faith is forgiveness.”  It also helps to have an attorney’s “fine print” approach to things; among the 22 footnotes (seriously, 22 footnotes) Footnote 9 of the Pledge grants absolution, when necessary.  “No signer herein claims to be without past wrongdoing, including that of adultery. Yet going forward, each hereby vows fidelity to his or her marital vows, to his or her spouse, to all strictures and commandments against adultery…”

Of course, the Gingrich non-Pledge Pledge is a silly sideshow to gain a few votes in the Iowa Caucus.  The really big Pledge is Grover’s Pledge.  Not the happy, funny blue monster we see on Sesame Street.  Grover Norquist’s Pledge.  Mr. Norquist is more the scowling type, a man of firm ideas and the compassionate soul of Karl Rove.  He’s been called the most powerful person in Washington, and the thirteenth member of the Super Committee

Why?  Well, Grover’s Pledge, under the banner, “Americans for Tax Reform” is absolutely unflinching.  No new taxes.  None.  Never, under any circumstances.  Not war, not economic panic, not massive budget deficits, not flood nor famine, not pestilence.   Grover’s Pledge is very simple  “I pledge to the taxpayers of the state of _______, and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

What makes Grover’s Pledge really interesting is that it requires the continuance of the lowest rates ever attained, regardless of whether they were enacted on a temporary basis, while also locking in every single little tax gimmick, tax avoidance scheme, special interest legislation, questionable deduction or credit-everything from time immemorial to an infinite future. 

And Grover is serious.  Elected officials, having taken the Pledge, place in jeopardy their immortal souls (and their next primary elections) should they break it.  “It is considered binding as long as an individual holds the office for which he or she signed the Pledge.”   Like something out of an Edgar Alan Poe story.

There are currently about 271 Members of Congress have signed Grover’s Pledge.  271 bound people. 271 Members who no longer can think about the needs of the country, the practical implications of budget deficits, the fairness of the tax system, the funding of basic services, the reasonable compromises that are part of any enduring piece of legislation.  271 Members who answer only to the siren call of Grover.

Scared of pledges?  You ought to be.  Not because an elected official cannot hold, and express in their civic roles, deeply thought-out beliefs in limited government, low taxes, and/or conservative social values. But governing is about taking responsibility, not outsourcing it to an unelected third party.  271 Members are enough to have the legislative branch grind to halt.  And that’s exactly what has happened.  If Grover won’t bless it, it won’t happen, and the hard business of governing has been transformed into the risk-free, thought-free rule of the Pledge. 

More and more, we live in a world where choice is neither respected nor considered desirable, a “zero tolerance” world where facts, context, and circumstance are considered unnecessary distractions and individual judgment bows to a collectivist desire to control and punish.   It is the antithesis of the free market of ideas and personal responsibility that is the essence of a democracy.  Instinctively, many of us know this isn’t right; hence the enduring appeal of Ron Paul’s candidacy.

Shouldn’t an elected official be able to exercise free will when he or she is acting on behalf of the people who elected him?  The great British political philosopher, Edmund Burke, whose writings are part of the intellectual underpinnings of the modern Conservative movement, spoke of the obligations an elected official has to those who chose him.  He owes  "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.... not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

I’m not sure Burke would care for Pledges.  He probably wouldn’t make it out of the primaries.


Friday, December 9, 2011

A Special Kind of Madness

A Special Kind Of Madness

The fever is upon us.

Donald Trump is moderating his own debate.  If he’s dissatisfied with the answers, he’s considering a third-party candidacy.

The New York Times and CBS News just polled Iowa Caucus voters.  They love Newt.  When these very socially conservative voters were asked to reconcile this newfound ardor with Newt’s checkered personal history, they said they are worried about the economy.  So values voters pick the career politician and (“not”) lobbyist over Mitt, who has only been married once and actually run businesses and the Olympics? 

Mitt, suddenly worried, has agreed to be interviewed by Fox News’s Chris Wallace.  Mitt doesn’t like interviews, because apparently they ask questions that he hasn’t been pre-programmed to answer.  But, realizing the existential threat that Newt (and bad press) could cause to his campaign, he’s going to sit down with Wallace.  While Fox is an organ of the GOP, Chris Wallace is a very smart man without much of an agenda.  Mitt should see this as an opportunity, and not akin to the Spanish Inquisition.

Speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, Newt suggested that poor children clean toilets in public schools.  And Michelle Bachmann was flummoxed when an eight year old mentioned her Mom was a lesbian (should we call out child protective services??)

In this week’s entries to the pander-bowl, every Republican (except for Ron Paul) seems to be ready to go to war with Iran as a means of expressing their love of Israel.  Rick Perry has even found a way to wiggle his way out of the “not one dime in foreign aid” trap that he set for himself.  It’s apparently not aid when it’s “strategic.”  And Jon Huntsman, the cerebral, comparatively moderate, seemingly sane, former Ambassador to China, apparently has had a midlife existential crisis on climate change. He used to (as in only a month ago) believe in it.  Now, not so much. 

Meanwhile, back in that august chamber known as the United States Senate, Republicans are filibustering everything.  All of it.  Either the bill or appointment meets with Mitch McConnell’s personal approval, or it will not be voted on.  This universal use of the filibuster is the only innovative thing to come out of Congress this year.  47 “strict constructionists” have apparently re-written the Constitution.   

Finally, my daughter happily informed me this morning that Rick Perry’s “Obama’s War on Christianity” video is now the “most hated” YouTube posting of all time (overcoming a pop artist’s posting, the previous record holder.)  Rick’s probably thrilled; he’s finally rising in at least one poll.

But, once you get out of the asylum, there’s a growing concern among sane conservatives as to just how dysfunctional we all are, and just what type of nominee the GOP is going to come up with.   The list of conservative columnists expressing severe doubts about Newt and Mitt, and the entire nominating field, are growing, almost by the day. 

While “true” conservatives have never really loved Mitt for his previous apostasies, they would accept a Romney Presidency as a means of regaining power.  But Gingrich scares them.  He’s a one man billboard for the unhinged. David Brooks, in The New York Times, says of him, “As nearly everyone who has ever worked with him knows, he would severely damage conservatism and the Republican Party if nominated.” In the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker said Gingrich’s remarks on the poor made Al Sharpton look like “the voice of sagacity” (ouch), and Michael Gerson called Gingrich’s inconstancy “not the weakness of the moment…the pattern of a lifetime.”   George Will emphatically rejects both Gingrich and Romney.  “Romney’s main objection to contemporary Washington seems to be that he is not administering it.”  Gingrich, he says,  “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.” 

