Monday, December 31, 2007

Not in a Sellng Mood

They spent with abandon in Iowa.  Records were shattered.  That all of this money and time was expended in such a small rural state is an anachronism of an outmoded and broken primary system.  The pundits fall all over themselves rationalizing this overblown silliness; telling us how valuable the process.  I for one don’t revel in the pride of Iowan engagement but am undone by the shame of its absence almost everywhere else.  Our way of electing Presidents is broken, and Iowa is but one ugly symptom of the disease that desperately awaits a cure before it does us all in.  But let’s leave that for another day.  Let’s talk money, the thing we seem to covet above all else.

McCain Feingold notwithstanding, money in campaigns is like water encountering boulders in a running stream.  It finds its way around them.  Thanks to Al Gore’s Internet, contributions this time around are more egalitarian and widespread than they were in former years, but the amounts are nonetheless staggering, if not obscene.   We talk about the billions going down the drain in Iraq when they could be used to fix our healthcare system or teach our kids.  Campaign money pales in comparison, but so much of it is similarly misspent.  John Edwards bemoans powerful corporate power, and he is absolutely right.  Out there in Iowa he’s spending his share enriching the local media tycoons.  I’m not pointing a finger at him, but at the system.  But here again, it’s not the money in play right now that has gotten my attention.  It’s the money that might be spent in the New Year.

The New York Times and Washington Post are reporting that billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is once again flirting with the idea of an independent presidential run.  Ross Perot redux.  Bloomberg, it is said, is being encouraged by ex-Senators David L. Boren and Sam Nunn; self-appointed sages stepping in to save the day for bi-partisan cooperation.  If the candidates don’t commit to working with the other party, they threaten, Mike will be taking the stage.  Ah, Ralph Nader with big bucks.  As Mr. Scrooge would say, bah humbug.  The Democrats are locked in a tight race because their field is so good and well liked.  The Republicans race is also tight, but for the opposite reason.  Boren and Nunn to the rescue.  How more transparent can this effort by two conservatives, albeit of different parties, be?  Bloomberg, they reason, could snatch victory from those Liberals whose demise was greatly exaggerated and who are now, thanks to what Conservatives have wrought, on the upswing.

If you think Mitt Romney is a political opportunist, he has nothing on Mike Bloomberg.  A long time Democrat, he switched parties to run for Mayor of New York six years ago.  Term limited, he switched to independent the moment he began seeing himself as the possible heir to the Perot legacy.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Bloomberg has been a good mayor, much better and less divisive than Rudy.  He has been innovative, particularly in education.  My problem with him, and I have the same with John Corzine of New Jersey, is that he bought the city in 2001.  Now he wants to buy the country.

It’s bad enough that people of limited means can’t afford seeking elective office and that members of Congress are forced to spend more time raising funds than legislating.  The idea that someone from the privileged class can literally buy an office takes our unequal system to a new, and low, level.  I have no problem with Bloomberg being a billionaire, nor does it disqualify him from holding public office.  But the idea that he should have an elective edge on everyone else because he’s fabulously wealthy wasn’t quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind.  I don’t suggest that the mayor doesn’t see himself as qualified.  He may be truly disturbed by the rancor that has taken hold in the land, but it just doesn’t seem credible that his concern is not trumped by ambition and a greed for power.  Perhaps spending your own money guarantees that you will not be in the pocket of special interests, but how about all of us being in your pocket?

Needless to say, a Bloomberg candidacy in a year that Democrats rightly have some hope of regaining the White House is most disturbing.  Siphoning off the independent voters that any victor needs will put this race into play and not in favor of the spoiler.  It will also produce yet another chief executive who must govern with the support of less that 50% of the electorate.  If the eminent former Senators (who have made the most of their post Washington years) and the Mayor (who told us he was headed for full time philanthropy) think gridlock prevails now, just contemplate what it might be after they’re finished with us.

Mike, you’re a great guy.  Your mother is rightly proud of what you made of yourself.  But we are not for sale.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Vladimir and Bill

Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton have something in common.  They both desperately want another term in office.  Term limits have put them in a box, but these are talented and inventive men.  Putin of course is advantaged by a system that is more democratic in name than in reality.  So he’s devised a work around that will allow him both to step aside and to remain in place at the same time.  Clinton, forced to step aside in 2000, has his own path to resurrection – it’s the marriage card.  But the wedding “I do” doesn’t automatically translate into the office oath taking “ I do”.  That’s the rub and it accounts for why the former President, perhaps even more than his spouse, is sounding desperate these days.  Warning us that we’re rolling the dice, he insinuates that Barack should hold back much as he did in the election cycle that preceded his 1992 race.  He points to Northern Ireland that turned to old (literally) hands, people of experience and of the past to guide them into the future.  Does that suggest Hillary is a former terrorist?  Certainly not, but it’s a silly convenient argument.  It also has that “wait your turn” approach that we normally associate with Republicans.  It served Clinton well in running against Bob Dole.  Would it serve it serve the GOP as well if Democrats bought into that notion?

