Sunday, November 28, 2010

The 800 Pound Political Gorilla in Washington: How to Get Beyond the Deficit Hysteria.

With all the “recent” talk about the budget deficit and the growing national debt that at present stands at over $13.8 trillion and is growing at $4.15 billion per day, there seems little evidence that either political party will come to the table with substantive solutions to this growing menace. Republicans seem unwilling to accept the fact that keeping the Bush tax cuts on the books amounts, ostensibly, to an extra $4 trillion in unpaid debt over the next decade. Democrats are unwilling to look at an ever-expanding “government as the solution” narrative that has now taken on a life of its own.

Let’s look at the numbers, shall we, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 2010 budget is as follows:

Total Receipts: $2.38 trillion (estimated)

· $1.061 trillion – Individual income taxes
· $940 billion – Social Security and other payroll tax
· $222 billion – Corporation income taxes
· $77 billion – Excise taxes
· $23 billion – Customs duties
· $20 billion – Estate and gift taxes
· $22 billion – Deposits of earnings
· $16 billion – Other

Total Spending: $3.55 trillion

Mandatory: $2.184 trillion (+15.6%)

o $677.95 billion (+4.9%) – Social Security
o $571 billion (−15.2%) – Other mandatory programs
o $453 billion (+6.6%) – Medicare
o $290 billion (+12.0%) – Medicaid
o $164 billion (+18.0%) – Interest on National Debt
o $11 billion (+275%) – Potential disaster costs
o $0 billion (−100%) – Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)
o $0 billion (−100%) – Financial stabilization efforts

Discretionary: $1.368 trillion (+13.1%)

o $663.7 billion (+12.7%) – Department of Defense (including Overseas Contingency Operations)
o $78.7 billion (−1.7%) – Department of Health and Human Services
o $72.5 billion (+2.8%) – Department of Transportation
o $52.5 billion (+10.3%) – Department of Veterans Affairs
o $51.7 billion (+40.9%) – Department of State and Other International Programs
o $47.5 billion (+18.5%) – Department of Housing and Urban Development
o $46.7 billion (+12.8%) – Department of Education
o $42.7 billion (+1.2%) – Department of Homeland Security
o $26.3 billion (−0.4%) – Department of Energy
o $26.0 billion (+8.8%) – Department of Agriculture
o $23.9 billion (−6.3%) – Department of Justice
o $18.7 billion (+5.1%) – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
o $13.8 billion (+48.4%) – Department of Commerce
o $13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of Labor
o $13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of the Treasury
o $12.0 billion (+6.2%) – Department of the Interior
o $10.5 billion (+34.6%) – Environmental Protection Agency
o $9.7 billion (+10.2%) – Social Security Administration
o $7.0 billion (+1.4%) – National Science Foundation
o $5.1 billion (−3.8%) – Corps of Engineers
o $5.0 billion (+100%) – National Infrastructure Bank
o $1.1 billion (+22.2%) – Corporation for National and Community Service
o $0.7 billion (0.0%) – Small Business Administration
o $0.6 billion (−14.3%) – General Services Administration
o $19.8 billion (+3.7%) – Other Agencies
o $105 billion – Other

Budget Deficit: $1.17 trillion (estimated)

Now let’s look at the 2009 budget:

Total Receipts: $2.7 trillion (estimated); $2.1 trillion (actual)

· $1.21 trillion - Individual income tax
· $949.4 billion - Social Security and other payroll taxes
· $339.2 billion - Corporate income tax
· $68.9 billion - Excise taxes
· $29.1 billion - Customs duties
· $26.3 billion - Estate and gift taxes
· $47.9 billion - Other

Total Spending: $3.1 trillion

Mandatory: $1.89 trillion (+6.2%)

o $644 billion - Social Security
o $408 billion - Medicare
o $224 billion - Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
o $360 billion - Unemployment/Welfare/Other mandatory spending
o $260 billion - Interest on National Debt

Discretionary: $1.21 trillion (+4.9%)

o $515.4 billion - Department of Defense
o $145.2 billion(2008*) - Global War on Terror
o $70.4 billion - Department of Health and Human Services
o $68.2 billion - Department of Transportation
o $45.4 billion - Department of Education
o $44.8 billion - Department of Veterans Affairs
o $38.5 billion - Department of Housing and Urban Development
o $38.3 billion - State and Other International Programs
o $37.6 billion - Department of Homeland Security
o $25.0 billion - Department of Energy
o $20.8 billion - Department of Agriculture
o $20.3 billion - Department of Justice
o $17.6 billion - National Aeronautics and Space Administration
o $12.5 billion - Department of the Treasury
o $10.6 billion - Department of the Interior
o $10.5 billion - Department of Labor
o $8.4 billion - Social Security Administration
o $7.1 billion - Environmental Protection Agency
o $6.9 billion - National Science Foundation
o $6.3 billion - Judicial branch (United States federal courts)
o $4.7 billion - Legislative branch (United States Congress)
o $4.7 billion - Army Corps of Engineers
o $0.4 billion - Executive Office of the President
o $0.7 billion - Small Business Administration
o $7.2 billion - Other agencies
o $39.0 billion(2008*) - Other Off-budget Discretionary Spending

The financial cost of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan are not part of the defense budget; they are appropriations.

Budget Deficit: $407 billion (estimated)

Now, what’s interesting about these numbers isn’t so much the outlays, but the revenue. When compared with 2009’s budget, which many people still don’t understand is George Bush’s budget that he submitted to Congress in February of ’08, the big difference – aside from the fact that the cost of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are not included in Bush’s budget but are in Obama’s – is the projected revenue. Bush estimated $2.7 trillion in revenue; the actual receipts were $2.1 trillion. Actual spending in Obama’s budget went up only $450 billion from $3.1 trillion. If you factor in the lost revenue – owed directly to the affects of the recession – that alone added $600 billion to the deficit. So what was projected to be a $400 billion deficit became a $1 trillion deficit just based on ’09 estimated receipts. Obama, in fact added only $450 billion in spending to Bush’s budget of ’09. Factoring in an expected modest increase in revenues – which still might prove overly optimistic - that accounts for the current deficit we now face.

So much for the numbers. How do we move both lines closer together? Keep in mind the budget for fiscal 2011 calls for $3.7 trillion in spending.

For starters, a 10% cut in ALL non-defense discretionary spending should be a no brainer. Unfortunately, that only puts a dent in the deficit. The more painful choices are right there in front of us for all to see.

Defense spending, entitlements and the unfunded Bush tax cuts continue to comprise the overwhelming majority of that 800 pound gorilla that nobody seems to want any part of. We’ll tackle each one here.

Defense: It is high time that this woolly mammoth gets a shave. Closing bases in non-essential and non-strategic places around the world could save in the neighborhood of $100 billion or more annually. Do we really need a presence in England and Italy to name just two countries? Are we expecting a return of Hitler and Mussolini? How about Japan? Is Emperor Hirohito still alive somewhere in a bunker? Elimination of any and all non-essential weapon’s systems and planes – the F-22 would’ve cost $1.75 billion per to build – could save billions more. A 20% cut is not unrealistic or irresponsible and would certainly not deprive the Pentagon from essential funds needed to protect the nation. That adds up to an estimated $135 billion reduction from 2010 numbers. As we scale down forces in Afghanistan and pull out of Iraq, we should expect further reductions over the next few years.

Social Security: While it is secure for the time being – in deed the fund is solvent thru 2037 – there are some things that can be done to extend its well being for decades to come. The first is to eliminate the cap on contributions, currently at $104,000. Bill Clinton did the same thing for Medicare in 1993 and it helped stabilize the fund. It is absolutely ludicrous, in a nation with so many workers earning over $100,000, to even have a cap in the first place. Another thing that would help would be to change the current taxable portion tables for beneficiaries. Currently, individual filers who earn between $25,000 and $34,000 must pay taxes on 50% of their combined income; if they earn over $34,000 they pay taxes on 85% of that income. For joint filers those numbers go up to 50% for $32,000 thru $44,000 and 85% above $44,000. Changing it to 85% and 100% respectively would add still more revenue to the fund. The important thing is without raising the retirement age or slashing benefits, just doing these two things would vastly improve the fund’s bottom line and add decades to its life expectancy. How the Debt Commission missed this is beyond me.

