Monday, September 27, 2010

What’s Good for the Goose…

The latest political attack ad by Democratic Florida Congressman Alan Grayson is so over the top that even his most ardent supporters are calling him out on it. No matter how out of step with mainstream America your opponent might be, comparing him to the Taliban is not only inappropriate, it’s factually inaccurate. Daniel Webster is certainly not an enemy of the United States, and Grayson knows it. Worse, the ad seems to have boomeranged on him and has made Webster look good. If Grayson wants to run an ad that hits home and can actually win him some votes, he should run on his record, which is impressive. In deed, despite his many politically incorrect moments – the Republicans want you to die quick remark tops the list – Grayson has been one of the few fearless warriors of the Democratic Party, unabashedly proud of his progressivism. If only the President and the bulk of the Party could be this proud and unashamed they might not be on the verge of getting their asses handed to them this fall.

But what I find somewhat amusing and ironic in all this is how bent out of shape many conservatives are getting over the ad. Again, just so we’re clear, Grayson was wrong to run it, but for conservatives to squawk over Grayson’s inflammatory and juvenile brain fart is akin to (you’ll pardon the pun) the teapot calling the kettle black.

It was the Republicans, you will recall, who all last summer had absolutely no problem consistently using the completely inaccurate and inflammatory term “death panel” every chance they could when “discussing” healthcare reform. And the Tea Party – that would be the more unabridged version of the GOP that is looking to take back America – has virtually moved into the bunkers (er, studios) at Fox News and gone on an all out, endless rant against every Democrat and moderate Republican out there, calling them every name in the book from socialist to fascist and some far worse. For the better part of two years, the entire GOP, it seems, threw everything (including the proverbial kitchen sink) at the President – complete with Hitler moustaches and birther loonies for good measure – virtually all of it wrong and racist. It seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy for anyone on the Right to suddenly become indignant over the same tactics being employed on one of their own, no matter how egregious the malfeasance.

Put up or shut up, I say. If you don’t want mud thrown at you, then don’t stoop to pick it up yourself in the first place. But then, who am I kidding? In this day and age, if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that gutter politics, more often than not, works, and taking the high road has become as fashionable as an Edsel in 1961.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lemon Pledge

The Four Tops sang it best. “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.” But give credit to the GOP; they sure came close. The “song” was the recent “Pledge to America” that House Republicans unveiled in a Virginia hardware store yesterday; the “you’ve” (as in you) represents the power that they lost when America got tired of their rhetoric and kicked them out of the mansion in ’06. And now they’re back pleading for another chance, hoping the public doesn’t figure out how tired the song really has become.

Look closely at this “pledge” and it reads almost exactly like the “Contract with America” back in 1994, but with one obvious exception: that of repealing Obama's healthcare law. They didn't have to do that to Clinton's healthcare reform bill in '94.  It was already dead before they took control. 

Back then Republicans pledged to cut spending, reduce taxes, restore family values, enact tort reform, support the military, etc, etc, etc. How’d that work out? Not very good, I’m afraid. Spending wasn’t cut, at least not at the levels called for in the Contract; taxes stayed right where Clinton had placed them – which, as it turns out, was the best thing that happened to the country since the ‘60s; there was no tort reform; and that thing about restoring family values turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. About the only promise Republicans kept – along with their Democratic conspirators – was to support and increase military spending. Seems you can never be beholden to enough military contractors, regardless of party affiliation.

But that was different. Back then, Republicans lost their way and got corrupted by the power and glamour of Washington. It’ll be different this time; you’ll see. As Yogi Berra might say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Jon Stewart went a bit farther, calling it the “same sh*t we’ve heard before.” He then went on to play a Jon Boehner clip of him saying, “We are not going to be any different than what we’ve been.” To which Stewart replied, “I believe that is a promise you can keep.”

Maybe from here on in, Democrats should just shut up and let the Republicans talk. The GOP is doing a much better job increasing Democratic prospects than anything they could ever think of. Really, how many times do you have to hoist the same old tattered flag up the flag pole before you stop saluting it? If you’re the Republican Party, I guess, one more time.

The real question though is how will this play, not to the Republican base, which has proven time and again that it has no mind of its own, but to independents? I assume they are still the key to this November’s election hopes for the GOP. And with prospects looking good for them, what better way to grease their skids to victory by unfurling a pledge to restore America?

