Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Sane and the Few

In one of my earlier pieces I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: Where are all the sane conservatives? Of course it only seemed rhetorical because finding one who is actually not insane has been so hard to do. You could say it’s been practically impossible. Practically, that is.

Because, as it turns out, there are a few conservatives out there who not only aren’t insane, they are quite lucid, and in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I decided to give them their moment in the sun, as it were.

So this month, I am suspending my “Idiots’ Delight” segment and replacing it with this oddly titled piece. No, I do not think it will become a recurrent theme – this is after all a progressive blog – but fair is fair. I have been exacting in my criticism of the Right for years, and will, no doubt, continue to berate their deplorable conduct as I see fit. But when presented with evidence of reasonableness among their ranks, the only honorable thing to do is tip my hat and say, “Bravo, well done.”

So, without further ado, let’s get on with it.

Chris Christie. Whatever else you may think of New Jersey’s outspoken Republican governor, this much is certain: he doesn’t drink from the same punch bowl as the vast majority of his party brethren. Case in point, when Christie was criticized by certain conservative groups for nominating a Muslim judge to the state Superior Court out of fear that he would use his position to impose Sharia law, the Gov wasted no time blasting his critics.

“Sharia law has nothing to do with this at all. It's crazy. It's crazy,” Christie said at a press conference earlier this month. “The guy's an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey, and the Constitution of the United States of America . . . .This Sharia law business is crap. It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies.”

Wow! Now that takes balls. If only a certain executive we all know and sometimes admirer would grow a pair like that!  Wouldn’t it be nice if Christie could wake up and see the light with respect to another of his party’s extremist fairytales: supply-side economics. I guess that’s asking a bit much, isn’t? Still, it was refreshing to see a Republican stand up to the insanity of his own party and win, if only on points.

Jon Huntsman. Okay, so Ronald Reagan has a better chance of coming back from the dead than this man has of winning the Republican nomination, but the ex-Utah governor gets my vote if for no other reason than for killing two proverbial birds with one stone in his criticism of Rick Perry and the vast majority of his party on evolution and climate change.

“When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position,” Huntsman told ABC's “This Week.”

Huntsman also said he couldn’t remember a time when “we actually were willing to shun science and become a party that was antithetical to science. I'm not sure that's good for our future and it's not a winning formula.” You ever get the feeling that you could count the number of responsible Republicans on one hand? Well Jon Huntsman is the index finger on that hand.

Peggy Noonan and David Brooks. I’ll be the first to admit that I have tried on many occasions to decipher whatever it is that Noonan appears to be saying whenever she manages to find her way onto the Sunday morning political talk-show circuit, to no avail. I’d have more luck stubbing my toe to get rid of a headache than to figure her out. As far as Brooks is concerned, I confess to a certain affection for the man’s writing style, though his substance, like his arguments, leave much to be desired.

Up until now, the only thing the two have had in common is that they are both self-described conservatives; Noonan more so than Brooks, who has always been viewed more as a moderate, a RINO among the Tea Party types.

Well now you can add one more thing that they share: good taste. Both have joined the chorus of Rick Perry doubters and voiced their concerns about the Texas governor’s candidacy. Ladies first:

“In 2012, the Republican candidate will be called either mean or dumb, or both,” Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Certainly, his politics will be called mean. And if the candidate is Rick Perry, people will look at him and think: Hmmm, is there something to the charge? He should keep that in mind as he pops off. If there is a deeper, more reflective person there he'd best show it, sooner rather than later.”

David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed piece, was somewhat more salient in his observations, suggesting that Perry is benefiting from a “rightward shift” not just within the Republican Party but within the electorate as a whole. “The number of moderate Republicans has withered.” Perry “does best among conservative voters . . . who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S.”

Despite inferring that Perry is “ideologically slippery” and that he is “the latest iteration of Tom DeLay Republicanism,” Brooks sees the problem as hinging on messaging and the ability of Perry’s opponents – namely Mitt Romney – to push back.

“If voters think Nancy Pelosi is the biggest threat to their children’s prosperity, they will hire Perry. If they think competition from Chinese and Indian workers is the biggest threat, they will hire Romney. He’s just more credible as someone who can manage economic problems, build human capital and nurture an innovation-based global economy.”

Brooks issued one final warning. “Romney might be able to beat back the Perry surge. In the meantime, it’s time to take Perry seriously. He could be our next president.”

Seems to me I may have said as much in an earlier piece. Great minds do think alike, don’t they?

And, of course, I would be remiss if I left out perennial Rush Limbaugh irritant and head RINO, David Frum. The editor in chief of FrumForum, Frum has been doing his best to atone for his role in what will undoubtedly go down as the worst presidency in generations.  His moderate stances and his willingness to butt heads with Tea Party conservatives sets him apart from other conservatives.  Whether you want to call him a turncoat or perhaps someone who knows there is more to politics than just black and white, this much is certain: Frum, like Brooks, is among a handful of journalists who dares to buck the headwinds of a movement hellbent on eliminating anything and anyone that differs with them, and he has paid a price for his courageousness.  In 2010, Frum was kicked out of the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the GOP for their staunch opposition to the Obama healthcare reform bill.  Recently he reversed his stance on gay marriage after having been a strong opponent of it for years.

