Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Weary and the Worthy

The Weary and the Worthy

January 28, 2015

Among the many stunning moments in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” there is one visual that sticks with me: when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men, after immense hardships, finally find Ryan.

I saw the movie shortly after it was released.  I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, and the unbearably intense Normandy Beach scene had me, and others in the audience, wincing or closing our eyes.  The suffering doesn’t stop there, and everyone questions just why it is that eight men must risk, and lose, their lives to bring back one.  But when a very young, very handsome Matt Damon showed up, back lit, there was an audible gasp.  It wasn’t what we were expecting—Damon was a star, fresh off of winning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” but Spielberg couldn’t have known that when he cast him (the filming of the two movies overlapped).  He must have chosen Damon for the visual impact, and he succeeded.  That’s Ryan, we must have all thought. “Just look at him.  He’s worthy.”

Worthy is a hard word.  And it’s a word that my fellow Democrats worry about, even if they don’t articulate it that way.  After the bipartisan train-wreck that was and will be governance during the eight years of the Obama Administration, we know that the next President is going to be the one the electorate considers more worthy. 

The public looks at what goes on in Washington, and they are tired of it.  I am not talking about the can-do-no-right or can-do-no-wrong crowd.  Rather it is the weary middle of the electorate that is struggling to find its footing—a group that could thrash Obama in 2010, re-elect him in 2012, and thrash him again in 2014.  They want better than Executive Orders and better than endless investigations and silly votes to repeal Obamacare.  They are losing faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and perhaps even more importantly, they are losing faith in anyone acting as an honest broker.  Even the Judiciary is increasingly seen as partisan, a feeling that is likely to intensify after the Supremes make a decision on yet another ACA challenge, and several voting rights and campaign spending cases.

Why should the President be different? He or she is after all, a product of the party system.  Well, because of the job itself.  The guys on Mount Rushmore sat in that chair, and anyone who follows them shouldn’t be a hack on the make.  The President is supposed to work for us—not all the time, of course, he’s allowed to have a philosophy and allowed to occasionally play politics—but in the end, he is expected to do the best he can for the maximum number of us.  If he is not perceived that way, his standing suffers, and suffers in a particularly corrosive way.  

I don't think either Barack Obama or George W. Bush ever really understood that.  Bush had his chance after 9/11, and inexplicably kicked it away as hard and as fast as his handlers could make him.  Obama doesn’t seem to have handlers, in fact, he doesn’t seem to have anyone—rather, he projects a detachment that can drive even people who are ideologically in tune with him completely nuts (read Maureen Dowd when she has her Irish up.)

The weary middle wants better, and it is looking for someone that is worthy of its trust.  It is painful to watch this particular movie when you have the suspicion that nothing at all will end up feeling redemptive.

Who can change this?  I don’t know, but as a Democrat, and a citizen, I can tell you I’m worried.  My party seems to have only one candidate—Hillary Clinton.  She is smart, talented and experienced, but…she’s Hillary Clinton.  She might turn out to be a very solid President.  But…she’s Hillary Clinton, and a Clinton candidacy, and Presidency, if she is so lucky to get elected, will not end the trench warfare, the personal vendettas, and the petty foolishness that seems as natural as breathing right now.  We will be weary in 2016, and weary in 2020, and possibly weary in 2024.  That is a lot of weary.

But, if Hillary does run, and loses, I worry even more what impact it will have on both the party and the country.  A Republican President means a Republican government—without coattails, the likelihood is that the GOP would keep the House and the Senate.  They would firm up their hold on statehouses and state legislatures.  Institutionally, the Democrats would have fewer and fewer elected seats where they could demonstrate political ability.  Could Hillary lose, given that she is currently running ahead in the polls?  Absolutely.  Beyond the fact that two years is a very long time, there is also the distinct chance that enough of the less-partisan and persuadable electorate would be weary enough of the whole GOP vs. Obama thing to not to want to continue it with Hillary.  They might pick the elephant just to seek some (temporary) peace.

