Monday, September 23, 2013

The GOP Wants To Fix Our Wagon

The GOP Wants To Fix Our Wagon

My mother, who was an exceptionally kind person, had a couple of forms of discipline in her arsenal when we kids offended beyond the small and insignificant. 

The first was the fearsome “Wait until I’ll tell your father.”  This was very bad, because while he never hit anyone, he did have a gift for the Wagnerian opera-length lecture followed by the lightening, thunder and whole wrath-of-the-Gods thing.

The second was the more subtle “I’ll fix your wagon.”  My sister and I didn’t exactly know what wagon-repair entailed, but we understood it to be a very unhappy experience, usually preceded by a declaratory sentence “you’re going to ________” and backed up by the whole Dad thing in reserve if the desired results were not achieved.

It was a pretty effective way of doing things.  Not always fun, but Mom kept down the peevishness and never burned the village in order to save it.

Of course, we were kids, and they were our parents, and they had our best interests in mind. Not adults and co-equals as citizens. Yet some in the GOP have decided that it is best to treat us as errant children who need to brought into line.  Goaded by Ted Cruz in the Senate, urged on by op-ed pieces that pretend to put an intellectual gloss on strong-arm tactics, and liquored up by right-wing talk-show hosts, the House has decided to punish the American people. For our own good, of course.  Last week they passed a continuing resolution that keeps the government funding (for a short time) on the express condition that Obamacare be defunded.

This is not a post to defend Obamacare.  I don’t know if I like it or not, because I haven’t seen it fully rolled out yet.  There are a couple of things I find appealing (coverage despite preexisting conditions and the ability to keep possibly not fully employed children covered until they are 26) and at least one I don’t like (a lower cap on health care reimbursement accounts.) 

In calmer times, wise people from both sides of the aisle, with their respective legislative aides who specialize in healthcare, might, together, look at what works and what is problematic, and amend Obamacare to make it better.  I would go further and say, that given the controversial nature of the legislation, if the GOP authored 75% of those changes to make it more palatable to them, they would get overwhelming bipartisan support.  And they could even rub Obama’s nose in it for sport.

But I know they can’t do that.  Like everyone else who turns on a radio or TV, looks on line, or reads a newspaper, I know that the GOP simply cannot cope either emotionally or intellectually. Just as importantly, even if the GOP leadership were willing to deal, the Tea Party, founded on an amalgam of animus towards anything Obama, would never let them.

In short, for a loud minority of this country, for whatever reason; personal, philosophical, ideological, political or hormonal, Obamcare must go.  At whatever cost, with whatever tactics.  And, in the words of Ted Cruz, it has to go now, because once Americans see it working, they might like it, and that would be unacceptable.

And so, we are about to enter unchartered waters. One chamber of one of the three arms of government is going to impose its will on the entire country by sending us either to default, or a shutdown of the government, or both, until they win a policy point.

But here’s a dirty little secret that John Boehner and even Eric Cantor, for all their bold words and smirks, are aware of. They need Obama to draw the line and not move, even if we expose ourselves to everyone as a bunch of narrow-minded idiots determined to run into the ground the greatest democracy the world has ever known to make that point.

A lot of Republicans know it as well. The US Chamber of Commerce knows.  Even Karl Rove knows it.  Obama has to stand firm.  He cannot give in and let this genie out of the bottle.

Why?  What’s so good or important about Obamacare?  Certainly debatable.  What is important is a core principle.  This is fundamentally different than having the 42nd, or 4,342nd staged vote to repeal Obamacare.  By using this tactic, House Republicans and some of their uber-ambitious colleagues in the Senate are saying, in effect, that they run the government.  All policy decisions, all legislation, are subject to the whims of the Republican caucus in the House.  Because they can simply shut down the government and default on the national debt when they don’t get their way.  

Sounds like an overstatement?  Not really, because the same folks who are using this tactic are also pushing it to get approval of the Keystone Pipeline project.  Default and shutdown unless Obama signs off on Keystone.  

Again, I am not arguing for or against Keystone.  It is the same principle.  The Founders left us with a process that involves all three branches of government.  Part of what makes it work is that the balance of power between the three induces compromise.  Another part is accepting the results of elections and Supreme Court rulings and not coming up with creative and nihilistic ways of blowing everything up unless you get your way. 