The Bush Tax Cuts: There is no way to get around this; the nation simply can’t afford to extend them. It isn’t just a matter of keeping them for those making under $250,000 and eliminating them for everyone else. Even if you buy Democrats’ claim that everyone earning over $250,000 is rich – a stretch even in 1993 – the fact is that just keeping them for the “middle class” would only net you a $70 billion annual savings. Hardly worth the bother. But eliminating them all would save $400 billion annually, or $4 trillion over the next ten years. A look at federal receipts over the last twenty years show a modest increase during the Bush years over the Clinton years, which is what conservatives always point at to justify the lower brackets. However, the additional expenditures that the lower tax rates incurred were not offset by the additional revenues. It comes to an estimated eighty cents received for every dollar spent. Anyone who's ever worked on a spreadsheet could figure this out. The politically courageous thing to do would be to return the tax brackets to where they were in the ‘90s, the last time the nation had a balanced budget.  Parse it anyway you want, you can't say you're for fiscal responsibility and keep tax cuts that are not paid for on the books. Period!

OK, let’s add it up, shall we?

$63 billion from 10% cut in all non-defense discretionary spending (estimated)
$135 billion from 20% cut in defense spending (estimated)
$200 billion revenue from increases in social security taxes (estimated)
$400 billion revenue from elimination of all Bush tax cuts
$798 billion combined from spending cuts and tax increases.

Now, allowing for a modest improvement in the economy, it is not completely out of the question to see a further increase in receipts of another $200 billion. That gets us almost to an even trillion dollars. For those who have a calculator, that brings the deficit just under $200 billion. Anyone think they can’t live with that?

Dealing with deficits isn’t easy. It takes shared sacrifice; it takes thinking outside the box; and it takes political courage. Of course these numbers aren’t etched in stone. In fact, with the exception of the additional revenue from letting the Bush tax cuts expire, there is no way to get a precise reading on what impact these spending cuts and tax increases might have on the budget. For all we know the actual impact might be considerably greater. There is also the very real possibility that discretionary spending cuts could actually trigger a double dip recession, which would basically wipe out any savings incurred and then some. The point is that at some point we are going to have to deal with the deficit in a meaningful way, and not with the usual rhetoric of wishful thinking. The old Republican line that all we have is a spending problem and we don’t need to increase revenue has to be tossed out the window, along with the Democratic one that spending cuts are off the table. Both sides are wrong and both are going to have to swallow hard to come up with a tenable solution. That’s what happens when you build a bridge. You start on both sides and meet somewhere in the middle.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Truman Show, Part Deux

It was November 1946 and then President Harry Truman had just suffered a humiliating political defeat as the Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress in the midterms. Asked what he planned on doing about it, Truman was alleged to have replied, “I’m going keep doing what I’ve always done. Whatever I feel like.”

Defiant to the end, Truman kept to his word, and for the next two years he consistently challenged the Republicans in Congress, defining them as the “Do Nothing” Congress. Against all odds Truman came back from political oblivion to win reelection in 1948 over Thomas Dewey. Not only that, he capitalized on a Republican Party that badly overplayed the hand they had been dealt two years earlier and was instrumental in helping Democrats win back control of the House and Senate.

With all the talk about how resilient Bill Clinton was after his disastrous 1994 midterms, Truman wrote the book on the subject. No other president sunk to such depths only to rise up from the ashes and have the last laugh. While Barack Obama has made no secret of his great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, he would do well to read up on old “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” In deed, if I were him, I’d commit to memory every nuance, every mannerism, every speech of the 33rd president as if his political life depended on it, because it does. Over the next two years Obama will either become the next Harry Truman or he will become the next Jimmy Carter. The decision will be his alone.

Not that there aren’t lessons he can’t learn from Bill Clinton – as I mentioned in my last post, Clinton’s ability to pivot and triangulate was essential in his ability to turn the tides on the GOP and win reelection in 1996 – but the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the circumstances that surround Obama more closely resemble 1946 than they do 1994. The fact is that by 1994, the economy was already turning around; unemployment was on the way down; and thanks to Clinton raising taxes on the top income earners to 39.6%, the treasury was beginning to recoup some of the revenue it sorely needed during the Reagan years. By comparison, Truman had to deal with a stagnant post-war economy, courtesy of the ending of World War II, and the reality of millions of men returning home to the States and suddenly looking for work. Unemployment rose steadily, and a savvy Republican Party vowed to undo all of the FDR New Deal programs. Adding to Truman’s woes was the fact that many thought him way too detached. Compared to the charisma of Roosevelt, old Harry was like a cold shower in the morning. The parallel between Truman and Obama is unmistakable and staggering.

Like his predecessor, Obama is faced with a defining moment in his presidency. Does he continue to seek consensus in the naïve hope of finding some common ground between himself and his opponents, or does he stay the course and challenge the opposition to in essence put up or shut up? The safe play is the former and we all know how well that worked during the first two years of his administration. Clearly boldness is called for. The only question that begs to be answered is whether Barack Obama is up for the challenge.

Earlier I mentioned a plan of attack. Well, here goes.

Let’s start off by stating the obvious first. The entire game plan of the Democratic Party for the last two years has utterly failed and must be exorcised like a demon from a possessed man. Nothing less than a totally wiped slate will do. You don’t get two bites at the apple from the same broken down mare.

Secondly, remove from all minds the notion that the Republican Party is interested in sharing power or working with Democrats or open to compromise. It should be crystal clear to every Democrat that the lone objective of the GOP is to wrest control of the reigns of power by any means necessary. Consensus was and is out of the question. To continue to reach across the aisle is a fool’s errand.

Third, there never was, nor is there likely to be, any viable action plan from the Republican Party on how to “jump-start” the economy for two reasons: either they don’t have one or they know the one they have is the one that already failed; and there is no incentive in coming to the table with one, since a recovering economy would only benefit Obama in 2012. That means we can expect more of the same Party of No ideas over the next two years. Democrats must get this through their heads. They are the only party that has at least tried to improve the economy, while the other party has sat on the sideline and watched the house burn to the ground.

Fourth, and this is where Obama must take the lead, the message of the Democratic Party must be clarified, simplified and intensified so that the public finally gets it and understands it. The precipitous drop in Democratic opinion polls from January of ’09 to November of ’10 had virtually nothing to do with a shift in the public’s values (i.e. leaning away from liberalism and towards conservatism), but was owed in principle to an innate inability to explain where they were going and why. The stimulus, the auto bailout, and the healthcare and Wall Street reform bills were essential steps in improving the economy. But if Democrats cannot explain and defend these legislative accomplishments, Republicans will continue to beat their brains in with them. One thing Clinton and, especially, Ronald Reagan did incredibly well was to define a narrative and sell it to the electorate. To this day some people still believe that supply-side economics works, despite all the evidence to the contrary. That belief is owed directly to Reagan’s ability to spin a yarn. One thing Obama is going to have to develop is a story he can deliver effectively along with (gulp) a modicum of empathy. He will have to start talking to, instead of at, the American people.

Fifth, be fearless AND down to earth. This goes back to the message. One third of the country doesn’t like liberals and almost all of them watch Fox News. They will never be turned. It’s time Obama and Democrats in general stopped being worried about them, and started paying attention to and wooing independents, moderates and progressives. Obama didn’t win a landslide victory by appealing to Rush Limbaugh fans. Why on Earth are he and the Democrats concerned about them now? Diss them, trash them, belittle them at your heart’s content, but make sure when you do you reach out to the rational and the sane and offer something of substance they can sink their teeth into. Do NOT be afraid to draw distinctions between what you stand for and your opponents stand for. Running from your record or apologizing for it is fatal. As Harry Truman once observed, if people have to choose between a fake Republican and a real Republican, they’ll chose the real one every time. Also be wary of coming off as snobbish and off-putting. Most people know Obama is smarter than Sarah Palin, yet most of those same people still voted for Republicans this year. The lesson here is that sometimes intelligence can backfire on you. Dumbing it down a bit wouldn’t hurt.

