Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Inevitable is an Unwelcome Word

The Democrats took stage in Philadelphia.  It was billed as the moment when Barack Obama would take Hillary on, finally.  All the pundits are handicapping how he did.  The general conclusion, she survived.  We’re still in the horserace mode and still headed to unprecedented early primaries that will likely give birth to an extended period of two shadow governments (no incumbents in this race) and likely non-stop campaigning or perhaps worse blatant and unproductive posturing.  One only has to hope both Democrats and Republicans won’t be suffering buyer’s remorse by the time their conventions and the election comes around.  This can’t be good for the country, which is already stuck with a highly unpopular administration in limbo, holding its breath that there won’t be some last ditch act of bravado that will cause us incalculable harm.

The Republicans most recent appearance was not a debate but a trip down pandering lane at the Religious Right’s Value Voters Summit.  As pointed out by Frank Rich in last Sunday’s NY Times, it is a group whose leaders have only a faint shadow of their former influence.  Indeed, David Kirkpatrick in the same day’s Magazine section, pointed to the major upheaval within the Evangelical movement that is upending its narrow obsession with abortion and gays in favor of poverty, the environment  and, of all things, life beyond the womb.  Martin King would be pleased to hear it.  But the Republican pretenders didn’t seem tuned into these inconvenient truths.  They were hell bent on showing their true Christian colors.  Sadly that was one of the subtexts of the Values Summit – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and surely Atheists need not apply; having a Mormon present was as much of a big tent as they could muster.

There is one thing upon which both Democratic and Republicans do agree.  George Bush is a nightmare that can’t end too soon.  While the Democrats hammer away at the Bush-Cheney missteps, their opponents seem to have forgotten how to even mouth his name.  They also seem to agree, for the moment, that Hillary Clinton is the target though obviously in a very different way.  I myself still can’t warm up to her and continue to believe that, however good a campaign she has run so far, the country would be better served with someone who carries less baggage, who doesn’t find it necessary to court one and all.  I continue to fear that her underlying world view may not be sufficiently different than that of the current administration.  Her vote on Iran and its rationale speak volumes to that.  The Iraq vote, she contends after the fact, was for further negotiations not war something she repeats almost verbatim this time around, leaving one with an unmistakable and unnerving sense of deja vu.

Regardless of these misgivings, I must say that the Democrats lined up in Philadelphia (including Senator Clinton) were an attractive group.  Perhaps Denis Kucinich remains somewhat of a gadfly (UFOs and all) but there is something refreshingly pure about his straight forward position on both the war and the administration that rings true, however politically impractical it may be.  These candidates, each in their own way, represent a change in course from what we have now and any of them would probably make reasonably good Presidents, vastly better than the travesty we now endure with such pain. 

In many ways Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are the most seasoned, each with a highly commendable and thoughtful record in Congress.  That is also a weakness because their statements almost always have that “and then I wrote” quality conjuring up yesterday, past glories rather than tomorrow.  It’s the kind of experience that suggests pretty well established world views, which isn’t bad per say, but makes one sense an absence of any new and unfettered thinking.  They are excellent and smart public servants, but as Bill Clinton might say, we can do better.  Bill Richardson’s stand on the War is commendable and he is not afraid to voice specifics on the programs he supports, but with all his diplomatic skills, he was (if I remember correctly) somewhat of a go-it-alone lose cannon.

The big question everyone is asking at this point is why Barack Obama isn’t doing better?  He has raised an impressive amount of money from more people than any one else.  He draws huge crowds and his name is always on everyone’s lips.  He is smart and, unusual for a politician, a fine writer.  He delivered one of the most inspiring Keynotes ever heard at a political convention.  The last may not be a good omen – great Keynoters rarely win their party’s nomination; Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards come to mind while Albin Barkley made it only to the Vice Presidency.  If ever there was a time for a fresh face and a dramatic turn in a new direction this is it.  So what’s the problem?

It was the answer to that question that struck me watching the two-hour debate and considering the campaign thus far.  The Presidency is a unique office and the only national one.  Running for President is unlike anything else and the rhythm of a campaign vastly more complicated and demanding than running for Senator or Governor.  The question isn’t only why Obama seems to be lagging thus far, it’s equally why Ms. Clinton seems to be doing so well.  The answer in both cases is the same, and it’s not a matter of who has sufficient experience to be President, but who has been on the road more often.  This is her third national campaign and his first.  True she wasn’t the candidate the first two times around, but perhaps that in itself is an advantage.  She both participated (gave speeches and shook hands) and was able to watch; to pick up on what worked and what didn’t.  Hillary has been there, done that and it didn’t take long for her to get into a comfortable stride.  Obama, however large the audiences, is still on his learning curve.  The foreshortened schedule is definitely not to his advantage.

