Friday, July 23, 2010

OK, So You Apologized, Mr. President. Well, Not Quite Apologized…

Ok, so you finally decided to phone Shirley Sharrod and express your “regret” over her unfortunate firing / resignation – or was that resignation / firing – and that (let me see if I can quote your press statement accurately) “this misfortune can present an opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of those in need, and he hopes that she will do so.” I guess the word regret is as close as a president can come to actually apologizing these days. Even though your press secretary and agriculture secretary apparently have no such limitations. Fine, I’ll not parse words with you.  I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now and exonerate you.

As for that part I mentioned about in my last blog about apologizing to the rest of the nation, here’s where you can start to make a new beginning.

Appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. Now that you have signed the Dodd-Frank law, which despite not dealing with the issue of too big to fail is the most sweeping financial regulation package we’ve seen since the Great Depression, now you have to appoint someone who can actually oversee the very institutions that rammed the ship into the iceberg in the first place.

Warren is the perfect choice. She is not a Washington insider, unlike so many in your cabinet. It’s nice that Timothy Geithner likes her. Who cares? What is important is that she is eminently qualified for the enormous task at hand.  Since she is not one of the Wall Street cronies, she will be beholden only to the letter of the law and not whether she may be rubbing certain institutions the wrong way.

And as for whether Wall Street likes her, double who cares? You don’t ask the architects of the worst financial disaster in seven decades what they think of their new overlord, any more than you would ask the habitual speeder what he thinks of the new traffic cop. In fact, Wall Street’s “reservations” about Warren are exactly why you should appoint her, and now.

Mr. President, it is time you stopped thinking of the political implications of every single decision you make, and realize that every once in a while, you simply have to do the right thing. You will get only one shot at this. Don’t screw it up.

Whoever gets the job will in all likelihood put his or her stamp on it. That means the bureau will be molded by its new boss. Either it will be an effective agency that will finally create financial stability, a more transparent derivatives market, limits on bank risk-taking through proprietary trading and a new way to liquidate big banks, or it will become yet another bloated government bureaucracy that your opponents will wrap around your neck and use to bring you down in 2012.  Can you spell Sarah Palin?

Once more you are presented with a choice, Mr. President, and once more the choice is quite obvious. The only question is whether you can break out of the paper bag you have allowed yourself to be placed in and do the right thing.

Apologizing is quite meaningless, unless a change of heart follows. In some circles they call that an amends. You can make one now, Mr. President, and you can do it without having to say, “I’m sorry.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where’s YOUR Apology, Mr. President?

Your Press Secretary has apologized to Shirley Sharrod; your Agricultural Secretary has apologized to Shirley Sharrod; dozens of journalists of the lame-stream media have apologized to Shirley Sharrod. Where, Mr. President, is your apology? And not just to Shirley Sharrod, but to the rest of the nation, who, once again, got a first-hand look at a cowering, indecisive, middle-of-the-road administration that can’t or simply won’t come to terms with the fact that its opponents are beyond being reasoned with.

Mr. President, you are at war, whether you know it or not or even whether you like it or not. But I suspect the biggest war being waged is the one going on inside your soul. You have fought the good fight. You have attempted to build a consensus between Democrats and Republicans, only to be spurned; compromised key components of your agenda, and in the process angered and distanced yourself from the very base that drove your campaign across the finish line in November of 2008; shrugged off personal attacks on your person that were racist and deliberately side-stepped issues that dealt with the underlining causes of that racism, perhaps not wanting to come off as some angry black man who hates white people, without of course realizing that your opponents were already characterizing you that way.

Mr. President, millions of progressives and millions more who could care less about progressivism are shaking their heads wondering who you are and, for that matter, what you stand for. It is quite obvious that you are a thoughtful and intelligent man. Given the intellectual limits of your predecessor that has been a refreshing change of pace. It is equally obvious that when the book on your life is written you will no doubt have a plethora of legislative accomplishments to look back upon. But the sad truth, Mr. President, is that those legislative victories might be the only solace you will take from your tenure in office. Because when push has come to shove, Mr. President, you have been wanting for a spine. The fact is that, for all his faults, it was your predecessor, and not you, who clearly knew how to take the bull by the horn and command the nation.

You have been the perfect gentleman, opting for reason, and believing that “the better angels of our nature” that your idol Abraham Lincoln spoke of would eventually prevail. Your naivet√© has permitted the winds of discontent to thoroughly stir the waters of the nation. For a man so seemingly astute in the political arena during your campaign, your ineptitude as chief executive has now become your modus operandi. Even those who still like you – and there are a surprising number of them out there – openly speak of you as a one-term president. Congratulations, sir, you have lost a war without firing a single salvo. Somewhere Lincoln is spinning in his grave.

