The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Great Corn Bale-Out

So, the Pilgrims came to the New World, right, and they first land on Cape Cod. A small boat brought a group of them ashore and they looked around.

“This doesn’t look one bit like the painting of Virginia in the travel brochure,” said one of them.

“No, we’ve got to move on,” agreed a second. “It’s clear to anyone that the piece of real estate we’re now standing on will never be worth anything.”

“You’ve got two choices, both across the bay,” explained the Mayflower’s captain. “One spot is flat, with a huge deep harbor and a broad navigable river. The other has hilly, rocky ground, a small shallow harbor, and a narrow un-navigable river.”

“Oooh, lets go for that second one,” said the first Pilgrim.

“Yeah, we’re Puritans, so we like suffering,” said the other. “It sounds perfect.”

“I dunno,” said Hillary Chilton. “How about that island back yonder, Martha’s Vineyard? My husband Bill and I used to vacation there and it’s really lovely.”

“Shut up, Hillary,” said the first man. “Thou art always plying thy mouth too much.”

“Yeah, thou hast a ply mouth,” agreed the second. “Hey, that’s what we’ll call our colony – Plymouth!”

The Pilgrims founded their colony and built some dwellings. Then two friendly Indians braves showed up. One of them, Squanto, was very popular with the Pilgrims. The other one, Bendo’er, was even more popular with many of the Mayflower sailors. Unfortunately, the Pilgrim Fathers learned that Squanto and Bendo’er considered themselves “married” to each other, so they drove them out and the couple returned to Provincetown.

By this time, a whole tribe of Native Americans was on the scene and taught the Pilgrims how to grow a native plant, which they called “maize.”

“That’s a stupid name,” said Francis Billington. “Let’s call it ‘corn’ instead. It sounds more English.”

The Pilgrims were so grateful to the Indians for the gift of corn that they wanted to give them a gift in return. After a lot of soul-searching, they settled on smallpox and, sure enough, soon all the Indians were just dying to acquire it.

The Pilgrims grew a lot of corn and everybody had plenty to eat, for a while. Then one day, William “Obie” Barackford, who had been elected Governor, called a town meeting.

“Henry Ford Prescott, our richest citizen and amateur inventor, would like to speak to us,” Governor Barackford explained.

Everybody paid attention when Prescott talked. He was worth millions of British pounds and lived in a beautiful house on the Maine coast.

“My friends,” said Prescott. “I have found a better use for our corn than food.”

The Pilgrims glanced at each other in shock.

“I have found that an oil can be extracted from corn,” continued Prescott. “This oil can be used to power a motor of my own design that will drive something I call a corn chariot. It is like a wagon but allows one to travel anywhere without a horse or oxen team.”

On cue, an outlandish vehicle came chugging up. The Pilgrim Fathers all gasped and envy entered their hearts that day, as each thought, “I gotta git me one of them there corn chariots.”

Soon every Pilgrim had a corn chariot and came to rely on it not merely as a personal transportation luxury but also a necessity and divine entitlement. They drove them everywhere.

It was true a corn chariot got only fourteen feet per ear of corn but at a mere one pence per gallon, corn oil was cheap to buy. What was more, there was plenty of corn, an abundance of corn, an un-limitless supply of corn. Until one day it was gone.

“We can’t drive!” wailed the Pilgrim Fathers.

“And what’s with all the parking meters downtown?” asked Hillary Chilton. “Parking should always be free. It’s our right.”

“Shut up, Hillary,” said the men.

Everybody went to see Henry Ford Prescott and Governor Barackford.

“Not my problem,” said Prescott, as he glanced up from counting his money. “I just make the chariots.”

“I’ve been thinking about this,” said Governor Barackford thoughtfully. “Corn is essentially a foreign substance to our English sensibilities. We’ve got to eliminate our dependence on this foreign oil.”

“That’s just what I’ve always said,” shouted John McCrackston, the town’s oldest man.

“Anyway,” said Governor Barackford peevishly, “I believe the answer is alternative fuels. In this case, ethanol.”

“Sounds good,” said Moses Fletcher. “What is this ‘ethanol’ stuff made from?”

“Corn,” said Governor Barackford.

“Corn?” cried the weary Pilgrims in disbelief.

“Yes, corn,” said Governor Barackford. “What did you think it was made from – all this switch grass growing around the marshlands? Burn that shit down and start planting corn.”

“Great,” cried Henry Ford Prescott. “Meanwhile, I’ll start building even bigger corn chariots.”

At first, the new ethanol-fueled corn chariots seemed to solve the problem and everybody was happy. But then all the ethanol corn got used up too. Fuel prices soared to 400 pence per gallon or more.

Even worse, with all the corn used for fuel, there was no food and the Pilgrims began to starve. At times that winter, there were only six grains of corn per person per day to eat.

In the spring, Henry Ford Prescott came back from vacationing in Barbados and looked around. He immediately called for another town meeting. The dying Pilgrims dragged themselves to it.

“This is a terrible state of affairs,” said Prescott.

“Yes,” agreed the Pilgrims.

“I understand you all have six grains of corn each day to eat.”

“Yes,” agreed the Pilgrims.”

“That’s just wrong.”

“Yes,” agreed the Pilgrims.

“Those gains ought to be used to make corn oil instead. I’m in danger of going out of business.”

“Huh?” said the Pilgrims.

“I’m in danger of going out of business,” repeated Prescott. “Nobody is purchasing my big new corn chariots anymore. The Indians have invented a new use for corn – they’ve turned it into a crunchy breakfast cereal flake and now that’s all the craze.”

“Excuse me,” said John Alden. “But it seems to me the real problem is that you’ve created a lousy product that nobody wants to buy, motivated entirely on your own shortsighted greed.”

“No, that’s not it,” said Prescott stubbornly. “This is all the fault of the cornflake crunch.”

Everybody turned to look at Governor Barackford, who sighed.

“I hate that it’s come to this,” he said, “but we all need to help neighbor Prescott in the spirit of Christian charity.”

“Do you know,” he explained, “how when one of our hay fields is ready to harvest and rain threatens, we all help out with the baling of that hay?”

“Yes,” said the Pilgrims.

“Well, I think the government is going to have to sponsor a bale-out for the corn chariot industry,” said Governor Barackford.

“That sounds like socialism,” Joe Plumbington murmured dangerously.

“Just sharing the wealth,” said Governor Barackford. “Besides, I’ll make it up to all of you with a bold, two-pronged economic stimulus package that will boost your six grain corn allowance while simultaneously calming market fears with our fiscal discipline.”

“What are you going to do?” Stephen Hopkins asked excitedly.

“First, I’m going to double your corn allowance and then I’m going to halve it,” announced Governor Barackford triumphantly.

Hopkins squinted in concentration for several minutes while counting on his fingers.

“But . . . ain’t that the same as doing nothing?” he asked at last.

Governor Barackford frowned. “I was told you didn’t know fractions,” he said.

“Sorry, Hank, but you’re on your own,” Barackford told Prescott, as he figuratively tossed him under one of his own chariots.

“Why, you bunch of ingrates,” sputtered Prescott. “I’m leaving this place. I’m taking my wife and daughter and heading southwest in search of a new kind of oil, one that comes right out of the ground.”

“There is nothing in that direction,” said one of the few pockmarked but surviving Indians, “except empty prairie.”

