Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We still trust.

The year is drawing to a close, so one thinks about valedictory.  While there is so much to say about a
period whose content floweth over,
what caught my attention while ready to pay at Whole Foods today were the words
printed on the twenty in my hand.  In God we Trust.  What better symbol could there be for the year and
especially for those in the nation’s capital in whom we have placed so much of
our trust.  If you can say anything
about them it is that above all else they bow to two things: money and
God.  Money of course is tokened by
all those too-big-to-fail banks, and God in the fact that preventing coverage
for abortion was the price of passage for healthcare legislation in both

So those terrible Bush years are over, right?  Yes they are in a meaningful way, but
the seeds sown in the previous eight years are still yielding a crop of woe.  Dick Chaney rails against the President
urgently seeking to transfer blame for the results of that he helped put in
place.  But the Democrats also
haven’t figured out, if that were even possible, how to get from under.  In all fairness, we should remember
that our problems on the economic front have their roots in the Clinton years
and that Obama finds himself dependent on Rubinesque technocrats.  The many years that Democrats spent on
the beach left them with a sparse executive bench.  And on the Hill, Congressional leaders, specifically liberal
Schumer from New York and pragmatic Emanuel from Illinois made a pact with the
devil to gain their slim majority by recruiting a class of conservative
Democrats who could win red or reddish states and districts.  The result was more predictable than
unintended consequences, which brings us back to money and God.

The lingering effects of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush rule is that
true to orthodox capitalism the banks had to be bailed out and that the hard religious
right is still playing the God game putting their particular brand of faith
over medicine, not to mention the law of the land.  If Barack Obama has learned two things in this year it is
that the Presidency is very powerful and totally impotent at the same
time.  It is powerful, because,
like Bush, he has learned to use executive orders, and to good effect.  Impotent, because as his successors
will learn, it’s not that easy to undo what those who came before have done.  Think Iraq, Guantanamo, a broken

So looking back at 2009, the corporate titans and money manipulators have
emerged from rehab in full recovery. 
Back to their old self-indulgent tin ear ways.  And the folks of self-proclaimed morality and megachurchdom
can, at least for the moment, breath a sigh of relief – not even self-funded
insurance can be used to allow those lowly women folk to exercise their
reproductive rights.  Bravo, year
past.  In God we Trust.

Happy New Year

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Celebrate imperfection.

Welcome to democracy in America. 
In one profound sense there is nothing new about the healthcare bills
passed by the House and Senate. 
Both are imperfect.  That
can be said about virtually every important piece of legislation passed in the history
of this Republic, certainly in modern times.  Sure this vote was along party lines – and the poisoned
partisan atmosphere in the country is something about which to be deeply concerned.  But even major bills that have been
passed with substantial bipartisan majorities have been flawed.  Liberals, including myself, obsess
about the absence of a public option, and understandably so.  But consider it unfinished
business.  It is only a matter of
time.  Cradle to death Medicare is
in America’s future.  About that,
if only for financial reasons, there will ultimately be no option.

So today was a big day, one that deserves celebration and the day that
the President signs a final bill, however imperfect it may be, will be one to
break out the bubbly.  Truman was
President when I heard adults in heated debate about the threat of “socialized
medicine”.  In those days the
doctors killed healthcare reform only to be replaced over the years by big
pharma and insurance interests. 
Today Mitch McConnell derides backroom deal making, and does it with a
straight face.  How disingenuous
can you be?  He and his colleagues have
never shied away from handing out sweeteners for votes when they were in the majority.  That’s how the place works and if it’s
a disgrace, it is a bi-partisan one.

McConnell also declares that the American people are overwhelming
against healthcare reform.  Well
we’ll see about that come November next. 
Republicans are placing a huge bet on the failure of this President and
this Democratic majority.  They may
say that we don’t want healthcare reform, but we all know that what they really
can’t afford is Obama’s success.  A
turn in employment figures would only add to their discomfort so expect them to
oppose any jobs programs that might require Congressional approval.  I think they’re making a very bad and shortsighted
bet in relying on the worst not the best in Americans.  I may be proven wrong.

For the moment, the Senate finally has passed a bill – Happy Holidays
to them and to us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

At the movies, real time.

Joseph Wiseman died back on October 19.  He was 91.  You’ll be forgiven if his name isn’t top of mind.  After all, he was only what they call a
character actor.  It’s a label that has always mystified me.  Isn’t playing characters exactly what all actors do?   Whatever.  Wiseman’s career spanned almost seven decades, and he was superb
at his craft.  I remember taking note of
him first in Elia Kazan’s classic Viva
.  But his best known
role came ten years later when he played Dr.
in the first, and some feel best, James Bond film.  So we may not all remember his name,
but who could forget that emblematic 1962 performance? Despite Wiseman’s
demise, an invigorated Dr. No remains
with us, especially these days.

