Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Election 2010

Next Tuesday is yet another Congressional election day. The high energy and drama of the 2008 election seem so long ago. This year just seems like loud noise and often incoherent yelling from a vocal minority, and a quiet muted frustration from a disillusioned majority. It is not an easy year to exercise our civic duty.

Personally, I cannot seem to find any Republican that I can put an “X” next to on the ballot (with the possible exception of the two senators from Maine; but I believe that neither of them is up for reelection, and I do not live in Maine anyway). I just cannot vote an endorsement for a political strategy that says 1) “say anything” without regard to accuracy or consistency from one day to the next, and 2) vote against everything, whether good for the country or were your own ideas now disregarded, in order to deprive the Democrats of any legislative success. At a critical time when this country needs leadership and solutions to our current morass, such thumbing your nose at the electorate for purely personal political gain is inexcusable and intolerable.  My simple question is ... why in the world would I vote for or trust the people/party who drove us to this current ruin, and whose only proclaimed program now is to take us back to those very same policies?

The Democrats, on the other hand, had no lack of ideas and agenda, fueled by being out of power these past years. What they did lack was the ability to manage that agenda. They took on milestone legislation and major economic issues – and somehow managed to come out on the rhetorical defensive, looking totally incompetent in their ability to focus and achieve a core agenda. There were a half-dozen critical “to dos” for health care; instead, they expanded that to a 2000 page bill seemingly filled with every health care idea ever thought about. That overreach almost sunk the topic entirely. They passed an economic stimulus bill that was inadequate to the need, and then never adequately defined the successes it achieved (leaving the Republicans to successfully tag it as a failure). They never developed a credible argument for why borrowing our way out of our recession made sense (which it does), even though smart CEOs are doing exactly the same thing for their companies where in similar straits. You borrow money when you need it (not when you don’t), and you spend it on investments not operating expense, which is exactly why the business community is complaining now about the unavailability of loan money to finance their growth. (Borrowing for day-to-day operating expense is still a stupid idea, for government and businesses.)

Democrats passed a badly needed financial reform bill. It restored regulation and oversight that had stabilized us for 60 years – until dismantled under 25 years of Republican rule, thereby leading us to this current financial devastation. But then they failed to nail the Republicans who, as expected, opposed it even though this should have been THE connecting issue with the American public. And they have inexplicably continued the Bush strategy of trying to fix the financial industry through the banks and investment companies instead of going around them and working directly with the financially injured citizens. The unsurprising result is that the banks and financial companies have emerged virtually unscathed and richer than ever, while the average Joes and Josephines are still hurting and losing ground.

Politically , Republicans continue to demonstrate that they are far better at winning the sound bite battles, and keeping all their people on board the same political train. Conversely, Democrats squandered their both-houses-and-president monopoly and sent out a dizzying cacophony of messages. Republicans can reduce any problem issue, no matter how complex, to a simplified 1 sentence message easily understood by the public, but they have no program to offer up behind it except the time-worn and disproven “cut taxes” call without paying for it – while claiming to be against deficit spending. (Only Republicans could get away with proclaiming such a paradoxical position with a straight face!) Conversely, Democrats can expand any problem issue to an exhausting paragraph incomprehensible to virtually anyone except an obscure technical policy wonk, with more programmatic solutions than anybody could ever want – a classic “killing the ant with a sledgehammer” approach.

Further disrupting all this confusion is the emergence of the Tea Party movement. What started as a legitimate grass roots expression of justifiable exasperation at Washington’s incompetence and ineffectiveness morphed into a vehicle for bad and irrational behavior. Betraying its constituent-led origins, it has become a marching tool for Fox News, secret donors and backroom wheeler-dealers (a la Karl Rove). It was given voice by self-centered promoters like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Jim DeMint. It smartly magnified its perceived power by supporting fringe candidates in Republican primaries in small populated districts where their influence could overwhelm “establishment” Republican candidates. The result has been a slew of embarrassing and uninformed candidates exemplified by Sharon Engle (the Nevada kook) and Christine O’Donnell (the New Jersey witch-wanna-be) along with other such types. These are “against everything” candidates guided by colossal constitutional ignorance who personify how ridiculously low our standards for political qualifications have become. They have polarized the Republican Party even further to the extreme right (could any of us thought that possible?), and driven out some competent people into the “Independent” ranks as “ideologically impure.” If they win anything (questionable), they are likely to be as problematic to Republican party leadership as the “Blue Dog” Democrats are to their party leaders. Besides all the unwarranted news they generate for the media, until they win some significant and contested positions in the general election they still have no credibility. But every election year the media always look for “the underdog” story and give it excessive weight, and this year it’s the Tea Party as underdog.