To prove the point we only have to look at John Edwards who arguably did somewhat better than Senator Obama in the debate.  He was more aggressive and, with Tim Russert’s help, probably got in the most telling line of the evening.  Edwards has experienced a national campaign, one in which he was a disappointing performer, but then John Kerry didn’t exactly inspire greatness.  Regardless, it has definitely given him a leg up in Philadelphia.  That said, the contrast between the ex-Senator from North Carolina and the Senator from Illinois was not that great.  In fact it suggests that Obama is doing pretty well after all, even  that he might hit his stride in the few weeks left before the holiday hibernation and the Iowa Caucus.

One of my problems with Hillary, shared by others (though perhaps not by as many voters as I would think), remains dynasty.  It’s the prospect of potentially twenty-eight (a young lifetime) years of Bush-Clinton.  Some people say that’s unfair and my fears are unfounded.  Perhaps so, but one of the things that bothers me about her campaign, something that may come back to bite her in the end, is an unmistakable sense of entitlement.  Both the candidate and her most ardent supporters see this as “her turn, her due”.  Without question she was a real trouper and loyal helpmate to Bill Clinton, putting her own career on the backburner as it were.  But in fact that may be over done.  She wasn’t, you will remember, back home in the kitchen baking cookies and she parlayed her experience into a best selling book and a Senate seat.  The nomination was Bob Dole’s due in 1996 and you remember what happened to him.  Nobody is due the Presidency.

I was (and remain) a big Clinton fan.  Days after his first election I went to the Caribbean for a vacation and was so excited about him that I pinned a campaign button onto my beach bag just to glow in the victory.  It is conventional wisdom to say he had a flawed character.  Perhaps so, but in the bright light of 24/7 news, some of his predecessors would certainly have fared no better in that regard.  The iconic FDR died with Lucy, not Eleanor, at his side and JFK…well.  Hillary is no Bill and that probably speaks in her favor, but it also reminds us of what’s missing.  There is something juicy about Bill, something almost primordially human.  When saying, “I feel your pain” we truly believe it.  Blood runs through those veins as opposed to Hillary who, while perhaps not feeding her heart with ice water, somehow lacks that natural and comforting connection.  Presidents don’t have to be warm and fuzzy puppies, but we like to think they come from our neighborhood, or at least have spent enough time there to understand who we are and what we need.

Did Hillary get knocked out last night?  No, but perhaps there was the beginning of something.  Is that wishful thinking on my part?  It may well be, but again I’m just not in the mood for replaying the best or least worst of all possible worlds.  We’re in a very big hole and old roads are unlikely to lead us out of it.  Hillary is good.  No doubt about it, but we can and we should do better even if Bill doesn’t admit to it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The Santa Ana winds are fueling wild fires in California.  Draught is threatening to cripple the Southeast.  The Turkish and Iranian boarders with northern Iraq have become a tinderbox where rebel Kurds threaten to throw the only relatively tranquil area of the country into turmoil.  John McCain makes the rounds of talk shows calling for fiscal conservatism and then goes on stage to acclaim Ronald Reagan whose tax cuts and defense spending produced record deficits.  Oil, thanks both to demand and the collapse of the once almighty dollar, has hit $90 a barrel.   It turns out that we have more than twice the armed forces in Iraq than most of us realized, more than half of them hired guns.  The Republican candidates supported by the media have decided on the Democratic Nominee even though not a single ballot has been cast.  Voting machines continue to malfunction calling into question how accurate a tally we can expect in the 2008 election.  Democrats on the Hill, left largely with oversight as a tool for influence, fail to penetrate Blackwater Chief Executive Prince’s veneer of patriotism or to really expose the shadow military that he and other contractors have created with our tax dollars. 

