Monday, January 31, 2011

From Sputnik to Nitwit

Oh do I love my job. So much stupidity, so little time. Last Tuesday night the President gave his State of the Union address to the nation, followed by the Republican response, which was then followed by, a·hem, another Republican response. It was like having both Curly and Shemp in one evening. All that was missing was the pie fight.

If you actually had the strength to sit through the entire State of the Union address, and BOTH rebuttals, courtesy of CNN, the most trusted name in infomercials, you are in deed a brave soul. You also got a chance to see a major political party in disarray, and that party is the Republican Party. Want evidence? Just listen to John Boehner’s reply when asked if he had listened to Michele Bachmann’s SOTU response. “I had other obligations.” Yeah, like breathing.

I seldom feel any sense of empathy towards people with whom I am diametrically opposed on just about every front, but if I were Boehner, I’d keep a case Excedrin right next to my Kleenex. He’s going to be needing both. While the President was offering up a vision of hope and challenging America to realize its new Sputnik moment, Michele Bachmann was doing her best impersonation of a history student flunky who didn’t even know where the correct camera was, and apparently has no idea that the ’09 federal budget was submitted by George Bush and not Obama. And then there was that deer caught in the headlights look she always manages to give off. Maybe it was a good thing she wasn’t looking directly at the camera.

Seriously, barely a month into the “Reclaiming America by Mandate” era and the GOP can’t even coordinate a unified and cohesive response to a President who, on his worst day, still runs rings around them in the opinion polls. Imagine how much worse things could get once the electorate gets a gander at just how extreme many of these “public servants” actually are.

If I were Barack Obama I would continue to do just what I’ve been doing the last two months: be the adult in the room. I wouldn’t change a thing. I would continue to offer up a plan of attack on how to get the country moving forward, continue to reach across the aisle for consensus building, then sit back and watch the fruit loops contingent drag down the Republican Party. The last thing I would do is throw them a life preserver, especially when they seem so intent on drowning themselves.

Don’t worry about getting specific right now; that’ll come later. After all, that strategy didn’t seem to hurt Republicans any when they were bashing this President and Congressional Democrats for their wasteful spending. Now that the GOP has a share of the responsibility, it should be quite amusing to listen to them as they offer up real tangible cuts to the bloated budget they have had such a wonderful time critiquing the last two years. And, oh yes, I can’t wait to hear the response from the voters as House Republicans map out a strategy on how they are going to balance the budget without touching the third rails of politics: entitlements and defense spending. Yep, that should be some, how do you say, creative math.

Now the monkey wrench here could be progressives, who historically have a habit of looking a gift horse in the mouth and saying, “No thanks.” They should resist every urge to step in and “bail out” this mess. That doesn’t mean they should lie down and pretend they don’t have a voice, but it does mean they should pick their spots carefully. For instance, now would be a good time, given the recent opinion polls, to highlight the benefits of the healthcare law that the GOP seems hell-bent on repealing. I’d love to be a fly in the room when Republicans have to explain to seniors that the $250 rebate checks they received for costs in the “doughnut hole” will have to be paid back if the law is repealed; or that the millions of non-seniors who have pre-existing medical conditions could once more be precluded from insurance coverage just for getting sick. Put that in your pipe, Mr. Speaker, and smoke it.

And then there’s that little matter of the debt ceiling that is looming larger than life right over the horizon. When Tom Coburn, a supposedly “knowledgeable” and “responsible” Republican, goes on Meet the Press and says that failing to raise the ceiling would be “nothing compared with what's going to happen to us if we don't address the real issues facing our country,” you’re not just dealing with your garden variety form of irrationality, you’re dealing with reckless insanity. Democrats in general and Obama in particular must draw a distinction between dealing with the long-term consequences of the national debt and the immediate and dire consequences of defaulting on the debt ceiling. The former is like a cancer that threatens to consume the patient; the latter is a massive coronary that will strike down the patient in mid stride.

Put bluntly, defaulting on the national debt would be like playing Russian roulette with bullets in every chamber. To even hint that this game of chicken is appropriate given what’s at stake is to deny reality. Reasonable people can debate on how to best deal with the growing deficit. On the one hand there are those who insist that draconian cuts to the budget could lead to a double-dip recession, while others maintain that the price tag for a $14 trillion-dollar debt will inevitably cripple the U.S. economy far worse than any recession could. Both sides have fair points to make, and over the next few months a “spirited” debate will no doubt take place. What America cannot do is announce to the world that it is cutting up its credit cards and at the same time refusing to pay the money owed on them.

Yep, it’s a tough job being the adult in the room, especially with so many misfits, but then someone has to do it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Over and Out

By now you’ve all heard of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC. No doubt over the next few days all of us, myself included, will attempt to somehow piece together the who, what, where, why and how of it all. Did he quit? Was he forced out? Was it a mutual decision? If I had to guess, I would say it was all of the above.

For most of Olbermann’s, shall we say, tumultuous career at MSNBC, he was always walking the tightrope between the passionate zealot for reason and journalistic integrity and the over the top, sometimes, pompous ass his critics always portrayed him as. The special comment section of his Countdown program began with a scathing and thorough rebuking of Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. Olbermann lashed into the former Secretary of Defense for having the gall to question the patriotism and loyalty of people who questioned the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It was moments like that and others like them that endeared Olbermann to a Left that felt disenfranchised from the political discussion that was taking place in the country.

Progressives had few reasons to be optimistic throughout much of the early part of the first decade of the 21st century. The Bush Administration pretty much did whatever it wanted to do, aided and abetted by a mainstream press that at best was impotent and at worst was complicit in the deceit, as well as a growing right-wing slant spurred on by the rise of Fox News and A.M. talk radio. The failure of the Air America network was like rubbing salt in the wound. Olbermann’s voice at least made some of us feel a bit better about our lot.

But, there was that tightrope. For all the fire and brimstone he brought to the chair he occupied, there were moments that made you cringe and recoil, as if to say, “Is he losing his mind?” The Scott Brown tirade in 2009 was quite frankly embarrassing, and Jon Stewart’s lampooning of it on his Daily Show underscored what many on the Left had never wanted to come to grips with: that no matter how righteous your position might be, when you engage in the same kind of demagoguery and tactics your opponents use to slander their opponents, you have in essence become one with them.

And while some would argue that the good always outweighed the bad, the truth was the bad was beginning to get a little too much to bare. Last year Olbermann was suspended for making campaign contributions to political candidates, a clear violation of MSNBC policy. While I criticized the network’s decision in a letter I wrote to its president, Phil Griffin, noting that other network on-air personalities had committed similar transgressions, and even drawing a distinction with Fox News and their active endorsements of and financial contributions to Republican candidates, the simple truth was Keith got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. When he was reinstated, he apologized to the viewers, but not to the network, the first outward indication that all was not well in Countdown land.

Of course the problems, in all likelihood, ran much deeper than a mere out of control outburst or two or three, or an improper campaign contribution. As I also mentioned in my letter to Griffin, Olbermann had become for millions the face of progressive journalism. He was both “a beacon for us, as well as a bull's eye for conservative ire.” It was that bull’s eye that I fear may have brought this pimple to a head, for while Olbermann helped put MSNBC on the map and brought it to a solid second place in cable news – yes ahead of CNN – the simple truth is that the reputation the network was garnering was beginning to rub some people the wrong way. Despite the insistence by the Right that all of the mainstream media is biased toward the Left, the evidence is quite the contrary. Much, if not all of it, remains, if anything, about as apolitical – and boring – as you can get. The major news networks do all they can to refrain from being seen as taking sides, even to a fault. MSNBC was the exception. Its on-air personalities, led by Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, went out of their way to stir the pot, and that stirring caused waves along with the inevitable backlash. Whether deserved or not, MSNBC was viewed by many as the Left’s version of Fox News, and that just didn’t sit well with the suits at Rockefeller Center. What better way to mollify critics than to offer up the proverbial son of Abraham as a sacrifice?