Disagree if you must, but disrespect him not.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Perry Factor

For the better part of the last two decades I have made a somewhat successful living as a salesman, selling everything from computers, appliances, TVs, home theater systems, and now office and industrial equipment. You could say I’ve sold just about everything except insurance and cars – some things I simply won’t do!
My first real sales job was for a company called P.C. Richard & Son. For those of you who don’t live in the New York metro area, P.C. Richard is one of the oldest and most successful privately-held retail establishments in the country, going all the way back to 1909. It was there I learned the most important thing that every successful salesperson knows: customers don’t buy features, they buy benefits. No matter how impressive an item might be, if the benefits of it aren’t apparent to the customer, he or she will never buy it. Period!

It is up to the salesperson to make the case to the customers why the item under consideration is the perfect choice. The way one goes about that is not to hit them over the head with a host of meaningless and confusing specifications, most of which fly over their heads or end up going in one ear and out the other. Instead you keep it simple, short and sweet; that way the customers don’t get confused and end up leaving the store empty handed.

No matter where I have worked – and believe me I’ve had more than my fair share of jobs over the years – when I have employed this simple technique I prospered; when I didn’t I suffered the penalty. As a former colleague of mine once said, this isn’t rocket science. There’s a reason some make it and some don’t.

All of which brings us to the new kid on the presidential block: Rick Perry. Let’s, for the moment, put aside all the baggage the guy brings with him – and he has enough to do his own Samsonite commercial – and look, objectively, at what he brings to the table.

For one thing, he isn’t crazy like his other Tea Party compatriot, Michele Bachmann. Why is this important? No matter how far to the right the Republican Party has drifted over the last decade, a majority of the party faithful simply don’t view her as electable in a general election. That has been the principal reason why Mitt Romney, though despised by conservatives, has been the GOP frontrunner pretty much since the day he got into the race. When all is said and done, enough of them would’ve held their noses and swallowed the snake oil Romney was peddling if it meant the defeat of emperor Obama. Don’t tell me there are no pragmatists on the Right.

Well now they don’t have to choose between insanity and compromise. Now they can have it all in one package. Rick Perry is the Tea Party’s wet dream. Forget all the Bush comparisons; Dubya isn’t fit to hold his boots. The real comparison is nowhere near the Lone Star State. Try about 1500 miles to the west. That’s right, folks, California. It was there, a little over thirty years ago, that a B-movie actor and former governor of the largest state in the country swept into power on the heals of an economic upheaval that frustrated and angered many of the electorate.

Ronald Reagan had many talents – acting apparently wasn’t one of them – chief among them was his ability to talk to and not at the voters. There’s a reason he’s referred to as the Great Communicator. He connected on a visceral level with people in a way few politicians have been able to approach, much less equal. No matter how you may have felt about his administration of the country – and we could write volumes about it, believe me – the man was a marvel to behold. He had both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale for lunch and didn’t once blink. In fact he was fearless in his defiance and conviction. Right or wrong – and for the record he was more wrong than right – he never backed down, especially around his opponents, whom he usually wiped the floor with. Reagan was a real cowboy in the traditional sense of the word.

Don’t look now, but Rick Perry is shaping up to be the next Gipper. He may not be nearly as polished as his mentor – I doubt Reagan would’ve been stupid enough to say what Perry said about Ben Bernanke – but in every way imaginable, he embodies the very essence of the 40th President: arrogant, self assured and determined to win at all costs.

But Perry also has something else in common with Reagan: he can break down the most complicated and arcane subject matter into a very basic and easily digestible language that the common folk can follow, and do it all without that bat-shit crazy stare of Bachmann or the phoniness of Romney. Like Reagan, Perry, love him or hate him, is the real deal, genuine and very electable.

He is the ideal salesman, perfectly capable of closing the sale with an electorate that is frightened and fed up with what has been going on in Washington.  He is seizing upon the contempt many voters, both conservative and, yes, independent, have for a political process they view as corrupt and inaccessible. Perry can tap into the blind rage of the wing nuts on the Right, as well as hit a raw nerve among more moderate voters – the same moderates who end up deciding general elections, mind you – and do it without missing a beat or breaking a sweat. In salesman's terms, he could sell an ice cube to an Eskimo. By comparison, Obama looks like that ice cube, melting in the warmth of an approaching Spring.

Now, of course, there is all that baggage that Perry has that I mentioned earlier and begged to be put aside for the moment. Yes, all of it will come out as we get closer to the Republican convention next year. Not only will Perry survive the scrutiny, I predict the majority of voters will not even care one bit. We tend to forget the outrageous statements made by Reagan during both his campaigns; yes the Gipper was hardly a stranger when it came to huff and mouth disease. Some of his gaffs were classics. Not only did he beat Jimmy Carter handily, his win over Walter Mondale still stands as one of the most lopsided reelections in presidential history. So much for paying for your mistakes.

But, Peter, this isn’t 1980, or even ’84. You’re right, it’s not. It’s worse. Barack Obama, unlike Carter in 1980, and even Reagan in ‘84, is presiding over the worst economy since FDR. Fair or not, he is going to be judged on how well it is performing come next year. If he cannot make the case to the electorate that he is deserving of another four years, he is finished. Period, end of story! Rick Perry would like nothing more than to be the man who sticks the fork in his vulnerable carcass. Yes, he is an ideologue and a demigod, as well as an arrogant and obnoxious ass, but, know this much, his fingerprints are nowhere to be found on this economy. In that lone respect, he will have a huge advantage over his likely opponent come next fall. He gets to say virtually anything he likes while the President tries to defend a negative. Good luck with that.