Running in parallel to the candidates elections are an exhausting number of relevant peripheral currents, such as:
• The collapse of the U.S. Senate as an effective institution, drowning in its own rules of (non-) order, a 60 vote “super-majority” required to do anything in spite of our long-standing legislative principle of “majority rules,” action on any topic subject to the whim of any one senator to put the item “on hold,” and the mere threat of a filibuster sufficient to prevent a vote. Harry Reed needs to be reelected, if for no other reason to keep kooky Sharon Engle out of the Senate, but he is clearly not up to the job of Majority Leader.

• President Obama has a substantial list of successes to point to, but doesn’t seem able to point to them. The economy is no longer in doomsday; our receivership of the auto industry is paying visible dividends in economic stability and providing badly-needed new corporate direction; financial wildcatting has been somewhat reined in; health care made huge progress despite the bad distortion of it; foreign relations are significantly better than in a decade. Other worthwhile initiatives are at least in the pipeline. But however well-intended, Obama abdicated leadership by leaving legislation to be defined and thereby run amuck by Congress (“damn it, you’re the President, not a senator anymore!”), and his vaunted speaking voice escaped him. A clear, focused message on core directions that accurately reflects the mood of the people has been nowhere visible. Frankly, Obama’s first act on Wednesday, November 3rd, should be to fire his entire Communications Office – who seem to consistently live in a fog of surprise at the events around them they did not see coming – and get some competent help who can reconnect his voice with the people.

• Campaign dollars are out of control, projecting the most expensive election in history. This is thanks in no small part to the Supreme’s Court’s preposterous decision that “corporations are people, too” and thereby entitled to freedom of speech. Meg Whitman has already spent $140 million of her own money to win California’s governor race. We can only hope that she, like others, will find that not only can “money not buy you love,” but it can’t necessarily buy political office either.

• If you really want some amusement, look no further than the Democratic candidates to replace Republican senators in South Carolina and North Carolina. The former is a candidate-no-one-ever-heard-of that seems like a walking Tina Fey/Saturday Night Live comedy farce; the latter seems like she just woke up a couple of weeks ago and decided “Maybe I should actually campaign for this office!” Or look at the Alaska senate race where Sarah Palin’s very visible personal grudge campaign against Lisa Murkowski, the former-Republican-now-independent incumbent, is reducing Tea Party candidate Joe Miller to a back seat; it is a political form of a Desperate Housewives soap opera drama.

• Left-wing Democrats are complaining because results these past two years “did not go far enough?” Folks, get off the sidelines, and get real. A lot went your way; why do you think the right wing is now so vocal – because you failed? Do you not get that you won more than many thought possible to win? Even Ted Kennedy, an undisputed champion of universal health care, ultimately admitted he was wrong not to take up President Nixon on his health care proposals in the 1970s “just because they didn’t go far enough.”

So what is a concerned citizen supposed to do in this election? The litany of complaints against the current state of our national government could go on unendingly. The anger of our citizens is entirely justified, even if our specific complaints may differ. Let us trust no politician who promises to “cut spending / reduce the government / balance the budget” without telling us exactly where s/he would cut so we can determine if we really do agree with their easy rhetoric. And let us similarly trust no politician who promises that government can right all wrongs, and can protect us from all our fears and calamities.

Not voting is an abdication of civic responsibility, even if we are hesitant to give the appearance of endorsement to the winners. In the end, we need vote for pussycats even if for no other reason than to keep the mice at bay. General expectations are that 2011-2012 will be a non-event for Congressional accomplishments, as gridlock completely takes over and Republican presidential wanna-bes come out swinging for 2012. So we need to be ready, to find our own real voice, and to figure out the actions that we are called upon to take to restore honor, direction, integrity and promise to this great country. Enough is enough of this political gamesmanship at our expense. As has been said, in the end we ultimately get only the government that we work for and deserve. What shall that be?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pertinent News Stories

Did you happen to pick up on the following news stories?

1. The pastor of the Philadelphia Third Presbyterian Church gave a sermon calling for “Christian voters” to join forces to keep “pagans, Muslims, and other non-Christians” (including Deists and Unitarians) from political office. He went on to say “every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity.”

