Monday, January 30, 2012


In some presidential years, like 2008, both parties have competitive primary contests in play.  That means politically interested Democrats and Republicans are engaged. That’s not the case this year and so roughly half of us, if we are paying attention at all, are mere observers not participants.  I am one of those onlookers.

Some people, including pundits on the right, have painted what has unfolded over the last few months as something absurd, a kind of show business comedy act typified early on by the likes of Herman Cain and The Donald.  Some Democrats watch from the bleachers with a sense of satisfaction, if not outright glee.  They believe the mud slinging is further weakening an already weak field and thus will help ensure the President’s reelection.  Perhaps that’s true, but a word of caution is in order.  Tough primaries, as has been pointed out by others, usually make the victor a better candidate than he or she might otherwise have been.  Both Obama and Clinton were far more potent at the end than was the case when they started out.  The long competitive challenge may have given the president the edge four years ago.  Romney seems to be benefiting from the battle. 

I have a somewhat different take on it all.  By way of disclosure, let me confess that I have not watched a single Republican debate.  Sue me; I just couldn’t get myself to do it.  Of course I have read a range of press reports and have heard snippets.  One would have to be totally deaf and blind, especially if you are an active consumer of news, not to have seen and read enough about the goings on to have an impression of the candidates.   Besides, all of the four men left standing have a history and certainly with the former Speaker of the House, one that stands out in sharp relief. 

What strikes me about this class of 2012 is not that they seem comic, but that somehow each of them, most especially the two top contenders, seems so flawed.  You would think that, as an Obama supporter, this would make me happy, but in some profound way it does just the opposite.  What’s up for grabs this fall is the presidency of the United States; an office that carries tremendous power not to mention that it is the face of government to the nation and to the world at large.  Our leader.  The idea that one of these men would have even a remote chance of taking the oath next January 21 — and it’s more than remote — is disconcerting to say the least. 

Why do I see these contenders as flawed?  Let’s start with Governor Romney, still presumed to be the front-runner and most likely nominee.  In some ways Mitt reminds me most of George H.W. Bush.  His problem is not so much that he has difficulty connecting with voters, which he does, but that somehow he is totally out of touch.  Romney, like many people born rich — yes I know he claims to be self-made — somehow lives on a different planet than the one inhabited by most of us.  Bush’s revealing moment was when a supermarket checkout flummoxed him or when he insensitively went out on his gas-guzzling cigarette boat during a time of shortages.  John Kerry had similar disconnect problems — his mother was a member of the wealthy Forbes family.  Romney has consistently exhibited a tin ear to how his personal story has nothing in common, zero, with those in what is now called the 99%.  Even within his 1% there is a difference between being born into wealth and having become wealthy.  His being out of touch manifests itself in comments like his being currently unemployed or that he somehow started at the bottom, worried about getting a pink slip.  Being unemployed when you’re drawing what we now know is $22 Million plus a year is vastly different from being out of work and collecting (if so fortunate) less than subsistence wage unemployment checks.  And the idea that being the son of a former Automotive CEO and ex-governor doesn’t give you a substantial leg up in the business world or that you didn’t benefit from the kind of safety net unavailable to most Americans is laughable.  But let’s understand, it’s not so much the wealth that counts here; it is rather the out-of-touch tin ear.  FDR came from wealth and lived accordingly, but somehow he viscerally understood that his situation was not comparable to most others.  So he focused on their challenges, not his, and what he had and where he came from was never an issue even in depression torn America.

Romney has another flaw, one that might not have been seen as such during another time.  Taking him at his word now, his wealth comes not from inheritance but from his work.  To paraphrase what the late John Houseman once sonorously intoned for a Smith Barney commercial, he did it in the old fashioned way, he earned it.  The problem is that, unlike his father who made his money from manufacturing cars, Romney Junior’s fortune derives from financial engineering.  While many of the companies that Bain Capital bought were making things, for example Sealy mattresses, they were simply short-term vehicles for enhancing investor wealth.  It is the old idea of buy low; sell high — in this case at often unimaginable returns, made in relatively short order.  Whatever management may have been involved, it was of the interim kind (done by others, not Romney) and aimed solely at increasing shareholder (Bain’s and their investor’s) value.  In an earlier economic context this might not be a problem, might not be seen as a flaw.  But it is exactly financial engineering that helped produce the collapse from which we have yet to recover.  Romney went on the offensive in a recent debate contending, I’m proud of being successful; I'm proud of being in the free-enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I'm not going to run from that.  Perhaps so, especially the job creating claim, but no matter how many have been created (the subject of some dispute) none of those new workers, nor those already employed by the companies bought and sold made out like Romney and his partners (some might say, like bandits). 

Finally there is the matter of his 13.9% tax rate.  I'm proud of the taxes I pay, Romney asserted during that debate.  My taxes plus my charitable contributions this year, 2011, will be about 40%.  Come again?  The implication here is that (tax deductible) donations should be lumped in with taxes.  If that isn’t financial engineering at its most disingenuous self, I don’t know what is.  Does Mr. Romney think us all stupid?  Beyond being insulting, it again manifests that tin ear, this time combined with some snake oil selling.

Newt Gingrich’s flaws are manifold.  We may hold politicians in very low esteem, but few, if any, can match him in being callously opportunistic and blatantly insincere.  If you don’t trust me on that, do a Google search of his career record.  Politicians all suffer from some degree of inflated ego disease, but Newt clearly has a terminal case.  There are few great figures in history to whom he has not compared himself; often intimating that he may be the better of the two.  Boasts like this often are symptoms of an underlying, and often severe, insecurity, but let’s leave that to accredited professionals.