Small wonder the White House was all hyped up over the prospects of facing either Romney or Bachmann in the general. Imagine their good fortune. They had one of two choices: the used-car salesman from Massachusetts or the crazy lady from Waterloo, Iowa. Well, Rick Perry has just thrown a huge monkey wrench into their planning, and now it’s back to the old drawing board.

This is going to be a difficult pill for progressives to swallow, but they may find themselves pulling for the likes of the Mittster. Hedging one’s bet may seem a defeatist attitude, I know, but in the event that Obama does go down to defeat next year – increasingly likely given the recent polling – better a Romney administration than a Perry one.

They’re all the same, you say? Sure they are. Just like Howard Baker was the same as Reagan, or a 2000 John McCain was the same as Bush. In this very relativistic world we live in there is such a thing as the lesser of two evils. I’ll take a measure of comfort with the RINO from Massachusetts, who at least worked with Democrats, over the cowboy from Texas who believes in doling out his own peculiar form of political justice, not to mention has some rather unique stances on the Constitution.

But then we are getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Surely a majority of voters will be able to see Perry for who and what he is and reelect Obama, right? Perhaps. Maybe. After all, enough voters in Delaware and Arizona woke up in time to help prevent the GOP from taking the Senate. I guess I’m just not as optimistic as some in the supposed intelligence and discernment of the electorate. Too many times they’ve fallen for the smoke and mirrors of candidates who promised the moon only to crash upon takeoff. You see, Reagan and Bush tripled and doubled the debt respectively, and yet both were reelected to second terms.  To this day, Reagan is revered as almost saint-like among his admirers. 

So much for having faith in the masses.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Eight Isn't Enough!

Now that Rick Perry has decided to toss his cowboy hat into the ring there are eight (er, make that nine) contenders vying for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. The winner gets to play the role of Luke Skywalker and vanquish the evil Sith Lord, Barack Obama, from the Dark Star in Washington.

Right about now, I figure, would be a good time to get a closer look at each of these candidates; that is, before they start dropping like flies. I’ll do my best to keep the handicapping as objective as I can, but I won’t promise anything. I’ll start at the top and work my way down.

Mitt Romney: The man the Right loves to hate is also the overwhelming frontrunner going into the Iowa straw poll. Despite all the rhetoric that has been pouring out of the Mittster of late about how terrible emperor Obama has been, the simple truth is that Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts belies his bravado. In one of the most liberal states in the country, Romney governed as a centrist and worked with Democrats to pass legislation, including the dreaded Romneycare that the President later fashioned his healthcare reform bill around. This is the guy that the White House worries about the most. This is the guy that the Obama Administration is designing an entire attack campaign against five months before the Iowa caucus takes place. Hmmm. Don’t look now but I think you’re looking at the presumptive nominee.

Rick Perry: The Johnny come lately hasn’t just stolen the spotlight, he single-handedly became the new frontrunner for the Tea Party. How conservative do you have to be to knock Michele Bachmann off her throne? Pretty damn conservative, that’s what. Unlike Bachmann, Perry actually has experience governing a state, albeit one with a government the size of a Boy Scout troupe. Also, unlike Bachmann, Perry doesn’t have that dear in the headlight, I just ran over your dog look in his eyes. The guy may be an ideologue, but he isn’t crazy. Next to Romney, Perry is the biggest threat to defeat Obama next year.

Michele Bachmann: Don’t let that stare fool you. Behind those bat-shit crazy eyes lies a woman who truly believes she is heaven sent to deliver us from whatever it is we seem to be trapped in. Believe it or not, she has had more missteps than even Sarah Palin, and yet, no matter how ridiculous she sounds or how many mistakes she makes, her star among her faithful continues to rise. In the Iowa debate she actually said that the S&P downgrade reinforced her decision not to vote for a debt-ceiling increase. If this woman ever becomes president we are all screwed.

Tim Pawlenty: Can you spell lame? I knew you could. Old TPaw, as he has decided to brand himself, is so far behind in the polls, Newt Gingrich has become his new best friend. Like Perry, he has the executive experience as well as the pedigree. Unlike Perry, he’s about as interesting as watching ice melt.

Jon Huntsman: With the exception of Romney, he’s the only candidate capable of pulling in moderate and independent voters. Unlike Romney, he’s about as popular as Jane Fonda at a veteran’s convention among conservatives. Why? Because he once had something nice to say about the President! That’s a shame, because Huntsman is also the only candidate in this lot who isn’t a phony or demigod. With all the talk about how Romney could defeat Obama, my gut tells me that if Huntsman actually did win the nod – highly unlikely – he could make things very interesting in 2012.

Herman Cain: I was wrong. America isn’t ready for a black president. Talk about dumbing it down for the minions. Pizza anyone?

Newt Gingrich: The man is a walking time bomb and the gift that keeps on giving, especially around reporters who have the temerity to trap him with gotcha questions like what his thoughts are on the Paul Ryan budget. Give him this much, he’s the only candidate who’s spoken the truth about not only that but his own party as well, though not the way he probably would’ve preferred. Do you hear that? It’s Bill Clinton chuckling again!

Ron Paul: The only Republican who has had the courage to come out and say that the military budget needs to be not just cut but slashed. For that he should get the Purple Heart. From there, it goes steadily down hill. Paul’s vision of the federal government would be a living nightmare for millions of people. It’s one thing to believe Washington is bloated; it’s quite another to believe it should disappear altogether.

