Saturday, September 27, 2008

Past vs. Future

In a somber voice John McCain’s first response in last night’s debate started, “ on a sad note, Senator Kennedy is in the hospital.”  Interestingly no one picked up on yet another bit of inaccurate grandstanding – Kennedy checked out a mild seizure brought on by a change in medication but at that moment was back home watching the debate.   Once again, McCain was seeking to grab a headline as he has done so successfully all week.  Barack Obama rightly pointed to his many mixed messages from healthy economy to “suspending” campaign, but missed the point.  As long as your name gets out there, a new message means a new story.  That has been the McCain mantra throughout his career, with the exception perhaps of Chuck Schumer,  no one likes the cameras more.  From when he stepped on post-convention coverage of Obama’s acceptance speech, he has milked every headline available.  But it’s a risky strategy because at some point the wolf becomes more of a joke whose cries sound hollow, seen for the sound and fury that they really are.  The biggest such joke is playing out in the imploding of Sarah Palin.  Sarah – where is she now?

In a recent posting I suggested that the key question of this campaign was “are we better off now than we were eight years ago?”  To me last night’s debate added another, and in the end perhaps more powerful one.  It was what Alessandra Stanley’s article in the NY Times was rightly headlined “a generational clash”, the past vs. the future.  It was evident from the moment the two candidates took the stage.  John McCain looking at least his 72 years against the trim youthful Obama.  If the contrast between the television visages of Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy were great, this picture presented something many times more powerful.  It’s true that Jim Lehrer began with a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, but McCain’s additional story about the World War II general, only underscored a mindset locked in the last century.  And there lies the underlying issue of this campaign, past vs. future.  In the end, all of McCain’s experience, as Hillary Clinton learned, may not be a winning argument, perhaps even more so.  After all Clinton’s candidacy offered an unprecedented opportunity of having a woman in the White House that, by definition, always promised a look ahead not backwards.  Even so, she couldn’t overcome Obama’s message and personification of change.

There is also a substantive, if ironic, message in these two campaigners.  The experienced McCain presents, perhaps a forceful character, but nonetheless an erratic one.  He may be knowledgeable, but more than often comes off as shooting from the hip.   If that’s seasoned, it’s counter intuitive.  In contrast, the “young” and “inexperienced” Obama comes off as measured and thoughtful.  His cool drives some supporters to distraction, but they are not thinking.  Who would you rather have pick up that phone at 3:00 AM, a guy who will shoot out an impulsive order or one who will pause to weigh his options and the consequences of acting one way or another.  It seems to me we have had more than enough shooting off from mouth and hip in these last eight years to last a lifetime.

I don’t envy the man who raises his hand to take the oath this coming January 20.  The problems he faces may be greater than almost any president in our history.  But I do hope he will be thinking about the future, not recounting golden oldies and anecdotes of past wars long since receded into history.  It’s what we will do not what we did.  It’s the future, stupid.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who are we?

It’s become almost a cliché to say this is going to be a watershed election. There was a point early on when we thought it would be yet another referendum on Iraq.  Change vs. experience dominated the Democratic Primary debate.  And then, underscored by the continued meltdown of financial institutions, rising gas prices, home forclosurs and unemployment, all eyes were turned to the economy.   All these issues, and hopefully some serious thought to the environment, will play in November.  But I have come to a different view of what’s a stake when we vote.  I think this election is about who we are.

That issue has been building in my mind since the early primary days when, despite all the problems we face, candidates in both parties were scrambling to establish their religious bone fides.  Sure, whether they were wearing that silly American flag pin became a bone of contention.  But what really seemed to be urgently important was whether they believed in God.  If that wasn’t enough, it was what kind of Christian they were – a Mormon kind, a secret Moslem kind, an Evangelical kind, a correct pastor kind.  What any of that has to do with managing our foreign policy, righting our economy or pulling us back from the brink of environmental disaster, I just can’t fathom.  Nor for that matter do I believe the Founding Fathers, their personal faith notwithstanding, had that in mind as a qualification for governance.

I think, however, the “who we are” issue, really came to a head when John McCain made his Vice Presidential selection.  To be sure, it said a lot about McCain, the once claimed straight talker, and what kind of President he might be, but the reaction to it said much more about the country.  Perhaps more accurately it said something about what this country may be.  There are some who have defended Governor Palin as a reflection of long cherished American populism.  The real America is in the small towns and on the back roads.  That’s the right training ground and source of our leadership, the oxygen of our democracy.  Nonsense. 

