Monday, December 30, 2013

Barack Obama's Ride

Barack Obama’s Ride
(With profuse apologies to Longfellow.)

Listen my children and you shall hear,
The tale of Barack’s very bad year,
It began with such promise, November Two-Twelve
He romped over Mitt, and Ryan he shelved.
Yet, back at the White House as he stood at the stern
The crimson storm waters began to leap and to churn.

He said to his staff, "If the Red States they march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the Congressional arch.
A ruby red torch as a warning light,--
Signal one if by land, and two if by sea;
Make it thrice if Issa—he means to impeach me.
Then be ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Blue county and village and farm.

Then he said "Good-night!" and uttered no more
Turned on his heel, and closed the Oval-ed door,
Just then as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings she lay
The man-o-war Teapot, a powerful brute;
Ready to rampage, and plunder and loot

Meanwhile, an O-aide through catcalls and jeers
Wanders and watches, with NSA ears.
He reads from the Journal, he monitors Drudge,
Benghazi, and Snowden, and all of the sludge.
A whisper, a roar, and what does he hear?
It’s the House that the Founders only held dear.

Down scaled the aide the side of Washington’s Tower,
No choice, from sequester, no lift and no power.
He took one deep breath, he peered down below.
Espies discontent’s seeds so deep did they sow.
Usurper and worse, so the Elephant said,
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread.
Back to the river, he walks with great care,
To Congress he heads, he knows no one’s there.
Lantern in hand, he locates the arch,
Shines one, two, and three, they are all on the march.

Meanwhile, impatient, atwitter, and keen,
It’s Christie, and Rand, with thoughts of Sixteen.
“Hey, wait” says big O, They picked me for Pres.”
“I turned on the news, and that’s what Wolf said.”
Pshaw said the Right, how silly you be,
For an election to count, we all must agree.

So Barack gazed out upon the realm, looking far and near,
He sought out the issues he once held most dear.
T’was gun control first, in sad Newton’s wake.
But when the NRA frowns, the mighty do quake.
Then immigration, they hoped, could O put that to bed?
Not so fast, that’s Marco’s bill, which made it all but dead.

Then cast his eye abroad he did, yet met with only buts.
The Syrians went tribal, the North Koreans nuts.
At Jo-Berg he shook a Castro’s hand, and selfied with a belle.
Enraging half Miami, and surely all Michelle,
And in Europe, friendly Europe, with Merkel planned a chat
But Angela is quite angry, she’d had no clue of that.

He spun back domestic, sought a bargain big and fine and grand.
Came a cropper when Harry nuked Mitch, and old Johnny took a stand.
Yet foamy outrage grew stale and sour, and default was getting old.
Bored Senators are like the weather; damp, forbidding, cold.
Out of town they sought to be, a Christmas break or two,
So Paul shopped with Patty, and they purchased nothing new.

And O-Care, oh Woe-Care I dare not say too much.
Work it will, he says, with a tweak or two, and a genie’s touch.
And that’s how our year closes, not final is its fate.
Good things will come, O tells us, to those who log on and wait.

Of the future, perchance a glimmer, and then perhaps a gleam?
A year is but a second, a decade just a dream.
It’s always darkest before the dawn, so the sages tell.
Maybe thirteen was unlucky, but the midterms should be swell.

Happy New Year to all.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Join us on Twitter @SyncPol

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Embracing The Suck: Practical Pols and Purity Police

Embracing The Suck-Practical Pols and Purity Police

It was a week where crude worked. 

John Boehner, the chain-smoking, dark-liquor sipping, Tea-coddling Speaker of the House, decided to come out of his defensive crouch and throw a haymaker or two.  He weighed in on the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget compromise and told his fellow Republican House-mates to hold their nose and act like adults. 

His counterpart, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, whipped her troops into line with the immortal phrase,  “Embrace the Suck.”

The Ryan-Murray “suck” isn’t a great one.  It is mostly small-bore deficit reduction, with no new real revenues and no new serious spending cuts. All agree it is no “Grand Bargain” especially since the pair had an agreement going in that neither would have to give up their “core principles.”

So, what’s in the gift box handed to the Congress for ratification?  Its most prominent features are replacing the sequester with more specific cuts and ending extended unemployment benefits.  Not a lot of sizzle there.

Like any compromise, a lot of people are very unhappy.  The more progressive side of the Democratic caucus hates the unemployment insurance part (and the Christmas shopping season allows plenty of Scrooge references.)  And, of course, because it doesn’t immediately eliminate all government spending except for aid to parochial schools and the military, it doesn’t sufficiently feed the TP-dragon.

But it’s a deal, in the sense that it funds the government through the 2015 fiscal year, and, by doing so, gives more flexibility to deal with the meat-cleaver impact of sequester.  It’s a budget, and spares us the comedic tragedy of another shutdown.

Or not.  There are several things the agreement doesn’t do, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t deal with the debt-ceiling limit.  Ryan himself said on Sunday that the GOP will be looking to extract more concessions in January.  If the GOP does play default games again, we will have a budget (possibly, more on that later) without any money, and yet another round of extortion.  They figure (perhaps correctly, this time) that maybe the public will support them in killing Obamacare and anything else on their wish list. 

The problem for the GOP is that it places two things in motion that may have unintended consequences.  The first is that with the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the President is in the doghouse and his party is seeing shadows behind every shadow. That creates a wonderful electoral landscape for 2014 for Republicans—if they don’t overplay their hand and remind people of exactly what they didn’t like about the GOPs in the first place.

The second is a little more complex, and involves a serious intra-party battle for control, complicated by nominating politics that may spill out into public view in a way that is distinctly unflattering.

To oversimplify, think of the GOP being dominated by two wings, the Practical Pols and the Purity Police.

Practical or Pure, with a very few exceptions, they are all conservative.  It’s just a matter of how many times they have been distilled. And, they all want power.  The difference is that the Practical Pols understand that imposing one’s will on the electorate first requires convincing them to put you in office.  The Purity folk dream the same dreams, only without the inconvenient electoral nuance.  For them, the real enemy is the impure among them. Hence, well-funded primary challenges.