Rick Santorum: This guy makes my skin crawl. I know what you’re thinking. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and this is the guy who makes your skin crawl? As strange as it may seem, yes. Santorum is that guy you all knew when you were a kid. The guy who thought he knew more than everyone else, but who, in fact, was an arrogant ass pretending to be smart to mask his insecurities. The guy who sat in judgment of everybody else and who couldn’t resist making a snide comment, usually at the expense of a group that was already picked on by others. You wanted to smack the crap out of him, but you knew it wouldn’t do any good. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the runt of the GOP field.

Well, there you have it. The nine official candidates for the Republican nomination. How pitiful are they?  With the exception of Perry, who wasn't at the Fox News debate in Ames, all of them swore that they would never raise taxes, even if presented with a ratio of ten to one in spending cuts to revenue. Yep, real leaders!  I will go out on a limb here and predict that by late September or early October, Santorum, Gingrich and Pawlenty will drop out, Cain and Paul by December, followed by Hunstman in January. As for the half-baked Alaskan, my guess is she won’t run. It’s so much more fun watching from the sidelines anyway, right, Gov? The same for Mr. 9/11 himself, Rudy Giuliani. I guess being humiliated once was enough for his honor.

As for the surviving candidates, here are my picks. Bachmann and Perry will split the Tea Party vote, which will clear the way for the RINO to go head to head with the socialist overlord. Who will win? Can’t tell, but this much is certain: you’ll be up late election night.

Tune in next week when we answer the question of the ages: Where are all the sane conservatives?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Catch-22 for Obama and Progressives

There are barely fifteen months to go before the 2012 election; the economy remains ostensibly stuck somewhere between neutral and barely crawling, perhaps, dare I say it, on the verge of a double dip recession; and millions of likely voters are still frustrated and worried about not just their future, but the future of the whole country. As things stand right now the race for the White House is wide open, as is the Senate and the House of Representatives. Who ever wins will determine the fate of the nation for the next four or more years.

After spending much of his political capital on a stimulus bill, an auto bailout and both healthcare and financial reform, President Obama finds himself in a most precarious position. On the one hand, it is quite clear by all the evidence available that the private sector is still incapable of standing on its own two feet and bringing an end to the massive unemployment that continues to plague the country. What is needed is some kind of injection of federal spending to ease the pain and suffering of the multitudes. But, on the other hand, the political will for further government spending is simply not there. Even if Republicans were willing to allow the President another bite at the stimulus apple – lightning striking in the same place twice would be more likely to happen – Democrats would probably pass on it out of fear of a public backlash.

To make matters worse, not only is the prospect of a jobs bill off the table, the government is moving forward with an austerity program designed to trim the massive debt that has piled up over the last decade. Ironically, this will only exacerbate an already sluggish recovery and actually increase the unemployment levels, which of course will increase the deficit.

There’s no way around it: the President is in a catch-22 situation. If he calls for more government spending to get the economy moving, he risks admitting the obvious: that his ’09 stimulus wasn’t sufficient enough, which economists like Paul Krugman predicted would be the case, as well as inviting the public flogging he would no doubt receive at the hands of the GOP, who have already stuck him with this recession and have no intention of letting up.

But if Obama doesn’t call for government intervention, if he continues to cling to the ridiculous notion that the country can climb all the way out of the worst economic downturn in eighty years simply by growing at .5% to 1% per quarter and adding a paltry number of jobs per month, while at the same time cutting spending, he ends up playing right into the waiting hands of the Tea Party extremists who see an opportunity to seize control of the nation through the ensuing calamity, which will undoubtedly be pinned on Obama, too.

In other words, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Not a pretty sight, but this is the price you pay when you don’t seize upon your political opportunities. Your opponents end up calling the shots. And now Obama finds himself playing in his opposition’s sandbox. It’s their court, their rules and their ball. He must now summon what political strength he has left if he intends to survive a reelection bid.

The President has tried being the adult in the room, to no avail. He is dealing with a political faction that doesn’t react like past political factions. This mob is unbending and unyielding. His only play, I feel, is to go big. He needs to go on the offensive and go after the Tea Party. As low as his approval rating is, it is still higher than that of Congress, and, better still, considerably higher than the Tea Party. After winning big in last year’s midterms, the public is finally starting to get a good glimpse at the people they voted into office and they are clearly having buyer’s remorse. Obama’s task is to shine a spotlight bright enough on this malignancy so that the vast majority of Americans can’t help but see it for what it is.  This isn't about trying to convince voters that as bad as things are they could be a whole lot worse. As I mentioned in an earlier piece that strategy failed once; it will fail again.  No, this is about saying, "Look what happened the last time you took to the polls. You really want to go that route again?"

Face it, the prospects for a significant reduction in the unemployment rate is remote at best. No president since FDR has been reelected with unemployment this high. Obama’s only chance is to clearly draw a distinction between his policies and the extremism of the Tea Party, and he must do so in a way that puts enough distance between himself and the progressive flank of his Party. As strange as it might sound, he must appeal to independents as someone who is above what both Parties have wrought. He must be his own third-party candidate.

