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

Friday, October 31, 2008

Three Stories That Tell the Story

Three stories from the Associated Press yesterday tell the whole story for me as regards next week’s election.

In the first story, the Commerce Department reports that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell at an annual rate of 0.3 percent in the third quarter. Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of the economy, dropped by the largest amount in twenty-eight years during the same period. The Labor Department concurrently reported that applications for unemployment benefits remained at elevated levels. Many analysts believe GDP will decline even more in the fourth quarter and will continue negative in the first quarter of 2009.

This translates to a looming recession of indeterminate severity and length. Unemployment is up and consumer confidence is down. A whole lot of people are hurting out there right now.

Despite all of this, in the second AP story, Exxon Mobil gleefully reported earning $14.83 billion in profits during the third quarter. Exxon said its net income jumped nearly fifty-eight percent and revenues rose thirty-five percent during the period. Exxon was able to achieve their success despite nagging concerns over sagging production numbers. The profits reported represent an all-time high for a U.S. corporation. Exxon broke the previous record set by them just last quarter.

In the final story from the AP, American Express announced it plans to cut seven thousand jobs, about ten percent of its workforce, as part of its efforts to slash costs in 2009. The company is also suspending management-level salary increases and instituting a hiring freeze. American Express says the cuts are necessary because its customers, who tend to be more affluent than other credit card users, are nonetheless having trouble paying off debt and are pulling back their spending.

American Express says job cuts will be across various business units but will primarily focus on management positions. This translates to middle class professionals. The sort of folks New York Times columnist David Brooks likes to refer to as “patio man.”

When I look at those three stories, my choice for the next President of the United is clear. One candidate wants to structure tax relief at those seven thousand middle class families who have just lost an income provider during a recession. The other candidate want to structure tax relief at big corporations like Exxon and their CEOs. I stand with the former.

I readily admit my own bias in the evaluation. See, I have three stories of my own to match the national picture.

First, I lost my job of twenty-three years in May 2007 as part of a reduction in force by my then-employer. I was one of the lucky ones and found another job three months later. Some of the people laid off at the same time as me are still looking. When my Director let me go, he explained his boss’s boss told him to cut expenses immediately so our earnings would stay high. I guess it was not enough because I learned last month that twenty-eight of the forty-three people who remained in my old department will have their jobs outsourced to India at the end of this year.

Second, my 401K retirement account is worth less today than it was when George W. Bush took office. He is the first President in my adult life, the first President for whom I personally voted (in 2000), under whose watch this has occurred.

Third, I have long had a home equity Line-of-Credit account from my mortgage company. I only used it once in the past decade but it was always nice to know it was there to handle any large, unexpected emergencies. Better to pay six percent interest rather than credit card interest of fifteen percent, twenty percent, or more, I reasoned. In August, the mortgage company informed me of the indefinite suspension of all of its Line-of-Credit accounts, due to falling home values.

I am not in any immediate, desperate straits. However, when I think about how hard the loss of security from these types of downturns hit me, it is not hard to image how frantic and hopeless others must feel who are living from day to day.

Independent analyses of the two Presidential candidates’ tax proposals were just completed by the Tax Policy Center and the accounting giant Deloitte. Both found that individuals and families making less than $100,000 per year would pay fewer taxes under Senator Obama’s plan as compared to Senator McCain’s. Those making $100, 000 to $250,000 per year would fare about the same under either plan. Those making more than $250,000 per year would pay fewer taxes under Senator McCain’s plan.

According to the Census Bureau, the median U.S. household income is $50,233. The Tax Policy Center found that married couples with two children and both parents working at this income level would pay $284 less in taxes under Obama’s plan. Deloitte found such a couple would pay $300 less in taxes under Obama.

Conversely, married couples with two children and both parents working who earned $500,000 per year would pay $3,363 less in taxes under McCain’s plan. Deloitte found such a couple would pay $3,100 less in taxes under McCain.

McCain has particularly lambasted one aspect of Obama’s plan, dubbed a “Making Work Pay Credit.” If enacted, some low-income couples now paying no income taxes might receive a $1,000 refund because of it.

McCain is telling audiences that Obama “gives away your tax dollars to those who don’t pay taxes,” based on this credit. “That’s not a tax cut,” McCain fumes, “that’s welfare.”

What McCain does not mention is that the credit is not applicable unless one or both providers in a low-income family are working. This is not a welfare payment to the structurally unemployed. It is an incentive to the working poor to remain working, rather than giving up and sinking into welfare and structural unemployment.

I do not doubt McCain is a decent and intelligent man but he really is following the same old failed Republican policies in criticizing his opponent’s plan as well as in his own plan.

Perhaps McCain is the more experienced hand on the tiller. Maybe he has even steered clear of some dangerous reefs and shoals in the past. However, when boarding a ship, we should be concerned not only about the captain’s past voyages but also about where he plans to take us on our own voyage with him.

I have studied the charts drawn by both Obama and McCain and I am convinced the old master mariner has plotted a course to run the Ship of State aground, all the while stubbornly insisting he is heading out to open sea.