No flaw in Gingrich is greater than in his fundamental (a word he likes) character.  Now let me preface that assessment by saying I don’t think either the government or its citizens belong in any one’s private life or bedroom.  We may not personally approve of marital infidelity (or conversely be bothered by it), but unless it impacts on our own lives, we should have the humility to hold judgment — the glass house principle.  The reason that Newt’s history is relevant here is that he holds himself out as such a virtuous soul, the now devout repentant sinner.  It is he, not any of us, who introduced that claim into the campaign.  Remember he was making hay with Callista (and far more seriously) while prosecuting Bill Clinton for Monica.  I could care less about either of their sex lives, but do care about the hypocrisy in putting us all through that.  When it comes to family values, Romney beats Gingrich hands down, yes Gail Collins even if he tied the family dog to the roof of his car on a trip to Canada.

Gingrich’s flaw is one shared by his many devout followers, not to mention the Church to which he now belongs.  These are people who insist that we all should be bound by their religious rules and mores.  The Roman Church is currently going ballistic that the new healthcare provisions mandating the benefit of insurance coverage for contraception should apply to the many non-Catholics in their employ.  At the same time, they avert their eyes when it comes to Gingrich’s infidelity.  The Catholic Church’s mandate against divorce doesn’t apply to him of course since his earlier marriages were consecrated elsewhere and not recognized as valid.  In the same inconsistent vein they have recently welcomed a bunch of married (formerly Episcopal) priests and they have always provided annulments for the right (often rich contributor) members.  This shared flaw in Gingrich and his religious right supporters is just another reason that 25% of America’s young have moved beyond religion.  It’s a real turnoff, one that, fairly or not, tarnishes even those religions who don’t share their invasive attitude or beliefs.

I said earlier that the state of the Republican contest doesn’t make me happy.  I think that the Democrats and President Obama, while far from perfect, have things just about right.  Should more be done about housing, do we still need universal health care and should those responsible for our current economic woes be at least put before the bar of justice?  Absolutely.  But I do believe in an activist government.  Far greater efficiency may be in order, but unlike with science, less is not more.  Look at the condition of our roads and the lack of high-speed rail to mention just two.  By the same token, Republicans who believe in more limited government should be able to make their case with less hyperbole and by more substantive representatives.  No one has cornered the market on absolute truth.  More to the point we all deserve better when we go to the polls in November.   With this crop, we’ll be disappointed.


On a personal note:  Jesse J. Prinz’ very provocative and highly accessible book Beyond Human Nature (Allen Lane in the UK and forthcoming in the US) has just been published and will be available on Kindle  February 2nd.

Monday, January 23, 2012


By the time they got to South Carolina, Barack Obama won the primary with a clear majority, 55.44%.  Hilary Clinton came in second at 26.52%.  Native son John Edwards, who had spent by far the most time and money there, got only 17.57%.  They obviously they knew who he was before the rest of us did.  Seven Democrats were still in the field, compared with four contending in Saturday’s Republican contest. So Obama’s win back in 2008 is all the more impressive, reflecting a level of conviction that is absent in the Republican primaries of 2012.  This is not to say that Obama had the nomination sewn up, which we know he didn’t.  And along the way there were times when things got pretty nasty.  Nonetheless while many Democrats, myself included, supported Obama and were confidant he would prevail, we could enthusiastically support Senator Clinton were that not the case.   That may not be true for Republicans today.

From the outset, Mitt Romney, considered most likely to lead his party in November, has been unable to garner anywhere close to a majority support.  Even on his home turf in New Hampshire he could only muster 39.9% of primary voters.   We don’t know if Newt Gingrich’s surge spells Romney’s end —probably not — but it does suggest a race that will both drag on and whose outcome is more uncertain than ever.  With Iowa, New Hampshire and countless debates on the record, exit polls suggest a vast majority of Gingrich voters made their decision either just before or on primary day.  Primaries are not necessarily indicative of general elections but this certainly suggests a Republican electorate undecided and in flux.

The results of Edison Research’s exit poll are interesting.  98% of the participating voters where white.  That certainly reinforces in the extreme my last post.  To put this is perspective, according to the census bureau 66% of South Carolinians are white and nearly 28% are African American (more than twice the national average).  That only 1% of GOP primary voters were black speaks for itself.  Newt achieved a plurality in most of the attribute areas covered by Edison whether gender, self-identification or views on issues.  The single exception is where he actually got a slim (51%) majority — can defeat Barack Obama.  That number may prove most damaging to Romney, whose argument has largely been built around electability.  Interestingly Newt (9%), the serial philanderer, and Romney (19%), the steady family man, both performed poorly on has strong moral character.  The first’s showing shouldn’t be surprising, the second’s may have more to do with his social issue flip-flopping than necessarily with the business vulture charge he’s endured in recent days.  I would think that Newt’s sordid private life, given a pass on Saturday, might not be overlooked in other places.

Republican voter turnout was appreciably higher this election cycle (601,111 vs. 445.677, up 35%) so you can argue enthusiasm runs higher.  What I found most interesting as a measure of where we are, or perhaps how we feel, is that Ron Paul gained proportionately more.  His numbers increased almost five fold from 16,155 in ’08 to 77,993 this year.  Even more striking is that he had a plurality (albeit at only 31%) of the 10-29 demographic; only 16% of Romney supporters were in that age group.  Those numbers probably reflect work Paul has done with younger people including many college campus appearances, but may also reflect an unease manifest in the next generation of which both Republicans and Democrats alike should take careful note.  The prospects of young people just out of college or starting out in general just aren't very good these days; the much-touted American dream no longer seems within their reach.  Without question, Ron Paul’s rhetoric is both simplistic and misleading, but taken by themselves his rants against government or against overseas wars resonate with many Americans, both young and old.  It is also a reminder that people with no chance of being elected, which describes Paul and in a different way some of his young supporters, have the luxury of saying whatever they want.  They will never be asked to back up their contentions or positions with action.  Any elected official understands the difference between campaigning and governing, except seemingly the Teas in Congress.

