Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Double Header

The phone rang at the Lisbona home in San Lorenzo, Argentina.  Introducing himself as Father Bergoglio, the caller asked to speak with Jaqui regarding the letter she had written him.  As reported in the Washington Post, she took the phone and had a ten-minute conversation with the priest known to most of us as Pope Francis.  The Vatican confirmed the conversation took place.  Communion was being withheld from this devout couple because Mr. Lisbona had previously been married; the Church doesn’t condone divorce. Jaqui had hoped Francis might intervene on their behalf.  As important as this is to them and other Catholics, that’s not what caught my attention.

What struck me was how unimaginable a similar call to some German town by a man introducing himself as Father Ratzinger.  Both men were elevated by their peers to the papacy, but they could not be more stylistically different.  The now retired Benedict approached the throne of St. Peter as a monarch.  He quickly took up residence in the opulent papal palace, donned the royal red shoes and was bedecked in an elaborately embroidered stole and ermine trimmed velvet cape.  Francis opted for a Vatican guesthouse and refused those red slippers.  Ermine trimming just doesn’t work for a man who prefers the ride of a five year old Ford Focus over a posh limo; a man who makes pastoral phone calls to an ordinary parishioner in Argentina.

I use the word “stylistically” purposefully because with just one year in one can’t make definitive judgments about Francis.  His call and shunning of opulence notwithstanding, there is no reason to assume that this pope will part doctrinally from his immediate predecessors.  Nonetheless, it’s clear that he understands the grand gesture and its
Saint Peter, by Rubens (Wikipedia)
newsworthiness.  Francis’ grandest gesture thus far was the unprecedented concurrent canonization of two predecessor popes, John XXIII and John Paul II: a very dramatic double header.  Many early popes, starting with Peter, achieved sainthood.  But only five others have been canonized in the last thousand years.  While the elevation of these two men was certainly not unexpected, doing it in this way has led to wide ranging speculation.  Was it meant to make a statement?  Was it aimed at bridging right and left?

That right/left question is of course what seems to have gotten the most attention.  John XXIII, in many ways an unlikely and surprise pope — he was considered elderly and it took eleven ballots to select him — is seen as the great reformer.  His views, which some characterize as liberal, were codified in Vatican II.  John Paul II, at heart and in action more of a traditionalist, has been seen as having spent much of his papacy pulling back from those reforms.  Regardless, the Church like many other institutions religious and not, seems at times to be internally torn apart by the conflicting “sides”  — reformers vs. traditionalists.  By canonizing both John and John Paul together, Francis is seen as seeking to bridge the gap, the conciliator if you will.  And as to dramatic gestures, being joined by the Pope Emeritus only adds to the symbolism.  Benedict, a pope in the spirit of John Paul; Francis, a reincarnation of the modest “good pope” John.  Interesting, but again not what caught my attention.

As noted in earlier posts, we — Catholics and not — are endlessly fascinated by the goings on in Rome.  The church, with its splendor, pageantry and machinations is the stuff of novels.  Most of all, it is a highly charged political animal.  Perhaps that’s inevitable when an organization is structured with tiers of power all leading to the potential of ascending to a throne of infallibility and absolute power.  For sure, most of its clergy are not ambitious climbers, but there is an implied — and for some real — race for higher ground.  We are fascinated, not because we are attracted to or even interested in the Catholic faith, but because in a profound sense the church as a political phenomenon is so much like us.  It reflects the human drama that commands our daily attention whether in the halls of government or in the corporations that dominate our economy.

There has been relatively little controversy about John XXIII’s sainthood.  The same cannot be said for John Paul II.  In a long reign, which he had, the narrative can change.  In his early years the first Polish pope was seen almost as a rock star with a frenetic road show that attracted huge crowds across the globe.  But in his rule, John Paul was ideologically conservative on issues like contraception, abortion and the role of women.  But these views were not what caused some to question his canonization.  Rather it was the sex abuse scandal — both predator priests and institutional cover-up — that came to light under his watch and his lack of response.

