Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Communication Breakdown

Monday night President Obama addressed the nation over America’s role in the Libyan War – and it is a war – which left me with one question. Why can’t this president express himself as clearly as he did last night more often? Of all the maddening character flaws that Obama possesses, none have proven more detrimental to his administration than his inability to connect the dots effectively so that the electorate gets him. It is a flaw that has frustrated his supporters and delighted his foes.

For almost two weeks a nation has had but one question on its mind. Why? Why is America embroiled in yet another internal struggle in a foreign country when it is already in hock with its own financial house? The debate between the doves and the hawks was running riot and the commander in chief was, once more, doing his best impersonation of an absentee landlord. The leadership vacuum was once more becoming the lead story.

So last night was Obama’s chance to clear the air and he did not disappoint. True he may not have answered every question to complete satisfaction. For instance, insisting as he did that in Libya “we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” bordered on hyperbole to say the least. True, Gaddafi has murdered thousands of his people, but if the President is looking for a prime example of violence on “a horrific scale,” I suggest he look a bit further south, say Sudan, where more than two million have been slaughtered, victims of the most egregious genocide since the days of Nazi Germany. And then there’s the violence in Yemen, some by our own hand.

But, on the whole, Obama managed to construct a narrative that sold well to his audience. He explained thoroughly the process that led to his decision to involve the U.S. in the no-fly zone, drew a distinction between Iraq and Libya, and made it clear that our involvement would be limited. Most importantly, though, he made the case for WHY we got involved, which was the sixty-four thousand dollar question plaguing him in the first place.

“To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

“Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful - yet fragile - transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”

Point taken. Simply put, the costs for doing nothing would’ve been far greater than what we are now faced with. As is usual with this President, he chose the path of pragmatism over either the impulsiveness of over aggression or the sheepishness of inaction. In other words, neither side of the extreme political spectrum probably heard anything they liked. I suspect that both the Left and the Right will continue to take Obama to task for not standing up for their world view, but that wasn’t the point of the speech. The point was to, finally, let the people in on the hows, the whys and the whens and to, hopefully, put to bed at least some of the doubts that many were forming about yet another of this President’s decisions.

On that mark, I think we can safely say, mission accomplished. Finally!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Buyers’ Remorse

Only three months into the new revolution and already the subjects are revolting. Seems the Democrats weren’t the only ones who misread a mandate. The new and improved Republican class of 2010 has overreached and overstepped their authority to such lengths that some of them are now facing the prospect of recall elections. Drawing particular interest – and ire – are the newly elected governors who seem hell bent to leave their mark, regardless of what it might do to their respective states and political allies.

Leading the contingent of most egregious and, according to Jon Stewart, “dickish” offenders are Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Scott of Florida, and Paul LaPage of Maine. All ran on the usual GOP talking points. You know, fiscal responsibility, job creation, tax breaks for business, yada, yada.

Walker, after securing considerable economic concessions from Wisconsin’s unions, including an agreement to pay for part of their healthcare benefits, decided to up the ante by stripping them of their right to bargain collectively. Kasich, not to be outdone, wants to do away with public sector binding arbitration and make it illegal for any and all public employees to strike. Period. Scott not only wants to drug test every public employee, he wants to end Florida’s retirement system for all public employees. And rounding out the group, LaPage simply wants to raise healthcare premiums for poor senior citizens, make it tougher for low-income families to receive Medicaid benefits and, I swear I’m not making this up, remove a mural from a Department of Labor gallery for being pro union. To quote Jon Stewart, “Now I’ve seen everything.”

Adding insult to injury, both Walker and Scott (Frick and Frack) have refused billions set aside by the federal government for the development of high-speed railways in their respective states.  The funding would've created thousands of jobs over the next few years.  Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Angry and disillusioned at the slow pace of recovery in the economy, American voters went to the polling booths last November, and took out their frustrations on any incumbent with a D next to his or her name, and the result was a tsunami of candidates who normally wouldn’t have survived even a primary challenge being swept into office. Now voters in those states are waking up to find that the men and women they voted for weren’t who they said they were.

Gee, ya think?