Except this isn’t a pledge. It’s a lemon pledge from a tired, old, worn-out party that still can’t accept the fact that Ronald Reagan is dead, along with the myth that supply-side economics works, and that everything they’re proposing to do has either been tried and failed or ignored because of a lack of political will. While Democrats lean back on their heals looking for a spine, Republicans peddle a false nostalgia and prey on the fears and anxieties of the electorate, leading many to wonder whether anyone is fit to lead.

Mark Twain was right. This is the best government money can buy. And we deserve every nickel’s worth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Never Judge a Book By Its Colbert.

How bad is the mainstream media in this country? So bad, that this October 30th two “fake news” anchors are going to host a rally in Washington: one to restore sanity, the other to keep fear alive. And here’s the rub, neither man knows a thing about the news business, but both men, however, know a thing or two about comedy.

To say that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been doing yeoman’s work for the better part of the last two years dicing and slicing their way through the hot topics of the day would be an understatement. Truth be told in one hour both men are far more likely to discuss and deal with critical issues in a relevant and meaningful way than all the “news” networks combined do in one day, to the great shame of CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC. For obvious reasons I chose to exclude Fox News. Two “fake news” shows are enough.

True both men employ comedy, which when used effectively, does give them a leg up, even over someone with a name like Wolf Blitzer. But it’s much more than comedy. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the going’s on in the country over the last two years no doubt is aware that tensions are high and nerves are raw. Everywhere you turn it seems there is some correspondent saying how bad things are. Lunatics take to the streets and rally to take back the country that was “stolen” from them, demigods rile up the masses to fever pitch and most of the news media rides the wave, capitalizing on the ratings it gets by turning up the heat itself. If you’re not Hitler, you’re Stalin. That is when you’re not a Muslim extremist looking to spread Sharia law all over the Constitution.

Someone had to step in. Enter Jon Stewart, stage left. Stewart has long been a thorn in the side of extremists in this country, calling them out on his half-hour program, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He has hosted and ripped apart the likes of Betsy McCaughey (lying about death panels), Jim Cramer (collusion with swap defaults), and Bill Kristol (well for just being stupid I guess). And throughout it all he has had the courage to ask the tough questions other journalists can only dream about asking, and then follow them up with relentless abandon until something approaching the truth is gotten at. Somewhere in heaven Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite are rolling around in their graves hysterically at the irony of it all. “Jon Stewart,” I wrote in a blog last year, “for better or worse, has now become the guardian of journalistic integrity.”

Not to be outdone, his counterpart, Stephen Colbert – enter stage right, please – has done his best to spread his own brand of “truthiness” on his show, “The Colbert Report.” The pseudo conservative / satirist extraordinaire has been pulling the leg of the Right for years. His recent interview with Laura Ingraham is the stuff of legend. Talk about walking into the O.K. Corral. While Stewart plays it straight, Colbert opts for a far more sardonic, playful banter. His “Word” segment has lampooned just about every serious topic and celebrity under the sun, and all while Colbert plays the cool, poker-faced customer. Whereas with Stewart you see it coming a mile away, with Colbert you’re left wondering who got the license plate of that truck.

It’s the one-two punch to end all one-two punches, and now this one-two punch is set to descend on the Mall in Washington D.C. less than a week before the mid-terms. Jon Stewart’s rally to restore sanity is the perfect antidote to Stephen Colbert’s rally to keep fear alive. While Stewart tries to “take it down a notch,” Colbert will “notch it up a skotch.” You could say both men are the opposite sides of the same coin, but then you’d be missing the point. They are brilliant comics who have carved out a niche for themselves out of the vacuum of incompetence that currently passes for broadcast journalism these days.

But, the real story here is the millions of viewers who tune in each night to watch this dynamic duo. How many of them will actually show up October 30th and what effect, if any, will this “rally” have on the November elections? No one knows for sure. This much I do know: with all the vitriol that has dominated the national discourse these last two years, one can only hope that some sanity, along with a reasonably healthy dose of fear, prevails.

As for my wife and I, if the opportunity presents itself, we plan on being there. It will be nice to get away from it all – the insanity I mean – and kick back and have a reasonably fun-filled day with some reasonably sane folks who actually have a life and who don’t look like refugees from a Halloween costume party.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Three and Out.

Even when presented with poll numbers that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the majority of Americans favor letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich, Democrats are dropping back to punt.

Figures.

To coin a popular phrase, these guys couldn’t get lucky in a bordello. Apparently, the new “strategy” is to sit back and wait for the GOP to bring up a vote on extending the tax cuts for every one – which will fail – and then pound their chests and say, “See, all they – the Republicans – care about is the rich.” The problem is that after the Republican bill goes down to defeat, the Democrats will still have to get their own bill out onto the floor which will extend the cuts for every one under $250,000, or risk letting all of them go up in smoke. How much you wanna bet that Republicans will block that bill from ever getting a vote? The ranch, I say.