This is but the tip of the iceberg in what appears to be a perfect storm run totally out of control.  But what of ourselves?  We, it would seem, are pretty much conducting our lives untouched by all that is going on.  We sit by happily as an irresponsible Administration aided and abetted by a compliant Congress borrow billions to finance a misguided war while we eagerly await April’s potential tax refunds.  Al Gore wins the Nobel Prize for truth telling, but most of us continue to function as if infinite resources will be at our command.  Our priority is maintaining the lifestyle we see as our entitlement.  SUV sales have come down, but only a bit.  Wal-Mart is committed to selling compact fluorescents, but most Americans hold on to the glow of incandescent light.  Perhaps worst of all, while occasionally thinking about all these things, and telling pollsters that we’re headed in the wrong direction, most of us seem more interested in avoiding inconvenient truths than confronting them.  We don’t want to upset our dinner guests with unpleasant thoughts.  We've added reality to the taboos of talking politics and religion in polite company.

It would be an inaccurate reading of history to suggest that all six million Jews could have been spared Hitler’s gas chambers.  At the same time, there is no question that large numbers, particularly of German Jews, perished because they simply refused to accept the reality of their situation.  With roots planted centuries deep, they saw the increasing compromises in their daily life and diminishment of freedom as a passing episode not inevitable disaster.  Likewise we live the illusion that “it couldn’t happen here.”  I am not suggesting that we are heading for a Holocaust, or that events unfolding before our eyes mirror those faced by my parents and their generation in Berlin of the 1930s.  But make no mistake this is a time when many of the values we take for granted and hold dear are being eroded.  Contemplate, for example, the potential of that huge and growing paramilitary run largely by right wing conservatives at the moment when they decide the country is headed in the wrong direction.

As so often happens, truth emerges more powerfully in the metaphor than in any direct expression.  This struck me as I listened again to that John McCain campaign speech on C-Span.  It’s not the straight talk (often more a slogan than a reality) that keeps McCain in the game, but his compelling life story, which he unabashedly repeats much as Rudy wraps himself in 9/11.  McCain, a third generation military man, proclaimed that we didn’t lose the Viet Nam War on the battlefield, but on the streets of American cities.  We’ve all heard that before from conservative politicians, but think for a moment about what those streets represent.  Yes, something called democracy where civilians, meaning officials elected by us, have control over the military.  To be sure, McCain would deny that he was challenging democracy, but if so he is either deaf to the underlying meaning of his words or he is disingenuous.

Tom Brokaw made a fortune in writing about what he called “the greatest generation”.  I question his premise, because there has been no single greatest generation.  Moreover, it’s hard to claim that those who fought in World War II were any more dedicated or personally courageous than those who fought in Viet Nam or are now in Iraq.  Equally so, the very idea that the conflict  he considered can be characterized as a “good war” is in itself flawed.  Wars can be necessary and fighting them can be noble, but they can never be characterized as good.  To me, the greatest generation of the twentieth century were not those who landed at Omaha beach, but those who marched on our streets in the name of righting America’s wrongs and getting us our of Viet Nam.  People were energized and people power was exercised to change the country’s course were it ending segregation or stopping an ill-conceived conflict.  It is said that our streets today are not filled because we have no draft or because lunchrooms are now integrated.  Perhaps so, but the sad fact is that most of us are simply averting our eyes and hoping it will all go away.  It won’t, and in the end we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. 

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Stuck on the Old Road

The last thing we needed was a dispute about Florida balloting.  How quickly they forget and how shortsighted at the very moment when this critical state is in play thanks the growing disaffection of its large Hispanic community with Republicans.  Leaving aside my recently expressed position that the primary process is far too long, I am solidly with Florida on this one.  Their, and some other states, decision to move up primaries is not an expression of revolt, but raises an appropriate question as to whether the Iowa/New Hampshire axis still makes sense in the 21st Century.  Looking at the reaction of the DCC, one would think that the order of primaries was written into the Constitution, which of course it is not.  Perhaps the idea of giving small states a fair chance at influencing legislation embodied in the creation of the Senate makes sense, but the idea that these small states should play an inordinately disproportional role in selecting party nominees in the digital age is anachronistic at best.  We’re inexplicably stuck on the old road.  If you really want to level the playing field, abolish the Electoral College and make the votes of individual citizens truly equal, regardless of where they live.  One person, one equal vote.