Some Democrats may be disappointed with Obama’s performance to date.  Like many others they may feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Nevertheless, the President faces no opposition from within his party — no Gene McCarthy challenging LBJ.  He can expect their full and most likely enthusiastic support in November.  In contrast, few Republicans seem to be happy campers.  They jumped on Newt’s bandwagon in South Carolina but were with Mitt two weeks back and more or less, it turns out, with Rick Santorum days earlier.  If you listen to their audiences (ones that pale in comparison to crowds drawn by both Obama and Clinton in ’08) you may hear loud cheers but, if polls are any indication, there remains a serious enthusiasm gap.  More Republicans are turning up this year to vote, but there just is no electricity in the air.  Whatever passion there may be (and it’s very hard to discern much) seems to be fickle and fluid.  That roller-coaster leader-of-the-moment we saw in the earliest days of the contest may say more about where Republicans are today than about this particular shrinking candidate field.  Even with fewer options on the table, the choice remains uncertain and uncertainly taken by voters.

How the Republicans and Democrats feel about their candidates will certainly matter in November, but the election will be decided by independents.  According to a 2009 Pew Research Study 39% of the electorate now identify as Independents (33% Democrats, 22% Republicans).  Those numbers may have changed somewhat since, but I’d suggest Independents are de facto America’s third party.  They may not have a candidate of their own nor are they likely to be of a single mind, but both major party candidates will definitely be paying them a great deal of attention in the run up to November.  That fact, and the necessary nuance that is required in courting their votes, drives partisans up the wall.  It is precisely why primary contests in which candidates must appeal to a very narrow, often near-fringe, constituency is not only so different from the General but can also be so damaging to the standard bearer who has leaned too far right or left in gaining the nomination.  Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.

South Carolina showed again that unlike Nixon in his day, Romney is not yet The One nor that he necessarily will be in Tampa come summer.  Will his party come together and evidence more than what the columnist Ross Douthat described as weary resignation in selecting their leader?  Hard to say, but they may well yet muster up the passion that now remains elusive.  Will it happen soon enough or be sufficiently intense to win back to the White House in November?  I doubt it, but don’t fully discount it either.  We are living in very fluid and unpredictable times.  Just days before South Carolina, Mitt was a headed for certain victory and we know what happened to that, virtually overnight.  Copies of the current New Yorker and New York Magazine appeared in my mailbox.  Lots of good pieces and, in some areas, as timeless as things can ever be these days.  But on the political front, both offered yesterday’s news and opinions.  Print is dying not because it isn’t wonderful to hold a page in your hand, but because events are moving too fast for it.  Our demands for information with real-time currency are just much more acute than ever before.  We don’t only want it, but can get it minute by minute, and do.  Those print magazines sitting before me as I write are a good metaphor for the GOP race.  Don’t like the weather?  Just wait an instant and it is sure to change and, even then, don’t expect it to be predictive of storms or sunshine to come.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ah, the…old days.

In a recent column David Brooks reports being struck that Republican audiences this year want a restoration.  America once had strong values…but we have gone astray.  We’ve got to go back and rediscover what we had.  He went on, I agree with the sentiment, but it makes for an incredibly backward-looking campaign. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.

The idea of restoration is exactly what his audiences probably consider when Mitt Romney speaks of taking America back.  And that back is not to either of the Bushes (who’ve become stump non-persons) but to an idealized Ronald Reagan.  For years Republicans were green with envy that Democrats had FDR’s flag to wave while they had to reach far back to being the Party of Lincoln.  It’s not to discount Lincoln — most of us would gladly and do claim him — but rather that the Great Emancipator seems so, well, Democratic.  Reagan on the other hand is larger than life, seen as a legitimate counterbalance to Roosevelt.  His were the mythical golden years, when the country was set on a course of prosperity and power.  Reagan stands for lower taxes and a strong economy, for winning the Cold War and emerging as the World’s only superpower.  Both the prosperity and the superpower notions are more than just appealing.  They represent an ego-enhancing reassurance about our invincibility, our exceptionalism.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s not only Republicans who look back wistfully to the good old days. We long for a restoration of the time when being middle class meant something, when unions were fighting successfully for workers and when our kids could go to college without obliterating our savings or emerging as debtors.  We all like to think that politics was so much kinder when Ronnie and Tip could do business together or when Mr. Sam (Rayburn) invited Democrats and Republicans alike (well, almost alike) to join him for those famous late afternoon cocktail hours.  Ah, the good old days.

Of course they weren’t all that great and in some respects not all that different from today.  Just take one small example.  In 1952 the columnist Stewart Alsop branded Adlai Stevenson an egghead.  It quickly became an epithet.  Anything intellectual was considered bad and, by implication, out of the mainstream — not like Ike and certainly not like us.  Today Barak Obama is branded professorial (read egghead) — not like real Americans, not like us.  How we view intellectuals in this country, including that universities are increasingly looked to as vocational schools rather than places of learning, is a matter for another time.

Brooks is concerned about a backward-looking campaign.  He thinks we should be thinking and talking about the future.  I couldn’t agree more.  I also concur with his assessment of today’s Republicans as the receding roar of white America and that the life and place for which they (and many of us) yearn will never return.  But insofar as the upcoming election is concerned, I think Romney and his supporters are being more than unrealistic.  Talking about taking (going) back is a serious strategic blunder.  No politician, even with good sloganeering, is in full control of the message, how it’s heard rather than how it is meant.  So Romney’s invitation to look or go back actually runs contrary to (and might cancel out) his storyline about Obama’s poor performance in the present.  It reminds us that Reagan actually sent us on a road to a highly leveraged faux prosperity whose endpoint was the stunning, and in retrospect fully predictable, collapse of 2008.  Moreover it lays bare how ephemeral being the last standing superpower is a modern world where the reality of globalization leads directly to a more level playing field.  By the way, whether we aggressively promoted it or not, in the information age globalization would have happened on its own, probably just as fast.