Brilliant.

Can you spell Trap? Because that’s what this is, and the Democrats are falling right into it. Rather than take the initiative and define who they are and what they stand for, Democrats are, once more, playing politics and forcing the opposition to make its move first, which is just what the GOP is secretly hoping for.

Just like they’ve done now for almost two years, Republicans are going to redefine a narrative, turn a negative into a positive, and ram it down their opponents’ throat. They have already made “no” a household word, now they are going to sell the country the greatest lie of all: that rich people are an endangered species who desperately need still more money just to survive. And the Democrats are going to sit back and watch it happen, just like they’ve done for almost two years.

How many times can a political party snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and still be allowed to call itself a political party? Can November get here fast enough?

For Democrats, Is It 1994 or 2004?

Seems all you keep hearing about these days, mainly from Republicans, is how things are shaping up just like they did in 1994, when the Democrats lost both the House and Senate. But, the more I think about it, the year that comes to mind most is not 1994, but 2004. If you remember, the war in Iraq was starting to go bad, the economy, while not nearly as bad as this one, wasn’t exactly booming, and Bush’s popularity, along with quite a few Republican Congressmen and Senators, was taking a hit. It’s sometimes difficult to remember but John Kerry held a slim lead over President Bush entering into the stretch drive. That was when Bush and the Republicans employed a time-honored tradition in politics: when in doubt, demonize the other guy. The swiftboat ads started popping up all over the place, Kerry was slow to respond, and a slim lead vanished like the proverbial Titanic.

Now, to be sure, things aren’t quite the same as they were six years ago. The economy is in much worse shape, voters are frustrated, and the opposition has been aided and abetted by its own 24/7 cable “news” channel and much of the A.M. dial. And yet, even with all that is against them, the answer for Democrats lies not in a distant election, as their opponents would have them believe, but in a much more recent one.

It is too late to make the case for incumbents. Virtually every poll indicates a deep mistrust and, in some cases, anger, toward the powers that be, whether they be Democrat or (as Mike Castle learned the hard way) Republican. The trouble for Democrats is that there are more of them than there are Republicans. So with little time to rewrite a positive narrative, there is only one thing left that can keep the ship from sinking. Democrats are going to have to take a page out of the Republican playbook and go swift boating this fall.

It isn’t going to be pretty, and I confess I am somewhat skeptical, not only of the outcome, but of the moral implications of employing such tactics, but Democrats have run out of options. Republicans have rewritten a narrative that, no matter how farcical it might be, has struck a chord with the American people. For the Democrats to stand there and continue to deny each and every one of the bogus charges that have been thrown at them is political suicide. The time for writing their own narrative is over. You don’t get to play the last five minutes of a football game down by three touchdowns and hope to win by sticking to your original game plan. If you haven’t figured out by now that you’re getting your brains kicked in then you deserve to lose the game any way.

President Obama tried yet again in a CNBC town hall meeting to make his case that each and every one of his initiatives and policies have mitigated the effects of the recession; with respect to healthcare, will reduce costs to the average citizen; and over time, by eliminating the Bush tax cuts, will reduce the deficit. It is too little, too late. The time for doing that was last year when it could’ve made a difference.

It matters not that virtually every leading economist has concluded that the stimulus saved millions of jobs that the private sector was ill prepared to accommodate; or that the healthcare law will provide affordable healthcare for millions who otherwise would be denied access and, at the same time, eliminate pre-existing clauses that insurance companies use to deny patients' otherwise expensive treatments; or that Cap and Trade will eventually put the U.S. on the road towards being a greener, less oil-dependent nation, or that restoring the tax rate to where it was during the Clinton years will actually reduce the deficit without adversely affecting the economy. None of that matters now. The damage has been done. Ostensibly what Obama and the Democrats did was allow a cancer to metastasize within the body politic. It has now become inoperable.

There is only one treatment left for them to try. When you can’t use a scalpel, try radiation. The nuclear option, while detestable, is the only one left on the table that has a shot at saving the patient from certain death, and if Democrats can get over their hyper-sensitivity to gutter politics – something their opponents never seem all that concerned about – they just might pull this one out.