But if a Hillary candidacy sows doubts, an all-GOP government raises fears. At the Congressional level, they have turned into a parliamentary party, with a very conservative wing, and an acutely conservative wing.  There are no real moderate conservatives with any influence, and accordingly, the GOP-controlled Congress represents only the roughly 30% of the electorate that shares its ideological passions.  

Even that might not be so much of a problem if Boehner and McConnell had more control, but they have permitted the acutes far too much sway.  Neither man can bargain with the Democrats/Mr. Obama because the smallest concession brings out the screeching.

There are only three ways out of the box for Boehner and McConnell if they really want to forge a workable conservative agenda—and demonstrate to the country that they can trust Republicans with the keys to the vault.  The first is to break the power of the purists by bringing legislation to the floor that would get enough (not a lot, but enough) Democratic votes to offset the loss of those who want confrontation.  Essentially, you get the Democrats (and Obama) on board by saying “I know it’s 75% good for me, but the alternative is worse. You need to give more to get anything.”  The second is to take the Presidency, but that is two years off.  Since they are unwilling to do the first, and unable to do the second, they seem to have defaulted into the third—pandering to the worst instincts of the worst of the acutes. 

That pandering was fine when the House could play show and tell without having to take responsibility for actually governing.  But now, the GOP is ascendant, and what they pass actually matters.  How are they doing? Just like a big, but vaguely malevolent puppy—all clumsy paws with sharp claws. 

Where to start since they just started?  Trey Gowdy in the House has been holding secret Republican-only interviews for his Benghazi committee, and apparently suppressing exculpatory evidence.  Boehner had to withdraw an anti-abortion bill because of social conservatives insistence that pregnant rape victims report it immediately—and some (male) House conservatives actually complained there were women in their caucus.  The hard-liners want to shut down the government and the Homeland Security Department to defund Obama’s immigration moves. Boehner breached protocol by privately inviting Bibi Netanyahu to speak to Congress to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, and Bibi privately accepted, an act that blew up in both their faces—Senate Democrats withdrew support for an Iran sanctions bill, and Bibi is facing significant criticism at home for apparently playing in American domestic politics.

That is your GOP scorecard for the first few weeks.  Stop me when you see “worthy.” Right now I’m still at “weary” with a very heavy dollop of “worried.”  And this ain’t a movie.

I have to call Steven.  Maybe he could send someone over from central casting?

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, January 19, 2015

A Bumper Crop of Bologna

A Bumper Crop of Baloney

Ah, the New Year, the bright new-car smell of a freshly baked Congress, the timeless pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address, all carefully plated by those chefs in Washington on the finest Royal Doulton (with hand-painted periwinkles) and served on a bed of greenbacks, with locally sourced and regional cuisines designed to tantalize every palate.

Big, big, questions this time of year, and even bigger answers to be revealed.  Who will sit next to Michelle?  What will she wear? How many Supreme Court Justices will show up, and which of them will scowl at Mr. Obama? What will they wear? How many times will disheartened Democrats rise and cheer and which Republican will shout out some epithet and become an instant hero on Fox?   How many references will there be to our “brave men and women in the armed forces” and how many of the listeners will actually care one whit about those brave men and women? What’s the over/under on the number of Obama proposals?  And the over/under of Obama proposals pronounced “dead on arrival” (special hint from the Editor, it is OK to make a single guess.)

So, we know it's all going to be tripe.  There will be a series of incoherent but “brave” pronouncements from both sides. The Prez will have his moment in the cold, unforgiving and rheumy glare of Mitch and John. Newly minted Republican Senator Jodi Ernst will deliver the Loyal Opposition Response (she’s the one who took retiring Iowan Senator Tom Harkin’s seat with a stunning ad about castrating hogs) and there will plenty of spinners and talking heads (some of them  spinning) to follow. You might also ask yourself how many of these will have prepared and even delivered their critiques before the actual text of the speech is released? (Second special hint from the Editor, you can start counting from last Friday.)

To make it easier on people, I have selected three large slabs of bologna, one from the President, and two from the GOP (they control both chambers in Congress) for today's special.

