Saturday, December 31, 2011

OMG, here we go again.

With Helen Mirren at Buckingham and Meryl Streep occupying 10 Downing how can the Brits go wrong?  They are clearly in the most capable (and talented) hands.  And with Tina Fey having gotten nowhere near the White House, we have every reason to hope.  We dodged what could have been a fatal bullet.  Some have suggested Streep is more Thatcher than Thatcher.  Easily claimed when the Iron Lady is of such poor heath and diminished mind that she cannot make a case for herself.  As to Fey being more Palin than Palin, the jury will probably always be out because while the lady of Wasilla is good at stuffing her bank account, she has never been able to make a coherent argument about anything, much less for herself.

Republicans go to caucus this week.  Let the serious games begin.  If 2012 will show us anything; it will remind painfully that our election cycles are far too long.  Not only do they go on interminably, they essentially put our governance on ice.  You could argue that this is not such a bad thing, but don’t buy that Kool-Aid.  We have essentially been in limbo since the 2010 off year ballot (the least productive Congress since the 1880s) and the paralyzing result has been anything but good.  Even now, as the President has agreed to put off raising the debt ceiling for a few days, one can almost predict the sound and fury signifying nothing that will present itself with their return from holiday break.  Sorry old Bard for the steal, it was just too hard to resist.

One always hopes that on some small level progress can be made in the passage of time.  Forget that dream.  As the country continues to be devoured by economic stagnation and cancerous income inequality, Republican candidates are again tuning to God about whose stature in the face of evils like same-sex marriage and abortion seems so much more important than all  those struggling families both the underemployed and the jobless.   Of course they have always been close to the Almighty, always tried to outdo each other on that.  Mike Huckabee, God's super pitchman, considered entering the fray.  No need, we’ve got it covered with lovely Michelle Bachmann, the anti-abortion vigilante mother who also fostered those 10,000 wonderful kids.  Who knew she’d flame out so quickly?  Sad, no one seems to have shared that fact with her?  Again, no worry.  Rick Santorum to the rescue, stepping so deftly into the vacuum.  To be fair, Santorum brought God to the Senate’s floor long before the woman from Minnesota brought the divine to the lower House.  So I guess he is really just filling his own vacuum.  Too bad that important handful of American voters in Iowa might, dare I say, abort his resurrection at the starting gate.

Newt is crying at year’s end and we haven’t even reached New Hampshire where Hilary was revived by tears.  Did you know his mother, whose memory brought his on, made him sing in the Church choir?  Ah history.  Wonder if this uber historian of highly valued (very highly) wisdom and perspective realizes that, crying can carry you just so far.  And that’s not to the finishing line.  Think Muskie (historians surely remember Muskie).  And by the way Hilary did have a shot at Virginia, the place where he currently hangs his had and his beloved’s crown jewels, and she still didn't prevail.  By the way, I hear the bathroom lighting is awesome.

Everyone is really excited about Ron Paul, well maybe not everyone.  At 76 (the Chinese have nothing on us) he shows himself to be a man of such underlying youth and vigor.  Move aside Antonin; this guy claims to be the authentic originalist.  No government and certainly no regulations especially against bigots and kooks is definately the way to go.  Paul’s anti-war positions are said to appeal to young Occupiers, his anti-Washington positions to young Tea’s.  My guess is that neither group is reading the small print of his record, which is pathetic since it's in 16 pt. Times Roman, easily read and transparent to any octogenarian.  No reading glasses required.

Meanwhile, the capital rich "bane" (cheap shot) of Massachusetts (or is Michigan) moves along.  Quite impressive really that someone can be so carefully be wrapped in, at once,  a slick and awkward package.  Neat hair.  That said, it’s hard to see him being dislodged from unenthusiastic but still top billing.  By the way, what happened to the other Mormon, the shining star Chinese speaker from Utah?  We all thought he might have been a contender.  Oh, well what do we know?  Go figure. 

Without putting myself out on a limb with a firm prediction, Republicans have historically (Newt, I’m learning) given their nod to the person whose turn it is perceived to be.  Reagan, GHW Bush, Dole, and cranky old McCain to be specific.  W was odd man out in that regard, but…well he was odd man out.  All of these fresh new faces had struck out the first time they came up to bat and the party elders (don’t think they’ve disappeared) felt they were entitled to run the bases if they came up again.  In the old fashioned way, they had earned it.  Each had more or less practiced hard and it’s not polite to turn a guy down more than once.  So an upset notwithstanding (or, borrowing from Gail Collins obsession, that he’s puts his dog on his in-motion campaign bus roof), Mitt will likely be it.