While I don’t think that the Comcast acquisition was the trigger here, let’s just say that both sides knew the writing was on the wall. Keith wasn’t happy with either the way he was being treated, or the direction the network was heading, or both, and the network was looking for a way to move on, as it were. The New York Times has reported that both sides had been negotiating an amiable exit for two years. Who knows? What we do know is if it hadn’t been this Friday, it probably would’ve been the next one or perhaps one down the road a bit. In the end, Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC was inevitable given the volatility of the former and the concerns of the latter. In my own experience dealing with upper management, I have discovered one universal and undeniable truth: whenever there is a clash or philosophical disagreement between employee and employer, the employer, in the end, will always win out. The employee either accepts that truth or he moves on.

For my part, I am going to miss Olbermann. Despite the overdone antics, no one was better at holding the feet of the Right to the fire. His “Worst Persons” segment was the crown jewel of his program and was eagerly anticipated by many of us on the Left. While Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh were his favorite piñatas, he was equally merciless on just about anything or anyone he deemed contemptible. And while I would’ve liked him more if he had had a sense of humor or possessed even a modicum of humility, his caustic style was nonetheless effective. Love him, hate him, there was nobody on cable TV like him, and I suspect it will be quite some time before he will be replaced, if ever.

Wherever Olbermann lands – and I think it would be foolish to think he is gone for good – the legacy he has left behind will serve to remind his contemporaries that journalism needn’t be banal or devoid of passion to possess integrity, something the executives at CNN would do well to remember. In fact, wouldn’t it be ironic if Olbermann somehow ended up there. Overnight he would transform the perpetual Sominex substitute into at least something worth watching.

For now, we have youtube to keep us company and to reminisce about the good old days.

Good night and good luck.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Let Them Eat Tea Bags!

It is referred to as the Phony War: that period of time in World War II between the blitzkrieg on Poland in September, 1939 and the battle of France in May, 1940, when pretty much nothing happened, yet every one hunkered down for what they thought was going to be a battle royale. Of course when hostilities did finally commence the War proved to be the bloodiest in history, but those eight months also proved an age-old axiom that expectations often exceed reality.

Fast forward seventy years. The Democrats have just suffered a devastating rebuking at the ballot box and the Republicans, as a result, are about to take charge of the House of Representatives. All over the political landscape men and women who make it their jobs to make predictions about such things are bracing for an onslaught by the newly-empowered GOP that will humble the President and scatter the Democrats to the wind. It is Europe after the fall of Poland all over again.

But, like the aforementioned Phony War above, the onslaught never comes. The President throws a curve and strikes a deal with the enemy, taking the wind out of their sails and derailing what promised to be quite a showdown. It was as if the Red Coats and the Colonial Army had sat down to tea and crumpets a mile outside of Trenton. Heavens to Murgatroyd, Snagglepuss, now what are we going to do?

Well, not to worry. History always repeats itself, and like that Great War of generations ago, the real war is coming. On that you can count. Of course, the problem is that the combatants aren’t who you think they are. In deed they are the most unlikely of adversaries imaginable.

While most pundits think the next two years will witness an all-out blitzkrieg between Democrat and Republican for control of America, I’m guessing the real hostilities will come within the Republican Party itself. Which isn’t to suggest that London and Berlin aren’t going to launch their fair share of rockets red glare at one another. Far from it. But before this “war” is over, I’m betting the ranch that the Grand Old Party is in for one hell of a French Revolution, and I for one can’t wait. In deed I am absolutely giddy with delight at the expectations.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the last two months. Already the Tea Party is grumbling that the Republican Party – you know the same Republican Party that Tea Party candidates ran under during the last election – has sold them out in the tax cut deal with emperor Obama. And now Michele Bachmann is going to give the rebuttal to not only the President’s State of the Union address this Tuesday, but also to the Republican response to the same address. Dazed and confused yet? You should be. It’s one thing to have power go to your head; it’s quite another to have all the oxygen leave it.

While the cornucopia of candidates of the far-Right line up to see who is more bat-shit crazy, the rest of the good ship loony tunes vies to find a suitable candidate – anyone – that can present a legitimate challenge to Barack Obama in 2012. Good luck, I say. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and (just for laughs) Rudy Giuliani headline the list of wannabe presidents who are the best the Republicans have to offer. Can you say, “None of the above?”

Seriously, even with unemployment hovering just under ten percent, Obama beats all of these “candidates” handily, with only Romney giving him a run for his money. As Southwest Airlines would say, “You are now free to roll around the floor in hysterical laughter.” Not since the late 1980s has a major political party in this country been this far out on a ledge with no net. Ronald Reagan must be spinning around in his grave.

And with Obama expected to continue his march down the MOR Alley, look for his numbers to continue to improve among independents, while the Republicans’ numbers continue to plummet. Already he has a 53% approval rating – almost twice that of the Congress, both Democrat and Republican. Compared to Reagan and Clinton, who at this point in their presidencies were still substantially below 50%, Obama is practically revered. If he manages to deliver something substantial in his State of the Union – say a Clinton “The era of big government is over” moment – lookout below. Things could turn nasty in a hurry in GOP land, as finger pointing and infighting break out in full bloom.

Already battle lines are being drawn between establishment Republicans and the newbies who got elected last November. When no less a political hack as Karl Rove throws the likes of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell under the bus, you know things are getting dicey. It is well noted that Rove was livid that Sharon Angle won the Republican primary in Nevada and openly questioned the strategy and wisdom of the Tea Party movement in many of its Senate campaigns. The irony is that had the GOP listened to him, both Houses of Congress might well be under Republican control. Don’t think for a moment that Mitch McConnell isn’t seething over what happened.

The latest “vote” to repeal the healthcare law is an abject lesson in how not to learn from history. For almost two years all we heard from Republicans was how Democrats were “taking their eye off the ball” in their pursuit of healthcare reform. So naturally what’s the first thing the Republican-lead House decides to take up? You guessed it, healthcare repeal. No jobs bill, no tax incentives, nothing to help an ailing economy; just yet another example of how strident, partisan and foolish this party has become since it was kidnapped by the Tea Baggers. And this is just the first month of their reign. Imagine how much more entertainment awaits us in the months ahead.

Yes, the war is coming, all right. Better get your popcorn ready, boys and girls, this one’s going to be a beaut!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hate Sells!

Over the last couple of years I have been carefully studying why the Right seems so much more successful at getting its message through to the masses. I have concentrated primarily on a flawed delivery technique unique to progressives. I often refer to it as the John Kerry Syndrome. You know, take a sentence and turn it into a novel. But, while I'm sure that has played a major role, I'm thinking that maybe I have been missing the real culprit that was right under my nose all along.

Hate sells. And not just hate, but anything that is controversial, exciting, or potentially dangerous. There is a button that exists within all humans that gets pushed whenever the volume gets turned up a notch or two. Think back to when you were younger. Didn't you like your music - rock, new wave, disco, R&B, whatever - nice and loud? And when your parents told you to turn it down, didn’t you really want to turn it louder? Admit it, don't we still sometimes turn it up just to feel like we did when we were kids?

If the music connection doesn't do it for you, try this. How many times have we been stuck in traffic because the whole damn highway had to slow down to look at a fender bender? Regardless of the seriousness of the accident, people just can't resist looking at destruction. I don’t even want to get into burning buildings or plane crashes, but statistics don’t lie. Ratings on cable news channels always spike during times of tragedies. Bad news is always a money maker.

Disaster movies and murder mysteries almost always do better at the box office then their more cerebral counterparts. Want to know which news broadcast is rated number one? It ain't the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, that's for sure. You want excitement and trash talk, you tune into Fox.  Even if you aren't conservative, you're bound to hear something controversial and/or provocative.

Face it, Americans have an addiction to anything that elicits a visceral emotion out of them. We are subconsciously drawn to it like a moth is drawn to a flame. We drive fast, take chances we’re not supposed to take, and tend to prefer to live life on the edge or by the seat of our pants. And while that description may not fit every one out there, it fits enough of the country for me to conclude that we are in for the fight of our lives when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Just take a look at the blogosphere and you’ll get quite an education as to how much work we have to do. While we certainly hold our own when it comes to on-line blogging, what concerns me is how many people follow conservative sites vs. progressive sites. While this is far from a scientific study, it wouldn’t surprise me to find conservatives leading by a two or three to one ratio.  If my own blog is any indication, we are in deep doo doo.  While I appreciate the number of followers I do have, they don't begin to approach the numbers more conservative blogs enjoy.