But while Obama’s task might be daunting, believe it or not it pales in comparison with the task that lies before progressives. If you thought the President was stuck between a rock and a hard place, try walking a mile in those shoes. One look at the majority of left-leaning blogs out there and you’ll think you’re on the set of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Schizophrenics have more stability in their daily lives than the vast majority – note I did not say all – of my dear comrades.

One camp represents what I call the Obama apologists. These are the people who hold onto the notion that Obama must be defended at all costs, even at the expense of reality. That to criticize him, even if constructively for his own good, somehow is akin to joining forces with the dark side. It’s bad enough that the Right constantly assails him; the least the Left can do is have his back. While laudable, this tact actually has the opposite effect. It further polarizes the electorate into believing that both sides of the political spectrum are blind and corrupt and in that scenario ends up pushing the moderates and independents into the waiting arms of the GOP, who, it’s time to admit, are far better at blind allegiance to ideology than progressives have ever been.

And then there’s the camp that feels betrayed by Obama’s pragmatism and willingness to compromise. In their myopic universe, the only way to deal with politicians like Obama is to challenge them either in a primary or with third-party candidates. Like the patient who cut off his nose to spite his face, these people see valor in defeat, even if it is a costly defeat. Want to know how costly? Just look up the elections of 1968, 1980 and 2000. In each instance this camp was responsible for challenging the Democratic incumbent, thus leading to a Republican win. The 2000 election could prove to be the costliest in history. Does anybody doubt that Al Gore would’ve won Florida, and with it the Presidency, had Ralph Nader not been on the ballot?

I myself have never subscribed to either camp. As I said in an earlier posting, I have always considered myself a sort of devil’s advocate. I call ‘em as I see ‘em. I want this president to succeed, but not because of any blind allegiance or wishful thinking that he will one day wake up with the ghosts of FDR, Truman and LBJ in his body. I want him to succeed because in spite of his shortcomings he is considerably better than anybody else out there. As Bill Maher quipped on his Real Time show, “Who ya gonna date, Mitt Romney?” Because that’s what it comes down to, folks. You either go with Obama to the prom or you go with the other guy or gal. There is no “none of the above” choice. Not in this broken and corrupt two-party system.

But that doesn’t mean that I give up the right to criticize this president when I think he deserves it. I have always considered it paradoxical that so many progressives feel they should forfeit their right to be critical of this president, as though somehow they have sworn an oath of loyalty to him. You don’t see such thinking on the Right. When their leaders falter, it’s like feeding time at the zoo. The simple truth is that it is our duty to point out the failings of our leaders, not to bury them or, as some sadly do, abandon them come election time, but to hopefully get them back on track and to help them win. Sometimes that criticism can be harsh, as mine has been from time to time. But I do it not with any great joy or love, but with a fervent belief that to shirk my responsibilities as a journalist is to live a lie. And that I will never do.

The truth is often painful, but ignoring the obvious is far worse. This president has a little more than a year to convince the majority of voters that he is worthy of a second term. At this critical juncture, the last thing we should be doing is sparring the proverbial rod and enabling the president as it were just because we either lack the stomach to do what is right or we are concerned with how we will look doing it. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, you know.  If it’s piling on we’re concerned with, we needn’t be worried; that’s what the Tea Party is for.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It’s time to say, “Enough is Enough,” Mr. President!

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

It has been almost two years since I last wrote you. In that letter, I implored you take the assault that was directed at you from the Right seriously. I called you out for referring to this assault as nothing more than a “political circus.” I challenged you to act and “refute the lies and distortions” of your opponents that were gaining traction within the electorate.

“This is not the time for pragmatism or taking the high road. That shipped sailed a while back. The relentless assault by rightwing, extremist elements within the Republican Party want nothing less than your removal from office and before the 2012 election. While stopping just short of implying assassination, the tone of this group could hardly be confused with that of pacifists. There are times when you seek peaceful coexistence; and other times when you fight fire with fire. Guess which time this is, Mr. President?”

My plea, like that of so many others, went unheeded. In less than two years, your apparent apathy and over-developed sense of pragmatism has cost Democrats the House of Representatives and the respect of a good many within your own party. But the worst, as they say, is yet to come. You have been reduced to the political equivalent of a piñata. Your debt deal not only wasn’t much of a deal, it was yet another in a series of bad judgment calls on your part to attempt to find a middle-ground solution in Washington with opponents who wanted no part of a middle-ground solution.

The deal you struck last December during the lame duck session was lauded by many – myself included – as a good deal and earned you praise from a good many pundits who saw your pragmatism as something akin to Bill Clinton’s. You were triangulating in an attempt to win independents and expose and isolate the Republican Party as being intransigent. The new Congress hadn’t even been sworn in and already you were in campaign mode. So what if the progressive base of your party was up in arms. You knew what you were doing; the approval ratings confirmed it.

Well, turns out both you and I were wrong. That deal you struck, which did allow the government to avoid shutdown, along with some other trophies like extending unemployment benefits, ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and a host of others, came at a terrible price, and no, the price wasn’t extending the Bush tax cuts, which every progressive railed against. The real price was the signal you sent to the new overlords of the GOP. That signal – initially referred to as pragmatism by the sane and rational – was interpreted as a sign of weakness among the Tea Party. They were prepared to shut down the government and you blinked. In their warped and twisted reality, they won. All they had to do was threaten something potentially damaging and you would come around. Like a weak parent with a spoiled child, you spared the rod, thus enabling the delinquent behavior and setting the stage for further capitulation.