That’s not exactly an outpouring of support.  I could be cynical and call it just cold political calculus-they all want to win.  But I do believe that for as many small time grifters like Blagojevich and big time blowhards like Rush, there are a lot of politicians and pundits who really do care about making government work.  These people may differ in ideological approach, or which party can do it better, but they are not nihilists. 

So, how much longer will the inmates run the asylum?   Will there be a knight in shining armor to rescue the GOP (and all of us)?  That is hard to tell.  So, as I did a couple of weeks ago in writing about the director John Ford, I’m going to return to the movies for a dose of inspiration and optimism.

In “Monty Python and The Holy Grail,”  a crowd surrounds a young woman and demands she be burned for being a witch.  A knight, passing by, asks “how do you know she’s a witch?”  One of the men shouts “she turned me into a Newt.”  When the knight looks skeptically at him, he replies “I got better.”


Friday, December 2, 2011

Four Letter Words

Four Letter Words

Mitt and Newt.  Newt and Mitt?  A comedy duo?  Actually sounds more like a country-western band.  Definitely not a couple.  But more and more they are becoming among the most popular four-letter words, at least among Republican primary voters. 

This political season has seen more than its share of silly.  There is, of course, the agony and (denied) ecstasy of Cain (another four-letter word).  There’s “nice,” as in “Minnesota Nice,” Tim Pawlenty’s calling card.  “Nice” was very quickly discarded.  Not a lot of demand for “Nice.”  There’s Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.  No one ever seems to like the name “Richard,” which may be a story on to itself, and fewer and fewer seem to like either of the two Ricks.  As an aside, one has to wonder why, while in competition for the most important and serious job in the world, we need so many diminutives, as if Michael Dukakis could have ever really been a “Mike,” but I suppose a little populism can’t hurt.

Then, there’s “Poll.” As in political poll.  In a Rasmussen Reports Poll, among Republican voters, Newt has suddenly stormed into the lead over Mitt by a margin of 38% to 17%, an astounding act akin to Lazarus, given that Newt had been in mid single digits just a couple of months ago.  Now, Rasmussen has a very peculiar sampling and weighting methodology that sometimes seem to equate the general electorate as mirroring registered Republicans, but, in this case, that’s the sample.  Newt by 2/1 over Mitt.

Rasmussen also indicates that, if the election were held today, Newt Gingrich would become the 45th President of the United States.

Let’s take a deep breath for a moment, pause from contemplating that, and return to our Political Jeopardy Game category of “Four Letter Words.”

Mitt was the front-runner, and, unfortunately for him, he’s been branded with two four letter words, “Flip” and “Flop.”  Even more unfortunate is that these words, though a coarse slogan, seem entirely appropriate.  It is astonishing just how much Romney has turned his back on previously held positions.  And these aren’t nuanced changes.  These are complete turn-arounds, on seminal issues such as abortion, climate change, immigration, and (dare I mention it) government involvement in medical insurance.  Some of his supporters in the press have started a narrative of a principled change and evolution in his thinking.  Kathleen Parker, for example, recently wrote a good piece in the Washington Post talking about why Romney is now pro-life.  But from the candidate himself, nothing-it’s as if his past doesn’t exist.  I wonder why he’s chosen this path.  Romney is smart, tall, “Presidential-looking,” with a track record in business and as a Governor-why not go with that?  I understand that Republican Primary voters are far more conservative than the country as a whole, but he hasn’t persuaded many of them that his conversions are real, and he may have persuaded the general electorate that he seemingly has no core principles. 

That’s because Mitt has a second problem with a four-letter word.  That’s “want.”  Every candidate for President must have the fire in the belly, but Mitt wants it too much.  It was Hillary’s problem as well in the last election, although she expressed it less on policy.  Mitt burns to be President.  His smooth demeanor during the early debates obscured it, but, now that he is under pressure, it is coming out.  His problematic Fox interview is just one example.  Mitt thinks he deserves to be President.  He looks at his competitors with an aristocratic disdain.  He not only thinks he doesn’t need to explain the change in his positions, he thinks he shouldn’t be asked about them.  Mitt is running headlong into a profound but unspoken chord in the American psyche.  We want our heroes to be modest.  And we want our Presidents to be like Washington-a reluctant candidate driven by duty.  We are suspicious; justifiably so, of anyone who tells us they deserve it.  Because, in our collective mind, that tells us they just “want” it.  Wanting is not the same as deserving.

Newt has his own issues with four-letter words (and, no, “ego” isn’t a four-letter word).  His problem is “cash.”  Not the Tiffany’s charge account, and not even his lack of fundraising, because that will certainly not be a problem if he’s the nominee.  “Cash,” because when Newt left Congress, that’s what he became.  He monetized his fame and became Newt, Inc.  The man who said Chris Dodd and Barney Frank should be thrown in jail for their close connection to the financial services industry took between $1.6-1.8 Million from Fannie Mae. Fannie isn’t the only one who dropped piles of cash on Newt.  GE, IBM, Microsoft, the ethanol industry, the oil industry, the healthcare industry-all have supposedly “consulted” Newt for “ideas.”  While “idea” could be helpful four-letter word, and Newt’s professorial guise at the debates fit with that, in the special world of Washington, an “idea” equates to “cash.”  Newt, by the way, apparently doesn’t lobby in return for that cash (he would have to register for that).  He thinks big thoughts.      

Of course, many politicians of both parties leave “public service” and go on to lobby, or to work for the industries they formerly regulated, or to ideological think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, Brookings, etc.  Rudy has been trading off his “America’s Mayor” image for more than a decade and has become a very wealthy man.  And there’s a special assisted living facility for GOP luminaries at Fox (Newt, of course, had a suite there as well.) 

So, why is “cash” such a problem for Newt?  Americans are easy to forgive, and primary voters exercise a very particularized type of memory.  Why not this time?  If they can forgive his personal issues, and forget his bad ending as Speaker, why not this?  Sunlight is a problem for politicians.  The next few years are going to be very difficult for most Americans.  The economy isn’t going to come roaring back, no matter who is President.  The middle class is going to suffer.  The elderly are going to see cuts in entitlement programs and higher premiums, and private and public pensions are going to be under assault.  The overwhelming majority of the electorate will pay more, and get less.  And every special interest group is out there right now pleading its case, often with barrels of cash.