One would think that a lesson might have been learned this last Fall, when the Purity Police had the upper hand.  They mounted a coordinated assault by special interest groups such as Heritage Action, Club for Growth, the Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity, Ted Cruz’s (supposedly unaffiliated) Senate Conservatives Fund and the calculated outrage and goading by affiliated media outlets.  For weeks, everything froze.

But, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, that “closey-defaulty thing” didn’t work out as well as they all expected.  People found that while everyone hates the government, it’s a very selective hate—they only hate those parts they don’t want to use.  And the public at large knew whom to blame.  They didn’t much like Obamacare, but this one was on the GOP.  Faced with mounting anxiety and disgust, the GOP turned to shrewd, dour old Mitch McConnell.  The deal he cut in October allowed enough people to retain their principles by flinging their hands up in the air in dismay while voting “aye” at the same time.  Several needed to call for emergency chiropractic help.

Part of that McConnell-Reid deal was the Ryan/Murray-led committee, and what Paul Ryan presented is what he was able to extract from that set of negotiations.  Not enough, screamed the Purity Police.  Marco Rubio, desperately trying to regain his reputation after his immigration apostasy, denounced it even before it released, earning a sharp rebuke from Ryan himself.

Armed with Ryan’s credibility, and his own growing piqué, Boehner finally took a stand.  He lashed out at the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for "misleading their followers” and said they lost all credibility.  He might very well have been aided by Pelosi’s “suck” because what Nancy hates couldn’t have been all that bad.

Amazingly enough, it worked.  The House approved the bill, 332 to 94, with both parties delivering more than 160 votes. The “nays” were the oddest collection of votes imaginable, with 32 liberal Democrats joining 62 of the most radical-right Republicans.  If I had to guess, that much proximity will cause many of those to send their clothes out to the dry-cleaner for fumigation.

The Senate proved to be a harder nut, for a reason that wasn’t necessarily intuitive. There, the primary threats from the Purity Police need to be taken seriously because Senate seats are more highly prized.  To that end, John Cornyn (Texas) is being challenged by the lunatic fringe Congressman Steve Stockman, and Pat Roberts of Kansas by businessman Milton Wolf.  Senators Cornyn and Roberts are, respectively, the 2nd and 5th most conservative in their chamber, which you might think would be enough. Other flaming liberal GOP Senators being “primaried” include Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell.  That makes all those gentlemen sensitive to their right flank, whatever microscopic area that may occupy.  The same outside groups who orchestrated the first fiasco doubled down on the pressure, directly calling out the incumbents.  That created a real quandary in the minds of the Practicals.  The Senate didn’t want to not pass the bill, and take immediate responsibility for another shutdown, but there was risk in supporting this one, even though the GOP didn’t really give up anything they cared about.  

Fortunately, Ryan had provided a Deus es machina.  One of the few actual deficit reducers in the agreement was a (previously GOP supported) provision that will slow the growth of pension benefits to military retirees under the age of 62.  Veterans and affiliated groups were furious, and this allowed the proper amount of outrage to be emitted from the aggrieved defenders of our brave men and women.  On cue, they took to every open mike they could find and then headed for the hills, stopping only long enough to agree to cloture on a possible filibuster.  Then, comfortable knowing that it would pass while they railed against it, all but nine of them voted no. 

The bill now goes to Mr. Obama, who will sign it.  A two-year bill, can kicked down the road, crisis averted?  Not quite.  While the deal sets parameters of spending, it doesn’t actually say what each agency gets.  That gets resolved in committee, so there is still the possibility of another government shut down if it can’t be resolved there.  And there is still the little matter of the Ryan’s threat on the debt ceiling.  But that’s well down the road—close to month from today.  Plenty of time, nothing to worry about.

Leads one to search for the proper slogan.  A new era of cooperation! Responsible government at its very finest! Lacks a certain frisson, I think we would all agree.  

Embrace the suck?  Now, that has resonance.

Michael Liss (MM)

Questions or comments, email the Moderator

Follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, December 9, 2013

Detroit: Pensions, Potholes and Promises

Detroit: Pensions, Potholes and Promises

Late last week, a Federal Bankruptcy Judge, Steven Rhodes, cleared the way for Detroit to stiff all of its public-sector pensioners.  Pensions, Judge Rhodes said, were no different than any other type of secured debt, like money owed to bondholders, and the claims go into (and get paid from) the same pot of degraded assets.

Outside of the sound of the popping of corks in the private jets of the bondholders, what Judge Rhodes did was tee up the one of the most controversial issues that the political system must solve: how to adapt on the fly to a multi-generational series of interlocking promises.

Detroit has been terribly mismanaged, and had been dealing with the secular decline and globalization of its core auto industry.  It has lost nearly a third of its total population in the last two decades, and whole neighborhoods have been abandoned.  As jobs shrink, those who can leave do, and the rest become, as a group, more and more dependent on aid that the city has less and less of a tax base to support. 

That leads to a horrible quandary.  Pay to fix the pothole, or pay the guy who fixed potholes twenty years ago?  So, whether Judge Rhodes is right or wrong on the law regarding pensions (and he disregarded an explicit Michigan Constitution provision to reach his result) he is almost certainly correct on a core reality: Detroit currently has about two retired public service workers for every one presently on the job.  That is an irreducible fact, and if the political system can’t deal with it (and, it clearly hasn’t) people will by voting with their feet. Why resign yourself to decay? 

Many Conservative columnists and talk-show jocks are crowing about Detroit.  Punishing the public service worker is very high on their Christmas gift list.  Taking their pensions is even better. Detroit is the perfect storm of joy for them. “Detroit” is code for everything they think is pernicious in American society: an urban area with an urban population, an organized work force, and a higher percentage of Democratic voters. “Detroit” is what New York City will morph into within three months of Bill de Blasio’s inauguration.  “Detroit” is the barren wasteland that the nation will become unless we encourage self-help by eliminating not just the safety net “free goods” but also programs that we have paid into (like Social Security) or bargained for (like pensions.) All you need is one intoxicating whiff of economic and social Calvinism and you will be on the path to righteousness. 

Of course, this is complete nonsense.  We live in a complex ecosystem, a web of taxing and spending rules that constantly reallocate benefits.  The basis of our system has been a dynamic tension between two imperatives, the growth-oriented free-market freewheeling Capitalism that knows no rules and accepts no limitations, and the nanny state proto-European approach that often makes the government (and, by extension, the taxpayer or the buyer of Treasury Securities) the writer of too many checks. 