This is what happens when people let their emotions run riot. You end up with buyers’ remorse. Sort of like going out drinking with your buddies to let off a little steam over the way your boss treated you. The next morning you wake up wondering what happened and having to deal with the consequences of your actions. Political hangovers, like physical ones, have ramifications. And boy oh boy are Americans sure having one hell of a hangover.

But, unlike the real one, which, unfortunately for millions of drunks, takes time to get over, this is one hangover where the people can affect a cure on a more, shall we say, immediate basis. It’s referred to as recall election, and as of right now, it is on the table in Wisconsin and Florida. No doubt quite soon it will be rearing its mean-assed face in Ohio, as voters are getting downright ugly about what they’ve seen so far.

I mentioned in an earlier blog about mandates and how victorious parties often misread them. The Democratic landslides of ’06 and ’08 served as painful reminders of how not to interpret election results. Well it seems Republicans didn’t get the memo. The problem with banking on voters who voted for you in anger is that when the anger subsides, so does much of your impetus. And now, freed from the despair of last November and feeling somewhat optimistic about the future, no doubt a result of a steadily improving economy, these same voters are taking a good look at who they elected into office last year and starting to get the feeling like maybe they were slipped a mickey. Bad gin can make a fella or gal do strange things, like pull the lever for unqualified ideologues.

But, just like pencils have erasures, election results can be rescinded through the recall process. Admittedly it takes a lot more than just putting a couple of Alka Seltzers in a glass of water and taking a big gulp. It takes a boatload of signatures. In Wisconsin, for instance, you need no less than 25% of all those who voted for governor in each Senate district to sign the recall petition. Not an easy feat.

But the momentum is gaining and the emotions are running high, as more and more voters appear determined to undo the nightmarish decision they made last November. In Ohio, Florida and other states with Republican governors who appear to be running amuck, voters are waking up and smelling the caffeine. Florida is particularly interesting in that Rick Scott won a very close election over Alex Sink – just over 1%. It wouldn’t take much to get him recalled.

And the backlash does not seem to be reserved merely for Republican governors. In local politics, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano – who was actually voted into office in ’09 – has spent more than $400 thousand of taxpayer money fighting a takeover of the county’s finances by the NIFA (Nassau County Finance Authority) for failing to balance its 2010 budget. As is standard operating procedure among Republicans, Mangano thought he could decrease taxes and balance the budget. Right about now his popularity is about as high as the last Republican to hold that office: a guy by the name of Tom Gulotta. While no recall petitions have been swirling around his damaged carcass, I wouldn’t bet any meaningful money on his reelection prospects come 2013.

Of course, whatever happens over the next few weeks, the lesson of the 2010 midterms – and all elections for that matter – is never overreach when you win. Poll after poll taken both before and after the last election showed a majority of Americans dissatisfied with the way things were being run in Washington, but desirous of both sides getting together and achieving results. More and more, political ideology appears to be going the way of the dinosaur as voters in general have become increasingly disenchanted with divisiveness and far more results oriented. The current crop of GOP executives who were the benefactors of voter angst had better shape up or they will be shipped out.

And as far as the voters are concerned, the next time they take to the polls, maybe they should examine more closely the drink in front of them before downing it down. One of the oldest and wisest sayings is that famous one about getting fooled. I think it comes from Tennessee or Texas. “Fool me once, shame on you. But fool me, you can’t get fooled again.”

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It’s Not About the Money.

What do the Wisconsin labor protests, the assault on Public Broadcasting and the recent criticism of Barack Obama’s decision to join the U.N. no-fly zone in Libya all have in common? All three have become part of a bold and grand strategy by Republicans to develop a new narrative of fiscal austerity and frugality. Yes, as strange as it may seem, the party that brought you record deficits, could’ve cared less about tightening their belts, and never met a war it didn’t love, is now shouting down from the highest mountain tops about how we – the country – can’t afford to waste precious taxpayer money on teachers, Big Bird and senseless killing. You are now free to roam around your bathroom and gag.

Really now, that’s the story? Seriously? Scott Walker effectively ends collective bargaining in his state; the House passes resolutions defunding PBS, and Obama gets ripped a new one for shelling Libya, and we’re suppose to believe that it’s all for our common welfare? Tough love!