And the comments that are posted on these blogs are indicative of a trend. Progressives don’t seem nearly as motivated or persistent with their posts as do conservatives. It’s as though once a liberal or progressive makes a point, he or she moves on as though the case has been made. Conservatives, on the other hand, consistently drive home the point ad nauseam as if stuck in an endless loop. You want to know why the Right had Obama and the Democrats for lunch during the healthcare debate last year? Relentless persistence, that’s why. Just read a few conservative blogs, or tune into Fox News, or, worse, AM talk radio if you don’t believe me. To quote Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And then it still ain't over. Conservatives can drive home a point all the way to Beijing and still not be satisfied. It’s like watching the movie “This is Spinal Tap.” The volume is always set to eleven.

So what, you say? Even if we buy your premise, what are you suggesting we do? Behave like them? What’s the point of being a progressive, if you have to act like a conservative? Point taken. I’m not much of a fan of following in the footsteps of those I know are reprehensible. But I am concerned that if we don’t pay enough attention and change some of our old habits – like thinking this fight will be won on sheer merit – we stand to lose not just a few battles, but the whole damn war.

Like it or not, we may have to profoundly alter how we approach the fight, and it is a fight, folks. The fight of our lives, in fact. This incessant preaching to the choir bit has got to go away. I’m a liberal, you’re a liberal, aren’t we smart? Well, if no one knows or, for that matter, cares, then I guess we weren’t that smart after all. Are people drawn to us? Are we exciting to listen to? and, more importantly, Do we have something relevant to say? The answers to all had better be yes or we’re done for.

Fitting how I am writing this piece just a few weeks before the Super Bowl. Just look back at the last 44 games that have been played and see how many Super Bowl runner- ups you can name. For instance did you know that Buffalo holds the record for appearing in the most consecutive Super Bowls – four – in NFL history? You didn’t? That’s probably because they lost all four, three in convincing fashion. History always remembers the winners and tends to disregard the losers.

I don’t want to say that progressive Democrats are the political equivalent of the Buffalo Bills, but then again I am a Giants’ fan. I’m used to being on the winning side and hate like hell being outdone and outplayed, especially when I know my team is better. The only question that remains unanswered is whether all of us – collectively – will hoist the Lombardi trophy together, or whether we will be content to be a footnote in the annals of history.

Whatever we decide we'd better do it quick.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why I Hate Sarah Palin

One of my harder, more interesting, and sometimes amusing jobs is reading, watching and listening to far-Right ideologues as they rant and rave about how their precious country has been stolen away from them, and how it is their mission in life to take it back. The seemingly endless assault of verbal diarrhea is something to behold. Theirs is a universe in which no one can be trusted, except of course those they approve of, and all the world is against them and hates what they stand for, which of course is liberty and freedom for all who are beholden to their values, naturally. By comparison psychiatric patients exhibit less paranoia in a year than this lot does in one day.

Case in point, a few months ago my blog was visited by a fellow blogger, an “admirer” as I remember sarcastically calling him, who just couldn’t resist trashing what was probably one of my more even handed op-ed pieces. My crime? While I was correct in dismissing socialism as having failed, I was wrong about unbridled laissez-faire capitalism failing since “it has never been tested.” Apparently my admirer has never heard of the 1800s. While I did my best to challenge him, he was not having any part of it. He eventually gave up and went back to what he does best: living in a vacuum.

From time to time, though, I visit his blog and, like tuning in to Hannity or Limbaugh, I swallow hard and try to soak up the toxins without choking on my phlegm. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Just last night, for instance, I clicked on a link he had posted to his site about our dear old friend, Sarah Palin. It was an op-ed piece from, titled: “Why the Left Hates Sarah Palin.”

Its author, Evan Sayet, went through the usual diatribe about a “conversation” he allegedly had with a woman who couldn’t stand Sarah Palin, yet when pressed by our folk hero, she couldn’t think of one specific Palin policy that was objectionable. The moral of the story? Democrats are “filled with hate and empty of facts.”

Don’t you love nice, neat little arguments, steeped in their own convoluted logic? A random conversation with a mindless twit who says she hates Sarah Palin, yet can’t come up one, single, “good” reason why. Obviously this person was typical of everybody out there on the Left who “hates” poor sister Sarah: mindless rantings unsubstantiated by facts. Obviously, it hasn’t occurred to Sayet that he has just described the bulk of his movement, but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie for now. Ain’t irony great? You betcha!

Well, in the spirit of actually engaging in an honest discussion, I would like to offer up an informed opinion on the matter and answer the question posed: Why the Left Hates Sarah Palin. Well, first off, I can’t and won’t speak for all of the Left – I’ll leave that to them – but I can certainly speak as to why I hate her and all she stands for, and, trust me, the reasons won’t be vague or unsubstantiated, nor resemble anything close to the completely inane reasons Sayet eventually comes up with in his deranged mind.

So without further ado…

She’s a fraud and a liar. She was “for” the bridge to nowhere before she was “against” it. Most of her “successes” that she continues to tout in her relatively short political life are completely glossed over by apologists who see her as a modern-day Ruth. Her resignation as governor of Alaska had absolutely nothing to do with “protecting” her family from the scrutiny of a national spotlight. The truth is had she stayed she would most certainly have faced the ramifications of ethics probes regarding her conduct as an elected official. As a private citizen, she has been free to criticize others – both Democrat and Republican – with impunity. She has been deliberately coy about whether or not she will run for president in 2012. Of course she will run; her ego will permit nothing less. With Sarah Palin, it’s always about her.

She is a hate-filled person. From the moment John McCain picked her as his running mate in the summer of ’08, she has run her mouth, not as the Christian she purports herself to be, but as someone who has a huge chip on her shoulder, and is completely devoid of the compassion and maturity leaders are required to have. Her “terrorist sympathizer” charges against Barack Obama during the campaign and her coining of the phrase “death panels” during the helthcare debates, revealed a person so consumed with rage as to suggest a pathological disorder. Her lame defense of her crosshairs / lock and load comments was so over the top that all but the most fervent of her supporters called her out on it. And still she is unabashedly unapologetic about her conduct.

Perhaps the most damnable charge against her is that she is not only ignorant of the most basic of facts, but completely contemptuous of learning anything that can improve her horizons. Of all the major players in the conservative movement, none have exhibited less desire to improve themselves than Palin. Worse, her antagonism against what she views as “elitism” and her love of the “Joey Sixpack” crowd, reveal a woman who seems to relish her intellectual mediocrity. Her interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson during the ’08 campaign not only showed her lack of preparedness for the job she was seeking, it displayed a staggering disregard for the office in general. The only thing worse than a Vice President Palin would be a President Palin.

But I think the biggest reason I hate Sarah Palin is for how she consistently and willingly drags the level of political discourse in this country through the mud.  Her history lesson about how the Founding Fathers meant for us to debate passionately - the dueling pistol comment - was deeply offensive to anyone with even a modicrum of understanding of what they stood for and what real debate should be about.  Yes, it's not about singing Cumbayá as we all join hands and become one.  But to intimate that just because Jefferson hated Adams that somehow justifies the level of rhetoric that she and her ilk have brought to this nation is beneath contempt.  Disagreeable people can still come together and be agreeable at least in part on principle.  But then Palin wouldn't know what that word means; it's not in her vocabulary.  For all her faults listed above, this one is her chief and most egregious of all. 

There you have it. The four biggest reasons I hate Sarah Palin and all she stands for. No, there are no policy issues mentioned here, nor do there have to be. She’s pro-life and pro guns, she’s for lower taxes and less government. So what? Name me a conservative who isn’t. The mistake that progressives make is that they keep going after her policies and stances. That’s the trap that conservatives love to set for them because it permits them to dodge the greatest issue of all: namely her character and intelligence. Attack the message, but leave the messenger alone. As Elton John once sang, “Don’t shoot me I’m only the piano player.”