In wealthier times, we dealt with this by making sure that the largest number of people had stakes in sustaining a stable system. The rich remained comfortable in the reassuring fact that the government always pampered the elites.  The poor could rely on social programs like welfare, subsidized housing, and SNAP.  We had horrible, intractable poverty in sections of the country but these were often rural and overlooked sections, like Appalachia.  The working person had collective bargaining to balance out the power of capital and a secure future through defined benefit pensions and Social Security.

Those are bygone days.  The elites still have government stacking the deck for them, as should be expected.  But they now also have the advantage of a system that has created outsized rewards at the expense of the shareholders of publically traded companies and the people who work for them. The gap between the compensation of the CEO and the line-worker has grown astronomically.  As has the asset gap. And, the relentless drive to cut costs stops when you get to the executive suite.  Close a plant, fire 1000 people, outsource the work, and then collect an eight-figure bonus and a bouquet of stock options.  

But before we blame the rich, who are, after all, just doing what comes naturally, we also have recognize that the basic promise that kept the peace with the middle-class, the workers, and the poor was ultimately one that could not survive the impact of demography and globalization without farsighted planning.  That is something that politicians were loath to do.  And this was a bipartisan blindness.  Democrats were cozy with the unions and public service, making hard bargaining something only the other guy did.  They gave it away.  But they weren’t alone. Republicans cared only about low tax rates and an open community chest of special interest legislation, below market concessions, and outright subsidies for their boardroom friends.  George W. Bush himself, Mr. Conservative, fought a war he refused to pay for, created a giant new entitlement (Medicare Part D) and cut rates substantially for high earners. Who says you can’t have it all?

You can’t, and anyone with any sense in his or her head knows it. But Detroit leaves us with a horrible paradox.  Because as much as it is an example of the results of bad management and bad luck, it is also reflective of a core truth:  Whether it’s through loss of job, loss of pension, reduction in entitlements, or even SNAP, people cannot spend money if they don’t have it. That means small businesses shrivel up, stores close, mortgages and taxes go unpaid, and homes and even whole communities fall into disrepair.  You can kill a town with overindulgence, and you can kill it with austerity.  Detroit may suffer both kinds of death.

So, if I were a Democrat and really wanted to be compassionate, I would learn from Detroit, and spend a little more time worrying about where employment will come from and how to incentivize work.

And, if I were a Republican, rejoicing in the demise of a city without friends or resources, and looking at Judge Rhode’s decision as healthy dose of morality to administer to the folk all across the country who don’t fund me, I might pause for a moment and reflect.  Not only aren’t there enough prisons and workhouses for every soon-to-be ex-pensioner, but those people might just have been customers of my biggest donors.

In the meantime, Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, called in Christie’s to appraise the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art, despite the opinion of Michigan’s Attorney General that it couldn’t be sold.  But the creditors weren’t happy—they want more.  In late November, they filed a motion with Judge Rhodes to get an independent appraisal.  Might as well suck the orange dry before tossing the peel in the gutter.

Let’s hope there is still someone left to pick it up when they are done. 

Michael Liss

Please follow us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fifty Shades Of Black And White

Fifty Shades of Black and White

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army routed the larger in numbers but vastly inferior Chinese forces and captured the ancient city of Nanking.  In the days that followed, they occupied the city and committed, on a grand scale, a series of acts so gruesome and bestial that the period is known as “The Rape of Nanking.”

Why the Japanese army acted the way they did is perhaps beyond comprehension.  It occupies the same space as Hitler’s campaigns of extermination, Lenin and Stalin’s purges, and the killing fields in Cambodia.  The critical thing to remember is that this isn’t just the mad vision of a single crazy person, but rather, to paraphrase Daniel Goldhagen, acts enabled by countless “willing executioners.”

What causes some to participate and others to resist is unknown.  Surely, rational people recognize evil when they see it, but there can be a blurring of the lines when the “enemy” has been described as degraded and inferior.  That’s exactly what happens during war--all sides use propaganda. Then, somehow, acts of violence, cruelty or even moral depravity can seem to be justifiable.  Black and white merge into something opaque and unknowable.

Clearly, there are things that are simply wrong to do, no matter who is doing them.  There are good people who will act under stress in ways that they would otherwise recoil from in normal times.  And, even more stand by without protest, perhaps in silent acquiescence or agreement, perhaps simply paralyzed by fear.  Fighting a war, killing, by definition, forces people to make moral choices about what they perceive, or are told to perceive, as a greater good.  Many simply go along, living with the ambiguity of the situation, content to close their eyes and throw their lot with their side.  It is hard to grasp what the ordinary Japanese soldier, garrisoning Nanking, must have felt.  It is harder to believe that they could have felt anything.

Did the world know what was happening and simply stand by?  Yes and no.  There were a few journalists who, at stupendous personal risk, reported and filmed, and their dispatches filtered out to the press.  Even more substantive were the heroic efforts by a number of foreign businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries, who formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created a safe area in the western quarter of the city.  A German, John Rabe, selected because of his membership in the Nazi Party, led the Committee. Rabe’s efforts, and those of a literal handful of others, were nothing short of extraordinary.  Mr. Rabe is credited with saving perhaps 250,000 Chinese lives, at times literally chasing Japanese soldiers away from his home within the Zone.

The picture of Rabe striding around, flashing his decorations and his swastikas, pulling soldiers away from their victims, while, at the same time writing to Hitler to complain (Hitler, the humanitarian?) is the type of thing that is hard to imagine. And yet, there is something about this story that seems so grainy-newsreel dated, and yet so contemporary.  It makes the petty complaints, and the petty people who populate our political life so infinitesimally small that it takes your breath away. 

The smart observers of what is going on in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, know it.  They see the systemic dysfunction as a people failure, not a process one, and they look for ways to restore the center. There was an interesting suggestion by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post “Save America, Restore the Draft” that calls for two years of mandatory service for all men and women.  Milbank notes that only 19% of the combined Senate and House are veterans, the lowest level since World War II (remember, we entered WWI late in the conflict.)   Milbank goes on to say “It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago. Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a “cause greater than self,” and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they’ve turned politics into war.”