Pardon me while my bile backs up. If you believe that yarn, I not only have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you but I’ve got a steal of a deal on some fresh vegetables from northern Japan.

Let me put this as directly and succinctly as possible. Claims by Republican leaders of a new-found concern over deficit spending and a love for their fellow man are sheer rubbish. The common denominator in all three of the examples listed above and others just like them all boils down to good old-fashioned ideology. Period! Money has nothing to do with it.

In Wisconsin, newly elected Scott Walker won virtually every economic concession from the unions he needed to help him balance the state budget. Ending collective bargaining did not put one single dollar back into the state’s coffers, but it did effectively put an end to a major political contributor to the 2012 Presidential election. It is well established that Labor has long been joined at the hip of the Democratic Party. Knocking them out of the picture would mean a huge gift for a Republican Party that only two years earlier was on the verge of political oblivion. Funny how things can turn on a dime. Payback is a bitch, especially in politics.

Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who, in an interview with Fox News, said the following: “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”

Oops! Straight from the horse’s mouth or whatever orifice he might’ve been spewing from. I guess it’s true that loose lips do sink ships, or at least give away their positions.

With respect to PBS, the amount the average taxpayer would save by defunding it would barely buy a happy meal at McDonald’s, and the GOP knows it. Cutting off funding for it means eliminating a media source that is viewed by many on the Right as left-leaning and decidedly anti-business. This despite the fact that the majority of the funding Public Broadcasting gets comes from corporate sponsors and private donations from viewers and listeners.

No matter. A narrative is a narrative, regardless of how inaccurate it is. And if your target audience – the uneducated, disenfranchised and frustrated middle class – buys into it, then all the more power to you. Facts are almost always irrelevant when it comes to these things. If you can’t bury MSNBC, then why not go after the next best thing? And what better target than a media outlet, perceived as unfriendly to your cause, receiving taxpayer dollars? Your taxpayer dollars! See how this works?

And last, but hardly least, we come to Obama’s War. Costly, irresponsible, hasty, unconstitutional. Those were some of the characterizations that Republicans were throwing out concerning President Obama’s decision to assist the United Nations enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya. No matter what your thoughts are regarding the use of American forces in yet another Middle Eastern conflict – and I for one have mixed feelings on the matter – the idea that a single Republican can even think about criticizing this president for being over zealous is comical. And yet, there they were all in unison – the batshit crazies Bachmann, Palin and Gingrich – ripping him to shreds.

Even Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the few within the GOP who has sided with Obama on many foreign policy issues, couldn’t resist piling on. “It's a strange time in which almost all of our congressional days are spent talking about budget deficits, outrageous problems and yet at the same time all of this passes.” Strange? How so, Dick? You mean strange that America is once again intervening militarily in a Middle Eastern dispute and the order to commence firing wasn’t given by a Republican? You mean that kind of strange?

Not one of these humanitarians made nary a peep when George Bush plunged us into two major conflicts within a year at the cost of nearly a trillion dollars. At most, “Obama’s War” will likely cost the taxpayer a couple of billion. Try plugging those two numbers into your calculator and tell me what you come up with.

But again, like PBS and the unions, this is not about money. It’s about ideology. Republicans love wars, so long as they’re being waged by Republican presidents, and they are primarily fought on U.S. terms. Just mentioning the United Nations in the same sentence as American troops can send conservatives into a tizzy. Remember Kosovo? You’d a thought Bill Clinton had burned a flag or something.

So remember boys and girls, whenever you hear Republicans whine about out of control spending and reckless wars, take it with a grain of salt. It’s never about the money being spent, unless, that is, they’re the one’s spending it. In that case, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. We’ve got more millionaires to enrich and soldiers to kill.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Wow, so this is what a three-week vacation looks like. You step away from all life’s little problems and what you end up is an avalanche of stuff on your plate. Getting back in gear is tough, especially when so much has been going on.

Actually, it wasn’t so much a vacation as good old-fashioned laziness. No sense pussyfooting. To paraphrase a well-honed expression, the spirit was willing but the flesh was on fumes.