“That’s another reason I’m heading out,” said Prescott, gesturing toward the Indian. “There are too many illegal immigrants running around this place.”

“But they were here first,” said Governor Barackford weakly.

“We Prescotts are a traditional, conservative family with traditional values,” said Prescott stiffly. “As such, we support King and England. I’m heading for the pro-English parts of this country. New England has become far too pro-American for my tastes. It’s all this representative government you have here.”

“Tyranny without representation is Texas,” he cried.

“The only thing in this ‘Texas’ of yours,” insisted the Indian, “is sagebrush.”

“I don’t care,” raged Prescott. “I’m a-going to Texas and I’m a-going to stay there, even if I have to marry my little daughter to a Bush!”

“I’m leaving too,” said a Pilgrim woman with an upswept hairdo and fashionably expensive dress made from homespun cloth.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve already forgotten your name,” apologized Governor Barackford.

“Call me Sister Sarah,” the woman replied. “I’m just a hockey mom, you betcha.”

“You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull, don’t ya?” she asked coyly.

“The pit bull has fresher breath,” suggested Priscilla Mullins, rolling her eyes.

“And that’s why I’m leaving,” huffed Sister Sarah. “I’m sick of all this nasty Pris bias against me. Jerks! Well, that and my daughter is tired of having to wear a scarlet ‘A’ sewn into all of her clothes. If Prescott is going south and west, then I’ll try going in the exact opposite direction – north and west.”

“That’s not the opposite . . .” began Barackford.

“It’s God’s country up there,” Sister Sarah interrupted. “I know because a voice spoke to me and told me so.”

“That was just wind blowing through the empty rushes down by the lakeside,” laughed Miles Standish.

“No, it was a voice,” swore Sister Sarah, “and if Rush says so, you know it must be true.”

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” said Barackford but, by that time, Sister Sarah had already reached Iowa territory, where she was engaged in the wholesale slaughter of turkeys.

“What a strange woman,” remarked Governor Barackford. “Okay, time to vote. All those in favor of a corn chariot bale-out?”

“Nay!” screamed the Pilgrims with one voice.

“What’s the tally, madame secretary?” asked Barackford.

“The ‘ayes’ have it,” announced Constance Pelosi.

“Wait a minute, I don’t think . . .” began Hillary Chilton.

“Shut up, Hillary,” said Governor Barackford. “I declare today a holiday.”

“Hooray,” cried all the Pilgrims and quite a few of them dropped over dead.

And that, children, is the story of the first Thanksgiving. May you and your families have a Happy Thanksgiving too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Team of Rivals, Unrivaled Team, and Shadows

Conservatives are noting with glee that some Obama voters are less than thrilled with the President-elect for his cabinet choices. Of course, it is usually unwise to paint or tar a group with too wide a brush. True, all Obama followers drank from the same Kool-Aid trough but it seems that, much like Gideon’s army, some of us cupped our hands to drink, while others lapped it up like dogs, and still others waited for it to be ladled into cups.

I list three forms of drinking either, as opposed to the historic two, because those criticizing Obama fall into two distinct subgroups. One subgroup find Obama guilty of being too radical while the other condemns him for not being radical enough. One worries that a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” does not fit the present economic crisis while the other frets not nearly enough competing voices are in the mix.

Looking in from the cold, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks generally likes what he sees so far. In last Friday’s column, he wryly writes, “Even more than past Administrations, this will be a valedictocracy – rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes.”

Brooks goes on to list what he likes about the Obama picks. He feels they are all open-minded individuals, admired professionals, not excessively partisan, and non-ideological.
Finally, he admires their “practical creativity,” by which he means they can see the big picture and know how to take the incremental steps necessary to achieve goals.

I suspect many Obama supporters, such as myself, agree with Brooks and see Obama’s choices as more than simply acceptable but also often thoughtful and shrewd.

For the mavens of maximum diversity, who envisioned a Cabinet consisting of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and God knows what else, anything more than a single token GOPer was never going to happen.

James Oakes, a Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and opponent of the Lincoln “team of rivals” meme championed by Doris Kearns Goodwin, points out that even Lincoln’s tolerance for dissent had its limits. His sometimes-contentious appointees were all fellow Republicans who had vied with him for their Party’s nomination. They may have disliked or had little respect for Lincoln personally, but they all shared the same basic ideology. Lincoln considered selecting a prominent Southerner but relented when he could literally find none who would endorse the Republican platform.

As a recent Washington Post editorial notes, “[Obama’s Cabinet] so far also is diverse and in the most gratifying way, which is to say, in a way that seems naturally occurring. No one can look at any of these selections and think that gender or race was the driving factor in the selection.”

For the anti-Hillarites who fear Clinton as too strong-willed and too different in worldview to support Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the old maxim runs to hold your friends close and your adversaries closer. Moreover, once she let go of her own campaign, Clinton flawlessly demonstrated her loyalty to Party over self-interest by supporting Obama during the election. I see no reason to believe she will not continue to place country first while helping Obama govern.

For those who rue large number of Clinton-era personnel on Obama’s team, the chief concern Obama needs to address with Americans is his relative inexperience and where else can he reach for Democrats with practical Washington experience besides the Clinton Administration? The only other conceivable choice is Carter people from the late 1970s. Those staffers are getting a bit long in the tooth and advanced age was a chief concern many Americans had with McCain.

Finally, for those who disparage the selection of Rahm Emanuel for Chief of Staff as somebody too partisan and rancorous, it has never been the main responsibility of this position to win friends and influence others but rather to get things done. What is more, by naming him early, Obama avoided the mistake of some past President-elects, Bill Clinton, most recently, of concentrating on high-visibility Cabinet officers first and then filling crucial staff positions almost as an afterthought.

When I look at Obama’s choices to date, I see three common themes running through them that I find admirable and encouraging.

The first, as Brooks points out, is competence. Fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, “At least since Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns for the presidency in the 1950s, it’s been a disadvantage in American politics to seem too learned.” Yet while Obama’s intellect is obvious, he strikes a fine balance between perspicacity and pedantry. Global Language Monitor analyzed linguistics of the final Presidential debate and found Obama spoke at a ninth-grade level, while McCain spoke at a seventh-grade level.

Nobody doubts Clinton is bright enough to handle State or any other position but her long-standing interest in national healthcare makes her seem a more likely fit at Health and Human Services. Tom Daschle, who got that job, is a respected legislator but, despite having written a book on the subject since leaving office, is not the first name most people think about when it comes to health policy. Some consider Bill Richardson tailor-made for Clinton’s job at State; instead, he went to Commerce.

This might be the most brilliant aspect of Obama’s picks, in my opinion. Leave these talented and accomplished politicians in their respective comfort zones and Obama maximizes their chances of pontificating and refusing to cooperate with him or each other, much like Lincoln’s team of rivals. Putting them in unfamiliar waters forces them to use their formidable gifts to actually learn and do their jobs, as well as leaving them more open to Obama’s own thoughts in each area.

The second common theme I admire in Obama’s choices is their broad connections. Clinton may not have been a formal diplomat but she gained familiarity with many world leaders, not to mention with many key players behind the scenes, during her eight years as First Lady and six years as U.S. Senator. Even if Daschle had no healthcare background, he has broad bipartisan admiration from his many years in Congress necessary to translate policy into passable legislation.