McCain says he is steering toward a brightness that he believes is the light at the end of the tunnel. He has forgotten he is driving a ship and not a train – there is no tunnel. That brightness ahead is the white cliffs of Dover and he is going to ram into them head-on.

Sure, you try to be fair to all in any tax plan but you also must target relief at those who are hurting the most.

Here’s another local story. The Terrace Hotel, a venerable downtown Cincinnati landmark since 1948, announced yesterday that it is closing its doors, effective today. Hotel management offered no reason for the sudden closure but said it was unrelated to the economy, a claim met with general skepticism. Two middle-aged women, who ride on the same bus I do, work at that hotel as part of its housekeeping services. They were not on the bus this morning.

I am far more worried about those two women and my twenty-eight former co-workers and those seven thousand former American Express middle managers than I am about the owners and management of Exxon in the months ahead. What is more, I do not think I am acting like a socialist or engaging in class warfare or championing big government for feeling this way.

As Obama asked in a speech last night, “Since when did selfishness become a virtue in this nation?”

I am as big a fan of self-interest as the next advocate of capitalism. However, it was always my opinion that it needs to be enlightened self-interest. We seem to have lost sight of that in the past eight years and I have already discussed the “light” McCain is steering toward for the next four years.

Barack Obama addresses my concerns with his policies. John McCain does not.

End of story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Well-Groomed Presidential Failures

Speaking at East Carolina University yesterday in Greenville North Carolina, Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden attempted to make a historical case against what he feels are unfair characterizations of Barack Obama by Republicans by comparing them to similar slurs against distinguished Presidents of the past.

Biden recalled that opponents of Thomas Jefferson claimed he “wasn’t a real Christian,” FDR’s critics warned he “would destroy the American system of life,” and detractors feared John F. Kennedy would be a “dangerous choice in difficult times.”

“Sound familiar?” Biden asked the crowd.

As if on cue, the McCain campaign issued a statement deriding Biden’s analysis, arguing Democrats are “now attacking any[one] who challenges Barack Obama’s economic plan to raise taxes.”

Biden is correct in the sense that while Republicans have every right to make hay out of the general unpopularity of any type tax increase among voters, they overreach in portraying the concept of progressive taxation (i.e. the rich pay a higher tax rate than the poor) as some sort of socialist epiphany on Obama’s part.

Yet Biden misses the point if he thinks history has gone on to favor the past Presidents he mentions in a favorable light because they were actually safe, solid bets in times of crisis.

Jefferson was no enemy of Christianity but, like many of the Founding Fathers, he was more a Deist than a descendant of the Puritan forefathers of nearly two centuries earlier. Although he saw religion in public life as perfectly acceptable, Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of Church and State.” He helped establish the United States as an official secular democracy and eased acceptance for the diverse groups who immigrated to our shores during a period of rapid expansion.

FDR did not destroy the American system of life but he did usher in a more progressive role for government. He fought against an isolationist Congress and applied basic American values to justify battling the rise of authoritarian powers in Europe and Asia, cementing the role of the U.S. as a world superpower. He redefined American liberalism in ways that helped lead to Civil Rights for African Americans and increased civil liberties for all Americans.

JFK was not dangerous but he was a risky choice, given his relative youth, Catholic background, and rumors of manipulative aiding of his career by his powerful father. He certainly faced difficult times, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the preliminary stages of the Vietnam War. He met each of these aggressively, if not always wisely, ushering in a period of great hope and prosperity.

The idea that demanding times call for an experienced leader is a theme repeatedly used against Obama by John McCain, just as it had by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. Yet a review of our nation during some of its stormier moments demonstrates that safe, experienced candidates seldom fared as well in the Presidency as their riskier, more novice counterparts.

In the mid-1800s, as the question of slavery continued to tear the nation apart and Civil War loomed on the horizon, the power brokers cast about looking for Presidential candidates who might hold the nation together. Two such likely candidates were Democrats – Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Pierce was a military hero, serving as a Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War. Before this, he was a member of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. After the war, he built a private law practice so successful and celebrated that earned him many opportunities and offers, including the 1852 Democratic nomination. He was celebrated for his relative youth, good looks, and pleasing personality.

Buchanan was less charismatic but more experienced. He served for a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to chair its Judiciary Committee. Buchanan next served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia for two years. Elected to the U.S. Senate, Buchanan served there for nine years, chairing its Foreign Relations Committee. President Polk nominated him as a Justice to the Supreme Court but Buchanan declined, choosing instead to be Secretary of State. Finally, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain for three years before accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1856.

Many hoped that Pierce and Buchanan might avoid war because they were both “doughfaces,” meaning they were Northerners with Southern sympathies. Unfortunately, both were incredibly weak once in office. Pierce proved too ready an appeaser, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri compromise and opening the expansion of slavery in the West. Even worse, Buchanan adopted a policy of complete passivity, arguing that Southern succession and Northern force to prevent it were both illegal.

Their successor, Abraham Lincoln, had little going for him. The first elected Republican, the Party of abolition, many judged him less on his intended policies and more on their prejudices of what he represented.