Sarah Palin would like us to believe that she speaks for all hard-working, God-fearing conservative people when she spews her venom at the dreaded Left. She doesn’t, and rather than get into a senseless war of words that only serve to further her insular agenda, progressives must stay focused and expose who and what she is. There are many conservative leaders who bring many ideas into the arena of political debate, and many of them have contributed to our national discourse in a positive way. Sarah Palin is not one of them. She flatters herself when she even hints that she would be up to the task of being the leader of the free world. The last thing we should be doing is humoring her enlarged ego, especially when it is the only thing in her brain that seems to be growing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Moment in Tucson

For a moment – a fleeting one perhaps but a moment nonetheless – a nation took a time out from the business as usual vitriol and collectively mourned its wounded and slain. Wednesday night in Tucson the President spoke not just to the state of Arizona, but to all of America. His words were measured, to be sure, but for a country locked in a bitter struggle between right and left, they were the perfect tonic at the perfect time. Whether you are a fan of Barack Obama or not, give him this: when we needed him most, he did not disappoint. Like Bush after 9/11, Clinton after Oklahoma City, and Reagan after the Challenger explosion, Obama brought a nation together and allowed it to both grieve and heal. On this night, there were no Republicans, no Democrats, just Americans.

And like the adult in the room we always knew he was, Obama grabbed the mantle that circumstance had presented him and spoke not to our fears and divisiveness but to our hopes and similarities. He could’ve turned the moment into yet another opportunity to rub more salt into a gaping wound; instead, by seeking the high ground, he exposed the hearts of those for whom conciliatory reflection are foreign, and helped lead the way out of the darkness of despair. Compare the words of Obama with those of Sarah Palin, who obviously still has a lot to learn about timing.

Obama: “You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘when I looked for light, then came darkness.’ Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

“For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

“So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

“But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

And now Palin: “Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

“There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those ‘calm days’ when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world all discourse would be civil and all disagreements cordial. But our Founding Fathers knew they weren’t designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our Founders’ genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So, we must condemn violence if our Republic is to endure.

“As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, ‘We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.’ Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box — as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

“No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.”

Get the distinction?  It's as obvious as the nose on your face.  One was a leader intent on seeking answers and bringing healing to a wounded nation; the other was a charlatan desperately trying to justify her actions and completely devoid of any genuine sympathy or compassion.

Putting aside for the moment Palin’s obvious inappropriate use of a term that to any Jew is considered extremely offensive, even if you could somehow give the former half-term governor of Alaska the benefit of the doubt that she has unfairly become the poster woman for the Tucson shooting – and I for one do not – know this much: while her words and actions may not have been directly responsible for what happened, it’s clear that at least indirectly she must bare some responsibility for encouraging and contributing to the vitriol she extols as “an enduring strength.”

David Frum, a conservative who has been critical of the far Right, had the best take on Palin’s speech, calling it “petty, narcissistic, and ignorant. When you apply for a job, you should dress for the job you want,” he noted, “She dressed for the job she has.” But it isn’t merely that Frum thinks Palin did not come off as presidential– she came off even less presidential than she has in the past. “She’s mad– that showed. She’s madder than she is sad. She’s very wounded by what has been done to her,” he explained, a sentiment he found inappropriate in comparison to the gravity of the event she was discussing.

And it wasn’t only Palin who showed her true colors at the most inopportune moment. Sharon Angle – she of the Second Amendment remedy contingent – just couldn’t resist putting in her nickel’s worth of self pity. “Expanding the context of the attack to blame and to infringe upon the people's constitutional liberties is both dangerous and ignorant,” the Tea Party darling said. Lacking even a semblance of empathy for the true victims, Angle, Palin and her ilk have made this all about them and in doing so have confirmed our worst impressions about them.

The sad thing about all of this is that it took such a tragedy to expose these people and bring them out into the light of day for every one to look at.  The far-Right in this country has always fermented an atmosphere of fear and loathing to advance its agenda, while simultaneously peddling itself as the purveyor and protector of human rights and liberties. For them, this is about a crazed gunman who, all on his own, took the lives of six innocent people. Their fingerprints were never on the murder weapon. To even hint that there is a causation here represents an assault on the very Constitution they claim to cherish most. Their response over the last week has been predictable and typical.

But there is a real danger here that goes far deeper than any crazed lunatic’s maniacal blood lust, or fanatical political sect’s warped interpretation of Constitutional law. The real threat lies in how the mainstream media handles this going forward. For while it might be technically wrong to lay all of this at the feet of the social pariahs of the Right who foster the very drivel that we take for granted as somehow representing true conservative thought in this country, it would be equally wrong, in the name of trying to be (you’ll pardon the pun) fair and balanced, to dismiss it out of hand and pretend that it has no bearing whatsoever.

We have seen, all too often, the mainstream media literally cower during moments of national tragedies. Its conduct in the aftermath of 9/11 was inexcusable and aided and abetted the Bush Administration in its pursuit of an illegal war, that almost a decade later the nation still has not extricated itself from. Its unwitting complicity cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars and resulted in countless lives lost. The fear here is that once more, in an attempt to prove it does not possess a liberal bias, the mainstream media will abdicate its responsibilities and go along with whatever ruffles the fewest feathers. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people; hate-filled speech never incites violence; and, oh yes, let’s incarcerate a few more deranged souls in insane asylums. And while we’re at it, let’s all sing Cumbayá while Republicans and Democrats join hands and sit side by side at the State of the Union.

Rather than seize the moment and ask profound questions about our social discourse and the ease with which anyone can purchase a gun, we are making this about mental disorders and fake victims. Is the Second Amendment absolute? Or can reasonable people agree that the government can and should take steps to insure that certain weapons that have only one use – that of killing large numbers of people in one clip – be removed from the list of available weapons that can be purchased by gun owners? How many bullets does it take to kill Bambi for heaven’s sake? Why are we still pussyfooting around this issue? How many more innocent people have to be shot before we finally get it that assault weapons shouldn’t be allowed on the streets or sold anywhere in the country?

But, sadly, that probably won’t be the topic of discussion over the next few weeks. Instead what we’ll talk about is Sarah Palin’s self-aggrandizement, Jared Loughner’s personal demons, and, as always, we’ll never get to the heart of the matter. Professional journalists will dance around the real issues and, after a brief moment of “grieving” and “healing,” it will be business as usual. Partisan politics will once more rule our national discourse, talk radio will continue to apply itching powder to the unstable and insecure, and the next time tragedy strikes, the vast majority of us will shake our heads and ponder what happened and why didn’t anybody do something about it?

History is replete with tragedies that represent opportunities for true discovery that can lead to transformative solutions. All too often, however, we take the easy way out and push the pile of dust from one end of the rug to the other. But, sooner or later, we must deal with the dust or face the consequences of our slovenly ways. Right now, right here, opportunity knocks. It awaits our response.

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Soon Is Now?

Let’s call it for what it was, shall we. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday was tragic, but can anyone who has been paying attention to the vitriol that has gripped this nation’s political discourse over the last two years truly say it was unexpected? Frankly, given the level with which the volume was set, I am surprised that it took this long for the pimple to come to a head. Jared Loughner was in deed a sick and twisted individual who deliberately took the lives of six people, including a 9 year-old girl, and wounded 13 others, but he hardly acted alone. As depraved as Loughner’s actions were, his accomplices were ten times more culpable, because they knew full well what they were doing. While they may not have intended the results that ensued, they are as guilty as the man who lit the fuse of a bomb or shouted “fire” in a crowded movie house. What makes it all the more tragic was that this wasn’t the first incident of violence against innocents. Last February Joseph Stack flew his plane into the I.R.S. building in Austin, Texas, citing many of the same grievances that Loughner noted on his MySpace page, and possessing the same psychotic tendencies.

Words have consequences. Ironically, Giffords made that very same statement during the contentious healthcare debate, and now she is a living testament to its validity, as she struggles to hold onto the life that was almost snuffed out of her.

When is this insanity going to end? When are the purveyors of hatred and fear finally going to be held accountable for their actions? I have heard enough of the “free speech” nonsense to last a lifetime. Those who prey on and manipulate the gullible, the frustrated and the emotionally imbalanced have cowardly hid behind the Constitution long enough and like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, it is high time to roll back the curtain and bring their dastardly deeds once and for all into the light of day.