And now the ultimate ignominy. Your administration has thrown one of your own under the bus on the dubious word of your scandalous and shameless opponents and, upon learning once more you had been set up, you didn’t so much as have the decency to make a personal appearance and acknowledge the utter foolishness of the injustice. You let your agents do your bidding and wipe the egg off your face. At best they were poor substitutes. The buck stops at your desk, Mr. President, and this shameful incident demanded your undivided attention and a personal apology. But, once more, the silence has been deafening.

This isn’t Andrew Breitbart’s fault, nor Sean Hannity’s, nor Rush Limbaugh’s, nor any of the fake news “journalists” over at Fox News. Blaming the Right for spreading lies as fact is like blaming a dog for urinating on your rug. At some point you either get it that the dog can’t be house broken or you don’t, but you stop blaming the dog. The fault, sir, is yours and yours alone. You have proceeded upon a faulty supposition: that you could somehow get through to those whose intolerance is well documented and in the process show the nation what a real leader looks like.

It isn’t working, Mr. President. The dog is still urinating on the rug, and he isn’t going to stop. And the homeowner is getting restless dealing with the mess. The homeowner is the American people. They have had to sit and watch as a sitting president has been reduced to the character in Animal House who is getting his bottom paddled in the fraternity while repeating over and over, “Thank you, sir, may I have another.” You are not above this and the embarrassment is threatening to consume what little is left of your dignity.

The birther movement, the Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck, and what is left of the Republican Party openly mock and ridicule you at will, with nary a peep out of you. You are called every name in the book from socialist and death panel proponent in public to other far more hideous names in private. And it just bounces off you like you were made of teflon.  You cannot let this continue.

I realize that there are times when we must not give in to the temptation to lash out and, certainly as the President, you haven’t the luxury of speaking your mind and reacting to every farcical slight that comes your way. Politics isn’t for the meek of heart and taking criticism is part of the job description. But lying down in the middle of the road and allowing your opponents to drive over your carcass is unacceptable. By not speaking out against such attacks and repudiating them, you have, without quite realizing it, given them legitimacy. Shame on you, sir, for permitting that to happen.

You may have been handed the worst economic crisis to befall a president since Roosevelt, and you have certainly done your best to mitigate its effects, but as the leader of the free world, you have failed to lead. Your opponents do not fear you nor respect you and it is taking its toll on your presidency.

You can stop the hemorrhaging right now, Mr. President. You can hold a news conference today and publicly apologize for the conduct of your administration during this shaded affair. You can then look the American people in the eye and publicly apologize to them for being too aloof and too high-minded to see the forest for the trees. You can look your opponents right in the eye and say “The party’s over. I’m the President and I simply won’t stand for this anymore.” Afterward you can sit your chief of staff down in the Oval Office and tell him that from now on you intend to hold onto your principles and be the leader this nation deserves, no matter the cost politically. You can do this today, sir. You don’t need a cabinet meeting or a consensus among your staff. You are the President of the United States and, believe it or not, you get to chart which course this ship of yours goes.

Do it now, sir. Do it before this malignancy not only consumes your administration, but the country as well. Those who do not like you are never going to change their tune. Like that wayward dog that will never be house broken, the bigoted and the xenophobes will only see what their narrow-minded eyes will let them. You will always be a threat to them because deep down they cannot accept the fact that a black man is the president. Leave them to their torment, but do not permit them to stain your Office. For the sake of our nation you must develop a back bone and a fearless heart that knows no quarter.

If there was one thing George Bush understood it was this: you don’t run from your political opponents; you call them out and defeat them before they defeat you. It is the lesson of politics and it is a lesson you still haven't learned. The mid-terms are fast approaching, your party is in trouble, and your fingerprints are all over this mess. You can begin the process of cleaning it up, or you can continue to ignore it and pretend you are somehow above it.

The decision is up to you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Don’t Count Those Chickens Just Yet!

You know they’re all counting down the days to the November mid-terms over at Fox News and A.M. Talk Radio. The champagne is on ice and all indications are that it’s going to be a joyous celebration for conservatives everywhere. Finally, after two whole years of enduring the socialist hordes that have stolen their country, America will be rightfully restored into their waiting hands. The reign of Obama, if not stopped, will at least be derailed. That is until Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee takes back the White House from the “anointed one.” Then they can all savor the ultimate mission accomplished moment together. How sweet the sound!