Sixth, know when to pick your fights and when to acquiesce. Bill Clinton coined it triangulation. Basically you spend equal amounts of time swinging back and forth between both sides of the political spectrum to 1) keep your opponents off guard and 2) make it seem as though you’re steering towards the center. It proved to be the corner stone of Clinton’s successful 1996 reelection. Like it or not, Obama is going to have to do a Clinton and give in from time to time. Education has become something of an embarrassment to progressives, as it is becoming painfully obvious that the status quo cannot be maintained. With conservatives clamoring for the abolishment of the Department of Education, Obama can head them off at the pass and preempt their demands by appointing Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public School System, to head the Department. Rhee is an outspoken critic of teacher tenure and was vehemently criticized during her time in D.C. for closing schools that were under performing. She could be Obama’s “welfare reform” moment. While progressives would fume, independents and moderates (many of whom have children) would see it as an attempt to reach out to them. Throwing the occasional bone will make it easier to stand your ground when the time comes; e.g., the attempted repeal of healthcare and Wall Street reform and extending the Bush tax cuts.

Seventh, pick and role. Obama can partner up with select members of the other side sympathetic to some of his ideas to drive a wedge down the middle of the Republican Party. If you thought Harry Reid had his hands full keeping Democrats on the same page, just wait till John Boehner becomes Speaker of the House in January and he has to deal with the open rebellion of the Tea Party. The O.K. Corral would seem tame by comparison. If Obama can take advantage of that menagerie by getting Ron Paul, and perhaps his son to support cuts to defense, and maybe the few rational members of the GOP that are left, it would take some of the steam out of their engine. Like triangulation, it would improve Obama’s image among independents, while poring itching powder on the Republicans and revealing them as the obstructionists that they are.

Eight, and this is a bit of a stretch, so don’t count on it. Promote Hillary to Vice President. Joe Biden has been, at best, a mediocre VP; at worst, he’s been the gift that keeps on giving for Republicans. Switching VPs would kill two birds with one stone. It would give Obama someone who could counter any potential momentum a Sarah “I’m a woman running for President” Palin would engender. It would also embolden progressives who quite frankly haven’t had much to crow about for almost two years. While Clinton would be missed at State, there are a number of qualified candidates for her position who would do more than a credible job. To appease the Right a bit, perhaps Colin Powell could reprise his role as Secretary. Powell has long expressed regret for the role he played in the Bush Administration’s build up to the Iraq War. This could be an excellent way of making amends and repairing some of the damage to American credibility.

And finally, get mad. The anger, frustration and fear that gripped the nation these last two years was stoked and tapped brilliantly by the Right, while the Left and the majority of the Democratic Party remained, mostly, above the fray and appeared way too disconnected. The indignant, irreverent and disrespectful way the GOP treated this president was way over the line and was never once challenged by either the Administration or Congressional Democrats. At the risk of suggesting a full-on food fight, it is high time that a right cross be met with a left hook. Every single president who was successful has known this and employed this technique with aplomb. One does not have to lose one’s cool to push back and show a righteous anger. People identify with a fighter and flee from a wimp. Obama needs to smile less and growl more.

Well, that’s it, for better or worse. An attack plan that if employed will stem the tide of Republican momentum and, in the process, help make Obama more than a one-term carbon copy of Jimmy Carter. I’m sure there will be other things that I will come up over the next few months, but for now, this is a good starting point.

The nation is at a cross roads. Calm and rational behavior is in retreat, while the irrational and the unhinged seem to be on the ascent. The ghost of Harry Truman is roaming around the White House and calling out to any and all within its confines. His warning is as loud as a cannon going off on the Fourth of July. The tragedy of tragedies would be if Barack Obama was either too proud or too deaf to heed it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Defining Narratives, continued…

OK, so now that I have seemingly thrown so many of my compatriots under the proverbial bus as it were, insofar as I have been critical of some, if not all, left-leaning theory – particularly Marxist theory – and, even more importantly, seemingly reversed my position on the false equivalence issue I raised about Jon Stewart’s rally, let me attempt to tie all these lose knots together, if I may.

Let’s start with the last point. There is no false equivalence issue or controversy with respect to Fox News and MSNBC, nor should any of my subsequent writings be construed as a retake on the matter. To compare the two, as Senator Jay Rockefeller did this week, is absurd.  One can still be biased without being a fraud. David Brooks and Thomas Friedman are two excellent examples of conservative and liberal journalists who do honor to their professions. Both men have their biases and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. MSNBC is clearly a liberal news network and they have a predisposition towards the Left that is hardly unbiased. So far as anyone is aware they remain a news organization, albeit with a clear liberal bias. Fox “News” on the other hand isn’t just conservative or right-leaning, it is a strong-armed extension of the GOP with a clear agenda that is decidedly pro-Republican. They have long since stopped behaving like a news organization and have employed tactics that have brought shame and disgrace upon themselves, and clearly damaged the reputation of an entire industry that seems hell-bent on following their lead.  Bill Maher summed it up best.

“It seems to me that if you truly wanted to come down on the side of restoring sanity and reason, you’d side with the sane and the reasonable, and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both Parties.  And the big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance sake; that the Left is just as cruel and violent as the Right, that unions are just as powerful as corporations, and that reverse racism is just as damaging as racism.  There’s a difference between a mad man and a madman.”

To most of the nation this is clearly apparent. Why, then, in the name of trying to be politically correct, did Jon Stewart forget what his eyes, ears and brains tell him every day? Who knows, but me thinks old Jon isn’t just on a mission to convince the public what the rally was really about on his recent tour (hint, it had nothing to do with his “inartfulness”) but rather he’s trying to convince himself. Memo to Jon, 9 out of 10 who showed up that day identified themselves as liberal. Give it up, man. The only person you seem to be fooling is yourself and maybe Colbert.

But it’s the first point that I wanted to expand on, if I may, and since it’s my blog, damn right I may.

It is not the idea of progressivism that I am throwing under the bus, but the practical application of it. How’s that? Simply put, progressives need to understand and accept that for all its virtues, most of the world is NOT liberal, much less progressive. Whenever I am around a pack of progressives who are “discussing” the masses and how we need to lead them to the inevitable truth about their lot and what that lot needs to do to overcome their oppressors, I know why so many people think of us as elitists. We are, without quite realizing it, snobbish bores who would put an exploding sun to sleep. No wonder we get our butts kicked every time out. About the only way we ever take power in Washington is after the Republicans wreck the country. Once in power, we exhibit classic traits of the Ivy-league college professor who is determined to teach his class the lesson of their lives. In the end, the only people we impress are ourselves. Want proof? Rewind the last two years. Go ahead, squirm, we’ve earned it!

What we need is a little dose of reality and a boat-load of good, old-fashioned pragmatism. Yes, I know I have been critical of Obama for being (what was that I called him) Captain Pragmatic. But, now that I think of it, that wasn’t pragmatism he was exhibiting; it was spineless behavior. Bill Clinton was a pragmatist, and he managed to win more battles than he lost. You run on ideals, you govern on chutzpah. Ironically, chutzpah is Yiddish for audacity. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

But it’s more than that. Nixon had chutzpah, as did Bush 43, and when both left office they were considered among the worst presidents of all time. The result of their arrogance deeply wounded the Republican Party and helped Democrats retake the White House, first in 1976, and then in 2008. Clearly a balance of ideals and brazenness is in order. And that leads us back to Clinton.

While the book on his presidency is still being written ten years later, there is one thing that is a given: he was the most effective politician the Democratic Party has had since Roosevelt. While he may not have had the values and principles that FDR possessed, he was nonetheless every bit as savvy. And with a Republican-controlled Congress and a constant barrage of subpoenas dogging his administration, he needed every bit of that savvy. Unlike Nixon and later Bush, Clinton left the White House more popular than when he entered it.