“Turning politics into war” is a phrase Milbank uses too easily, because fairly obviously, we are not shooting at each other.  And, assuming that nobility of purpose is derived from military service may also be a stretch.  But he is right on point on two things: The first is that working in socially and economically diverse groups forces people to reach out of their comfort zones to attain a common goal.  The second is reinforcing the connection of the young to the community and the country. 

One could argue the opposite.  I doubt that the Germans or the Japanese lacked social cohesion or commitment to a national purpose.  But, implicit in Milbank’s argument is the conviction that what we have here in America, after all the yelling, and the tugging, and the selfishness, is something of far greater value than just self-interest at the expense of the rest of the world. 

Is that just narcissism? Why wouldn’t we act as others have, and be indifferent to life?  We are, after all, the only country to use nuclear weapons, and we firebombed Dresden.  I think the difference that Milbank perceives is something bigger in the human experience, a call to service, and a recognition of the costs of being insensate to the sounds of inhumanity.  Work with others, even those with divergent experiences and views, and you come to value shared accomplishment.

Milbank is an optimist.  The comments that followed his article were predictably partisan, many of them ugly. And even more crabbed and sour views, often in the guise of clever Thanksgiving snarkiness, emanated from the ideological echo chamber.  Optimism doesn’t sell when the hot product of the month is vinegar.

Yet, I think Milbank is right in his optimism, if not his method, because he is relying on our moral compass.  Even more broadly, he is relying on John Rabe’s moral compass, a basic humanity that allows one to be an enthusiastic Nazi in 1937, and a savior of countless thousands.

Rabe eventually returned to Germany, and was promptly interrogated by the Gestapo. Whether his letter ever reached Hitler is unknown. It was certainly unanswered.  He struggled terribly, both during the war, and afterwards.  Sick, unemployed or underemployed, he despaired of even feeding his family.  When, in 1948, the survivors of Nanking heard of his circumstances, they took up a collection, and the Mayor personally traveled to Switzerland to purchase supplies for him.

One need not be perfect to do the right thing. There is black, and there is white, and there is a vast expanse in between.  The Nazi John Rabe made that journey. 

Surely, we can do the same.

Michael Liss

please follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, November 25, 2013

Harry Reid Bayonets A Grand

Harry Reid Bayonets A Grand Illusion

La Grande Illusion, the 1937 Jean Renoir film, is one of the great masterpieces of French cinema.  Although the story is set in WWI, it is rooted in time, less about war, and more about the relationships between men.

Two French aviators, the aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu and his working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, go on a reconnaissance flight. Their plane is tracked and shot down by the German aviator and Junker, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein. The two Frenchmen land safely, but are captured.  When Von Rauffenstein returns to base and learns this, he inquires whether they are officers, and when the answer is in the affirmative, they are invited to lunch.  During the meal, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances—and an odd friendship is begun.

The idyll is short-lived, and de Boeldieu and Maréchal are moved from camp to camp, suffering greatly, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein himself.  Van Rauffenstein can no longer fly, having been badly injured in battle. He chafes at inaction as much as he chafes at brace on his back, but he renews his friendship with de Boeldieu. 

Wintersborn, the Germans think, is escape proof, but de Boeldieu comes up with a scheme.  The prisoners create a commotion, and when the German guards assemble, de Boeldieu calls attention to himself on a fortress roof.  The guards shoot, but thanks to de Boeldieu’s distraction, Maréchal and another prisoner, Rosenthal, escape.

Von Rauffenstein emerges and has the guards stop shooting at de Boeldieu.  He begs his friend to come down, but de Boeldieu refuses. Von Rauffenstein finally shoots at de Bouldieu’s legs, but the stiffness from his injuries causes him to hit de Bouldieu’s stomach, mortally wounding him.  In de Bouldieu’s final moments, Von Rauffenstein, who is consumed by guilt, attends to him.  His death marks the passing of not merely a friendship, but an era where the kinship of those of a common class was often more important that mere national borders.  Their era is passing, to be replaced by one that is perhaps more egalitarian, but more brutish.

I don’t know if Harry Reid is an old movie fan, but I think he’s absorbed the lessons of Grand Illusion, both past and present.  His institution, the Senate, has long functioned as a type of aristocracy, a “cooling dish” designed by the Founders as a place for contemplation and debate, quite untainted by the hurly burly of those crass two-year House of Representative types. 

Sarcasm aside, there is much to support this argument.  The Founders were influenced by the House of Commons/House of Lords model, as are almost all of the State legislatures.  Theoretically, the six-year term serves as insulation from the hottest political passions and allows the luxury of legislating in a more inclusive way.  Even that wasn’t enough, however. The Constitution itself created an even greater opportunity for the elites to keep sway. Until the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913 (1913!!) it was state legislatures that picked Senators. 

Inside the Senate, a web of rules has taken hold to give minorities, even a minority of one, the ability to delay or even block legislation or Presidential nominees.  The filibuster is the most prominent one, but procedural tricks like the Senatorial hold can gum up the works effectively.  Again, this is supposed to have a moderating effect: if the majority knows that the minority can be obstructive, they pick with more care and “cool the dish” again.  

The system has largely worked.  You can always find mistakes or overreaching, but generally Senators have played by the rules.  They roll out the filibuster for something really big, with the implicit understanding that it’s a “no” for this person or law, at this time, under this set of circumstances.  Historically, it was preserved for things like Southern opposition to Civil Rights legislation or a way-out-there nominee—a discreet, isolated, no.  Through 1970, there were virtually no filibusters.

Have there been mistakes and overreach, by both sides?  Of course.  But they have been mitigated by four interlocking concepts.  The first is that, to an extent, elections do matter, and you give the President a certain amount of leeway (not unlimited, but a fair amount) to pick his own Cabinet and judicial nominees. The second is practical: government has to function, and while nutty Congressman can be bomb-throwers because they have no one to answer to other than their possibly equally nutty District, Senators have a broader responsibility and know better.  The third is purely self-protective, although probably the most motivating; there is no such thing as a permanent Senate majority, and the shoe will be on the other foot.  And the fourth is a corollary of the third: use the tool too often, and it will be taken away.