The stunning breadth of abuse cases and worse the Church’s cover-up outraged many of us, but clearly none more than those (including journalists) who had been brought up Catholic.  Maureen Dowd is among them; one who still attends church from time to time.  Dowd’s NY Times columns often strike a seemingly frivolous note, but when addressing this subject she is consistently serious, resolute and, yes, angry.  This was the case on April 23 when she addressed the impending elevation of John Paul.  Here is some of what she wrote:

John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways.  But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint.   One of John Paul’s great shames was giving Vatican sanctuary to Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, a horrendous enabler of child abuse who resigned in disgrace in 2002 as archbishop of Boston. Another unforgivable breach was the pope’s stubborn defense of the dastardly Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pedophile, womanizer, embezzler and drug addict.  The world has seen many saints, some of them canonized by the Catholic Church, but John Paul II was not one of them.  It is wonderful that John Paul told other societies, Communist and capitalist, to repent.  But his tragedy is that he never corrected the failings of his own society, over which he ruled absolutely.

Tough criticism.  The Church defends John Paul.  It was reported that his former spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told journalists “that the ‘purity of his thought’ had made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse children”.  Dowd doesn’t buy such an argument, nor do I.  You won’t find a volume Being Pope for Dummies at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.  It takes a sharp and focused mind to climb the ladder to the papacy and, as Dowd might put it, John Paul “wasn’t no dummy”.  At this point, we may just remember the frail old man with severe Parkinson’s, but John Paul took over at a vigorous 58 years old.  He was an activist and nothing missed his attention.  So one can only conclude that his and the church leadership’s decision to avert their eyes was calculated.  Cover-ups are always that way, even if the perpetrators are deceiving themselves.

Putting this in a broader context, and the last and most important thing that caught my attention, comes toward the end of Maureen Dowd’s piece.  “The church”, she says, “is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here.”  I said earlier that what intrigues us about the Roman Church is that it mirrors the larger society — political entities and corporations.  Is there any greater link than the “buck…doesn’t stop here”We have been through some terrible times of late and perhaps worst among them is that the buck doesn’t seem to stop anywhere, least of all at the top.  John Paul II hasn’t had to take responsibility or to pay for perhaps his greatest management failure.  Sound familiar?  None of those who had the power and could have made a difference — politicians, regulators, and corporate executives — have had to pay for what was done to all of us either.  Like the late pope, they have just cashed in at a saintly sum. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hillary gives me pause.

The envelope was in my mailbox, the return address: “Ready for Hillary 2016”.  My immediate response: not so much — certainly not yet.  Beyond all else, I am so not ready for two and a half protracted years of presidential politics.  More important, we’re facing a critical Congressional election this November.  So I see this solicitation as a distraction at the very moment when we can ill afford to avert our attention from the immediate task at hand.  Do her supporters not realize how important it is to hold the Senate; are they intentionally trying to undermine our sitting Democratic president?  The promised “photo enclosed” pictured the presumptive first family: Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, another reason I’m feeling, not so much.  Let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong; if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016 I will certainly vote for her.  At the moment, the odds are in her favor and she may well land in the Oval Office this time around.  Like others back In 2008 I faced a very hard choice.  I had long been deeply committed to both civil and women’s rights.  The prospect of finally having either an African American or a woman in the White House was nothing less than exciting.  I opted for Barack Obama, a choice actually made on the night he spoke at Kerry’s 2004 convention.  I didn’t regret it in the many months that followed and still don’t.  Hillary Clinton was a credentialed and compelling candidate.  My problem was that her campaign had an air of entitlement, an assumption that she would rightfully sail to victory.  That was a turnoff, but there was something more.  Having lived through the two Bush presidencies I was troubled by the idea of dynasty.  Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton didn’t sit well with me then, nor does it today.

While we’ve not had husband and wife presidents, we have had father and son — John and John Quincy Adams.  Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were cousins; Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson.  The Roosevelt’s were two of our greatest chief executives. Regardless, these dynasties went against the intent of the Founders who were averse to anything that smacked of monarchy.  His distaste for royalty, led George Washington to shun a third term.  After Franklin Roosevelt took four and died in office, term limits were imposed.  I have always been a proponent of them and wish they would, in some fashion, apply across the board including the Supreme Court.

