Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The I Word and the Albatross

The I Word and the Albatross

We are in the doldrums: locked in an endless dance of pointless antagonism between Congress and the White House, challenged both domestically and internationally by complex if not intractable issues, and paralyzed by what seems to be both a lack of will, and a lack of ideas.

In Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a ship with 200 souls escapes the killing cold of Antarctica, led by an albatross to warmer seas, where fog awaits.  When the Ancient Mariner, on impulse, shoots the albatross, the sailors initially cheer, thinking the albatross caused the fog.  But the spirits are angry, and the ship is driven into unchartered seas, to bake under the Equatorial sun. A horrible fate awaits.

    All in a hot and copper sky,
    The bloody Sun, at noon,
    'Right up above the mast did stand,
    No bigger than the Moon.

    Day after day, day after day,
    We stuck, no breath no motion;
    As idle as a painted ship
    Upon a painted ocean.

What does one do when there is no breath and no motion?

When it comes to politics, at first, we tend to complain a lot about whatever the issue du jour is; the Middle East, jobs, taxes, sequesters, Trayvon, voting rights, guns, contraception, spying and leaks about spying, etc. etc.  

And then, because we are just ordinary people with lives, and jobs, and families to take care of, we rouse ourselves and get on with it.  Shower, get dressed, check on our kids, grab something to put in our stomachs, run to our cars or trains, and do the thousand small chores that make up a day. 

Most of us understand that; the conference call with the client at 9:30 or the snaking out of the clogged drain or the PTA meeting is a lot more important than the ritual denunciation (or praise) of a rodeo act in Missouri.  We just don’t have the time.

That is why we have politicians and pundits: to gripe on our behalf.  Also, presumably, to help lead us, to make difficult decisions, to dive into the minutiae of legislation or the big policy issues. 

And yet, here we sit, baking in the sun, waiting for a breeze.

The ship is not moving.  There is a lot of activity below deck, fevered scuttling about, bloviating and sheer fantasy masquerading as progress. Mr. Obama has a prosaic dream of the day when the GOP will agree to any one of his ideas.  His opponents, however, have something far more titillating in mind: Impeach the bum!

Impeachment as a form of autoeroticism might seem to some of us as a tad perverse, but it’s essentially harmless when indulged in in the privacy of one’s own home. Think of it as a victimless crime among consenting adults.  However, some seem to be taking it outdoors. Ted Cruz loves the idea but says he doesn’t have enough votes in the Senate.  Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) said it would be a “dream come true.” The very conservative but usually measured Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has talked about it in a public meeting. Republican shock jocks from every direction are calling for it and major right wing newspapers and columnists try to plough the field, writing continuously of Obama’s “lawlessness”.  Ed Rodgers, the GOP consultant who blogs for the Washington Post, has even gone so far as to say Mr. Obama is asking for it.  Rumor has it that Boehner, if he wanted it, already has the 218 votes in the House to impeach.  High Noon for High Crimes and Misdemeanors.  The excitement is palpable. 

The litany of crimes that Mr. Obama is accused of is so long that it would take me several posts just repeat them, much less take the time to analyze and debunk them. The only thing he isn’t blamed for is the death of Vince Foster.  But once you get past the “scandals” that the GOP refuses to have anyone besides Darrell Issa investigate, and you eliminate any action that Obama has taken that every President before him has, you end up with a very odd sediment at the bottom of the dish.  Obama should be impeached because he isn’t likeable, isn’t doing what they want, isn’t conducting policy as they would, isn’t appointing people they would appoint.

In ordinary times this would be just tiresome (and embarrassing) partisanship, and the leadership would tamp it down so bigger issues could be dealt with.  For example, if anyone would care to notice, the Middle East could go up in flames any minute. 

But somehow, you get the feeling that logic will not prevail, and the GOP will take a shot at the albatross.  How far it goes is to be determined, but it is a very small step from the 40th vote to repeal Obamacare to the 1st vote to repeal Obama. 