I have already written about Clinton and his counterpart, Ronald Reagan, who together were the most effective communicators to hold the Oval office in the latter half of the 20th century, but the most amazing thing about Clinton is that, unlike Reagan, his base, to this day, still does not think much of him. While they give him his props on survival instincts, he is thought of as a traitor to progressive values. Astonishingly, because Clinton played ball with Newt Gingrich on welfare reform, progressives think he sold them out.

And therein lies the problem that besets progressives in particular and Democrats in general. In an op-ed piece that appeared in Common titled “The ‘Teach-the-Dems-a-Lesson’ Myth” Robert Parry underscores a common theme that has defined progressives and haunted Democrats for decades.

“Over the past four decades, the only times when the Left and the governing Democrats have pulled together in a meaningful way were when the Republicans were in power and when that power went to their heads. However, whenever the Democrats were in power and had the potential to accomplish something meaningful, the split always reopened. The governing pragmatists sought incremental change in an often difficult political / media environment, while the idealists demanded sweeping reforms regardless of public resistance.”

Parry lists several “shining” examples where progressives cut off their noses to spite their faces, including one of the costliest in American history. The split in the Democratic Party in 1980 between liberal Ted Kennedy and incumbent Jimmy Carter, whom the Left felt was way too centrist for their tastes, deeply wounded the sitting President who was already facing a tough reelection. Despite warnings from Carter that Ronald Reagan was way too extreme, many progressives either voted for independent John Anderson or stayed home, thus ensuring a Reagan win. To this day progressives are still in denial, blaming Carter for the loss. “There was very little soul-searching on the Left, which viewed itself as essentially blameless for the catastrophes that the Reagan years wrought,” wrote Parry.  Sound familiar? It should.

Whether it was Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton, or, now, Barack Obama, the Left has behaved much like the spoiled brat who can’t have the proverbial cookie before dinner, so decides to skip the meal altogether out of spite. The result has been a series of political triumphs for the Right, which, unlike its rivals, has never had any problem putting aside its differences and coming together in unison to defeat its opponents. The last two years should be taught in every political science classroom in the country about the merits of just saying no. The GOP rode that wave all the way to victory in the 2010 midterms, while progressives looked like party poopers at a class reunion.

Something has got to give if the Democratic Party is ever going to wield power effectively again. It is clear that Republicans have no viable solution to all that ails the country; it is only a matter of time before, once more, the electorate turns to the Democrats to fix the mess. They still control the Senate and the Executive Branch. The next two years will determine the course the nation will take, quite possibly, for the next generation. If progressives keep acting like they are somehow owed something, then the fate of millions, sadly, will be in the hands of interests far more inimical to their needs than any perceived centrist sellout.

They say pride goeth before a fall. That inscription should be required reading at the DNC, which still hasn’t dealt with the insurrection within its own ranks, and which now must deal with the very real possibility of a splintering party emergence in 2012. Rumors of a Mike Bloomberg run for the White House have not faded and, in deed, have only grown over the last few months. Either a primary challenge to Barack Obama by his own party or a viable third-party candidacy would almost certainly guarantee a Republican victory in the next Presidential election, a prospect the GOP is absolutely drooling over. Shades of 1980 all over again. And yet the Left is not worried; in deed it is eagerly moving forward towards that very real scenario. Not even the specter of a Sarah Palin in the White House seems to be enough to shake them out of their obstinance. Defiant to the end, they would rather see their party lose an election than compromise their core beliefs. Ironically, progressives are the yin to the Tea Party’s yang. Commendable, but ultimately self-defeating.

By playing hard to get, progressives have, in essence, thrown the baby out with the bathwater. They have also ignored the first tenant of politics: you can’t govern unless you win, and you can’t win unless you compromise. It is not their values that I have an issue with here. Given the choice I would much rather live in a world run by progressives than conservatives. The real bone of contention is the single-minded fixation on all or nothing than more often than not leads to nothing. Whether they like it or not, progressives need to realize – and I know I’m repeating myself here – what even the Rolling Stones knew: You can’t always get what you want.

Whether it is healthcare reform or Wall Street reform, the ideal is almost always never achieved. But progress is made and incremental change can be brought about over time. Insisting on having everything your way and immediately is a sure fire way to go down in a ball of flames.

There were many factors that led to Democrats demise in 2010. President Obama’s performance was clearly one of them, and I certainly don't want to minimize that. But the Monday-morning quarterbacking from the Left was a huge canker soar that never went away and only grew over time; and like so many other moments in their sordid history proved fatal when it came time to vote.

In my next piece I will write a plan of attack to regain the Center; what Clinton referred to as triangulation. If Obama can pivot and bring his message directly to the people like his Democratic predecessor did, there is a chance to salvage 2012, brats notwithstanding.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Left Hook: How Liberals Keep Arguing the Wrong Point and Fall Into the Same Old Trap.

Sometimes I wish I could get the majority of liberals into one large room and smack them upside the head. In all my life I’ve never met a more dense, naïve or rigid group of people. If you think the far Right is stuck on a broken narrative, try hanging out with a bunch of neo-Marxist egalitarians. You’ll be signing up for the next CPAC.

The reason for my angst is the often futile and flawed arguments so many liberals make to counter Libertarian and otherwise conservative ideology regarding the relative virtues of unbridled capitalism. Case in point, the long-held belief among many of them that the reason for the various economic crises the nation has endured over its storied existence is due to the fact that capitalism is inherently corrupt. And the reason it’s corrupt? Greed. That’s right, good old-fashioned greed. What we need is a more compassionate economic system that treats everyone fairly and, more importantly, equally, so we can evolve into the beings we were meant to and the human millennium can finally be achieved.

Forgetting the fact that attempts at creating just such a society have thoroughly failed and have usually brought misery and suffering and left a trail of death and destruction in their wake, the whole damn premise is wrong. The debate has never been, and should never be about capitalism vs. socialism or communism or fascism or whatever it is that the far Right is peddling. The real debate is and should be about unbridled and unfettered capitalism vs. a well-regulated and tamed capitalism. Whenever liberals or progressives allow themselves to be coerced into the former argument, or, worse, insist on making it themselves, they lose. Period. For if the choice is between an economic system that, even with all its inherent flaws, has at least brought a measure of wealth and prosperity to most of the West, or an economic system whose flaws were far more overt and deleterious, most of the country, and the world for that matter, would gladly opt for the lesser of the two evils. That some Liberals still don’t get that is mind numbing.

If they could only look past their own ideology they would see the real culprit isn’t greed, but rather what happens when greed goes unchecked and runs amuck. A careful study of the economic crises that have befallen the nation and the world have revealed the two biggest and consistent offenders: 1. A wanton lust for power and control that exceeds all social mores; and 2. A naïve insistence that all markets are basically rational and if left alone will eventually correct themselves and restore order and balance to the system. To draw an analogy, it would be like the driver who can’t help but speed down a busy highway, yet vehemently believes that not only isn’t he endangering anyone, but also shrugs off any hint that he needs a speed limit. As the car proceeds recklessly towards the edge of a cliff, all inside are oblivious to the fate that awaits them.

But to hear some liberals, it’s the engine itself that’s at fault. The solution is to strip it of its natural horsepower and reduce it down to the size of a bicycle. That way it would never be in a position to fall off a cliff in the first place. Off course it would never get anywhere either, but that isn’t important to the proponents of the argument. The only concern they have is preventing a tragedy from happening. Forgetting that sins of omission are just as harmful as sins of commission is of course the downfall of Marxist philosophy.

While Marx got a number of things right when he wrote about worker alienation and the constantly reoccurring economic crises of the West, he was less than a visionary about one indelible truth about humanity. And that was that for all their attempts at forging a more civilized society, humans have never been particularly interested in attaining anything close to equality with one another. It’s simply not written into their DNA. From the moment they enter the world, there is an instinct to strive to be better that knows no bounds. It is one thing to have an equal playing field; it is quite another to be the same as each other. Most liberals, whether they call themselves Marxists or not (and let’s be fair, most don’t), retain that egalitarian spirit of Marx and men like him. They remain optimistic that some day humanity will somehow out grow the urge to one up each other and work together for the greater good. Gene Roddenberry – creator of Star Trek – was just that sort of incurable optimist. In his utopian future, mankind, after suffering through a cataclysmic third world war, finally threw off the shackles of its primitive instinctual desires and “evolved” into a civilized race. Laudable, but ultimately Pollyanna. The truth is that in the countless millennia that have passed since we crawled out of the cave, we have never shown even the slightest hint of emotionally evolving much beyond where we started. We have certainly made technological advances, but mankind remains essentially what he has always been: a creature of habit that instinctually abhors direction. To hold out hope of a metamorphosis is to ignore the good senses we were given.