I admit that my own aversion to dynasties is especially acute these days.  With each passing year, and contrary to what one might hope in an age of hyper communication, America is becoming much more stratified, sharply divided by class.  We like to talk about the oligarchs of Russia and China, but we have as many, even more, of them right here.  Perhaps they didn’t derive their position from the same corrupt transfer of wealth, but some would argue that our stunning income inequality stems from its own kind of corruption.  Think obscene CEO pay.  Parallel to the concentration of wealth — the 1% — we have an entrenched political class and the two have developed a symbiotic relationship grounded in mutual interest.  Political dynasties, of which there are many, fit neatly into that picture.

Our Oligarchs generally stand in the shadows as political funders, though one of their own, Michael Blumberg served as a three-term mayor of New York.  Note he circumvented an enacted two-term limit.  The political class takes on the role of governing and they are remarkably inbred, even if not always by blood.  For many, politics is a family business; the Kennedy’s being the best known in our time.  It’s not accidental that we often refer to these families as “royalty”.  Altogether, it’s a system that belies the romantic notion of a people’s democracy with a level playing field much as it does the myth that anyone in America can make it.  Wealth and politics are incestuous and the dynasties are manifestations of that relationship.  And speaking of Hillary, the wealthy and the political often merge so that at times it’s hard to tell them apart.  The Clintons came to Washington as a family of modest means — they weren’t even homeowners.  Bill left office a little better off thanks to his wife’s best selling book, but in the intervening years he has pursued wealth big time.  He has also courted and befriended the oligarchs, or at least the relatively progressive ones.

Does wealth disqualify Ms. Clinton from the presidency?  Certainly not.  Will it make her more independent, less dependent on the funding rich?  Don’t count on that.  In fact she may be less likely to pitch in her own funds than in 2008.  And I say her own funds (vs. family funds) because it is reported that she is commanding hefty — $200 K plus expenses a pop — lecture fees.  If that isn’t an outlier relative to the average American (even the well compensated ones) on whose votes she depends, I don’t know what is.  Again, wealth — in this case earned wealth — shouldn’t be held against her, but these fees for a few hours work are no less unseemly than the executive pay about which I wrote earlier this year.  Do they spell quid pro quo?  Who knows, but on the other side you can be sure the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson (before whom GOP contenders recently genuflected) are surely expecting something in return.

I said earlier that the Hillary mailing was distracting.  Worse is that the assumption of her unannounced candidacy is so preemptive that no other Democrats dare even voice an interest in the office.  With a second term incumbent in the White House, parties always find themselves with a relatively thin and certainly untested bench.  That’s why they often defer to the Vice President — GHW Bush and Al Gore.  It accounts for some Biden talk this time around.  To be sure, the Democrats have a good number of talented office holders, but virtually all of them are boxed in.  Perhaps the best example is Governor Andrew Cuomo (scion of another dynasty), who must hold back because New York is now Hillary’s home state and she is his political senior.  Until the former Senator and State Secretary announces her intention everything and everyone on hold.  Long term, that can’t be good for the party or the country.

While we all wait — possible candidates, party activists and citizens — the press is obsessed with Hillary.  They eagarly await her forthcoming book, which will be heavily promoted.  Frank Rich has written a NY Magazine story that presupposes her nomination and the expected Republican response.  Earlier this month the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Amy Chozick’s offered an assessment of her State Department legacy and how it might play in an expected run.  As important as the dynasty issues, there are probably much more important questions about what kind of president Ms. Clinton might be?  In that context, along with considering her own record, people speculate about how she might have addressed the issues faced by Obama.  She was widely respected in the Senate, and certainly was an energetic State Secretary.   She traveled widely, but it’s hard to pinpoint what she accomplished other than as part of the administration.  Her record will inevitably be compared to that of John Kerry.  His successes could put her at a disadvantage, but it’s too early to judge.   All indications are that she came down on the side of hawkishness during internal policy debates, often ending up in the minority.  Indeed her original support of the Iraq war probably reflects and overall ideology that differs from what has come to be Obama policy.  That concerns me.
In recent weeks there has been more talk, along with the expected articles, about a Jeb Bush run for the presidency.  Wow, a real head-to-head Clinton-Bush.  Jeb’s mother has famously spoken out against his candidacy, but political families do change their minds.   Conservatives who now control the Republican grassroots don’t trust the Bushes nor do they see Jeb as one of them.  Given their acquiescing to two perceived “moderates” — McCain and Romney — both of whom lost badly in the general election don’t be surprised if they insist on nominating a “real conservative”, say Rand Paul.  With much of the electorate, though you wouldn’t know it, moving in the other direction that could be suicidal.  At this point, as concerned as I am about 2014, I don’t feel projecting a Democratic victory in 2016 is just wishful thinking.  So thinking seriously about Hillary, albeit being forced to do it prematurely, makes sense.  And the bottom line is that at this moment she gives me pause.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