Lincoln was a child of poverty, whose formal education consisted of about eighteen months of schooling. He had served as an erstwhile captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He had served four terms in the Illinois legislature and only one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a somewhat prosperous self-taught prairie lawyer but his caseload was the drab stuff of representing railroads and other transportation interests. He unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1858.

The experienced, successful, and popular Pierce and Buchanan are consistently ranked as Presidential failures by scholars and Buchanan’s powerlessness to take any action to prevent Civil War was rated as the single worse failure by a President in a 2006 survey of U.S. historians. The inexperienced, unknown, and unpopular Lincoln consistently rates as one of our three greatest Presidents.

Any one instance can be regarded as a possible fluke and nobody compares well to Lincoln. Consider, then, the case of William Howard Taft. Few entered the Presidency with a more impressive lifetime of service to the law and government. None received more careful grooming to follow a beloved President during a time of national prosperity.

Taft attended Yale, graduating second in his class. Early in his career, Taft served as the first Dean and Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Cincinnati. Later, he would be Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School.

Taft received appointment to the post of Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County Ohio. He subsequently received appointment as local Collector of Internal Revenue. Several years later, he became a judge of the Ohio Superior Court. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States. In 1892, Harrison appointed him to the newly created U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where Taft eventually became Chief Judge.

Taft served for two years as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, at the request of President McKinley. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War. Roosevelt gradually expanded Taft’s duties, placing him in charge at the beginning of construction on the Panama Canal. He sometimes used Taft as an acting Secretary of State and even as “acting President” when TR was not in Washington. Roosevelt named Taft his handpicked successor upon leaving office.

Taft had national recognition and won election easily against a populist Democratic opponent, who ran a vigorous campaign against the nation’s business elite. Taft was vigorous enough in his policies, in both anti-trust prosecutions and pushing for the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which instituted a federal income tax. However, Taft never secured a broad base of popular support. Although less privileged in his upbringing than Roosevelt, Taft lacked Teddy’s common touch and struck many as elitist.

About a decade after leaving the Presidency, Taft received appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding and served in that capacity for nine years. He remains the only American to hold both positions. Compare his long record to the two men who served as bookends to his Administration.

Theodore Roosevelt began life as a competent but unspectacular academic and historian. A series of personal blows caused him to “kick about” for a number of years. He finally found success when President McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. Roosevelt resigned his post and joined the Spanish-American War as Lieutenant Colonel of a cavalry unit, known as “The Rough Riders.” His exploits in this role, and his subsequent self-promotion of them, made him into a national figure overnight.

After leaving the army, Roosevelt became Governor of New York. His work as an ardent reformer caused that state’s Republican boss to foist him off on President McKinley as a running mate for his second term, on the assumption Teddy could do no harm as Vice-President. McKinley’s assassination a few months later changed history.

Woodrow Wilson had a highly accomplished career – he is the only President to have earned a PhD – but primarily as an academic and political theorist. He rose through the ranks in several colleges and universities, eventually serving as the president of Princeton University. Elected Governor of New Jersey, he served only two years in that position before accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1912.

The energetic but sometimes-unstable Roosevelt and the prim, stiff, and scholarly Wilson – both relative political neophytes upon taking office – are usually both ranked as near-greats by scholars. The well-prepared and thoroughly vetted Taft consistently ranks no higher than average. (And without the impressive achievements of his pre- and post-Presidential careers, I believe he would rank below average.) Taft’s own memoirs make it clear he considered the Supreme Court his first love and crowning achievement. “I don't remember that I ever was President,” he supposedly once said.

Without going into the details, similar comparisons exist for other Presidential combos. Perhaps the most striking is Herbert Hoover and FDR. Hoover was a brilliant mind and a successful project manager of many large-scale construction and recovery efforts in both his professional and public careers. In spite of this, scholars usually rank him a failure because of his inability to respond to the stock market crash and Great Depression.

FDR campaigned on a platform of change, for which the coined the term “The New Deal.” Yet he never offered voters, or even thought out in his own mind, one specific policy or plan to back it up during his 1932 campaign. He went on to consistent ranking as a Presidential great.

That unconventional and unlikely people gained the Presidency at times of crisis reflects upon voters’ desire for change over the status quo as opposed to their regard for experience and gravitas. That seems much the case this year, if the polls are accurate.

There is no guarantee that an inexperienced and untested new President will grow in the job to the extent that people like Lincoln and Harry Truman achieved. Even then, both of these Presidents were often highly unpopular during their Administrations. However, there are precious few examples from the past, beyond that of George Washington, to suggest that electing the person who seems best trained to do the job will likely to result in a triumphant and celebrated Presidency. In fact, quite the reverse appears true.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Unclogging the Drain of Socialism (Part 2)

The Economic Engine of America

On Wednesday, I looked at the way both social philosophers and U.S. politicians have long seen the concept of “sharing the wealth” as not only appropriate but also a moral necessity in capitalistic societies. Today, I will examine the problems that arise when society chooses to ignore the politics of decency as well as some of the myths that have sprung up transforming altruism into the pariah of socialism.