But if Marxism has become for liberals a bankrupt religion of sorts, the simple truth is that conservatives need to disown their own form of demagoguery. The Laissez-faire philosophy espoused by Adam Smith is about as outdated as a Model-T at the Indianapolis 500. Believing that markets act rationally and do not need any regulation flies in the face of virtually every piece of data available. The stock market crash of 1929 and the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 drive this point home vehemently. While both may have had different components to them, both ostensibly had one common thread. They both resulted from an indelible belief that prices would continue to soar in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. When both bubbles ended up bursting, millions were adversely affected and the world’s economy was driven to its knees. It is the lesson of history. Markets, like drivers, do not regulate themselves. Worse, they have no desire to. Like it or not, limits are needed, not to strip the engine of its horsepower, but to ensure that the horsepower is used responsibly and that no one is needlessly harmed. Believing that economic upheavals are the price we pay for having a prosperous society is like blaming the law of inertia for head-on collisions. When in doubt never look at the brake pedal.

So, at the risk of saying a pox on both your houses, it is time for both sides of the ideological spectrum to put away their fanciful toys and grow up. This is one progressive who is sounding a call to a new way of thinking. If a new narrative is what we need, then we are going to need a new breed of warriors to carry it. The Tea Party candidates who won this year, and even those who didn’t, fervently believe in a limited government that leaves the private sector alone, forgetting of course that that is exactly how we got into this fiasco in the first place. In their narrow-minded view of the world, caveat emptor would rule the day. No brakes, no parachutes, just “individual liberty” for all. To the victors go the spoils, and for the rest of us the gristle.

And on the other side of that coin, left-leaning, pro-government ideologues who, while good intentioned, nonetheless can’t resist the temptation to believe that every problem has a bureaucratic solution to it. Left to their own devices they would strip every vestige of humanity away from our existence and claim it was for our own good. In the end, while they have brought about some good, they ultimately solve nothing and end up reinforcing the arguments of their opponents.

A hundred and eighty degrees from wrong is still wrong. Intelligent people cannot live and thrive in such a polarized environment. If we have learned anything it is that both paradigms of the Right and the Left have thoroughly failed the nation, and serve as a painful reminder that ideology, for its own sake, is a curse that continues to plague us and will never relent so long as we continue to worship at its alter.

There is a saying that goes something like this. “Ships are safe in the harbor; but ships were never meant to stay in the harbor.” To which I would add, “And they should always have enough life boats … just in case.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It’s Time For A New Narrative

Twelve steppers often refer to it as total defeat. In politics it’s referred to as an ass whoopin’. What happened November 2nd, despite all the brave but ultimately phony silver linings that progressives may have pointed to (including this one) – the Democrats held the Senate and they still have the White House – was nothing short of a complete failure on a massive scale to connect with and carry the electorate. Yes, midterm shellackings are hardly rare; in deed the incumbent party almost always suffers some losses in the midterms.

But this is no rare or ordinary trouncing. In fact, the “silver lining” scenario is nothing short of reaching – or denial if you will – for those still clinging to it. Imagine if in the Senate races in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado and West Virginia, Republicans had chosen to run candidates who weren’t perceived as, well, let’s be generous here and say “extreme.” That “scenario” would be out the window and we’d be talking about a slam dunk victory for the GOP. That lone silver lining was owed more to the gross incompetence on the part of the Tea Party than to any prowess on the part of the Democratic Party. Put that in your pipe Dems and smoke it, and, oh yeah, choke on it while you’re at it. That’s what arrogance and indifference gets you in politics: a seat at the losers’ table.

So now what? What happens when the house comes crumblin’ down on top of your head? Where do you go from down? It should be crystal clear to any one who was paying attention the last two years that the message – whatever it was – wasn’t getting through. And even when it got through it was thoroughly being rejected. While Republicans ran on precise, concise, and unified messaging that, though completely bogus and revisionist, nonetheless hit a nerve with the voters, Democrats went for a, how shall I say it, John Kerryish (“How am I qualified, let me count the ways and may I add without too much ado how completely humbled I am to be your nominee, and I will do my best to honor the trust you have awarded me with utmost humility, grace, and dedication, for we all know that…”) approach that turned more stomachs than heads and failed to resonate even with progressives, much less independents.

And even when they finally were able to fine tune and scale it down to size, their message went basically like this: “Vote for us; we’re not crazy.” Ostensibly, Democrats ran away from their record, which was a huge gift for the GOP, and thought that by merely indicting their Republican opponents as extremists, or dredging up George W. Bush’s record, or, as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter aptly noted, reminding people that as bad as things are they could've been a lot worse would be enough to stave off defeat. It wasn’t, and, what’s worse for them, 2012 promises to be just as painful unless and until the Democratic Party can come up with an effective game plan that can woo independents back into their column and inspire progressives, as well.

That will be a tall order, given the circumstances. But it’s not impossible. For starters, Democrats can hang their hat on at least one certainty: the 2010 midterm results had little to do with ideology. Yes, the Tea Party movement motivated the Republican base in a way not seen since the days of Reagan, and they came out in droves to support their candidates. But the election still hinged on moderates and independents. These were voters who overwhelmingly went for Obama in ’08, and gave the GOP a thorough beat down in ’06. It is hard to believe that in less than one election cycle they became hardened conservatives. What’s more likely is that this block – which has a long history of swinging back and forth like a pendulum every four to six years – has grown particularly weary of Washington politics as usual and for the last three election cycles now has been on a “throw the bums out” mission. The fact that the first two cycles benefited Democrats at the expense of Republicans should never have been construed by any of us a political mood shift; rather it was what it was: an eviction notice. In ’06 and ’08 it was Republicans who got the heave hoe; in ’10 it was the Democrats’ turn. The fuse on Main Street is growing particularly short and, with the economy still in intensive care, both Parties should take heed of the unrest that is alive and well.

And that is a theme that Democrats, if they wish, can capitalize on over the next twelve to eighteen months. It is quite obvious that the Republicans’ game plan throughout the campaign was to say or do nothing substantive. Their just say no approach worked to perfection as both Obama and Congressional Democrats slipped on banana peel after banana peel and turned a landslide victory into a resounding thrashing. That is the price you pay when your political opponent comes at you relentlessly and you sit back and assume your public will sort it all out. Whatever else we can say about Democrats, we can conclude this much: none of them have ever read Shakespeare.

But the opportunity that presents itself here is one that even Democrats can seize upon. The angst and frustration that most people feel at their circumstances is very real and isn’t going away any time soon. Republicans rode that wave of discontent all the way to victory in the House elections, and damn near did the same in the Senate. We can debate till we’re blue in the face and the cows come home all the Astroturf rallies and phony town halls of last August, or talk about the influx of money coming in from political action groups and the Chamber of Commerce, thanks in large part to The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, to no avail. You don’t get to bring the Titanic back up from the bottom of the Atlantic after it has sunk. What you can do is learn from your mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Of all the mistakes that Democrats made over the last two years, none was more damaging than the outright dismissal of the pent up anger brewing throughout the country. Though stoked by corporate interests, it was genuine and ran deep. When tempers began to rise during the summer of ’09, Democrats could’ve co-opted some of the rage by identifying with it and redirecting it where it needed to be. FDR did just that when he turned the tables on Republicans who were calling him basically the same names they are currently calling Obama. His famous “I welcome their hate” speech is rated among the finest triumphs of 20th century politics and helped earn Roosevelt not only a resounding reelection, but almost saint-like status. To this day, he is considered perhaps the greatest advocate for the working man in the nation’s history. And all because he headed off at the pass his opponents’ attempts to define him and ostensibly stole their thunder. It was brilliant and masterful, and both Obama and Congressional Democrats could’ve duplicated that feat had they simply paid attention to what was going on. Their dismissive attitude allowed Republicans to gain a foothold among not only the base of the Party but among independents. The Mason-Dixon line was crossed sometime in the fall of ’09, and the GOP never looked back.