There’s just one problem though. There’s a very good chance that this year’s mid-terms might not end up as expected. Yes I know virtually every political pundit is predicting huge Democratic losses in both the House and Senate, with some conceding that the GOP will more than likely win back the House. And yes, even White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs joined the chorus and admitted that scenario is quite possible. Yes, things are sure looking bad this year, aren’t they?

Well permit me to throw a little water on those Republican victory candles if I may, but I respectfully disagree with the pundits. I’m far more optimistic on Democratic fortunes this fall, and for two reasons. First off, it should be painfully obvious to anybody who has closely observed the House of Representatives these last eighteen months that there are very few moderate Democrats and virtually no moderate Republicans left in that chamber. The very term moderate is actually akin to an oxymoron. While that is bad for politics in that it means highly contested and divisive partisanship, which is what we saw all too frequently the last year and a half, it also bodes poorly for turnover. By that I mean districts that tend to vote liberal will in all likelihood remain that way and the same can be said for conservative districts. Districts rarely flip and vote the other party, even during tough economic times.

If you look at all 435 House seats this is the way it stacks up. Of course things can change from now to November, so nothing’s etched in stone. 164 seats are solidly Democrat; 157 solid Republican. Of the remaining 114 seats, 66 are leaning Democrat and 23 are leaning Republican. That leaves 25 tossup seats, which is an extremely low number for a body this size. Even if you gave all the tossups to the Republicans, the Democrats would still hold a 230-seat majority at the end of the day. The GOP’s only chance would be to steal some of the leaning Democratic districts, and they would need 13 of them to win back control. Highly unlikely.

In the Senate the road to victory is a little more direct, but still uncertain. Each party is defending 18 seats. Of the 63 seats not in play – remember Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election – 40 are held by Democrats, which is huge blow to the GOP, because when you break down the Democratic seats in play 9 are considered tossups. If Republicans hold onto all their seats that means they would have to run the table on all the tossups just to break even. In that scenario Joe Biden would be the tie-breaking vote. Oh the humanity! And by the way, two of the tossups are in Nevada and California, which brings me to reason number two for my optimism.

It is becoming painfully clear that the more the general public sees and hears of the Tea Party candidates the less appealing they become. In Nevada, Republican candidate and Tea Party darling Sharon Angle once held a 13-point lead over Democratic incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That is until she began to shoot her mouth off. As it stands right now the race is a dead heat with some polls actually showing Reid ahead. Proof positive that no matter how angry the electorate may get they’re not stupid enough to turn the reigns of power over to someone who is clueless. If Reid manages to hold the seat, the Democrats won’t even need Biden’s vote.

And in California the bloom is fast coming off the rose of Carly Fiorina as her lack of relevant experience and her HP horror story becomes almost the stuff of legend. Barbara Boxer will in all likelihood retain that seat, which now means 52 seats for the Democrats. Hardly a staggering majority, but a majority nonetheless. If Charlie Crist wins in Florida and Joe Sestak ekes out a victory in Pennsylvania, it will be a long bitter winter in GOP land.

And that is why I am optimistic this mid-term and why it is always important to remember to never count your chickens before they hatch, lest they turn into jackasses.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Fannie and Freddie Factor: Some myths simply won’t die.

If history were to write a paragraph on what caused this current recession, would it be correct to say that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac encouraged financial institutions to make risky home loans to consumers who could not pay back their loans if the interest rates jumped? And that the consumers who lost their jobs, caused some mid to large financial institutions to fail and thus cause a cascade affect which nearly brought the entire financial network in the U.S. to its knees?

Well, if you get most of your information from Fox News and conservative talk-radio, you already know the answers to the above questions. And of course you probably subscribe to the idea that the cart always comes before the horse. Because the simple truth is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were responding to highly unstable market conditions that had been in place for years when they started to go south in the late summer of 2008. The genesis of this crisis actually started almost ten years earlier during the Clinton Administration.

The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 allowed institutions like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase to ostensibly ride both sides of the fence. On the one side they could continue as banks and underwrite mortgages to their lenders; on the other side they could act as investment brokers, repackage those loans and sell them to Wall Street. Because banks enjoy protections that ordinary investment firms do not, over time the packaged loans became riskier and riskier, as the pool of credit-worthy borrowers began to thin and the banks turned to sub-prime borrowers to fill the void. Eventually these no-doc stated income interest-only option-ARM no money down mortgages were being repackaged as “sound investments” and being sold as “stable assets” for pension plans to sink their money in.

