Thursday, October 29, 2015


A few days ago, Bernie Sanders appeared for an hour on Charlie Rose.  The Vermont Senator who has gained traction among potential Democratic primary voters, including many young people, calls himself a Socialist-Democrat.  Regardless of labels his classic progressive views differ hardly at all from people like me.  Indeed, what struck me in watching their conversation was just how compatible our positions.  Bernie supports universal Medicare, free public university, infrastructure investment, public financing of political campaigns, reinstatement of Glass Steagall, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and aggressive action to combat climate change.  So do I.

It isn’t only the gap between the 1% and everyone else that animates him, but also how the system — political and otherwise — is rigged to keep that disparity in place.  Further enabled by Koch brothers (whom he repeatedly mentioned by name) and other billionaire money, that system is broken.  Bernie Sanders is equally disturbed by the media’s focus on polls, gaffs of the day and the like rather than on the substantive issues that should and are not being covered.  To him, the Rose interview, focused on real issues, was a refreshing exception.  Again, I agree.

Bernie is clearly frustrated with the state of our democracy and its inequities.  In that, he reflects an unease writ large.  But Sanders’ anger, while certainly echoing this widespread frustration, is grounded in the positive idea that we can do better.  He wants us to live up to our exceptionalism, not the kind that says we’re superior to others, but the one that reflects our special and innovative national character.  Some think Bernie is the Democratic version of Trump and other “outsiders” seen on the Republican side.  Nothing could be further than the truth.  For one, he is a long sitting Senator.  But more important, as I’ve written before, they voice the anger of constituents who feel disenfranchised from an assumed entitlement, a controlling place at the table.  Theirs is a rejection of the “Other”.  Some among them also perceive an existential challenge to their conservative Christian beliefs and ways.  Bernie isn’t that.  He may be angry but, if anything, it is against the very idea of exclusiveness.  Bernie is inclusive.  Unlike theirs, his quest has had a positive effect on both the discourse and country.

While struck by the commonality of our views, I nonetheless remain mindful that campaigning and governing are not the same.  Perhaps that’s why, despite a powerful message and a passionate loyal following, he remains substantially behind in the measures that make for a nomination — polls, endorsements and, his unquestioned successes notwithstanding, money.  Unless something still unforeseen presents itself, Hillary will likely prevail.  Presidents, as Barack Obama has learned, have a significant role in setting the agenda and certainly in proposing, but ultimately it is the legislative branch that disposes.  All the things that Sanders would like to accomplish take Congressional action.  His laundry list is bold, and rightly so, but getting even a portion of it enacted (especially with a House that may remain in GOP hands) is a very tall order.

In the first debate, Secretary Clinton summed up the difference that probably accounts for her still commanding lead.  She described herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done”.  I may find myself more closely aligned with Sanders’ overall views, but know moving ahead will require pragmatic skills that may not be uppermost in his toolbox.  What I do feel, more so than at the start, is that his candidacy and vigorous voice have had a major impact on the direction of both the campaign and his party.  Hillary’s self-description as a “progressive” is in itself something new.  More important, her current positions lend substance to that claim.  Some may say she was forced to the left, but I like to believe that Bernie and others gave her license be there.  Whatever the reason, there is a minimal difference between them on most key issues.  She may be late, as he rightly points out, but that she has come to the present place makes me more hopeful.

This is going to be a critical election.  The difference between the parties has never been greater.  Bernie Sanders, along with colleagues like Elizabeth Warren, have helped change the narrative by clearly articulating the goals to which Democrats should aspire in this second decade of the twenty-first century.  Those goals are catching up to what many of us have long thought they should be.  He may not win the nomination, but he certainly deserves our great respect and thanks.  Bernie has made a difference.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Stop the world.