To recapture this demographic, Democrats are going to have to do two things they have historically not been very good at: Getting down off their lofty and sometimes elitist perches and develop a sense of empathy for the common citizenry; and – this is critical – keep it simple stupid. Too often Democrats look like the proverbial virgin who couldn’t get lucky in a bordello. Even when Providence throws opportunity squarely into their laps they can’t seize the moment. They actually talk you out of an argument. The debates between George Bush and John Kerry were a case in point. Virtually every pundit who saw them concluded Kerry won on points. But out in the real world where real people live, Kerry came off as off-putting and preachy, while Bush seemed far more comfortable and relaxed. As one poll later discovered, Bush was the guy most wanted to “have a beer with.”

Somehow, someway Democrats must find someone within their ranks who can walk and chew gum at the same time. Bill Clinton was the last one who was able to do that. He proved you could be both empathetic and speak in concise, easy to understand sentences that resonated with voters. So adept was he that even when he lost the Congress in 1994, he was able to turn the tables on Republicans. Within a few months after that historic loss, Clinton regained his political footing and handily won reelection. Despite running the near perfect campaign, Barack Obama is clearly not up to the task. Though a gifted orator who can out duel anyone on a political stage, Obama has about as much empathy as a pet rock. The BP Gulf-oil spill tragedy was a painful reminder of just how wanting he is in that category. When the head of your Party is incapable of connecting with average voters you’re already going up to bat with two strikes against you.

But, like it or not, this is the hand the Democrats have been dealt, or, more accurately, have dealt themselves. But, as bad as things may seem, it isn’t impossible. And that’s because of two things that will work in Democrats favor. One is, ironically, the economy. After almost two and a half years of bad news, most economists now believe that 2011 will see noticeable improvement not only in GDP growth but in unemployment. To substantially reduce the number of unemployed, GDP will have to grow at twice the rate it has been growing. Indications are that the economy is on the verge of doing just that. As the economy begins to recover, the hope is that much of the rhetoric that has been driving the political dialogue in the country will give way and allow cooler heads to prevail and govern effectively. With the air being let out of the Tea Party balloon, Democratic fortunes will slowly begin to rise.

The second thing Democrats have going for them is that for all their passion and capitalizing on the fears and frustrations of the electorate, Republicans have no viable plan to deal with the systemic problems within the economy, and they know it. They ran on balancing the budget and lowering taxes, something virtually all economists know is impossible to do. When Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina how she planned on balancing the budget while keeping the Bush tax cuts, the deer in a headlight look was most revelatory. If Democrats can manage to regroup, unite and construct a narrative that connects with voters, they can catch lightning in a bottle here and put themselves in a position of being able to say, “See, we told you so.” According to at least two polls – CBS and Pew Research – voters may already be showing some buyer’s remorse over the election, and it’s not even January yet.

But before any body goes scheduling a ticker tape parade, it is critical that Democrats accept one undeniable and inescapable conclusion: they are their own worst enemies. The Party of No should never have been in a position to now command the power they now wield; that power was ceded by the Party of Arrogance, which has what basically amounts to an intimacy problem with the electorate. When poll after poll reveals that more Americans trust the Democrats on the economy, yet still voted for Republicans that is telling. If the Democrats cannot correct this core issue any boost they get in 2012 will be short-lived. Despite their advantage in sheer numbers, the damage that was done this time around will take years to exorcize.

The Democratic Party must do its own personal inventory, as it were, and clean out the toxic elements within it. Nothing less than a total purge will do. The standing orders should be as follows: keep it concise, keep it on point, and keep it simple. Every Party member should be locked in a room and forced to watch speeches of FDR and JFK. Those who can’t or won’t drink the kool aid, should be shown the door. If the last two years have proven anything it’s that if nothing changes, nothing changes. The simple truth is that the main reason for their ascendancy to power in the first place was due to the worst Presidency since Herbert Hoover. George W. Bush gift-wrapped first the Congress then the White House to the Democrats. The grateful benefactors then spent the last two years fumbling the ball back to their counterparts, as if to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

The time for fumbling the ball must come to an end. These are scary times. With the likes of a Sarah Palin lurking over the political horizon, the Democrats must finally deliver on the promise of their mission statement. Who are they? What do they stand for? And, most importantly, what are they prepared to do to fight for it? That last question strikes at the core of their dilemma. After their 2010 lay down, they must do the gut check of gut checks before the majority of Americans will reward them with a return to power.

You can’t say you’re for the little guy if you have no bloody idea what the little guy is going through, and you can’t change his lot in life when you can’t even change your own. Democrats must clean house, make amends for how they have performed and show they are ready to lead by example. The country demands and needs sober, rational leadership. They will turn to the Party that can best provide it. In 2010 that Party was the GOP, and, painful though it may be to admit, the Democrats have earned the seat they now sit in.

The nice thing about total defeat is that you can finally start over with a clean slate. And a weary nation waits with baited and guarded breath.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yes, We Might! Will the Real Barack Obama Please Stand Up?

If there’s one thing everybody can agree on, it’s who they think President Barack Obama is. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face. He’s an elitist, fascist, socialist who hates white people (especially white men), is embarrassed by America, wants to redistribute your wealth and is into reparations and social justice, that is when he isn’t rewriting the Constitution to suit his agenda. And, oh yeah, he was born in Kenya. Yep, that just about nails it. Case closed.

Except, well, seems there’s this other group who believes he is a corporatist sellout who betrayed his principles, made backroom deals with Wall Street, the Insurance and Pharmaceutical lobbies, the Pentagon and former Bush Administration officials to get watered-down legislation passed that resulted in little, if any, change to the status quo, and continued the failed policies of the previous administration. He ran on change and instead became part of the same corrupt Washington culture, and, in the process, alienated much of his base. OK, now the case is closed.

Except, well, seems there’s yet another group that sees him as the consummate pragmatist who, once he realized the gravity of the situation he was in, made a series of calculated decisions to sacrifice whatever political capital he had to get as much done as quickly as possible in order to stabilize a dangerously precarious economy through bailouts, stimulus programs, and reforms to both the healthcare and financial systems. While far from ideal, they nonetheless improved things and mitigated the systemic damage. He is perceived as highly intelligent, but aloof and lacking any sense of empathy. His inability to connect with the average voter has cost him dearly. Now the case is closed, right?

Well almost. You see, there’s one big problem. It seems all three of these groups exist simultaneously and fervently believe theirs is the real take on President Obama, and no, this isn’t some science fiction show in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock discover two alternate universes encroaching on the real one, and they have to find a way to save the real one, but first they have to find out which one is real, for if they fail and guess wrong all civilization will be lost. Nor is this some episode of “To Tell the Truth” in which Kitty Carlisle asks all three contestants a series of probative questions to ascertain the identity of the “real” Obama group.

No, it’s a lot worse than that, for the problem is that all three groups present accurate takes on Obama. Now, before you go off the deep end and start calling me names, let me just say right up front that I don’t, for a moment, believe that Obama is an elitist, fascist, socialist who hates America and hails from Kenya. It’s absurd to insinuate, much less state, that he fits any of those criteria. Unfortunately, in the political world, perception is everything, hence the Marxist persona tag.

And that is the problem for Obama. He has become the president with multiple personalities. Like Donny and Marie, he’s a little bit rock and roll, a little bit country, and, for good measure, a little bit of soul. You get all three, and, best of all, you get to choose which one you like. You can hate him, be disillusioned by him or just feel indifferent. You decide. You get to go home with your own personal Obama doll, complete with its own personal narrative attached.

And all this because almost two years in to his administration, this “transformative” president still has not defined his own narrative; still has not put his own stamp on what kind of man he is and what he wants to accomplish during his term. Who is he: a menace, a sellout or a dealmaker? That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question that millions of Americans still can’t answer definitively.