We didn’t have to wait long. You caved again in April. Once more Republicans were prepared to allow the government to shut down, to deprive senior citizens of social security checks and military personnel of badly needed paychecks; once more you stepped in, acted like the adult, only to have junior spit up all over your brand new blazer. They had you and they knew it, too. Despite once more coming out ahead in the opinion polls, the Tea Party had their way with you. But your coup de grace was yet to come.

The debt ceiling is generally acknowledged by most to be the one issue you don’t play politics with. No sane lawmaker would call for the United States to default on its debt; the consequences would be potentially devastating to the nation. Guess what the Tea Party was prepared to let happen?

How shall I count the mistakes you made here? For starters, you had the chance to get a debt-ceiling increase during the December lame duck. You passed it up, naively believing the Republicans would be reasonable when the time came and act responsible. I shall now pause while the other readers of this letter finish chuckling.

Then you had your treasury secretary – you know the one who forgot to file his taxes, yep that was a quite a pip! – call for a clean debt-ceiling increase [Pause for another laugh break]. Given the mood of the GOP that might be the most inane request ever made from a sitting administration. After being thoroughly rebuked – even by the lame-stream media – you set out to find a common sense, middle ground solution. You acknowledged the need to deal with the deficit, which was commendable, but “demanded” that revenue be a part of any deal. Once more, the reasonable adult in the room spoke out, and the polls supported your stance.

The Tea Party however openly mocked you and said no dice. You sent your number two in to negotiate with Republican and Democratic leaders to forge an agreement. Republicans said yes to every cut in spending, then bolted when revenues were once more put on the table. Why, on Earth, would you send Joe Biden in to work out any deal of significance? The man is the gift that keeps on giving to your political foes.

Not one to let a setback keep you from your appointed rounds, you decided to get personally involved and was this close to striking a “Grand Bargain” with John Boehner, only to see it go up in flames when you came back and asked for more revenues. You gave Boehner his out, which allowed him to save face with the children back at the orphanage. That was stupid, sir. You could’ve had your moment; instead they had theirs.

You then spent the next week desperately trying to save the nation from the hostage takers who were threatening to burn everything to the ground. In the end, not one penny of revenues made its way into the final deal you grudgingly agreed to. Your lone victory was depriving the GOP of a chance to humiliate you again next spring. Way to go, Mr. President, you sure showed them.

And what did you get for your largess? A downgrade from Standard and Poor’s, that’s what, who, it seems, are even more concerned about the political circus in Washington than the general public, if that’s even possible. You bent over backwards to appease the most dangerous faction in American politics since Jefferson took up writing, and you end up signing off on a deal that no one – not your base, not conservatives, and, most importantly, not independents – likes. You staved off Armageddon, I’ll give you that, but you weren’t just left standing at the alter; you were left eating your own lunch and looking very much like a president on the run. I hope you had a nice 50th birthday, sir; it’s going to be quite some time before you have anything else worth celebrating.

You’ll get a break for a few weeks. Mainly that’s because Congress is in recess. Even spoiled brats can’t hurt you if they’re in their crib sleeping. Then there’s the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I’m going to go out on limb here and make a somewhat less than bold prediction. Everyone will be on their best behavior that day. You know, we’re not Republicans, we’re not Democrats, we’re Americans, and all that jazz. It’ll be a nice rest bit, if a somewhat bittersweet one.

But then it’ll be back to business as usual. The 2012 budget “talks’ begin almost immediately. The continuing resolution will expire at the end of September, and if no budget or CR is passed by then, the government will shut down. Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. President. Enough is enough! You have been backed into a corner so many times, it’s a wonder you don’t have a hook sticking out of your back.

You know what’s coming; if you don’t you’re the dumbest man in history. And you’re anything but dumb. Naïve maybe, overly optimistic definitely, but hardly dumb. There will be no discussion, or negotiation. And there will definitely be no compromise. They want nothing less than total victory. To a man and woman, they truly believe they were sold out by the leadership of their party, and, if you thought they were impossible to deal with during the debt ceiling crisis, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Like the fable of the Three Little Pigs, they will huff and they will puff and they will once more attempt to blow down your house. You cannot let this happen again. You must draw your line in the sand while there’s still time. Yes, it will mean a probable (not possible, probable) shut down, and yes, that will hurt a good many people. But Clinton said “no” to Newt Gingrich and won. Real leaders know when to stand up and lead.

I have gone through out history and I have not found one president who would’ve allowed himself to be treated in this manner; not Teddy Roosevelt, not Franklin Roosevelt, not Truman, not Eisenhower, not Kennedy, or Johnson, or Reagan, or Clinton, and especially not your immediate predecessor – the “Decider in Chief” – George Bush. To a man, all of them commanded the respect of the office. Their opponents may have had serious disagreements with them from time to time, but certain lines were never crossed, and if they were, there was hell to pay! Even your personal hero, when push came to shove, was willing to go to war rather than lose half his country. But then, sir, sadly, you are no Abraham Lincoln. I think we figured that one out a while ago.

You are running out of time, and the nation has precious little of it left. As I mentioned in my last piece, this isn’t about your reputation anymore; that may be irrevocably damaged. You cannot permit this malignancy to devour completely the body politic. You have made the fatal error of believing you can negotiate with terrorists. You thought they could be reasoned with. You were wrong. They can’t. You must stand up and be willing to show the nation that you will not be bullied into accepting a bad deal merely to appease the foolish whims of ideologues who lack the intellectual capacity to offer up real-world solutions to real-world problems. You must, as I said, “bring a stick into the classroom” and “administer” your own form of “corporal punishment to the wayward children.”