“I’m getting old at just the right time.”  George HW Bush

The first President Bush is old and he is frustrated.  His beloved Jeb is struggling when early money gathering suggested a possible sail to the nomination.  But what really gets to him is the state of the party with which his family has been closely associated since father Prescott was elected senator from Connecticut in 1952.  At this point Bush is somewhat relieved — getting old at the right time — that he won’t have to witness where it all ends.  He’s clearly not optimistic.  I’d venture that the former president is not alone in that regard.  Many of his age look at what’s become of our politics, the chaos abroad, widespread economic imbalance and endangering climate change with equal unease.  Perhaps more than then, they can truly relate to the title of Anthony Newley’s 1960s musical: Stop the World: I Want to Get Off.

Of course, the fact that the Stop the World idea resonated more than five decades ago — albeit on more on a personal level for Newley’s “Littlechap” character — should give us some comfort.  Others before us have witnessed frustrating times and somehow humanity muddled through, even thrived.  That may be reassuring, but it doesn’t exactly make one feel sanguine about our time.  The vast majority of the world’s population has most of their lives ahead of them.  Political and perhaps more so ethnic/religious turf strife is bound to be with us for some time to come.  2015 is expected to be the hottest year on record, likely by some margin.  Just days ago we had the strongest hurricane ever recorded in our hemisphere.  Fortunately, mountains quickly broke it up, but it was a stark reminder that storms are likely to increase in ferocity going forward.  If we don’t take immediate and drastic action to slow things down, which seems unlikely, most people alive today will be living with resultant destruction, not to mention, among others, increasingly limited water and food supply.

Part of the ugliness that troubles President Bush was on display last week as Hillary Clinton faced what Maureen Dowd described as, “a bunch of pasty-faced, nasty-tongued white men”.  To call this fact-finding would be a disservice to an important part of Congressional duty.  Theirs was a classic witch-hunt, one that expressed the state of our disunion.   Couple that with the contest of essentially same-page rightist candidates — none would be measurably better than the other — and you can see what puts the former chief executive on edge.  Of course we shouldn’t forget that the Bush clan played a significant role in heading the party in its current direction.  He appointed Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most reliable rightist member of the current Supreme Court.  His son followed on with Roberts and Alito not to mention quagmire wars we can’t shed, affluent-tilted tax cuts and a resultant ballooned deficit.

It’s that deficit that has become the clarion call and primary justification for his party’s relentless attempt to gut and thus weaken, if not destroy, the federal government.  If I were prone to conspiracy thinking, which I’m not, it wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that putting what has become a deficit tool in place was his intended objective.  He may not have been quite that calculating.  As to Jeb, we all know that he is not his grandfather’s New England moderate Republican — Prescott Bush was, yes, an early and active supporter of Planned Parenthood and the United Negro College Fund.  The current pretender to the family throne ran Florida as a consistent doctrinaire conservative.  Perhaps the only exception was immigration, but he’s surely backed off from that as well.

In the end, I’m not really sure what’s bothering George HW Bush, the former number two to conservative ultra-hero Ronald Reagan.   It may be that the road on which they set the party has taken a much further right turn the two hoped or expected.  Perhaps. But it may be something entirely different.  Prescott Bush was a patrician of the banker moneyed class.  His son and grandsons may have relocated to Texas and Florida, but Kennebunkport remains the locus of their family togetherness.  However far they all may have moved to the right, that money class connection remains a constant.  Their people have been the “establishment” that somehow steered presidential nominations toward candidates of their liking, ones who could function within their orbit.  Perhaps the former president is as much, if not more, dismayed by the potential erosion of that establishment control than of the ideological turn that, after all, can be seen as a natural progression.  So, what he would rather not witness is a loss of power that, when held, trumps all else.

Many Democrats may feel similarly if not equally dismayed.  Somehow we’ve always looked at this “establishment” as a tempering force, one that keeps the crazies at bay.  But truth be told, that sense of restraint may be more in our own minds — talking to ourselves — than is merited.  George W, John McCain and Mitt Romney were all establishment choices.  More to the point, the establishment blessed the elder Bush who, even before appointing Thomas, embraced Lee Atwater, the model of the take-no-prisoners campaigning that wrought the Tea Party and brought its “Freedom Caucus” to life.  Perhaps the current crop of Republican office holders like to pay lip service to the “Gipper”, but their ways can be equally credited to the post 1988 Bush clan.  George HW Bush's establishment gang may be losing its grip, but when all is said and done, it makes no substantive difference.  He may say he is “getting old at the right time”, but the political trouble he will leave behind is in large measure the harvest of his own planting.