But the rules of the game have changed, because the aristocracy of the Senate is fading into irrelevance.  The numbers are staggering.  The GOP uses the filibuster for virtually everything they oppose, both appointments and legislation.  As Ezra Klein quotes Professor Gregory Koger of the University of Miami, it has become the “new veto point in American politics”. 

There are a lot of reasons for this.  The “aristocracy” is fading—fully 40 new Senators have been elected over the past decade, and many are coming from the fiercely partisan House of Representatives.  These people have no institutional memory beyond trench warfare.  Mix the newbies from the House with the Tea Party-take-no-prisoner types like Ted Cruz, and cooperation becomes a mortal sin.  And, it is not only the parties that have become more polarized; the regionalization of ideology is becoming the rule.  In effect, whole states are becoming more like Congressional Districts—win the primary by satisfying the most motivated and rabid, and you win the Senate seat.  That pulls everyone from the center--even established Republican Senators who have been dealmakers in the past have had to prove their bona fides by playing the partisan. That’s not merely rhetoric—look at Lindsey Graham (former member of the “Gang of Fourteen”) blocking everyone in sight.  His excuse—a 60 Minutes report on Benghazi.  When CBS had to retract it, Graham simply said, “never mind” and dug in.  His original rationale was no longer relevant, but the answer was no, it would remain no, it will always be no.

Harry Reid is no saint.  But he also recognizes the obvious. In a game where one side no longer plays by the rules, then the rules only constrain the side observing them.  He got support from Senate Democrats, many of who are still institutionally (not politically) conservative, because they now believe that the minute the GOP gets control of the Senate, they will toss out any Senate rule they don’t agree with, no matter how long-standing.  In this respect, John Boehner did the nation a great disservice last month with his eleventh-hour seizure of power in the House—he eliminated the rule that any House Member could get a vote on a pending bill and arrogated it only to the Speaker or his designee.  And, the GOP’s opposition to three Obama nominees to the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals might have been the clincher. Even Republicans agree that all three are highly qualified.  They just don’t want them on that Court, because it is presently a tie.  So they have outdone themselves with specious excuses, including the latest that the Court isn’t busy enough.  There isn’t a Democrat in the Senate who doesn’t believe that this alleged lack of workload will suddenly disappear upon the election of a Republican President.

In short, there is no trust.  While it is hard to visualize Reid and McConnell as the dashing, elegant, and honorable de Bouldieu and Von Rauffenstein, simply sticking to the rules shouldn’t have been a stretch.  But they haven’t, to everyone’s detriment.

Renoir’s film was widely admired and became the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar.  The original print was thought lost, but, in the late 1950s, a partially restored version was made from extant prints.  Renoir personally reintroduced La Grande Illusion, saying “It is also a story about human relationships, and I am convinced that the question is so important today that, if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world.”

I agree with Renoir. And I think Reid made a mistake, because I believe human relationships mean something, and the rules mean something. 

But, I understand Reid’s thinking.  As de Boeldieu tells von Rauffenstein, "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time.”

Michael Liss

Please visit us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, November 18, 2013

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

The great 20th Century pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a renowned neurotic. The litany of his personal quirks could fill a small book and, several times during his more than fifty-year career, his stage fright overcame him and he simply stopped performing in public. 

On May 19th, 1965, after a hibernation of twelve years, Horowitz returned to Carnegie Hall.  For the classical set, this was the equivalent of the Beatles landing, and, for hours before, the crowd lined up around the building in anticipation. Wanda, Horowitz’s wife (and the daughter of Arturo Toscanini) sent out cups of coffee.  By every account, Horowitz was a wreck.  Schuyler Chapin, later head of the Metropolitan Opera, was at that time acting as a sort of major domo to Horowitz, and later said he literally spun his charge around 180 degrees and shoved him out on the stage.  

Horowitz took his bows, sat down in front of his personal Steinway (he only played on his own piano, placed just-so on the stage) and opened with a Bach-Busoni transcription.  His giant hands crashed down on the keys.  And, before he even got started, he hit a clunker more at home at a sixth grade recital.  A collective, stifled gasp from the crowd.  If there were a New Yorker drawing of the scene, it would have had to have included a caption of  “oh no, he’s lost it.”

This is a week where we both celebrate and mourn perfection and imperfection.  Tuesday, November 19, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Friday, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

History can be a harsh mirror.  If there is one enduring impression you get from watching Larry Sabato discuss JFK in his excellent on-line course, it is that how very great and how very small Kennedy could be.  There is something about JFK that loves the camera; look at old photos and newsreels and you will find his image creates the odd effect of being colorized when others are in black and white.  Stack him up against the politicians of the day, against Nixon, or Khrushchev, and you see an expression of an America as it would like to be, youthful, virile, and self-confident.  He is as far away from the party apparatchik or the 50’s era man in the gray flannel suit as is possible.  You can go to the moon with JFK.  You can go anywhere.  But there was a darker side to the trip.

JFK’s death was so public and so tragic, the mourning so exquisitely staged, that his greatest legacy was his image.  Lyndon Johnson was both bedeviled and enabled by it.  The most powerful Senator of his time, perhaps of any time, he found himself needing to make a ritual bow with each accomplishment.  Who could resist even the most far-reaching when it was packaged in black crepe? 

Listen to Sabato, who idolized JFK as a boy, and memorized his Inaugural Address, and you hear the undertones of irony and sadness. The irony, of course, is that JFK would likely never have gone as far as Johnson did, either on civil rights, or the Great Frontier.  JFK was an unconventional and bold politician, but a conservative and gradualist lawmaker.  And the sadness is that the public image of Kennedy hid a less flattering side; his willingness to play bare-knuckle politics, his early-term inexperience, his uncontrolled sexual behavior.  Sabato’s conclusion: that as those with memories of JFK pass inexorably from the stage, his image will become less important than his actual accomplishments.  He will no longer be thought of as in the first rank of Presidents. 

Lincoln was as ugly and ungainly as Kennedy graceful.  “Friend and foe alike” openly mocked him.  But he and Kennedy shared one trait; they were both men capable of inspiring eloquence, of defining a future filled with aspirations. 