None of us should be deterred in this mission. We, all of us, have been silent for far too long and allowed this mockery of freedom to continue. How many more innocent lives must be lost or endangered before the guilty are brought to justice? We cannot and must not allow the agents of hatred and fear to continue to stoke and fan, unchecked, the flames of discontent that reside in all too many of our citizenry. Whether it be Glenn Beck ranting about some gibberish regarding Hitler and Stalin, Mark Levin in a tirade about his equally unintelligible charge of government tyranny that exists, sadly, only in his warped brain, Sharon Angle offering up a Second Amendment remedy for removing governmental leaders she doesn’t agree with, or Sarah Palin’s now infamous crosshairs, lock and load comment, men and women of good conscience must rise up and say, “Enough!” It is time for those of us who aren’t insane and who believe in open and honest dialogue that is dignified and peaceful to stand up and take back our country from the wicked miscreants who have hijacked it for their malicious intents.

And our resolve and contempt should not be reserved merely for the far-Right, though much of this must be laid at their front door step. The same afternoon that representative Giffords was being shot in the head, a talk show on a well-known liberal radio station, WBAI, hosted an author who was making his case for the violent overthrow of the United States government, citing, as his source, the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Why is it that those who least understand the Founding Fathers are always the first to invoke them to suit their narrow, insular and hateful agendas?

These are perilous times we live in. In my nearly fifty years on this planet I have seen many things that have drawn my ire, but none more hideous and contemptuous as this heinous act. And the thing that scares me the most is that I feel we haven’t seen the last of it. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Jared Loughners out there just waiting to be pushed over the edge by the incendiary words of some idiot looking to cash in on their misery and suffering.

So these reprobates continue to provoke and incite their audience, many times to a state of hysteria, and when the inevitable happens they have the nerve to cry foul and accuse the victims of their fear mongering of treading on their rights. Like somehow it is we who have the problem. Typical. They have no shame because they have no conscience. They are dead to any kind of remorse or regret. Like a common thug who breaks into your home, they do violence to all that is decent and upstanding. They aren’t interested in a real discussion because they know full well they would lose in such a forum. So they bully and intimidate and invite their minions to do likewise. It is the Nuremberg mob run riot and that is where America is headed unless and until we wake up.

It is not too late to do something about this. But first we must stop kidding ourselves that what these people represent is just a crop of bad apples in an otherwise fruitful harvest. They are a cancer within our midst that must be exorcised like a demon from a possessed man. These aren’t just entertainers who happen to have some rather peculiar personality quirks. Hitler had those same quirks, and millions perished because his victims couldn’t see the warning signs. There is no distinction between these charlatans and that mad dictator of seventy years ago. Both count on indifference and apathy to succeed in their quests. We can no longer afford to give either to them.

Just as those who shout “fire” in a crowded movie house are brought up on charges, so too must these impersonators of freedom be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. They will certainly cry foul. To hell with them! This is no longer about their “rights.” Nor is it about getting them to repent and change their ways; that will never happen. But if we can prevent just one senseless tragedy like this from happening, it will all be worth it.

I realize all too well the slippery slope that many of you may be fearing. It is not applicable here, for the First Amendment to the Constitution, while protecting free speech, also provides for exemptions that include speech that incites imminent danger. A fine hair perhaps, but one I would be willing to split.

If going down that road doesn’t float your boat, there is one thing that will certainly stop them dead in their tracks, but to succeed, all of us will have to be 100% vigilant and committed to the cause. Simply put, stop listening, stop watching and stop reading the commentary of these people and their networks. That’s right, change the channel. Hit them where it hurts most, in the wallet. In the movie Trading Places, Eddie Murphy’s character remarks, “Seems to me the way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.” Bingo! Perhaps our best weapon – no pun intended – against this violent rhetoric is the very symbol that shaped our nation’s history: the almighty dollar bill.

Frankly, though, I am dubious of this tact. For one thing, boycotts, for the most part, either don’t work, or when they do, work only for a very short time. Remember the gas boycott a few years ago when gasoline prices soared? Or perhaps the boycott of large banks that played a major role in the mortgage debacle? Of course you don’t. That’s because they failed miserably. The problem with channeling that much energy and emotion into a cause, no matter how worthy it is and how determined you are is that sane and rational people can’t stay that focused or angry for long. As Bill Maher once said, “There’s a difference between a mad man and a madman.” We can be mad at what we see around us, but we ourselves are not crazy.

But the Jared Loughners of the world are crazy, as well as dangerous. In the private hell they call reality, the government is out to get them and no one can be trusted. These people do not grow in test tubes, or exist in a vacuum.  Nor is it sufficient to merely label them as clinical case studies.  They are the byproduct of a society that way too often settles its differences in less than ideal circumstances. In their crazed and tortured minds they can only see enemies and threats everywhere. And these very same sick people become the perfect targets for the heated rhetoric that gets blasted all over the airwaves and comes unabated into our homes to act as itching powder to achieve its ultimate aim.

Hatred begets hatred. And while I agree in part with Jon Stewart that there is no direct correlation or straight line from this hateful rhetoric and the twisted minds of the crazed and delusional, to deny any causation is simply to deny reality.  And while it's also true that you can't outsmart crazy, as Stewart adroitly and somberly pointed out on his show last night, you can mitigate the damage crazy can do by making sure it doesn't gain any further momentum.

All of us have felt our hearts race and our passions rise while in the midst of a heated debate, be it political or otherwise, and none of us, if we are honest, can say we have not thought ill of our opponent or even wished some unfortunate circumstance might befall him or her. We are not saints; we all have our personal devils within us. What separates us from the Jared Loughners of the world is that line we never come close to crossing. We know the difference between right and wrong. For in the final analysis, we are not insane, and when push comes to shove and the dust settles, we gather our wits about us, pick up the pieces and agree to disagree.

Today I am not worried about the vast majority of the population that gets this. I am worried about those who don’t. I fear for a nation that continues to embrace a language that is toxic and deadly, that holds no quarter for compromise, that riles up those who are deranged and frightened, and has zero accountability for the consequences that ensue. And I pity those who will not stand up to it, for no one should doubt that, so long as agitators continue to agitate, the gullible will always be among us waiting for an opportunity to unleash upon society a taste of the pain they carry with them in their embittered souls.

Until we deal with this ugly 800 pound gorilla, this is the question that will always haunt us.  Who will be the next victim?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Read My Lips (Revisited)

Every so often I rummage through some of my old writings to see how far I’ve come, or, in some cases, haven’t come. I came across this little ditty of a piece I wrote after the presidential election of 1988. If you are wondering what the reasons are for my newfound sense of pragmatism and, more to the point, my recent critical stance of many of my progressive colleagues, just read this piece and you’ll know why. With the  exception of correcting some grammatical errors, it remains largely intact, ostensibly the same piece it was when I wrote it more than twenty-two years ago.

While it may be tempting for progressives to conclude, as I did, that the reason for the Dukakis loss in '88 was mainly do to his inability to fight fire with fire, a character flaw that would later be shared with another Massachusetts liberal, John Kerry, in '04, I now feel that the main reason for his loss, and others like him, was and is due to good old fashioned error selection.  When Democrats pick candidates that simply don't do well across the broad stroke of American voters, they get their butts handed to them; when they manage to find someone who cuts across all demographics - as they did in '92 with Clinton - they win.  Obama's success or failure will rest squarely with how well he reads up on history and adopts his strategy to it.

Oh, and regarding the Mets’ analogy, I think it goes without saying they never did make it back to the World Series the following year. Like the Democrats, they had to regroup and rebuild. Sometimes the hardest thing you have to do is move on.

P.S. I added the Dukakis tank picture here.  The internet wasn't availbale back then.  Al Gore hadn't invented it yet.


Far from unseating Reaganomics in America, the Democrats impotence on a national level virtually killed any chance liberalism had in 1988 – perhaps forever. Welcome to the jungle, son of Ronzo!

By Peter W. Fegan

In a sad sort of way I knew it was over for Michael Dukakis when I saw Howard Johnson take a called third strike in the National League Championship Series clincher. The analogy was striking. Despite an apparent abundance of ammunition at his disposal, the Duke stood meekly by while his opponent, George Bush, ignobly fired pitch after pitch. And when Dukakis did manage to take the bat off his shoulder, the results were predictable. In the end, notwithstanding a late rally, the score wasn’t even close: opportunists 4, inane 0. A clean sweep. But you don’t get off that easy. Oh, no. You’ll have to sit through the sorted details. And brother, are there ever some sorted details.