It was kind of like that old game of musical chairs, only when the music stopped all the participants were left without a chair. Not only did the pension funds get stuck holding securities that were worthless, but the banks got hosed as well. They held many of these instruments on their books as a means of satisfying fixed-income requirements and using these assets as collateral. The resultant “write-downs” overwhelmed the banking industry as a whole. Had it not been for swift intervention by the Fed, the resulting domino cascade would have plunged the world into a depression even worse than the one in the 1930s.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s role in this tragedy has been badly misunderstood by many, and exploited by a few. For one thing neither had anything to do with the explosion of high-risk lending a few years ago. So says economist Paul Krugman. “In fact, Fannie and Freddie, after growing rapidly in the 1990s, largely faded from the scene during the height of the housing bubble.”

The reasons for this? According to Krugman there were two:  “Regulators, responding to accounting scandals at the companies, placed temporary restraints on both Fannie and Freddie that curtailed their lending just as housing prices were really taking off. Also, they didn’t do any sub-prime lending, because they can’t: the definition of a sub-prime loan is precisely a loan that doesn’t meet the requirement, imposed by law, that Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.”

If that was the case, then how did both get into so much trouble? Simple. Because of the sheer magnitude of the collapse in property values, even borrowers who put up twenty percent now had negative equity in their homes. The resultant delinquency rate severely taxed even those institutions that underwrote quality loans.

“Also, Fannie and Freddie, while tightly regulated in terms of their lending, haven’t been required to put up enough capital — that is, money raised by selling stock rather than borrowing. This means that even a small decline in the value of their assets can leave them underwater, owing more than they own.”

So why is it that we keep hearing from the Right erroneous charges of malfeasance against these two institutions? It all boils down to their status and a fundamental belief held by some that is rubbed the wrong way by that status. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by the Federal government to facilitate homeownership by buying mortgages from banks, freeing up cash that could be used to make new loans. They now finance most of the mortgages made in the United States.

Although private companies with stockholders and profits, they’re essentially government-sponsored institutions, established by federal law, which means they receive special privileges. Hmmm. Private companies, federally sponsored, with special privileges. Do I hear the word socialism creeping in? Well, yes, to a degree. Ostensibly if both Fannie and Freddie do well (i.e. make a profit) their investors will reap the rewards; if they are threatened with failure, the federal government will bail them out. It’s the ultimate quagmire for the free-market wingnuts to go absolutely batty over.

So what do these wingnuts do? Basically blame the two institutions that couldn’t have been more blameless for this calamity and insinuate that the mortgage crisis would never have happened if people who couldn’t afford the homes they were buying – yes, you guessed it, the poor – had simply not gotten into the market in the first place. Never mind predator lending; never mind a lack of government oversight. Let’s blame those who have the least. The ultimate class warfare. I guess we do have income redistribution in this country after all. Unfortunately it’s going in the wrong direction.

So you see some myths die harder than others, while some simply refuse to die at all. It’s like that sometimes when you’re dealing with people who live in Fantasy Land.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Went Wrong?

The Stimulus worked. Virtually every major economist agrees that as bad as things are at the moment, they would’ve been far worse had the Obama Administration not pumped almost $800 billion into the economy. And as bad as 9.5% unemployment might sound – and there is no getting around it, it’s pretty abysmal – try 15%. Because without last year’s stimulus, millions more would’ve been laid off from their jobs from states that were hemorrhaging red ink. Even now California is implementing cut backs to attempt to balance its budget that are draconian to say the least. To even suggest with a straight face that mere targeted tax breaks for small businesses and a tightening of Washington’s purse strings would’ve propelled the economy out of the depths of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is the very definition of insanity.

And yet that is the very spin the GOP is going with this summer and fall, and it seems to be working. So why? Why, with the plethora of economists who have verified the validity of the stimulus, has it been so difficult for President Obama and Congressional Democrats to convince the electorate?

What went wrong? How did the GOP capitalize on the economic crisis and turn a resounding defeat in ’08 into an opportunity to win back at least partial control of the very ship they rammed into an iceberg and left badly listing? Well there are three things that sum up the reversal in fortunes, and if they are not corrected, the consequences to long-term recovery in this country are slim to none.