They will demand that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent, mark my words. Tell them “Hell No!” And then stick to your guns. Do NOT cave, as you have so many other times. They will demand draconian cuts in domestic spending. Tell them to climb a tree. Take your case to the American people. You are one of the most gifted orators in politics; now more than ever, you will need that gift.

But you will need much more than that. For once in your life, you are going to have to get your dander up. You are going to have to risk being viewed as an angry black man. Like it or not, you are going to have to drop the Jackie Robinson persona. Face it, sir, they’re spitting on you, and even if they don’t outwardly call you the name you know all too well, privately they’re saying it. You know it, stop kidding yourself. This isn’t 1947 and there’s no Branch Rickey to protect you. You’re all you’ve got; you’re all the nation’s got. You’re also all that’s standing between sanity and insanity.

You have accomplished a lot in your first term. You passed a stimulus bill that, despite its modest proportions, still kept the nation from sinking into a depression; you brought about healthcare reform, after other presidents tried and failed; you saved the auto industry from almost certain bankruptcy. That would be enough for most presidents; in deed it is more than the last three presidents combined can boast of.

And the sad truth is that, with the exception of the faithful few who watch MSNBC (you can send your thank you care of Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz), most of the country doesn’t even know or care. And that is because of one undeniable fact: for all your many talents and attributes, you have been woefully inadequate with respect to blowing your own horn. You cannot even spell the word narrative, much less spin one.

That’s why your opponents have you on the run. Out of the political vacuum you permitted to exist, they have written the fairytale of all fairytales. They have managed to convince an entire country that Hoover was right and FDR was wrong. They have turned the conversation from stimulating job growth to starving the beast. They’re so good at it, they’ve even got you speaking the same lingo.

Unemployment remains high – please spare me with the July numbers for job creation; we both know that number needs to be twice as high in order to significantly reduce the nation’s unemployment rate. At a time when the government should be doing more, we are going in the other direction towards austerity. The result will be a double-dip recession, which of course the Republicans will blame on you. How poetic is their justice?! You’re writing your own epitaph, Mr. President, only you’re taking the whole damn country with you.

There is still a chance to avert disaster. The choice is up to you. Stand up and show some spine and the country has a chance. Continue on your current path and you ostensibly consign the fate of the nation into the waiting hands of the fools and madmen who would see it destroyed. 

Knowing your affinity for moderate Republicans who made a difference for their country, I thought I would leave you with two well known and, given your personal difficulties of late, apropos quotes from Teddy Roosevelt.  You would do well to memorize both.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

“What I fear is if we do not have some consistent policy to advocate then the multitudes will follow the crank who advocates an absurd policy.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

They'll Never Learn: The Ever Painful Lesson of History Continued

So a deal was finally struck at the eleventh hour and Armageddon was averted. Republicans held their breath and counted to a zillion, threatening to burn down their crib; Democrats kept trying to find some magic toy – a rattle, stuffed bear, anything – that would appease the spoiled brats. In the end, having been given virtually everything they demanded, the brats were still sulking and sucking their thumbs, and defiantly voting no. Talk about sore winners!

The nation can now exhale. For the time being the hostages are freed, pending of course the next ordeal. And don’t kid yourselves, the next ordeal is just around the corner. The continuing resolution that has funded the government since April ends on September 30th. At that time, if no budget or CR is passed, the government basically shuts down. In other words, we get to go through this nightmare again. And if you thought Republicans were intransigent over the debt-ceiling debate, just wait until they have at the 2012 budget. Want a taste of what we can expect? Just ask the governor of Minnesota, whose state was shut down while the Tea Party issued demand after demand. Want to know how that fight turned out? Don’t bother. It was a rhetorical question. I’ll give you a hint; it didn’t go well for the governor.

This time there will be no negotiation, no back and forth, no surrender, as Bruce Springsteen once sang. The crumbs they grudgingly left on the table in this battle will be gathered together to form the biggest fruitcake imaginable and then thrown into the face of every Democrat and moderate Republican left standing. If you thought this fiasco was ugly and painful to watch, try imagining a scenario where the consequences aren’t nearly as severe. While a government shutdown might be inconvenient for some, it pales in comparison to what just nearly happened. This time, those “moderate / sensible” Republicans might just combine forces with the E-Trade babies and decide to go long just for spite.

And who’s going to stop them? Senate Democrats? President Obama? Please, don’t make me laugh. Facing the prospect of a historic and ultimately tragic outcome, Senate Democrats and Obama managed to salvage just one thing of substance: they kept the GOP from turning this debt-ceiling issue into another circus in the middle of an election year. Bravo, people! As George Bush would’ve said, “Mission accomplished!” On virtually everything else however – revenues, tax loopholes, entitlement reform – they caved. Yes I know that the Bush tax cuts are still dangling out there waiting to be put out of their misery at the end of 2012. Anybody want to place bets that the Republicans will demand they be made permanent as one of the conditions of passing the 2012 budget? Again, that was a rhetorical question. You’ll have to keep up with me, boys and girls, I move fast.