In 2008 the Democrats showed us that the show can go on for longer than we expect.  It ain’t over till it’s over (not Shakespeare, but still a steal that should be acknowledged).  But of course back then there were a lot of authentically substantive candidates, two especially so. Maybe their debates didn’t get big ratings as reality  low rent TV entertainment, but they were for the most part believable as potential Oval Office occupants.  So the show may go on a bit, but if it doesn’t I wonder how the sourpuss Mitch and the sonorous sun-tanned John will feel about that.  Will they have to take a back seat?  Not to worry, not much can be expected to happen under that big dome this coming year.  Little leading required.

And that’s the way it is…Saturday, December 31, 2011.  Oh how I miss Walter.   See you next year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thoughts at year's end.

Just days away from 2012, a year likely to be totally consumed by an election still eleven long months away, it’s probably a good time to look back an assess.  After reading Charles McGrath’s enthusiastic NY Times story on Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margret Thatcher in Iron Lady, I couldn’t help but think of 2008 and the marathon contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.  Thatcher, we all remember, was the first woman to become a head of government in her own right.  The film’s British director Phyllida Lloyd, by no means a Tory, told McGrath, I was sitting in my room at university when the radio announced that she had been asked to form a government, and I went ‘Yes!’ It felt like one for our team.  To which Streep added, I did the same thing.  We all thought if it can happen in England, class bound, socially rigid, homophobic — if they can elect a female leader over there, then it’s just seconds away in America.  Well obviously not seconds, Senator Clinton didn’t make it.

The 2008 primaries were tough for the two candidates but also for many of us in being forced to choose between our equally strong commitments to feminism and civil rights — our dreams of righting inequities and imbalance on both counts.  What a painful choice — the first woman President or the first African American.  As you know, I opted for Obama to some degree because, having experienced the Bush dynasty, I was loath to see a Clinton one.  But perhaps equally so, having sat in the hot sun just feet below the lectern where Martin King spoke of them, I was overtaken by dreams.  I was not alone.

Clinton and Obama were both compelling candidates, both highly qualified to lead the country.  As Senators, a position that has rarely led to the White House, one couldn’t argue that one was more electable than the other.  Clinton rested her campaign on experience, which she surely had.  Obama, focused on change, something the country desperately wanted.  It struck a chord and in the end his argument carried the day, supported in great measure by his personal charisma and star quality.  Cranky old-looking John McCain didn’t have a chance.

There is no more favorite game political junkies play than, what if?  How might things have turned out if the now Secretary Clinton had won in ’08 and Obama had not?  Specifically, how might she have addressed the economy, the still raging wars, healthcare and all the other problems we’ve had in these last three years?  Hilary Clinton, as her campaign and history in public life have clearly shown, is an unabashed Centrist.  She supported the Iraq invasion and is generally hawkish.  Since many of us saw hers as a race for a third Clinton term, one also has to take her husband's presidency, (in which she was deeply involved — part of her experience) into account.  Clearly, some self-inflicted wounds clouded Bill Clinton’s tenure and, like Obama or more so, he was the object of irrational hate from the far Right.  Even so, Clinton had some significant accomplishments including a successful intervention in the Balkans and most notably leaving office with a budget surplus.  Nonetheless, he failed to deliver on healthcare, gave in with the disgraceful don’t ask, don’t tell policy and shepherded the repeal of Glass-Steagall, something that has led to disastrous and fully predictable consequences.

If there is one word that one hears most about the Obama presidency it is, disappointment.  Hilary Clinton might not have suffered the same assessment.  No one had the expectation that she would govern from the Left, and aside from the aspirational hopes for having a woman as president — finally — illusory dreams played little role for her supporters or the country.  Change was not her theme, and when she tepidly tried embracing it toward the end of a campaign falling short, it just wouldn’t play.  So in that regard, Ms. Clinton might have had an advantage relative to the President who, as I’ve said many times, suffers from not living up to our perceptions of him.  He, too, is a Centrist and always was, but I still think one to her left.  He opposed the Iraq invasion and, if reports are correct, has been less hawkish than his Secretary of State.

Bill Clinton campaigned on the Economy Stupid, and has been hailed for delivering on his promise.  He was surrounded by a financial dream team led by Rubin and Summers, men who were seen as walking on economic water.  We all know where that went.  Bush certainly had a big hand in our economic melt down but, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear the seeds of catastrophe were planted deep in the ‘90s, most especially in overturning Glass-Steagall.  Obama has been roundly criticized for essentially retaining Clinton’s economic team.  Is there any doubt a President Hilary Clinton would have done the exactly same?  In fact, I have always thought that bringing in those people was in part a political nod to the woman whose campaign so valiantly and almost successively shattered the glass ceiling as well as his buying into an economic miracle story, that turned out to be somewhat of an overblown myth.  Miracles have a way of doing that.