You can’t call for a return without prompting the question, return to what?  And that’s exactly where Democrats and the President should want voters to look.  It may well be that Republicans have tried to erase the presidential firm of Bush & Bush from our minds, but Americans have shown themselves to have only short-term memories.  It’s been almost a quarter century since Reagan left office, which means that a large swath of the population wasn’t born or old enough to worship at his alter.  In contrast George W. Bush was in office just three years ago and, efforts to erase him from history are laughable.  He remains top-of-mind.  What his presidency wrought at home and abroad — how it impacted on our individual lives — doesn't make for a pretty picture.  Obama will be happy to focus on that past, to ask Americans if they want to return to it.  When Republicans urge us to go back, he’ll remind us again that it was their man Bush who bequeathed him and us a colossal mess to clean up.  As with hurricanes, tornedos and floods the garbage left behind by a financial meltdown is so massive that it isn’t easily or quickly collected.  Just ask the residents of New Orleans.  The cleanup and rebuilding, as they know so well, takes substantially more time than tearing down.  Restoring the past may speak to some who don’t like where we are today or who we have become as a nation, but focusing on the rearview mirror rather than on the road ahead is always hazardous, often fatal.

Brooks may despair of what has become of the party and ideology he largely supports, but he can’t undo the bed they have chosen to make for themselves.  In narrowing their constituency to mostly people like us — few Blacks, Latinos, Gays or any of the others they demonize — it’s unsurprising that Republicans share a sense (and reality) of displacement.  They may find it unnerving, may lash out with an angry Tea Party, but they can’t turn the clock back.  Brooks, himself one of those eggheads they disdain, tells the truth.  Yesterday is really gone.   You can ask Eastman Kodak about that one.  Perhaps neither the rank and file nor their leaders get (or admit to getting) it, but those they paint as the other are fast becoming us.  And it’s the very multidimensional us that has always been America at its best, a nation of others who have kept our creative juices going, given us a unique identity.  Perhaps in this election cycle we’re not yet ready to talk directly and honestly about the real America of 2012, but the time when any one of us can afford to sit with blinders on is running out.   

This election is bound to be about the economy, and perhaps we’ll see a discussion about the role of government — more or less — in our lives.  That kind of conversation is long overdue, but don’t count on it happening.   Part of what will likely drive us as voters this fall is whether or not we want to go back.  What we decide will depend in large measure on how we perceive the good old days and whether we think this nation can manage and, more importantly thrive, in a very different time.  My advice to you is simple.  If you’re yearning for the past — the old days — get over it!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Affirmation with attendant questions.

It’s unsurprising that the religious right leaders gathered in Brenham Texas voted to endorse Rick Santorum.  Unlike Newt, whose religiosity comes off as opportunistic, and the other Rick who has shown himself unpredictable, Santorum is clearly and consistently one of them.  That said, what they perceive as his strength — an unabashed religious fervor — is precisely what makes the former senator so problematic to those of us concerned about any erosion in the Jefferson’s Wall of Separation.  Indeed Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, and the gathering’s spokesman epitomizes those theocrats that would have us tear much of it down and submit to their ideas and ways.

As Republican candidates actively seek support of those who by word and action challenge it, last week the Supreme Court issued a significant, albeit narrow, ruling affirming the Establishment Clause.   At issue in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was whether a religious institution, in this case a Lutheran church school, is covered by a ministerial exception in dealing with one of its employees. Hosanna-Tabor had fired Cheryl Perish a called (ordained as minister) teacher who suffered from narcolepsy rather than let her return to work.  She brought suit under The Americans with Disabilities Act.   Speaking for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote: When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck a balance for us.  The church must be free to choose who will guide it on its way.

When our highest court upholds church-state separation, especially in the current political climate, we all have good reason to celebrate.  At the same time, the ministerial exception invoked and confirmed in this case seems to fly in the face of the protections embodied in the ADA, protections most of us value.  Had Ms. Perish worked for anyone else, her suit would have been judged solely on its merits — was she fired because she was ill — and nothing else.  To me, this case presents a troubling conundrum.  On the one hand, we absolutely don’t want the government dictating who religious institutions chose to lead them, on the other we want all employees, regardless of who they are and where they work, to be protected.  So the Court was faced with a really tough choice.  It came down on the separation side deciding that while the interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is important, that is trumped by the interest of religious groups in choosing who will teach their beliefs. Trumped but limited to this case or assumably ones exactly like it.  Clearly their decision reflects that they too understood the conundrum. As Chief Roberts put it: ...We express no view on whether the [ministerial] exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.  There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.

Whenever we set up protections for one class of people not accorded to others we walk a fine line.  The Establishment Clause was aimed at protecting against a government that would subvert religious freedom and independence.  Roberts methodically recounts that background in his decision referencing, among others, The Act of Supremacy of 1534 [that] made the English monarch the supreme head of the Church.  He reminds us that, seeking to escape the control of the national church, the Puritans fled to New England.  They were not alone in seeking religious freedom.  But who exactly should have that protection?  Should it be limited to those groups who believe in a god, or who profess following divine teaching and direction or should it also protect, say a group that challenges a god’s existence or more pointedly speaks against such a deity?  The organized Secular Humanists have skirted that important issue by presenting themselves as a church — in effect a godless-religion. 

