Friday, December 19, 2014

The Lame Duck Walks

The term “lame duck” describes a person (or institution) just riding out their current position.  Marking time, not rocking the boat, avoiding major conflicts or initiatives.  Just waiting for the next changing of the guard.  Everyone knows that is the operative environment.  And so “everyone knows” effectively neuters the individual into powerlessness.  All involved are simply waiting for the next scene in the play to present itself.

The despised 113th Congress that just closed up shop after a wasted two-year record of non-accomplishment is a good example of this.  In January we will start over again with a revised Congressional cast of characters.  Everything supposedly will then be different – agenda, power centers, and “getting things done.”  Because a chastened President will be such a lame duck, a nuisance in the way of a newly profiled Congress and an upcoming 2016 presidential election race.  It sounds like a good story.  But apparently someone forgot to tell President Obama.

On the heels of Democratic congressional losses in November’s election, the President was presumed to now be on the defensive against aggressive new/old Republican initiatives.  So far it has not turned out that way.  First came a completely unexpected agreement with China on climate change that had secretly been in the works for months.  The world’s two biggest polluters voluntarily agreed to substantively cut their respective emissions over the next decades.  It was done as a simple “agreement” between the two leaders, not a formal diplomatic treaty.  Therefore it requires no Senate vote to approve it (leading to all the ridiculous theatrics that would certainly ensue).  Technically, future presidents could walk away from this agreement.  But historically presidential precedents loom large, and are not easily changed once in place.  Especially when they are interconnected internationally, as this one is.  Who wants to be the one to tell China “never mind,” that America’s word cannot be relied upon?

After catching everyone flat-footed on the climate topic, soon thereafter came a long-promised action on illegal immigrants.  After eight years (extending back into George W. Bush’s presidency) of constant noise from Congress promising to do something about this issue, with a track record of nothing done whatsoever, it has long been past time for action of some kind.  So President Obama took executive action while everyone else sat on the sidelines gawking, complaining or praising depending upon their constituent base.  There are three core elements to Obama’s declaration: 1) parents of children that are legal citizens by birth or are on valid immigration permits will not be deported for the foreseeable future; 2) future prosecutions and deportations will be focused on those immigrants committing serious crimes; 3) additional security resources will be redeployed to the border by realigning existing personnel and funding from multiple agencies.  There is NO amnesty being granted, and there is no “pathway to citizenship” that objectors vehemently protest so loudly.  There is simply a reprioritization of resources and focus to higher-level needs – just as police organizations have to do every day with their constrained resources.  Such reprioritizing is all perfectly legal within the realities of the administration of policing.  Republican leaders can scream all they want about Obama “poisoning the well” of future cooperation and working relationships, but that well has been long poisoned by six years of rhetorical pollution and confrontation.  Opponents of immigration reform have finally been called to task – put up or shut up – and have been found wanting, now boxed in by the political realities of a changing demographic electorate.  It is long past time to move beyond this.  Other needs demand our attention.

Now has come the latest grand announcement.  After 53 years of America’s ineffective trade embargo and political isolation of Cuba, diplomatic relations between the two countries will finally be restored.  The embargo and diplomatic break was begun in 1961 by President John Kennedy after Fidel Castro, once the romantic revolutionary celebrated by Americans for forcing out Cuba’s then-dictator, revealed himself to be a socialist at heart.  Cuba changed from being a free-wheeling playground for the American-Italian Mafia and big-corporate agriculture interests.  Instead, it turned into a state-owned and operated economic model friendly to Russia instead of the American good guys.  And Fidel himself turned out to be as dictatorial as his predecessor.  So like a suitor spurned, Americans turned on Fidel.  50+ years later, our political and economic embargo has changed Cuba hardly a twit except to cause economic suffering by its people.  Cuba’s government is unchanged; political prisoners are still in jail; families in America are still shut out of their home country, separated from their extended families.  But no politician has had the courage to risk the wrath of the Cuban-American exiles in south Florida to change this status quo stalemate.  Until now.

This is standoff long overdue for change.  Especially if we truly want to see a different Cuba in the future, because what we have been doing clearly would not achieve it.  The precedent for Obama’s action is America’s foolish role with Communist China from the 1940s-1970s.  After the Communists drove out the corrupt central government of China in 1949, we similarly spent the next 30 years ignoring the reality of what mainland China had become.  Instead, we only recognized and backed the tiny remnant of the overthrown regime then removed to the island of Taiwan.  Refusing to recognize the People’s Republic of China and isolating them from the community of nations, no matter how noxious to us philosophically, simply drove them into deeper alliance with our cold war nemesis Russia, and left us with no leverage over China’s decisions and actions.  (Witness the Korean War and the Viet Nam war.)  It took the courage of “[Richard] Nixon goes to China” to finally end our diplomatic fantasy of China’s reality.  China is still, and will continue to be, a thorn in America’s side.  But we now sit together at the table and periodically find ways to work together.  And China is a vastly different country today than in the 1970s, in no small part because we are there on the ground working with them.

Fidel Castro is in the hospital dying, out of the picture in the day-to-day running of Cuba.  His brother Raul, now in charge, is in his 80s.  A new generation of Cuban leaders will soon be forthcoming.  When they arrive, we need to be already there, in place, connected to that new emerging Cuban government and its changing population.  The reality is that you ultimately create real change from within, not from the outside.  This decision is perfect timing for a completely correct action.  After the usual knee-jerk criticism from those who have vested interests in continuing to exploit the current no-win situation (e.g. presumed presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio), this issue will finally move forward as it should.  And many now-vocal political critics will privately and silently be equally thrilled to finally be unchained from this dead weight.