We commence our meal with two newly minted Congressional maneuvers.  The first, by the House, is to give absolute investigative and subpoena power to Committee Chairman, without either consulting with the minority leader, or permitting a vote.  I will leave it to your imaginations as to why this completely non-partisan change of long-standing House policy was needed at this critical time in our nation’s history.  The second was reported in The Hill “The GOP Finds Its Secret Weapon” which details the exhuming (that is the correct word) of a rarely used tactic, the “Congressional Review Act” to stall and overturn any regulatory actions taken by the Obama Administration that the GOP disagrees with, regardless of whether the statutory authority actually exists.  Under the CRA, the Congress can pass a “Resolution of Disapproval” (sounds something like you would find in Middle School debating contest?) on any regulation, which then goes to the White House for signature (Obama won’t) and then, after he demurs, back to Congress for an override vote.  The GOP has hundreds of health and safety, consumer protection, clean water and air, and pollution regulations they have Resolved to Disapprove.  Job-killers all. 

Will it work? Is there some special magic about this CRA? Absolutely not, and the GOP knows it, just like they know that 50 votes to repeal the ACA didn't work either.  There aren't enough votes to override the automatic vetoes that will follow.  However, what they hope to do is to get some Democrats on record as either opposing the regulations (to show bipartisan opposition) or, even better, have them go on record as being anti-coal, anti-fracking, anti-jobs, anti-American, etc.  So, think about those two tactics for a second, evaluate their ability to advance the cause of the common citizen in this country, and, for ease of use, call these what they are, Hunks of Bologna I.

Let us turn our attention to Mr. Obama.  The President has been having a pretty good time since he led his party to appalling defeat two months ago.  It’s Obama unbound, mounted up with wings, as eagles, soaring from community college for all, to his latest “Robin Hood Tax” which dares to raise some rates on the wealthiest to reduce taxes slightly on the middle class.  The sound of gnashing teeth from the Right has already induced many local dentists to call their Mercedes dealers.

Does Obama’s tax plan look good out of tights?  Not really.  It contains a tax credit for working couples, and an enhanced child-care credit. It really doesn’t do all that much besides move the deck chairs around a little and add a thin cushion for some of those in steerage.  Of course, these were excellent ideas when proposed by Republicans in the past, however, in the hands of Obama, they have morphed into something dangerously like socialism.  The numbers are the same, the names are the same, but there’s something suspicious when you get close.  You can tell that by former Bush operative Marc Thiessen’s column in the Washington Post “Obama Uses His Tax Proposal to Taunt the GOP” in which Mr. Thiessen is shocked to report that Obama is suggesting this for political reasons “He knows Republicans have been working to shed their image as the party of the rich and powerful, with a new focus on helping the poor and the working class. He wants to taunt the GOP into attacking his plan so he can accuse Republicans of fighting for the wealthy.”

I honestly did not make that quote up, or the title of Thiessen’s article.  I wish I had that marvelous and delectable ear for self-parody. But, Thiessen is essentially correct on one point—the proposals have absolutely no chance in Congress (the GOP would never agree to raise taxes one half-pence on the wealthy to ease the smallest burden on working families.)  And even if Thiessen were wrong, and the two sides could work together, it’s not tax reform in any meaningful way, just a modest redistribution of (after tax) wealth.  It is the Hunk of Bologna II.

By this point, I know I have your mind completely in cold cuts.  So, let’s talk about Hunk of Bologna III, the Republicans newly rediscovered (it was lost entirely during the Bush Administration) urgency for a Balanced Budget Amendment.  Any serious person knows there is no way to make this happen.  Spending on current and past military obligations is 47% of the budget, and that’s certainly not going down.  A lot of the other spending is on entitlements, and a great deal of that goes to “vested” seniors, who will not accept reductions in their payments.  Much of the rest is at the margins, except for support for business (a must have) and support for poor people (a must not-have.) But you cannot cut your way to a zero deficit without working on the revenue side--as Bill Clinton did--and raising taxes in the slightest causes the entire GOP to go into anaphylactic shock.  So, why have a Balanced Budget Amendment? Because a) when you add Dynamic Scoring, which the House has just mandated, and demands that all tax cuts show as revenue positive (from all that job-creating, of course) to b) blank-check military spending, then you get c) Grover Norquist’s fantasy of a government brought “down to the size we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Yum--it all sounds great, doesn’t it?  Smaller government, less taxes, less regulation, and everyone’s tummy is full and happy!  All from those solicitous men in blue and red aprons, asking us how we would like it sliced, on rye with seeds or without, mustard and a pickle on the side.