As we approach the final weeks of 2009 and await a vote on the Senate
healthcare bill, I don’t think of Ben Bernanke, Time’s Person of the Year, but
of Dr No.  When we looked toward the inauguration of President Obama last
December and of a widened majority for Democrats in both the House and Senate,
we had high hopes for the year to come. 
We had a leader who seemed bent on ending divisiveness and a Congress
that finally could address some long smoldering problems and do so with decisiveness.  That hasn’t quite happened.  This is not to suggest that there
weren’t significant accomplishments across many fronts, but each has fallen
short, been less (sometimes much less) than it might or should have been.

Yes we can.  How quickly a euphoric chant can fade
into distant memory, or more accurately be forced off the stage.  As controversial as he was, George W.
Bush could count on a few Democrats, often more than a few, to support The President on matters of national
interest, including his budget busting tax cuts and ill conceived venture into
Iraq.  That was not to be for
Barack Obama.  Considering that this President came in with a decisive popular and Electoral College
victory compared with Bush’s disputed elevation, that’s really
astounding.  In some measure of
course it reflects the unintended consequences of the Democrats regaining
power, much of it at the expense of the few moderate
Republicans that were still around. 
In fact, while the now majority party is even more diversified, the GOP is increasingly
homogeneous; a party that is ideologically right of right.

It’s been clear from the early votes on rescuing a tanking economy to
this moment that Republicans have made a strategic decision to play Dr. No.  They have always been better than Democrats at finding the
right battle cries and preemptive self-serving descriptors – partial birth abortion, death tax – but
now they have imposed a single voice rule that is truly impressive and equally disquieting.  It demands lockstep adherence to the
party line with an ever-present threat of primary challenges to any elected
official to strays from their now clearly defined reservation.  It’s a calculated gamble that may pay
off ideologically in the short term  and perhaps even at the polls in 2010, but
a high risk calculation nonetheless. 
It’s a stance that in the end is neither good from them or, I would
argue, for us.

Thoughtful opposition and alternative ideas are a necessary component in
making democracy work best.  It
isn’t merely checks and balances that are required but a broadening and
enrichment of legislation.  By
catering to their so-called ideological base, it has been said that the
Republicans are marginalizing themselves and embedding their minority status
into concrete.  Predictions like
that are often the product of wishful thinking or one of those media inventions
aimed at hyping and insuring the drama of those critical revenue-producing
election cycles.  What astounds me and challenges credulity is that there is not a single Republican Senator
ready to vote for better healthcare. 
What’s going on with Snowe and Collins from Maine or the otherwise non-ideological
(onetime mayor) Lugar of Indiana?  One
has to wonder how these people, and probably some unnamed others, really feel about their actions, how they can look themselves in the mirror.  It’s truly hard to forgive them for seemingly
thinking more about their own reelection than the good of their fellow citizens,
so many of them lacking healthcare. 
No Profiles in Courage here.

And Dr. No is not limited to
Republicans.  The duplicitous
arrogance of Joe Lieberman and the personal religiously motivated stance of Ben
Nelson who have used unvarnished blackmail to gain their 15 minutes of fame is
equally reprehensible.  The pious
Senator from Connecticut may deny influence by the fat cat Insurance companies
that make their home in his state.  Yes and there is a Santa and the Red Sea really parted at the raising of a staff.  Nelson’s stance, in this case used for
his own leverage and display of self-importance, represents yet another assault
on the wall of separation between church and state.  These two men apparently are not going to stand in the way
of passing a bill, but must be held accountable for a bill that is
significantly less than it should have been.  In that Lieberman may be the worst offender because his
stance denying a public option or an extension of Medicare affects the underlying
structure of the system, delaying the inevitable and destined to hurt a lot of
people in the interim.  Nelson’s
draconian abortion funding restrictions may well be Unconstitutional.

Come let us reason together.  These words have faded even more into
history than yes we can.  They were spoken by Lyndon Johnson, a
man who knew how to reach legislative consensus but who in the end may be responsible
for sewing the very seeds of division that plague us now.  It’s not too soon to suggest that the poison of mistrust in
this country began with Viet Nam, a war that absolutely tore us apart.  It was a time of hardening positions
for both citizens and politicians, something that now has morphed into an
environment driven and characterized by conflicting absolutes.  He was Vice President at Dr. No’s release, but assuredly could
never have dreamed how enduring the idea embodied in the villainous Ian Fleming named
character could be.  Watching this
year’s events has truly been experiencing a movie in real time.  Don't expect an Academy Award for this one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Easy to say.