Of course, I don’t understand why the Florida thing is even an issue worth discussing.  We have already been informed that the November ’08 will be the equivalent of a subway series – Mr. 9/11 vs. Ms. Dynasty.  This seems to have particular allure to the girls and boys on the press bus and on talk shows.  Has anyone noticed what happened to the Mets in the run-up to the off-season or what seems to be happening to the Yankees at this writing?  The former seemed so certain to be winners this year and the latter are assumed champions by Divine right.  Really?  While you’d never know it from much of the coverage, the Presidential election is not a ball game, or a game at all.  What unnerves me about the prospect of a Rudy-Hillary match-up is that it so totally out of sync with the notion that the country is desperate for change, most especially when it comes to Iraq.  The Republican (who justifies Judith’s curious cell phone calls as a necessary post-9/11 “keeping in touch”) was, is, and will be a hawk.  The Democrat was, claims she isn’t now but remains, I would suggest, hawkish to the core.  Her recent vote to declare Iran’s army a terrorist organization, an unprecedented and highly provocative move, only speaks to that proposition.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Rudy and Hillary are one and the same or that, given such a choice, I wouldn’t pull the lever for the Senator in a heartbeat.  It’s just that the end result may more or less keep us stuck on the old road when we can least afford it.

In the midst of the silly Florida debacle and talk of inevitable nominees, John Murtha and two Congressional colleagues floated a provocative and sensible idea for funding the War.  It was an effectual calling of the cards in the Poker game being played by a fiddling Washington in the face of a world on fire.  What they proposed was a defined and temporary tax levy, a pay as you go plan of fiscal responsibility.  They were, of course, immediately branded “tax and spend” Democrats in what Republicans saw as a great public relations coup.  It was an old and predictable song, but not nearly as painful as the spineless reaction of the Democratic leadership that immediately distanced itself, dismissing it out-of-hand as a legitimate idea for discussion.  What a pity and what a loss of opportunity to have a mature discussion in a city that seems mired in it childish ways.  Consider for a moment what might have been if the vote authorizing this disastrous and unnecessary war would have mandated accompanying enabling taxes?  States with balanced budget requirements face exactly that prospect when authorizing extraordinary expenditures.  But we’re not discussing the Murtha proposal because we’re stuck on the old road.

It is equally disturbing and frustrating that Democrats remain so inept at responding to such Republican charges and the misleading slogans that accompany them.  The question that should have been asked in retort is, what is so bad about “tax and spend”?  Is it not an appropriate and prudent way to approach fiscal matters?  Is it not vastly better and more responsible than the Republican way that can only be described as “borrow and spend”.  Their way now, and during the hallowed Reagan years, has led to historically high huge deficits.  What’s even worse this time around is that it has made us beholden to, of all things, China, as our ultimate banker?  I guess that beats “the Red menace” but doesn’t it also suggest (the relationship not borrowing) the importance of not remaining stuck on old roads? The Republican idea is to cut taxes and then to spend like drunken sailors while shamelessly promoting the myth that the Democrats are the irresponsible lot.  The Democrats idea is to sit back and let themselves be defined, even by the big lie.  Guess who wins that round; guess whose stuck on the old road?

This may well be the election year that even we can’t screw it up.  But wining is not enough.  It has to be the year that leads to substantive and measurable change.  Some will suggest that we’re stuck in Iraq no matter who wins.  I don’t discount that extricating ourselves may take longer than Governor Richardson glibly suggests, but leave we must, sooner rather than later.  In that regard the candidates' records and their underlying intent become critical.  We need someone who tells us how we can move ahead, not why we’re stuck on the old road.  The next President will be confronted by a reputation deficit that pales the economic one in comparison.  A real change in policy and attitude is our only hope to recoup some of our losses, hopefully a substantial portion of them.  History moves on, all the more rapidly so in this nanosecond world.  We’re unlikely to find ourselves in an exclusive "club of one" ever again and this may well not end up as our century.  That doesn’t mean we’re without options or opportunities.  The good old days, such as they were, are gone.  But it seems to me that something better than what we have now may still be in our reach.  Only tomorrow’s leadership in the drivers seat can accomplish that.  Conventional wisdom suggests, to the contrary, that experience is required, but I fear it will too easily rely on the tried and no longer true.  We dare not simply retrace the old roads that essentially lead to some dead end.  Our kids deserve and demand much more than that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Letter to the World's "Baptists"

I was thinking again about the sermonic peroration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech during a run yesterday morning on one of Chapel Hill’s lovely trails.  Realizing it was October 1st, the day on which it was sent in 1801, the letter from a newly elected Thomas Jefferson addressed to the Danbury Baptists came to mind.  Jefferson’s words have had a profound impact on our country, standing as the definitive interpretation of the First Amendment.  “Believing with you that religion is a matter that lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”  With these two things in mind, I was struck by our own and the Iranian President's similarities.  To be sure George W. Bush’s words are tempered by Jefferson’s admonition, but he, like Ahmadinejad, sees his mission coming from God.  While I disagree with both of them on this account, I don’t doubt that either man's belief is heartfelt.  They truly feel they are carrying out God’s will, but which God is that?  And that’s the very question implicit in crafting the Constitution’s insightful line of demarkation, so clearly articulated by our third Chief Executive.