Likewise, Obama’s Treasury Secretary will need to be able to coordinate closely with the Federal Reserve Board to pass an extensive financial stimulus package and do so quickly. Obama’s pick, Timothy Geithner, the retiring New York Fed chief, is in a good position to gain their support and cooperation.

The third common theme among Obama’s nominees is a sense of unfulfilled mission and this exists precisely because so many of them are former Clintonistas – and that includes Hillary Clinton herself.

We forget that Bill Clinton first swept into office in 1992 as a change candidate. Many in his Administration were optimistic about implementing a progressive agenda that would undo some of the themes of the Reagan revolution. Early missteps left Clinton fighting for his political life. To survive, he brought the Democratic Party to the middle instead of moving the country left. A hostile GOP Congress and personal peccadilloes prevented any further development of his progressive dreams during the next six years.

Many of these former Clinton staffers and aides, now ensconced in new roles, may see a chance at redemption by serving in an Obama Administration. This kind of fervor, if properly checked by reticence and wisdom, could be a powerful force for real change.

Much of the rhetorical racket over Obama’s picks reflecting his weakness and/or leaving his supporters in chaos and anger is more the product of what critics envision Obama’s base to be rather than what it really is. Yet whether his supporters see Obama’s Cabinet as a team of rivals (and whether or not they see this as a good thing) or an unrivaled team, all indications to date are that his shadow falls over his nominees more than any risk of them overshadowing him.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bikini Wax

After playing chicken with the Bush Administration over who should cough up money to help the U.S. automotive industry and how much, Congressional leaders blinked yesterday and offered Detroit a loophole through which wiggling is still possible for them.

There will be no bailout before the Thanksgiving break. Instead, the Big 3 automakers are to use this time to construct a business plan specifically detailing how they will reach economic viability. Congress convenes again on December 2 to evaluate the plan and any money is conditional on its approval.

Conventional wisdom suggests this is a fool’s errand. If auto executives had the imagination and self-discipline to craft such a strategy, the industry would not be facing bankruptcy in the first place.

However, lawmakers said it would be up to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts to judge what “viability” means and whether the automakers achieve it in their plan. The fix, so to speak, is in.

These developments will doubtless cause teeth gnashing among those who prefer to let the market oversee the survival of the economic fittest. Lawmakers universally agree the testimony of auto executives before Congress this week was a public relations disaster, with CEOs for the Big 3 flying private corporate jets into Washington to then beg for money.

Far worse, automakers staunchly refused to accept any culpability for the crisis, insisting their problems all stemmed from the current credit crunch rather than their inability to build cars that consumers actually wanted to drive. To be sure, U.S. manufacturers have taken baby steps to improve quality but Kelley Blue Book reported only yesterday that their products still lag far behind those of European and Asian carmakers in projected resale value.

UAW officials received similar jaundiced reactions for their staunch refusal to consider compromising on the better-than-average wages and health benefits of their members.

In spite of all this, the truly naïve viewpoint is to expect the federal government will do nothing to help Detroit. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out today, “In the end, I don't think either George W. Bush or Barack Obama wants to be remembered as the President who lost the auto industry.” I suspect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have similar feelings.

Teeth gnashing is occurring now for those Democrats who hoped Obama would bring fresh faces to Washington. Although he has not yet named his choices for Secretaries of Energy and Interior as well as the head of the EPA (or even leaked them!), former Clinton aides, allies, and advisors are conspicuous at the top of virtually every list.

Yet if the pending bailout is a mere placebo for the real ills of the auto industry, another decision by Congress yesterday may provide the strong medicine that comes wrapped within the sugar pill. The Democratic Caucus voted to strip the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee from Representative John Dingell of Michigan and bestow it upon Representative Henry Waxman of California in his stead.

For the House to bypass its usual seniority rules is a mini-revolution in itself. At age eighty-two, Dingell is the longest-serving Representative in Congress and the top-ranking Democrat on the committee for the past twenty-eight years. This is the first ouster of a committee chairman by Democrats since 1985.

Dingell supposedly pleaded to keep his chairmanship for one more term, at which point he planned to step down voluntarily. He pointed to recently passed legislation raising fuel economy standards for U.S. autos to thirty-five miles per gallon by 2020 as well as finally releasing global warming legislation for consideration.

His colleagues rejected this defense as too little, too late. Dingell is the archetypical defender of the status quo, long criticized by others within the Democratic Party for pandering to both big automakers and big utilities. Environmentalists accuse him of obstructing virtually any green legislation brought before him.

Dingell consistently opposed stricter air pollution standards and raised particular ire by blocking states from setting higher fuel efficiency standards than federal standards. He also supported legislation preempting state food safety and labeling laws that exceeded federal standards.

Waxman has been in Congress nearly as long as Dingell. He chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health and Environment Subcommittee for sixteen years and been the senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for twelve years.

In spite of this, new chairman’s reputation is very different from that of his predecessor. The consensus opinion finds Waxman to be liberal, blunt, critical of U.S. automakers, and extremely pro-environment.

His voting record shows a distinct fondness for increased auto efficiency and alternative fuels. He voted “yes” on tax incentives for energy production and conservation, “yes” on tax incentives for renewable energy, “yes” on investing in homegrown biofuel, “yes” on raising CAFE standards, and “yes” on increased AMTRAK funding for operations and improvements.

Conversely, he is no great friend of fossil fuels or other conventional forms of energy. He voted “yes” on removing oil and gas exploration subsidies, “yes” on maintaining an offshore oil drilling moratorium, “no” on authorizing construction of new oil refineries, “no” on oil drilling and development in Alaska’s ANWR, and “no” on a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.

Reaction to Waxman’s appointment by different groups ran along expected lines.

Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-business research group, gloomily said Waxman’s ascendancy “isn't good news if you're in the business of American energy or other kinds of free-market commerce.”

In contrast, David Algood of the California League of Conservation Voters jubilantly celebrated the news as “huge, just huge.” Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign called it “a whole new day” and characterized Waxman as “a real champion” for the environment.

The scuttlebutt is that Waxman carried the day not by vilifying Dingell but simply presenting himself as a better agent to enact some of the sweeping changes President-elect Obama promised in the areas of energy and environment during the campaign.

Most interestingly, Waxman and his supporters pressed the idea that Congress did not have eight or even four years in which to pass such legislation but merely two. “The memory of 1993 and 1994 is seared in a lot of our minds,” explains Democratic Representative Howard Berman of California.

Traditionally, both energy and environmental bills are difficult to pass without broad bipartisan support. However, Waxman combines tenacity with high energy and earned a reputation as an effective and successful legislator.

Chrysler, Ford, and GM executives may be sighing with relief over the continued possibility of free money from Washington. But even if Dodd and Frank do little more than rubberstamp their business plan next month, automakers are likely to find strings – or should I say wax? – attached to that money. Moreover, they are likely to find the federal regulatory environment much less friendly than it has been over the past several decades, regardless of whom Obama places in his Cabinet.

“It may very well be that Waxman is the person to deliver the bad news to the auto industry that if they want federal help, they need to change the way they do business,” suggests Linda Fowler, a Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.

“Well, this was clearly a change year,” Dingell said with rueful graciousness after his defeat. Yes, yes it is. What is more, those who doubt Obama’s promise of change may find it fulfilled if in ways sometimes unexpected.