So, back on the horse, as they say. But where to start? Where to throw the first dart on the dartboard of life?

There’s the crisis in Japan, where for the first week after what was clearly the greatest human tragedy to hit an island nation since the Haiti earthquake of last year, and what will undoubtedly remain a grave concern for the world in the weeks to come, the Japanese government was doing its best impersonation of Frank Drebin by saying, “Nothing to see here.”

In the U.S., there will be a frank and passionate discussion on the relative merits of nuclear energy that will hopefully lead to a broader understanding of our own reactors and whether the redundancies that have been built into them are sufficient to stave off the catastrophe that is currently happening in Japan. At present, of the 104 nuclear power plants in America, 23 employ the same design type as the Fukushima plant now in the process of a partial and perhaps total meltdown. No matter how this turns out, this much is certain: things will never be the same again. Proponents of nuclear energy will have some soul searching to do and opponents of it will have to hunker down and be prepared to offer up tangible and reliable alternatives. America still has a huge addiction to fossil fuels; if nuclear energy doesn’t fill the void, something else must.

Then there’s the matter of Libya and the “no-fly zone” enacted by the United Nations. Anyone taking dibs on how this ends up? The tragedy here is that were it not for the fact that America was caught up in two Middle Eastern occupations – one legal, the other illegal – we might’ve been in a better and far more legitimate position to actually be a force for democracy that this country so desperately needs. As things currently stand, our response has been cautious, to say the least. That’s the problem with sticking your nose in places where it doesn’t belong; it prevents you from sticking it in later when it does belong. Kind of like the boy who cried wolf. Sooner or later you come face to face with the wolf and nobody believes you.

Small wonder President Obama was “indecisive” over the last couple of weeks concerning America’s role in the conflict. You’d be too if you had the ghosts of two George Bush’s hanging over your head. But while Obama can’t be faulted for his predecessors’ missteps during their moments of truth, he is accountable for his own conduct during his. Obama has always displayed a somewhat annoying, overly stoic personality when confronted by emergencies that demanded a more reflexive and emotional response. Last year’s Gulf oil disaster was a case in point. While the nation demanded a leader who championed their frustrations, what they got was Mr. Cool, cajoling us to keep our wits about us. Nobody was buying it, then or now. Far from showing prudence in the Libya situation, Obama’s persona has made him look weak and unable to lead at a time when the United States desperately needs a leader in the region. Sometimes you can be a little too calm and collected for your own good.

And then of course there’s the continuing saga of the continuing resolution that just won’t go away. Unlike the midterm deal he struck with Congressional Republicans that drew the ire of liberal Democrats and many progressives, Obama has employed a hands-off approach while the House and Senate volley back and forth over how much to cut out of the current budget. So far, the tally is up to $10 billion - $4 billion in the first continuing resolution, which lasted two weeks, and now $6 billion in this one, which will go three weeks. That adds up to about $2 billion per week of operation. In other words, if the current trend continues, the Republican pledge to cut $100 billion from this year’s budget could actually come to pass.

Now, while no one expects that the GOP will continue to get anywhere near the cuts they demand, the lack of will by Democrats to push back and the curious unwillingness of the White House to get involved, has many on Capital Hill scratching their heads. So far, about the only consolation prizes that progressives have gotten during these past two CR’s is that – for now – Public Broadcasting and Planned Parenthood appear to be safe. But what happens after this next CR expires?

When Obama comes back from his trip to South America, he must show the kind of leadership he displayed last December. He must weigh in and take charge, the way presidents are required to do. Off loading this process into the very laps of the people who got us into this mess in the first place only plays into the hands of his opponents and makes his reelection prospects that much more, shall we say, dicey. With all that is at stake, this president cannot afford to once more allow others to define the parameters of his administration. The specter of his performance over the Healthcare bill continues to haunt him. Now would be a good time to break out of his comfort zone and define for the American people, once and for all, what he stands for and, more importantly, what he won’t stand for.

See, playing catch up isn’t so bad, once you get the hang of it. Maybe I should take more three-week vacations.