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Monday, February 8, 2016

Can't get the Bern.

For the pro-choice party, we’re left with little of it in this primary season.  That’s troubling.  I so wish we had a broader array of contenders for the Democratic nomination.  I’m thinking, for example, of senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and, of course, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.   Democrats do have a strong bench.  Its members deserve more sunlight than they’ve been given (or taken for themselves).  The last person I expected to run was Senator Bernie Sanders in part because, while voting with Democrats, he has never (as Paul Starr writes in the Atlantic) chosen to join the party.  In fact, as Starr points out, he “has long excoriated it in unsparing language.”   Now he wants its most coveted nomination.  If a Senator Warren were in the mix, it’s doubtful he would have gotten as far as he has.

As any reader of these posts knows, I agree with Bernie Sanders on many issues.  He’s right about income inequality and the unfettered power of big business.  Our political system is dominated and corrupted by money, magnified after Citizens United.   The ACA is a step in the right direction, and not an insignificant one, but it would be far better (and I think cost-effective) if we had Medicare for all.  We need a sustaining minimum wage.  These, along with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, is why his message resonates with many Democratic voters, especially young people.  It has clearly found an enthusiastic following and has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton further to the left.  That’s a good thing.  The trouble is, no matter what happens in New Hampshire tomorrow, I just can’t get the “Bern”. 

While Bernie’s campaign is impressive and this seems to be a year of the unexpected candidates, it’s striking that not a single senate colleague supports him — not one.  In contrast, former Senator Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by 39 current and 8 former members of the chamber.  Even his fellow Vermonter, Howard Dean who also ran as an outsider, supports Hillary.  You may chalk that up to the “establishment”, which in part may be true.  But I’ve always thought what your peers and coworkers — the people who know you best — think of you speaks volumes.

But lack of colleague support is not why I can’t get the Bern.  I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, a similarly unlikely candidate in 2008.  I remain so.  His campaign, focused on change (albeit in a different context) brought an excitement and drew crowds that Americans rarely see and haven’t seen since.  He did this at a time when many of his natural followers, myself included, were deeply torn between the hope of having the first African American or first woman president.  In the end, Obama prevailed because he had something special.  He “fired” us up.  While other candidates and indeed presidents have been gifted orators, he stood out in our time with soaring and beautifully crafted rhetoric.  The combination filled his listeners with hope and anticipation — perhaps more than was warranted.  That definitely had a downside for his presidency.

I continue to believe that many Obama supporters read into his words what they wanted, perhaps needed, to hear.  What he actually said and what they were sure they heard didn’t always match.  That mismatch has had a profound impact on his popularity, especially so on the left.  Many liberals consider him a deep disappointment.  They fault him for not living up to what they expected — the words and promises they “heard” him make.  They complain that the ACA does not go far enough — it’s not the single payer plan they were sure it could have been.  Some feel that he was not tough enough on Republicans, didn’t assert himself.  They expected a roaring liberal; they got a left-of-centrist.  We are still at war in the Middle East and have not closed Guantanamo.  In short, Obama hasn’t delivered. 

I certainly share in some of these disappointments.  I also understand that Obama never promised universal Medicare or that it couldn’t have been enacted is beside the point.  That his central message, beginning with his ’06 convention speech and through the 2008 campaign, was breaking down the walls between “red” and “blue” America is no excuse.  That extricating America from foreign policies firmly in place long pre-dating George W Bush isn’t easy, or perhaps even possible in the short term, doesn’t matter.  Many Americans are rightly frustrated and angry.  The nature of that frustration and anger may be different but it’s what has brought Bernie and, yes, the likes of Trump to the fore.  I get it, understand it.  Much of that anger stems from the economic and other factors that I wrote about in my last post.  While focused on the presidency, some of it, and for many people much of it, comes from frustration with the unkept promises by candidates on all levels of government.  It results from loose of-the-moment campaign rhetoric aimed a winning office.

There remains a huge difference between blogging (not to mention around the dinner conversation) and having the responsibility for managing and getting things done.  I can afford to express hopes and disappointments unburdened by the limitations and difficulties of execution.  In relatively a similar way, there is a vast difference between pontificating on the senate floor and having to perform in the White House.  I know it’s wishful thinking, but that well known difference should inform those who embark upon the presidential campaign trail.  That's especially true for senators who, like their counterparts in the House, often stand in the way of presidents executing the ideal.  It isn’t a cliché to say that governing is far tougher than campaigning — Mario Cuomo’s “poetry verse prose”. 