Waxman represents California’s Thirtieth Congressional District, an area that includes Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Malibu. Detroit is about to meet Southern California and receive a painful but much-needed bikini wax in the process.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

No Bones About It

A study, published by archeologists in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, details a 4,600-year-old stone-age burial in central Germany, at Eulau Saxony-Anhalt. Several graves were unearthed, whose occupants appeared to be victims of a massacre. Carefully arranged in groups, the dead consisted of adults and children, buried facing each other. DNA testing subsequently proved them sets of parents and children.

The find excited scientists because it established the oldest known example of classic nuclear families. “Their unity in death suggests unity in life,” a researcher explained.

One grave was different from the others. Rather than two adults, it contained only one – a woman – and two children. DNA testing revealed the children were siblings but shared no maternal relation to the woman. Researchers speculate she may have been a paternal aunt, stepmother, or other form of caregiver. Their burial reflected the same care and reverence as that afforded the other graves.

The story left me struck by how even stone-age human beings instinctively understood the validity of alternative households. A single mother raising two adopted children was as much a “family” to this particular tribe as a mother and father with their biological offspring.

It demonstrates the inevitable future for full gay and lesbian rights in this country despite the much-publicized passage of Proposition 8 in California. This legislation modified the state constitution with language limiting the definition of “marriage” as between a man and a woman. It appeared on the ballot following a California Supreme Court ruling that the constitution permitted gay marriage as it stood.

Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage also passed two weeks ago in Arizona and Florida, while Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents. To date, thirty states adopted constitutional amendments along these lines. A handful of states allow civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays that grant some of the same legal rights as marriage.

Although their numbers slowly continue to shrink, a majority of Americans remain profoundly uncomfortable with the concept of gay marriage. Some object because they believe homosexuality is a sin on religious/moral grounds. Others fear expanding its definition to include gays will undermine the traditional institution of marriage. Surveys consistently show that many who oppose gay marriage are not hostile to the idea of equal rights for homosexuals in general.

The current state of legal affairs in this country regarding gay rights is a disheartening one but it will not last. Those who voted for gay marriage bans across this country may hunker down in perceived unassailability for now but a storm is building that will eventually disintegrate their carefully constructed bulwarks. Their fear is genuine but it is also groundless.

Not only has the “glass ceiling” already been cracked on this issue but actual holes also punched through it. Those attempting to board them back up are accomplishing nothing but keeping out the fresh air and sunlight for everybody.

Gay marriage is inevitable because the legal structures preventing it are only man-made structures, subject to tearing down and revision, even if they carry the full strength of law today. Voters adopt gay marriage bans precisely because voters know their state constitutions, based on justice and equality, will otherwise permit the thing they fear.

Their solutions do not really revise those constitutions so much as graft on a structure that is fundamentally in opposition to the rest of the superstructure. A house divided cannot stand. It may take decades but, just like Prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, these state amendments will be appealed one by one.

Some churches have already accepted the principle of gay marriage and, even if they have not, they understand that banning it legally represents a dangerous precedent.

The interfaith California Council of Churches and the Episcopal bishops of Northern California and Los Angeles added their voices to those calling for the invalidation of Proposition 8. They argue permitting voters to take away rights from a group based on sexual orientation could allow the same to happen to religious minorities.

Even the Mormon Church, which did so much to support Proposition 8, particularly in the form of campaign contributions, is making the first signs that it might accept civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians.

Mostly, however, gay marriage bans are doomed to fail because of the 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who were married in California between the state Supreme Court ruling and the passage of Proposition 8. “I just found out that my state doesn't really think I'm a person,” said an indignant Rose Aplustill, a gay Boston University student from Los Osos California. “We are the American family, we live next door to you, we teach your children, we take care of your elderly,” added Heather Baker, a gay special education teacher from Boston.

Even in the wake of Proposition 8, Connecticut just joined Massachusetts as the second state to legally recognize gay marriage. Connecticut has provided full legal rights for gay unions since 2005 and issued over two thousand civil union licenses during the past three years. Nonetheless, many gay couples returned to Connecticut city halls this past week to get married.

“It felt gritty to be in a separate line,” explains Barbara Levine-Ritterman, who was first in line to marry her lesbian partner. “It's thrilling today. We are all in one line for one form. Love is love and the state recognizes it.”

Once people feel the acceptance, dignity, and self-worth of standing in the same line as everybody else, they will never go back to an “Only” line. Whether the line is marked “Blacks Only” or “Gays Only,” the principle remains the same.

This is why I chuckle at the likes of the deluded, such as Frank Schubert, co-manager of the Yes on 8 campaign in California. “[Gays] had everything in the world going for them this year and they couldn't win,” he says. “I don't think they're going to be any more successful in 2010 or 2012.”

He may be right about the immediate future but he should be sure that gays will be back in 2010 and 2012 and the election after that and the election after that and the election after that, until they are successful. And they will be successful. This election was simply the best environment homosexuals had so far. It will only become progressively harder in the future to deny them.

The hatred and fear of homophobia is destined for the grave. An ancient grave in Germany holds all the proof that I will never need on this subject. The barriers to recognizing full rights for gays are man-made constructs. They will ultimately fall before the basic decency in human beings that recognizes a family is defined not by the makeup of its members but rather by the affection and devotion they manifest for each other through their choices and their actions.

Just as all the evidence indicates that homosexuality is a genetic predisposition, so acceptance lies in our genes as well.

No bones about it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Clutch Shift

U.S. automakers have driven themselves to the front of the line of companies asking for a handout from the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package recently passed by Congress. General Motors says it is flirting with bankruptcy without such help. Chrysler has reached a similar crisis.

Senate Democrats intend to introduce legislation today attaching an auto bailout to a House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank already favor helping automakers.

Senate Democrats need at least a dozen Republican votes to pass the legislation. Thus far, GOP Senators George Voinovich of Ohio and Kit Bond of Missouri have expressed support and several others, including Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, are wavering. Largely, however, Republicans virulently oppose an auto industry bailout.

“Companies fail everyday and others take their place,” argues Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. “It’s not the General Motors we grew up with. It’s a General Motors that is headed down this road to oblivion. Should we intervene to slow it down, knowing it’s going to happen? I say no.”

Even New York Times columnist David Brooks, usually a voice of Republican moderation, sees throwing Detroit into the fangs of economic Darwinism as the only prudent move. “If ever the market has rendered a just verdict, it is the one rendered on GM and Chrysler,” he wrote in his column last Friday. “These companies are not innocent victims of this crisis.”

This is true. The niche for big, gas-guzzling, high-polluting vans, trucks, and SUVs that U.S. auto manufacturers carved out for themselves was incredibly shortsighted. Yet American auto consumers ignored warnings about potential oil insecurities and an imperiled climate just as much as manufacturers. This is a societal problem and not just a business one.

Those arguing for a self-correcting free market might have a point if that market were healthy but the general weakness of the economy at the present – with most economists predicting a recession that will last into the First Quarter of 2009 and beyond – is exactly what has brought automakers to Washington with outstretched palms in the first place.

The collapse of domestic automakers could be devastating. A study by the Center for Automotive Research estimates that two and a half million jobs would be lost in the first year alone. The objectivity of that study is subject to question but there are compelling reasons to believe its conclusion are principally correct.