In 2005 a Federal Appeals Court, faced with the plea of a prison inmate, ruled that that atheism is equivalent to a religion for the purposes of the First Amendment.  It follows then that courts are likely to protect the rights of an individual atheist, though perhaps more on the grounds of the Frist Amendment’s free speech guarantee than necessarily its establishment clause.  If so, that’s too bad because in my view her lack of belief in God should be treated identically as would be the case for a theist follower an organized religion, and for the same legal reason.  But would an organized group of atheists who refuse to follow the secular humanist route in calling themselves either a church or a religion be accorded the same ministerial exception that the Court gave Hosanna-Tabor?  I’m talking here about an organization made up of people coming from what Pew and others characterize as the fastest growing group on the religious landscape.  What criteria might the Court use to make that judgment?  Would it be sufficient for the group to designate leaders or would they need to have established a formal set of beliefs and/or rules of governance?  Would they have to have incorporated?  Given where we’re actually headed in this assumed religious country, this is not a far-fetched question.   Associations of atheists already exist likey to both promulgate and then effectively transmit their beliefs to the next generation.  Others may be formed in the future even if only to get the seat they deserve at the table of public discourse.  How would the Court treat these non-churches — how would they as institutions be protected by the Establishment Clause?

Given the militant reaction of the religious right to the so-called value issues currently focused on what they call traditional marriage, it’s fair to wonder how they would feel if an atheist entity were accorded, or even to claim, a ministerial exception?  Think about it.   The very idea that atheism could be placed on the same legal plane as theism would be no less troubling than allowing abortions or same-sex unions.  That God isn’t ultimately more important to evangelicals and other orthodox religious than terminating a pregnancy or allowing gay and lesbians — mere mortals — to marry would be mystifying.  In fact, I would think that in their worldview according atheists equal establishment clause status would be nothing short of blasphemy.  It would be seen as the ultimate slippery slope.

Courts generally don’t answer unasked questions and, to inoculate themselves, are loath to publically speculate on issues and cases that might be.  Who knows whether in the privacy of their conference or individual chambers these questions have been discussed or even considered?  There is no evidence that any member of the Court is an active atheist or even an agnostic.  Their rulings on the establishment clause aren’t theologically grounded other than to protect freedom of those who are.  It may take a long time, if ever, for this issue to present itself.  And the questions raised in Hosanna-Tabor are by no means limited to the ones just posed.

Having personally experienced being employed as a clergyman and then as a business executive, I come to this issue with a little different perspective than those who don’t share that experience.  Of course the purposes of my different employers were different as was the work.  Many churches and clergy see the ministry as a calling (sometimes literally the result of divine intervention or purpose) — The Lutheran’s gave Ms. Perish the title: called-teacher.   I never saw it that way, and not all religions do either.  The fact is that, regardless or the job description or work, both as a rabbi and as an executive I was an employee.  I was expected to perform and in return expected a salary check to reach me when promised, to have appropriate working conditions and to be treated fairly and equitably by my employers; synagogue board or company.   We all know that doesn’t always go well.  And we know from the sexual abuse scandal, both the criminal acts and the cover-up, that religious institutions are not immune from wrongdoing.  Ms. Perish’s employers dodged a bullet that would likely have hit its target had she worked for any other kind of school, public or private.  I don’t think the ADA was meant to exclude any employer or not to protect the rights of any individual.  The Court’s decision certainly re-affirmed the establishment clause, but it’s hard to deny it raised as many questions as it answered.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pure. Well not exactly.

Even Ivory couldn’t be called 100% pure.  The claim its makers did make (99.44%) was constructed, as much promotional hype as reality.  Take your pick, neither 100 nor 99.44%  necessarily means the best or even better cleaning.  And that’s even more so with politics.  As said in my last post, if you want purity, get out of the political kitchen.  Linking purity with politics is an oxymoron.  Clearly that’s something those engaged in the unfolding Republican Presidential primary either don’t know or want us to forget.  From Iowa into New Hampshire and now South Carolina, claims of purity are getting a real workout.  One contender after another is promoting himself (the single herself has left the stage) as the real, or shall I say pure, conservative.  That’s of course in contrast to his impure opponent.  It’s a uniquely Republican debate.

Pure in a political setting suggests being in possession of the truth, the kind of absolute truth claimed by the religious right with which some of these conservative candidates closely identify.  Democrats and especially liberals are more circumspect about possessing the truth.  But there is another reason they don’t engage in this purity rhetoric.  Thanks in large measure to Ronald Reagan, liberals and liberalism has been demonized — the L word.  While there is more than ample reason for Democrats to explore liberalism and to re-identify with it — a subject for the future — for now we should be grateful that the GOP’s great (and seemingly only) hero saved us this public pursuit of purity.

Like anyone who preaches a message of the only truth, these absolutists see their political ideology as 100% pure and thus somehow sacrosanct.  Their truths include that only smaller government, lower taxes, and less social programming will solve all our ills and bring on prosperity.  It’s a pure truth that lends itself to no compromise and no one represents it more clearly and purely than Ron Paul.  It is that purity, and most especially his being so up front and consistent about it, that has made Paul so attractive.  To be sure, many of his most loyal long-term followers and more so his recent converts (which include some very strange bedfellows) don’t spend much time considering the consequences of his pure message.  Considering how change-resistant we Americans really are, it’s unlikely many (if any) of them would welcome how translating the rhetoric into reality would impact on their individual or communal lives. 

In a short New Yorker piece, Enemy of the State, Nicholas Lemann spells out where government-shrinking, the purist kind espoused by Paul and that echoed by Republicans out on the hustings, leads.  If rigorously put into practice …Paul’s vision, he writes, would mean A minimal state, without welfare provisions for the unemployed.  A quarter of a million federal workers…joining those unemployed.  Foreign policy and national defense reduced to a few ballistic-missile submarines. The civil-rights legislation of the nineteen-sixties repealed, and in a financial crisis …no regulation that might have prevented it, no government stabilization …and no special help for working people hurt by it.

Oh, but that’s in the fine print, and to focus on logical implications is to miss the point.  Talk is cheap.  Paul’s edge comes in large measure because he never has to deliver — as say does a president, governor, or mayor.  No need to put up, so none to shut up.  And in Paul we can see the polar opposite of what we simple mortals face.  Most of our problems don’t lend themselves to pure solutions.  Our everyday real world and how we address it has more in common with President Obama or any one of his predecessors than those purists on the campaign trail.  Sure the Tea Party folk who were elected to Congress will tell you that it’s possible to remain pure, but look at the result, the havoc they have caused.  Having the objective of halting the wheels of government makes great headlines, but its pontificating purists don’t have to get social security checks out, fill pot holes or send someone’s loved ones to war. 