The electorate might take notice.  And that would take us to a five-letter word, “trust.” Let's see if that mixes well with any of the aforementioned four-letter words.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Roger B. Taney, the NRA, and Hillary (Not That Hillary)

Roger B. Taney, the NRA, and Hillary  (Not That Hillary)

There’s a first time for everything.  First steps, first words, first day of school.  This is a story that starts with my first experience with the NRA.

Summer camp, 1969.  The traditional spectrum of activities: baseball, basketball, soccer, and swimming.  Less interesting rainy day things like lanyards and clay.  And riflery.  That was pretty cool for suburban kid.  All that wonderful solemnity of going to the cabinet to get the guns (fairly harmless bolt-action .22 caliber rifles), making sure the chambers were clear, marching them across the camp to the riflery range, right hand on the stock, forestock in your left, pointed down and away from you. And Hillary, the riflery instructor.  She was petite, had shoulder-length light brown hair, hazel eyes, fantastic freckles. And she was a dead shot.  I was smitten.  And in my completely clueless proto-teen mind, I held to the idea that if I could just shoot well enough (a few five bulls-eyes targets would do it), I might win myself an NRA sharpshooter patch (it, too, was very cool, crossed rifles against a white background), and her enduring admiration.

In the fog of middle age, I can’t even remember Hillary’s last name, but I can remember how I felt about guns.  It was fairly uncomplicated, without Constitutional references.  They were regular, normal parts of life, and should be licensed and legal for regular and normal people.  My parents didn’t want them in the house, but my father, and most of my friend’s fathers had served in WWII or Korea, gone through basic training and had used them.  Some of our neighbors hunted, and I would imagine many of them owned guns. The 1969 version of the NRA seemed like the Boy Scouts or the Rotary. 

Whatever powerful (and delusional) drive I might have had to get that NRA patch, I have to admit I fell short.  I ascribe it purely to my nearsightedness.  Besides, Hillary was way too old for me.  But, perhaps it served to send me back to reading history, and, in a round about way, to the NRA in 2011.

But first, a stop in 1857.  The Supreme Court, ruling in the Dred Scott case, declared (for only the second time in our nation’s history) that an Act of Congress, the Compromise of 1820, was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

The decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and, it was, by design, the strongest possible statement of Southern and slaveholding interests.  First, Taney ruled that African Americans could, by virtue of their birth, never be citizens of the United States, whether they were free or slave.  At the time the Constitution was adopted, he wrote, blacks had been "regarded as beings of an inferior order" with "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Then, he went on to declare that, even though individual states opposed slavery, even though Dred Scott’s owner had travelled with him to free states, and to free territories, that did not change Dred Scott’s status.  Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the federal territories. It was irrelevant whether a community had slaves or was even sympathetic; it was irrelevant whether there were laws prohibiting slave ownership, slaves were property, and a property owner could take his property wherever he wanted, and use it as he saw fit.  To do otherwise was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process. An entire, multigenerational history of hard-won compromise between slave and free states was wiped out with the stroke of a pen.  In his self-absorption, Taney erroneously thought his would be the final word; in fact, he probably had as much to do as any other person in igniting the Civil War. Roger B. Taney, the ultimate activist judge.

Earlier this month, the House adopted HR 822, the  “National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011”.  Under the act, a gun owner who obtained a valid license to carry a concealed weapon in his or her home state could carry in other states, as long as those states allow concealed weapons and don't have specific rules about concealed weapons carried by nonresidents. What’s particularly intriguing about HR 822 is that state and local ordinances restricting the places in which one may carry a concealed weapon, or who may obtain a license, may not be enforceable against a visitor from a state that has less restrictive licensing rules.  What we have is a race to the bottom, with the state with most expansive view of gun rights essentially setting the law of the land. 

Further, the NRA has successfully supported the “restoration” movement, a nationwide push to allow violent felons to regain their gun rights after they are released from prison.   A number of states have now adopted this rule (occasionally, as was reported in The Times on November 13, with catastrophic results).

We ought to think carefully about that.  49 states (all but Illinois) allow concealed carry, under defined circumstances, but those circumstances can vary greatly from state to state. Even though the individual legislatures of those states have carefully decided who may get a gun, applying criteria that are reflective of local mores and values, those local qualification rules will be inapplicable to out of state visitors. Perhaps the citizens of many of those states don’t mind-perhaps they are very gun friendly.  In fact, about 35 states already have some form of reciprocity on gun permits.   But there are also ten "may issue" states, where the licensing authorities have some discretion in the issuance of permits. HR 822 blows up this regulatory framework.  The NRA calls it nothing more than a national driver’s license for guns.  It’s quite a bit more than that.  HR 822 allows a twice-convicted felon with a history of mental problems to regain his permit in Minnesota (a “shall issue” and “restoration” state), stride through the streets of New York City while packing heat, and take the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building.

What about the 10th Amendment?  It, and nullification are the favorites of politicians of a certain stripe whenever they disagree with a Federal law.  To Rick Perry, the 10th Amendment is the 11th Commandment.  What about the rights of the people of the State of New York to regulate (not prohibit, but regulate) gun ownership to further public safety?  Not so important.  If Texas says one of their citizens can have a gun, New York must bow to the Lone Star State, and Federal Law will enforce that. 

Roger Taney would have approved.  For him, certain types of constitutional rights (slave-ownership) superseded all other rights.  For the NRA, it seems unrestricted gun ownership and usage, by literally anyone, holds the same position of esteem.  Not the NRA of my youth.

As for me, I still feel the same way about guns and the Second Amendment; that gun ownership is a right to be freely exercised by rational, law abiding citizens, subject, just like any other right, to certain reasonable and limited restrictions.  I guess that’s so 1969.

I wonder what Hillary thinks about HR 822.  I don’t know where she is these days, or whether she can still pick something off at 100 yards, but something tells me, she wouldn’t have gone for it either.  At least I hope not.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What John Ford Knew About American Politics

What John Ford Knew About American Politics

A good weekend has beautiful weather, politics and baseball in it.  A superb one adds a John Ford Western.