Think about it. If this were any other year – if we weren’t in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression – would the likes of a Sharon Angle, Marco Rubio or Christine O’Donnell even be in a position to contend for, much less win, a seat in Congress? You needn’t reply; we all know the answer. Grassroots politics and Astroturf rallies notwithstanding, the simple truth is that it took the seed of discontent to fertilize this crop, and now it stands just shy of six weeks from delivering a harvest that will reek untold carnage upon the heartland. Only a policy of slash and burn can prevent the inevitable.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. It worked for Bush in ’04 and, yes, it can work for Obama and the Democrats in 2010. And it’ll be a lot easier this time around. Back in ’04, the GOP had to come up with fraudulent claims to stain Kerry’s reputation. All the Democrats need do is keep the video tape rolling on these clowns. Their own words will do for Obama what all the teleprompters and feel-good rallies haven’t been able to do for him. And that, hopefully, will be to show the country just how completely out of step these candidates are with the majority of Americans. Just think of it, a swiftboat campaign that doesn’t have to lie, or even distort the truth a little.

Time is running out; it’s now or never. It’s time for Democrats to try something bold and unique. The fall needn’t be the disaster it is shaping up to be, if they have the courage to do what is necessary. I’ll even provide the first campaign slogan:

“You think you’re pissed now…?!”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Maybe We Were Wrong All Along.

I’m beginning to reconsider some of my previous comments about the growing malignancy gripping the GOP and I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, Glenn Greenwald is onto something when he says the Tea Party movement is a mirror image of the Republican Party.

Could it be that some of us, in our zeal to somehow fit all of this recent insanity into a nice, neat little package complete with a bow – and in the process paint the Republicans as victims of a coup d'état by escaped lunatics from a mental ward – have committed the ultimate faux pas in giving way too much credit where credit isn’t due? Hmm. Pardon me, but I’m beginning to smell a rat, and the sad thing is, I may have inadvertently brought the cheese.

I know, I know, wasn’t William F. Buckley a well-educated, thoughtful man who made passionate arguments and who valued reasoning over rhetoric? Well, that depends on which Buckley you were likely to be watching: the intellectually magnetic personality who graced the “Firing Line” studio or the xenophobic, misogynistic ignoramus who once called Gore Vidal a fag on network television, and who, long before Rand Paul burst onto the political landscape and stuck his foot in his mouth, criticized the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act as a blow against state’s rights.

And wasn’t Ronald Reagan ten times the president George Bush ever was, or, heaven forbid, Sarah Palin ever would be? Wasn’t conservatism, long, long ago, far more lucid and compassionate in its applications? And didn’t it embrace a more transparent and populist narrative than the one we see at so many Tea Party rallies? Wouldn’t the likes of a Glenn Beck be shunned in the vaunted halls of the Grand Old Party say even fifteen years ago? And wouldn’t Newt Gingrich be far more dignified and remotely human than the entity that currently occupies his body? Well, the answer is yes and no.

It’s yes, because, as of late, the current lather that has been whipped up into frenetic heights by groups such as Freedom Works and the Koch Brothers and is consuming not only the Republican Party, but most of the political landscape is something unique in the country’s history. No Republican, conservative or moderate, would’ve been caught dead hanging out with the likes of some of these unsavory characters. They might’ve courted their votes, but they certainly would never have consorted with them. Even Reagan, who got most of the evangelical vote in both 1980 and ‘84, always managed to keep a healthy distance between himself and the likes of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

It’s no, because Greenwald is right. Deep down, this is the true heart of the conservative movement in America, only now the mute button is off. We are finally able to see clearly who and what has been driving the Republican bus for quite some time now. Truth is there has never been any such thing as compassionate conservatism. The very term is an oxymoron. The Tea Party in every way imaginable IS the voice of the GOP, and, while it may be a recent phenomenon, built up by special interests who probably didn’t know what they were getting into when they created it, it embodies every single tenant of its parental overlords. To quote Greenwald,

“There are some diverse, heterodox factions which compose a small, inconsequential minority of it (various libertarian, independent, and Reagan Democrat types), but it is dominated -- in terms of leadership, ideology, and the vast majority of adherents -- by the same set of beliefs which have long shaped the American Right: Reagan-era domestic policies, blinding American exceptionalism and nativism, fetishizing American wars, total disregard for civil liberties, social and religious conservatism, hatred of the minority-Enemy du Jour (currently: Muslims), allegiance to self-interested demagogic leaders, hidden exploitation by corporatist masters, and divisive cultural tribalism. Other than the fact that (1) it is driven (at least in part) by genuine citizen passion and engagement, and (2) represents a justifiable rebellion against the Washington and GOP establishments, I see little good in it and much potential for bad. To me, it's little more than the same extremely discredited faction which drove the country into the ground for the last decade, merely re-branded under a new name.”