I concluded Part 1 by observing failure to care for all elements of society in the early Twentieth Century led to a Great Depression in the United States. The French philosopher Denis Diderot elaborated how such a state of affairs might evolve in 1774 for the benefit of Catherine the Great.

“In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god. Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do. Wealth will be the highest virtue, poverty the greatest vice. Those who have money will display it in every imaginable way. If their ostentation does not exceed their fortune, all will be well. But if their ostentation does exceed their fortune, they will ruin themselves.

“In such a country, the greatest fortunes will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Those who don’t have money will ruin themselves with vain efforts to conceal their poverty. That is one kind of affluence – the outward sign of wealth for a small number, the mask of poverty for the majority, and a source of corruption for all.”

Many conservatives find the first sentence in the above quote as the core problem with Obama’s proposals, arguing that income redistribution quashes the innovation and entrepreneurship that drives markets to produce highest quality products and services at lowest possible costs. While government routinely performs income redistribution in capitalistic systems just as in socialist ones, I do not think this is what Obama meant by his use of the phrase “share the wealth.”

As a fellow political observer suggested to me the other day, Republicans are guilty of overreaching by attempting to conflate this statement into an embrace of Marxism on Obama’s part. Instead, I believe Obama was referring to the idea of spreading hope and opportunity to the greatest percent of society as possible, targeting those whom he feels government has ignored most in recent decades.

Do not fall into the trap of believing “opportunity” just means being in the right place at the right time. In capitalistic societies, it means having the necessary seed money to invest in your dreams and actualize them. The middle class lost its ability to save nest eggs for such purposes long ago. More recently, it lost the ability to easily borrow money as well.

The mindset Obama seeks to counter is one chronicled by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Writing in the London newspaper the Guardian in 1989, Galbraith spoke of a wealthy “minority that, according to current Washington doctrine, must be protected in its affluence lest its energy and initiative be impaired. [This is] in contrast to the poor, to whom money, especially if it is from public sources, is held to be deeply damaging.”

Galbraith is hardly an enemy of wealth and it is pointless denying that U.S. economic policy in recent decades has generated wealth. We have more billionaires and multi-millionaires in this country today than at any other time in history. The problem is that more and more of the middle class has simultaneously backslid quietly into the working poor and the working poor into the chronically unemployed.

This country is now experiencing the largest wealth gap between the affluent and the majority of its population that has existed since the years immediately before the start of the Great Depression.

Joe Biden got it exactly right during the Vice Presidential debate earlier this year when he said, “The economic engine of America is the middle class . . . When it does well, America does well.”

Yet our economic policies, based on the conservative principle Galbraith outlined, concentrated all the emphasis and breaks from government toward the richest. The benefits of this did not “trickle down” as predicted. Instead of growing wealth through all aspects of society, the only growth has been in a permanently disadvantaged underclass.

The danger to the affluent from such an underclass, in place of a thriving middle class, ought to be obvious to any student of history. The middle class is the anchor of a capitalistic society because it contains a majority of citizens, living in less than affluence but content with their relative material comforts and energized by the possibility of their ascendance, or that of their children, into even greater wealth.

Remove this stability and possibility and society’s power structure faces a threat of the type chronicled in the Eleventh Annual Report of the Children’s Aid Society. Written in the aftermath of the draft riots of 1864, it addressed what many observed as particularly savage behavior by young people during violent protests. Robert Kennedy was so impressed by its wisdom and universal themes that he quoted from it a full century later during a Senate subcommittee hearing.

“[These] were the first dreadful revelations to many of our people of the existence among us of a great, ignorant, irresponsible class who were growing up here without any permanent interest in the welfare of the community or the success of the government . . . It should be remembered that there are no dangers to the value of property or to the permanency of our institutions so great as those from the existence of such a class of vagabond, ignorant, and ungoverned children.”

The report issued a dire warning for those failing to appreciate the consequences of allowing an underclass to thrive. We know that poverty, idleness, and lack of hope for a class of people are characteristics that help breed terrorism within that class. Advocates of violence, such as William Ayers and the Weather Underground, will never be anything more than small fringe groups in this country unless society provides them with a pool of converts due to our own disinterest in that class’s welfare.

“Those who were too negligent or too selfish to notice them as children, will be fully aware of them as men. They will vote. They will have the same rights as we ourselves, though they have grown up ignorant of moral principle . . . They will poison society. They will perhaps be embittered at the wealth and the luxuries they never share.”

Even the most socialist-sounding policy transforms into enlightened self-interest when viewed from this perspective. Author and child advocate Marian Edelman framed the argument both more succinctly and positively when she was quoted by Money magazine in 1995 as saying, “The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”

How could such an uncaring underclass develop in Twenty-First Century America? Urie Bronfenbrenner , a psychologist and co-founder of the Head Start program, offers a ready answer. His 1979 book, The Ecology of Human Development, includes the following insightful reflection.

“In the United States, it is now possible for a person eighteen years of age, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, college, or university without ever having cared for . . . comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help . . . No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.”

It all comes back to the practical politics of decency and what happens when we choose to ignore them.