At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke for barely two minutes—not even enough time for the photographer to set his lens.  What Lincoln accomplished in a few hundred words has been recounted thousands of times over.  Whole books have been written about it.  It is a magnificent work; classical in structure, both mournful and optimistic, rescuing the Declaration of Independence from the blood and ashes in which it was immersed.  The genius of Lincoln’s prose is in its simplicity and its modesty.  Politicians and orators are not heroes, their words do not elevate the sacrifices of those who risked all for a principle. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln lived this.  He grounded the intellectual aspects of his leadership around core principles; Union and Freedom.  For those ends, he was willing to employ every tool at his disposal.  But as to the emotional, he was taxed to his limits.  The political historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote “Lincoln was shaken by the Presidency.  Back in Springfield, politics had been sort of a exhilarating game; but in the White House, politics was power, and power was responsibility…To be confronted with the fruits of his victory only to find that it meant choosing between life and death for others was immensely sobering.” 

Somewhere in dark and depressive parts of his mind he found his core.  Lincoln is great not because of his words but because of his dogged humanity and essential humility.  He fought without joy, but with purpose.  He probably wielded more power than any President in United States History, and there are many who still curse his memory, but there is no generational clock on his star. 

It might seem odd to find Vladimir Horowitz, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy in the same post, but somehow it seemed appropriate. All three men had a peculiar genius.  Kennedy’s trumpet perhaps sounded the brightest, but may well fade with time.  Lincoln’s beat seems that of the human heart, timeless.  And, as for Horowitz, he stumbled and almost seemed to teeter during that first piece at Carnegie Hall.  And then he centered himself.  His hands regained their magic, he soared.  I was fortunate enough, years apart and in separate cities, to have spoken to two people who met on line that day, waiting to get in to see the master.  Both described their horror after the first few notes.  Then they went on, their memories as fresh as if it had been just last weekend.  They both concluded with exactly the same words “of course, he finished beautifully.”

Sometimes, you just have to wait.

November 18, 2013
Michael Liss (MM)

follow us on twitter @ SyncPol

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Conspiracy Theories--How JFK's Assassination Explains It All

Conspiracy Theories—How JFK’s Assassination Explains It All

It was all downhill after the Warren Commission. 

I have been participating in Professor Larry Sabato’s online course “The Kennedy Half-Century, and there is a segment covering the investigation of the assassination of JFK.  Sabato makes a point that is rather startling in its scope; that the findings of the Warren Commission led to the pervasive cynicism that so many Americans have about their government.

It is a fascinating story. The nation is traumatized by the public execution of their young, energetic, impossibly charismatic President.  It is all played out on television; the early cut-in to regular programming, the gripping moment when Walter Cronkite announces that JFK has been declared dead, the elegant, mournful funeral with John-John saluting his father’s casket, and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. 

We live in a culture where violence is ritualized and glamorized to the point where it like empty calories, but watch this clip of CBS’s coverage.  The grainy black and white, the stunned reporter for the CBS Dallas affiliate almost incoherently repeating himself, the well-dressed crowd in the Dallas Trade Mart (JFK was headed there to give a speech) moving back and forth without direction, the African-American waiter mopping away his tears.

That is reality, unscripted, chaotic, and human.  The feelings of shock and of loss feel real, because they are real.  Watch Cronkite’s intensely personal reaction:  how he takes his glasses off, how he dips his head, how his voice catches.

People wanted answers.  There were wild rumors floating around of vast conspiracies.  President Johnson needs an authoritative determination about the events surrounding JFK’s death to bring an end to the speculation, and he wants it wrapped up before the following year’s election.  He brings in the respected Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren to head a commission that will bring finality.  Faced with a time-line, the Commission’s review is anything but exhaustive, and many of the members don’t even show up for the majority of the meetings.  Numerous witnesses are never interviewed.  Contrary data is discarded. A desire for closure leads to a convenient conclusion.

The Chief Justice goes to the White House to present the report. The iconography is right—the portentous music and voice-over, the white haired and distinguished Warren trailed by his Commission, the backlit Oval Office, the grim-faced LBJ and the solemn handshake.  But the conclusions are immediately mocked.  No conspiracy.  Oswald acted alone and his secret (if there was any) died with him.  The Zapruder Film that shows the impact on JFK and Texas Governor John Connelly to be too close in time for Oswald to have fired two shots (he was using a single-action bolt rifle) leads to the so-called “single bullet” theory.  A lawyer for the commission (34 year old Arlen Specter) concludes that a single shot from Oswald’s rifle took off the top of Kennedy’s head, tore through his throat, and then hit Connelly, causing additional serious injuries.

And yet, while Specter might have been right (and he has his defenders) the feeling in the country was that Commission’s conclusions were political.  The people weren’t being told the truth by their government, and the cover-up began at the very top--the President and the Chief Justice. 

Why?  Adults understood that there was always a little chicanery in politics, and a little secrecy in foreign and military affairs. But there is a fundamental difference between the small-bore fabrications that make up a politician’s daily life and a whopper on a topic of universal interest.  Why would our government lie?  What purpose is to be served?  What is the hidden secret that is so damaging that these supposedly wiser heads think the country cannot be trusted with the truth?

Fifty years later, we just don’t know.  The conclusions of the Warren Report, even those not entirely substantiated by the evidence, might very well be true.  But there remains clamminess; the discomforting sense the government, our government, either didn’t look hard enough, or if it did, decided not to share.  If we cared so much, what does it say that they cared so little?

This mistrust has never left us. It’s been passed on like an untreatable virus from generation to generation.  It is amplified by ambitious politicians and by opinion makers looking for votes and attention.  It runs amok on the web, where any distortion can go viral, and any set of data-points can be arranged to “prove” even the most outlandish.

A healthy mistrust of government isn’t a bad thing--I briefly considered reciting one of the truly crazy rumors, but edited it out when I realized that the mere mention of it might get me on some NSA list of crackpots.  But pure paranoia, seeing conspiracies everywhere, is a little too much for most rational people. So they align themselves around a set of truths—political truths—that permit them to focus their fears. It leads to a different type of bi-polarity: government is not to be trusted, but their guys are the moral ones.  This also allows them to live with the inherent dissonance in some of their positions; combatting evil requires a strong hand, and a virtuous end justifies the means.   

