Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Political Reflection

Failure can be a wonderful thing.  Even though in the short term the admitting of it, and the acceptance of it, can be cruelly painful.  The pain may be short-term, but what we do with that failure will stay with us a very long time.  The critical factor is reflection.  Do I lower my embittered head and just bulldoze my way forward, determined to somehow prove myself right in some future manner?  Or do I learn some very valuable lessons from this experience of failure to better guide my future?  (“I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light … Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.” – Thomas Edison)

In November 2012, Republican Mitt Romney lost the presidential election.  Handily.  It was an election that many confidently expected him to win, an election in which most all historical markers virtually guaranteed his victory.  But he failed.  Across the Republican Party in the ensuing months, the excuses, the finger-pointing, the blaming, the volume of calls for a change of direction – or no change of direction – hit the news media.  Mr. Romney wasn’t conservative enough; he was too conservative for the general election.  The Republican political messages were fine; the messages were all wrong.  The Party was not inclusive enough; the Party needs to be loyal to its principles and its voting base.  The Party fielded self-destructive candidates; the Party abandoned its best candidates.  Perhaps the most insightful analysis came from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who said, “We have to stop being the stupid Party.  We have to stop saying stupid things.”  Continually shooting yourself in the foot is, in fact, pretty stupid.

In response to all this politician and commentator analysis, the Republican National Committee commissioned a formal in-house study specifically to assess what happened and recommend changes to improve Republican electoral outcomes.  The resulting report, entitled “Growth & Opportunity Project,” was released with the usual fanfare in March, 2013.  In a nutshell, the report called for such things as immigration reform to better appeal to Hispanics, else “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only” – important, given that the Republican base of older, white males is, in fact, shrinking.  It called for coming together, saying “Republican organizations need to understand that all of this will work better if they all participate in these discussions and play their respective roles” – also important, given the bitter split between Tea Party and “moderate” (i.e. not-as-far-to-the-right) Republicans, and the dominating influence of Super-PACs, conservative think tanks and corporate lobbyists.

The report went on to call for fewer primary debates – potentially pulling the rug out from potential lower-funded candidates without the deep funding pockets needed to generate exposure.  More targeted outreach to women (“they are not a ‘coalition’; they represent more than half of the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections”); more “mutually respectful” conversations with African-Americans; more receptivity to gays and lesbians (“for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be”).  Finally, the report called for some “populist” support, saying “we should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.”

Lots of good ideas and frank admissions, suggesting some meaningful reflection going on.  But one year later we should ask, “how’s that working out for you?”

Immigration reform?  Barely passed the Senate, and only with extravagant funding for a small army to close the border with Mexico; dead in the House.  Deep opposition to gays and lesbians remains an almost universal knee-jerk response, so no welcoming “big tent” there.  For women, there are continued new “back door” laws to shut down abortion services, and now Mike Huckabee is leading opposition even to contraception prescriptions (women’s right to “the pill” was mandated by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago); plus near-unanimous negative votes against “equal pay” laws and renewal of the Violence Against Women law.

Then there is the full-scale attack on the rights and mechanisms to vote; the cynical message appears to be that if you cannot win on the strength of your ideas and candidates, then just change the rules on who can vote.  (The Supreme Court’s 1-person/1-vote rule from forty years ago is still in effect, and the “poll tax” – e.g. our modern day equivalent by a voter ID – was also outlawed 50 years ago.)  As far as middle-class/populist appeal, Republicans have reduced food stamps, cut extending unemployment benefits, and in seeming indifference to the middle-class and small business person, shut down the federal government provoking a significant setback to our national economy.  Finally, as far as Republicans “working together,” the Party remains in civil war from both internal and external forces.  One side is focused on winning elections; the other side is focused on ideological purity regardless of the outcome.  It is a war with no end in sight.

The result is that – no surprise – “Growth & Opportunity Project” is yet another strategic plan with no support making no impactful change.  Instead, actions have cemented a view among many Independents that Republicans want to turn back the clock 50 years on social issues, and cut finances to the poor and middle-class while subsidizing the rich and protecting corporate America.  (Requiring the rich to pay at least as much percentage taxes is not “anti-capitalism income redistribution” as some claim; it is “fairness distribution.”)

And how did focus groups around the country describe the Party?  The report itself states, "Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the Party is 'scary,' 'narrow minded,' and 'out of touch' and that we were a Party of 'stuffy old men.'  This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys."  Being simply “the Party of No” is not a way to attract an American public looking for problems to be solved; people who sound perpetually angry rarely make even good ideas seem attractive.  “To succeed, we have to be the party of change … and we have to be the party of solutions.”  (Bobby Jindal, once again.)

Where will the Party go with its internal dynamics?  Attention is predominately focused on capturing the Senate in 2014.  It may well happen.  But there is another primary season coming, which will pull incumbent Republican candidates even further right against Tea Party opponents.  Who the resulting candidates will be, and how well they will be positioned for the fall general election, is highly unknown at this point.  For those who survive the primaries, their best hope then will the Democrats’ usual ineptitude at turning out their base in off-year elections.  For in November, it is all about turnout, and Republicans have done best in off-years when zealot partisans rule the day.  Nothing is assured either way.

And 2016?  The Tea Party right-wing will not be denied.  It will dominate the Party, and will insist on its day in the sun with a candidate solidly from their ranks.  Their True Believer Candidate will carry the banner confidently into the 2016 general election.  But when the public gets a close look at what that agenda really means, means to them personally, the candidate and the movement will be trounced at the polls – almost no matter who the Democratic candidate is.  Then experienced Congresspersons will take back this co-opted Republican Party, correct its course back to just right-of-center, and the nation will benefit once again from having a true 2-party system that can rediscover how to govern.