A bankruptcy by any major U.S. auto manufacturer would cause many auto parts suppliers to fail. This would result in a domino effect of failures among other manufacturers and suppliers, since car companies typically share parts suppliers.

Declaring Chapter 11 would allow automakers to suspend many existing debt payments but reorganization would also require them to acquire new loans that might not be available due to the current credit crunch. Bankruptcy by GM or Chrysler might please Wall Street analysts but would have quite the opposite effect on potential consumers. Who wants to make a major purchase like a new car from a bankrupt company?

Finally, retired General Wesley Clark, argues in a Sunday New York Times op-ed piece that “aiding the American automobile industry is not only an economic imperative but also a national security imperative.” Clark points to numerous free market solutions that have led to military success in the past. He believes current Detroit research into plug-in hybrids and electric-drive technology could solve a long-standing problem for better sources of electric power in military vehicles.

The Bush Administration has been cool to the idea of including the auto industry in the financial industry bailout. It endorses allowing car companies to take $25 billion in loans previously approved to develop fuel-efficient vehicles and use the money for more immediate needs – an incredibly short-sighted approach.

President-elect Barack Obama supports auto aid is but views it as part of a long-term plan for a “sustainable U.S. auto industry.” This is the right direction, although Obama and Congressional Democrats are notoriously light on specific mandates and oversights to ensure we actually follow such a path.

Detroit and Washington must accomplish two basic steps together and Ford Motor Company serves as an illustration of what to do as well as proof of its success. Although it is also facing rough times, Ford is probably in the best position of the “Big 3” automakers to ride out the coming recession.

The first and most immediately important step is for car companies to work with existing creditors to write down their debt, using government arbitration and assistance as necessary. Two years ago, then-new Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally lined up $24 billion worth of financing, building a bigger war chest than anyone thought would be needed, just in case. As a result, Ford is not in danger of running out of money in the coming months.

The second and most important long-term step is for Washington to define a consistent energy policy for automakers, preferably one including mandates. Congress must insist that any company receiving government money must commit to a specific plan to improve efficiency. Ford is remaking its product line into one that more closely reflects consumers’ new interests. The company is booting some of its big trucks out of U.S. factories to make room for fuel-efficient subcompact cars.

While the future rests in alternative fuels, there is no question that dramatic immediate improvements are possible simply by mandating higher efficiency. The average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet peaked at just below twenty-six miles per gallon in the 1980s and remains in stasis since then.

Detroit waggled its $25 billion in loans out of Washington last year by promising to target a goal of thirty-five miles per gallon by 2020. Yet if domestic automakers simply made smaller cars, as European companies do, many analysts believe fleet-wide averages of fifty miles per gallon by 2020 are possible.

That is just the start, however. As Robert Goodman, a Professor of Environmental Design at Hampshire College, suggests, the Obama Administration should direct GM, Chrysler, and other car companies to begin shifting from being just automakers to becoming innovative “transportmakers.”

Some economists point out that low gas prices, which Congress also paradoxically pushes to achieve, retard consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The common solution for this dilemma is a federal gas tax.

Robert Samuelson suggests in both the current issue of Newsweek and Sunday’s Washington Post that gas taxes gradually rise a penny per month for the next four years.

Daniel Sperling, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and Deborah Gordon, a transportation policy consultant, propose an alternate price floor of $3.50 per gallon on gasoline. Under this scenario, a variable tax would increase the price of gas to this price if its natural market price falls below this level. The tax disappears altogether under higher market prices.

The additional income from such a tax could help fund automakers in place of bailout money. Automakers would be mandated to build (at least some) smaller, more fuel-efficient models as a condition of receiving any money. Higher gas prices would incent consumers to purchase these new fuel-efficient cars.

It sounds neat but it also strikes me as placing the cart before the horse. Increasing prices, even modestly, without fuel-efficient cars already in place would only punish middle-class consumers at a time when they can ill afford additional expense. The move to regulate toward drivers that are more responsible is long overdue but it is an intermediate step in the long-term plan, not an initial one.

The temptation to punish the “Big 3” auto manufacturers for past sins is enticing. However, the overall impact to the general economy, in terms of jobs and investment in infrastructure lost, is too great. It is extremely risky betting that U.S. automakers suddenly develop the innovation and imagination they previously lacked to make the necessary clutch shift successful but it is also unlikely that the current economy will allow “garage start-ups,” à la Apple and Google of the 1990s personal computers boom, to become the new auto giants of tomorrow.

Indeed, we may need to save Detroit today if only so others may be able to replace it with minimal trauma in the future.

Friday, November 14, 2008


How Lincoln, King, and Obama Will All End Up Selling Viagra

Supporters of Barack Obama awoke this morning to find themselves attacked by two established and venerable institutions – the estate of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Roman Catholic Church. Twin stories by the Associated Press explain.

In the first story, Father Jay Scott Newman, a Catholic priest from South Carolina, has warned his parishioners to refrain from receiving Communion if they voted Obama for President without first doing penance. Catholics will be “putting their souls at risk” if they fail to do so, Father Newman warned in a letter.

Obama supports a woman’s right to choose. Fifty-four percent of Catholics voted for him on November 4, according to national exit polls.

“Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exits constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil,” Father Newman declared.

Father Newman insists his stance has nothing to do with political partisanship and says he would take exactly the same stance had a pro-choice Republican prevailed over an anti-abortion Democrat.

Presumably, Father Newman believes his condemnation applies to all U.S. Catholics and not just the ones in his parish. Therein lies the rub, as U.S. Catholic bishops differ over whether they should refuse Communion to Catholic lawmakers and voters who diverge from Catholic teachings on abortion. Some national Catholic leaders have already criticized Father Newman, arguing no single priest or nun or monk can claim to speak for or against the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, such acts of individualism have precedence even within the strictures of Catholicism (see Luther, Martin for one such historical example).

In the second AP story, the King estate is upset with Obama supporters of the street vendor and consumer variety, who have taken to hawking and buying merchandise depicting Obama alongside the slain civil rights leader without permission or a sharing their profits with King’s estate.

King’s writings, image, and voice are all intellectual property, and almost any use of them is subject to approval by his estate, now run by his three children. The three say they are seeking an “elegant solution” to the problem. Past successful solutions on their part have included cease-and-desist letters as well as lawsuits.

“They are probably one of the most careful, concerned and on-top-of-it groups of image protectors I've ever met,” said Philippa Loengard, Assistant Director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia University.

As with the Catholic Church, there is internal disagreement among King’s children over what to do and the extent to which each of them individually can speak for the estate. They are also mindful of outside criticisms that their aggressive pursuit of royalties in this matter looks more than a little crass.

“Some of this is probably putting food on people’s plates. We're not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King's nephew and head of the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta. “However,” he continued, “we cannot allow our brand to be abused.”

I was struck by the parallels between these two stories and the two institutions upon which they report. I see them as coming from very much the same place.

I grant both of them the benefit of the doubt in acting on principle. Father Newman is correct that the Catholic Church has long opposed abortion as a sin. Likewise, although Reverend King was active in politics during his lifetime, we can never know with certainty what politicians and issues he would endorse today. Given the continued extraordinary regard with which he is held, why should any candidate be able to claim, entirely of their own accord, that “King would stand with me” as a means to achieve an instant civil rights high road on their position(s)?