This similarity in outlook, while surely different in ideological content, is characteristic of a world in which it can be argued that religion too often manifests itself as part of the problem and not of the solution.  Going into battle with “God’s blessing”, which clearly is nothing new, virtually mandates a conflict of absolutes and is the inevitable mother of the intractable.  If you really believe that you’re executing God’s will, the perfect and infallible God, then there can be no room for compromise.  It’s a matter of right and wrong.  You or I may have a personal or even collective point of view on this subject or that, but so long as we see ourselves as its source, we are amenable to change.  We may not like giving in or worse being bested in argument by others, but the stakes remain relatively low.  All that changes with God in the mix, because while we are fallible, God is not, certainly not if he is God.  So giving ground means questioning not merely the Ultimate but one’s own faith.  That can’t happen.  It is for precisely that reason that mixing religion and affairs of state is so poisonous and why, however ironic, it makes peacemaking virtually, if not totally, impossible.

What we need today are not sermons at the United Nations or invocations of God’s blessing on our actions, but a forceful letter the world’s “Baptists”.  That may be a quixotic idea, but I really think that much more important than fighting some mythical “War on Terrorism”, we should be focused on removing religion from our conflicts on all sides.  That may not be as unrealistic as it sounds because this imputed religious content is essentially born our of human manipulation, the selective reading of one scripture or another to meet purely self-serving human objectives – as true for Bush as it is for Ahmadinejad.  We’re in Iraq for many reasons, most (and probably all) of them wrong, but the one thing I’m confident didn’t bring us to Baghdad was God.  No I don’t presume to know God’s will better than George Bush does, I simply know that, (assuming God exists), neither of us is in a position to really know it.  The same can be said about a Jihad whether declared by Osama bin Laden or anyone else.  All of these are smokescreens purposefully raised by powerful humans because the reputed work of God brooks no questioning.

If the world is to have any hope for peace, we must collectively erect a wall of separation between our individual religious beliefs and how we interact with one another.  Erecting such a wall suggests no lessening of religion itself or of fervent religious belief; it simply puts religion where it belongs as Jefferson said, something “solely between man and his God”.  His (or her, Mr. Jefferson) God is not necessarily your God or mine, which is the point.  Conflict is between people, and to the best of our knowledge, God has nothing to do with it unless the all-knowing is in the habit of regularly changing sides.  Does God (assuming he’s on our side) support Saddam and the Taliban one day and oppose them the next?  Perhaps this separation will (or can) never happen, but think about its implications for a moment and you’ll come to realize that it may well be the last real hope for humankind.  When Gandhi led the fight against the British his greatest disappointment was the resulting split of the sub-continent along religious lines, leading to a volatile divisiveness that remains until this day.  Much of the intractable dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is equally informed by religiously based “territorial rights”.  None of these serve peace; all bode ill for the future.

Perhaps a letter to the world’s “Baptists” is an unlikely dream.  I fear that to be the case since too many people are vested in the conflicts that use religion as their rallying flag.  But looking at the result, perhaps, as our own Supreme Court embarks upon another term exactly 206 years later to the day, we would all do well to pull out Jefferson’s letter.  The separation of Church and State has been under systematic attack since religious fundamentalists began to influence not merely Republican politics but the country’s conversation.  In pleading for separation, many liberals and even a good number of conservatives, hold fast to the Jeffersonian ideas principally to protect specifics like a woman’s right of reproductive choice or keeping “Intelligent Design” out of the public schools.  I agree with them, vigorously so.  But there is something much more ominous at stake.  When religion and governance mix, violent conflict seems to follow.  That could be the greatest threat to homeland security.   I truly believe that the tranquility of the nation hangs in the balance when we tinker with this basic First Amendment principle.  The record is clear in that regard.  It would be good to send a letter to the world’s “Baptists”, but at the very least we should urgently send one to ourselves.