And, more importantly, if they do go down this road, it will be all consuming, because the GOP seems out of other ideas. If you thought the 2012 Presidential election set new standards in vacuity, I would simply respond that records are meant to be broken.

You need to look no further than Syria to see that.  Every Republican on the planet has been denouncing Mr. Obama for his abject failures there--and they are failures. How about solutions?  Not so many.  Need proof?  Read Eliot Cohen’s article in the Washington Post, Syria will require more than cruise missiles  Mr. Cohen is a prominent neo-con and a former member of the Bush Administration.  He called for war against Iran in 2001 in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, and was a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which advocated invasion in Iraq in 2003.  Presently, he is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.  Clearly, he has the conservative credentials, and the policy chops.   Cohen takes Obama to task for all the mistakes he made, and dismisses a host of present options as being inadequate.  Does Dr. Cohen (Ph.D. Harvard) have some recommendations?  Actually, none that he cares to share with us.  One could speculate he’s chomping for boots on the ground, but he won’t say it.  Perhaps that is because barely a quarter of Americans support military intervention? Or perhaps, he doesn’t know what to do, just what not to do.   

And that about sums it up.  Arguing not for something, but always against. Blustering, in the absence of substance.  Shooting at things without thinking through the consequences.  Impeachment, instead of ideas. 

Here’s some wisdom from Coleridge:  When a bird comes your way, leave it alone.  It could end up being a real albatross.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Clinton-Christie Conundrum

Clinton-Christie Conundrum

It is axiomatic that political campaigning doesn’t really begin until after Labor Day, but at Syncopated Politics, we like to challenge conventional wisdom.  No time like the present to start discussing the 2016 election.

Von Clausewitz once said that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.  And it has been nearly ten months since Mr. Obama sent Mr. Romney home (homes?) without the prize. The two armadas are out there on the ocean, patrolling back and forth, probing, sending out scouts, looking for weaknesses. 

The Biggest Ships, Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie, have been moving around quite a bit as well. 

Hillary, who was supposed to go off quietly into the post-Secretary of State night, has been all over the place, making (sometimes highly paid) speeches, having a mid-day meal with the President, and being the subject of an obscure documentary made by sinister unseen forces that no news channel will be permitted to air because it doesn’t contain 100% criticism.  That’s one busy lady. 

Chris isn’t exactly a shrinking violet either.  Recently he signed 10 gun control measures, earning the enmity from 2nd Amendment folk, who particularly objected to a provision that would have banned the sale of guns to people on the Federal Terrorism watch list. He then moved to restore his cred by vetoing a bill that included a ban on the Barrett .50 caliber long-range rifle, a gesture made more interesting because he previously had called for it.   Christie has also picked fights with Rand Paul on spying and national security, and with Bobby Jindal for some issue that was so esoteric, that I believe the topic was how esoteric it was.

Hillary doesn’t need to pick fights; she has them picked for her. Outside of the obligatory accusation that it was Hillary in a burka personally storming the Consulate in Benghazi, and the round the clock scandal mongering, just this past morning, the New York Post had an editorial “Hilary Plays the Race Card.” I’m not ordinarily a Post man, but I thought that was a little surreal, so I peeked.  Hillary plays the race card by criticizing the Supreme Court decision in the Voting Rights Act. Somehow, I don’t think further adornment is necessary.

Other elements of the Murdoch Empire are also on the hunt for Hillary pelts.  The Wall Street Journal is a regular source of spleen, and as for Fox, their special brand of self-parody included Steve Doocy, Chief Jester for Fox and Friends, claiming she had just had a face lift.  

Doocy appears to be a man familiar with both face-lifts and hair dye, so perhaps he’s an authority?  Although, one does have to ask, why would Hillary get one now? Wouldn’t it wear off over time?  I would have thought she’d want to freshen up closer to primary season.