At another level, however, this is about an attempted exercise of power by the institutions effected. In the case of Father Newman, it is the power of the Catholic Church to dictate proper moral behavior to its followers with absolute authority. The Church ostensibly lost this fight a long time ago, at least in the United States.

In the case of King’s estate, it is a fight over both economic power and its role as a premier voice for the U.S. African American community. Like the Catholic Church, the King estate is destined to lose its fight.

Sometimes institutions fade away because their own ineptitude and corruption cause them to lose relevance with their followers. Sometimes they fade away because a new idea comes along that is perceived to have more relevance, or at least more immediacy, to their followers. Often it is a combination of both factors operating simultaneously.

Conversely, their own success can sometimes marginalize institutions. I am sure the heirs of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln can relate to the problem facing the King estate. I am sure they are tired of watching their forefathers’ images used to hock everything from appliances to used cars to Viagra every year during Presidents Day sales. Yet the more successful that institutions are at turning the individuals they promote into icons, the more ownership of those icons slowly slips into the public domain.

Vatican II attempted to open up the mysteries of Catholic dogma, making them more accessible to ordinary parishioners and U.S. Catholics seized upon that idea like no other. The result is less authority for priests, such as Father Newman, when attempting to impose moral dictates on their followers over whom they may or may not vote.

Likewise, Obama actualizing part of King’s dream for America makes the latter’s voice no less important and due no less remembrance and respect but it does inevitably make it a little softer. The more King’s extraordinary vision becomes ordinary reality, the less he – and his family – individually remain part of current events and instead reposition into history, unless, of course, they achieve more relevant and immediate accomplishments in their own rights.

So while the censures and threats of Father Newman and the King estate against Obama supporters still have their sting, there is no denying the gently rounded bluntness of their stingers’ tips, the product of time’s inescapable erosion. The huge body they seek to wound may slap back at them in the irritation of the moment but will ultimately forget about them as we soon forget the bites of gnats we endure while sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening.

The good news is that time’s corrosive effects as well as human foibles visit all institutions. Obama is currently the flavor of the month, his picture on the cover of every newspaper, magazine, and TV news show. Still, it is only a matter of fifty years, more or less, before his loyalist supporters and heirs find his image reduced to appearing in glossy sales circulars and low-budget television commercials selling Viagra (you know what they say about men with big ears, don’t you?).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

They Who Remain

Yesterday was Veterans Day, typically a day of remembrance for most of us. Henry William Allingham of Great Britain marked the occasion and I think it is fair to say that he did so better than most. In fairness, he had two advantages. First, he is a veteran of combat. Second, he has had a very long time to ponder his memories.

At age one hundred and twelve, Allingham is the oldest man in Great Britain and one of only four surviving veterans of World War I in that nation. A single WWI vet remains in the United States. France, Turkey, and Germany have lost all of their former WWI soldiers.

Allingham wanted to join the military when conflict first broke out in August 1914 but remained at home to care for his ill mother. Upon her death, he enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as Air Mechanic Second Class. Initially stationed at Great Yarmouth and Bacton Norfolk, he also participated in the Battle of Jutland, the Ypres offensive at Petite-Synthe on the Western Front, and Dunkirk.

When the RNAS and Royal Flying Corps combined in April 1918 to create the Royal Air Force, Allingham became a founding member.

Allingham left the military upon the war’s conclusion and went to work at Ford Motor Company for the next forty years, assembling anti-mine devices there during World War II. He wed and had two daughters. When his wife died after fifty-one years of marriage and then both daughters passed away in their eighties, Allingham withdrew into himself.

Dennis Goodwin, founder of the First World War Veterans' Association, discovered Allingham in 2001 and convinced him to act as an advocate and living narrative for World War I and those who fought in it. Allingham has done so with great passion, culminating in the September 2008 publication of his memoir, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, co-authored by Goodwin.

Yesterday, Allingham joined his fellow centenarian veterans, laying a wreath at the Cenotaph monument in London, where, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Europe and the rest of world marked the ninetieth anniversary of the conclusion of the “War to End All Wars”.

Allingham is nearly blind, mostly deaf, and uses a wheelchair. He insisted upon attempting to stand so he could lay his wreath of poppies by himself. The huge crowd gathered for the ceremony would have willed him to his feet if it could have done so but Allingham’s body was too decrepit. Yet his honor would not have allowed him to try and do less. It is all part of his adopted mission.

“I want everyone to know,” he explains. “They died for us. That's what I want everybody to know and understand.”

Allingham himself braved combat many times during the war and suffered wounds as a result. He earned the British War Medal and Victory Medal during the war and later received the Gold Medal of Saint-Omer and the Légion d'honneur from France.

Despite the accolades heaped upon him and his spokesperson role, there is no jingoism to Allingham’s patriotism. He is determined to memorialize the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers without romanticizing it. He has few fond memories of his own war service and far too many horrific ones.

In his book, Allingham remembers a pilot, shot in the air, who managed to land his plane but then bled to death on the ground as his fellow soldiers watched.

“I've wondered since, if I had known first aid and applied pressure to the wound, could I have saved his life?” he writes. “I've thought about that a lot.”

Ninety years is a long time to ponder the horrors witnessed in one’s youth. Before Goodwin prodded him into it, Allingham seldom spoke about the war. He remains loath to talk about the friends he lost. “I don't like to revive those things, let them be. I would rather not have any more to say about that.”

He is likewise bittersweet about his presence at the Cenotaph. “I don't look forward to it,” he insists.

The passion that now consumes his life is a duty Allingham feels proud to perform but there is no mistaking that it is a duty and not a pleasure for him. “You try to forget, you want to forget, but you couldn't forget,” he says. “Those men must not be forgotten ever. They sacrificed everything on my behalf and your behalf as well.”

Allingham’s comrades at the Cenotaph, although proud of their service and their country, have also come to a similar dour view of war in general. “It was not worth it, it was not worth one, let alone all the millions [who died],” declared Harry Patch, who fought in the trenches. Bill Stone, who served in the Royal Navy, stressed the importance of honoring those who fought on both sides. “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”

Allingham expresses particular sympathy for the soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his book, he writes, “It was not the same in my war. We were fighting for our country and our homes . . . We had a lot more to lose if we failed.” And he offers the ultimate benediction of any old soldier regarding war – “We have to pray it never happens again.”

Of all the stories in Kitchener's Last Volunteer, perhaps the one most relevant to current America is among Allingham’s earliest memories.

At age six, in 1902, he recalls sitting upon his grandfather’s shoulders and waving a flag as the two joined the crowds thronging the streets of London for the coronation of King Edward VII, following the death of Queen Victoria. Allingham was frustrated. Having just learned the words to “God Save the Queen,” he must now remember to sing “God Save the King” instead.

It must have been an extraordinary moment of change for Allingham and all of Britain. After all, Victoria had been monarch for all of his short life. Of course, the same was very possibly true for his grandfather’s long life as well as the lives of most British citizens.

Less than a decade later, Allingham also remembers watching King Edward’s funeral cortège winding its way from Westminster Abbey. There is little permanence in life, particularly political and government control.

It is not kings or Presidents or other national leaders who make a country over the long run of history but rather an enduring strength in its ordinary people to rise to extraordinary deeds in times of crisis, stoically endure times of extraordinary hardship, and carry on contentedly through the ordinary.