So, if you truly believe that (Democratic, of course) vote fraud is pervasive, it was perfectly fine that Ken Cuccinelli purged 40,000 voters from the ranks in the weeks before the election.  And, if you are convinced that the only electoral result that is valid is the one that supports your candidate, you have absolutely no problem with the Virginia State Electoral Board issuing a ruling this last Friday (that would be three days after the election) that requires provisional voters (including some just purged) to physically appear on their own behalf (on a work day) to plead their cases, instead of having a representative.  This despite long accepted bipartisan practice.  And which county is this being applied to?  Fairfax County, which went heavily for the Democratic candidate for Attorney General. How many provisional votes in question?  About 400.  Who cares about 400 votes?  Well, Democrat Mark Herring trails Republican Mark Obenshain by about 130 votes Statewide, and Fairfax County has gone more than 2/1 for Herring.  You can do the math.  So, apparently, can others.  Just why did the Virginia State Electoral Board change the rules after the election? On the order of the Attorney General, a Mr. Ken Cuccinelli.

Put the purge and the sudden fealty to voting rules together in a tight election, and you have a bit of a conspiracy, if one would want to see it.  Put together a promise by a President “if you like it, you can keep it” and the enactment of a controversial program, and you can see another. 

Perhaps that is the true legacy of the investigation into JFK’s assassination; an expectation that those in power, or who want power, trim constantly to meet a personal or political agenda.  Government that is not so much immoral, as it is amoral. 

I would say Professor Sabato is on to something.  Let’s call it the single bullet theory of governing.  Take your shot, truthful or not.  You never know who will believe it.

Michael Liss (MM)

Follow us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, November 4, 2013

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

When I returned home Saturday I found the following gem in my mailbox:  A post card imploring me to vote Lhota-Garland under an all caps heading “THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE!”  On the flip side, above a backdrop of a chalk outline of a victim; “DO THE MATH, DE BLASIO + KALLOS+ NO STOP & FRISK= MORE MURDERS.”

There is nothing like politics to bring substance and intelligent debate to a complex issue.  If I vote for de Blasio or Ben Kallos (Garland’s opponent for my local City Council seat) I am complicit in murder.

Wonderful.  That is certainly a way to get my support.  If only real life were this easy.

If people would stop shouting at each other we would realize that there are two unacknowledged truths about stop and frisk:  The first is that it probably reduces crime.  The second is that stop and frisk is dehumanizing. It makes the target less of a citizen by striking at a basic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution: to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.  To my Tea Party friends who warn of a riots and murders if one iota of stop and frisk is curtailed, I would only ask them to put on their three-cornered hats and imagine themselves in Boston in 1773, when some kindly men in red coats respected the rights of no one to be secure in their homes and their persons.  We fought a Revolution to secure those rights, and the Constitution is a balance between liberty and security, erring, if you would call it that, on the side of liberty. Stopping and frisking someone, without some underlying probable cause, simply because of the way they look, is on the wrong side of that balance. 

The same basic issue arises in the ongoing debate about the massive spying apparatus we have developed.  Right now, the headline news is the “shocked” reactions of the Germans and French to the disclosure that we were listening in on their leaders’ pillow talk. Quelle horreur! Without spending too much time dwelling on the manifest hypocrisy here, I would have to say, as an American, that I expect my government to do what is necessary overseas to keep me safe.  Espionage is a tool in the toolbox, and while it may be an unpleasant truth, and polite ladies and gentlemen may recoil a bit, I’m neither surprised nor all that much troubled.  When the Germans and the French start taking their orders from Washington and supporting us in all endeavors, then we can revisit the situation.

Unfortunately, the appalled reactions to knowing what type of cookies Angela Merkel might like temporarily obscure the primary issue—that of massive domestic spying. The NSA program is stop and frisk writ large, over an entire population.  If every phone conversation, every Internet search, every email, even every card-swipe can be monitored, then where are we as a free people?  The argument is exactly the same as stop and frisk. It isn’t that our security/police should be powerless to investigate potential threats.  It is the unpleasant reality of our lives that crime (and terror) exists and need to be confronted.  But, as citizens, we are entitled to be able to walk the streets, or surf the net, without being watched and detained, unless and until there is probable cause that we are about to do something criminal.  It’s not the other way around: “we watch you until we have probable cause.”

What both these programs do is to universalize, and institutionalize something that really should be resolved in the political and judicial area, through careful consideration and compromise.  We should be discussing these things, finding the correct approach, and implementing it. 

But, if you look at the language employed by the anonymous supporter of Lhota and Garland (and their surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani) you will see the same sensibility that is also expressed by those, like Senator Diane Feinstein, who support virtually unlimited domestic surveillance.  Lhota’s imagery is more visceral, but both offer a pure, binary choice between liberty and death.  No nuance.  Do it our way, don’t discuss the rights of the individual, or blood will be on your hands.  Hit the disease with everything you’ve got.

The German scientist Paul Ehrlich did seminal work in chemotherapy, immunology, and hematology, and shared the Nobel Prize in 1908.  He is also known for his discovery of the first effective treatment for syphilis, Arsphenamine. Ehrlich was looking for a cure for the microbe-caused disease sleeping sickness. He found that a chemical called Atoxyl was effective, but highly toxic.  Through intensive testing Ehrlich and his lab searched for the proper combination between cure and kill.  They tested over 900 compounds on mice, before they went back to #606.  606 didn’t seem to help much with sleeping sickness, but was very effective on the newly discovered microbe that caused syphilis. Over and over, they tested the compound on mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits, achieving complete cures with no mortality.  The drug was introduced, and after some early difficulties in the manner in which it was administered, revolutionized treatment for this awful, often disfiguring and even fatal disease.

Testing between toxicity and efficacy, even 900 times. It works in the scientific laboratory, and in the laboratory of ideas. You don’t just administer the drug wholesale to entire population (or group) just because you think it will cure a disease in a few of them.  And you never ignore side effects.  That is what democracy is all about, a debate about ideas and approaches where both the needs of the majority and the rights of the minority are respected.  We don’t kill the patient.

Unfortunately, in the supercharged atmosphere of our political culture, many simply don’t care.  They won’t tolerate 900 tries, or for that matter, even a few. They don’t see themselves as the targets and so they think they are trading other people’s liberties for their personal safety.  Easy exchange--take it from someone else.

They are wrong.  When government has largely unfettered power to stop or spy on whomever it wants, then the individual holds liberty only at the sufferance of those currently in power. 