In truth it never was, even in less complicated times.  Sure some of our leaders have hailed from small places, but most were well educated (even when self-educated) and well informed, certainly by the time the contended for high office.  This is 2008, and its time to put aside romantic and mythical notions.  The reality of the America that has led the world is not the back roads, but the urban sprawl.  It’s not one-room schoolhouses, but the greatest universities in the world.  It’s not fishing, hunting or the local repair shop but getting to the moon and counting the genome.  All those people who have come to these shores, and still do, are not making the journey to sip a Coke in the old barn, but to stretch their minds and expand their opportunities.  The country we rely on is at the cutting edge of technology not the creator of American Idol.

Some will think it un-American to say these things.  Some will feel I’m living in an elite bubble, not in touch with the real world.  Nonsense.  It’s time we should stop pretending that we live in or aspire to a log cabin.  It is unseemly and disingenuous.  The problems facing the next President will be so enormous and the world in which we play so complicated that only a fool, or a foolish and suicidal electorate, would think we dare put the “D” team in place. 

I’m not sure American voters understand the stakes and for sure we’re not giving the candidates the opportunity to lay them out for us.  Perhaps a majority of them, even after these disastrous eight years will think Mr. Smith can still make it in Washington, which of course was never the case.  I hope not.  This election will be a test, a measure of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation.  If it goes in the direction of mediocrity, we’ll pay a very high price.  I don’t think it will, but if so, many Americans will be dispirited.  I for one will be at the head of that pack.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Are we better off?

Republicans have fallen in love with Harry Truman.  I was just a kid when “Give’m Hell Harry, was in office, but I doubt he would return the favor.  When it comes to this election campaign, I’d suggest two Republican President models to my fellow Democrats: Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.  Ike, in case you don’t remember, was the man who ran on the theme, “It’s time for a change”.  Sound familiar?  He won big.  Barack Obama has been running on an updated version of “time for a change”, and it’s worked well because in our national gut we know it’s true.  But Eisenhower was no great orator or communicator so the comparison with Obama has its limits.  That brings me to Reagan.  Like him or not, Nancy’s Ronnie had the gift.  But interestingly, his most powerful argument for change didn’t come in a big speech but in the debate when he turned to the camera and simply asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  To me, that’s the logical and essential argument of this campaign going forward, not change, which is inspiring but vague.  Moreover, change, as we have seen can be co-opted, albeit disingenuously.  Are we better off, on the other hand, is a question that begs an answer, the engagement of the listener.  It is about the voter not the candidate.  And it’s a question John McCain dare not ask.

For sure Americans are concerned about our place in the world, the ill conceived or executed wars in which we are engaged, but their real concern is much closer to home, literally.  Everyone who hears the Reagan question will have an answer and it’s not one that John McCain and the Republicans will like.  With more than 80% of us thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction, it makes no sense to waste time on trivia, which is exactly where the Republicans, aided and abetted by the media they vilify, want us to do.  Voters, myself included, want to know that their next President will not merely feel their pain, but has a plan to ease it.  What we don’t need is another election about who has more faith, can frighten us more or is the more authentic American.  We want this election to get us headed in the right direction.

Bill Clinton’s brilliance in 1992 was to focus on the economy stupid.  Barack Obama could win in a landslide if he puts a laser-like focus on our comparative well-being.  Ask us if we’re better off and do it in every speech.  Make John McCain tell us with a straight face that the Republican approach, evident in his choices and the actions of his campaign, is going to take us in a new direction.  Let him tell us that re-energizing the Cold War and the Culture Wars is going to do much for lifting wages, gaining jobs, repairing our crumpling infrastructure and, yes, saving a planet headed toward destruction.  Ask us whether our nation’s financial health is better after nearly eight years of MBA stewardship, or who is going to address those deficits that Republicans (Bush and Reagan) seem to leave for Democrats to clean up.

I’m not pessimistic about November, quite the contrary, but I think the country could use a decisive election.  We also need a President who, in running for re-election four years from now, will be able to ask Americans if they are better off and be confident that the answer will be yes.  Time to move beyond the myopia of Alaska and old war stories and focus in the real issues, yours and mine.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Back to the Cold

Among my concerns about John McCain is that he seems so deeply locked in the past.  To me there is something beyond the perceived effectiveness of retelling his moving captivity story to pick up votes.  Watch the Senator next time he tells of his well worn story and you will see a level of emotional connection that he displays no where else.  Somehow he is invested in that war not won and altogether in past battles and enemies.  His unfamiliarity with the computer and email are just metaphors for a profound disconnect with the present and future.  But the really disturbing manifestation of this inability to let go of the past can be found it what can only be described as a seemingly concerted effort to resurrect the Cold War.