Of course the fact that millions of Americans should have to figure out who their president is and what he stands for speaks volumes as to his inability to formulate a clear and precise message and effectively market it. It has been his number one failing since he took the oath of office; so much so that it now threatens more than just his administration, it threatens the entire country.

Never have the political and economic stakes been this high and the risk so grave. To have a sitting president with such a political vacuum swirling around him, given the current climate, is the recipe for a perfect storm, which could well envelope the whole nation. His own party is running from him like the plague and the opposition party is sizing him up like a side of beef at a butcher shop. And even when presented with a platform to finally articulate what his plans are for the next two years, he spent most of his interview with 60 Minutes behaving like the student who got schooled by the older bullies.

Tell the truth, would you be intimidated by this president if you were John Boehner, Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell? Didn’t think so. Never in the history of American politics has a president been so dissed without so much as even the hint of pushback. When Joe Wilson shouted out “You Lie!” to Obama last year, why on Earth did he not call him out on it? Why was it left to so many others to do his bidding? Why, after almost two years, are the training wheels still on for a man who is pushing 50 and almost halfway through what he believes will be his first term as president?

It is astounding to contemplate that the leader of the free world hasn’t the testicular fortitude to stand his ground and challenge his opponents to cross his line in the sand. It is one thing to seek common ground and reach consensus; it is quite another to forfeit one’s own leverage. In sales we have a saying, “Anyone can give away the merchandise.” For far too long, Barack Obama has given away the merchandise, has ceded his ground, and has lost whatever foothold he once had courtesy of the most lopsided election in generations.

Whether he can ever regain his “mojo” or ends up becoming yet another example of over significance triumphing over substance will rest squarely on what he decides to do in the coming months. Boehner and McConnell will attempt to do to him what Newt Gingrich attempted to do with Bill Clinton: run him ragged. Clinton bent but never broke. As a result, the GOP blinked and Clinton was reelected. The same was true for Harry Truman after his 1946 midterm fiasco. Two years later he narrowly defeated Thomas Dewey.

Getting one’s butt kicked in politics is nothing new; in fact, it’s a time-honored tradition. It’s not the butt kicking that matters, but rather how one reacts to it that defines a man and a president. But then, there’s that word again: define. It has become for Obama the ultimate four-letter word that he can’t bring himself to own. But it’s a word he must conquer if he expects to survive and thrive over the next two years in office. If he can’t, the only definition that will matter will be “one-term Obama.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Letter to the President of MSNBC

Dear Mr. Phil Griffin,

Your decision to suspend Keith Olbermann indefinitely without pay is a most interesting one.

Not because a network rule that prohibits employees from making donations to political campaigns is not a good rule. I'm sure that most of us would agree that employees within a broadcast medium, especially those who have the ability to shape public discourse through their positions, should be unfettered by such obvious distractions and conflicts of interests. Rules such as this are laudable and, given the current climate, critical. And if Olbermann violated such a rule, knowing what the policy was, then he should have to face the consequences of his actions.

The curious part about your decision, though, has nothing to do with the need to enforce policy, but rather the perceived selectiveness of that enforcement. If Keith Olbermann were the only member of MSNBC who had violated company policy, then your decision to suspend him would've made perfect sense. However, Olbermann is hardly the only offender of this policy.

Joe Scarborough made a contribution of $5,000 to a local Alabama Republican candidate; Larry Kudlow gave $1,000 to Republican Chris Shays and serves on the Leadership Council to the Club for Growth, a group that has donated $2 million to Republican candidates; and Pat Buchanan is a long-time Republican operative and a former GOP Presidential candidate himself. Yes, Kudlow is technically an employee of CNBC, but both networks are owned by NBC, and the parent company, if I'm not mistaken, has the same rules in place for its personalities; at least that is what you partially said in your statement, did you not?  I'm not parsing words when I say something smells rotten here. Is not network policy absolute? If so, why haven't all of these men faced the same punitive measures that Olbermann has faced? If not, why then was Olbermann singled out?

There exists only one plausible and disconcerting reason why. Of all your on-air personalities - more than Rachel Maddow, more than Ed Schultz, even more than Chris Matthews - Keith Olbermann has become the face of progressivism for millions of progressives in the country. He has become both a beacon for us, as well as a bull's eye for conservative ire. And while his ratings have no doubt increased the bottom line at MSNBC, with the recent shift in political fortunes in Washington this past election cycle and the typical knee-jerk reactionary measures it engenders within the mainstream media, I am skeptical of the standard "rules are rules" explanation that MSNBC is offering up here. My gut tells me that this was more about circling the wagons and attempting to craft a message that nervous investors will like - investors who historically could care less about ideology and whose only concern is the bottom line - while paying homage to a perceived new narrative. And that narrative is liberal is out, or at least should be called to task.

But even allowing for the possibility that this was not about perception, but based solely on the facts at hand, those "facts" don't even begin to support or justify your decision. For one thing, notwithstanding the contradictions within the NBC family, Fox's commentators routinely donate and actively campaign for right-wing candidates fully unfettered by such restrictions. It is one thing to keep your side of the street clean; it is quite another to throw one of your own under a bus currently being driven by full-time ideologues with an obvious agenda.

Whatever your reason, you have made your decision. You have suspended Mr. Olbermann for his transgressions, and with it, I hope, made your point. As Rachel Maddow astutely said on her show this evening, "It's time to bring Keith back." Agreed. You drew your line in the sand and enforced your policy. But there is a point where one simply cuts off his nose to spite his face. It is both appropriate and vital to restore Olbermann back to his proper place on the set of Countdown next Monday. I am hopeful you will realize this and act accordingly. The last thing a network, which appeals mainly to a liberal audience, needs to do is alienate itself from its core audience. The bottom line could adversely be affected, and we certainly wouldn't want that would we?

Yours truly,

Peter W. Fegan

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Tale of Two Nights

Tuesday’s election returns spoke volumes about voter frustration and angst. It mattered not which cable network you tuned in to; the news was consistent across the board. Unemployment levels hovering around 10% in the end became the ultimate albatross for the President and Congressional Democrats. Clearly, there were going to be casualties. The only question was how bad the bloodletting was going to be. To pretend that there weren’t profound issues with the way things were going, not only in Washington, but throughout the country was to deny reality. Sooner or later this check was going to come due. The witching hour came for the donkeys and it wasn’t pretty.

But while the House went down like a lead balloon, the Senate remained blue. The tsunami of “retaking” seems to have skipped over that body for now. While the GOP netted gains they fell short of their goal, which was to capture both Houses. Democratic wins in West Virginia, California, Colorado and (saints preserve us) Nevada denied Republicans their sweep. In deed, given the brash optimism of some officials, there will no doubt be more than just a few heads that will be scratched in the weeks and months ahead.

So what happened? Why were the results so schizophrenic? Why did one chamber fold up like a bad tent in a wind storm while the other stayed up? What I believe happened, and why I have at least a sliver of hope for the future of the nation, is that the Tea Party candidates, by and large, fell under an intense microscope in their respective Senate races that in the end proved far more detrimental to their election prospects than anybody had anticipated. While the House races, with a few exceptions, slipped under the radar – really, just try and name more than one or two outside your local district – the Senate and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the governors races garnered the bulk of national attention. As anyone who knows how both chambers work will tell you, local voters have far greater sway over their respective district races than they do over state-wide races. Hence the House, by far the more partisan body of Congress, stayed that way. Local candidates, free from the microscope of national press, were far better able to craft a message specifically tailored to their respective districts, without fear of consequences from other, less conservative, districts.

There was also the issue of Democratic saturation over the last two election cycles in districts that were historically Republican that came home to roost. Alan Grayson in the Florida 8th was a case in point. Notwithstanding the terrible campaign he ran, the truth was he was living on borrowed time. Even in a good year, Democrats would’ve lost at least 15 seats through attrition alone. And this was anything but a good year.