I like Bill Clinton.  He has every reason to be proud of his Presidency and has used his time well (not to mention lucratively) during these past seven years.  His political and communicative skills remain unmatched.  That said, he has a voracious need to be in the spotlight, the center of attention.   The prospect of having to share that center, which would be the case in a Hillary administration, is already a big compromise.  Being sidelined by an upstart in his own party is an excruciating prospect.  Clinton also carries negative baggage, and I don’t mean his zipper problem.  He triangulates and is not above shading the truth when it fits his preferred narrative – he was against Iraq from the start.  He also is not above rewriting history, something that we expect from Putin’s Russia but not here.  That includes the reasons he didn’t run in ’88.  He says he wasn’t ready, but virtually every commentator has pointed out his concern about…yes his gubernatorial zipper problem. 

For a man who became governor of his state at age thirty-two, suggesting that Barack Obama is too young or too green – not ready – is a bit disingenuous.   Who between them had the real audacity of ambition?  So the Clinton campaign has gone nasty which perhaps is all right, but their efforts at deniability are both transparent and unseemly.  Hillary didn’t know, Bill just says whatever comes to his mind and Penn, well his repeating cocaine over and over again on Chris Mathews absolutely wasn’t calculated.   Give us a break.

There is a downside to Bill’s increased visibility and all the talk of his having taken a more active role in directing the campaign.  It brings the idea of a co-President to the fore.  Without question, many Americans have yearned for Clinton during the last disastrous years; have wished that term limits didn’t exist.  At the same time, we now have a seasoned co-President in office and look where it has gotten us.  No I’m not comparing Bill and Dick nor certainly Hillary and George, but there is something off-putting about the idea that our President needs a “co-“.   Moreover, second acts aren’t always as satisfying as the first, sometimes they’re just plain awful.  There is also something else.  People with great talent and oversized egos think that the world can’t function without them at the helm.  Looking at the Bush years, Clinton has some reason to buy into that idea.  But the truth is it can and it does.  None of us, no matter how talented and seemingly essential we are, is irreplaceable.  I’m sure Jack Welch thought GE would never be the same without him.  Not to worry it’s humming along just fine, thank you.  So can America without a Clinton or a Bush at its helm.  At least that’s the way I see it and for sure I may be proven wrong.  If I am, be assured that on January 20th of 2009 I’ll be wondering when we can expect Jeb to start preparing to take his turn.  Rest assured, he’s thinking about it at this very moment.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Race Card

Mike Huckabee apologized to Mitt Romney.  No he didn’t think Mormons see Jesus and the devil walking hand in hand.  Hillary Clinton apologized to Barack Obama, and this time the issue was drugs.  The first apology was just another manifestation of the ongoing religious drama in the Republican race; the second is far more disturbing.  Clinton has been under the gun in recent weeks and for the second time she is having husband problems.  The first husband of course was Bill Clinton whose claim of being opposed to Iraq from the beginning was just a reminder of the couple’s predilection to shade the truth to meet their own needs.  The second husband was Billy Shaheen, not her own but that of New Hampshire’s former Governor and present Senate candidate Jean.  Shaheen’s “unauthorized” musing to reporters about Obama’s youthful drug use – self-confessed in his book, contained explosive innuendo, and I would argue not so subtle racism.

Reported on the Washington Post’s website, Mr. Shaheen speculated about a possible vulnerability for a candidate who is known to have used drugs. He said, “It’ll be: ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”  Speak about dirty tricks.  No I’m not talking about reminding us that Senator Obama did inhale in his youth, but of what followed, the sharing and selling, read “dealing”.  An African American, drug dealing – could we have a more overt appeal to racial stereotypes?  The only thing that’s surprising about this event is that no one seems to have picked up on its insidious nature.  Let’s remember, Mr. Shaheen’s resignation from his campaign role notwithstanding, who put this particular piece of dirt out there when Nominee Obama faces the predicted dirty tricks that are such an inevitable part of our politics.