In the end, that’s why I can’t get the Bern.  Sanders rightly rails against indisputable wrongs.  He speaks of revolution, but fails to give me any idea of how he might deliver.  As Frank Bruni writes, “little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.”   I may be agree with much of what he says, but maddingly he is no more specific on how he would accomplish it all than is Donald Trump whose person and ideas I abhor.  You may find that harsh, and even be offended by the comparison, but sadly I think it’s true.  I don’t want to be given promises that have no chance of being kept.  Bernie talks of revolution, but Americans as a nation — even those who agree with the ideals to which he gives voice — don’t do “revolution”.  Sure, we had one back in 1776 but since then, if anything, we have been consistently resistant to change.  Look at the unpopularity (albeit fired up by distorted Republican hyperbole) of the ACA.  Whatever change we permit is incremental.  In my view, presidential candidates at the very least have to remind us of the realities of governance.  They need to be specific and realistic especially so in a challenging time like this where government is divided and is likely to stay so for years to come.  Rhetoric that merely inflames is not enough.

So what really gives with Bernie Sanders?  Why are crowds of young people gathering around him?  The answer may be simple: he isn’t Hillary.  More to the point, many Democrats still can’t get excited about her candidacy.  The fault for this sits squarely at her doorstep.  The New York Times supports her because she is highly competent, better prepared for office than anyone in the running.  So do I.  I wish with greater enthusiasm and passion.  I wish she was combining her display of readiness with some real vision.  Ironically, if she were promising what Bernie is, I’d have much more confidence that at least some of it might be accomplished.  She’s not and I hope his candidacy may push her to do so in the months ahead.

This is truly a strange presidential year.  I’ve been thinking about Bernie and Hillary as well as their Republican counterparts.  The fact is that somehow they all seem to be the wrong messengers.  There is the aging Sanders representing a generation of whom he is not a part and whose future he won’t share.  There is Hillary breaking ground for women, for a different kind of future while, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his piece, is essentially credentialed by, even mired in, the past. Objectively speaking, she’s even an odd messenger, of a transformed 21st century women's movement.  On the other side, think about the high living, personal plane chauffeured billionaire whose real estate manipulations have priced out his hometown’s middleclass.   He “speaks” for frustrated people who couldn’t afford to spend a night in one of his luxury hotels or play on his gilt edged namesake golf courses.  Think of Republicans as a group who gain the votes from exactly the people who are hurt most by their policies, ones that continue to favor the rich and keep wages low.  All strange messengers — all seem a mismatch for our time.


Alas, that’s where we are.   We can say that Hillary Clinton sucked all the air out of a potential contest in 2016 for other Democrats.  But they are all  grownups who made the decision not to run.  She is an imperfect candidate when many of us so long for perfection.  All candidates for public office carry some baggage — just like all of us.  Hillary Clinton carries more than we would like.  I’m not suggesting here that those who have “the Bern” lack real enthusiasm.  Far from it.  I, along with others who do support Hillary still suffer from an enthusiasm gap.  Going forward, I remain convinced that the Bern won’t carry Sanders to the nomination if for no other reason that, current crowds not withstanding, too few people really have it.  I can only hope that Secretary Clinton will give us reason to insure her victory in the fall.  The alternative is unthinkable.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Anxiety and discontent.

2016 has gotten off to a depressing start.  Our stock market, following the lead of Chinese and others, had its worst ever opening weeks.  The Middle East remains in turmoil and, as Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz, the Netanyahu government has introduced legislation that directly threatens Israel’s long admired democracy.  Europeans meanwhile are struggling with an influx of refugees, the reaction to which may undermine a EU that boasts, and may depend on, open borders.  But awaiting the first voting in Iowa, nothing depresses me more than the current presidential contest.  This is our election of anxiety and discontent.

Sarah Palin’s endorsement rant only underscored how disconcerting the candidacy of Donald Trump — and how natural their pairing.  Fellow senators it seems fault Ted Cruz especially for being an unabashed egotist.  Isn’t that the Donald’s domain?  And then comes word that Michael Bloomberg is seriously considering a run at buying the presidency much as he effectively did three times the mayoralty in New York.   Bloomberg is purported ready to spend $1 Billion of his own money on such an effort.  Who does he think he is…a Koch?