Come on. You know you want one.  Just don’t ask to read the ingredients.  It’s still bologna.

January 19, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitt's Planet Heats Up

As pretty much everyone has heard by now, Mitt Romney did a sudden U-turn and decided that the grass really was greener on the White House lawn.  He is back in. 

I am for this.  No, I have not lost my mind, nor do I have a tactical reason why I would want Romney to throw a stun grenade into the list of potential Jeb Bush (and Chris Christie) campaign  contributors.  I have absolutely no doubt that, when it comes to the 2016 election, the amount of money available will beyond the human mind’s capacity to count.  2016 is, literally, going to be for all the marbles, and a Republican sweep will, in less than two years, fundamentally change the way government and the economy is run for the foreseeable future.  If you have an economic interest in that particular trade, there is no question you will be investing heavily.

So, why would I want Mitt back in? Because I see a challenge for him that few in the Republican Party are capable of taking on.  He has nothing to prove, and he does not need to genuflect to the most radical wing of the party. Nor does he owe anything to Democrats. He can run on who he is and what he really believes in.  If Mitt Romney believes he would be the best President of the current field, both Republican and Democratic, let him tell us why. He is obviously not a bomb-thrower like Ted Cruz, or an off-the-beaten path guy like Rand Paul.  But what distinguishes him from people like Jeb or Christie, or Walker or Kasich?

This is where Romney could do both his party and his country a real service.  Last week, I talked about both party’s needs to challenge their respective orthodoxies.  If you look at polling data, what you will find is that both Democratic and Republican younger voters are substantially less enthusiastic about their parties “core truths” than boomers and senior voters are. 

Here are two issues that Romney can lead the way on: The environment and privacy.

Let’s begin with the environment—and specifically, not climate change.  I am omitting climate change because, while a majority of younger Republican voters believe it is occurring, it is a non-negotiable point of resistance and ridicule from both the ideological base, and the corporate contributors who pay to keep the lights on and the limos purring.  You cannot win an argument on climate change, no matter what the consensus in the scientific community might be.  So, drop it.  If I’m Mitt Romney, I say “I’m first and foremost a business man, and in business, you don’t throw massive amounts of money at something unless you are sure it both exists, and there are viable ways to deal with it.  I will keep an open mind, but we aren’t there yet.” 

But, concern for the environment is something that resonates with a large portion of the electorate, and the one thing that the GOP seems absolutely set on is drilling, fracking, piping, clear cutting, emitting and dumping as much as possible, and regardless of the damage it does.  Mitt can offer another way. “I love this country, and I love the outdoors, the beautiful mountains and forests.  I ski, I hunt and fish, I do it with my family, and I want others to be able to do the same, and not just those who have been as fortunate as I have.  So, let’s start talking about conserving what we have.  Our national park system is the greatest in the world, and we ought to be preserving it.  It is an asset that is owned by all of us, and I won’t support policies  that will spoil that.  We own vast tracts of public lands, and, again, as a businessman,  if we are going to exploit those, I want  it to be done prudently, with as much attention to keeping the natural beauty as possible.  And, I want to see transactions at fair market values. We just can’t be giving things away.”

And, “Let’s talk about regulations.  Yes, we over regulate, and as a businessman, I can’t back a rule that creates a huge expense for a small and uncertain benefit.  To people who want me to stop a dam because of a toad, I won’t do it.  But, that said, regulations have a purpose, and we have to do better on our land, water, and air even if that costs money, even if business or the consumer has to pay for it, and even if it costs jobs.  I know that’s not popular, but it is the truth. It’s common sense that if your next door neighbor decides to build a smelter next to you, and he dumps waste on to your land, or into your water, that’s his responsibility to clean up.  We should hold businesses to the same standard.”