Obsession with her physical appearance (or, more accurately, other people’s obsession with her appearance) is something else she shares with Christie, whose girth is sometimes used as reason to question his discipline and fitness (literally as well as figuratively) for higher office.  Christie didn’t exactly have a face-lift, but he did manage bariatric surgery last Spring. Personally, I find the whole discussion kind of peculiar. Presidents don’t have to be Calvin Klein models (Adams was short, fat, and bald, Lincoln’s homeliness was legendary and John Tyler was no prize.)  Of course, what people are really trying to do when they talk about appearance is to demean and degrade.  So Hillary’s hair and Christie’s tummy are attempts to show that these two folk are somehow not serious.

Not serious? That’s ludicrous.  Can anyone think of two prominent national politicians who are more serious than Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie?  Note, I didn’t say “humorless” because it is truly amazing how many humorless scolds and party apparatchiks there are out there.  Serious, as in hardworking, intelligent, focused. 

And therein lies a problem for both.  While the moderate middle of this country is clearly ready for serious, the moderate middle is currently not in charge. 

The GOP will not pick Christie without an internal civil war.  The hard right, living off the fiction that Mitt wasn’t conservative enough, will not accept anyone perceived as a moderate doer.  That wing of the party craves the opportunity to do nationally what the GOP just did in North Carolina; exercise power in a manner that achieves both a purely ideological agenda, and nails the door shut on possible political opposition.  They aren’t looking for Ronald Reagan. Rather, they want someone who would apply the tactics of General Grant in his final lunge for victory; “to eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.”

A Christie Presidency doesn’t accomplish that.  It isn’t that Christie doesn’t have the energy or drive to push through what traditionally has been thought of as a conservative program, or that he couldn’t be a good President (he could.)  But they want it all, and they suspect he would value his own instincts, the Christie brand, and his hopes for a second term, more.  Conservative, yes, forcing every Democrat to self-deport, perhaps not.

Does that mean Christie couldn’t get the nomination?  No, he could, and he should be considered a strong contender.  To get there, though, he will have to bridge the gap between the “just win, baby” crowd and the purely hormonal.  That is a very long road. Right now, a GOP Convention that anoints Christie would have a strong whiff of the classic Charlie Brown cartoon with the oft-feuding siblings Linus and Lucy holding hands and saying “we’re brother and sister and we love each other” in an attempt to fool Santa. It might work, but the old guy with the beard has probably seen it all by now.

Predicting anything this far out is foolish (which is part of the fun) but my instincts are Christie can’t pull it off in time for the 2016 election cycle; he doesn’t make enough Republican primary voters hearts go pitter-patter.  They want passion, not a good provider. 

Hillary, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.  She has too much time. If the Democratic primary were held today, she would win in a romp, and if the general election were in November, she would have a strong chance of bonding with John Roberts over a Bible next January.  I have absolutely no doubt she could be a very good President, a point even many in the GOP would acknowledge.  But, I want to suggest a heretical thought.  She might be the wrong choice as a candidate, both for the Democrats, and for the country. For twenty years we have been locked into a cycle of vicious, no-holds-barred partisanship.  A Hillary candidacy could more of the same; three and a half years of unrelenting investigations, rehashing old scandals, Bill, Benghazi, etc. etc.  A Hillary win would probably mean the GOP would keep it up afterwards, carping and obstructing. 

I fear that Hillary’s nomination would be a crutch for both sides to stop thinking. Democrats will flock to her side to defend her and the historic nature of her election. They will not take the second step; asking themselves how to make government work better so as to ensure the long-term viability of the programs they care about.  And Republicans will continue the tactics they used in the Romney campaign: personal venom and deliberate vagueness about the details of their plans, because they know they would be unpopular with the majority of Americans.  We will not debate ideas; certainly we will not debate new ones.

Christie’s nomination might do the same, by giving the hard right yet another get-out-of-jail-free card.  If he wins, they have a Republican President for more of their agenda.  If he loses, they can claim he wasn’t a committed conservative. 

The rest of us just want results.  Couldn’t we nominate two candidates who were not only willing to discuss the issues as pragmatists, but also willing to go back to their own bases and tell them to get you have to give?

Strangely enough, those two hypothetical candidates sound a lot like Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie.