Ford may be the finest truly American filmmaker of all time, and although his most famous works are probably “The Quiet Man,” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, he made a remarkable series of magnificent Westerns, including  “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” “Stage Coach”, and “My Darling Clementine.” Ford’s Westerns are notable for their beautiful cinematography and location shooting in Monument Valley, their strong and nuanced characters, and a decidedly American perspective on right and wrong.  Ford’s characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. Watch John Wayne in ‘The Searchers” as the distilled essence of revenge-driven racism and anger, or Henry Fonda as the ambitious martinet Colonel Thursday in “Fort Apache”, or even Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” and you can see that virtue, heroism, and high ideals often don’t come wrapped together in perfect packages.

Ford understands the American psyche.  He gets what makes us tick.  He does something only the smartest politician does; he trusts our compass to find our way through moral ambiguity and make our own judgments.  

We had elections this last week, and the results show once again just how smart and discriminating we can be, and how insightful John Ford was.  Thousands of state and local races were decided, and among them, a very few took on a more national significance.  In Virginia, a disappointed-with-Obama electorate handed Republicans effective control of the State Senate, which means they now are completely in charge.  In Mississippi, the Republicans took control of both houses of their Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, but a controversial ballot measure that would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception, was surprisingly and soundly defeated.  In Arizona, Russell Pearce, the combative Republican President of the State Senate and author of the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation in the country, was recalled and replaced by Jerry Lewis, a kindler and gentler Conservative Republican.  In Ohio, a non-binding resolution blocking the individual mandate of Obamacare won by a large margin.  But, at the same time, Ohio voters rolled back a draconian attempt by Governor Kasich and the Republican controlled state legislature to effectively destroy public service unions.  And in Maine, the people overwhelming restored a four-decade tradition of late registration voting.  The Republican governor and legislature had changed that, hoping to reduce Democratic turnout.

What John Ford knew was that we care not only about virtue of the ends we seek, but the manner in which we seek them.  In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, Jimmy Stewart’s good and productive life was built on a pair of lies, and he’s left to acknowledge them as an old man.  In “Fort Apache”, Henry Fonda realizes, too late, that the Indian Chief he tried to trick has outsmarted him.  His command is destroyed, and he rejoins them in a final act of suicidal honor.
In “The Searchers”, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards draws back from a climatic act of murder, but he’s not ready to return the world of the living.  He walks away from home as the door literally closes on him. 

It’s sometimes said that America is a “center-right”.  We aren’t center-right.  What we are is centered; centered on a core concept of justice, centered on a sense of fair play. Centered on John Ford’s vision of America.  We don’t like big and abrupt changes, and so bellwether states like Ohio can show their disapproval of Obamacare.  We know that human beings are imperfect, but we resent too much interference in our personal lives, and so the very socially conservative and pro-life Mississippi voter can decisively vote down a proposal that seems to go too far.  We have a healthy suspicion of authority, and don’t approve when it’s abused to benefit one group over another (Ohio and Maine).  We play hard and rough at times, but we do care about justice.  Finally, and decisively, we don’t like mean, and so Russell Pearce, who embodied that “virtue”, was shown the door.  

Once again, we have managed to be better than those who aspire to lead us.  I find that encouraging.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

There’s a wonderful episode of the old Andy Griffith Show called “Man in a Hurry.”

It was first aired in 1963, and tells the story of a hard-driving businessman named Malcolm Tucker who’s car breaks down outside of Mayberry on a Sunday, and his furious (and futile) efforts to get it repaired so he can make it to his important meeting in Charlotte the following day.

Mr. Tucker is stymied everywhere; the garage is closed, no one is working, people are in their Sunday best, and the only long-distance telephone line in town is a party line (and that’s monopolized by the elderly Mendelbright sisters, who have their regular Sunday talk).  He blusters and pleads, and even resorts to stealing Gomer’s pick up truck, but the meandering pace of Mayberry on a Sunday is not going to be disturbed.

I sometimes think of this episode when I watch the arguments over immigration, which is the true Third Rail of American politics.

Immigration is at the confluence of a series of deeply visceral issues.  Entitlement programs, education, employment, race and ethnicity, assimilation, all the little fears and sometimes prejudices that creep into our daily lives. 

If you watch the GOP Presidential debates you come away with the sense that all our problems would be solved if we could only hermetically seal off our (Southern) borders.  They compete with each other over who can be tougher: fences, double fences, electric fences, barbed-wire fences, high tech surveillance, drones, boots on the ground, moats with alligators.  Immigrants need to be walled off, arrested, interned, deported.  The candidates also take potshots at each other’s sins.  Mitt Romney had an illegal gardener.  Perry, in a rare moment of humanity, supported the education of illegal immigrants.  Michelle Bachmann has no sin, but points out that President Obama has many (especially of the Kenyan relative kind).

And it’s not just in Washington-Arizona has Sheriff Joe Arapio and the relentlessly partisan Jan Brewer grabbing for microphones and a Fox News gig.  State legislators everywhere are competing with each other to be tougher, bolder, and more restrictive.  Alabama and South Carolina laws make transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant a criminal offense, create a misdemeanor for failure to carry registration documents and requires law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested.  The Obama Administration has challenged several of these in court, but given the ideological split in the Federal courts system right now, the ultimate outcome is uncertain.

Although many Republican strategists see this as a wedge issue to pry away votes in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, it’s not purely party driven, nor is it entirely monolithic.  Republican-supporting business interests are quietly lobbying for guest worker programs, and the farming industry is desperate for (often illegal) migrant workers.  On the other side of the aisle, organized labor is more leery.  The New York Times had an interesting article about how immigration sometimes cuts across party lines in strange ways, such as Senator Schumer teaming with Senator Mike Lee of Utah (the Tea Party candidate who unseated incumbent Republican Robert Bennett for being insufficiently conservative) to support visas for foreigners who buy real estate, and Representative Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) who sponsored a bill for visa programs for tech and highly skilled workers.

But, nevertheless, the loudest cries seem to emanate from the conservative side of the aisle, including the radio and television shock-jocks, and are often coupled with voter suppression legislation on a state-by-state basis which is clearly intended to limit minority (and particularly Hispanic) voter turnout.