Conservatives offer many reasons why spending on societal good must be a secondary priority for government or even avoided by it altogether as evil. The first of these is the myth of the self-sufficient family. This myth suggests that all families, whether affluent, middle-class, or poor, inherently know best how to conduct themselves and are largely successful at doing so. It is an argument aimed more at our egos than our common sense.

Joseph Featherstone was editor at the New Republic for many years. However, he also taught at Harvard and Brown Universities and served as the principal of the Commonwealth School in Boston. In a 1979 article, entitled “Family Matters,” that appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Featherstone attacked this invention of jingoistic national pride.

“The ideal of the self-sufficient American family is a myth, dangerous because most families, especially affluent families, do in fact make use of a range of services to survive. Families needing one or another kind of help are not morally deficient; most families do need assistance at one time or another.”

The second myth is that attention to social problems is too costly and detracts from the primary role of government, which is national defense.

FDR was a President unafraid of social spending. However, he also led the charge to involve America in a global conflict that represented our costliest war to date in economic terms and second costliest in terms of human life. Although FDR undoubtedly viewed U.S. involvement in World War II as unavoidable and morally correct, he steadfastly held that defense spending was the most consistent cause of national deficits and the underlying major expense in the national debt.

In a 1933 message to Congress, FDR advised, “The way to disarm is to disarm . . . for the improvement of social conditions, for the preservation of individual human rights, and for the furtherance of social justice.”

The third and final myth is the most persistent, perhaps because it always prompts a popular public response. It holds that social improvement comes with a price tag of increased taxes that is always too high. It counters that tax cuts are the most effective way to stimulate the economy in such a way that all will enjoy the benefits.

John Gardner was Secretary of the old Health, Education, and Welfare Department during the Lyndon Johnson Administration. In his 1970 book, The Recovery of Confidence, he outlines the fundamental flaw with this seductive line of reasoning.

“Tax reduction has an almost irresistible appeal to the politician and it is no doubt also gratifying to the citizen. It means more dollars in his pocket, dollars that he can spend if inflation doesn’t consume them first. But dollars in his pocket won’t buy him clean streets or an adequate police force or good schools or clean air and water. Handing money back to the private sector in tax cuts and starving the public sector is a formula for producing richer and richer consumers in filthier and filthier communities. If we stick to that formula, we shall end up in affluent misery.”

Galbraith notes conservative inconsistencies on the subject of taxation and not only those limited to the already discussed subject of defense spending. In another uncanny presage of our present situation, he wrote the following in the Guardian in 1992.

“The contented and economically comfortable have a very discriminating view of government. Nobody is ever indignant about bailing out failed banks and failed savings and loans associations . . . But when taxes must be paid for the lower middle class and poor, the government assumes an aspect of wickedness.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell had the same reaction this past Sunday when asked about McCain’s charges of socialism against Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who pay it, in roads, and airports and hospitals and schools. Taxes are necessary for the common good.”

That brings us back full circle to our starting point. Yet there is one more politician to hear from – one who sympathizes with Obama’s tax policies and his goals in proposing them.

This politician also heard from a disgruntled voter on the campaign trail. In this case, it was a woman whose father was a prominent surgeon. The woman testified that her father toiled hard for long hours and did important work saving human life. Why should he be taxed at a higher rate than anyone else, “isn’t that socialism?” she angrily demanded.

Here is that politician’s reply.

“I think you’re questioning the fundamentals of a progressive tax system where people who make more money pay more in taxes than a flat, across-the-board percentage. I think it's to some degree because we feel, obviously, that wealthy people can afford more . . . But I believe that when you really look at the tax code today, the very wealthy, because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes, really don't pay nearly as much as you think they do when you just look at the percentages. And I think middle-income Americans, working Americans . . . all of the taxes that working Americans pay, I think they . . . also deserve significant relief, in my view.

“So, look, here's what I really believe, that when you reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more . . . But I think the debate in this country is more about tax cuts rather than anything else. And frankly, I think the first people who deserve a tax cut are working Americans with children that need to educate their children and they're the ones that I would support tax cuts for first.”

The politician in question is John McCain, appearing on the MSNBC program Hardball, the evening of October 12, 2000. The McCain of 2000 understood the charges leveled against Obama by the McCain of 2008 are unfair and silly.

Unclogging the drain of socialism does not mean getting rid of Obama’s tax policies but rather removing the disingenuous opposition to them, so the necessary dollars of hope and stimulation can flow freely to the engine that powers this great nation. This is one drain I would be only too happy to watch the American middle class go down.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Unclogging the Drain of Socialism (Part 1)

The Politics of Decency

I posted the other day about Joe Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. Joe the Plumber) and noted he has been receiving a lot of press scrutiny lately, most of it superficial to the real issues of this campaign.

I do not agree with those conservative pundits who insist media attacks on Joe are retribution because he dared ask Barack Obama a potentially embarrassing question. Obama freely admitted Joe’s taxes might rise under his plan (given the situation Joe described), attempted to defend why he felt that was necessary and proper, agreed to disagree with Joe, and thanked the man for his question.