First off, the Administration badly underestimated the severity of the recession when they took office. It was not until months later that Vice President Joe Biden finally admitted their error. Virtually every estimate for growth from the Obama Administration was based on estimates that were grossly understated. The economy was in free-fall when Obama took office and economists like Paul Krugman warned of a need to take serious steps to not only avoid a depression but of the need for drastic sums of money to revive the economy. Virtually every one of his warnings were ignored. Congressional Republicans wanted tax breaks and a reduction in spending; progressives wanted massive spending. Obama opted for a middle of the road solution.

Secondly, the Administration committed the ultimate faux pas by going on record that unemployment would not exceed 8% with the stimulus. There is an old rule in politics: avoid specifics whenever possible. While the stimulus prevented massive layoffs throughout the country it was inadequate to jump-start the economy sufficiently to create the jobs needed to drive it back to full health in 2009. In short, the patient was removed from the critical list, but remains in intensive care. This was the biggest blunder of the Obama Administration. They did just enough to prevent a calamity but not enough to restore prosperity.

And lastly the balance of this can be chalked up to good old fashioned and completely understandable fear and uncertainty. From the moment they took control of the economy, whether they liked it or not, Obama and Congressional Democrats owned the mess they inherited. And with the spoils of victory comes the angst of the multitudes who now demand accountability from their new lords. It matters not that unemployment could’ve been as high as 15% were it not for the steps that were taken, when you’re one of the 9.5% that’s still out of work. It has been and always will be about the economy stupid. And make no mistake about it people will vote their wallets and pocketbooks this November.

So now that we know how all this happened, what can be done to avoid another trip down Titanic alleyway?

Well for one thing the Obama Administration needs to make it abundantly clear just how much the stimulus worked, and not just in general terms. Obama himself needs to visit the states – particularly those states with Republican governors who took stimulus money – and let the people in those states know how many jobs were spared due to the stimulus. Bring some cops, firemen and teachers with you, Mr. President. Last time I checked, they counted as taxpayers too.

Secondly, Obama needs to call out Republican challengers who are running on fiscal responsibility to put up or shut up. He needs to draw a line clearly between the allegations and the actual facts. The truth is that there is no evidence that Republicans, when in charge, have ever been fiscally responsible. The American people need to be reminded of that fact; and not left to assume, as so many Democrats have a habit of doing, that they will figure it out on their own. (Hello John Kerry!) And as for those Republican candidates who, under the auspices of the tea party movement, claim they are nothing like past GOP leaders who betrayed their principles, ask them a simple question: What’s your plan? Spell it out and don’t be afraid to list specifics. And please avoid the usual socialist agenda garbage.

That’s right, specifics: that four-letter word in politics. For instance, when a GOP candidate says they would not have voted for the stimulus, what then would they have done differently? How would they have jump-started the economy? And if the answer comes back something like, “By getting government out of the way and allowing the engine of free-market capitalism to take over” here’s your comeback question: “What part of government would you get out of the way? The Pentagon? The Department of Homeland Security? The Department of Transportation? The EPA? What would you have told the states that were laying off tens of thousands of teachers, cops, firemen and sanitation workers every month to close budget shortfalls? And how would you have balanced the budget while at the same time giving away yet more tax breaks for the wealthy? Please articulate. The voters are waiting.”

You see when exposed to light of day most of the Republican opposition this fall boils down to three things: capitalizing on the mistakes of their opposition, stoking the fears and ignorance of the victims of this recession, and hoping that no one finds out just how bare their cupboard really is.

In 2004 Democrats ran against George Bush by ostensibly saying, “Vote for us, we’re not Bush.” While that may have picked up a few disgruntled votes here and there, in the end it wasn’t enough to propel them over the top. Americans, even those who are disenchanted, still need a reason to vote for a candidate. Republicans are making the very same mistake this year by running campaigns that are anti-Obama. It is up to the Democrats to make them pay for it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No Party Pooper Am I

The following petition is currently making its way around the internet and is being embraced by many thoughtful and conscientious Christians. It is worthy of serious consideration.


Declaration of Unity

Dear Candidates, Incumbents and Party Leaders, In this election, please find a way of campaigning without deliberately triggering anger, hatred and fear. Please avoid contributing to the DISUNITING of America. It is the last thing we need in a time of two wars, an environmental catastrophe and an economic crisis.

We will hold accountable those who engage in the politics of division. We will support those who offer facts, civility and solutions. We choose to be united as a People and refuse to be divided. We hereby Declare Our Unity.


Now, while I appreciate and respect the thought behind this petition and agree in principle on the importance of civility in American politics, the sad and simple truth is that neither side would ever willingly sign it, and furthermore I think all of us deep down know it.