For sure, Vladimir Putin is no raging democrat, no more than say is Mubarak or was Musharraf.  The fact that the Soviet Union failed doesn’t mean that Russians embraced Western democracy.  In fact, beyond having no strong democratic tradition, their brief flirtation with it turned into an emotional and economic disaster.  The polished, but still autocratic, Putin is seen as the man who saved Russia and restored its self-image.  Perhaps George Bush’s looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul was naive, but viewing the Russians more as partners than adversaries makes geopolitical sense. 

I don’t know what McCain and his new sidekick “reformer” are thinking.  Haven’t we had enough bravado and saber rattling in the last eight years?  Perhaps Sarah Palin is too young to remember, but I for one have no appetite for a return to those dark days and an ever-present threat of nuclear war.  In fact, if for no other than pragmatic reasons, we have to move in exactly the opposite direction. For more reasons than even a close neighbor from Alaska can understand, we need the Russians as allies.  Moreover, we are the last people to be lecturing about big powers marching in on lesser countries.  Hello, where is it that we have we been for most of this decade?   And by the way, given our inability to send sufficient troops to Afghanistan much less pose any real military threat to Iran, what army is it that Ms. Palin thinks we’re going to commit to helping keep little Georgia in our corner?

John McCain’s strong suit is supposed to be security and foreign policy.  Think about where he stands on those matters and the things that he says.  Speaking of suits, remember what happened to the one Alec Guinness boasted about in The Man in the White Suit?  OK, for those too young to remember, it disintegrated.  Effective foreign policy requires the ability to look at events without prejudice and preconceived ideas.  The past should always inform, but focusing all your attention on the rear view mirror is destined to put you at risk for a crash, perhaps a fatal one.  In that regard, we should all be concerned about John McCain’s blocked vision, which may get us into an even deeper hole than the one we’ve dug for ourselves under Bush.

A postscript.  The McCain campaign, now fixed on the re-elect W strategy of “fear and lying”, has had one major success.  They have intimidated the press big time.  Just imagine if Barack Obama, Joe Biden or even John McCain had looked blank when asked about the Bush Doctrine.  Would they get a pass for linking Iraq and 9/11 (as Palin did yesterday in a speech) at this late date?  I think not.  Sure she’s new on the block, but she is running for the second highest office in the land, right now not four years hence.    Calling Gov. Palin to task for what she says or doesn’t know isn’t sexist. It’s called reporting.  Perhaps McCain hasn’t recovered from the shell shock of Nam, but the press should get over being attacked from the podium in St. Paul.  He may have an excuse, they don’t.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Now to Sexism

There are some people out there, including one who commented on my last post, who think it’s fair to ask whether a woman with five kids including one pregnant teenager and an infant with special needs will have the focus necessary to be Vice President?  It is a question one would never ask of a man in a similar situation.  Indeed if Todd Palin had been selected by John McCain, the father of those same children, no one would dare pose, even think, that question.  If Joe Biden, as a single father, could tend to his sons and his duties as a Senator, so too should Sarah Palin, especially since Todd is on the case at home.   Let’s not delude ourselves; sexism is alive and thriving in our society.  It is an equal opportunity provider that gives its all to White, African American, Latino, Asian or any other woman without prejudice.

Sexism is a river that runs deep beginning with the incredible notion that God is a “he”.  Remember the Don McLean lyric in American Pie, “the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”?  Yes every time American families attend church or synagogue they are reminded of divine masculinity, a lesson drummed into their childrens ears at an early age.  It is one that we routinely explain away or pretend is not there.  That God which both Democrats and Republicans invoke so solemnly at the conclusion of their speeches is a he-god.  If you have any doubt, just get on a platform in the public square and refer to God as she.  You’ll be lucky if you’re not tarred a feathered.  So if the Creator is “he”, it follows that anything really important can only be done by some he, unless of course we want to make some extraordinary exception.  So that’s where I (and we) stand on sexism. The point is that, with all due respect to the Women’s Movement, the issue of jobs including political ones and however important it may be, is at the margin of the problem.  To deal effectively with a cancer, you have to go to the source not simply the metastatic effects.  Let’s see who wants to take the primary source of sexism on.  Don't all raise your hands at once.