No, the quasi-celebrity and subsequent inspection to which Wurzelbacher has been subjected is due solely to the fact that John McCain made reference to him no fewer than twenty-one times during the third Presidential debate and continues evoking him on the trail. McCain is putting forth Joe as an example of a middle-class, blue collar everyman whom Democrats will unfairly punish by inevitably raising his taxes.

The pundits I do agree with are those who maintain the relevant part of the interaction between Wurzelbacher and Obama is the following statement by Obama in defending his philosophy – “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Just as Bill Ayers and the danger from domestic terrorists was the Republican attack message two weeks ago and ACORN and the danger from widespread voter fraud was the brainchild last week, this week the GOP campaign has finally found a boogeyman not in one of Obama’s associates but the candidate himself. It turns out he is a socialist.

Last week, Wurzelbacher appeared on the FOX News Channel, where he denounced Obama’s answer to him as “socialist.” He said that Obama “scared me” because he “wants to distribute wealth.”

Republican VP candidate, Sarah Palin, took up this theme during a campaign stop in Colorado Springs on Monday. “Our opponent’s plan to redistribute wealth will ultimately punish hard work and productively, it discourages productivity and it will stifle the entrepreneurial spirit that has made this country unique and has made it the greatest country on earth.”

The top of her ticket, John McCain, seems to enjoy attack politics less and cannot bring Palin’s natural fervor or perkiness to its application. However, when asked by FOX News whether Obama can be characterized as a socialist, McCain indicated Obama’s quote of spreading the wealth around, noting it as “one of the tenets of socialism.”

Steve Coll, writing in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, points out that many Western capitalist economists would consider Obama’s remark as “unexceptional.” He singles out no less than Adam Smith – with his self-correcting hand of the free market – and a quote from Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations.

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . . The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

In another work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith laments the historical lack of such altruism, holding that the relationship between a moral society and an affluent one is usually antonymic.

“That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue and that the contempt of which vice and folly are the only proper objects is often unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.”

Smith’s contemporary and fellow philosopher David Hume notes in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, with his usual empirical insight of human nature, that far from being a source of universal gratification, wealth always functions as a dissatisfier, with individuals inclined to perpetually want more.

“Labor and poverty, so abhorred by everyone, are the certain lot of the far greater number. And those few privileged persons who enjoy ease and opulence never reach contentment or true felicity. All the goods of life united would not make a very happy man. But all the ills united would make a wretch indeed.”

The idea of the chief role of government as service toward the greater good is at least as old as Aristotle. In Politics, he writes, “Every community is an association of some kind and every community is established with a view to some good; for everyone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good. But if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other and at the highest good.”

These ideas percolated down to the inception of our own nation. However, the Founding Fathers suffered profound division on how government could best serve the greater good.

Alexander Hamilton, representing the conservative viewpoint, believed the key was ensuring prosperity for all through capitalism. To that end, he saw the chief role of government as protecting property and believed it must rest in the hands of the affluent for that reason. Maximizing individual opportunity to pursue selfish interests maximized the common good in Hamilton’s worldview.

Thomas Jefferson, representing the liberal viewpoint, saw a more altruistic goal of maximizing individual liberties and minimizing needs for as many members of society as possible. To that end, he distrusted the zero-sum competitive aspects of capitalism. Serving the common good rather than individual selfish interest maximized individual opportunity in Jefferson’s worldview.

Yet Hume had understood a century earlier these two opposing ideologies did not represent a discrete binary choice. Altruism operates in human nature with much of the same perversity we commonly associate with baser emotions.

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume declares, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin to prevent the least uneasiness of a . . . person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

In the fledgling United States, Hamilton ended up winning the debate, creating much of our infrastructure according to his principles. This is for the best, as Jefferson’s romanticized agrarianism would have left us unprepared to handle most of the challenges of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Yet through it all, something of Jefferson’s selfless greater good always managed to implant itself in the American character.

We tend to think of socialist-leaning policies in our more contemporary history as the work of Democrats, beginning with FDR’s New Deal and advancing forward through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. These were the types of programs and policies that the Reagan revolution dedicated itself to reversing and nullifying.

Yet thirty years before FDR, the progressives were Republicans, such as Theodore Roosevelt, the uncle of FDR’s wife, Eleanor, as well as Teddy’s successor, William Howard Taft.

Even after the Great Society, the vision of a utopian social order was not the sole province of Democratic politicians.

“To make this country be more than ever a land of opportunity – of equal opportunity, full opportunity for every American. To provide jobs for all who can work and generous help for those who cannot work [my emphasis]. To establish a climate of decency and civility, in which each person respects the feelings and the dignity and the God-given rights of his neighbor. To make this a land in which each person can dare to dream, can live his dreams – not in fear, but in hope – proud of his community, proud of his country, proud of what America has meant to himself and to the world.”

Would you be surprised to learn the above was part of a speech given by Richard Nixon in 1973, listing goals for his second term? I know I was.

Here is an equally surprising quote from Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. At the time, he was speaking to the Soviet Union following the death of Joseph Stalin. However, his words seem eerily relevant to our present situation.