Liberalism in this country may or may not be a dirty word. Yet Dukakis’ reaction to it left many with a sense he didn’t believe in it. Without a base to call his own, he allowed the Republicans to define the campaign issues. In short, George Bush called the shots; Michael Dukakis magnanimously went along. Jim Baker and the Republicans could hardly believe their good fortune.

Whether it was the Willie Horton / Massachusetts furlough ads or Bush’s undeniable charge that Dukakis was and is a card-carrying member of the ACLU, the negative bashing went unchecked until it became too late. By the time Dukakis woke up and started fighting back, he was trailing badly in all the polls. The damage was irreversible. One poll (ABC-Harris) had him down as many as 12 points!

Conservatives in this country love to tout – nay gloat – at the swing to the right among the electorate over the past eight years. They’d have you believe that George Bush’s victory was signed, sealed and delivered the moment they labeled Dukakis a liberal. True enough, it didn’t help the Democrats’ chances any, and it wasn’t the sort of strategy they would’ve preferred to employ. Given the choice, they would’ve preferred to debate the real issues of the campaign: pollution, drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, foreign policy, the continued enrichment of the elite ruling class, etc…

Certainly the polls taken immediately after the Democratic convention in Atlanta seemed to suggest that the country was willing to at least look at if not deal with them. But Jim Baker and the GOP had other plans. They shifted gears and threw the onus back into Dukakis’ lap with the old “L” word. And since for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction – or so we’re told in physics – all that was left to do was sit back and watch for the response. If Dukakis stood his ground and countered, Bush was finished. Astonishingly enough, though, he did not. Instead the Dukakis camp ignored the warning signs from every one of its advisors and proceeded as though all was well. When Dukakis was cornered on the subject of his liberal stances, he acted more apologetic and embarrassed than indifferent, preferring to talk, instead, about competence over ideology. The American people weren’t buying the seeming subterfuge, and an early ten-point lead quickly evaporated.

In an op-ed piece, appearing in The Village Voice, titled “Sleazy Does It: How to Run a Really Bush Campaign” Leslie Savan hits it out of the ballpark so to speak when she writes, “How the Bush people transformed their candidate in just ten months from a 90-pound weakling into a bullying grandfather is one of the great success stories of modern advertising.” In deed it might be the greatest of all time.

Ronald Reagan was one thing. His tall stature and almost majestic-like appearance were easy commodities to market. Bush presented a far greater challenge to his promoters (er, staff). Left with little in the way of positive attributes in their arsenal, Baker and his people set out to check every Dukakis advantage with a blatant negative assault, the likes of which haven’t been seen in this country since the Nixon / Humphrey election twenty years ago.

The techniques – avoiding the press, and when that didn’t work, bullying them (Hello Dan Rather, wherever you are!), cuddling babies, mega flag waving, running misleading ads showing pollution in Boston harbor and convicted criminals being paroled from prison – were masterful in their conception and proved highly effective. But they worked in large part based on two factors.

First, there has always existed in America a racist element that worked, however unwittingly, against equality. Call it, if you will, a fear of the black man rising up against his oppressors. Those who play up to that fear, as Bush did with the Willie Horton ads, will almost surely succeed, especially in those areas where the fear is deepest: the South. In many parts of that region some people are still fighting the Civil War. Add to that fear the label liberal and you effectively kill off any chance your opponent has of gaining momentum and building a base of support.

But the greatest and most damning factor the Republicans can’t even take credit for. For while the Bush campaign may have run their sleazy ads and misleading innuendos, it was still left to the Dukakis camp to set the record straight. Countless times, whenever Bush ran his mealy mouth, Dukakis had the opportunity to shut it. For instance, on the issue of furloughs, Dukakis waited until two weeks before the election to remind the electorate that, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan himself had signed into law a state furlough program not unlike the one employed by Massachusetts. And, as a result of just such a program, a murder was committed – by a white man no less! Too little, too late. Perhaps Shakespeare had us pegged pretty well when he wrote Marc Antony’s little speech in Julius Caesar. Counting on the voters to figure out who you are and what you stand for, when you can’t even define it yourself, smacks of wishful thinking in the extreme!

Of course there were other instances where Dukakis’ incompetence cost his dearly. The flag-waving and subsequent wrapping became the central theme for the Republicans throughout the campaign and should have provided the Democrats with the impetus needed to brand Bush as the vacuous fraud he is. Instead what we got was the typical knee-jerk reaction. We saw a patriotic George propping up babies in front of old glory, while iron Mike was ridding shotgun in a tank. The image was far from laudable; in deed it was pathetically humorous. Even I couldn’t stop laughing. The result of that fiasco was that George Bush came off looking like Captain America, while Mike Dukakis looked like Cap’n Crunch!

I could go on and on, but by now you have it pretty much “wrapped” in a nutshell. Never before in politics has one man’s refusal to listen to even the most rudimentary advice led to such a resounding defeat. And the tragic thing about this whole campaign is that the tactics used by George Bush in 1988 will return in 1992. Why? Because they work, that’s why. I’m afraid we’re going to have to get used to the negative ads and mudslinging, insulting though they might be to our intelligence. We’re also going to have to get used to the prospect of smaller and smaller voter turnout. With such negativity in the world of politics, is it any wonder people are staying home rather than exorcising their most basic of constitutional rights. Didn’t we hear all too frequently from folks we knew and trusted, “What’s the use in voting? They’re all the same anyway!”

Perhaps I’ve inadvertently stumbled onto the real strategy of the Republicans in this campaign. Maybe they figured if they created enough voter angst and apathy, they’d sneak their man in. Sometimes in the absence of substantiation, a little bullshit can go a long way. Certainly it will go a lot further than the truth, especially if the truth is unimportant or perhaps even dangerous to you. Sounds too incredible, you say? Well, perhaps. I guess if the Mets could lose to the Dodgers, than anything is possible.

But time does heal all wounds and, hopefully, provides a chance for redemption. The Mets will be back next year. Keith Hernandez will field and Ron darling will pitch the way both know how and the best team will advance to the World Series. Likewise, the Democrats will get their shot again, though in their case they will have to wait another four years. Let’s hope next time they listen to their scouts!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What’d I Say? What’d I Say?

I remember the first sales job I ever had back in the 1990s. I was so green. One day a customer inquired about a TV that was on backorder. I called the warehouse to check when it would arrive. The answer I got was a week or more. I turned towards the customer and repeated the answer verbatim. Delighted the customer proceeded to place the order. Two weeks later when the set had still not arrived, the customer was quite annoyed and proceeded to give me a piece of his mind. My manager also had some choice words for me.

I had committed the ultimate faux pas by relying on “exact” information and expecting the customer to listen to my entire statement. But, as my manager told me, “The moment you opened your mouth and told him a week, he stopped listening to anything you said after that. You could’ve said a week to a year, and as far as he was concerned it was a week.”

And that’s because people hear what they want to hear and ignore everything else. It’s called selective hearing and it can ruin your day, whether it’s the floor of a retail store or a political column. For well over two years now I have been steadfast in my assault on right-wing politics in this country, gone out of my way to lambast the Republicans for being the Party of No, and even decried my own party’s ineptness when it came to standing up for its principles and constructing a narrative to sell its agenda to the American people. And yet what is it that I now find myself needing to clarify and defend most? Not my disdain for the Right, but my criticism of the Left.

Yep, that be right. I have screamed bloody murder for the tactics of the Limbaughs, et al, ripped Bush and the entire GOP to shreds, but because I had the audacity to speak critically of my dear brethren and take them to task for what I clearly see as their inability to see the forest for the trees, all the good works before have somehow been cast aside and rendered irrelevant.

Hmmm. Me thinks there is something rotten afoot. Like that moment on the sales floor fifteen years ago, it seems my audience doth suffer from an acute case of selective hearing, and like Yogi Berra before me I am experiencing a case of déjà vu all over again.

Funny isn’t it. You never know how your words are going to be received. One moment you’re a hero sounding the call to arms, the next you’re Benedict Arnold. So I guess the moral of the story is the next time I find myself talking to a customer who wants to know when an item will be in stock, I could simply say, “I’ll call you when I hear something definitive.” Or I could just say, “Look, it’s on backorder. When it’s in, it’s in. Grow up for Pete’s sake!”

Ooh, I probably shouldn’t a said that. Oops, I did it again!