But why all this?  What are the philosophical (as opposed to political) underpinnings beneath all this passion?  One thing we can say with absolute certainty; with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, or at the very least, from immigrant stock. My grandparents and their extended families immigrated-I can see their records in the Ellis Island archives. Every DAR member’s ancestors were immigrants.  African-Americans have their own tragic history with immigration.  And, while we’ve had nativist and anti-immigrant movements before, including an entire party, the Know Nothings, we’ve had wave after wave of immigrants from every part of the world.  So why now for the moats, the alligators, the fences on fences?  What are we saving ourselves from?

Of course, I’ve just engaged in a type of solipsism.  My personal history and my present world are filled with immigrants.  I live in New York City, where public school students speak over 130 languages at home. The cab driver is South Asian, the physics teacher from Jamaica, the dry cleaner Korean, the real estate broker has a deep Irish brogue, the doorman is Ecuadorean, and the gentlemen down the hall on my floor are respectively, Spanish, Iranian, and Scottish immigrants.  So, when I look around my town, the place I live, this diversity is my reality. 

It may be my reality, but it is not necessarily others. And regardless of what I may think of even the darkest motivations of the worst of the anti-immigrant activists, there are some real considerations that have to come into play.  Eleven million undocumented aliens are too many, particularly if they place additional burdens on an overtaxed educational, social welfare and healthcare system.  That number tells us that previous attempts at immigration legislation, quotas, and limited amnesty haven’t worked particularly well.  The tendency for certain immigrant groups to cluster themselves in mini-ghettos and isolate themselves culturally creates significant barriers to assimilation-even more importantly, to citizenship in the fullest sense of the word.  It is critical that immigrants learn English and are able to fully participate in and contribute to the society they elected to join.  So, it’s not enough to just buzz off the anti-immigrant section of our electorate as yahoos or racists. An effective immigration policy has to couple compassion and our historic openness and tolerance with a system that has defined and enforced rules.  It must also demand of our new guests (and possibly future fellow citizens) that, while they honor the customs of their native lands, they are fully supportive of ours. 

Which brings me back to Mayberry.  After being irritated by the bumpkiness of Gomer, Barney, and Wally (who owns the filling station but won’t work on Sunday,) Mr. Tucker is finally convinced he is marooned and calms down enough to allow himself to be brought home to Andy’s house, fed by Aunt Bee, and generally treated like a member of the family.  The closing shot is of him asleep in a rocking chair on Andy’s porch, a partially peeled apple in his hand. 

These are potent images of small-town simplicity and friendliness, of escape from the driving, pushing, success and money-oriented life.  The women have gender roles familiar to the time (homemaker, teacher, librarian), but they are smart and strong.  For all their quirkiness, and the citizens of Mayberry are alike; all white, rural, unsophisticated but not unintelligent.  They slow down on Sunday; most go to church, where the minister gives a predictably bland and gentle sermon. They aren’t critical scolds, but they have a clear sense of right and wrong and of both community and self-reliance.   They are fictional characters, but somehow seem more authentic that our modern politicians who claim the same values.

I don’t know how many Mayberrys, if any, are left in America, but I think they occupy a space in many people’s souls, a yearning for a quiet place, untouched by time, with friendly and familiar faces.  Immigration-at least the modern type, less European, more Latino-threatens that.  It tells us that the quiet place is not forever, that the new and strange will push out the old, and that the world we knew is no longer ours to own completely.

We struggle with that, whether loudly in the streets, or quietly in our hearts.  We know our country is becoming more and more diverse, and that sometime in the foreseeable future, those of European ancestry will no longer be in the majority.  Our politicians largely ignore that: they often pander to either our worst xenophobic instincts or our liberal guilt. Few speak openly and honestly about the societal challenges to come, fewer still about the expectations of a common future.

We are going to have to have that conversation, fences, moats, alligators, and drones notwithstanding.  It’s the Third Rail, but it’s going to be touched.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In Search of a Champion

In Search of a Champion

This past summer, when I started to think about what I wanted to see on Syncopated Politics, I anticipated some sort of erudite unified field theory of everything political, with multiple voices assaying one big issue after another in depth, with balance, with moderation. 

I couldn’t have been more naïve in my hubris.  It is extraordinarily difficult to fill a blank screen with something coherent.  And, it is even harder to analyze the problems presented by such a complex organism as the country and the world we live in.

You wouldn’t know that from listening to the Republican Debates, or the White House Press briefings.  You certainly wouldn’t know it from the slick ads that run in the media (Herman Cain’s notwithstanding).  Politicians rehash the same nostrums over and over again, the same orthodoxy that substitutes for independent thinking.  Tax cuts for rich people, tax cuts for the middle class, deregulation, drill baby drill, ever more stimulus; all to keep applying the astronomically expensive cattle prod to an already insensate economy.  Reminds one of the wonderful old advertisements from the Patent Medicine Era called “One for a Man, Two for a Horse”.  Colorful, but with very little chance of actually curing anything more than an overfilled wallet.

Yet, in the real world, the world we live in, simple hasn’t and doesn’t work, and there absolutely nothing that can give us any assuredness that doubling down on simple will work better.  At the Columbia University conference I attended in September, some of the world’s smartest economists didn’t just disagree on nuance, they often took diametrically opposed positions.  If they don’t know, why should we think our political aspirants do?

Obviously, our politicians don’t know.  But what they can do, far more effectively than even Nobel Prize winning economists, is to lead, to frame the debate, to set direction, to create consensus.  At this, they have proven to be even bigger failures than in coming up with viable solutions.  And the people know it.  Walk away for a moment from echo chamber of spin and outrage, and the people know that their leadership has failed them.  Approval of Congress now stands at 9%, a number so extraordinary you wonder more about who is in the 9% then why the rest disapprove.

This vacuity is not the sole province of the GOP.  The New York Time’s Thomas Freidman wrote a superb column in the aftermath of Steve Job’s death,  “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio”.  Yes, it’s true that the Republicans are devoid of any real ideas, and can be mean and loony and myopic, hell bent on destroying Obama at any cost.  But the President isn’t rising to the occasion.  Where are your ideas, Mr. Obama?  Why won’t you push for them?