OMG. Obama is President

We watched Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration with great expectations.  In retrospect, I’d suggest totally unrealistic though not surprising expectations.  We were desperate, fatigued and disillusioned.  An administration's purposeful terror mongering used to launch two questionable, costly and unfunded wars had done a number on our national psyche.  Our standing in the world was at a low — yes at a low in the Bush years — and the bottom had fallen out of our over leveraged economy.  With this backdrop came a tall handsome knight in shining armor, a man of soaring speech with the ability to attract and move enormous crowds.  He spoke of the change for which we hungered and we invested heavily in his and its promise.  And so was he (perhaps also unrealistically), “fired up and ready to go”.

The late Mayor Ed Koch would go around New York asking citizens, “How am I doing?”  With more than five years logged into his presidency, its seems a good time to assess how Obama is doing, most especially for those of us who supported him in ‘08 and still do.  Lets stipulate that he was dealt a terrible, almost unprecedented, hand.  While that explains a lot, it’s time to stop invoking the inherited Great Recession and unresolved wars.  No doubt, Obama’s performance has been impacted by the starting gate, but this far in we judge presidents for their performance not for their handicap entering the game.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign will go down as a watershed in American politics.   It raised record dollars, a good deal of it at the grassroots level, and was the first to engage the full power of technology.  What was put in place then paid dividends four years later, giving the president a decisive second term win.  There is a vast difference between campaigning and governing.  As if to underscore that point, the organization and methods that work in building election victories don’t necessarily do as well in support of governance or policy.  Obama’s organization, albeit rebranded, kept going throughout his first term and continues today, but has not been able to sufficiently mobilize positive public opinion on his most important initiatives.  Beyond that, making speeches as a candidate — or making speeches in general — is far easier than executing.  Speeches are solo acts where one is virtually in full control.  Executing effectively requires teamwork and a large degree of consensus building, often with people of contrary views.  Speeches can be pure; the product of the legislative process and even of executive action is almost always just the opposite.  It is messy and often results in painful compromise.

How is Obama doing?  Not as well as his campaign speeches might suggest and certainly not up to our expectations of him at the start.  There are of course many reasons, including not inconsequentially that difference between campaigning and governing.  That he has had to contend with an inordinately hostile opposition, exacerbated by the issue of race discussed in my last post, has only added to whatever underperformance we might attribute to him.  During the heat of the '08 primary campaign, Hilary Clinton ran her famous 3 AM Ad suggesting that Obama was ill prepared for the sudden crisis that face all presidents.  Other contenders, contrasting themselves with the inexperienced freshman senator, claimed their readiness ”on day one”.  I’m not sure that even the most seasoned politician is truly ready for the very different and unique challenges that face presidents.  Even so, Obama came with very limited Washington and executive experience.  These deficiencies clearly put him at some disadvantage.

Obama is almost unmatched in speaking to and firing up crowds.  He is less so in smaller settings and, if press reports are accurate, in the one-on-one exchanges with politicians in either party required to get things done in DC.  For a man who has come so far so fast, he is not a natural (backslapping) politician.  Despite his campaign’s phenomenal success in mobilizing the grass roots, Obama falls short at retail politics.  Part of that may be because the president for all his public exposure is at heart a private person, a man with a very small close knit set of friends who is most at home, literally and figuratively, with his immediate family.  Superficial engagement just isn’t his cup of tea.  Early on, people on the Hill have complained that he doesn’t socialize or build personal relationships with them.  This probably hurt his presidency, though in the current hostile and poisonous environment, it’s hard to say how much.