Unfortunately, that is a disease that has no known cure. 

Michael Liss (MM)

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

There is a wonderful scene in the Bond movie “Die Another Day” where Pierce Brosnan, apparently sleeping in sick bay on a British ship after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans, codes out.  The buzzer goes off, the medical team scrambles, and two men approach with a defibrillator. Bond restarts his heart, zaps the mere mortals, goes top ship, jumps over the side, swims into the bay, and, soaked, bearded, with matted hair, strides into the Hong Kong Yacht Club.

Ah, to be 007.  The entire sequence from no heartbeat to a groomed Bond about to quaff his favorite vintage takes less than three minutes.

Male competence.  And you don’t have to be a superman. You can see it in one of the “knowing what needs to be done” Viagra ads, where the handsome, but decidedly middle-aged driver of a vintage Camaro that’s overheating on a desert road, stops at a gas station, grabs a bottle of water, takes a few swigs, pours the rest of it into the radiator, and drives off through the dust.  Or the new Robert Redford movie, where he battles the elements at sea alone, creatively, heroically. You don’t have to be a sex symbol, either. Richard Farnsworth shows it with his wits in “The Grey Fox” and later still, as an old man on two canes, in “The Straight Story.”  Men are supposed to be competent.

Would that be the case.  These last few weeks, we have had the unique opportunity to see some of the worst incompetence in government in recent memory (you have to wonder whether Jimmy Carter was paying people off.)  First, we had the idiotic and incredibly costly shutdown, a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy to the ambitions of Ted Cruz and his band of bankrupt brigands.  Then, the absurdly awful rollout of Obamacare, which didn’t have just a few bugs in the system, but a horde reminiscent of the locust in “The Good Earth.” And now, the absurdist Stalinist-era show trials of Obamacare hearings (it’s been up and running for a few weeks, so why not haul in the people who are supposed to be in charge so they can answer outraged questions for the cameras instead of going back to fix things?)

Blame the men.  Of course, Katherine Sibelius is in the crosshairs.  But you have to start with the President.  It’s his baby, with his name on it.  He’s got to have it ready.  Of course, Obama isn’t going to be writing code.  But he should have been insisting, from Day 1, that it be ready on time and with as minimal glitches as are possible when introducing a massive new system.  He had to have known that even if this was the best program ever, the Republicans would dig up (literally, if they had to) someone with tears running down their face, talking about how a two-hour delay in signing up ruined her life and generations to come.  He should have foreseen this, and apparently he didn’t. It’s an enormous failure of leadership, and it has to land on his doorstep.

Then, let’s move to the vendors in charge.  A friend who watched the hearings sent me the following, “And the clowns who testified before Congress earlier this week knew -- to the penny -- how much their contracts were worth, but didn't have a clue (nor did they seem to care) about whether they had actually delivered a working solution.”  You would think that the “clowns” would actually have some pride of authorship, if for no other reason because it could be good for attracting other business.  Think again. “Where’s my check?” seems to be their only priority.

Let's not forget the Republicans.  The massive opposition to Obamacare hasn’t just come from a bunch of grandstanding Washington politicians.  It has also taken place at the state and local level, where ambitious and ideologically motived Republican governors have decided Obamacare is a law that may be ignored because their party didn’t pass it and they don’t (personally) agree with it.  In 21 states, structural barriers have been erected by the GOP to the ACA’s implementation.  In North Dakota, the following was adopted as S. 2309: "The legislative assembly declares that the federal laws known as (PPACA) likely are not authorized by the United States Constitution and may violate its true meaning and intent as given by the founders and ratifiers."  Think about that for a second. Since when did a bunch of state legislators become the Supreme Court?  And just when did nullification regain credibility?

So, there you have it.  A poorly implemented law with inadequate prior planning, incompetent vendors, and the steadfast opposition of a political party who has forgotten their history and even their duty.  The original North Dakota bill (it was deleted in the final law) not only provided that the ACA is "considered to be null in this state" but made it a criminal offense for any federal official to implement the ACA.  Just imagine what would have happened in the Bush Administration if 21 states barred their citizens from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, were two immortal monsters who lived on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Scylla was a supernatural creature, with 12 feet and 6 heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of shark-like teeth, and on her thighs were the heads of ferocious dogs.  She dwelt in a cave, feeding herself on anything unfortunate enough (or foolish enough) that came close. Charybdis preferred the shade of a fig tree on the opposite shore.  She swallowed down and then belched out the waters of the channel three times a day, creating a deadly whirlpool that destroyed ships that passed her way.

Homer, in recounting Odysseus’ wanderings between his victory in the Trojan War and his return to Ithaca to regain his Kingship, describes his dilemma when he approaches the Straits.  He knows death awaits, but Scylla is quiet, so he chooses to spare his ship and steers away from the whirlpool.  But Scylla darts out and catches six of his men, one in each of her heads, for a midday meal.  Much screaming ensues.  Later, after his surviving men have angered the Gods, the ship is drawn into the whirlpool, and only Odysseus survives by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours.

The myth of Scylla and Charybdis are sometimes colloquialized into “between a rock and a hard place” and that is exactly where Obamacare, and Mr. Obama, are right now.  He’s not going to get any help whatsoever from the GOP (I will spare you any comparison between Ted Cruz and Scylla beyond noting that he only seems to have six heads) the public is dubious and getting more so now with the media amplifying the Republicans complaints, and his tech people have failed. The good ship Obamacare threatens not only to go down in the whirlpool but a lot of Democrats may end up being swallowed in 2014, and they will not get eaten without some screaming.

And, therein lies the dilemma for Mr. Obama. Yes, the Republicans sabotaged Obamacare, and the contractors screwed up.  But in our system, while the President doesn’t have to be James Bond or even Robert Redford, he does have to be competent, and sometimes, heroically so.  History will not care about North Dakota, it will not remember what talking heads said on Fox News, or the 42 (or is it 43?) repeals of Obamacare by the House.  The Republican obstructionism and even the shutdowns (past and present) will be footnotes to a larger story.  The buck stops at the President’s door. 

Obamacare belongs to Obama.

Fix it, Mr. President.  Show us you are the kind of guy who knows what needs to be done.

Michael Liss (MM)

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