Mr. Obama came into the office thinking he might be a post-partisan President.  He’s not, of course: he’s the most polarizing President since, well, George W. Bush, who was the most polarizing President since Bill Clinton.  Clinton, Bush, Obama.  All represent a new turn in American politics.  De-legitimization.  I remember reading a respected, fairly apolitical journalist talking about Bill Clinton a few months after he took office “he won’t do” said this talking head.  The Washington elites, the power brokers, the connected who always make out well, regardless of which party controls the White House, they had decided “he won’t do." Too coarse, too outsider, too low born, too something.  Not their kind.  Clinton outfoxed them, but the first impression still sticks in my mind.  Dubya’s “win” came with an asterisk that never quite washed away, he literally became a President of 50% plus one vote and then decided to govern that way.  Rather than a bipartisan or just open-minded approach, he installed his fixer, Karl Rove, in the White House to run both his campaign and policy, outsourced decision-making to Dick Cheney, spent over five hundred days on vacation, and just dared us to dislike him.  He ruled with an iron hand, holding the narrowest of majorities, knowing his own party would back him regardless of results.  Bush II left compromise a discarded tool-he simply didn’t care what the rest of America thought, and fancied that willful deafness was leadership.

And then, Obama.  The arc of his ascent was stunning: a state legislator to Senator, to President, in the blink of an eye.  Watching Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain, react to him, you couldn’t help but get the impression that both of them thought exactly the same thing “What the Hell is he doing here?  How can this guy be beating me?”

Well, he did beat them, with skill and nerve and eloquence.  He preached moderation, inclusion, compromise, one nation, and people wanted it. But none of it worked when he became President, and the electorate soon realized it.  The campaign never ended. From the moment he took the oath, his enemies aimed a sustained barrage of personal accusations, innuendo, birthers, madrassas’, Kenya, etc. etc. To this day, there are many in this country that think he has no right to the job, and far more who would do anything get rid of him.  Just yesterday, the Loudoun County (Virginia) GOP sent out an email depicting him as a zombie with a bullet hole in his head.  Ha ha-all in good fun!!!

So, Mr. Obama, in this environment, what’s next?  Well, here’s some cheap advice. Be a champion.  Champion your ideas.  Make them big ideas-not the “bite sized initiatives.”  Go big.  Lead.  Fight for what you believe in.  Show the rest of us you have a direction.  Show us you care about something more than kumbaya.  Because whether your term in office has 14 months left or 62 months, remember that you will be fought every last inch for any initiative, regardless of whether it has merit. There will be no kumbaya.  It was Bill Clinton’s genius, even through his lowest moments, to give the impression of rolling up his sleeves every day and going to work for the American people. Do the same.  Make your case-tell us why your ideas are better.  Make the Republicans fight you on concepts, not slogans, and use every tool in your toolbox.  Stop relying on the rest of us to see the smallness of some of your opponents and the games they play.  Show us the largeness of your ideas.  Be a champion for what you believe in; and win or lose next year on what you believe in. 

Roll up you sleeves,  President Obama, go back to work, articulate where you want to go, and start punching.  Trust the American people to make the right choice, because we will choose regardless.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dexia and Little Old Rhode Island

The Dexia Conundrum and Little Old Rhode Island

Dexia is large Belgian-French bank with offices in many countries, including the United States. Rhode Island is a small state in New England, with population a bit over 1,000,000. 

Despite their apparent dissimilarities Dexia and Rhode Island have something in common.  Neither has the ability to fully meet its future obligations; Dexia to its creditors and counterparties, and Rhode Island to its citizen-pensioners.  Their experience highlights a central practical and philosophical conflict that policy makers have to resolve.  Governments are the mechanism of income and asset redistribution.  They choose how to allocate risk and reward, and who to pick as winners and losers.  How they do that going forward is tremendously important in the evolving conception of the social contract.  What obligations does government have to its citizens, and what obligations does it have to private capital?

Dexia has now had two near death experiences. In 2008, it was near bankruptcy, and bailed out.  This past week, it returned to the public trough, with the governments of France and Belgium rescuing it from collapse. Public money was funneled into a private corporation, sparing creditors and trading partners capital losses. The New York Times had an excellent piece on this

Rhode Island’s situation is less acute, but the Times reports it has a “looming pension crisis.”  In Rhode Island, politicians, led by the Democratic State Treasurer Gina Raimundo, have begun to think about the unthinkable-what happens when there just isn’t enough money to pay state workers their full pensions, and keep up the rest of the services that the State already provides.

There’s a tendency among politicians (and Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street types) to conflate TARP with bailouts.  But they are not exactly the same. While it’s an oversimplification, TARP advanced cash on a temporary basis to large financial institutions to stabilize them and provide liquidity during a credit crunch.  The cash was paid back.  What the French and Belgian governments are doing with Dexia is not TARP-it is really what our government did with AIG.  Dexia, like AIG, is essentially a conduit for public money to permanently pass to private companies. AIG and Dexia were gamblers who made bets, and when they couldn’t pay those bets, the taxpayer stepped in to pay off the winners.

Mitt Romney has made a case that TARP, for all its flaws, was essential, and as much as I rue the lost opportunities to reign in the irresponsible behavior that led to the 2008 panic, I agree with him.  He deserves some credit for bucking the trend.

But AIG and Dexia are fundamentally different.  They don’t merely seek to stabilize; they seek to make private capital whole at the expense of the taxpayer.  Why should a capitalist society do this?  When we enter into a contract-any contract-with a third party-we take some degree of risk.  My parents owned a mom and pop pharmacy for thirty years.  They risked their own capital to buy goods.  When they handed someone his prescription, and that customer had a charge account, they trusted that person to pay them later.  When a charge account went delinquent, they ended up taking the loss.  No government agency came by with a check.  If that is true for a small hometown business, why shouldn’t it also be true for the mightiest of the mighty?  Why shouldn’t the shareholders of Goldman Sachs also be risking their capital when management enters into a contract that goes bad?

The same can be said of the pensioners in Rhode Island.  The balance here is a trickier one.  These are state promises to the individual-essentially deferred compensation.  Why aren’t pensioners entitled to 100 cents on the dollar? Well, in an ideal world, they should be.  The government has an obligation to keep its promises to its citizens.  It also has an equal obligation to maintain basic services and to treat all its citizens equally.  Just as it cannot morally ask pensioners to take nothing, it cannot ask taxpayers for a infinite amount. These are wrenching decisions-they aren't about how many billions in bonuses can be paid to senior management, but whether to close a firehouse or a library.   One hopes that reasonable people can sit down in a spirit of compromise to try to minimize the damage. 