A Progressive’s Manifesto

What kind of progressive am I? I believe that was a question I rhetorically asked of myself in my last piece. And I believe my smart-assed answer was, “The kind that survives.”

Well it occurs to me that while that answer might sit well with me, it might not adequately explain to others just who I am and what I do stand for. So I started giving the question a little more thought and came to some rather sobering conclusions.

For one thing, I don’t believe that all progressives are created equal or think alike, nor should they. Unlike the other side, which sadly seems to behave like a horde of mindless automatons, most liberals and progressives are far more independent in their thinking. And while most of us hold certain values and standards that clearly differentiate us from our conservative counterparts, how we get from A to B can be, shall we say, interesting. Looking back over the infighting that took place among Democrats during the last two years, while a lot of it was owed to moderate and conservative elements within their ranks who balked at the more liberal leadership, one of the untold stories was how, even among progressives, there never seemed to be a unified consensus that ruled the day. Too often, there seemed to be a leadership vacuum that to most outsiders looked like chaos. I often refer to this as analysis by paralysis, a common trait among many progressives. Just hang out at any liberal university lecture and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Progressives can make ordering lunch seem like the planning of the Normandy invasion.

But, getting back to the issue at hand. What kind of progressive am I? Or, as Roger Daltrey used to sing, “Who are you?”  Ever since my college days, I’ve known two things: 1. I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for progressive ideals and values and believe that the world would be a far better place were it run on them; and 2. In almost every way imaginable, I behave and act like a liberal in much the same way fish breath air.

Seriously, if you’ve never had the “pleasure” of hanging out with me, you’d never know for instance that there are times when I couldn’t even spell the word progressivism, much less follow its principles. For one thing, I don’t think very highly of hybrids. Though I think they will eventually catch on, like the players on Saturday Night Live, they are not quite ready for prime time. Give me a Maxima or an Audi any day.

And while I resist the idiotic notion among conservatives that vouchers are an acceptable substitute for an ailing public education system, I am, quite frankly, befuddled by the obstinant stance of so many progressives who keep defending teacher tenure, even in the face of hard evidence that substandard teachers continue to seriously undermine the system. I cannot think of any other profession that enjoys such protectionism from mediocrity. While I realize that the overwhelming majority of teachers are excellent, that still is no excuse for keeping those who are below par employed.

I feel strongly in the need for a safety net, and would resist any attempt to remove or compromise it. However, I am steeped in the notion that in the business world it’s your efforts that, more often than not, define your success. As a salesman I understand what it means to live and die by my own hands and know full well that nobody hands you a sale; you have to earn it. While I do understand that not every one can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and am sympathetic to their plight, I do expect them to at least try. I despise victimization. As Vince Lombardi once said, “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.” I wish that more progressives would adopt this credo; sadly many don’t, much to the great delight of our opponents.

I strongly believe in renewable energy policies, which will, over time, end our dependency on foreign oil and help lead a resurgence in American innovation around the world. I do not believe that global warming is a hoax, but I do believe that it is poorly worded and this only gives aid and comfort to the uninformed and ignorant. A more apt term would be climate change or, as Thomas Friedman coined it, global weirding, since what we have been witnessing over the last decade is far from normal and borders on the erratic. It is my contention that we have only a few years left with which to do something substantive about this problem before we pass the point of no return. But the liberal community must change its approach and stop the hysteria every time we get a larger than average hurricane season. It only gives the wing nuts on the Right ammunition to push back when the winters are colder and snowier than usual. Also progressives and the Administration must do a far better job of framing the argument for Cap and Trade. The Right is controlling the dialogue on this and building a narrative that will spell defeat for any hope of passing legislation for the foreseeable future.

Regarding the relative merits of free trade, I support it, but continue to wonder how the United States keeps getting itself entangled in treaties that undermine its own industries to such lengths so as to condemn them to extinction. NAFTA was, for all intents and purposes, a disaster for this country – not to mention the rest of North America – and did little to actually spur corporate profits. Imagine me agreeing with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Somebody get the straight jacket.

I am a defender of equal rights across the board for all citizens. That it took this long for the military to recognize that gays and lesbians could serve their country openly is appalling to say the least. That so many people still have a problem with what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms proves we still have a long way to go as a nation.

It should come as no surprise that our foreign policy, especially over the last fifty or sixty years, has been horrendous. We are, quite frankly, very fortunate that we didn’t kill ourselves off along with the rest of the planet. As a progressive, I am proud that I realize that it isn’t traitorous to openly question the wisdom of your country’s policies; in fact it’s the height of patriotism. I pity those on the Right who don’t get this.

But while I pity those on the Right who don’t understand this basic tenant, I have to call out my friends on the Left who tend to be a little too naïve when it comes to our place in the world. The truth is we had every right to hunt down those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The problem was we turned a search and seizure mission into another Vietnam, and like the former war we don’t seem to be able to extricate ourselves from the conflict. The line between securing our safety and being the beat cop for the planet may be fine, but it must be walked. Both the neocons and pacifists need to acknowledge a plain and simple truth: both are profoundly wrong. As for me, I’m a peaceful man, but when push comes to shove, my motto is, “Bring it on.” To wit, another famous Lombardi quote, “The best defense is a good offense.”

On the matter of illegal immigration, we will never have a solution that effectively deals with this problem until we acknowledge the role we played in Central America. The Contra / Sandinista atrocities of the 1980s and our own trade policies over the last thirty years helped create an atmosphere that was ripe for the kind of flood of illegals we are currently seeing across our border. Any legislation that does not address this underlying cause will inevitably fail. To demonize and punish those who, through no fault of their own, were simply fleeing the poverty we helped bring about is the height of hypocrisy.

As for our current tax system, while I do endorse the concept of a simpler code that is less reliant on deductions and loopholes, I remain pessimistic that we will ever see it come to fruition. For one thing, the wealthy would never allow a truly “flat” tax that does away with all deductions and exposes ALL of their assets and income to a tax. Barring that, implementing such a flat tax would, once more, be injurious to a middle class, which has already seen its status sharply decline over the last three decades and completely decimate the working poor. And will somebody please tell me what is so bad about a progressive tax code that says to the wealthy, you made more, contribute more? Even Adam Smith got that much. The Commie!

As for Wall Street reform, I remain in favor of reinstating Glass-Steagall, but realize that the likelihood of that happening is slim to none, especially now with the Republicans in charge of the House. Though it pains many progressives to admit this, Obama got the best deal possible given the climate in Washington.

But the biggest thing that separates me from so many progressives is the same thing that seems to irritate so many of them about Barack Obama. There is a nagging sense of pragmatism that simply won’t go away. Call it the curse of being a realist. I would rather have 50% of something than 100% of nothing. I learned in sales a long time ago that if you stick to your guns too much the customer walks. You have to be willing to meet somewhere in the middle and arrive at a workable compromise that both sides can live with. It is rare in deed that one side gets its way all the time. I have seen many a stubborn salesman go broke defending his right to fail. It pains me that so many progressives don’t get this basic tenant of life. What they call a sellout, if thought through, is really just an opportunity to keep the discussion going and gain a foothold that could lead to future success. Funny, I’m starting to like this president; he’d make a pretty good salesman, which is more than I can say for many of the Democrats in Congress.

So, to recap, I hate hybrids, despise teacher tenure, and loath victimization, while being a proponent of equal rights, adequate safety nets for the poor and alternative energy policies. I don’t look for a fight, but won’t back down if challenged. I can’t stand Wall Street, but confess that my 401k is dependent on a healthy stock market. I’m a pragmatist progressive who doesn’t kowtow to every liberal idea and credo, and who thinks outside the box and expects his fellow brethren to do the same. In other words, I’m a survivor.