But, you know what they say about a rose by any other name? Yep, I think old Glenn has hit this one out of the ball park. What the Tea Party movement has really done is removed the shades and let the light of day into the board rooms of the powers that be. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it has turned on its creator and now stands poised to kick in the door of the castle and take its seat on the political throne. But, at heart, there is no difference between the underling and the master, but with one exception: the underling is now calling the shots. Yes, the lunatics have in deed taken over the asylum; and they have become the guards.

And that’s why people like Karl Rove are worried. Not because they and others like them are somewhat more refined, compassionate, and, yes, educated than their boisterous, if ill-mannered, huddled masses. They’re worried because for the first time ever the American public is getting a bird’s eye view of the inner workings of a party that may be old, but is hardly grand. For what the Tea Party has inadvertently done is let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. What used to pass for deliberate obfuscation of long-standing agendas that go all the way back to the turn of the last century, has now become as obvious as a hang nail on a pitcher’s throwing hand. This is no longer your daddy’s GOP, and dear old dad is sweating like a pig on a poke.

Pick your poison. It is now out there for all to see, and with no one to censor them or even filter their message, the very real danger for the Republican Party, regardless of what happens this November, is that moderates and independents will ultimately be turned off by what they see and hear. As of now, they are capitalizing on the fear, frustration and uncertainty of an electorate that is about as fragile as a china plate being hung by a single wire. But, this is also an electorate that’s about as fickle as a food addict on weight watchers. In other words, nothing is set in stone. And with polls showing registered voters swinging back and forth between parties, every undisciplined utterance has the potential for disaster for Republican hopes of taking back Congress.

No wonder even Glenn Beck is calling on his minions to tone it down a notch and put the Halloween costumes away. The recent Republican primary in Delaware, in which Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell beat out moderate Republican Michael Castle, has, in all likelihood snatched defeat from the seeming jaws of victory as far as the Senate goes. O’Donnell has about as much chance of winning that seat as I do sprouting wings and flying myself to San Francisco.

And in Nevada, Sharon Angel is doing her darnedest to make Harry Reid look downright respectable. It’s the same almost everywhere a Tea Party candidate is running against an incumbent Democrat. Polls show two rather revealing trends that are unmistakable and undeniable: 1. People are pissed at the party in power and are leaning towards making a change; and 2. When they get a good look at the Republican candidate they start to squirm a bit at the prospect of what might happen should the GOP actually regain control. Depending on which trend wins out will determine the balance of political power in this country for at least the next two years.

That's it in a nutshell. The next six weeks will basically boil down to perception more than anything else. The sixty-four thousand dollar question yet to be answered is whether this turkey called the Tea Party can be dressed up and made to look legitimate in time to avoid getting roasted for dinner. The fears and anxiety have been stoked by conservative pundits. The Limbaughs and the Hannitys have had their say ad infinitum, Glenn Beck has held his rally to restore America, and now it all comes down to that intangible of intangibles. Karl Rove is right to be worried. A situation like this comes along once every seventy or so years. It would be a damn shame, wouldn’t it, if something as seemingly innocuous as unexpected intellectual honesty and unwelcomed transparency were to crash the party and spoil all the fun.

Tea Party poopers!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Denial: It’s Not Just a River in Egypt

The President visits a middle-class neighborhood in Ohio and boldly pronounces, “We’re on the right track.” Nearby, Democratic Governor Ted Strickland is doing his best to put a happy face on the dire situation as he attempts to convince a reporter that things aren’t that bad. “I don’t believe this is going to be a terrible year for Democrats. The verdict has not been reached.” One wonders whom he is trying to convince: the reporter or himself.

The unemployment rate in Ohio is 10.3 percent, not quite as high as other parts of the country, but, given the strategic importance of the state in 2008, and the likelihood it will play a crucial role in 2012, a dangerously high number nonetheless. Worse for Democrats, that number is higher in the northern part of the state, where they have traditionally enjoyed an edge among voters. Strickland and Obama are entitled to their opinions, but from the vantage point of virtually every political pundit, not to mention the vast majority of Ohioans, who are growing increasingly frustrated, both appear to be in a state of denial.

Yes, it’s true that all is not lost. And yes, there is still time to turn things around and stop the runaway freight train that is headed straight for them this November. But to do that, the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party as a whole must snap out of their private little Idaho and admit that their strategy isn’t working. Touring the country and saying with a straight face that everything is just peachy-keen when millions are suffering makes about as much sense as telling a cancer patient to light up a cigarette.

Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in The New York Times last week titled “This is not a Recovery” spoke to this point.

“The small sliver of truth in claims of continuing recovery is the fact that G.D.P. is still rising: we’re not in a classic recession, in which everything goes down. But so what?  The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead. Will the economy actually enter a double dip, with G.D.P. shrinking? Who cares? If unemployment rises for the rest of this year, which seems likely, it won’t matter whether the G.D.P. numbers are slightly positive or slightly negative. All of this is obvious. Yet policy makers are in denial.”

Yep, that just about nails it.

For well over a year and a half Krugman has been warning Democrats that this day was coming. He boldly predicted the stimulus was too small to be effective, and warned of a repeat of the Japanese lost decade. His critics decried him and called him out as over-reactionary. And yet here we stand less than two months before the midterms and those very same critics are in retreat, that is when they aren’t still in denial. Whether Democrats want to believe it or not, they are in for the fight of their lives, and they have no one else to blame but themselves. From Obama to Timothy Geithner to every Blue Dog in Congress. The very best minds within the Party have taken a mandate and turned it into a fire sale. Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, well done.

OK, so now what? Recriminations are useless. There isn’t going to be a second stimulus; not even the most optimistic liberal Democrat believes there is an ice cube’s chance in hell of passing one anyway. Options are limited. The Party of No has zero interest in allowing Democrats to pass any legislation that can even remotely ameliorate the malaise gripping the nation. And why should they? So far, standing on the sidelines and watching the building burn to the ground has proven quite beneficial to their immediate fortunes. Why screw things up and give the Dems a victory now?

No, the only chance Democrats have this Fall will come by way of coming clean. There are no happy faces, no bandaids big enough to patch the wound in the collective electorate. To coin a phrase, “They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!” So stop saying things are upbeat when they’re not, which only makes them madder and that much more likely to vote Republican.

It is time for a bold, but hardly new, approach. For starters, Obama and the Democrats can take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook and start a “I feel your pain” tour. Seriously, why not try a little empathy? Of all his political talents, none served Clinton better than his ability to relate to people's suffering and make it his own. It wouldn't hurt Obama to get a little misty-eyed and at least try to find a heart.  Intellect can only get you so far.  Confession is also good for the soul and to be honest Democrats have a lot to confess. It might actually improve their approval ratings among voters if they suddenly developed a sense of transparency, even if it is a little late in the game. Coming out and admitting mistakes were made and damage done isn’t the political suicide some might think it is; given the mood of the country, anything other than a mea culpa would only add insult to injury.

Secondly, they can take Frank Rich’s advice and stop blaming Bush for the recession and start warning the public of just how extreme many of the GOP / Tea Party candidates are this year. In deed given their stances, Bush, by comparison, was practically a liberal. From privatizing Social Security, to, in some instances, abolishing Medicare, to making the Bush tax cuts permanent, to the threat of a government shutdown should Republicans take back the Congress, Democrats can draw clear distinctions between them and the GOP that could begin to resonate with voters.  In some instances, they are starting to do that, and in others, the GOP is doing it for them. If Harry Reid manages to hold onto his Senate seat this November, he should send Sharon Angle a dozen flowers as a thank you. Seldom has anyone in politics thrown away such an opportunity as that accorded the Republican nominee.

Things are looking grim. While the Senate will most likely remain in Democratic control, the House is anybody’s guess. Each day that goes by, more and more voters join the ranks of the restless and the weary. As the unemployment rate grows, so too do Republican prospects. And yet Obama and the Democrats remain in Fantasy Land, mired in a flawed strategy and completely in denial about their situation.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Impossible Dream

Of all the cruel and painful realities that average Americans grapple with daily and still refuse to accept, none perhaps has been more damaging and heartbreaking to their hopes as the pursuit of that illusive and still impossible to reach American dream.

You here about it in songs like, “Only in America,” the classic Jay & the Americans ‘60s hit. It’s sung about in the immortal musical “West Side Story.” It’s as old as the Republic itself, and, even after all the evidence to the contrary, it remains an indelible force in our culture, right up there with mom and apple pie and no place like home.

The American dream – the belief that you can be anything you want and the sky’s the limit – has been both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to the nation. On the one hand, it has provided us with a plethora of individual accomplishments from men and women, in all walks of life, who dared to think big and who reached the pinnacle of success in their respective fields; on the other it has shamelessly saddled countless millions with a bankrupt belief system that often chews up and spits out its victims. For the vast majority of these lost souls the pursuit of the American dream cost them everything they had. In the end they had been duped into believing in the ultimate con job: that they too could ascend to the top of Mount Olympus. As the old saying goes, to the victor go the spoils, and to every one else, the scraps.

