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.