Not surprisingly, I found the president’s final State of the Union bittersweet.  Watching it, I just couldn’t stop thinking that there is no Barack Obama — no one of his special talents or intellect — running in ’16.  For all the young people gathering at his rallies and despite an idealized liberal message, Sanders is no Obama.  Hillary Clinton, whom I support because she is both experienced and qualified, has yet to fire us up, to evoke the passion for which we yearn.  But what adds most to my own unrest is that she is the only candidate in either party who is ready to take on the very complex and difficult job of being president from day one.  Indeed, I find the prospect that any one of the GOP candidates would sit in the Oval Office no less that frightening.  That lack of viable choice isn’t good for the country. 

Part of what’s so depressing is that there is absolutely no joy on the campaign trail.  Indeed, it is anxiety and discontent that rule across the land.   If that were not bad enough, Republican candidates especially seem bent on magnifying and enflaming our national unease.  In his first inaugural Franklin Roosevelt famously declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror….” It’s a message that still resonates more than eight decades on.  It could be credibly delivered in 2016, but it’s not.  Instead, as the columnist Roger Cohen recently put it, this is a time when, “fear is a much-trafficked commodity.”  Listen to these candidates and you’ll see that traffic coming at us fast and furious. 

FDR was right about exaggerated fear but, as when he took the oath in 1933, there is good reason for the unease that prevails today.  Bernie Sanders surely isn’t purposefully fomenting fear, but his shrill one-dimensional economic focused message taps specifically into a widespread anxiety.  Despite upbeat statistics, the recovery has yet to be felt on the ground across the land.  It isn’t only the widening gulf between the super rich and everyone else, or income inequality per se.  It’s that most Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — are losing ground in real terms.  Inflation may be moderate and interest rates low, but family income has either stalled or even declined.  All too often the new jobs — and there are millions of them — pay less than old ones.  Republicans don’t talk much about income inequality but there’s no doubt that the rise of the so-called “outsiders” in this election cycle reflects in part the same economic insecurity among their constituents.  I put outsiders in quotes because no one running for the presidency is truly an outsider, certainly not real estate developer Trump or the decades long senator Sanders.  Ted Cruz, a product of Princeton and Harvard, is married to a Goldman executive.  How much more insider could you be?

If it weren’t bad enough that people are falling behind economically, many see themselves losing ground politically as well.  White Christians, many of whom identify as Republicans, look into the future and see their majority status, and consequently their power, eroding.  It hasn’t really happened yet, but they know what’s coming and it unnerves them —makes them frantic.  That explains why they are digging in and working so hard to turn the clock back, reverse progress wherever they rule. Consider what’s happened in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and here in North Carolina where I live.  Changing demographics and the coming rule of a much more open-minded generation may time limit these regressions, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful or painful in the present.

If Republicans are protectively digging in, the naturally Democratic constituency is equally discomforted.  They see a systematic attack on the trade unions that have been essential to middle class life, along with blatant gerrymandering making a mockery of one-person-one-vote.  If playing with districts were not enough, voter suppression is on the rise, especially (but not exclusively) in former confederate states.  While those aging white voters might fear the future, the soon to be majority are living a frustrating present.  The hard won gains of the Civil Rights movement, especially its protection of voting rights, are, with help from the Supreme Court, being undermined and reversed. That adds to both anger and unease.  For different reasons, both sides are subject to the same emotion.

Finally there is the fear, again opportunistically hyped, of "terrorism" abroad and most especially when it touches the “homeland”.  The attacks in Paris and in California have set people on edge.  That ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States doesn’t mean that their violent attacks — construed to insight terror — aren’t raising the level of fear.  Ironically, the sponsors of this violence are effectively partnering with rightist politicians in promoting fear for their own, albeit different, purposes.  ISIS is a sophisticated manipulator of modern media while pretenders to public office stoke anxiety on the stump.


As primary voting gets underway, much of the hype, speculation and pontification will be replaced by results — right.  Lots of spin will follow.  The campaigns and talking heads will tell us what we have seen and what it means.  They will continue to insult our intelligence.  Projections will be made and the horse race drama will gain new momentum.  One thing is unlikely to change. This will continue to be an election of real and carefully promoted anxiety and discontent.  The only thing that might change that is if candidates stop playing on our fears and start seriously addressing them.  At this point, I’m not optimistic, which is what I find so depressing.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Nearing an end.