In the fictional TV series The West Wing, President Jed Bartlett is talking to his Chief of Staff about the upcoming election. His opponent has branded him as someone who is looking to kill the entrepreneur spirit of America by over taxing it. “That’s the problem with the American dream,” Bartlett says. “It makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.”

Ah, to be rich. That is the ultimate American dream that for so many people has turned into a nightmare. For the sad truth is that the American dream has been born on the backs of those who toiled in relative obscurity and poverty. Without their almost martyr-like sacrifice, most of our history would be considerably different. And while a few drank from the waters of prosperity, the vast majority struggled to keep their heads above water. This is not some Marxian Utopian theory run amuck; it is a sad reminder of just how powerful and pervasive some myths can get.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wealth became so concentrated in this country that it took government intersession to finally break the hold the moneyed interests had and bring about at least a semblance of income redistribution within the economy. And while it finally took the Great Depression of the 1930s to put a dent in that dream and bring about the reforms and social programs needed for a thriving middle class, it wasn’t until after the second World War that real change began to seep into the fabric of American society.

The prosperity of the 1950s – even if it was owed in large part to a Europe and Asia that had been bombed back into the middle ages in World War II – and the Great Society of the 1960s proved that a thriving middle class could coexist alongside the elites. Wealth did not flee the country, as expected; in deed with a burgeoning middle class, and even with what would now be considered onerous income tax brackets for the top percentile, the upper class actually enjoyed a measure of prosperity unheard of any where else in the world. While they did not keep most of their income – in deed the top tax bracket peaked in 1963 at 91% - the irony was that they earned more money than at any time since the turn of the century. Keynesian economics had triumphed. The revolution had been fought and won. But success was short lived.

The economic malaise of the 1970s is perhaps the most misunderstood era of our history. There were many factors involved. One was due to the inevitable sag that occurs when a country shifts from a war economy to a more consumer-based one. There had been a similar downturn between 1946 through 1948 after the War. But this was far worse. Vietnam bled the nation, and not just in the number of soldiers killed or wounded. It was the first war America had fought and lost. The humiliation of that defeat devastated the nation. The energy crisis that gripped many sectors of the economy throughout the latter part of the decade led to sky-rocketing oil and gas prices that drove up the costs of just about everything associated with it. Massive inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis led to a growing unrest and frustration within the electorate. Between the political scandals of Nixon and the seeming incompetence of Carter, America turned to that which it had always felt most comfortable with: its past.

The 1980s saw a return of the American dream mythos with a vengeance. Huge tax breaks for the rich – disguised as incentives to get a sluggish economy jump-started – led to massive deficits in the budget and a redistribution of wealth upward. The gap between the poor and the rich, which had narrowed over the last thirty years, began to widen again. Cowboy capitalism had ridden into town on a white horse. Ronald Reagan became the new folk hero for the power elite. He sold America on the one thing that had always been drummed into its collective conscience since its early days: that you were what you made of yourself; that there were no limits to what you could achieve; that the only thing standing in your way was your own fear, ineptitude, and, of course, the government.

Ah, yes, the government. The antichrist. When Reagan said that government wasn’t the solution to our problems, it WAS the problem, he was ostensibly declaring war on the Great Society of Kennedy and Johnson. Within a few short years, most of the gains that labor and the middle class had made in the ‘50s and ‘60s were virtually wiped out in a sea of deregulation and new tax “incentives.” What FDR had begun in the ‘30s, Regan vowed to end in the ‘80s.

But while Reagan failed to undo all the reforms and improvements during his eight years in office, the damage he had done was considerable, and, sadly, irreversible. Both George H.W. Bush, and even Bill Clinton continued to oversee the redistribution of wealth upward. The gap between the rich and poor grew, though thanks in some small part to Clinton raising the top tax rate from 28% to 39.6%, it at least didn’t grow as fast as it had it the ‘80s.

Then came the finally indignity. George W. Bush was elected in 2000 and within a year brought down the top tax rate to 35%. The tax cuts, again widely heralded by the Right as being stimulative to the economy, proved to be nothing more than red herrings. What was once a $400 billion surplus quickly evaporated and grew to a record deficit. The claim that tax cuts spur business investment, hence more receipts into the treasury, was only a half-truth. While receipts did go up, the tax breaks themselves were never fully recouped. It would be like a business spending a dollar to get back 80 cents.