Monday, October 19, 2015


It seems that with every presidential election cycle we hear that, “this is the most important election we’ve ever had”.  Having been said so often in recent years that may be seen as “crying wolf”, something to be ignored.  Yet once again, I find myself not merely wanting to say but to shout, “this is the most important election ever”.  Why is that so?  The simple answer is that the major parties have become so distinct from one another that elections do matter more than before.  Make no mistake; the country’s future direction will be on next November’s ballot.  There will be consequences.

Consider the drama currently playing out on Capital Hill and, most especially, the dysfunction in recent years.  No, it isn’t that we have a president of one party and a congress of the other.  That has happened often, including in fairly recent history.  What makes this time different is that the two parties who were once distinguishable only at the margin — both had a range of opinion and philosophy within — are now more sharply ideologically divided than they have been in many years, certainly in our memory.  And ideology is the right word, especially on the Republican side.  The GOP has moved hard right.  The current House speakership battle is all about institutionalizing that shift.

The shift — transforming the Republican Party into the “Conservative Party” — has been building for years with Tea-driven primary voters systematically turning out non-conforming office holders.  That there is a question about Paul Ryan’s conservative bona fides (what else is he) or whether the 2016 presidential wannabes are sufficiently pure tells you all you need to know.  The only fly in their ointment is the continuing interference of the “money class” which has been in control for so long, and still weighs heavily.  Office seekers want their financial support, but seem to be pushing back against the attached strings. That tension continues, especially relative to the presidential contest, the race that still counts the most.

The contrast between Republican and Democratic presidential debates couldn’t have been sharper.   Beyond the obvious, that one party has a clear front-runner and the other has a contest that remains in flux, the ideological divide was as conspicuous as I’ve seen it.  Democrats and Republicans don’t’ simply differ on approaches to national security, education, healthcare, voting rights, gun control and economic/tax policy; they often hold diametrically opposed positions, seeing life and the country through totally different eyes.  If FDR, who faced similar political forces in the 1940s, was known as “the happy warrior”, today’s Republicans seem wedded, as David Remnick put it in the New Yorker, to “the politics of perpetual fear”.

When I moved to North Carolina just nine plus years ago, Democrats controlled the governor’s chair and legislature.  Today, Republicans hold both.  The change has been dramatic with, for example, huge cuts to both public schools and higher education.  The UNC system, long regarded as a national model, is now being starved of cash and deeply politicized; the state ranks close to the bottom in public school teacher pay and support.  The legislature has made a systematic effort to suppress voting, especially among minorities and university students (assumed Democratic voters) under the guise of preventing non-existent voter fraud.  Thanks in part to the Supreme Court essentially gutting the Voting Rights act, this is happening all over the South.

North Carolina changed hands and it had consequences.  Certainly it mattered from where I sit as a liberal.  George W. Bush was elected president and it mattered — taxes were cut, deficit ballooned, Wall Street went wild and we got ourselves into two major wars with disastrous outcomes.  Perhaps more consequential, we got the conservative business-friendly Roberts Court.  Barack Obama was elected and that too had consequences.  We averted a potential depression, saw our economy (albeit selectively) recover and got the Affordable Care Act.  We began the long and messy process of unwinding ourselves from unwinnable conflicts, though that remains an elusive and unresolved struggle.  Perhaps most important, we finally began to seriously address climate change and saw two liberal women jurists join the Court. 

With the Republican hard right turn something has also happened to Democrats — the beginnings of a notable contrary shift left.  Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are manifestations of that, but they only reflect a more widespread reaction to the harsh realities and consequences of present day conservatism.  The turn left was the big take away from last week’s debate, one in which long time centrist Hillary Clinton, embraced the progressive label.  That was in sharp contrast to her husband’s preaching back in 1992.   His approach to besting Republicans was to offer a complementary Democratic approach, tokened by “ending welfare as we know it”.  That ultimately led, among others, to the repeal of Glass Steagall, a landmark of the party’s New Deal years.  Such centrism is out of sync with today’s party, which seeks to keep this progressive generation of young people along with women, African Americans, Latinos and other immigrants under its tent.  Gun control wasn’t only on the table in Las Vegas; it was vigorously supported.  That alone speaks to the great divide.