Clinton’s healthcare campaign proposals were much more robust than Obama’s, something that cost him some support throughout.  Regardless, both promised healthcare reform as an early priority and certainly Obama delivered, even if with substantially less than was wanted by his supporters or needed by the country.  Hilary Clinton ran on experience, and when it comes to the White House days her singular experience, managing the proposed healthcare bill, was an utter failure.  She was seen as heavy handed and secretive, pushing against the legislative process to the extent that no bill could be passed, probably partly out of jurisdictional pique.  The irony is that she was elected a Senator before Bill Clinton left office and, despite a skeptical reception by colleagues, turned out to be a highly effective and respected member, dare I say, one of the boys.  With that experience she might have had considerable success with healthcare this time around.  But it is also true that Obama’s decision to stand back, some would argue too far back, during the healthcare process may have reflected his style but undoubtedly was heavily influenced by the Clinton experience.  At the end, he succeeded where no other president had, and the difference between what might have been under her stewardship is probably more marginal than many of us would hope or assume.

We have ended the Iraq War.  Yes I know we have a big embassy there and continue to employ mercenaries who look and act like soldiers — quacks like a duck.  A second President Clinton would likely also have ended the war, which had long lost the support of the American people.  Obama escalated in Afghanistan.  She would have done the same and is reported to have wanted more than he was willing to commit.  Obama essentially turned the War on Terrorism into a hunt for terrorists, and with substantial success.  With the same capabilities of Special Forces and drones at her disposal, a President Clinton might have done the same and as Secretary of State (a very effective one) she certainly has been actively engaged in developing that policy.

The old argument of whether leaders or the times count most always plays into assessments like these.  I happen to believe that who is in charge makes a big difference, but the truth is that the stage on which she or he performs plays a critical sometimes-determinative role.  No one will question that both Obama and Clinton would have been handed the same terrible hand with cards heavily stacked against success.  The public was frustrated when they ran against each other and has shown itself, if anything, more so since.  These are two very different people who share similar political visions, though again I do think Obama leans intellectually and otherwise more to the left.  Having gotten three quarters of the way through a first term, both would be facing a challenging re-election bid.  In politics, especially with a nation bitterly divided, it’s hard to predict with certainty whether Democrats will prevail in ‘12, though I think he will.  Whatever happens, it’s likely the next five years will continue to be tough sledding for whoever is President and for us.  One can always hope things will turn out for the best not the worst.  For sure, there will be much to write about and hopefully with more regularity.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Get over it!

My inaugural 1968 subscription to the then newly minted New York Magazine, co-founded by Clay Felker (accessible intelligent content) and Milton Glaser (crisp design) has long run out.  Thanks to Frank Rich’s move, I ‘ve renewed.  I mostly read online, but a hard copy (albeit belated) does arrive in my mailbox.  What struck me with the first delivery was its appearance.  No not the design (still distinctive), but the sheer physical weight.  NY, at 128 pages, brims with ads, a sign of health that contrasts with, for example, Newsweek’s emaciated visage of terminal illness.  But that’s a digression.  What prompted this writing — yes, I know it’s been a long time — were three thoughtful pieces written by Rich, David Frum and Jonathan Chait. 

The first, What Killed JFK written close to the 48th assassination anniversary, compares the challenges facing the Kennedy and Obama presidencies, most notably the mindless hatred aimed at both men, the first Roman Catholic and the first African American to sit in the Oval Office.  Given my intense interest in both men, Rich brought back a variety of vivid memories.  JFK was my first presidential vote (in those days you really did have to be 21); Obama, in so many ways a fulfillment of my civil rights dreams.  David Frum, W’s former economic speech writer whose critical independent thinking drives some fellow Republicans to distraction writes, When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?  Not surprisingly, his words ring true to many of us outsiders.  But it is written in a voice of an insider who views his party’s presidential primary with both dismay and despair.  On the flip side, Chait (previously of The New Republic) poses the question, When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?  I urge you to read all three.

My father always said, anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem it’s the problem of anti-Semites.  Of course, anti-Semitism, as he knew better than most, hugely affected Jews.  Likewise the state of the GOP isn’t my problem even though it definitely impacts upon all of our lives.  But the state of liberals, my liberals, is something about which I should have great concern.  I do.  It is my problem.  So, of the three pieces, the one that I hit home most was Jonathan Chait’s. 

In sum, the implied question that he poses is why do liberals (read also Democrats) seem to have such a strong, and he argues consistent, (my words) death wish?  Liberals, he contends, are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.  We’re all familiar with the ongoing grousing about what Barak Obama hasn’t done and about who he is, or more accurately who he isn’t.  Chait’s point is that the same griping has occurred with each and every Democratic President, back (though to a lesser extent) to the mythical FDR.  It certainly plagued his successor Harry Truman, but equally Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and of course Clinton.  A quote he cites from Bob Herbert sums it up: The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread.  Ring a current bell?