Yes, I am a progressive. Yes, I hate the far Right and all that they stand for. And that’s why I’m so passionate about what I believe is the only sound strategy that will inevitably beat them and their agenda. No matter how much we may wish it, we don’t have a Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter on our side of the aisle, nor should we want them. We haven’t the right to presume that our principles and values preclude us from attaining the best possible outcome, even if that means we must invariably compromise a little on those very same principles and values. Being right isn’t enough! We need street smarts and a sense of self-preservation that allows us to win the small battles as well as the grand wars without feeling like we are somehow traitorous to our core beliefs. In the end, whether you have twenty one-dollar bills or one twenty-dollar bill you have the same amount of currency in your wallet. It’s how you spend it that counts. There is no shame in accepting that fact except of course the shame we bring with us. And for that we have only ourselves to blame.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Eating Their Unborn

Oh boy are things ever starting to pile up on those slender, emotional, tear-drenched shoulders of John Boehner. Agent Orange hasn’t even assumed his lofty position as Speaker of the House and already the troops are revolting. And you thought Nancy Pelosi had a tough time walking that fine line between the Blue Dogs and progressives within her own party; just wait until the new crowned prince of Washington dons his armor. Talk about the bloom coming off the rose. So much for a honeymoon period.

So what’s up in GOP land? Well, apparently it wasn’t good enough that they got their way with the Bush tax cuts, the Tea Party is all up in arms over the “concessions” that were made by the Republicans in the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress. You know, concessions like extending unemployment benefits for the jobless, passing START, taking care of the first responders of 9/11, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and, last but hardly least, passing a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down until March. Madness, I say, madness. The nerve of those guys coming together and taking care of business that way. What would Dick Armey and the Koch brothers say?

And now you know why I have been such an advocate of Obama choosing cooperation over confrontation with the new 112th Congress. Yes, it’s humbling to “lay down” to the new overlords of the House, and make no mistake, the far Right has designs on undoing just about everything the President has accomplished over the last two years. But, as depressing as it may seem for progressives these days, I, for one, am starting to feel pretty good about the way things are shaping up. My gut tells me these neophytes are going to spend as much time battling each other as they are the Democrats. Unless, of course, the liberal base screws it up and gets their dander up, which I suspect is what they’re planning on doing.

Resist the urge!

That’s right, comrades, you heard me right. Resist the urge to do what comes naturally, swallow hard, and wait for opportunity to present itself. After watching the Party of No spend the last two years acting like spoiled brats who watched the building burn to the ground, the last thing the country needs and wants is another two years of obstructionism. That doesn’t mean that the GOP gets everything they want – Democrats still control this little thing known as the Senate – but rather than be provocative, which will only cause whatever moderate elements are left among Republicans to join forces and close ranks with the Tea Party activists, it would be better to employ some good old-fashioned pick and role strategy and strike some deals with the remaining voices of reason.

Peter, you are insane, you might say. Perhaps. What kind of progressive am I, you might ask? The kind that survives, that’s who. It’s time progressives took a good look at the political landscape and smelled the caffeine. If you think that Blue Dogs were despised by liberals over the last two years for holding up legislation that passed in the House, I have some news for you. They got nothing on the contempt that the Tea Partiers hold for “establishment” Republicans whom they view as traitors to their worldview. A moderate Republican might as well be a Marxist, for all these people know or care. Already plans are under way to challenge both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe in their respective primaries. And they aren’t the only ones that will be thrown under the GOP bus. It would be the height of insanity for Democrats to throw away this opportunity and force Collins, Snowe and the remaining endangered species back into the fold.

Reason is not in the Tea Party vocabulary. Look what they did to Mike Castle in Delaware. Lisa Murkowski survived, despite being defeated in her own party’s primary. Think she isn’t harboring some resentment? Why, on earth, would Democrats NOT want to take advantage of that angst? Why would they want to give these “traitorous” RINOs even a sliver of a chance to crawl back to their constituents in the most obvious act of contrition in generations?

Well, the correct answer, assuming enough Democrats have not taken leave of their senses, is of course they wouldn’t. And while I think it will take a Herculean effort on their part to resist the urges that reside within them to fumble the ball that Providence has thrown their way, I’m betting the ranch that, with the assistance of a calm and calculating Obama at the helm, enough of them will bite their lips and play along. They won’t like it one bit, and they’ll be grumbling under their breath the whole time, but, if they play their cards right, in the end they will prevail.

Why? Because, while the Tea Party movement is virulent, it is also the most inflexible, arrogant and ideological-driven movement in American politics. While this served them well during the campaign, it will backfire on them now that they have to actually govern. Virtually every single poll taken over the last few weeks has shown that the electorate expects both sides to come together and get the country moving. The only mandate that any reasonable person could take from the midterm results should be “shape up or ship out!” The voters want results, not bickering. Do not think that John Boehner isn’t aware of this, as is Mitch McConnell. The juggling job that both these men now have should be quite humorous to observe over the next two years. No need to make either of their jobs any easier by allowing foolish pride to get in the way.

And that’s exactly what it would be: foolish pride. They say pride goeth before a fall. Well the Dems were already read the riot act last November. There’s no need for them to keep tripping over their own shoelaces.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mr. Brooks Goes To Washington

Unlike so many of my progressive brethren, I do occasionally check out what responsible conservatives are saying these days. There aren’t many left, so, thankfully, my task is not that difficult. One of the few I make it a point to read is David Brooks. While I tend to disagree with a lot of Brooks’ viewpoints, I do remain encouraged that there are conservatives out there who aren’t hate-filled fear mongers or just flat out crazy. Times being what they are, I have to take my comfort where I can find it.

In a op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled “Bigger is Easier,” Brooks not only manages to make some salient points, he may have inadvertently hit the nail on the head as it were and underscored the Obama Administration’s political strategy for the next two years. Rather than look for small compromises in the middle, which is what most presidents would seek, Brooks believes that it would be better for Obama to think outside the box. “In a polarized country, it may be easier to push through big change by marrying the Left and the Right than by relying upon an unfortunately weak vital Center.” Brooks’ point? Give each side something it craves – a pacifier as it were – grab back the mojo he lost in the midterms and, in the process, regain the Center he so desperately needs to get reelected.

“To get the Left excited, Obama might offer an activist growth agenda. This would involve spending more on infrastructure, research and job training — the basic things he has always talked about. But it also would mean going further and embracing industrial policy.

“To get the Right excited, he needs to offer fundamental welfare state reform. So far, most efforts to avert national bankruptcy have involved controlling spending but keeping the basic structure of the safety net intact.”

Obviously there are risks involved in adopting this strategy, but politics is a risky business. True, he has already pissed off his base with the tax cut deal, and the far Right has been going out of its way to blast him at every opportunity – expect more of the same, only twice as insufferable. But playing it safe hasn’t worked so far; if anything it has embolden his opponents and left many independents wondering whether he is up to the challenge of actually governing. The latest deal he struck with Republican leaders, which was heralded by many political pundits, while at the same time being assailed by the far Right and far Left, has at least temporarily restored some of the wind beneath his wings. The recent bump in his opinion polls suggests his bravado has struck a cord with the electorate.

I think Brooks is on to something here. “Over the next months, the parties will fight over health care repeal and the rest. But while that’s going on, it should be possible to build momentum and trust by working on corporate tax reform, individual tax reform, Social Security reform and other things. These issues are hard because they involve taking on powerful special interests. But at this moment in history, that’s exactly what voters want to see their leaders doing together.”

The real question is whether Obama has the stomach to follow through and “go long” as they say in football. Not only do I think he does, but look for his State of the Union address to incorporate initiatives that will both challenge and pique both flanks of the political spectrum; he will “violate some taboos, on right and left, to give people a sense that everything is now up for discussion.” The hardest part won’t be the Right – they hate him anyway so there won’t be any love loss to worry about; it’ll be progressives who will squawk the loudest as they demand that lines be drawn in the sand. Obama will have to be resolute against a base, which each day grows more wary of his willingness to seek consensus. How well he does against his own party will go a long way towards determining whether or not he can get anything accomplished at all, much less get reelected.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions; most of them go bust within the first month of the year anyway. But this is one resolution I’m willing to go out on a limb and make. The President Obama that entered 2010 will not be the same President Obama that exits 2011. In deed, he’ll be hard to recognize. If you thought this was going to be a president hell bent on fighting a war of ideology and getting bogged down in dead-end skirmishes, you obviously weren’t paying attention. If anything the pragmatic tendencies he displayed throughout much of his first two years will be sprinkled with miracle grow and enhanced in a new 2.0 turbo-charged edition.

For what purpose, you ask? To woo and win the Center and show that he is above the partisan hackery that has defined Washington politics for far too long. Funny isn’t it? We thought we were voting for a transformative president two years ago. Well now we’ll get the chance to see one in action. Only time will tell if we like what we see.