Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Election Chaos

Chaos.  Absolute total chaos.  What was supposed to be a highly scripted, well-managed election in 2016 has turned out to be so far anything but.  Anointed political royalty has been dethroned, the leadership team at each National Committee is being ignored, the candidate pool has expanded exponentially in quantity (though not necessarily in quality), and the national legislative body is collapsing in on itself.  The American voter looks at this spectacle in fluid confusion somewhere between amusement, horror, bewilderment, and inflamed passion.

In the Democratic presidential pool, three candidates have worked really hard for months to achieve a 1% (or less) following in the polls.  No one knows who they are or why they are running.  Vice President Joe Biden is still deciding whether to run or not.  Hillary Clinton’s anointment as the “inevitable candidate” is on hold due to continually declining poll numbers; the early fears of “too much baggage” are proving to be valid.  This race has been upended by a previously-ignored improbable, older, white Senator named Bernie Sanders railing against corporate privilege and economic inequity  His credential is “authenticity” in an age of focus groups.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party makes the Democrats look like a model for a well-managed and organized political campaign.  17 candidates went out for the gold ring of the presidency.  At least a half-dozen of them still barely move the polling meter and are virtually ignored.  Old faces from 2008 (Mike Huckabee) and 2012 (Rick Santorum) elections try to find any way to be relevant for 2016.  As with the Democrats, the “anointed one” (Jeb Bush) has proven to be anything but.  Sitting Senators and Governors wallow in single-digit support, while together three candidates who have never held office before out-poll the whole rest of the collective field.

17 candidates should have made for a rousing political debate, highlighting and offering multiple faces, perspectives and ideas for us to think about.  Instead, we have been treated to overly long-running scripts of mindless noise and “who can top this?”  Donald Trump has been endless theater, wealthy and un-beholden enough to call his own shots and freely speak his empty mind.  No policy, plan or detail ever leaves his mouth, preferring instead verbal hand grenades against anyone he deems an opponent – which is just about everyone else.  But he has managed to capture and crystallize a large segment of an angry American public who want unvarnished “straight talk,” regardless of the niceties or accuracy.

Ben Carson is a vacuous apparition, a quiet demeanor covering over a lack of content.  He tells us about things that are all wrong, that the System does not work – Trump’s message at 1/3rd the decibels, but just as empty.  He seeks the highest office of the land, pronounces love for our Constitution, then advocates an unconstitutional religious test for that same office.  If he talked a bit louder perhaps he would not find himself one step behind himself so often.  Carly Fiorina is this year’s “Republican woman” who has managed to recently impress with her debate skills to downplay her less-than-successful business and political record.  But after she made up stories about supposed Planned Parenthood abortion and organ-farming videos – all subsequently debunked – she has to decide if she will follow into the imaginary dream worlds of her embarrassing Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman predecessors, or will choose to be a credible candidate of substance.  Then again, substance does not seem to matter this year, so perhaps living in fairy tales is OK.  None of these top three candidates has ever held a position of public service, so there is no track record by which to measure the credibility of what they say (to get elected) versus what they truly believe, or how much of what they say would they be able to actually accomplish.

The middle-% of the field, all current or past Governors and Senators, struggles to find a voice, overshadowed by the anti-everything sounds of the three “outsiders.”  We never really hear what they have to say, because the media – not the Parties, not the candidates – control the air time.  So they move their podiums around the stage, but it proves to make little difference.

Meanwhile, there is Congress with its significant Republican majority in both chambers.  After the 2014 elections, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that these majorities would show the country that “Republicans know how to govern.”  We are still waiting to see it.  So far it has been Obama’s national stage and agenda.  If you are a Democrat, you are likely pretty happy about it all.  If you are a Republican, your upset stomach is probably stuck up in your throat, cemented with frustration.  “Showing how to govern” now means total confusion in the House about what to vote on, non-cooperation with the Senate, Senators running for president appealing to their voting blocs, with a loud dominating argument for yet another government shutdown.  The party of “conservatives” long claiming to favor limiting government interference in our personal lives is now the main proponent of just such intrusions.