In the end Sarah Palin, as was the case with Hillary Clinton, is a candidate for high office subject to same scrutiny one would give to a man seeking it.  I agree with Barack Obama and Joe Biden that family is off the table.  I also feel that with regard to sexism, racism and family candidates can’t have it both ways.  They can’t use gender, race and family and then tell the press and public not to comment.  Governor Palin parades her family when suits her and then expects everyone to remain dutifully silent.  She introduces her son who is off to Ayrak (why can’t people pronounce that correctly after all this time) not simply to show us his face but to make a political point.  She parades her pregnant teenage daughter and her soon-to-be teenage son-in-law, but considers any comment about them off limits.  Politicians are users, sometimes in the worst most self-serving ways.

But let’s do leave her family out of this, even if she doesn’t.  Sarah Palin compared herself to a pit bull last evening, backing it up with tough words.  Let’s hope she doesn’t expect her male opponents to characterize her any less generously.  No they shouldn’t use sexist innuendo, and no they shouldn’t question her patriotism.  But don’t expect them to sit by when the governor who supposedly rejected the bridge to nowhere, took the money allocated and ran straight to the Alaska bank.  Let her not get away with proudly telling us how she gave Alaskans a big rebate without pointing our that her fellow citizens benefited financially on the backs of citizens in the lower forty-eight and Hawaii’s high gas bill.  Let her not talk of Democratic tax and spend without pointing out that Bill Clinton left us with a surplus which Republicans squandered big time along with dramatically increasing the federal headcount and payroll.  Sarah Palin has joined the not-so-straight-talk express and now she takes full responsibility for it. 

Republicans love referencing Harry Truman these days.  Pat Boone that great political sage defended Sarah Palin saying that she had as much experience as Harry Truman when he was tapped by FDR.  Apparently he didn’t read David McCullough’s book, much less pay attention in his history class.  Truman, of course, was a second term United States Senator who had presided over a very sensitive and high profile investigation on war production, things I don’t remember seeing in Palin’s resume.  Truman also knew that politics and government were tough.  Perhaps his metaphor was sexist, but his most famous (and widely quoted) aphorism had something to do with hot kitchens.  Some like giving hot, but if not careful, one can always get burned.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Private Matter

Would that John McCain had expressed equal outrage about the vicious rumors circulating the web about Barack Obama as he did appropriately today about Bristol Palin.  Her pregnancy, as Obama told reporters, has nothing to do with her mother’s qualifications to hold public office and family, most especially children, are off limits.  Governor Palin and her husband are not the first parents to face teen pregnancy and they won’t be the last.  Anyone who has children can appreciate what they, and most especially Bristol, has been going through.  Fortunately we all live in a country, where she has the choice to bring that baby to term in line with her own convictions and we can only wish them the best.

That this has become first page news tells a lot about our time and the level of national discourse.  It should also be a reminder to Governor Palin that she has now entered a different arena where hardball is not just the name of a television show but the reality of politics.   Whether he likes it or not, it also says something profound about John McCain.  If reports are correct, the Senator spent months considering his running mate and vetting potential candidates.  In the end, he selected someone whom he had only personally met a few days earlier.  Some have said it was a tactical decision, a way to change the conversation and, perhaps more importantly, appeal to women voters.  It’s hard not to add that it appears to have been impulsive decision.

We have spent more than a year learning about and vetting the Presidential candidates.  Unbelievably, we’re told many American voters don’t yet know Barack Obama and even John McCain.  Perhaps that’s true, but not because they weren’t given the opportunity.  Vice Presidential candidates are not exposed to such scrutiny and, unless they have themselves been contenders for the top job or have an extensive public record, the person who will be a heartbeat away from the Presidency is often an unknown quantity.  There is something very bizarre about that and, in times like these, particularly unsettling.

McCain says he knew about this very personal matter when he selected Governor Palin.  Rest assured there will be a lot digging to find out if that’s true and legitimately so.  If he in fact did not know, what else about the candidate might his “vetting” have missed?  If he did know, why in naming a running mate with such strong views on reproductive choice, did he decide not to disclose it?  Was Bristol’s carrying her little brother in that harness calculated to hide her own pregnancy?   Family as Obama says is strictly off limits, but when an unknown candidate for the second highest office in the land decides to parade her family before the country on national television, she has in fact invaded their privacy and opened the door to scrutiny.

No one knows how this will play out in the days ahead.  I have great misgivings about a potential Vice President who is against choice and in favor of teaching creationism.   These positions reflect her religious beliefs, which is what makes her so attractive to the Party’s hard right.  What people of faith believe and what moves their personal behavior and decisions are their own business.  When their personal religious convictions are imposed on the rest of us that’s very different.  This is not the moment to discuss the implications of unwanted pregnancies, but the cat is out of the bag.  We are likely to come back to it soon.