I also am of a mind that our correct posture as concerned Christians should be anything but civil in the face of what can only be described as the battle of our lifetime. Yes we are not to behave as our enemies do, but we should stop being so high-minded and eager to reach consensus. There is a time for a righteous indignation that I feel is way overdo.

I have been saying this now for well over year. The far Right, and with it fundamentalist Christianity, is actively engaging in tactics that are downright despicable and, in the case of the fundamentalists, unChristian. To show even the slightest hint of civility in the face of such rampant hatred and evil is akin to throwing down with it. You do not negotiate with evil; you confront it and expose it to the light of day.

The country DOES need a healthy and spirited debate on real issues; what is taking place more closely resembles the rumble scene from West Side Story. It is nothing short of insane to ask one side to lay down their sticks while at the same time allowing the other side to pummel the opposition with theirs.

To those who would say I am being obtuse and exposing my heart, I would say wake up my friends and smell the very coffee you want to drink. This isn’t about winning the hearts and minds of those who have fallen; it has always been about not letting the enemy get a foothold. Do not kid yourselves; silence and complicity are one in the same. Would Jesus have sat down with Satan? Did he once seek compromise with the Pharisees? Of course not and neither should we. It is foolhardy to believe we have no enemies, especially when they have no problem seeing us as theirs’.

Two wrongs may not make a right but it at least preserves balance; a balance that one day may yield to saner and more rational participants in this experiment we still call democracy. And when that day arrives, I will be more than willing to share a cup or two of hazelnut or French vanilla with anyone who seeks mutual respect and honors honest disagreement.

In the meantime, I will hold off singing Cumbay√°, and suit up my armor, thank you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Looking for “Green”er Pastures? Be Careful What You Wish For.

It has not been easy for progressives these last few months. Most of us thought, and with some degree of justification, we were voting for the next FDR when we stepped into the voting booth and cast our ballot for Barack Obama in November of 2008. It took less than three months in office for the bloom to come off the rose of his administration. Captain Pragmatic has been, it turns out, another Washington politician who surrounded himself with competent yet establishment bureaucrats who skillfully navigated the political waters of the Beltway, but who also left many of us disillusioned with the whole process. Eighteen months in and the Left has about as much use for Obama as a car accident victim does for an insurance adjuster.

Small wonder many Democratic incumbents faced serious primary challenges this Spring. Blanche Lincoln barely survived a runoff in her home state of Arkansas from Lt. Governor Bill Halter. Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party to basically get reelected, was defeated by Joe Sestek in the Pennsylvania primary. All throughout the nation progressives, who felt betrayed by this President and this Congress, are getting their dander up and making their voices heard.

And while all this sounds rather impressive to many of us on the Left, there is, nonetheless, an inherent danger in being this belligerent to this degree. The lesson of politics, no matter how distasteful it may seem, goes as follows: run to your base during the primary, then run to your center in the general. As any political pundit would agree, most of the nation neither belongs to nor cares much about party affiliation or ideology. What it all boils down to for many of them is this: Who can best do the job? The D or R in front of their names, as well as the terms progressive or conservative that so many of us identify with, holds little water to the majority of Americans, who quite frankly have become disenchanted with most of the haranguing from both extremes.

And while it may be a bitter pill to swallow for many of us on the Left to realize that most of what we wanted and, more to the point, most of what we expect in the future could be on hold for quite sometime, the real struggle ahead for us is to prevent a blood letting of epic proportions this fall. If you think it was frustrating these last eighteen months seeing your dreams deferred, imagine a scenario where the likes of a Sharon Angle and a Joe Barton run the Senate.

Snicker all you want, but it is a closer reality than you think, and it is the reality that awaits the nation this fall if progressives don’t wake up and smell the caffeine. The malignancy that has become the Republican Party has furnished it with a narrative that has scored high points with the far Right. It has propelled extremist candidates into victories in their respective states’ primaries that otherwise would not happen. Rand Paul is a prime example of what happens when fringe elements kidnap a major political party and elevate unqualified candidates into the light of day. Like Angle, the more the general public finds out about Paul’s stances, the less attractive he becomes to them. And like Angle, Paul is in for the fight of his life. Angle, in fact, is a case study of just how out of touch with mainstream America some candidates can get.

The last thing Democrats need this fall is for progressives to sit home and pout on election day, or worse, cast a vote for a candidate who has zero chance of winning the general election. Talk about a bailout. Principles are one thing; cutting off your nose to spite your face is quite another.