The high fives and whoops that characterized Boehner’s press conference should have been noted by every single politician who cares about a rational process, and particularly those who want to be President.  They should be running from this as fast as they can.  But Cruz, Paul and Rubio embrace the idea.  Maybe, in their arrogance, they think that if (or, more likely, when) they are King no one will dare oppose them.  Or that they can use this to push even more fundamental changes: today Obamacare and Keystone, tomorrow Social Security and Medicare, and then, who knows, skies’ the limit.  There has already been talk among Republicans—led by Boehner, that a continuing resolution is only good for a few months, and they can play this game again in December on a host of issues. This is the weapon that will allow them to create a permanent conservative utopia.

They are wrong, all of them, because once this is used, this tool can be used by anyone, at virtually any time, including the Democrats when they are similarly situated.  What will a President Rubio do when a midterm election puts the Democrats in charge of the House and they want to cut military spending by 30%? Declare martial law?  Or raise taxes on the wealthy, or cut subsidies to business, or change the immigration laws, or push gun control, or anything else potentially on their ideological agenda? 

The point is that, whatever you feel about Obamacare, this is the wrong tactic to use.  Negotiation by extortion always is. It teaches the abused to be an abuser.  As is presuming you have the right to punish us for our own good.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think I’m a little old to be talked to that way.

I don’t need my wagon fixed. 


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Locals Are Speaking?

The Locals Are Speaking?

One of the truly wonderful things about a democracy is that we actually get to choose our leaders.  That doesn’t mean we make good choices (Churchill once said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”) but at least we make them our choices.

Well, that’s the theory, at least.  In the New York City primary last week, roughly 650,000 Democrats voted for Mayor.  That is better than the 57,000 Republicans that ached to pull the lever (and a higher percentage of registered voters) but those numbers are absolutely abysmal. In a couple of months, Bill de Blasio, winner of a bit more than 260,000 votes, will face off against, and has a very good chance of losing to, Joe Lhota.  Mr. Lhota received all of 29,807 votes. 

29,807 votes to choose the Mayor of more than 8 million people?  Perhaps Lhota will pick up more in absentee and provisional ballots, but if he maintains the same ratio (less than one in twenty primary voters selected him) and assuming there are approximately 10,000 votes outstanding, Joe might gain 500 more, which would take him to 30,207.  Approximately.

Breathtaking, isn’t it? 

In the meantime, the moderately Blue state of Colorado held a recall election, at the behest of the NRA and gun manufacturers, and picked off two Colorado State Senators, Senate President John Morse (Colorado Springs) and state Sen. Angela Giron (Pueblo).  Morse and Giron’s sin was supporting a bill with background checks.  Morse lost by about 300 votes out of about 18,000 cast.  There are nearly 70,000 active voters in his district; about a quarter of them cared enough to show up.  Message to anyone, anywhere, who dares mess with the gun lobby—don’t.   They come out shooting, and they have plenty of ammunition.  Checking public sentiment won’t help you.  82% of Coloradans support background checks, but when you look at the passion quotient, the people who see ownership of an arsenal as the highest Constitutional right have you beat.  82% is a meaningless number if they aren’t willing to speak and go to the polls.  For Morse and Giron, they weren’t.

There are two other interesting elections for the locals that are teed up for 2013; the New Jersey and Virginia Gubernatorial races.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie holds both a big lead and a bigger microphone. His reelection seems a forgone conclusion (a recent poll shows a 20 point margin), and yet this race could have large national implications, because Chris Christie wants to be seen as Presidential timber.  That makes his campaign channel a BCS football team, and feel an overwhelming compulsion to run up the score.  Christie needs to make a statement; he can win big in a Blue State, and so therefor should be taken seriously as a Conservative with crossover appeal.  Everything should be going perfectly for him; he is his own reality show, and his opponent, State Senator Mary Buono, is neither terribly well known nor particularly popular.  And yet, his campaign is running a particularly harsh negative ad.  Why?  That’s hard to say.  Kirsten Gillibrand showed last year that popularity means you could win big without messing your halo. Yet the Christie pugnacity is in full display, which this tells you one of three things; either he is seeing something in internal polling that worries him, he can’t control himself, or (more probably) he needs to show his Conservative Cred by kneecapping his competition. 

As to kneecaps (and elbows, ears, eyes and any other part of the anatomy that can be smacked, gouged or bitten) Virginia is already turning into a mixed martial arts contest. Start with the fact that neither the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, nor the Republican, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is at all personally popular.  McAuliffe is known primarily as a party operative, sharp (not necessarily in the right way) businessman, and Clinton crony.  And Cuccinelli, is, well, Cuccinelli, a hard-nosed hard-right conservative who has used his office and Commonwealth resources to pursue a purely personal and ideological agenda (among other things, he investigated the University of Virginia for the appalling act of having Michael Mann, an Assistant Professor and climate change researcher on its payroll.)