One of the ironies of Obama’s tenure is that what will probably be his greatest domestic accomplishment is also the source of what has weakened him most.  Most troubling is that it has been a largely self-inflicted wound, and a mystifying one at that.  With two years to get prepared, the administration bungled the launch of his signature healthcare program.  While new websites, especially those that have to deliver on very complicated functionality, can face glitches, the ACA’s breakdown was inexcusable.  In the end it was, as many of us predicted, fixed.  Enrollment actually exceeded original targets.  But the damage the initial cock-up inflicted on the Obama presidency may have been catastrophic.  If the Senate is lost in November, the ACA’s inept rollout will probably be to blame.  Republican control of both houses in this environment would mean his presidency will effectively be over.

Many of Obama’s strongest supporters expected a far more liberal president.  In part that disappointment comes more from their hopes and expectations than from what he had promised.  Obama’s rhetoric has always been that of a progressive moderate, more of the center than of the left.  The country’s right tilt just doesn’t produce many left-liberal politicians, certainly not nationally successful ones.  Nonetheless, he promised to close Gitmo (yet to be done) and his rhetoric certainly did not foretell the NSA intrusions, the crackdown of leaks and the deporting of so many of the undocumented immigrants.  Perhaps Democratic presidents have to prove their national security bona fides, but that doesn’t compensate for our disappointment.  So, we can’t give him a pass.

In the aftermath of Viet Nam, America went through a period of military humility, even shell shock.  George HW Bush’s first Gulf War — short and successful — probably turned that around.  The hubristic aggressiveness of his son swung the pendulum too far, reawakening our post Viet Nam mindset.  People like John McCain haven’t gotten that message, or refuse to hear it.  Obama does.  He understands the public’s appetite for interventionism is limited, probably nonexistent.  So he has been reluctant to engage in other people’s conflicts (often civil wars) and, in my view, correctly so.  The idea that his policies have weakened America is preposterous.  As said earlier, our standing in the world had already taken a huge hit in the Bush years, and in part because of them.  But perhaps more important is that while we may still be the preeminent super power, the world has changed drastically.  The idea that there can be a single center of gravity no longer obtains in the 21st Century. 

To be sure, Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been cautious, and his administration like others before it, has made some mistakes.  For all our clout around the world, we remain a very insular nation with often dangerously limited understanding of other countries and cultures.  Obama’s caution in part stems from understanding that, as with the presidency itself, his (and our) power is greater in theory than reality.  He also seems at times to be torn between his own restraint instincts and the pressure of others (including some Democrats) to act, to do more.  So he has drawn “red lines” which made no sense at the start and, once abandoned, have dismayed some at home and abroad.  Those are valid criticism, but in truth our record of intervention is at best spotty.  War didn’t work in Viet Nam and yielded precious little in Iraq and Afghanistan — all three with huge and long felt costs.  Can we do better with negotiations?  The jury is still out on Iran and most certainly on Israel-Palestine, but I’m inclined to believe the outcomes are likely to be better, certainly measured against cost-benefit.

Obama, like each of his predecessors, has had some substantial failures.  That presidents can fulfill our unfettered hopes is a myth, much like the idea that we are “the greatest”.  But in addition to Affordable Care Act, the president has had some notable accomplishments.  The economy remains challenging in part because some of the problems that remain are systemic rather than tied to a normal cycle.  That said, the recession didn’t morph into a depression and millions of new jobs have been created.  Progress, albeit less than we’d like, has been made at financial reform.  Dodd-Frank is making a difference, some of it yet to take full force.  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and marriage equality (with the President’s full support) is on its way to becoming a national reality.  Some believe too many people remain, but we have ended our military role and have exited Iraq; Afghanistan will follow this year. 

Have our expectations of an Obama presidency been met?   Perhaps not entirely, but relative to what we experienced in the previous eight years — yes they have.  Our country faces some huge problems, some shared with others around the world.  Writing this post from Manhattan where income inequality hits you in the face everywhere you look, fixing the disparity seems all the more urgent.  We can’t go on like this, certainly not without major social upheaval.  Obama is talking about it, pressing for raising the minimum wage, but much more concrete action will be required.  We’ve lived through a weird weather year, seasons not behaving in the expected manner, and still are not doing nearly enough to address (even in conversation) the environmental crisis.  Even if Obama focuses on nothing else in his remaining time it won’t be enough, but he should try.  I think he knows that. 