Republicans have long advocated limited government.  Now, as they’ve moved to the far right, their agenda seems aimed at choking off any government at all — except of course when their state faces a disaster or perhaps wants its endangered waterfront properties rebuilt with taxpayer funds.  It’s hard to observe Republican “rule” on the Hill without coming to the conclusion that they truly want to immobilize government — read that “Democrat government” — altogether, the consequences be damned.  That has taken us from brink to brink. 

But, as others have pointed out, this obstructionism is transparently clear.  The cries for smaller or no government really are intentionally targeted at the disadvantaged not the affluent and more specifically at programs or activities with which they disagree.  As Hillary Clinton said during the debate, “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood.” She continued, “We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that.’ ” Simply put, their ideological commitment to smaller government, not to mention deficit reduction is, generously put, highly selective.

Perhaps watching disarray in the House, some Democrats are happily projecting its advantageous impact on 2016.  Hold your glee.  For one thing, problems on the Hill rarely, if ever, predict how a presidential election goes. That you or I may think the GOP majority members are acting like buffoons doesn’t mean that others — especially their constituents in heavily gerrymandered districts — agree.  More importantly, who becomes Speaker won’t really factor into who is elected president.  What happens in Parliament might determine who becomes Prime Minister in the UK, but we have an altogether different system.  Presidential candidates, the Electoral College notwithstanding, face a national electorate.  Separation of Powers is more than just a mode of governance.  That’s precisely why we can have a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress.  So, while we certainly have to look at the presidential race in some larger political context there are limits.

The outcome of the election ahead, as always, will depend in large measure on the two party nominees and how they stand up against each other.  And let’s not forget the nuts and bolts mechanics of gaining votes — the effectiveness of the ground operation and access to sufficient money.  How voters feel about the current president and if they think eight years of a Democrat in the job is enough is likely to play as well.   But this year, it is possible that the more clearly defined differences between Democrats and Republicans will mater eve more.  I hope so.  In that regard, there may be no more important long-term issue at hand than the balance of power on the Supreme Court.  Yes, the Court may matter more to our future than the wars overseas or the economy at home.  The next president is likely to have multiple appointments to make.  That really will have long term consequences.

Monday, October 5, 2015

An alternative, please.

I keep waiting for an uptick in Hillary Clinton’s standing and, indeed, campaign.  That Bernie Sanders nearly matched her fund raising in the recent quarter only underscores the “frontrunner’s” (and our) problematic prospects for success next November.  By the way, I get solicitation emails from Bernie daily, none from Clinton. Reports of attempts to reposition and humanize herself are ominously reminiscent of Al Gore’s wardrobe adjustments in 2000.  They didn’t alter our perception of him as being wankishly wooden and distant; only solidified it.   While Gore still edged Bush out in the national popular vote, his thin margin enabled Florida and what followed.  We paid a high price.

There is a difference here of course.  Gore’s big problems came in the General; Clinton’s face her (and us) in the still early primary season.  If she isn’t able to overcome these challenges, there is still time for an alternative.  Most of the negative noise around her candidacy is focused on the still mystifying email fiasco.  But I think focusing on that is to ignore her much more fundamental problem.  Interestingly, it’s one that we’re seeing played out most dramatically in the Republican contest and only recently being given attention on the Democratic side.  As it happens, it is precisely the same issue that proved Hillary’s undoing in 2008 — dissatisfaction with the ruling political class. Obama represented something different.  She tried to undermine his candidacy by stressing his inexperience failing to understand that not being from the tried and true was exactly what made him so attractive.