What all of this proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that there are consequences for failing to control a narrative. Democrats have only themselves to blame for the predicament they are in. Lest we forget, they not only controlled both Houses of Congress, as well as the White House, but, for the better part of two years, they had sixty seats in the Senate. In essence, they controlled their own fate. All Republicans could do was sit there and twiddle their thumbs, something they are quite adept at, that is when they aren’t shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater.

So how then did the wheels come off? If you’ve ever read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you probably already know the answer to that question. The famous scene where Brutus cedes the stage, and with it the mob, to Mark Antony should be a must read for every political science major. One would’ve thought someone as astute in the arts as Obama would’ve memorized Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” line. Certainly those of us who voted for him assumed he was up to the task before him. But, after running what many considered the perfect campaign against Hillary Clinton, for some strange reason that only he himself seems to know, he has managed to violate virtually every conceivable rule of politics. Like Brutus, he naively trusted an enemy he thought would be reasonable, and has paid the ultimate price. Worse, like the aforementioned character in the play, he could not even bring himself to admit that he had enemies.

This isn’t about intelligence, for Brutus was an intelligent and thoughtful man. In fact, this may be an instance of too much intelligence for one’s own good getting in the way of political savviness. For much of Barack Obama’s career, he has seen the world through the eyes of a litigator. As any trial attorney will tell you, your training requires you to see both sides of an argument, even if the other side is inimical to your position. In every bill that he championed, and later passed, Obama strove for a middle of the road approach in order to win support from his opponents, support that never arrived. The stimulus was less than progressives wanted; the healthcare reform law lacked a public option; and the Dodd-Frank Act didn’t deal effectively with “Too Big To Fail.”

Obama’s pragmatism may have gotten these bills passed, but his critics on the Left argued – and effectively, I might add – that he gave away far too much of the store way too early in the process. If Clinton’s arrogance in the ‘90s was singularly responsible for the failure of healthcare reform to pass, then it can be safely assumed that Obama’s 180 was mainly responsible for the passage of a flawed and vulnerable law. Even now, the Administration is gearing up for the legal fight of its life that will inevitably wind up in the Supreme Court. Despite the bravado of the law’s proponents, the individual mandate has about a 50 / 50 chance of surviving the challenge.

And what else can be said of the stimulus that hasn’t already been said. Too small to be truly stimulative, yet still big enough to draw the ire of its opponents, Obama has now been reduced to having to defend an action which prevented the nation from falling off the proverbial cliff, but was clearly insufficient to jump-start the economy. In other words, the old, “As bad as things are now, it would’ve far worse had…” argument. It didn’t work in the 2010 midterms; it is unlikely to be successful next year.

And now the Administration, along with its Party, is on the defensive, as the Tea Party has not only managed to change the level of discourse in the country, but dominate the political landscape, as well. Whatever else you may want to call them – and I have exhausted every metaphor imaginable – they now control the narrative in Washington. It doesn’t matter that not one policy they have advocated has a proven track record of success; it also doesn’t matter that their stunts over the last few weeks have badly wounded the Republican brand. What matters most is that they have gotten the majority of elected officials in Congress in both parties to speak their language, and on their terms. They put their foot down and won. Imagine that. And, as far as damaging the Republican brand is concerned, any pundit will tell you that polls are as fickle as the weather in Florida. Let’s not forget that Obama’s approval rating after the killing of bin Laden was above 50%. It’s dropped more than ten points in four months.

Yes, they damn near destroyed the nation’s economy, and yes, many of them still don’t believe there was any real urgency regarding the debt-ceiling issue. But, for a bunch of juvenile delinquents posing as lawmakers, the Tea Party sure as hell schooled their masters, didn’t they? The four-year olds are having one hell of a good time in Mrs. McGillicutty’s class, aren’t they?

The lesson in all of this is as plain as the nose on your face. Those who control their own narrative, get to pull the strings; those who don’t, court political oblivion. By not carefully outlining what he was doing each and every step of the way, the President ostensibly allowed his opponents do define the message, a no-no in politics.  Brutus wasn't so much an honorable man as he was a dangerously naive one.  And while it’s a little late in the game for a do over, Obama is going to have to reassert himself if he has any chance of getting reelected. As things stand now he is no more than even money against Mitt Romney in next year’s election; the Senate is vulnerable; and even if Democrats manage to pick up some seats in the House, it won’t be nearly enough to prevent the sort of hostage taking we saw during this debacle.

Things will only continue to get worse; that much is certain. What isn’t certain is whether this President has the stomach to do something he historically has had an aversion to: namely confront his opponents. For the time being the nation will get a breather as it prepares for and marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but within days after that event, Republicans will be fast at work putting forth their demands.

I have lauded this President for being the adult in the room over the last few months, but there comes a time when the adult has to bring a stick into the classroom and administer his own form of corporal punishment to the wayward children. There is far more at stake here than Obama’s reputation. Imagine a scenario with both Houses of Congress firmly in the hands of the GOP and Michele Bachmann in the White House. Imagine Republicans running roughshod over the country, undoing every rule and regulation and enacting strict voter registration laws that could ostensibly block any real challenge to their reign for decades to come.

Can you imagine George Bush standing for this? Another rhetorical question that needs no answer. Well unless Barack Obama chooses to take a page out of his predecessor’s playbook and make a stand, and make it soon, the above scenario is not only possible, it’s quite probable.  Painting the other side as irrational and unreasonable will only get you so far.

Ain't history funny? That was a rhetorical, oh, you get the point!