There are moments in history where making a stand is the correct thing to do, and no doubt at some point progressives will mobilize and make a stand worthy of their moral convictions. And then there are moments in history where one must bite down and swallow hard and realize that this is as good as it is going to get for the time being; that to draw a line in the sand means almost certain defeat. And defeat is not an option. There is far too much at stake to allow mere conviction to dictate consequences. And make no mistake about it, consequences are coming this fall. The task before all of us is to mitigate those consequences as best we can.

We can lobby and petition our elected officials next spring to enact the laws and regulations we feel are needed to move our nation forward. The only answer we don’t have is whether our elected officials will be of a mind to hear our pleas. If that official has a D next to his or her name, we have a chance; if it’s an R, good luck. Consider the last two times major third-party candidates ran in a general election. John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992. The result? The incumbents – Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush – lost both elections. If we’re not careful, our principles, like our dreams, may be all we have left to hold onto next year.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Ever Painful Lesson of History

Remember your Old Testament, specifically the Book of Exodus? Moses has just successfully delivered the Israelites out of the bondage of Egyptian slavery and has them encamped on the shore of the Red Sea, when the good old Pharaoh begins to have second thoughts and decides to track them down. Do you recall what happens next?

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Stunning. Only days earlier, Moses was celebrated as a deliverer; now he was being vilified by the very same people he had just rescued. But more to the point was the Israelites’ complete and total absence of any recollection of how deplorable their lives had been prior to their deliverance. It was as though their long-term memory was disabled and all they could remember was what was happening at that moment.

Not much has changed in several thousand years. People, it seems, still have a problem with long-term memory. Witness the last eighteen months. A financial crisis of epic proportions threatened to decimate our economic system after almost eight years of neglect and two costly wars. A budget surplus somehow became a huge budget deficit, and a nation, fed up with the nonsense, rose up and kicked out its corrupt leaders, as if to say, “We want to be delivered from this insanity!”

And so they were delivered. New leadership took control and measures were taken to avert a catastrophe. But the natives grew restless at the slow pace of recovery and became unruly. The old despots queried, “Miss us yet?” And the people shouted back at their deliverers, “What have you done to us? We want our country back!” The delivered looked fondly back at their old oppressors, as if to say, “How could we have doubted you? We will gladly return back into your clutches. Can you ever forgive us?”

Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Not if you’ve been reading the latest opinion polls, it doesn’t. As preposterous as it might seem, a nation that had lived through eight long years of the worst stewardship of any administration since Herbert Hoover, and voted overwhelmingly to rid itself of that stewardship, is now lining up to buy tickets for a return engagement. And you thought Shakespeare had a morbid sense of humor. Well Shakespeare had nothing on the American people.

What Tocqueville referred to as the “tyranny of the majority” in his book Democracy in America, and what Madison earlier called "the violence of majority faction” in The Federalist Papers, is alive and well and living up to its infamous reputation.

Like many of the founding fathers in 1787, Madison was concerned about the survival of the new republic. He was particularly preoccupied with the influence of factions and how to mitigate their negative impact. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He identified the most serious source of faction to be the diversity of opinion in political life that leads to dispute over fundamental issues such as what government or religion should be preferred. Sound familiar?

Not surprisingly, Madison viewed direct democracy as a threat to individual rights and advocated instead a representative democracy or a republic in order to protect what he viewed as individual liberty from majority rule. He writes, “A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Madison explains that common people’s opinions are always influenced by their emotions and their self-interest. They don’t always think clearly or approach situations in the same way. Madison concludes that the damage caused by faction can be limited only by controlling its effects. And the only way to control such effects is through a republic, specifically a large republic, where elected representatives or delegates and not the people themselves would run the country.

Madison wasn’t mincing his words. In fact, given the current state of emotional volatility that exists in America today, they seem almost prophetic. In over two hundred years, the representative democracy Madison helped shape has endured, sometimes precariously. But now, even with all we know about the frailties of modern democracies, Madison’s words are coming home to roost. America’s factions are threatening its very existence in much the same way factions undermined the “democracy” of the Weimar Republic in Germany. True the Weimar Republic had serious structural flaws that made it vulnerable to the mob, much more so than the United States, but the similarities are eerily reminiscent of the conditions that eventually brought about the Third Reich in Germany.