“This has been the way of life forged by eight years of fear and force. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“We are prepared to reaffirm, with the most concrete evidence, our readiness to help build a world in which all peoples can be productive and prosperous. The peace we seek is founded upon decent trust and cooperative effort among nations. The monuments to this new peace will be roads and schools, hospitals and homes, food and health. We are ready, in short, to dedicate our strength to serving the needs rather than the fears of the world. I know of nothing I can add to make plainer the sincere purposes of the United States.”

I believe it was the realistic achievement of the hopes and ideas above that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind in 1901 when he addressed the scions of wealth and prestige from Harvard and Yale at his Long Island home, Sagamore Hill, and admonished them, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.” It was a warning that went unheeded by his audience’s generation. The greed, isolationism, and jingoistic patriotism that replaced the politics of decency led to the Great Depression.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Real Tragedy of ACORN

“From a little acorn, a mighty hoax doth grow.”

I apologize to the anonymous Fourteenth Century aphorist from whose famous maxim I paraphrased the statement above. However, it applies all too well to the current political season.

The nut of the controversy is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal activist group that historically has helped register some of society’s poorest and least influential members to vote. Over a dozen states have raised questions about fraudulent registrations turned in by ACORN this past year. The Republican Party has seized on the story and inflated it to new dimensions of hyperbole.

In the most recent Presidential debate, GOP candidate John McCain claimed that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Fact-checking organizations have universally characterized that statement as overblown. However, the fact remains that ACORN has had problems in both the current and past elections with some of its registrations.

In 2008, ACORN hired more than thirteen thousand part-time workers in twenty-one states to sign up voters in minority and impoverished neighborhoods. ACORN submitted 1.3 million registration cards to local election officials.

This stunning total has included it share of obviously fake registrations, including cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the entire starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and bundles of cards all bearing the same handwriting.

Both McCain and Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin have condemned ACORN thoroughly and questioned their Democratic opponent’s ties to them.

For his part, Obama admits he once represented the group to successfully pass an Illinois motor-voter registration law in 1995. Records also indicate the Obama campaign paid approximately $800,000 to Citizens Services Inc., an ACORN offshoot, for “get out the vote” efforts in Ohio and other places. Otherwise, Obama maintains his campaign has no direct connection with ACORN's massive voter registration drive.

ACORN insists its problems are limited to a handful of lazy or dishonest canvassers, suggesting a barrel of acorns is no different from one of apples. ACORN does not pay on a quota of new voters registered. However, part-time ACORN workers receive only one day of training and paid $8 an hour to collect signatures. It is not surprising that some might want to keep a good-paying job by appearing to do better than they really are or keep making easy money for doing nothing.

ACORN points out its own quality control workers were the first to discover problematic registrations and tipped off local officials to suspicious cards in every state now investigating the organization. Many states, including my own state of Ohio, require groups such as ACORN to submit all registrations collected to voting officials, even those known to be fraudulent. This is a sensible practice and helps prevent real potential voter fraud, such as a left-leaning group “filtering out” registrations from voters indicating a preference for McCain to canvassers.

“There are certainly problems and I don't think anyone disagrees on that,” says a spokesperson for the government watchdog agency Common Cause. “But it doesn't get reported that ACORN finds these registrations errors themselves. They flag them as being no good but they have to turn them in anyway.”

ACORN says it fires canvassers caught at submitting phony registrations. The group is currently calculating the number of bad cards flagged for election officials but doubts it will exceed two percent of the total registrations submitted.

Even without its self-policing efforts, ACORN’s activities are only truly worrisome if fraudulent registrations typically led to fraudulent votes. All of the evidence suggests quite the opposite.

Common Cause calls Republican allegations against ACORN “one big head-fake . . . It's all about creating this perception that there is a tremendous problem with voter fraud in this country and it's not true.” A 2007 report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law concurs, stating, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than impersonate another voter at the polls.”

This is the real tragedy of the ACORN controversy. Phony voter registrations are not dangerous because they are usually detected – often by the groups collecting them. The greater the number of new registrants collected, the greater the chance for submission of some spurious cards. Yet the presence of any faux registrations gives opponents credence in their conspiratorial claims of widespread voter fraud. The steps recommended to deal with such situations are often just as dangerous to democracy as the ills they claim to cure.

Historically, anytime one person or group is claiming a legitimate instance of voter fraud, you can find another person or group with an equally legitimate claim of voter intimidation and suppression.

In past elections, armed state police officers went into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando Florida to question them as part of a so-called criminal investigation involving absentee ballots. A Texas district attorney threatened students at predominantly black Prairie View A&M with arrest if they voted in the county where the school was located, insisting they were ineligible to do so. This is patently untrue so long as students listed the campus as their home address when registering.

In the current election, John Pappageorge, a white, Republican Michigan state legislator, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote [which is eighty percent African American], we're going to have a tough time in this election.” Pappageorge denied he meant anything racist by this statement but reiterated that vote suppression was a necessary tactic this year for Republicans.

Consider the case of Joe the Plumber, made famous by John McCain in the third Presidential debate. The press has plumbed Joe a great deal already and revealed many things about him with little merit on the issues. However, one interesting finding is that he voted for the first time this year in the Ohio Republican primary and state records incorrectly spell his last name as “Worzelbacher” rather than “Wurzelbacher.”