There is an interesting story by James Hohman in Politico that cites several reasons why McAuliffe is leading right now. One is a growing disconnect between the GOP party operation and many moderate to moderately conservative Virginia Republicans.  Popular Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling was essentially forced out of the GOP primary after the state apparatus changed its nominating procedure to ensure a Cuccinelli nomination.  When Bolling (and others like him) complained, they were dismissed as RINOS.  A second is more curious; Cuccinelli has avoided campaigning in Northern Virginia, which is more moderate and trending Blue.  He’s just not comfortable there, and clearly sees his mission, if elected, to represent only those who agree with him.

It is too early to tell how Virginia will go, particularly because no one loves McAuliffe, but Cuccinelli, with his allergy to any venue or medium that doesn’t immediately “ditto” him, is demonstrating anew that some Republicans are unable to communicate unless they are amongst friends.   For them, everything is a primary.

And therein lies the horrible paradox of contemporary politics. The middle (and “middle” is a relative term, “middle” Kansas is not “middle” Manhattan) wants good government, low crime, economic opportunity, decent schools, and a level playing field.  It doesn’t care so much whether you tie a Republican or Democratic label on it, and it is willing to tolerate a diversity of views on a number of hot-button issues. But the middle isn’t being given a chance to choose, or, perhaps more accurately, is not exerting itself to choose.  Good people, thoughtful people, are turning away from government and public service.  They just don’t want to be slimed.  The primaries have become killing fields for competence and a willingness to work together for the common good.

Where does that leave us?  Sometime with ideologues and kooks (if you want to see a truly cringe-worthy fifteen minutes, check out the joint presser Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert and Steve King held in Egypt—Jon Stewart had fun with it, but watch it all.)  But more often with retreads, people unable to be innovative, people who lack the vision to build and improve on what others have done. 

After the New York City primary results were in, and the winners obvious, a friend emailed me the following: “de Blasio vs. Lhota?  Is that really the best New York City can do?  How disappointing.”

Well, approximately 15% of the New York City electorate just said yes. 

Ouch.  I wonder if Churchill is still around?


Thursday, September 5, 2013

All Politics Is Really Local

All Politics Is Really Local

Who says local races are dull?

Next Tuesday, we savvy, tough-minded, hip-and-not-so-hip, optimistically pessimistic, cheerfully cranky and thoroughly saturated in noise (political and otherwise) New Yorkers will hold a primary.  And it’s a really messy one: so many people vying for so few chairs.  For a junkie like me, it’s a table groaning with desserts.

Tip O’Neill, who first coined “All Politics is Local”, lost his first election for Cambridge City Council.  There is a story about this in Jimmy Breslin’s “How The Good Guys Finally Won”.   After the results were in, one of O’Neill’s neighbors, who had known him since he was a boy, told him she hadn’t voted for him.  O’Neill was stunned. “You never asked. And people like to be asked.”  After that, O’Neill always asked.

Here, we have absolutely no shortage of ask.

Last weekend, as I walked on the Upper West Side, I found three City Council candidates within three blocks.  A few minutes later, I saw a young volunteer for a fourth literally running, phone glued to one ear, placard held aloft, to what was presumably a more favorable location.  Fortunately, he seemed to be in good cardiovascular health.

Personal presence isn’t enough in the modern age. My (paper) mailbox is filled with glossy post-cards (note to political consultants—mailboxes often contain unpleasant things like bills, so this may not be the best medium.)  And, I am bombarded with emails, every single one of them on a first name basis with me, urging me to stand with, and contribute to, Helen, Bill, Ken, Scott, Mark, Mel, etc.  

One aspirant even managed to wish me Happy New Year, Happy Rosh Hashanah, and L’Shana Tovah all in the same email, which at least shows me he has a crack staff with an ethnic thesaurus.  Had a handsome family picture in it (note to crack staff—one of the family members appears to be wearing what looks like a Christmas sweater.)  And, there are the phone calls, many of which appear as hang-ups on my answering machine.  Another candidate (out of respect, I will not mention a name) has called almost every day for the past two weeks, urging me to make up my mind.  I hate to break it to him, but if he doesn’t stop I will make up my mind. And then there is the “anyone but Quinn” phone bank.  Those folk are really serious: Bashar Assad, if it doesn’t work out in Syria, there’s always a home for you.