The consequences of all this?  At the highest levels of political contests – the presidency – we are giving voice to the worst of our collective bigotry and darker selves, with no substantive discussion about real solutions to serious issues.  Two governors have already been bounced from the field; the winnowing process has begun.  More candidates will follow.  Around 50 Republican House members – a small minority within a commanding majority – continues trying not to improve government but to destroy it, without regard for very real consequences.  They forget that the Constitution they profess to love was purposely designed to replace a weak central government with a strong one that could effectively lead our collective union.  In their pursuit, they just forced out the Speaker of the House.  This is governing?

Trump/Carson/Fiorina and Sanders – as different as the specifics of their message are – actually share a few things in common.  Negatively, both have a target that they generalize as “the bad guy”: “1% the billionaires” for Bernie, just about anyone and everyone for The Donald.  It may play well on the stump, but that kind of broad-swath name-calling does not bring people to the table together to solve problems.  But even though their audiences are decidedly vastly different, both also speak for the disaffected who know that the wayward excesses, foolhardy adventures, special treatment and hypocrisies of the past 25 years have drained the country of its standing, trust and energy.

Years of low approval ratings have finally caught up with the American political establishment.  Americans may be widely divergent in their ideas for political direction, but they know the needed direction ain’t where we have been – this protracted period of being governed from the extremes instead of from the American middle that has always held this fragile country together.

Maybe all of this venting will actually prove helpful in the long run.  By releasing some steam from this political/social pressure cooker, perhaps we can then settle back and more quietly and rationally figure out what to do and with whom to do it.  By hearing these negative extremes, perhaps it will motivate us to rediscover what our real national values and priorities have always been, and speak out for these to bring us back together again.  Disagree on specifics, yes, but we can still agreeably come together on goals.  Unfortunately, such a time is not yet now.  Hopefully this head of steam will run its course and exhaust itself.  Hopefully this negativity will pass and motivate us towards a better future.  Be of hope.  The alternative is too scary.

“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for ½ hour.”  (Garrison Keilor, 2010)

©   2015   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Diplomacy Or Bullets

“You talk to the most awful in order to get what you claim to be looking for: Peace.  You don’t negotiate with your friends.  You negotiate with the person you regard as your enemy.”  (Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa)

As Congress returns from its ill-deserved month-long recess, the most pressing issue it will take up is expressing its formal opinion on the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated this past July.  There will be many loud voices expressing a torrent of words on this subject, very little of which will reflect informed ideas from them or enlightening insight to us.  But the show must go on, and be assured that most of it will be just that – “for show.”

A number of Congresspersons expressed opposition to this pact even before the negotiations concluded, before it was formally signed and announced.  Which means they have not even bothered to read the document, and have no idea what this agreement actually says.  So when we hear these politicians say “I have been against this negotiation from the beginning” in order to appeal to their political base, they betray their own ignorance.  We should instead turn their attempted bragging back onto them and henceforth properly ignore them.

Others have been thoughtfully reading the document, asking relevant questions, listening to a variety of knowledgeable insights and opinions from objective parties.  These are the people we should seek out and listen to in order to make up our own minds.  I am most certainly far more willing to listen to an MIT physicist (now Secretary of Energy) and officials of the UN’s nuclear inspection team about the effectiveness of the agreed-upon inspection protocols than kneejerk critics such as the junior senator from Texas who opposes everything that our government attempts to do regardless of its merits.  And the overwhelming consensus within the scientific and technical community is that the inspection protocols Iran has agreed to are more than adequate to catch any breach of the agreement.  So in spite of all the rhetoric flying around about verification shortcomings, I am content with what has been agreed to.  I assume there are no more than a handful of Congresspersons technically qualified to know any more about this than I.