2015 is drawing toward a close, time to think about this and the coming year.   Most years leave in their trail a mixed, often messy, story — the good and the bad.  As The Times reminded us in a Christmas Day editorial, ’15 brought us the Paris Agreement on global warming, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage equality and much of Europe’s generously in opening its doors to countless refugees. I’d add to that, the Iran nuclear deal and reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba ending half a century of useless estrangement.  The year ending was also one of horrendous, seemingly unending, violence, and conflict.  It brought the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the killing at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs — all three terrorist acts.  Each received media attention, but countless more lives were lost to daily gun violence across the land.  Also on the negative ledger, is the stunningly mean spirited Republican primary campaign underway and destined to continue well into 2016.

The Times editorial reflected on President Obama’s remarkable Amazing Grace eulogy for the fallen victims of last June’s purely domestic terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina.  Another immediately came to mind — perhaps the greatest of his presidency — the soaring Selma speech at the bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years on.  Thanks to the Internet, I was able to watch both again.  You should do the same.  Without question, he is one of our greatest presidential orators, perhaps unmatched before crowds on such momentous occasions.  As Mario Cuomo (1932-2015), another political orator of note, might have described them, his speeches can be pure poetry. They combine elegant text with compelling artful delivery.  Charleston and Selma were prime examples of his special gift.  In reliving them on the eve of 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder how Donald Trump or any of the other remaining thirteen might represent us on such occasions.  A horrifying thought to be sure.  Perhaps Macro Rubio fancies himself the Republican Obama — dream on — but I don’t see the oratorical likes of the President on the current scene or, for the matter, the horizon.  This is not to suggest that Obama doesn’t have faults, including at times in communicating with us, or that, for example Hillary Clinton isn’t articulate, talented and highly qualified.  It is merely to recognize his uniqueness.

Presidents are charged with crafting policy, decision-making (the “decider”) and generally leading the nation.  As such, they mirror other chief executives in the business and non-profit world.  Presidents are our voice and also our master accountants reporting yearly on the Union’s state.  They are our ambassadors to the world, the embodiment of our global leadership.  They don’t sit on the Hill, but are expected to drive key legislation.  That’s a tall order, but we ask, no expect, more, much more.  That’s what brought Obama to both Selma and Charleston this year and to Newtown in 2012.  Part of his mission in the latter two was to fulfill the role of “Comforter-in-Chief”.  But beyond offering consolation a president must inspire, must give special voice to our moral compass even when others seek to quiet or pervert it.   Obama on too many tragic occasions has pleaded with us to do something beyond invoking condolences, however heartfelt.  He wants us to curb or at a minimum better control the instruments of slaughter — not merely those who pull triggers but to the weapons that enable their atrocities. 

Presidents are there to remind us of our identity, our accomplishments and what is yet to be done.  “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding”, he declared in Selma, “our union is not yet perfect”.  We still have unfinished business, which brings me to the year ahead.  It’s impossible to predict with any accuracy all that will transpire in 2016.  There will be surprises, the unexpected.  But we do know that by next summer, the presidential race will come into sharper focus.  Nominees will emerge in what is likely to give us the starkest ideological choice since Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson faced off in 1964.  One can’t overstate that the nation’s future will be on the ballot.  Some of what Obama said at the foot of that historic bridge speaks vividly to the year ahead:

 …our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

…so much has changed in fifty years. We’ve endured war, and fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26 year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.


We can’t control much of what will happen to us and to our country.  That was true last year and will be in the years yet to come.  What we can impact is our nation’s response to whatever that will be.  If you were disappointed, yes even discouraged, especially in 2010 and 2012, blame it on low turnout, on the citizenship laziness that erodes our democracy.  “What is our excuse…?  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice in shaping America’s future?”  Ultimately, we are the government.  What elected officials do is done, they claim, in our name.  Those actions are to our collective credit but all too often, to our collective fault.  It won’t be enough to cast our individual vote next November.  We shouldn’t let a day pass without reminding others of their responsibility, of how much we need their voice, their help just as they need ours.  I know November 1st seems far off as December ebbs, but if we’re into resolutions come January 1, getting another voter to the polls — many other voters to the polls — should be at the top of our list.