One also hopes that our politicians are up to the task of making fair and prudent choices, although it is hard to have optimism at this point.  Both major parties are binary in their thinking.  The GOP position appears to be cut programs, pensions and entitlements because they are deemed unaffordable, and then plow the savings into tax cuts for the affluent on the dubious assumption that they  “create jobs.”  Then eliminate regulations on the financial services industry (so they can be free to fail again, with no risk to capital?).  The GOP views the European example as a vindication of their own view that the wealthy need even more (see Greg Mankiw, an economist currently advising Romney, in his opinion piece.) Democrats, in their own way, are just as bad-they seem unable to think about serious reforms, and if they are unable to think about it, then they cannot articulate it to those of their constituents who would have to make sacrifices.  You can’t have a “Grand Bargain” when neither party wants to negotiate.

That’s a real problem, because if we were to take a moment to look around us, the signs of instability are everywhere.  The Tea Party and OWS are sideshows compared to the riots going on in Europe right now.  If there’s strong medicine to be administered, there needs to be the perception that it is being doled out fairly. 

And yet, one wonders if there is the will to do this.  Who wins, and who loses?

At Dexia, we have the answer.  It's private capital at the expense of the public.  Alexandre Joly, the head of strategy, portfolios and market activities at Dexia, is quoted as saying that the idea of forcing Dexia’s trading partners to accept a discount on what they are owed “is a monstrous idea.”

A “monstrous idea?”  As monstrous as asking the public to pay for it?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fight Night in Vegas

Fight Night in Vegas; Fun and Games With Rick and Mitt

The Republican Party held a debate this past Tuesday in Las Vegas.  It was the 87th debate in the last three months, and, fitting with the setting, it was as much a boxing tournament as “a full and frank discussion of the issues”.

The pregame analysis focused on preparation, particularly that of two heavyweights.  In previous debates, the smooth and agile Romney had slipped punches like a dancer, demeanor (and hair) unruffled.  Perry, on the other hand, had shown up undertrained and slightly above the optimal fighting weight, relying on more on sheer aggression.   This time, he promised, it would be different.

The crowd was also primed to cheer for the undercards.  Promising light-heavy Herman Cain had showed both flair and charm.  The Pennsylvania welterweight Rick Santorum was winning fans for his pugnacity and willingness to try to punch above his weight, and Michelle Bachman had thrilled before.  And there was a lot of love for grizzled veterans Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul:  no one expected them to win, but they could still teach the younger generation a thing or two.  As to Jon Huntsman, expectations were high that he would keep his record perfect-not a mark on his face, nor any on his gloves

The bookie’s early line was Romney, with a lot of the “smart money” coming in from the New York syndicate.  But there were plenty of ten-gallon hats and bolo ties in the crowd, and Perry was holding his own.  Cain had surprising support, much of it coming in a single wager (rumored to be the Koch boys). 

The contestants were introduced; the crowd cheered its favorites.  Of the two heavies, Romney is taller and has a longer reach.  He fights upright, using his jab and his leverage to keep opponents at bay.  Perry, however, looks a little thicker through the chest, and you get the feeling if he can get inside, he could work the body over quite a bit.  Romney may be more Sugar Ray Robinson.  Perry is definitely Jake LaMotta.

Respected Referee Anderson Cooper had been selected; some said for his fitness as much as for his verbal ability.  Rules were pretty simple; no speaking after the bell, no hitting in the clinches (in the actual event, both these were often ignored). 

I could go on like this (especially since Mitt actually put his hand on Rick), but I’m veering too much off point.  The Las Vegas debate, because of its format, had the greatest potential for substance.  Unfortunately (although tremendously entertaining) it mostly highlighted the real flaw of the primary system-the overwhelming temptation for all the contestants to substitute red-meat slogans for specifics.

So, at the risk of turning what was a lot of fun sour, I’m going to hunt for specifics amongst the bloodletting.  Without in any way intending to ignore Michelle Bachmann, Newt, Ron Paul, or the empty chair formerly known as Jon Huntsman, I want to assay the views of the primary pugilists.

Let’s start with Herman Cain.  The 9-9-9 system, he seems to be claiming, is both revenue neutral and a positive good for all.  That’s an oxymoronic position, since the plan clearly and unequivocally benefits the affluent.  So, if 9-9-9 were revenue neutral, it would logically follow that the revenue shortfall comes from the less affluent. Perhaps this conclusion is an unfair application of the laws of addition and subtraction.  If so, I’d like to see that demonstrated, in a manner that uses other than fruit analogies. 

Mitt Romney continues to insist that Romneycare in Massachusetts is a continuing blessing to the people of that state, however, Obamacare, for all its similarities, is a catastrophe to the country and demands immediate repeal.  I’d like him to explain that.  Is there something in the Bay State resident’s genetic makeup that makes them hardier than the average American?  Are they less likely to use medical services?  Are the insurance companies there kinder and gentler?  Is it diet-perhaps all that fish?  Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Obamacare is an unadulterated good thing.  I would just like Mr. Romney to explain why it is an unmitigated disaster for the non-Red Sox fan.

Rick Perry seems to have a plan (which will be announced on the Friday following whatever debate is taking place at the time).  His plan seems to involve the elimination of all environmental regulations and drilling and mining until the entire country will appear to have been invaded by gophers from another planet.  He also likes a flat tax.  His flat tax may suffer from the same deficiencies that Mr. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan (although, of course, it is, no doubt, far superior), so, once again, I would like a simple illustration, in hard numbers, of how it would affect my family.  And, if it’s not revenue neutral, what programs does Governor Perry intend to cut to pay for it?  I think that’s a reasonable question.

Rick Santorum, a former tag team member gone rogue, has a plan.  He’s for a host of conservative social values, and I think it’s laudable that he is as steadfast on those issues.  He’s against Obamacare (not surprising in this group).  And he’s against Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.  But I have to ask the former Senator, other than telling me how you would like me to live my personal life, what do you stand for?  I couldn’t learn much from the debate, so I went to his website.  And, after making my way through the thicket of contribution “asks” and self-adulation, I was able to find Rick’s “Where I Stand”.  He’s a “Defender of the Taxpayer”, and “Believer in American Exceptionalism”.  Not much meat there.  I’m a taxpayer (an aging taxpayer), and I’m actually very patriotic.  I’d love to know what Mr. Santorum has in mind for aging, taxpaying patriots.