But the real story of this election is the double-edged sword of the Tea Party. On the one hand it energized the Republican base in a way not seen since the days of Reagan; on the other it caused many independents and moderates to back away at the last minute and vote Democrat. Losses in Colorado, Delaware, California and Nevada were owed directly to successful primary challenges by Tea Party candidates who ran far to the right of their seemingly more moderate opponents. Delaware was a case study in over playing your hand. There are few pundits who disagree that Mike Castle would’ve faired much better against Chris Coons than Christine O’Donnell. Coons, in fact, should send a thank you to Sarah Palin. As for Harry Reid, his supporters may chalk up his victory to a superior ground game, but, like Coons, he owes most of his good fortune to a vulnerable and fringe candidate who scared away as many voters as she attracted.

And the damage may not be limited to just Democratic upsets in Senate races. While Marco Rubio handily defeated Charlie Crist in Florida, long-time Republican – now outcast – Lisa Murkowski has apparently held onto her Senate seat. I say apparently because there will undoubtedly be challenges to many of the write-in votes she received. The point is that Alaskan voters overwhelmingly rejected the extremism of Joe Miller and sent a message to their former governor that was loud and clear. And speaking of governors, in California, Jerry Brown – an experienced establishment politician – easily beat out Tea Party millionaire rave Meg Whitman. Now Whitman, along with fellow millionaire and Senate loser Linda McMahon, can cry in their respective teapots.

In deed the only casualty for Democrats in the Senate that can be traced directly to the Tea Party was Russ Feingold. The three-term Wisconsin Senator was outspent four to one by his Republican challenger Ron Johnson, who not only got the backing of the Tea Party, but much of the establishment GOP. It was a legitimate blow to the Obama Administration, which had hoped to build a coalition among the Great Lakes states (Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio). With Feingold gone, his old Senate seat now in Republican hands and his good friend, Ted Strickland, ousted from the governor's mansion in Ohio, Obama’s 2012 reelection prospects just became more clouded.

And if you’re wondering about Blanche Lincoln, the reason for her defeat was based almost entirely on the unsuccessful primary challenge to her by Bill Halter, who would’ve done much better against John Boozman according to every pollster out there. Unlike Joe Sestak, who at least gave Pat Toomey a run for his money, Lincoln was mortally wounded by the challenge and was dead on arrival. Proof positive that the message Democrats should take away from this election is that running away from your record and/or apologizing for it is a sure fire way to get defeated. Somewhere in the White House, someone, hopefully, was taking notes.

But getting back to the House. There is no way to get around it. Tuesday’s losses amount to nothing less than a nightmarish scenario that will translate to stalemate after stalemate as far-Right Tea Party extremists, acting on the belief that they have been given a mandate by the people, will hold Obama hostage, attempt to undo virtually every legislative accomplishment of his first two years, and imperil a fragile economy.

So now what? A Republican House, a just barely Democratic Senate, and a socialist, Kenyan-born Muslim in the White House – or if you’re a progressive, a sellout corporate centrist in the White House. Pick your poison and buckle up. The next two years promises to be the ride of our lives. And it’s not even January, yet.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Phony Equivalence

Watching Jon Stewart’s valedictory speech at his Rally for Sanity this past weekend I was struck by three undeniable facts. The first should be obvious. The nation is caught in a vortex of polarizing partisanship the likes of which haven’t been seen, I dare say, since the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And, to Stewart’s credit, he correctly pointed out how even people who are diametrically opposed to one another can still work together to accomplish their goals without stooping to juvenile name-calling and race baiting. At heart we have more in common than we think or have been told by the pundits. Point taken.

But, like so many other passionate observers to the political scene, Stewart makes the classic mistake when he lumps both “extreme” camps into the same leaky lifeboat. You’ve seen this movie before: Fox is conservative, MSNBC is liberal, and CNN is, well when you find out please drop me a line. Kind of like David Brooks is a conservative and Thomas Friedman is a liberal. What’s so bad about that? To coin a phrase, fair and balanced, right? And naturally when Fox steps overboard and leans too far to the right and MSNBC follows suit and leans too far to the left, we’re all supposed to say, “Time Out! Both of you go back to your respective rooms and don’t come out till you agree to behave like adults.”

Except there’s one problem with that assumption: it’s false. The truth is there is no equivalence between what Fox does and what MSNBC does, and Stewart knows that full well. Throughout his storied career as Comedy Central’s political satirist extraordinaire, he has made his bones on more Fox faux pas than Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schutltz combined.

Even if you grant the underlying premise that conservative values and progressive values tend to naturally clash and can, at times, get heated, there is a staggering difference between a mere bias and a deliberate twisting and, in some cases, falsification of news stories to suit a political agenda. MSNBC is not the tit for Fox’s tat. You’re allowed to have a point of view and be passionate about it; you’re not allowed to make shit up.

When Mark Shields and David Brooks appear on PBS they frequently argue their points both passionately and with civility. Both are unapologetic about their stances and both are committed to a journalistic integrity that speaks volumes to who they are as professionals.

Now let’s bring in MSNBC and Fox. OK, so Olbermann is Shields on steroids; fine. The man is a textbook lib. So is Maddow; and, yes, Schultz too. To deny the obvious would be stupid. Now enter, stage right, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly. Not only aren’t any of these “individuals” Brooks on steroids, on their best day, none of them could hold his water. Hannity is a conservative the way Hitler was a Chancellor, and if Beck gets any more unhinged the men in white coats will be coming for him. And we haven’t even begun to “discuss” O’Reilly’s stalking methods against personalities with whom he vehemently disagrees with. If this is journalism, I’m Abe Lincoln.

While MSNBC’s lineup tends to include journalists who are unabashedly self-described liberals and/or progressives, Fox’s lineup consists mainly of Republican pundits – Hello Karl Rove - and, in some cases, actual Republican politicians – Yes, you too Mike Huckabee. About the only prominent Republican who doesn't have either his own show or forum is Mitt Romney.  While one network leans, the other leaps. There is no comparing the two, not without a drastic leave of one’s senses and intelligence. I can watch Countdown, knowing full well that it will never be unbiased, but also knowing it has never stepped over the line and perpetrated a fraud.

Watching Fox is like watching a GOP press release in the guise of journalism.  Worse, the network makes no attempt to hide their utter contempt for things like fact-checking.  It plays to an audience who is xenophobic and hopelessly lost in a narrative that bears little resemblance to reality. There is something sinister in the way it portrays itself as “fair and balanced” that is both incorrigible and loathsome all at the same time. The mob-like tactics employed at Fox would make Tony Soprano blush.

Which brings me to my third fact and second false assumption. There has always been this myth, one which Stewart, and other well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, souls tend to fall victim to. The inherent belief that the bully on the block will cease his assault if only the other side stops contesting. Ask anyone who has ever gotten his brains kicked in if not resisting helped in any way. Of all the ridiculous claims made by the far Right none have been more insulting than the suggestion that the tactics used by it are somehow justified and that they wouldn’t need to employ them if only the other side wouldn’t provoke or stand up to them. Worse, they are forced to employ them because the other side is somehow conspiring against them. That is akin to a gun owner blaming the victim for being in the path of the bullet.  It is also classic paranoia.

Fox’s whole raison d'être, we’re told, is to combat a mainstream media which is overtly liberal and openly hostile to conservative values; values that they have set themselves up as guardians of. They aren’t bullies, they’re bodyguards. That is the modus operandi at News Corp. If the industry weren’t so slanted, they wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics.

Hogwash. You don’t blame the guy getting pummeled just because his chin keeps getting in the way of your fist, and you don’t lie down in the face of such conduct, no matter how intimidating or imposing. You confront it. If we can take anything away from this year’s mid-term debacle it will be that cowering in the face of falsehoods was the ultimate sin that will know no redemption. One does not get brownie points for being “reasonable” in the heat of battle. One must have the good sense to know when one is at war and with whom one is at war with.

There will be a time when ladies and gentlemen of all walks of life will sit down together at the dinner table and work out their differences with grace and dignity. But only if and when the bully is escorted out of the dining room. On that day we can all attend a rally and celebrate our common heritage.  And I'll be there in the front row screeming my butt off and making a fool of myself as usual.