So all this debate about purity rings pretty hollow, a sharp departure from reality.  I’m no fan of Mitt Romney, but the charge that he is a flip-flopper is totally disingenuous.  Not only have all his office holding opponents made pragmatic adjustments in their public lives, most (including Saint Paul) have likely done so at home.  Navigate a marriage or raise a child without the occasional flip-flop and you’ll deserve a place in Guinness.  There is no purity in the life of, by definition, imperfect human beings.  The purity espoused in all those pronouncements and debates suggests a stubbornness that obviates the give and take that make America what it is, that make it possible.  And this isn’t a matter of ideology.  It would apply to pure liberalism as well as pure conservatism, neither of which have a lock on truth — the right and only way.

My purpose here is not to suggest that heartfelt beliefs and core principles are not important.  There should be options that go beyond the pale, places where we take an absolute, even purist, stand.  One would hope that all those who serve, or seek to serve, in public office live by some purist ideal, that they possess core values.  In a fundamental way, we depend on that being so, which accounts for why we are so often disappointed.  It’s that experience and disappointment that suggests each and everyone of those self-proclaimed purists engaged in the who is the pure conservative debate is blowing smoke. It's not that what they're selling isn't pure, just that its pure malarkey.  What is it they say about glass houses?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Change out the Veep time.

Franklin Roosevelt had three Vice Presidents — John Nance Garner, Henry A. Wallace and of course give em hell Harry S. Truman.  Since then only Richard Nixon had two — Spiro Agnew and Gerald Ford — and that was born out of criminality.  Tobacco chewing Garner famously said the office was not worth a bucket of spit, and for years it was hard to argue with his assessment.  Our vice presidents were mostly understudies on deathwatch with the odds of ever taking center stage stacked against them.  Nonetheless, nine such watchers did move up including the forgettable Millard Fillmore, but also Truman and Lyndon Johnson.  Teddy Roosevelt, unquestionably one of our greats, came to office when another president’s heart stopped.

One would think that eight in-office deaths would have put greater pressure on presidents to better prepare their Veeps, to bring them more into what one called the loop.  Truman was famously uninformed, this despite FDR’s having been in such poor health that his succession was considered a foregone conclusion upon nomination at the 1944 convention.  It took the ninth, John F Kennedy’s, and a subsequent 14-month vice presidential vacancy to command the proper attention resulting in the 1967 25th Amendment.  Its importance came into play almost immediately in the dual Agnew-Nixon disgraces resulting in two vice presidential appointments in succession: Ford and then Nelson Rockefeller.

In the wake of that experience, Jimmy Carter literally transformed the office by making Fritz Mondale the first authentic vice presidential partner.  Neither Reagan nor the G.H.W. Bush went quite that far, but clearly Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama did.  Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have all been major, at times decisive, players in their respective administrations.

Perhaps most of our vice presidents haven’t been more than frustrated understudies or the office more valuable than that bucket of spit, but it seems every time a president faces reelection talk abounds about changing out his number two.  The argument usually goes that the president would be a stronger second term prospect with a different running mate.  Nixon, as Ike’s Veep, was haunted by such talk, as were both Quale and Chaney.  Lyndon Johnson was never a favorite of the Kennedy crowd and talk of his replacement began the day after he was sworn in as number two in January 1961.  So here we go again.

Bill Keller is only the latest pundit to suggest that President Obama consider rearranging his administration by switching Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton’s seats around the table.  That particular idea was floated back in '08 when some saw the then Senators as better candidates for the offices they didn’t get than for the ones that they took.  Biden, the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, seemed a natural for State; with a near nomination win, many Clinton supporters felt she was entitled to be vice president.  An Obama-Clinton pairing was seen to be a dream ticket, but unquestionably one that presented all kinds of issues, not the least a Bill problem.

Three years in, it’s more than fair to say both Biden and Clinton have substantially out performed expectations.  Biden has been among the most active and effective of vice presidents.  Beyond all else, he has served as an important counterbalance to the hawkish generals whom Obama, like all Democratic presidents must, has had to pay due deference.  Clinton has been a remarkably adroit and effective diplomat walking the walk (or flying it) and gaining respect both at home and abroad.  Few thought he, the unbridled talker, and she, the thwarted candidate, would be an easy or disciplined fit in subordinate roles.  It is a tribute first to them and also to the president that such calculations were unfounded.  It is no less a tribute to this trio that the idea of a switch is so viable, whether or not it is desirable, possible or probable.  Perhaps some people had trouble thinking of Biden or Clinton going into their current roles, but no one questions for a moment either taking on the other’s job today or doing so with distinction. 

So it appears that nothing should stand in the way of making this switch.  For sure Clinton’s many dedicated 2008 supporters would be delighted to get their dream ticket at long last.  In what is likely to be a challenging, some say inevitably close race, it could make the difference between victory and loss.  Neither is this a novel argument nor is history on the side of a switch.  Sitting vice presidents simply don’t get dislodged.  Carter/Mondale, Bush/Quale, Clinton/Gore, Bush/Chaney — the first two pairs lost their reelection bid the second two won.  Regardless, both teams remained in tact.  Talk of replacing vice presidents was often rooted in dissatisfaction.  Quale, for example, was never more than a mystifying choice and Cheney had taken on his Darth Vader persona.  Nothing like that exists today. Quite the contrary, the hopes of Clinton supporters notwithstanding, Joe Biden’s selection was greeted positively when first made and his performance has only enhanced his image.  He is neither seen as a lightweight or as a Star Wars villain.  But perhaps most important, the Vice President seems to like his job and, by all accounts, the President feels the same in having him at his side.  End of story.