I don’t know who will sit in the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.  Whoever it is, she or he should be grateful that Barack Obama kept the place going and led this nation.  The hand they will be dealt won’t be a cakewalk, but it’s sure to be far better than what he faced eight years earlier.  Yes, the presidency comes with considerable power, but in many ways it’s a miserable, unpredictable and often thankless job.  This critical assessment notwithstanding, I’m so glad Obama took it on and remain proud to say he’s my president, our president.

Friday, April 4, 2014

OMG — A Black President.

As Barack Obama raised his hand to take the oath in 2009, he stood before the largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Washington DC.  The estimated 1.8 Million that gathered on that day easily broke the previous record (1.2 M for LBJ) and was seven times larger than the 1963 March on Washington (250K), a record in its time.  Millions more of us were glued to our television screens in rapt attention.  It was an exciting moment filled with emotion and historic consequence, but also one accompanied by an element of disbelief.

That may have been especially so for those of us with a history in Civil Rights struggles, but probably no less for those who had worked so hard on a campaign that Obama often characterized as “unlikely”.  There he was, a black president — our president — and we were figuratively or literally pinching ourselves to make sure that it wasn’t all a dream.  Could it be, and so relatively soon since King’s iconic speech and the struggle that often seemed insurmountable?  OMG, we had elected an inaugurated a black president.  What a great day, how very far we had all come.

We were hardly alone in expressing that OMG, but not everyone saw it in a positive way.   Far from considering it a great day, a significant number of Americans saw January 20, 2009 as unnerving, horrific and even catastrophic.  They too watched in disbelief, bearing witness to their rightful order, the one on which they counted, evaporating before their eyes.  Would it have happened if not for our collective war fatigue and a near financial collapse in an election year?  Let’s leave that to historians, but for sure Obama’s election did not fit the plan nor did it reflect the rightward direction in which the country had been heading for more than four decades.

Many of those who now felt disenfranchised saw Obama as an illegitimate president, someone who in their mind was not even American.  What he called his “funny name” was indeed alien, even his claimed Christian faith suspect.  As I’ve suggested before, for many Obama typifies the other, someone “not like us”.  He personifies a potential and threatening sea change, a transfer of power away from the “entitled”.  And much, if not all of this unease, centers on a single word: race.  If these last five plus years have proven anything, it is that any notion of a post-racial America was always a dream, and a naïve one at that.

It’s been many weeks since I’ve written a post.  Much of this quiet time has been spent trying to make some sense of the mess in which we find ourselves on so many fronts, domestic and foreign.  It’s a crazy idea but I’ve been trying to think before writing.  In much of that time, the title of this blog has been sitting atop an otherwise blank Word document.  In thinking ahead to the coming elections and about these last years of political acrimony and gridlock, the idea of “OMG, A Black President” just wouldn’t leave my mind.  Was I being irrational, wrongly obsessed with how race was playing out before us?  Well, thanks to my friend Eric Dashman the answer, the confirmation of sanity, came in alerting me to Bill Moyers’ interview of law professor Ian Haney Lopez.  Lopez, discussing his recently published book, was saying all the things I was thinking and more important making a compelling case for what ails our country, and why.

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class was on my iPad within minutes of watching the interview.  I couldn’t put it down.  Lopez’ title was inspired by a simple device that we humans can see, but that can be heard and understood only by dogs.  Dog whistles speak in a special code and so too do the metaphoric racial political dog whistles employed by the politicians and opinion makers who use them.  These are suggestive messages, rich in innuendo and aimed at specific target audiences.  But, as Lopez suggests, it doesn’t take much for all of us to understand their meaning.  We have come to understand the buzzwords and images, and they have had a cumulative effect in drawing and reinforcing the lines that so divide us.  When Mitt Romney spoke of the 47%, we instinctively knew their identity.  We understand the underlying meaning of the “takers” — recipients of food stamps, Medicaid, and even public education.  Conversely, we recognize who falls under the definition of “hard working American taxpayers” and who does not.  Race is writ large in these coded words.