President Obama has made his long awaited Afghanistan speech.  I’m not thrilled about his decision to
add wood to that insatiable fire, nor convinced that it will make much
difference in the long run.  But
what came to mind in watching another eloquent performance was how much ink and
airtime would be expended in the following days parsing his words and opining
on his decision.  More precisely, I
thought about the difference between his job and the myriad of commentators
from broadcast and print to countless bloggers, myself included.  I also thought about that inspiring and
hopeful 2008 campaign for change.  My
conclusion: it is easier to say than
to do–far easier.

It is a clich├ęd truism that a democracy depends heavily and equally
upon citizens both having and exercising free speech.  In that, for all its weaknesses,
punditry of all stripes is essential.  Between elections especially, it’s all we have, and
fortunately there are many very thoughtful people across the political spectrum
to challenge office holders and us. 
An objective view from independent outsiders with little or no vested interest
is of particular value, but we shouldn’t discount the importance of subjective
opinion, which so often reflects what many of us are thinking.  That said, in the end talk is cheap.  We have no price (other than loss of credibility and perhaps reputation)
to pay for our expressed thoughts, no responsibility.  That makes it easy to be a purist and to deal in absolutes.

The President and those who serve with him find themselves in a
totally different situation.  With
the rhetoric of campaigns behind them (rhetoric often not unlike unfettered punditry),
they must move beyond saying to doing.  In December 2004, during a question and answer session with
troops, Army Specialist Thomas Wilson asked Donald Rumsfeld about the
deficiencies in equipment born by soldiers in Iraq.  He got a vintage and now legendary response.  You
go to war
, the Defense Secretary said, with
the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.
  The answer evoked universal outrage and,
in the context of an already controversial war, rightly so.  The now discredited Rumsfeld can be
accused of many things including vanity and insensitivity, but even his
harshest critics don’t think him stupid. 
His response to Wilson was ill timed but it was no doubt candid and,
hard as it is to admit, insightful. 
In fact, it applies precisely to the predicament faced by this
Administration.  You don’t lead the
government or deal with the problems you might want but the ones you have.

So Obama, the President verses the candidate, was destined to
disappoint not because his inspiring campaign words were without substance, but
because he (like all his predecessors) is constrained by all those pesky facts on the ground.  Frank Rich and Paul Krugman on the
Left, David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the Right are free to say whatever they
want, and all do it exceptionally well but, as Ram Emanuel once pointed out, they don’t have
to get anything through Congress or convert their words, no matter how on
target, into action.  Obama must
function in what I suggested in my last post are essentially dysfunctional
facts on the ground.  If you have
any doubt about that, tune into C-Span and watch the Senate debating healthcare.

Democracy is messy and cumbersome.  While Presidents have enormous power on some level (Bush
took us into war and curtailed stem cell research), they are severely
constrained in most matters of lasting import, especially those that involve
real change.  That’s not an excuse
for deficiencies of leadership and delivery, but the stark reality given voice
in Rumsfeld’s notorious remark.  It
is part of that sobering reality that makes it so much harder to do than to say.  Take healthcare
where the President doesn’t merely need concurrence, but 60 Senate votes, a
super majority, just to have any substantive doing considered. 

At issue during the long ’08 campaign was the importance of experience
for successful governance.  At one
point, Bill Clinton suggested to Charlie Rose that going with Obama was like
throwing the dice.  In the end,
voters settled the issue, bringing a fresh face in the White House.  But in the realm of doing rather than
saying, the new President opted for a highly experienced team.  Read Peter Baker’s interesting NY
Times report
on the Afghanistan decision and you’ll see him surrounded by a
group of the most seasoned hands. 
That’s both good and bad news and it does impact on doing.   On the one hand, as Jimmy Carter
discovered surrounding himself with bright, neophytes, you need people with
experience in facing tough issues. 
On the other, the same people bring baggage that constrains doing, if
only that you must take their been there
done that
view into serious account. 
They aren’t likely to want potted
roles.  They also aren’t
likely to be change agents, but the reality is you can’t function without
them.  Again, doing is much harder
than saying.

Don’t read this as an excuse for where we are or satisfaction with, or
acceptance of, the status quo.  I’m
far from being a happy camper. 
Like others, I’ll keep at the saying what I think and parenthetically keep
on hoping.  My only point in noting
the challenges of doing is that we with voices raised and keyboards struck
should be a little more humble–and yes forgiving–in our saying.  Many of us will find that part hard,
though not nearly as hard as doing.