We use our successful Democrats as whipping boys (we have yet to include girls) while the Republicans venerate theirs.  Conservatives, Chait says, are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man…they remained consistently loyal to Nixon and Reagan.  We even turn on our near presidents.  Who can forget the grousing about Al Gore who won a half-hearted popular vote and whose manner and wardrobe seemed to matter more than the substance of his speeches and positions.  In fact, while irate over the Supreme Court’s anointment, many liberals thought that in the end there wasn’t that much difference between Bush and Gore.   Moreover, someone who sat in the White House with less than a popular mandate wouldn’t have much power, much less the ability to do great damage.  We all know how that went.

Perhaps what struck me most about the Chait piece was how very little has changed since FDR took, and then held, the White House through 3 plus terms.  Again to quote from the article, in 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, ‘They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.’  Well one of the reasons for that is that we seem to be much better talkers than doers — I’m mad as hell and simply will sit this election out or vote my conscience for some sure loser just to protest and make myself feel better.  Another reason of course is that deep down we know that the mover into the conservative camp is in fact doing no such thing. 

If for example, Obama is such a closet retrograde, why are Republicans trying so hard to repeal The Affordable Healthcare Act or to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray because they think the Consumer Protection Agency established under Dodd/Frank is too powerful?  Neither of these pieces of legislation represents purist perfection, but let’s not pretend that such perfection ever existed in our or any other democracy or that we have really lost touch with the reality of compromise for which we are all somewhat responsible.

Tugwell, one of the brain truster architects of the New Deal, was frustrated by his fellow liberals and their lack of action.  While the Republicans rallied around the Tea Party and caused a shift of power in the mid-term elections, Democrats and liberals have yet to figure out exactly what to do, if anything, with Occupy.  Support has been, at best, tepid.  Of course, no one knows how enduring the Tea Party will be, something that might give one pause about any such protest, regardless of ideology.  Also, while the Occupy or 99% phenomenon seems to be focused on issues that concern us generally, there remains something amorphous about it.  Sitting in flimsy tents with no well-articulated timetable or set of specific objectives, certainly not consistent ones, may well stand as a metaphor for the problem.  I don’t mean that as a criticism of the protestors  — they clearly are doing something profound and hope inspiring — but of liberals inability to get their collective act together.

Part of the problem is what I’ve discussed in other posts.  We seem averse to the effective marketing of our ideas, unable to create powerful image-laden slogans.  Tea Party, however it may be misused, harkens back to a mythical event in the American story.  It stands for both protest of the mind and the body.  Occupy embodies no such positive imagery.  The word connotes blocking, even blocking progress which is the last thing those sitting in tents around the country want.  Moreover, occupy is word with decidedly negative non-liberal geopolitical connotations: for example, occupation of the West Bank.  Just to underscore the poverty of our speech, this movement’s identity is the creation of a Canadian journalist.  Not to knock our northern neighbors, but can’t we even find words to articulate our own frustrations or issues?  Just to be fair 99% has some potential.  Let's see if it can sustain, which means be taken up by mainstream liberals.

Okay, fellow liberals (or for that matter fellow Americans), as Bill Clinton would say, I feel your pain and frustration with where we are and more specifically with the fact that Barak Obama has not lived up to our perception of him.  Get over it!  Look at the group that David Frum presents in his piece and who are playing before our eyes every day and understand that our complacency might put one of them in the White House.   Sure hold Obama’s feet to the fire if you want, but watch out for what you might wish or do in not seeing to it that he has a second term.  There are short-term reasons for that, many of which can already be seen in the campaign rhetoric on both sides.   But I’ll give just two words to think about for the long term: Roberts and Alito.  Whatever George Bush did to our reputation and our economy, whatever misbegotten military adventures, all pale in comparison to the long-term impact of appointing young hardline right ideologues to the Court.  Whoever sits in the White House between 2012 and 2016 is likely to shape our future in his appointments.  The stakes are enormous — can’t be overstated.

Just as Newt is the challenger of the moment, the idea of a third party is the new talk of the moment.  Have you noticed that its primary proponents are a mega millionaire coffee mogul and a less wealthy but still millionaire journalist/author?  99%, right.  They probably believe in what they’re proposing (or implying) and are both decent people with whom I often (but not always) agree.  That said, I sense a little promotional hype — one is using his brand as a platform and the other hawking yet another new best seller.  I won’t even mention that billionaire mayor of my former but still beloved city.   Perhaps we do need a third party, but if you’re serious, start talking it up on November 7, 2012 with four years to prepare for a viable chance, not to mention for proper thoughtful vetting.

Liberals, it’s time to get reasonable, to shed our overstated disappointments.  Time to get over it and whip up our enthusiasm.  Our future and welfare may, and probably does, depend on it.