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Three Performances: A-Rod, Obama, Verdi

Three Performances, A-Rod, Obama, Verdi

It started out as a pretty depressing week.

This past Monday marked the return from rehab of Alex Rodriguez, the once-gigantically talented third baseman, now aging relic playing out the string on two reconstructed hips, a chemically infused body, and an irreducible ego. 

But first, a little drama.  A-Rod, if you somehow managed to be trapped on a desert island without newspapers, cable or Internet, stands accused, along with 12 other Major Leaguers, of indulging himself in the wares of a seedy Florida  “anti-aging” clinic known as Biogenesis.

What has A-Rod done?  Allegedly, of course, because he denies it. He juiced.  He led some of the younger players to the clinic (A-Rod as juicing pimp).  He tried to buy up the evidence and perhaps even intimidate witnesses (A-Rod as mob boss). These are all bad things, for which he merits punishment. 

And yet, there he is, holding a press conference and talking about how excited he is to be back with his teammates.  There he is, trotting out to third base.  Because A-Rod isn’t just a man with the largest two contracts, or all-time record for self-esteem, he's also a gutter-fighter with a gigantic pocket, unwilling to concede anything.  The other twelve accepted their suspensions without appeal, but A-Rod is fighting tooth and nail.  And, perversely, because A-Rod appealed, he is the only one actually back out on the field. 

That is what makes the A-Rod vs. MLB saga so awful.  He is a daily offense to our sense of justice and a reminder of our powerlessness. We either watch him, or we don’t watch.  He takes what should be a simple pleasure and drags it into the adult world of money and influence and special rules for special talents, and makes it stale and sour and joyless.

A-Rod wasn’t the only person holding a press conference.  This week another celebrity, President Obama, also had the microphone.  The issues were bigger; the future of Obamacare, the GOP threats of another shutdown, our relationship with Russia (meaning, his relationship with Putin) and, of more immediate impact, the entire apparatus of domestic and international surveillance, Edward Snowden, the NSA, the FISA Court, and the balance between liberty and security. 

And once again, as has been too often the case during his Administration, the poetry of the campaigner slammed into the prose of actually governing.  On the NSA and FISA, Mr. Obama, while offering some reforms, has absolutely no intention of materially cutting back on what some would call “anti-terrorism” measure, but I would call domestic spying.

I fully understand that the country faces horrible people who wish to do us great harm. That being said, there is absolutely no reason why the government needs to know what websites I visited today in order to keep the country safe.  To save them time, I’ll own up to an unhealthy fixation on baseball and politics. 

The net of Mr. Obama’s presser; the spying will go on, and that is a small tragedy for those of us who supported him as a change agent, as an idealist, as someone who didn’t embrace the Dick Cheney form of government.  The optimistic young Senator who asked for our support is gone.  Sadly, for him, and for us, he’s had to become a grown-up. 

It is wonderful to be young, before all those adult responsibilities hem you in.  You can take magnificent risks; you can backpack the world, spend late nights playing drums in an alternate rock band, or drop out of college to start Microsoft or Apple.  Grown-ups have families and responsibilities; a spouse, mortgages, jobs, bosses.

In short, adults have to calibrate risks, rather than take them.  They must be careful not damage what they already have.  That’s what Mr. Obama is doing now, as the Uber-Adult.  He can’t relax the security state.  His dilemma, even if he can’t publically articulate it, is simple: Practically, he has to keep us safe.  Politically, no American President wants to take the blame for a terrorist attack under any circumstances, particularly if he or she has eased up on security.  He knows these things, he knows he isn’t the President people hoped he would be, and I think he might be a little disappointed in himself. Watch Obama’s body language when he talks about the security state; he’s detached, and without joy, like a doctor explaining an unpleasant but necessary procedure.

People have noticed, and not just the far right fringe that sees an Obama-monster under every bed.  It’s striking that Mr. Obama’s support has dropped most sharply among younger voters, the ones who aren’t burdened by having to calibrate risks. They are the ones with the most expansive views of civil liberties, they are the ones who want to trust their futures to openness, and they are the ones who thought Mr. Obama shared their values. 