Memory is the glue that bonds one generation to the next. Allingham’s memory of British wars stretches from welcoming veterans of the Second Boer War returning from South Africa to his own experiences to today’s conflicts. When and if the final few Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans reach his exulted age, Allingham, myself, and many of those reading these words today will be decades in our graves.

May we all find the purpose that Allingham has found in remembrance of those who fought and died for our liberties this Veterans Day and beyond. This is not the pleasurable reminiscence of victories won but the solemn commemoration of the price paid for those victories and the resolute determination to attain something better. We have fought and shall continue to fight for freedom when required but our ultimate goal must always be, in Allingham’s words, “never again.”

If we labor to that aspiration, we may each find the vitality that Allingham has achieved – the perseverance of living rather than the endurance of merely surviving. The lines written to honor the dead of Allingham’s war seem equally true when applied to him and his fellow enduring comrades.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted . . .

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn . . .

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are bright in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

~ Laurence Binyon, excerpts from “For the Fallen,” 1914

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Candidates, Old Message Key for the GOP

Republicans are smarting more than might seem obvious following last Tuesday’s election. Conventional wisdom dictated that 2008 was doomed to be a weak year for GOP candidates all around. Yet many Republicans realized that Barack Obama was also a weak Democratic challenger or, at least, weaker than expected.

Obama’s popular vote win was decisive enough; even more so his Electoral College victory, propelled by flipping a handful of red states into the blue column. On the other hand, a true landslide of epic proportions, such as Nixon’s in 1972 or Reagan’s in 1984, was well within the realm of possibility but not reached.

Republicans agreed, even during the campaign, that the GOP was guilty of “losing its way” but split over exactly what this meant. One faction held the problem was not being conservative enough, especially regarding fiscal discipline. A second faction maintained the problem was being too conservative, especially on social issues. Both factions insisted GOP shortcomings were driving Independents and other types of swing voters away.

Both factions were correct to varying degrees but it is now clear that, among themselves, Republicans apparently have decided they need to be more conservative rather than less. It seems to me that the GOP’s biggest problem was that it found its ideal Presidential candidate not during the long primary season but in the tumultuous week leading up to its national convention.

In the aftermath of their loss, some McCain advisors have been quick to heap much of the blame on Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The criticisms have some merit. Palin may well have been more liability than asset to McCain’s campaign overall. If you need a metric to prove that charge, consider that her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, consistently looked smarter and more Presidential while standing next to her than he ever did standing alone. This is not a good recommendation for a well-run campaign.

Nonetheless, it does not mean Palin was a poor choice on McCain’s part. The problem is that initial excitement became unrealistic expectations. Palin could not be a positive appeal for all voters. Rather than attract Independents and Democrats disaffected with Obama, as McCain hoped a woman candidate might do, Palin actually scared them off with her sometimes-painful international inexperience and far-right views.

Yet Palin was essential for energizing the right to an extent that McCain was never able to accomplish himself, either before or after she joined his ticket. Indeed, the GOP seemed almost schizophrenic in its embrace of McCain. When he “rose from the dead” after his New Hampshire win and then quickly went on to become the prohibitive Republican frontrunner, many political analysts saw him as a logical and formidable choice.

It appeared Republicans were forsaking conservative ideology for pragmatic electabilty, choosing a candidate who could match Obama’s attraction to moderates. Yet the Republican base first forced McCain to jettison and renounce any moderate positions he had ever previously endorsed and then still failed to warm to him even after he did so.

Palin’s negatives are real but they are repairable. She probably left Alaska with just as much national and foreign policy experience that Obama had when he left Illinois. The difference is that Obama then had two years in the Senate and two more years during a grueling national campaign to acquire the necessary facts and polish. Palin, by comparison, had only eight weeks to do so.

In spite of this, Palin clearly demonstrated a charisma that allowed her to not only excite but also connect with potential GOP voters at a gut level. “She's somewhat of a diamond in the rough,” said former Republican National Committee member Barbara Alby. RNC Chairman Robert Duncan agrees, ranking her as one of the rising stars of the Party, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, who just assumed the House Minority Whip position from his old mentor, Roy Blunt.

Grover Norquist, a leading conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform, called Palin “one of five or six people who is a plausible candidate for president in 2012,” along with familiar names like Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The up-and-coming young Republicans all share two characteristics with Palin – they are highly charismatic and they far more conservative, in every sense of the word, than John McCain. So even if Palin is not personally fated to run for President in 2012 or beyond, it is likely the next GOP nominee will be Palinesque. She is the new model for Republican candidates.

That new model could make a significant difference. New York Times political correspondent John Harwood pointed out Sunday that the 2.74 million votes Obama received in winning my home state of Ohio almost exactly matched John Kerry’s losing effort here in 2004. Obama won because McCain received 300,000 fewer votes than President Bush did four years earlier.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate ascribes this shortfall in part to diminished enthusiasm by the Republican base. Obama and the Democrats might have faced a very different outcome in Ohio and other swing states had conservatives been as excited by the person at the top of the Republican ticket as they were by Palin in the number two slot.

However, Republicans need more than a charismatic candidate in their search to carry out another Reagan revolution. They also need to turn their message back to the neglected middle class.

National Review senior editor, Ramesh Ponnuru, also writing in the New York Times last Friday, warns the GOP “not to abandon social conservatism, which would alienate many of the voters Republicans still have.”

He may have a point. One of the more insightful comments concerning the election post-mortem came from Peter Wehner, a former deputy assistant to President Bush, who observed, “The Republican Party is in worse shape than conservatism.” The religious right agrees with that assessment. In spite of Democratic gains in the White House and Congress, they point to the successful passage this year of state constitution gay marriage bans in California, Arizona and Florida.

Rather than adjust their ideology, Ponnuru argues that Republicans must gear their policies and proposals to benefit the middle class. He asserts that McCain had attractive policies in the areas of taxes, cutting earmarks and federal spending, and healthcare. However, he counters, “At no point did Republicans suggest how these policies would lead to any tangible improvements for average Americans.”

Cantor of Virginia, noted as a champion for fiscal discipline, fumed the other day over how the GOP had allowed Democrats to co-opt the middle class. “All of a sudden you hear Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Chuck Schumer talk about the middle class as if the Democrats own the middle class issue,” he told Newsweek. “The middle class is, really was, our playing field. That's how Ronald Reagan came into power, that's how Newt Gingrich came into power, is to stick up for the working families . . . If nothing else, we couldn't get the message out. Look, Barack Obama ran as a conservative.”

It remains unclear whether the better angels of their Main Street nature will touch Republicans in 2012 and beyond. However, they have a plethora of attractive, appealing young candidates to serve as heralds of that message should they choose to do so. If some Democrats are guilty of deifying Obama as “the One,” Republicans will have a whole pantheon of demigods whose ambrosia they will have to resist swilling like Kool-Aid next time around.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

. . . And Then He Won

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you . . . and then you win.
~ Mahatma Ghandi, on how to bring about change

Even though he was too inexperienced for anyone to take seriously . . .

Even though he could never compete with Clinton’s formidable organization and war chest . . .

Even though he would not hold his own in a real debate against more experienced politicians . . .

Even though he would not win a single primary . . .

Even though he could not win Iowa . . .

Even though he would not recover after losing New Hampshire . . .

Even though the smartest, the most pragmatic, and most “grown up” of Democrats dismissed him as nothing more than lofty rhetoric and empty promises . . .