That was fun. I enjoyed being a ventriloquist. More importantly, those are obviously radical ideas in the more ideological parts of the party, but they aren’t at all in the nation.  Environmental policy is perhaps the most nuanced, most likely to have crosscurrents, and people don’t sort out that easily by party identification.  Think of gun-owners who prize the forest. Talk to them quietly, engage their intellect, and people get the idea that this is an area that requires clear thinking, careful analysis, and difficult tradeoffs.  Mitt Romney could take the leap, be the grownup in the room, and start the discussion.

The same is true with privacy, something we should all care about, but again, is particularly of concern to younger voters.  Government surveillance and big business data mining are putting all of our lives under a constant microscope. 

Yes, there is money to be made, and terrorists to be rooted out.  But it’s creepy to go on line and see a pop-up advertisement for the very same pinstriped Brooks Brother’s slim-fit shirt you looked at yesterday—on a website devoted to baseball.  And it is unreasonable for every telephone conversation, every web search,  every text, every email, and every random exchange of words in both public and private spaces to be an open book to some governmental agency.  I am always puzzled by people who are OK with it—so long as their guy is on the other end of the computer screen.  I have been profoundly disappointed by President Obama’s unwillingness to deliver in this area. I expect to be profoundly disappointed with the next President, of either party, because every politician in a position to make decisions fears the implications, and the accusations of malfeasance, of another attack.  And, sad to say, many like the power. 

As a free people, we shouldn’t be passive on this.  Most of us don't feel safer, we feel violated. We understand there will be some tradeoffs,  and imperfections, but huge and bipartisan majority of us will appreciate the effort.

Rand Paul raises these issues but he isn’t in a position to truly influence policy.  Mitt Romney could, if he were willing to take the risk.  Romney could propose limits on the commercial exploitation of personal data (no profit, no need to pry) and restrictions on where and what the government can look at.

Will he? I should note that Romney’s recent announcement that he’s back has been met by many with a mix of indifference, resistance, and outright hostility, and maybe that’s as it should be, if he remains on Planet Status Quo.  There are newer and fresher faces.

But if he’s willing to mix it up and try to engage the electorate—not the pundits and the party pols, but ordinary voters—on things that they know are complex, but they care about, he might find things heating up. 

December 14, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Very Very Scary Election

January 6, 2015

A friend once advised me that if I wanted Syncopated Politics to be a success, I had to do more than just write well, or insightfully. Rather, he said, content was good, but catchy headlines were better. Something to grab attention, something to cheer, or uplift, or even titillate.  A little Mad Man-like without the booze and the sex.

There is absolutely no question I have failed on the catchy headline front, no matter how gripping my recounting of some obscure tome or article or conference might be.  And, since every New Year requires a New Year’s Resolution, I am throwing caution to the wind, and coming out with some big.  We will try fear.  2016 will be a very scary year.

I have to admit, this wasn’t entirely original.  Rather, it was inspired by a brilliant observation by Mitch McConnell, “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome."

Ok, so who is scarier?

Democrats first, since they have the White House.  First, what do the Democrats stand for?  Beats me, and I’m a Democrat.  I know what policies I would support, but they don't seem to intersect very well with the mush I think I am hearing from the Donkey side of the aisle.

And, the candidate?  Well, even though he’s not on the ballot, we need to talk about Mr. Obama.  He isn’t going to be transported up to Valhalla, bathed in gentle tears shed by a grateful nation.  His approval ratings are presently in the mid 40’s, and, while he might nudge them into the low 50’s, there is just not a lot of upward elasticity in that number. No matter what he actually accomplishes in the next two years, there is absolutely nothing he can do to move the needle with most Republicans.  They never accepted either of his elections in the first place, and they aren’t going to now.  So, to put it in Mitt Romney terms, the Democrats start with a handicap. 47% of the country may not be willing to give them another chance.