I had the chance to spend some of this last week with all those risk-takers and optimists, and it recharged me a little.  I saw well over 100 short performances by teenagers who also happened to be classical vocal students; there were opera scenes, arias, and art songs. They trotted out in tuxedos and gowns for solo recitals, in costume in threes and fours and fives for the opera scenes.  They were terrific, not yet ready for La Scala, but raw talent, enthusiastic, and in love with the music.  The performances ended with all of them on stage, dressed in simple black pants and shirts, singing the great "Va, pensiero” chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. 

Nabucco is the story of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) vanquishing Judea, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Israelites. The 28-year-old Verdi was given the libretto at a low point in his life.  His second opera had failed and his wife and infant children had all died. He later said that he had tossed the libretto on to a table, and when he glanced down, it had opened to “va, pensiero.”  The words themselves sang to him.

In the third act, the defeated and enslaved Israelites, under sentence of death, rest on the banks of the Euphrates, and dream of their homeland and redemption.  Va, pensiero is a work of both sadness and optimism, of loss and hope.  In later life, Verdi was a great supporter of Italian reunification (Risorgimento), and some scholars see Va, pensiero as an early anthem for Italian patriots.  It has remained that way.  At Verdi’s death, bystanders lined the streets of Milan, and sang it as his funeral cortege passed by. In 2011, the Conductor Riccardo Muti interrupted a performance of it to protest cuts in the arts under then Prime Minister Berlusconi.  He then asked the audience to join the cast in singing the aria in support of culture.   

The young artists who walked on stage last night might have known little of Risorgimento, and probably cared even less about who A-Rod’s lawyers were, or what the specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act are.  They were not ready for world-weary cynicism, or the cold calculation of adulthood.  So they reached out, and put their hands on their friend’s shoulders, and sang of yearning and dreams. With unspoiled joy. 

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate; Fly, thought, on wings of gold.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

The GOP Meets The Golem

The GOP Meets The Golem

There is an ancient Hebrew legend of the Golem, an immensely strong creature created from soil or clay and animated by sacred or magic words.  The Golem is created to protect the community from menacing or even murderous outsiders.  The ancient Greeks had a similar myth, of Talos, a giant man of bronze who guarded Europa in Crete by circling the island three times a day, and throwing boulders at pirates and other invaders.   In more modern times, the story of life from inanimate material is echoed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in countless 3-D robot tales. The hitch, inevitably, is that the Golem has no soul and becomes unhinged. He grows even mightier, menaces the community he was made to protect, and must be de-animated.

This is the Week of the Golem for the GOP establishment.  From every angle, the wailing of the anguished Main Stream Right Wing Media (MSRWM?) has poured out upon the land, causing grown men and women to quietly sob and parents to hustle their children indoors.  In just the Washington Post, stalwarts Charles Krauthammer (who also vents his spleen on Fox) former Bush aide Mark Gerson, GOP operative Ed Rogers, “soft” Right columnist Kathleen Parker,  Rummy and Bush speechwriter Marc Theissen and even the bottom-feeding blogger Jennifer Rubin have sent up the alarms about scary, scary men with dark plans for the future of the nation. 

And, who are these demons of the deep?  Besides Mr. Obama, of course?  Ted Cruz, Rand Paul,  Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and even Marco Rubio.   These four have become the enemy, dangerous to the safety of the Republican state of ship. 

So, why all the fear and loathing?  Two big issues: spying and legislative tactics.  In fairness, there is a legitimate policy dispute between the neo-cons and security state people (Theissen, Krauthammer, Rubin, Christie) and the isolationist/libertarians, like Rand Paul.  In the past, that would have been worked out in caucus, with a few lone wolves (like Rand’s father, Ron) left to leave the herd.  For decades, the GOP had a potent political message; the Democrats were soft on our enemies and dangerously naïve, Republicans were manly realists.  Vote for us and we will protect you.  Two years ago, when the Patriot Act came up for reauthorization, it passed with almost unanimous Republican support and a healthy dollop of ecstatic praise mixed with fear mongering. The GOP loved the Bush legacy program.  But this year, when (Republican!) Congressman Justin Amash introduced an amendment that would have killed Section 215 (which gives legal underpinning to the NSA’s metadata program) 94 Republicans supported him.  Including 50 who just two years had before voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in full. So much for the potent political message.  In Theissen’s withering view, those 50 all became “John Kerry Republicans.”  They were for something before they were against it. 