Think I’m overreacting? How else can this 180-degree turn in “public opinion” be explained? Like politics, common sense and human emotion – particularly extreme human emotion – have long been strange bedfellows, dancing a rather precarious dance, and rarely appearing in the same room at the same time. More often than not human emotion – that most unpredictable of variables – has dominated history and been responsible for some of its bloodiest moments. Irrationality, insanity, it has many names. From a Christian perspective, we can refer to it as the enemy taking hold of our souls and reeking havoc. A wolf in sheep’s clothing perhaps. But whatever we may prefer to call it, there is one thing most can agree on. When it is unleashed and unchecked, it can destroy virtually anything or anyone in its path, even a nation as resolute and with as many checks and balances as the United States.

I have written several times on the growing fascist movement in this country and the vitriolic tendencies within the Tea Party groups. Back in August of last year, I wrote a piece titled, “Has Fascism Arrived in America?”

“Living in a free society with the right of expression does have its benefits. No body can tell us to shut up, and we are free to voice our opinions as we wish. But, unfortunately, the flip side of that coin is that along with the benefits comes the very somber reality that those who lack the basic tenants to form a coherent or cogent thought are also accorded the same rights.”

Madison knew this all too well. There are profound contradictions in any free society that, if not dealt with, will inevitably bring an end to the very freedoms it claims to cherish. The desire of the mob is not merely to give voice to its viewpoints; it is ultimately to dominate the debate and silence any and all critics of its ideology. The 51-49 rule applies. Representative democracy says all viewpoints are relevant and cherished; but factions care little if any about that. All that is important to them is their opinion, and their rage.

Last year’s August Town Halls were trumpeted by the Right as an exercise in free speech and the right to voice an opinion contrary to the political will of Washington bureaucrats. What it really was was a lynch mob lying in wait, sponsored by corporations with vested interests in defeating an agenda that was inimical to its bottom line. The puppets in the charade were the multitudes who were duped into believing in a cause that was fraudulent before it ever got off the ground in the first place.

But then hasn’t that been the lesson of history? Before there was a Nuremberg Rally there first had to be the seeds of opportunity, which were born in the underlying unrest and instability of the German economy. It was then pollinated by a lie, in the case of the Nazis a vicious lie that all the problems in the country were caused by the Jews. The rest, as they say, was the result of cashing in on the fear and ignorance of the people.

Look and listen carefully to the rhetoric coming out of the far Right in this country. Tell me if you don’t see and hear a resemblance to what happened in Germany. An underlying unrest has many Americans worried about their future, which allows the tenants of hate to fill their minds with thoughts of government takeover and out-of-control spending. Throw in some images of grandma being killed at the behest of a death panel and you’ve got the makings of a “grassroots” movement that, sans the silly arm bands, acts just like its predecessors did eight decades ago. Not all causes are righteous and just; some are just outright malignant and vile. Fear often motivates otherwise rational human beings to do irrational things.

We live in very precarious times. Civil thought is fast yielding to insanity. Thoughtful and probative thinkers are being ignored for the rule of the mob, and a chance for true debate is being drowned out by shouts of socialism.  The Israelites are wondering in the desert and their mood is growing decidedly ugly and unabashedly unrepentant. The fear mongers are drooling with anticipation at the chaos that they have caused and are now capitalizing on. Like in that ancient Garden so long ago, the serpent lies in wait for the chance to strike at the heels of the gullible. Egypt beckons and a nation lines up for one last look.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day

Each year we celebrate our nation's independence day, and each year, it seems, we lose the meaning of what this day actually stands for.  In between our parades and our barbecues and our firework displays, we proudly and, yes, arrogantly blow our horn to let the world know just how special and unique we are.

Well, I was looking for just the right sort of words to commemorate this July 4th, and I found them.  Ironically, they come from a blog I wrote two years ago. Looking back over it, I found it quire apropos.  The title speaks for itself.

WHAT A REAL PATRIOT IS!

A real patriot isn't someone who just mindlessly waves a flag and puts his hand over his heart when reciting the pledge of allegiance.

A real patriot isn't someone who says he stands for freedom, yet challenges other peoples rights to expression when they respectfully disagree.

A real patriot doesn't smear the integrity of other ethnic groups simply because they are different or in the minority.

A real patriot doesn't challenge someone's courage or loyalty simply because the thought of occupying another nation is abhorrent to their beliefs and values.

And finally a real patriot isn't someone who for one day claims to love his country, yet the rest of the year does everything possible to embarrass it.

No, a real patriot would be the exact opposite of the above and on this Independence Day, let's celebrate the ideals of such individuals. They are not fictional; they were our founding fathers, and their spirit lives on not just on July 4th, but on every day of the year.

While you're hoisting down a brew or eating a hot dog, remember their sacrifice today and try always to remember that real patriots don't just love their country they challenge it!