The last six plus years should tell us that talking change and making change are two entirely different things.  It turns out that presidents — all presidents — are more captives of the Oval Office than its masters.  The ship of state is bulky and complex, more cumbersome than nimble.  It’s hard, if not impossible, to get one’s hands on the tiller to say nothing of turning the vessel’s direction to any appreciable degree.  Obama calls democracy “messy”, but that’s a gross understatement, especially in our time.  However one assesses his presidency — I view it very positively — we continue to find ourselves more frustrated than satisfied.  For Republicans that feeling may be intensified because they don’t hold the White House, but that’s an elusion.  Holding office, as Obama himself has discovered, is not the issue, not enough.  That said, and elusion notwithstanding, there is great frustration across the land, and its ultimately pan-partisan.

Hillary Clinton’s problem is not her use of emails.  It’s not stylistic or likability.  It certainly isn’t a lack of capability or qualifications for office — few on either side can match hers.  More than anything, it’s her last name, not so much Clinton per se but as a marker for the established and failed status quo.   Like Jeb Bush she doesn’t only carry the name burden, but more the feeling of déjà vu —  “been there, done that”.  Regardless of the Clinton/Bush records and how they are perceived, we simply don’t want a replay, a repeat of the past.  Reports that, concerned for her situation, Bill is getting more involved only reinforces that feeling.  Hillary’s fundamental problem is that, with all the good that she brings to the table, she may simply be the wrong candidate for the time.  In any event, she may be perceived so, which in politics is all that matters.

Bernie Sanders’ appeal thus far sends a clear message.  An unlikely challenger for reasons I’ve discussed in earlier posts, his candidacy nonetheless screams, “we’ve had enough”.  Does that translate, whoever wins, into the potential of a substantively different kind of presidency post 2016?  Don’t count on it.  Again, consider Obama’s tenure.  But that may be irrelevant.  We the people are feeling powerless and want to stir things around, turn them upside down.  We may not be thinking objectively — who really is the most qualified and supports policies with the greatest chance of success.  In this cycle, it’s the visceral that counts — just throw the bums out.  That’s what drove the Tea’s and continues to give them so much leverage in their own party.  Their rightist ideology may represent the fringe, be seen to some of us as abhorrent, but their frustration is broadly shared.

Bernie Sanders is not the solution.  Given what I’m saying, much as I like him, neither is Joe Biden.  The resultant vacuum is a huge problem for Democrats, and I think for the country.  At the moment, Martin O’Malley hasn’t made even a first impression, which suggests he may not be right either, or up to the task.  We need someone else, someone who fits the time and, in my view, we absolutely need a woman.  It’s long overdue to break through that glass ceiling, not to mention have someone who, in their person, represents the majority of our citizens.  Of course it has to be the right woman, a qualified leader.  At the moment, the only individual who fits that profile may be Elizabeth Warren.  She has said no, but we can’t accept that answer.  We need and real alternative.  We need one now.

Warren is in the senate, but remains a new face, apart from the establishment that Americans are resisting.  She sees income inequality as the priority issue it is, understanding that many of our corporations (not only banks) have become far too big and not only because they pose great risk in failure.  Perhaps most compelling is that Warren is a serious person, the right candidate for serious complex times.  Sloganizing and trite showmanship won’t cut it in the real world.  Despite all the simplistic tough talk from Republican candidates — Carly Fiorina’s eagerness to deploy our troops and arms everywhere makes John McCain look like a pacifist — Obama has read us correctly.  We have no stomach for boots on the ground interventions.  But remote and surrogate warfare is, like change, easier said than done.  Drones pose huge moral issues and thus far our “training” of locals to fight their own battles has met with little success.  We look at all that, critique the failed execution, but don’t seriously or objectively address its implications for our role in the world.  I think we’re afraid of what such a discussion would reveal and where it might lead.

It’s hard the envy the next president and at times truly frightening to think of who might end up in that job.  But there is little doubt that we need the right person — right also for our time.  We need someone who can seriously lead us forward and I don’t yet see that person on the campaign trail.  Elizabeth Warren might be the one, and we can only hope she is thinking about it and reconsidering a run.