Even though he could never recover from William Ayers or Reverend Wright . . .

Even though Ayers, Wright, and ACORN “proved” he is a bad person . . .

Even though he could not withstand Clinton coming on strong at the end of the primaries and beating him in the “Heartland” . . .

Even though the super delegates would run from him once they understood “the will of the People” . . .

Even though the Clintons would outmaneuver and crush him at the convention . . .

Even though he had the hubris to give his acceptance speech in a giant outdoor stadium . . .

Even though all of the former Clinton voters would desert him forever for McCain . . .

Even though he could never match McCain on Commander-in-Chief gravitas . . .

Even though McCain picked a woman VP and reenergized his base – game over! . . .

Even though he could never run a “50 State Strategy” or even turn a single red state blue . .

Even though he probably would not even hold on to Pennsylvania . . .

Even though he would not hold his own with McCain in the debates . . .

Even though he could not hold his own with McCain in a debate with a town hall format . . .

Even though he could not look steady in a financial crisis . . .

Even though voters would not choose inexperience at a time of financial crisis . . .

Even though using the phrase “share the wealth” makes him a socialist . . .

Even though Joe the Plumber does not like him . . .

Even though he always over-polls . . .

Even though the polls are all a crock of shit . . .

Even though a statistically significant percentage of uninformed Americans believed (and still believe!) he is a Muslim and a foreigner . . .

Even though the voters of this country will never possibly elect an African-American as President of the United States . . .

. . . even though all of that.

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden.

“It’s been a long time coming but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” Obama told his supporters last night in Chicago.

His supporters understood, as Ghandi did, how one brings about real change. Now those that opposed him understand too.

They ignored him, they ridiculed him, they fought him . . .

. . . and then he won.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thumbs Up

Does anyone remember Safia Taleb al-Suhail? A leading advocate for democracy and human rights in Iraq, she is the woman President Bush had flown to the United States for his 2005 State of the Union address so she could display her purple thumb to Congress and all those watching.

Only a week earlier, Iraqis had gone to the polls for the first time since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime to vote for a transitional National Assembly. The job of this body would be to draft Iraq’s new constitution. The voting was often dangerous, with militants firing at voters and setting off bombs at polling places. The trek to vote was especially dangerous for women, since adherents of the strictest, most fundamental forms of Islam deem suffrage illegal and immoral.

Nonetheless, Iraqis of all stripes turned out in record numbers and an election commission official said they “broke a barrier of fear” in so doing. Many people proudly held up thumbs stained with the purple ink used to mark those who had voted. It was a symbol of their defiance and pride.

President Bush greatly admired their courage. For him, it meant America was fated to succeed in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world because “the Iraqi people value their own liberty.” He asked al-Suhail to repeat the gesture during his State of the Union speech and she gave a triumphant purple thumbs-up to raucous applause.

It was a celebratory moment. Whatever the long-term fate of Iraq may be, its people showed great courage that day by rejecting both government oppression and the fear of terrorism in favor of a constitution and the rule of law.

Here at home, this year, as many as one-third of registered voters have already gone to the polls to vote for the next President of the United States. The rest of us will do so tomorrow. Elections are commonplace and usually safe in our nation. Nevertheless, I see this one as an opportunity for each of us to reaffirm, albeit less dramatically, what the Iraqis affirmed in their historic first election.

In response to the attacks of September 11, the Executive Branch, under President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, claimed and exercised new authorities unprecedented in the history of this country. The Patriot Act and its extension have given the Attorney General and law enforcement officials extraordinary new powers and protections.

A slow but sure dilution of civil liberties has been the price for these “weapons” to fight terrorism, particularly the right to privacy and the right of habeas corpus. I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s old maxim – “They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

This year’s election allows us to join in heartfelt affirmation of Franklin’s wisdom and the best part is that it does not matter for whom we may each be voting.

Although they have differences in this area, either Barack Obama or John McCain will represent an improvement over George W. Bush as regards civil liberties. I believe both have the potential within their respective characters to undo much of the damage done over the past eight years.

To be sure, neither candidate is without blemish in this area. Senator Obama’s decision to support a vote on FISA and continue wiretapping by the federal government is the most disappointing of his campaign and entire career.

Granted, the final version of the bill acknowledges the special FISA court has final say over government spying rather than the President’s wartime powers. Obama was probably also correct that rejecting this version of the legislation would have resulted in an even harsher, more Bush Administration-friendly version passing. Still, some principles brook no compromise and this was one of them.

Senator McCain’s position on FISA was hardly better. He argued the compromise bill did not go far enough in giving the government the authorizations it needed and protecting telecommunication companies from litigation. What is more, he skipped this critical Senate vote altogether.

In other cases, both of the candidates have stronger records on civil liberties than the criticisms leveled against them suggest. Despite an aggressive negative campaign by the NRA, Obama agreed with the recent Supreme Court decision that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms. Some have derided McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform as a limitation on political speech but there is nothing in McCain’s record to suggest he fundamentally opposes First Amendment rights.

Both candidates have strongly endorsed a ban against all forms of torture against U.S. detainees, including those accused of terrorism, labeling such practices shameful. Both have called, at various times, for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, if under differing timelines and/or condition.

Although McCain and Obama have very different philosophies about the types of people they will appoint as federal judges and Supreme Court justices, both have demonstrated willingness to accept and abide by courts’ decisions, even those with which they may personally disagree.

Both have spoken positively about the Chief Executive’s very real duty to “preserve, protect, and defend” the U.S. Constitution as well as their commitment to the rule of law in general.

If you support a Third Party candidate – Libertarian Bob Barr or “green” Democrats, such as Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney – they are likely even more pro-civil liberties than either of the two major Party candidates.

There are fears again about this election, as there have been in those of recent years, both of voter fraud and voter intimidation/suppression at the polls. Many expect a record turnout November 4. Many others are skeptical this will occur. If any of the above might deter you from voting tomorrow, remember the words of a young Muslim woman in Iraq on her historic Election Day.

Upon hearing the sound of bullets and mortar fire, she wondered if it might be too dangerous to walk to her voting place. Then she thought to herself, “[the opposition is] weak, they are afraid of democracy, they are losing.” She braved the dangers and voted. Let us, as U.S. citizens, endure any inconveniences each of us might experience at the polls for the same reason.

Since President Bush and those currently in charge of our government have such esteem for the pluck of those who would defy the tactics of fear for the hope of liberty, I suggest we send them all a message tomorrow that they will not only understand but also profess to admire.

After you vote, however you may vote, get some color on your thumb. It does not matter how you do it – bring along a bottle of ink or a stamp pad, use a hi-liter or a magic marker, even a ballpoint pen will do.

The point is to get your thumb blue or black or purple. Then, for the rest of the day, give a thumbs-up to your fellow citizens. Not only will it show you voted but that you too have the courage to face the threat of terrorism as it should be faced in a democracy. Vote against an oppressive government and in favor of the Constitution and the rule of law.

On the historic day four years ago in Iraq, Alaa al-Tamimi, the mayor of Baghdad was literally overcome by what he saw happening around him. “I cannot describe what I am seeing. It is incredible,” he told Reuters. “This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love.”

Tomorrow, we can vote for exactly those same things in this nation. Do not be among those who neglect to exercise our privilege, our right, and our responsibility.