And yet, if you asked me about scary, I would tell you that Hillary Clinton is a bigger problem for the Democrats than Barack Obama is.  That is not intended to be a swipe at her intelligence, her experience, her competence or even her electability. She might very well find some votes in that 47% that Obama could never reach.  Rather, it’s a reflection of a basic law of political physics.  A Clinton (even a Rodham Clinton) sucks all the air (and most of the fundraising) out of the room.  That vacuum will be filled by her Republican opponents—and the discussion in 2016 will be not about ideas, but about Hillary’s age, her health, Benghazi, her speechmaking, whether Bill will go off the reservation, Benghazi, her considerable personal wealth, Benghazi, Bill, and whatever investigations the Republicans think they need to keep going for the next two years.  Need proof of that?  Just today, the GOP is floating a new rumor about Bill’s “appetites.”    

Fair? Yes, ugly, but fair. In politics, everything is public, and few have lived their lives in a more explicitly public way than the Clintons.  But, all that focus on Hillary means that she will either win, and the Democrats will develop no bench, and neither think anew nor act anew, or she will lose, and the Democrats will develop no bench, and neither think anew nor act anew.  As long as Hillary is in, she fills the whole screen as both crutch, and narcotic.  The Democrats will be like a fly frozen in amber.  A mushy fly in amber. 

Now, we can turn to the Republicans.  They, too, are damaged, and they, too, have a couple of major problems.  McConnell had it right.  Thinking of an all-Republican government is like going for a dental cleaning and exam at a new office. You don’t know who is putting the mask on, which penitentiary they did their training in and what they will find once they start scraping with the probe. But what you have noticed is there are an awful lot of them.  On the GOP bench, we have ambitious governors like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker and ambitious ex- Governors like Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee.  Then, there are ambitious Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Ambitious personalities like John Bolton and Ben Carson.  Even ambitious has-beens like George Pataki and Rick Santorum.  There’s also Rudy, for whom the word ambition is inadequate. And Mitt, although he says no, and John Kasich of Ohio, and maybe Rick Snyder of Michigan. 

Some of these folks are actually talented, thoughtful, and sane.  And that tees up another real issue for the GOP—just as the Democrats have too few people sucking up the air, the Republicans have too many.  Talented, thoughtful and sane may not win hearts and minds in the primary. What the GOP establishment wants is for unity behind one candidate and one conservative-but-don’t-worry-we-aren’t-crazy message.  The problem is, they don't know how to get there.  The loss in 2012 is still fresh in their minds. They kicked away a winnable election, not just because Mitt was a flawed candidate (all candidates are flawed) but also because 20-odd debates aired a lot of dirty laundry, a lot of personal animus, and some scary ideas. That is why they have taken steps to reduce the number of debates and select friendly moderators.  Less exposure, less of a possibility for scary gaffes.  But, in a wild-west modern media world where there are literally dozens of friendly places where, just among friends, a fringier candidate could say fringier things, and an angry host could rip into one of those talented, thoughtful and sane types, that creates an unwelcome volatility. 

What could change this dynamic? 

For Republicans, the 2016 election is theirs for the taking, but they have a dual challenge.  They need to first listen to Mitch and look like they can send to the President conservative, but rational legislation that has broad-based appeal.  That won’t be easy, as the base clamors for both the spoils, and revenge.  Then, they need to shepherd through one of those conservative but talented, thoughtful and sane types through the funhouse of the primaries.

For the Democrats, they need some skill, some luck, and some courage.  First, Mr. Obama has to be credible, picking his battles, standing on principle when he needs to, graciously giving ground when he doesn't, all while the world doesn’t collapse around him.  That’s the skill and luck part.  The courage part might be harder.  They need to challenge Hillary Clinton, from both the right and the left.  Maybe that’s Jim Webb and Elizabeth Warren, maybe it's some other combination, but the Democrats absolutely must have a conversation that leads to a coherent and credible set of policy proposals that reflects the desires of both wings of the party and addresses the bleeding away of support from some of their traditional allies. Hillary may not like it, but it will broaden the base, and, if she gets the nomination anyway, will make her a far stronger candidate leading a far more interesting party.

Of course, none of the above could happen. We may be asking for more than these people are either intellectually or emotionally capable of.

But, if you think it through, no matter what your ideological preferences, that really is scary.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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