The problem for me is that, after all these debates, and hearing all the cheers, I have a very good idea why Republican primary voters should want one of these people in the White House in 2013, starting, first and foremost, with the simple fact that none of them are named Obama.  What I don’t have is a single reason why I should vote for any of them-except to out the current incumbent.  But I’m a moderate Democrat.  If I agree with your premise that Obama is a poor President, sell me on voting for you.   Tell what my country will look like in January 2014 if the GOP controls Washington in 2013 so I can decide whether I want to choose you.  What are my taxes going to be?  How about Social Security and Medicare?  What programs will be cut?  What wars will we be still be fighting, and/or what new ones are we going to start?  How about the privacy of my home? The curriculum in my daughter’s school?  The environment? These are things I care about-tell me what you are going to do.

Sadly, all I can do is speculate.  Here’s the dirty little secret of primaries.  To get through them you tell your partisans everything they want to hear, while hoping that no one else is actually listening to what you might really mean.  With Rick and Mitt, there’s a parallel narrative going on.  Rick talks about being an “authentic conservative”.  His demeanor is one that is directed to the primary voter and says, in effect “I’m going to take out all my aggression on Democrats”.  To the rest of America, he says, “I’m good with jobs and the economy”.  Mitt is subtler.  He soothes the skeptical primary voter with “you may not like me that much, but I can get elected and, when I do, you will achieve your policy goals.”  To the rest of the country, it’s “Mitt Romney is not an ideologue-I’m a problem solver.”

President Obama, the focus of all of this highly concentrated scorn (including today’s failing, the death of Qaddafi), has his own issues.  These will likely not be explored during his primary season, since he doesn’t (yet) have a Democratic challenger.  He, does, of course, have a record.  More on that in a later post, as the bell has rung for me this evening, and I need to spend a few minutes with my manager.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Romney Inevitability Principle (or, is that the Romney Uncertainty Principle?)

The Romney Inevitability Principle (or, is that the Romney Uncertainty Principle?)

“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.  Walter Heisenberg, 1927, physicist and a founder of quantum mechanics. 

Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican Presidential Nominee.   Well, perhaps he is.  It certainly looks that way, with Rick Perry’s stop, drop, and roll into the Texas tumbleweed, Michelle Bachmann’s slowly fading Cheshire Cat grin, Newt Gingrich’s turn as the slightly-off relative with a gift for the inappropriate,  Rick Santorum’s earnest Nurse Ratched, and Ron Paul’s…Ron Paul?

I know, I forgot John Huntsman, who might make a good President if he could restrain himself from cracking bad jokes and stop looking like an actor who got a call back for the show he didn’t audition for.  And Herman Cain, who has an odd affinity for numerology, reminds me more and more of H. Ross Perot and somehow will get about 19% of the vote without actually saying anything concrete. 

So, Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican Presidential Nominee?  Well, he has a solid record as a Governor, he was a successful businessman, and he did wonders for the Olympics.  He looks like a President, in a sort of a Michael Rennie “The Day The Earth Stood Still” kind of way.  He’s obviously smart.  He’s been running nonstop since the 2008 primaries. He’s raised tons of money and has Wall Street behind him.  He’s smooth and unruffled: the pundits have crowned him the winner of the debates.  Nary a wrinkle creases his rather noble brow.

But there are these strange little boomlets.  Bachmann performs well at a debate, and draws even with Mitt.  Perry gets in the race, and leapfrogs Romney.  Now Herman Cain is polling better.  Still, Romney soldiers on, never too high, never too low.  He’s a bit like George Bush (the good one), who “reminded every woman of her first husband.”  Not much of a sense of humor, but he’s a solid guy: the one who wore a tie all the time, the one who picked you up at the train station in his sedan when you lost your wallet, the one who never missed a Rotary Club meeting.

And it’s all paying off.  Strange coincidences, the unseen hand, all move things in Mitt’s direction.  Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Nice, gets off the zinger of the year with “ObamneyCare,” and then backs away from it.  His star falls into the night, and he endorses Romney a few weeks later.  Bachmann talks about vaccines and autism, and reinforces her fringe image.  Perry soars out of the box, and then, unaccountably, completely loses his footing and starts speaking in tongues.  Palin keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box wherever there’s a camera, and suddenly, on the same day, is identified as the model for the psycho Veep in a novel by a McCain staffer, and Roger Ailes of Fox says he hired her “because she was hot and got ratings.”  Hours later, she’s out.  Chris Christie steps into the ruby slippers, and, just as quickly, steps out of them, endorsing Romney.  The Republican establishment, the true elite, is quietly and firmly closing ranks.  They will pick the nominee, not the noisy (and possibly unelectable) Tea Party types.  So Romney is inevitable.  He’s going to be the nominee, and since Barack Obama is destined to be a one term President, it is Romney who will occupy the White House in 2013, and a new Gilded Age can begin.  The Romney Inevitability Principle.  It’s like the XFiles.  You know something is going on (perhaps in that hanger back there), you are not sure how, but it’s going to happen.

Except, there’s one problem.  No one willing to get out front is actually inspired by Mitt Romney.  The string-pullers who really run everything like the privacy of their boardrooms.  And those folk aren’t ideological, except in believing that their self-interest is in the best interest of the country.  There’s a quiet, almost clammy feel to all this.  It was said of Obama that he was a blank slate onto whom people projected their hopes.  Romney has no fixed positions.  He’s currently a Conservative’s Conservative, except that he was a moderate Republican governor of a very Blue state and the architect of the model for the very health plan that drives so many so crazy.  He had a positive record on the environment, a moderate record on social issues, except now he doesn’t.  Yes, he was a Republican, but, as a Perry aide rather brutally noted just a couple of days ago, after the Christie endorsement, a “Northeast Republican,” and that is surely not a Real Republican.  Perhaps the real Mitt Romney, the possibly “President Mitt Romney,” is that Conservative’s Conservative.  But none of us really know what Mitt Romney actually believes in (besides a profound yearning for the office), so you don’t know what you are voting for.  You can’t measure his positions, and his momentum, at the same time. 

The Romney Uncertainty Principle.