It is a replaying of the 1964 election – when extremism in the Republican Party won the nomination and lost the election (in spite of fielding a principled and worthy candidate), and conservatism subsequently found truer reasonable voices.  You heard it here first.  1964.  It is coming back again.

©  2014   Randy Bell

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

To Be An American

As a consultant advising college and university leaders on how to identify and effect change in their institutions, I was always struck by how planning groups would typically want to begin their work.  People would march into the room, fully confident that they knew what the problem to be solved was, why the problem existed, and usually very clear in their minds about what should be done about it.  Unfortunately, each person’s perspective would prove to be very different, which would normally come as a big surprise to the group members.  To complicate it further, the underlying attitude would frequently be, “I’m OK and doing fine, if YOU would just change what you are doing!”

What would then usually follow in these group discussions would be protracted and difficult arguments about what actions should be taken, with people promoting their tactics as of course superior to the tactics of others.  Proposed actions would bog down into pointing fingers over “who’s at fault,” and get lost within personality conflicts or individual power plays.  Over time, I learned a very valuable lesson from these painful discussions: If people cannot agree on what the TRUE PROBLEM is, and what RESULTING OUTCOMES need to be accomplished, then they will never agree on which tactical steps – in between the problem and the outcomes – need to be implemented.  Unless the necessary time was spent up front listening to each other, looking at the facts and statistics and varied human experiences behind the issue at hand, and hearing what the world looks like from each vantage point, no common understanding of the real problem would exist.  (“What do we really know about this problem?”)  And all of this advance work had to be done with the humility of realizing that perhaps each of us does not fully have the solution so conveniently in hand after all.  Without that upfront clarity and a shared sense of outcomes, no discussion on tactics was worthwhile nor would it ever produce truly effective results.

A similar lack of agreement on goals versus tactics infects our political discussions today.  We spend so much time throwing out a hodgepodge of proposals and draft laws, and then arguing about whose idea is “best,” that virtually nothing of much meaningful impact gets done.  It is like playing a game of darts with a large group of people but with no target painted on the wall.  Hence anyone can claim that their dart is the winner regardless of wherever it lands, because nothing exists to provide an agreed-to criteria for the winner.

In President Obama’s State of the Union address recently, he called for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10, adding that “In America, no one working a fulltime job should have to live in poverty.”  The point of this particular blog commentary is not whether $10.10 is a good or bad thing; that is a separate discussion debatable on many fronts.  But calling the question of whether being an American should mean that a fulltime worker does not live in poverty is a good and proper discussion to have.  Answering those kinds of fundamental questions can breathe much needed fresh air through the hot, stale air of our current economic discussions.

What it means to be “an American” is the real question that the public and our leaders should be grappling with.  Because we might find that we have many disagreements over our fundamental assumptions.  Or perhaps even many agreements.  Or that there is a slice of American life different from mine that I really do not understand or appreciate.  Where we find we disagree, we should then work to explain our differing perspectives and reasonings in order to come into more shared perspectives and common goals.

Besides the principle that fulltime workers should not be living in poverty, what might be some other basic questions about “what it means to be an American”?  Does every American have the right to vote for his/her political leaders in an easy and unhindered way?  Should each American be entitled (or forced) to have the same education at the same age with the same quality as any other American?  Should every American have access to medical services and at the same level of needed care?  Should every American willing and able to work have a job available?  Should every American be left alone to choose their life decisions unless those decisions truly and substantively adversely affect others?  Should every American be able to identify the religious and spiritual practices most appropriate to themselves, free from domination or coercion from other beliefs?  Should every American be treated equally, fairly, and with honesty in the economic marketplace?  Should every American be entitled to a safe and healthy environment, free from violence, illness, defective goods, tainted foods and a toxic natural environment?  Should “successful” Americans have an obligation to give back to those less fortunate – either now or to support future generations?

At first blush, one might immediately think “of course,” or “of course not,” to such basic kinds of questions.  Or assume that they were answered long ago.  Or argue that there are substantive “yes, buts,” nuances, or shadings about these universal themes.  Yet these types of questions underlie our divisive political arguments today, suggesting that we have not come to agreement or declared a clear, national commitment regarding these goals.  We look for simple answers to these questions, yet consensus remains elusive because we have not stopped to fully educate ourselves on their background, and the reality-on-the-ground of these issues.  We have 300 million people in this country, each with widely varying experiences, most often of which we are highly unknowledgeable because they are out of our daily routine and immediate view.  So we have not come to a shared understanding of what we need to accomplish across that wide swath.

When America has committed itself to a common purpose, the appropriate solutions have surfaced and fallen into place, and our successes have been notable.  When we committed ourselves to defeating Japan and Germany in World War II, America marshaled its full military and civilian strength to achieve that outcome.  When we committed to landing on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s footsteps walked for all of us.  When we committed to eradicating the scourge of polio, that dreaded disease disappeared – ultimately world-wide.  When we committed to breaking down the barriers to opportunity from racial discrimination, we changed the color of this country in less than one lifetime – even as the work remains undone.

Direction comes from knowing where one wants to go.  Right actions come from knowing one’s direction.  This is the missing conversation in America, a conversation in greater depth than mere bumper-sticker headlines.  The real question is not whether or not the minimum wage should be $10.10; it is about what any minimum wage should be able to afford.  What is the baseline of being “an American”?  What remains above that baseline that is for each of us to individually achieve?  Let us have that thoughtful conversation, one-on-one, listening closely to each other, without the angry posturing and empty political rhetoric.

©  2014   Randy Bell