Obama’s candidacy will inevitably put America’s attitude toward race to the test.  There are many who are already convinced that a person of color can’t be elected to our highest office.  I don’t share that view, but neither to I underestimate the prejudice that lies just beneath the surface in this, the world’s greatest democracy.  So, too, as the Huckabee-Romney flap shows does religious prejudice.  With our reputation in the world so badly tarnished, we would be well served to prove that our better instincts will prevail.  Billy Shaheen should be ashamed of himself.  This was much worse than kindergarten essays.  As Bill Clinton would say, Hillary can do better than that.  Or can she? 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jack's Talk, Mitt's Sermon

John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960.  It remains among the great documents of American history.  The speech was designed to address a nasty whisper campaign and to assuage those questioned if someone of his faith could serve as President without Vatican interference.  Kennedy spoke mostly about religious freedom and religious prejudice, the things he fought to protect in the South Pacific and for which his brother Joe had died.  “I believe”, he said, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”  It was a message that rang throughout the text. But he also faced the issue of anti-Catholic prejudice head on.  Never once did he let his audience forget why he had come to speak.  In a 1555 word speech the word Catholic appears 17 times.  He made it clear that he would remain true to his faith, but also that the specifics of that faith were a private matter.  He mentioned God but once, and that in quoting the oath of office that he hoped to take in the months ahead.  His message was one of inclusion and of tolerance for religion.  There was no call for religion to enter the public square.  It was for the rights of people to attend any church or no church at all.  Toward the end he got to perhaps the most critical message, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

What a difference 47 years can make.  Mike Huckabee, the self-proclaimed “Christian Candidate” for President, is rising in the polls.  His affable personality, notwithstanding, positioning himself as such in a political ad may be a first, certainly in my memory.  It is diametrically opposite to what Kennedy hoped would characterize America’s future.  It was also to the Huckabee surge, and the fear that his candidacy was threatened by it, that finally brought Mitt Romney the Bush library in Texas.  Romney associated his talk with that of JFK but it could not have been more different.  It was longer, 2540 words and the word Mormon appeared only once.  “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”  God is mentioned 13 times.  Kennedy may have seen his belief as a private matter, Romney told us more than I wanted to know of a Presidential candidate.  I believe” he proclaimed, “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind”.  He also told less than others may have wanted to hear.  “My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.”  They, it would seem, wanted to know if he was a Christian, which seems to be important to the Republican candidates this year (see my recent post).  To be sure Romney made some clear statements about tolerance upon which he clearly relies.  I agree with him. 

Unlike Kennedy in Houston, Romney made no claim for absolute separation of church and state.  Instead there was this: “…in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.  Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”  Romney’s proclaimed tent is big, but not sufficiently so to accommodate non-believers.  He speaks about secularism as if it some sort of conspiracy, perhaps equivalent to the “Communist menace” of the 1950s.  It is a profoundly disturbing message, one that flies in the face of his proclaimed tolerance.  Romney, it would seem, is uncomfortable with the idea of our secular democracy. 

He follows his attack on the secular menace with these words: "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.  We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”  In that regard, perhaps his most striking and telling remark, one that goes far beyond a constructionist view of the Constitution, is this.  “Our greatness”, he says, “would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.”  Imagine what music that is to the ears of opera buff Antonin Scalia.

Romney’s talk is not of a Presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, but more of a pretender to national religious leadership.  Consider these words, “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty.  Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage.“  Somewhat later he adds, "I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired ... so grand ... so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer.  The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe's churches.  And though you will find many people of strong faith there, the churches themselves seem to be withering away.”  As with Huckabee’s claim of being the Christian Candidate, I can’t remember a Presidential contender and certainly not a holder of the office who felt it appropriate to comment upon, much less decry, the “withering away” of churches, albeit attributed to state religions which are contrary to the American approach.  Finally toward the end of this sermon, Mr. Romney makes this exclusionist comment, “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.”

Rudy Giuliani told a reporter that he agreed with everything Mr. Romney had said.  Mike Huckabee still won’t comment on whether his opponent is a Christian.  The Democratic candidates may have been disturbed by the speech, but just won’t go there.  If you think immigration is a third rail, faith is the radioactive zone.  And the press, well they looked at this speech only in the context of whether it did the political job hoped for by the former Governor.  It would appear they didn’t really read or listen to the text, but then again why would they enter that hornet’s nest.  The rest of us should be concerned.  If the Romney message reflects where we are or where we’re going, the country is in worse trouble than any of us might hope.