I won’t attempt to more than skim Lopez’s case here — you should read it.  His story begins with the prescient, albeit unsuccessful, campaign of Barry Goldwater and takes firm hold a mere four years later with Nixon’s infamous Southern Strategy.  Beyond all else, this is a perception game, one premised on a simple strategy of steering white voters toward a common self-preservation cause under the umbrella of their (White Republican) party.  It has been remarkably successful not only in determining the priorities and direction of the GOP, but also in influencing the conversation and ultimately policy across the entire political landscape.  Republicans turned increasingly (hard) right but so, to some significant degree, have Democrats (especially since Clinton) followed along, abandoning liberalism for something right of center.  A striking outcome of Dog Whistle Politics is that since 1960 Republicans have garnered a plurality and usually a majority of white voters in all but one presidential election cycle.

What was implied in Nixon’s Southern Strategy became more blatant with Reagan’s talk of “Welfare Queens” and George HW Bush’s racially infused Willy Horton commercial in 1988. To get a sense of how intrusive this has been, Bill Clinton, who has been called our first “black president”, made much of his presidential legacy about “ending Welfare as we know it”.  The reform was premised on the idea that “lazy” recipients need to be forced off the government tit and into the workforce.  And who are these people?  Mostly shiftless black recipients, people who prefer gaming the system rather than being productive — read, being hard working taxpayers.   An assault on public sector unions/employees, including teachers who serve the same disadvantaged citizens, is only a different side of the same coin.

In 1965 President Johnson signed Title XVIII of the Social Security Act providing universal healthcare for America’s seniors.  For sure Medicare had its detractors including those who saw it as socialized medicine.  But no one ever called it Johnsoncare; no one tried to turn the president’s name into an epithet.  In attacking the Affordable Care Act and pejoratively branding it Obamacare, we can see a striking example of the dog whistle.  As Lopez writes, “here comes a black man to get government involved raising taxes on you in order to fund even more giveaways to minorities.”  More specifically, “…Obama cares about minority loafers and not white taxpayers”.

The wave of new voter ID laws being passed in the very states where poll taxes and bogus qualification “tests” were used to subvert and prevent African American participation may now be aimed at suppressing Democratic votes, but only the blind can miss its larger racial component, one that also impacts Latinos.  “Voter fraud” is the dog whistle code for keeping the right people (Republicans and by extension whites) in power.

Today’s heightened role of race in politics correlates directly to America’s dramatic demographic shift.  Whites are on their way to losing numerical preeminence.  Having a black president just rubs salt into the festering wound of feared power loss.  Whether that loss will occur and when is still a mater of conjecture.  Lopez believes that Republicans are likely to coopt second and third generation Latinos into the white fold, something that might turn the projected demographic shift on its head.  Some light skin blacks “passed” in an earlier time. Accent free citizens of Hispanic heritage can easily meld into the “white” population totally unnoticed.  Some already have.  In a cautionary message, Lopez sees this as a likely “solution” to the GOP’s demographic dilemma.

The point is that there are lots of potential weapons in the arsenal of those who seek to turn back the clock.  What I find most disturbing is that those using those weapons, the whistle blowers, have been very successful in coopting others, sometimes unwittingly, to their cause.  Considering how transparent the pejorative use of Obamacare, it is shocking to see the likes of the NY Times and NPR being subverted into playing along.  More telling is that Obama and his Administration have fallen into the same perilous trap. 

Barack Obama is our first black president, an accomplishment that undoubtedly makes him acutely aware of how race plays out in this country.  What Ian Lopez contends is not new to him.  But race, perhaps especially to him, is a sensitive and conflicting subject.  On the one hand, one might expect the president’s voice to be raised against dog whistle politics and its use as a corrosive weapon of civic destruction.  On the other, he carries the burden of any groundbreaker, one familiar to other first of their kind: African Americans, women and in another generation to Catholics like Kennedy and Jews like Louis Brandeis.  In fact, Obama is probably the least able to take on the race fight, certainly not with any regularity and consistency.  Like other pioneers before him, his first priority is to prove that someone like him can perform equal to, or ideally better, than any “more likely” counterparts.  His identity is, if you will, the cause of the perceived problem and carrying the anti-racist flag would only be reconfirm the dog whistle blowers’ contention — “what can you expect, we told you so”.  Put simply, it’s up to many of us to combat the dog whistle, and it’s on us that it remains so powerful.  How Obama is doing the job he was elected to do is another and important question, the subject of my next post.