Of course, those are the Democrats, and as this is a Democratic town, that’s where most of the action is.  But, let us not ignore the GOP, because they have their own primary.  True, there aren’t a lot of registered Republicans, so, for most races, it’s a little like The Flying Dutchman, the ghost ship doomed to sail for eternity without ever making port.  However, we have a habit of electing, or at least seriously considering, Republicans for Mayor.  That makes the GOP primary where the fun is:  the redoubtable Joe Lhota faces off against the ill-tempered-but-charitable George MacDonald (the founder of the Doe Fund), and the jolly supermarket and oil billionaire, John Catsimitides.  Watching one of their debates, you get the impression that John and Joe don’t like each other, and George doesn’t like anyone.  This dyspepsia is so great, that one night, when I was overtired and perhaps mildly hallucinating, I envisioned the three as malevolent balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Joe might be optimistic these days, because not only is he highly likely to win his primary, but he has an excellent chance of facing a beatable candidate.  De Blasio, the most liberal of the legitimate contenders, is on a tear right now; one poll has him at over 40%, which is the threshold for avoiding a runoff.   DeB’s politics may be conventional, but he has a secret sauce: his son Dante’s Afro.  The kid is far better looking than his Dad and a complete star.  Quinn and Thompson just don’t have visuals like that.

But, speaking of visuals, I would like to insert a less than subtle poke at Lhota; I applaud you for being tech savvy, but I am not thrilled with the Joe popup ads on my favorite baseball sites.   Not only are they arresting in a bad way (I think that’s where my Macys Balloon dream came from) but you are intruding in private space.  Leads me to believe you might be a secret Red Sox fan.

Still, Primary Day is next Tuesday, so choices have to be made. If you are looking for a Syncopated Politics endorsement of any of the candidates (I know they are all clamoring for one) we don’t do that here.  That is both a principled and practical stance.  I have decided on only one vote so far, and that because one of the candidates running for Manhattan Borough President is probably my favorite politician in the entire city: a dedicated, hard-working, impossibly energetic public servant. 

For everyone else, I continue to grapple, and especially with the big kahuna, the Mayor’s race.  In search of answers I have done my own informal poll and found some interesting trends.  Among the “smart and accomplished women” demographic (I have a thing for smart and accomplished women) I found a lot less sympathy for Christine Quinn than I expected.  There seems to be a consensus that they really want a first woman Mayor, but maybe Quinn is not that woman. As for de Blasio, one friend seemed to sum up what I was hearing “I met de Blasio once.  Nice guy, approachable.  But I think he's left of where I've ended up in my old age.”  And Thompson doesn’t fire anyone up, although he got an interesting endorsement from someone I respect;  “crazy race. Vote Thompson.  An adult.”

That “adult” comment resonates with me, because my gut tells me that that the missing piece in this election is Mike Bloomberg.  And I think that is a mistake.  Mike Bloomberg was an adult and a good mayor, just not someone you were going to be emotionally involved with.  Mike Bloomberg’s policies are things that many people would like to see continued.  Tweak them, fix the errors, get rid of some of the overreach, but keep the core. 

Yet Bloomberg is spurned or largely ignored.  The Republicans generally praise Bloomberg, but they do it in a way (“remember the bad old days before Rudy?”) that can be offensive to Democrats.

The Democrats, on the other hand, use Bloomberg as a foil on stop and frisk, on charter schools, and as a club to beat Quinn over the head on her vote to extend term limits.   The Democrats don’t want to be Bloomberg, but it’s not clear what they do want to be.

So, for the moderate Democrat (New York style moderate) that tends to decide mayoral elections, both sides seem a little remote. 

What is going to happen on Tuesday, and in November?  I don’t know, but I will make two predictions:

The first is that Quinn made an error in judgment.  She could easily have said, “yes, even though we didn’t always agree, we worked together, and I’m proud of the things we accomplished. My vision is to build on that and improve it.”  Instead, she squandered her chance to be Bloomie’s bridge.

The second is that Lhota, who has a very winnable general election race, could punt it away. The Times reports that David Koch (a genuine philanthropist but also of the hard-right billionaire Koch family) and his wife have just donated nearly $300,000.00 to a new pro-Joe PAC “New Yorkers For Proven Leadership.”  Its first big ad buy is one featuring Joe as Rudy’s right hand man. 

A Lhota, Rudy, Koch team?  That may be a bridge too far.

And I was having such a good time…..


Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria and the Northern Star

Syria and the Northern Star

For nearly five years our entire national (and often local) politics have been centered on one person, Barack Obama.  He has been our Northern Star. 