But more importantly, as in the ‘80s, the gap between the rich and poor widened still. The middle class was again literally being torn apart. To add insult to injury, Bush, like Reagan, began stripping away many of the safety net programs that had been in place. De-regulation of the banking industry, and an over-reliance on a false belief that the market was rational and could regulate itself – a long-held belief by many conservative, supply-side economists – finally came home to roost in 2008 when the housing bubble burst.

Now to be fair the seeds of this disaster were sowed by the Clinton Administration, which oversaw the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, one of the core tenants of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but the Bush Administration did nothing to thwart a catastrophe despite the warning signs that trouble was brewing on the horizon. Like most “believers” the administration’s stance was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. And, as is typical, the ensuing shipwreck brought America to its knees once again, and allowed for some honest reflection of who we were as a nation and how our beliefs had helped shaped our predicament.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was touted by most of us not as a victory for progressive values and causes, but as a referendum on conservatism. We welcomed him, but were cautiously optimistic as to what difference he could make in a country so steeped in a bankrupt folklore. We soon found out that far from being a transformative figure, he was an overly pragmatic, consensus-seeking politician, who too often compromised on core principles to achieve legislative victories, and who often got schooled by his political foes, much to the consternation of his base.

As for the electorate, sure it was angry, and that translated to huge political gains for Democrats, but the new Administration misread the cause of the angst. However disgusted the nation might’ve been with its past leaders’ conduct, it wasn’t quite ready to jettison its storied, if failed, past. Romanticism, no matter how skewed, is still an attractive and powerful aphrodisiac, and it is a hard habit to break.

To make matters worse, the Obama Administration badly underestimated the depths of the recession. Its stimulus bill, while stabilizing the economy and quite possibly keeping it from going over the cliff, was nonetheless insufficient in jumpstarting it. Unemployment continued to grow, and while GDP did grow slightly, it was not enough to offset job losses in the private sector. The opposition had a field day. Between the healthcare reform bill – which brought shouts of death panels at Astroturf town hall meetings last August – and the bank and GM bailouts – which brought charges of socialism – the public’s opinion of the Administration and Democrats in general began to turn decidedly ugly.

Slowly but surely the architects of the financial disaster began a campaign to retake control of the very ship they had driven into the iceberg. Between the incompetence of the Party in charge and the naiveté of a nation that had a short attention span and an even shorter fuse, the old narrative began to resurface again anew. It wasn’t the markets that were irrational and irresponsible that led to the greatest economic downturn in over seven decades; it was the government getting in the way that was the route of all our problems. The ghost of Reagan once more filled the ether; this time in the guise of the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin.

Conservative talk radio and Fox News helped stoke the fires of discontent to such heights that an entire nation that only months ago had welcomed with open arms the arrival of its first black president, was now ready to throw him and his entire party out of office. Somehow it was Obama’s recession, even though virtually every economist conceded it began under Bush; and despite the fact that the healthcare law had no public option – not to mention no single payer, which was what progressives wanted – it was somehow a government takeover of the health insurance industry. Facts were deliberately twisted and race baiting was employed by xenophobes intent on riling up pent up resentment within white America, which saw its influence as being threatened by an ever-increasing multiculturalism. “We want our country back” was code for a return to a simpler time when father knew best and certain people knew their place.

And the irony of all ironies is that the middle class – the class which is being manipulated and exploited by the far Right and Fox News – is the one most likely to suffer should Republicans retake the reigns of government. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire this year, and there is political pressure not only to extend them, but to make them permanent. Should that happen the gulf between rich and poor will split wide open and our children and grandchildren will be saddled with a deficit they will never be able to dig themselves out of.

We could be looking at the last generation of middle class that has any political influence left to wield. The Tea Party candidates, despite their rhetoric, are pandering to the sort of special interests that feed on fear and power grabs. Like most of the country, they too are being used as pawns for a greater purpose.

At stake is the future of the Republic. It is rare in deed that I find myself agreeing with anything Sean Hannity says, but when he recently stated on his program that the 2010 mid-terms “are the most important election in over a generation,” I couldn’t agree more. This election IS the most important election in over a generation.

The lyrics of that famous song from Man of La Mancha continue to call out to us.

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

Some myths die a slow, painful death, and some linger with us forever. The great American dream is one of those myths we may never rid ourselves of. Like an abscess tooth, it will continue to throb and beckon for us to pull it. But then, just as fast as it erupted, it will subside, along with the swelling, and we will forgive and forget; until next time, that is. And make no mistake about it; there will always be a next time. Just ask any dentist.