In response to this call, the President wrote that “among the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates – or not.” Even a special Congressional subcommittee thereafter responded that “It is not the legitimate province [of Congress] to determine which religion is true, or what false. Our government is a civil, and not a religious institution.”

2. A quiet but highly respected Senator from a well-known political family in Louisiana spoke on the senate floor about the extreme level of partisan acrimony that we see in the political environment. Speaking about the public debate, he pertinently observed that “I think the discussion may be turned to useful purposes. It may, by the interchange of opinion, increase our own information on all of the important points which have been examined, while, not being called on for a vote, we may weigh them at leisure, and come to a conclusion, without being influenced by the warmth of the debate… However, the cost of partisanship for partisanship’s sake [is] too high for a free society to pay… The spirit [of zealotry] of which I speak creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue – denies every virtue to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of heaven, war, pestilence, and famine as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friend as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.

I am no censor of the conduct of others: it is sufficient for me to watch over my own. The wisdom of gentlemen must be their guide in the sentiments they entertain, and their discretion in the language in which they utter them. No doubt they think the occasion calls for the warmth they have shown, but of this people must judge … There are legitimate and effectual means to correct any palpable infraction of our Constitution. Let the cry of constitutional oppression be justly raised within these walls, and it will be heard abroad – it will be examined. The people are intelligent, they people are just, and in time these characteristics must have an effect on their representatives.”

3. A leading senator from Kentucky proposed that the President declare a national day of prayer and fasting to “seek divine relief” from a series of recent disasters. The President responded saying that, while he too believed in “the efficacy of prayer,” it was his determination to “decline the appointment of any mode of religious activity. I could not do otherwise without transcending those limits which are prescribed by the Constitution for the president, and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the Government … I deem it my duty to preserve this separation and to abstain from any act which may tend to an amalgamation perilous to both church and state.”

4. Accusations that the President was creating and enacting near-dictatorial powers prompted a number of strong speeches. The same senator from Kentucky claimed that “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending towards a total concentration of the pure republican character of the Government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man. [In just a few years] the government will have been transformed into an elective monarchy – the worst of all forms of government.” A well-known senator from South Carolina proclaimed that, “We have arrived at a fearful crisis. Things cannot long remain as they are. It behooves all who love their country – who have affection for their offspring, or who have any stake in our institutions, to pause and reflect. Confidence is daily withdrawing from the General Government. Alienation is hourly going on. These will necessarily create a state of things inimical to the existence of our institutions, and, if not arrested, convulsions must follow, and then comes dissolution or despotism, when a thick cloud will be thrown over the cause of liberty and the future prospects of our country.” And finally, from a senator from Massachusetts: “There never before was a moment in which any President would have been tolerated in asserting such a claim to despotic power.” All pretty strong words against the sitting President.

Did you miss these news stories? Probably yes, because they happened 170 years ago in the early 1830s. The President was Andrew Jackson, the first president not a part of the generation of founding fathers, the first president from the then-West (Tennessee), and the first president to be an avowed proponent of “the common man.” The Philadelphia pastor was the Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely; the Louisiana senator was Edward Livingston; the Kentucky senator was Henry Clay; the South Carolina senator was John Calhoun; and the Massachusetts senator was Daniel Webster. All political icons from the 1st half of the 19th century.

The point of this looking back is that America has been down the road of intemperate political arguing many times before. As discouraging as the current economic, social and political environment is, it is not new. It is more of the continuing give-and-take that has always defined our on-going experiment in representative government. The arguments and ambiguity about religion in political life, the power of the central government versus state governments, and the liberties to which we are entitled, all started at our original Constitutional Convention. They have continually risen and fallen for two centuries. Though we have lurched right, then left, then back again, somehow we have always managed to ultimately settle back into our national center.

We have lost many opportunities over the years, and we have much to be ashamed of in our country’s conduct; these are frequent omissions in our schools’ history textbooks. But through it all we remain a beacon of hope, envy, accomplishment and aspiration for many, and – if we can forgo our flashes of arrogance – better than most alternative forms of government that have been tried before. So in spite of our faults and clumsiness, we have no choice but to ignore the self-serving demagogues so ever-present today, offer up our best ideas, stay involved, and keep on plugging to try to make it all work. In essence, it is simply about continually working to see if diverse human beings can in fact coexist and work successfully with each other. The jury is still out on this, but there is no choice but to keep trying. And to remain hopeful.

(Historical notes principally from “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” by Jon Meacham)