Then there are the folks who complain the deal only stops Iran for 15 years, and then they are free to start up new bomb making efforts.  Truth is, a lot of change can happen in 15 years.  15 years ago George W. Bush was elected president.  There was no 9-11 event, no U.S. war in the Middle East, no world-wide Great Recession.  I do not know what the world will look like 15 years from now, but I know it will be different from today: in the U.S., in Iran, in the Middle East.  All 15-year stretches end far differently than they started out – for better or worse.  I am easily willing to buy 15 years’ time to deal step-by-step with whatever new barriers and opportunities will undoubtedly arise.

Then there are those who claim we got clocked on this deal, that we gave away too much, that we should have held out for a “better deal,” that we should shut down this agreement and go back to the negotiating table.  Truth is, Donald Trump never saw a deal he did not think he could have negotiated better, and Benjamin Netanyahu never saw a deal he was willing to accept.   Biased, self-serving political critics such as these also deserve to be completely ignored in this discussion.

In our tendency towards nationalistic arrogance, we too often assume that it is all about us and what we want.  It ain’t.  Like it or not, Iran is a sovereign nation in its own right, with its own agenda and cadre of hardliners advocating for their own self-interests – just like us.  Like any country, like any negotiation, they will give up some things to get other things they deem more critical, but only up to a point.  Just as we have to do.  Unless we are willing to send in our bombs and our troops to overthrow their government and conquer their people – which we are not so willing – then we also have to give and get.  It is called “compromise” – that “C” word that Washington hates so much but which much of the rest of the country understands well.

In the end, there is no going back to the table.  For all the blustery talk, there is no better deal to be had.  Obama’s brilliant work was to create a broad coalition of nations willing to put severe economic restrictions into place, and then get an unlikely cohort of Britain / France / Russia / China to stand together with us in these negotiations.  These other nations have already agreed to this pact.  If this agreement fails in America in a misguided effort to seek a phantom “better deal,” that coalition will disappear.  The sanctions, the pressure on Iran, will never come back.  The failure will be America’s, and Iran will be free to go on its own to develop a bomb today.  Exactly what we thought was our primary priority to avoid.  America today may be the most powerful nation on earth, but like it or not, America is not powerful enough to sanction Iran into submission all by itself.   To think otherwise is to confuse American leadership with American arrogance.  So we would lose, Iran would go its separate unrestrained way, the rest of the world would move on, and Netanyahu would be left to his own scary unilateral actions.

Tom Cotton, the demonstrably freshman junior Senator from Arkansas who envisions himself as a shadow Secretary of State, will likely be a leader of the Senate challenge against the agreement.  Senate Republicans will be in unified opposition against it as a political statement rather than as an informed, measured move towards international peace.  John McCain and Lindsey Graham will once again propose sending in the troops, as they do with every international crisis.  The old guard from the Bush administration, who continually try to justify their role in creating the Iraq War and its subsequent consequences, will demonize any form of approachment with Iran.  Hopefully, all of this misguided opposition will ultimately evaporate in the cold face of pragmatic international realities.

After all the political hysteria dies down, this is a good deal versus the lack of any realistic alternatives that have been offered.  Do we trust Iran?  No, not any more than they trust us – for very good reasons given our unsavory history with them.  Is this agreement going to solve all of the issues between Iran and its neighbors and suddenly make them a good citizen of the world?  No.  But nations solve relationship problems one line-item at a time, in increments, not in overnight upside-down reversals.  This diplomatic effort was only intended to put the brakes on a nuclear Iran, not to resolve all manner of other desirable issues.  The current Agreement accomplishes what it set out to do.  We should respect that goal and celebrate its accomplishment, without the despicable rhetoric of presidential candidates, without stirring up false fears for political gain, without following false leaders both within and outside our borders.  Take the win and declare victory for today.  Tomorrow’s next difficult issues will come soon enough.  Sometimes, you just have to take a manageable risk and, as someone once sang, “give peace a chance.”

“When you have a divisive issue (e.g. Northern Ireland conflict), you do not seek “victory,” because there cannot be just one winner.  You must seek instead to be inclusive by accommodating all.”  (John Hume, Northern Ireland Catholic peace negotiator.)

©   2015   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com