Talk of switching out vice presidents has been a favorite parlor game for both political junkies and the opportunistic manufacturers of news who live off it.  It has always been a sideshow and distraction — and likely to remain so.  Nonetheless, there is one aspect this time around that makes it both different and deserving of some serious attention.   In fact, it presents an opportunity for a discussion that shouldn’t be missed.  Secretary Clinton is a woman.  Switch outs may never have happened, but seven twentieth century vice presidents moved on to the presidency and two more were their party’s nominees.  Holding the office is not inconsequential.  Possession has proven to be nine-tenths of the law.  In that, replacing Biden with Clinton might present our best shot of finally getting a Ms. President into the White House.  I think Mondale had that in mind in picking Geraldine A. Ferraro (who died last March) as his 1984 running mate.

It is a sad commentary on our country that a decade into the twenty-first century there are so few women — some might argue virtually none — politically well positioned for the presidency.  We can make all the partisan jokes we want, but that John McCain had to select a Sarah Palin reflects badly on all of us.  The reality is that he had no deep or even viable candidate bench. The Democrats remain equally impoverished in that regard.  Just try and make your pick.  I’ll give you the minute McCain seems to have taken and be assured that aside from Hilary Clinton no name will come instantly and easily to mind.  Let’s remember that an African American’s rise to the presidency in the ordinary elective way was the exception, not the rule.  Fundamental change — in this case bringing a woman in striking distance of the presidency — often, if now always, has to be force-fed in this great country.  To our shame, we badly lag behind other democracies in female leaders.  And before we give them too much credit, that may not have happened either absent the precedent established when women ascended to the throne — that only because there was no male heir.  Elizabeth, and the few but notable queens before her, laid the groundwork for a Thatcher.  Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

I don’t think an Obama-Clinton ticket is in the cards, or that his re-election is anyway dependent on replacing Biden.  At the same time, I can’t help but being somewhat disappointed that we will, for very good and understandable reasons, miss this opportunity.  We can’t really have change in America or fulfill its dream until women have been mainstreamed into both the circles and the pinnacle of leadership.  Considering that the hypothetical dream ticket is more than likely to win in November, the election that’s all about the economy could end up being a tangible and most necessary game changer, dream fulfiller.  That possibility is, at the very least, worth contemplating.

Don’t believe the partisan left-right rhetoric, there is no black and white in political decision-making.  To paraphrase good old Harry: if you’re looking for pure, get out of the political kitchen.  So Obama, even if he wants to make history, will likely stay the course.  Bill Clinton always characterized his big decisions as the right thing to do.  Some (not all) of that could be discounted as hyperbole.  It’s intriguing to think Obama might consider Hilary Clinton as his 2012 running mate.  In the ideal world — wherever that may be — it might turly be the right thing to do.  Right for him — yes.   Right for the country — absolutely.

Friday, January 6, 2012

To the right of right, amen.

One of the results of Iowa’s last man standing outcome is that the new Romney challenger is perhaps the most socially/religiously conservative candidate in the race.  Rick Santorum’s tenure in Congress was marked by battles against choice and for, among others, abstinence-only and creationism teaching in schools.  He is one of those evolution is a theory kind of guys.  Of course he vehemently opposes to same-sex unions and his recent exchange with New Hampshire college students illustrates how doctrinaire but vapid his arguments.  Santorum, who will be remembered for equating homosexuality and bestiality, now suggests same-sex unions equate to a certain next step: polygamy, in this case, say, between three men.  Let’s not even begin to consider what kind of a mind can conjure up such a weird argument.  If that’s the intellectual case for the things religious rightists oppose — marriage equality, reproductive rights and stem cell research among them — bring it on.

Iowa has always been fertile ground for the right’s religious agenda.  It is there that we routinely find candidates across the board pandering to those who would break down the walls of separation.  It is in Iowa that Michelle Bachman preached in church the week before the caucus.  It didn’t help.  It is a place of confession and redemption, think Newt wearing his newborn Catholicism on his sleeve, with the object of his adulterous subterfuge Callista hanging dutifully on his bent arm.  Iowa is where the Reverend Governor Huckabee emerged victorious in 2008 only to evaporate almost immediately in a sober cool New Hampshire primary night.  To be fair, Democratic candidates, including the now president and state secretary did their share of religious pandering last time around.  New Hampshire also boasts its religious conservatives, albeit the New England kind, and even more so does South Carolina where far right evangelicals abound.  But don’t expect religion to dominate for very much longer.  Santorum will implode, not only because of his message, but also because of his extreme, sometimes downright weird, rhetoric.  McCain and Obama’s command performances at Rick Warren’s Saddle Back are a distant memory and unlikely to repeat themselves.  Whatever happened to Warren?

It isn’t only that today’s voters are more focused on the economy, which in my view has always been the primary interest of the American electorate, but that in the real world this kind of religious fervor is on the wane.  Twenty-five percent of young Americans are dis-identifying with religion.  That number is likely to grow, which is exactly what Romney hopes will happen to his still solid twenty-five.  Santorum’s views on marriage no longer mirror the majority and, while it is never smart to predict Supreme Court decisions, may ultimately be of no legal consequence.  People like the former Pennsylvania senator attribute our weak economy to a decline in family values, but David Brooks somewhat supporting views notwithstanding, that is a hard case to make.  I don’t remember it being part of anyone’s economic analysis, left or right.  But that’s another discussion.