Presidential lame duck?  Apparently not.  Those who have been complaining for years about a supposed “lack of presidential leadership” should remember to be careful what you ask for.  Sometimes real leadership – like we have watched these past weeks – may unexpectedly lead one where one did not intend to go.  But these are directions where we have needed to go.  There comes a time to stop the endless talking, stop doing nothing, break the endless loop.  Make a decision, take action, adjust from the new baseline.  DO something.  So thank you, Mr. President, for these actions.  Now, about Iran …

©   2014   Randy Bell   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Everything Different, Nothing Changed

Election 2014 has now come and gone.  The votes have been counted.  The commentators have analyzed every minute data point and drawn whatever conclusions they likely set out to prove in the first place.  The political parties have claimed their victories or expressed their anguish as appropriate.

Numerically, the end result was a bigger Republican majority in the House, and a shifting of the majority in the Senate – a place where in fact the “majority” rarely actually rules.  All Senate committee chairs will change over, and a new Republican Majority Leader will manage what gets voted upon.  With additional major gains in state governorships and legislatures, the Republican Party rightly deserves congratulations for their numerous victories.  But amidst the declarations that “the people have spoken” also comes the question: can this political party, previously consigned to six years of nothing but blind, reflexive opposition, actually govern with an eye to all Americans versus just being a negative voice echoing the narrow base of their party?

The people may have “spoken,” but the loudest voice was heard from those who never made it to the polling booths.  Less than 40% of eligible citizens voted on November 4th, a record low.  So any claims of victory or synchronicity with the American public ring quite hollow.  Public approval of Congress in general, and each political party, still hovers in the teens and low 20s percentage.  Which actually makes President Obama’s 40% approval rating –the central issue of the campaign for both parties – nevertheless look comparatively like a sweeping endorsement!  A majority of the minority governs America today.

Historically, the political party results simply followed past traditions.  In the sixth year, the incumbent president’s party virtually always loses ground in Congress.  And the party that gains always claims “a message from the people.”  There is a message, yes; but the politicians rarely hear it.  In truth, with so much expectation placed upon all presidents that can never be fulfilled, by year six the people are tired of the incumbent.  The original energy has waned, the expectations achieved are far less, and Americans’ short memory begins its habitual longing for “something new.”  Given that we have just borne witness to the worst case of Congressional obstructionism of a president since the post-Civil War Congress of 1865-1868 stripped President Andrew Johnson of much control over anything, high discontent with Obama’s perceived lack of outcomes was inevitable.

After several recent campaigns of Republican candidates infected with foot-in-mouth disease, this year the GOP: managed to avoid flawed, extreme candidates saying outright insulting and stupid things; brought forth no other real issue other than public dissatisfaction of Obama; avoided any real discussion of political/social issues or position-taking that would give the election substance; talked in “moderate” terms, hiding their true political positions; and drove home the public’s fear factors around illegal immigration (which will cost them politically long-term), Ebola (for the one death and half-dozen or so infections to date in America), and ISIL (which are still in Syria and Iraq at last check).  Tactically, their strategy worked.

Meanwhile, the Democrats retreated to the hills, unwilling to stand and defend their ground of legitimate accomplishments, avoided discussion of the fact of a significantly improved economy (voters’ #1 issue), sidelined their president, and thereby bumbled their way into surrender.  In the wilderness of the 2014 campaign, Democrats could never find a real message they could articulate that would connect effectively with the public.  The result: everything now looks different on its face.

So what comes next?  In the aftermath of the vote counting, Obama, McConnell and Boehner met together, ate lunch, and talked about “working together like the American people expect.”  That make-nice atmosphere lasted until about dinnertime.  Obama’s promise to “act where Congress won’t” led to accusations from McConnell about “poisoning the well” for the future and Boehner’s objection about “usurping Congress and the legislative process.”  It all ignored the reality that Congress has not accomplished much of anything the past six years following their dead-end “process” while it was encamped around a well that has been long-since poisoned.

So nothing has truly changed.  It will now be two more years of stalemate and inaction, precipice politics, even more nonsensical committee hearings strictly for public show, and continuing appeals not to the independent middle of the American citizenry, but to the hard edges.

Senate Democrats will stay tightly together, reversing roles to now be the minority effectively blocking the Republican majority.  Senate Republicans will still be a fractured party of go-it- my-own-way individuals jockeying for individual power while organizing their 2016 presidential campaigns.  House Republicans will still be held captive by their 40-50 extreme Tea Party members, limiting the Speaker’s ability to put forward any real substantive propositions meaningful to Middle Americans.  Lots of noise, overwhelming meaningful discussion; name-calling and accusations overwhelming meaningful action; current needs overwhelmed by the 2016 election.

2016 will not be the same political territory as 2014.  The voting numbers and demographics will change, pulled in by even further disgust with “those in Washington” and the potential attraction of a very enticing presidential race.  The contested seats in the Senate, highly favorable to the Republicans in 2014, will swing back in favor of the Democrats.  And if this new Republican Congress follows the path of previous Democrat and Republican Congresses over this past decade who mistakenly believed that their numerical majority endorsed them to go overboard with their sense of a “voter mandate,” the 2016 election will do what the past several elections have done: punish the overreach and yet again reverse the party in power.

So from time to time, each party can enjoy its day in the sun of winning the voters.  But “majority rules” all too often yields “majority fools.”  And so we go back and forth with one course correction after another.  Ultimately, favorable redistricting and new voter law hurdles will hide bad performance for only so long.  And there does not seem an assessment of any good performance much in evidence.  As the political pendulum continues its swing to the extremes of its arc, politicians should remember the destiny of the pendulum: from the one extreme end, it moves to the opposite polarity.  But each subsequent swing gradually over time moves the arc to its ultimate resting place – sitting quietly still in the middle.  It is in that middle that our political life awaits its resting place.

©  2014   Randy Bell