But spying was the sideshow.  What really got the GOP’s establishment up in arms was Obamacare, or, more specifically, the latest ruse to end that terrible scourge upon the nation. Senators Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio are backing an ultra-clever House plan to defund Obamacare—by refusing to pass any budget whatsoever until Mr. Obama agrees to kill his own baby.  That’s correct.  The GOP, having lost in the Supreme Court, and having run squarely against Obamacare and still failing to win either the Presidency or the Senate, is now going to shut down the government, next month, unless they get their way.  No one gets a dime; not our soldiers in the field, not any arm of government, not Granny waiting for her check, until Barack Hussein Obama comes crawling and begging, with the severed head of ACA under his arm.

That scares the heck out of the MSRWM and GOP party pols everywhere.   Not necessarily because they wouldn’t applaud a positive result, but because they sense it will be a disaster, a Clinton vs. Newt replay.  As Ms. Parker says,  Either Cruz and Paul have sincerely deluded themselves about the political consequences of a shutdown or, plausibly, they don’t really think they can cause a shutdown and would never have to suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, they score political points with the base by blaming the GOP “sellouts” when the establishment adults keep the trains running on time.”   

And practically, for the few who can think outside the next news cycle, there has to be a deeper fear.  The newbies, the tea-infused bomb-throwers not only have no respect for the institution, but also keep inventing new weapons.  For now, those new tools are symbolic, like this Friday’s absurdist and clearly unconstitutional House vote requiring the Executive Branch to get explicit permission from both the House and the Senate for any new regulations, or the obligatory 40th vote to repeal Obamacare (it’s becoming like regular Church attendance, something one does weekly to proclaim one’s faith.)  Sooner or later, however, the rogue pack of elephants is going to trample on something important, and the opposition will be taking notes.  I guarantee that no future Republican President will like kowtowing to an obstreperous chamber run by the Democratic Party.  They all fancy themselves Dick Cheney, and only believe in checks and balances when they aren’t being checked or balanced.

You reap what you sow. If the Krauthammers and the Parkers and the Gersons and Theissens and all the electeds from McConnell and Boehner on down were really being honest with themselves, they would know this was a partially a self-inflicted wound. 

It was not so long ago when the very same conservative commentators and professional politicians were absolutely thrilled with the passion and the energy of the newly emergent radical right.  And, in the beginning, it worked.  The 2010 Election was a smashing success, and much of Mr. Obama’s agenda is in tatters.  But, things got out of hand while the champagne was being uncorked.  Even when respected office-holders were turned out in the primaries, even when the language directed at Mr. Obama turned not merely vitriolic but unbecomingly personal, the MSRWM and the party pols stood by and enjoyed the ride, and the spoils.  They praised, and succored, and enabled.  And ultimately, they empowered.

And now, they don’t know what to do. The entire Republican brand is at risk. Ed Rogers might have said it best; Our inability to be constructive opposition is not the president’s fault.”

A friend who is a brain specialist used a phrase that I thought was a perfect metaphor for this,  “learned helplessness.”  In psychology, learned helplessness is a state in which an individual who has been forced to bear stimuli that are unpleasant or painful becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if he could avoid them,  presumably because he has learned that the situation is outside his control.

Learned helplessness isn’t going to cut it,  nor is sending cranky old John McCain out for another episode of “Maverick vs. the Wacko Birds.”  The insurgents don’t respect traditions, the process, or their leadership. 

The Golem is loose, and it may take more than a few magic words to stop it.