I don’t think religious confessions will fly this time around, but at the same time Iowa and the entire GOP candidate field is a reminder that the faith card is still being played.  You don’t have to be the late Chris Hitchens to feel that religion has no place in politics.  For one thing, we want our political leaders to justify their positions with provable facts — I did say we want.  One may confidently believe in God says, attribute one’s actions to the divine, but proving that is another matter.  Not one of those who make such claims can give a credible response to the simple question, how do you know that?  I believe it to be so — sincere as it may be — just doesn’t cut it.  When it comes to God says, my claim is safely as good, or as weak and unsubstantiated, as is yours.  Moreover, however egalitarian we may be, it is usually a claim on behalf of the truth and true God of the claimant’s faith.  As the writer and student of religion Stephen Prothero points out in his book of that name, God is not One.  Indeed, what a person of one belief system says with such certainly is God’s view may be, and often is, diametrically the opposite of another’s attribution.  Remember that both presidential candidates in 2008 were literally forced into confessing their fidelity to Christ.  That might conform to the views of a majority of Americans, but not to all of us, committed theists and non-theists among them.  Religion in politics is a slippery slope that, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, divides rather than brings us together.

And perhaps that’s really the point here.  We have enough in this country that divides us.  I have no particular hope that this election season or the coming years, regardless of who is running things, will bridge that divisiveness.  It seems clear that even President Obama who ran first time around on bringing us together — giving voice to Lyndon Johnson’s dictum let us reason together — to his governing has thrown in the bi-partisan towel.  Many on his side applaud that change, myself included.  The truth is you can’t play a civil game of baseball when your opponent is playing knock-down football on the same field.  Let us reason together, was another time you’ll say.  Perhaps so, but don’t tell me, or worse tell yourself, that we are better off that way.  We are not.  How much or how little government we should have is a legitimate question.  Where God stands in all of this adds nothing to finding an answer.  If anything, it gets in the way.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A landslide of 8.

Well, I guess the games really have begun in earnest.  122,255 of Iowa’s Republican faithful made it to the caucuses.  However the pundits score the outcome or project its importance, after months of campaigning, endless debates and poll gyrations Iowans still couldn’t decisively decide who should lead them to the promised land.  Yes, Mitt Romney was declared winner, but 24.6% — by 8 votes?  Hardly a sign of rousing support much less any kind nomination mandate.  It seems only to confirm that he can’t break through that 25% ceiling, exactly where he started a year ago.  To put Iowa in perspective, just Imagine if come November we would have a presidential victor supported by less than a quarter of the voters.  How could he possibly govern or be seen as having the right to do so?  Now that’s highly unlikely even let’s say with Paul, Bloomberg and perhaps Romney joining Obama in a 4-way race, but you get the point.  Romney doesn’t yet have his party behind him and perhaps he never will.

I don’t know that Iowa is predictive of anything — their pivotal first out of the gate role has always seemed curious to me.  But I think the outcome does underscore how divided the country.  Even with a moderately homogeneous Republican electorate there — generally more conservative and religious (think especially the Bachmann/Santorum pitches) they evidence polarity not unity.  Romney, Santorum and Paul are not natural or comfortable bedfellows.  Neither are their supporters.  Truth be known, a similar division exists within the Democratic ranks with various constituencies expressing widely differing degrees of support of, or disappointment in, the President and his policies.

It’s the conventional wisdom that as polarized as the country may appear from the discourse, the majority of Americans are in the middle.  Don’t believe it. Those who have taken the time to become really informed on the issues and the solutions are all over the map.  Sure a majority of Americans may (and I stress that word) want an end to the divisiveness, but they certainly aren’t putting their leaders’ feet to the fire to get that done.  The opposite of demanding compromise, most think one side or the other is caving in too soon and too often.  In our economic despair we have, if anything, retrogressed into a nation more divided not less.  Neither Tea Party nor Occupy, the only visible ground-up movements, are close to centrist in their approaches.  We can argue whether one or the other is being manipulated (which means that we are too), but let’s agree that both are comprised of absolutists to whom any compromise whatsoever is considered selling out, somehow impure.  We can see to what effect that works in the performance of Tea legislators who rode in on the protest wave of 2010 and I’d guess much the same would happen if their Occupy counterparts would prevail in 2012, not that there is any sign they will even engage in that way.

We have no center or only a center defined as agree with me because I’m right in my thinking.  And perhaps that isn’t so surprising or necessarily wrong.  Read Paul Krugman (with whom I usually agree) and then some equally credentialed economist on the right and you will see that even the most informed judgments can be 180o apart.  Is Krugman right that debt is misunderstood and not really the central problem?  He makes a compelling case, but an awful lot of smart people have bought into the idea that debt is the problem.  Again, that’s not the issue here but rather that the center where supposedly the majority of people find themselves is nothing but an illusion.

It is said that Iowa’s vote this year was the closest ever, translated the most inconclusive.  If you agree with my contention that most of us are more all over the map than at any common center, then Iowa is (despite whatever makes it an outlier) typically the America we know.  It will be interesting to see how the GOP race plays out, and rest assured the press hopes it will play out very, very, very slowly.  It still isn’t clear who might be Obama’s most difficult opponent.  At this early date with the economy still teetering at the edge, it is impossible and foolish to make any absolute predictions about November.  For now Charlie Rose, among others, seems to relish finding talking heads who will, even if with some caveats, trash the President.  That’s what makes for a race, what makes it interesting.  But let’s remember, there is really no one else to trash at this point.  That will change.  Also a third or fourth party contender would have an impact on the outcome.  Ross Perot elected Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader didn’t exactly serve George Bush badly.

Will we ever see that mythical center that’s supposed to exist?  I guess one would hope so, or some might.  But then again, we’ve rarely moved on in this country, positively or negatively (depending on your point of view), from a dominant center.  Perhaps there was some agreement on civil rights but it was leadership taking what, in the context of history, was a radical left position that moved the ball.  I don’t think we turned to the right because that’s necessarily where the center lay.  Reagan, the ground having been prepared by Goldwater and Nixon (and a long in coming), dragged us in that direction.  When it acquiesces, which it does, the center moves one-way or the other, inexplicitly and inconsistently — no substantive questions asked.  And they call Romney a flip-flopper.