Back in April, in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher's death, we touched on the emotional aspects of being either an Obama-hater or an Obamabot.  Now, in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Syria, and Mr. Obama’s surprising request for Congressional approval of military action, I want to talk about the intellectual and policy implications of this intense focus.

Syria shines a light on this in a way the way nothing else has since Mr. Obama took office.  It is a highly complex problem that resists easy answers: particularly if the only tool in your pocket is your Obama Compass. 

I have often been amazed at how many Republicans excoriate Obama for everything--even ideas that were Republican in origin.  They just can’t stand the man; they orient themselves on any public event or policy matter as the anti-Obama, even to the point of complete irrationality. 
Democrats (including me) are guilty as well; we are far too willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt when we would have been at the ramparts if Bush were still in office.  I could defend myself by pointing to the pervasive ugliness you see in many of the assaults on Obama, and there is a lot of ugly to go around. But I think that is just as much a crutch as that used by those who attack on sight.  It can’t be just about Obama, it has to be about core principals. Either you have them, or you don’t, and while governing is often about finding a middle ground, there are aspirations that should not be easily surrendered, and actions that are simply anathema.  In short, some political and policy ethics cannot be situational.  

And that is why Syria is such an incredibly difficult issue for everyone, because once you get past the nonsense trope that none of this would have happened if Obama had conducted a more manly foreign policy (in case you haven’t noticed, the Middle East is one endless tribal war and the Assads have been murderers for decades) you still are left with gigantic questions.  What are American interests there? Do we have a humanitarian duty, and if yes, why doesn’t the rest of the world share it? Who are the good guys—and knowing who a bad guy is doesn’t mean we know who the good guys are.  If we are willing to intervene, how much of our military resources that we should be willing to deploy?  Missiles?  Airstrikes by drones?  Airstrikes with our air force?  Boots on the ground?  Are we willing to commit to staying there afterwards? None of this is easy.

When Mr. Obama kicked the can to Congress, he may have reminded us that outsourcing our intellect to our limbic system isn’t really enough.  There is no sound bite that will resolve this.  Rather, we have to think about this, pick through difficult options, and be willing to accept a less-than-optimal result.  In short, we have to make choices and live with the consequences. 

There has been (and it will continue) an outpouring of criticism of how Mr. Obama handled the situation to date.  Some of it is justified.  But once everyone gets done indulging his or her pique, the problem still exists, and still begs for a solution. Congress itself is confused.  Ed Keefe, in the Washington Post, identifies at least five different opinion caucuses in the House and Senate.  They range from the drumbeaters for big military action (McCain/Graham) to the “do it now” caucus, the “happy to debate, reserving judgment” group, the “skeptical but will listen” bloc, and what O’Keefe calls the “anti-military action caucus.”  What is even more fascinating is that you can’t necessarily tell what side they are on by simply checking the letter on their jersey.  The antis, for example, consist largely of a completely improbable alliance of isolationist Tea Party types and older anti-war liberals. 

There is both promise and peril here.  Promise, because if the parties can actually work together on this, maybe they can work together on other things. Peril, because we can really screw this up if we aren’t careful.  Doing something just because Obama didn’t do it, or hasn’t asked for it, is not a guide.  Nor is blindly following his recommendation.  The reactions of many in Congress over the last 24 hours show a recognition of that.

There’s a fascinating moment in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII is discussing archery with Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell tells the King that he often practices by entering tournaments with his guild against the butchers, the grocers, and the vintners.  Henry’s eyes flicker to life; he suggests they go together, with Henry in disguise.  But he knows it’s a fantasy; he cannot escape his rank, he cannot escape being King, and the moment passes.  It is a throwaway scene that tells you nothing, and everything. 

That is Congress’s problem right now.  Obama has gone to them, as many of them demanded, and they cannot escape their rank.  He has explained why he wants to intervene in Syria, and in the next several days, Secretary of State Kerry and other officials will provide additional information.  There will be some who persist in seeing it as a political problem only; at least two conservative columnists I read yesterday saw an opportunity to trade GOP support for some domestic concession by Obama.  Lives for tax-cuts and entitlement reform. 

But, at the end of the day, each person will have to take a stand.  Some will try to prevaricate, some will hedge, many will bluster or blame the predicament solely on Obama and, by doing so, try to escape their responsibilities.  But all will end up voting.  All will be on record. Sometimes, it is not all that much fun to be King.

My friend Cynical Cynic emailed me last night to say, “The case is a moral one.”  Perhaps, when you have lost your Northern Star and have to fly by dead reckoning, “moral” is as good a guide as any.