This means Joe is one of over six hundred and fifty thousand new voters to register in Ohio this year for the coming election. Recently, the Republican Party filed suit with Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, to provide them with a list of as many as two hundred thousand of this number whose registration information did not provide a direct match with Ohio’s drivers license database.

A federal judge threw out their claim but the Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. Brunner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with her. In an unsigned opinion, the Court based its ruling not on whether Ohio is complying with a federal law for verifying voter eligibility but because that law does not allow private entities, such as the Ohio Republican Party, to file suit.

“They didn't deal with the merits of the case,” wailed Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett. “What they dealt with was a technicality.” (Lily Ledbetter was doubtlessly in quiet agreement that the Court can be a real bunch of jerks about that sometimes.)

The point is that if Republicans had prevailed, Joe the Plumber, who has made it pretty clear he favors McCain for President, might not have been allowed to vote this year. In 2004, Brunner’s Republican predecessor, Ken Blackwell, withdrew a last minute plan to challenge more than thirty thousand voters at the polls whose registration information did not match state records.

Brunner has called the Republican challenge a veiled attempt at disenfranchising voters. In her petition to the Supreme Court, she told the Justices, “If the Sixth Circuit's decision is allowed to stand, an untold number of legitimate voters in Ohio will be forced to re-establish the bona fides of their vote before the county boards of elections or they will stay home out of frustration or confusion.”

Voter suppression need not consist of dogs and armed vigilantes outside polling places nor minorities and the poor its only victims. This election has seen unprecedented numbers of new or lapsed voters reinvigorated by candidates McCain, Obama, and Clinton. What surer way to keep these excited new voters at home than a cynical acquiescence that their vote is worthless – not because somebody will bar them from the voting booth but because the system is so corrupt as to be past any reformation.

A recent New York Times editorial scolded Republicans kvetching over voter fraud about another scandal – “the fact that about one-third of eligible voters are not registered.” According to a 2006 study by Project Vote, twenty-nine percent of white Americans, thirty-nine percent of African Americans, forty-six percent of Latino-Americans, and fifty-one percent of Asian-Americans are not registered.

It is tragic that ACORN, a group that has dedicated itself since 1970 to giving the historically most disenfranchised an opportunity to vote, is now being used to discourage that very thing from happening in the name of fighting the hoax of massive, imminent voter fraud.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbers and Socialism

Last night, the two Presidential candidates held their third and final debate. Senator McCain was far more aggressive in it than he was during the first two, looking for some type of “game changer” that would cast Senator Obama in a particularly bad light. He had some success in this department but the person or group he turned to the most in his attacks was not William Ayers or ACORN, although they received their share of airtime too, but rather Joe the Plumber.

Joe the Plumber is Joe Wurzelbacher, a prosperous Ohio plumber who confronted Obama this past weekend over his tax policies. McCain seized on Joe’s story as an opportunity to portray Obama as something far more repellent than a pal of terrorists or a sleazy lawyer conspiring to help others commit voter fraud – namely a big government socialist.

Obama ran across Joe at a campaign rally last Sunday. Joe explained he wanted to buy the plumbing firm he had worked at for some time but Obama’s tax proposals were giving him second thoughts. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?” he asked.

Joe would be the owner of one of those rare and lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – small business that clear more than $250,000 per year in profits. Under Obama’s plan, his tax rate on the excess over $250K would rise to thirty-nine percent from the current thirty-six percent figure.

Wurzelbacher protested that he had worked hard for fifteen years to get to the point he was at now and did not see why he should be penalized for his success.

Say what you want about Obama as all talk and no substance and lacking political courage to stand up to those who disagree with him. Yet here he was facing the exact sort of voter he desperately needs to keep winning over in places like Ohio, who was challenging him on his tax policy. Yet he did not freeze up, stammer, hem and haw, equivocate, or attempt to weasel out.

Instead, he told Wurzelbacher, “It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you has got a chance at success, too . . . But listen, I respect what you do and I respect your question and even if I don't get your vote, I'm still gonna be working hard on your behalf because small businesses are what creates jobs in this country and I want to encourage it.”

Contacted after the debate, Wurzelbacher refused to name which candidate for whom he intended to vote. However, he made it clear that Obama did not convince him about the rightness of his approach, declaring, “I didn't think much of it.” As for McCain’s approach – “Why raise taxes on anybody?” – Wurzelbacher unsurprisingly asserted, “He's got it right as far as I go.”

So in the battle for the heart of Joe the Plumber, I think we must declare McCain the victor. However, it was something else that Obama said to the Ohio man that McCain seized upon to launch his attacks. Obama said, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.”

From the perspective of McCain and many conservatives, the term “spread the wealth” are code words, and not very veiled ones at that, for “socialism.” McCain would hit upon this theme repeatedly throughout the debate. “The whole premise behind Senator Obama’s [tax] plans is class warfare,” he proclaimed.

He returned to it and Joe the Plumber during the discussion over healthcare. “Now, Joe, you're rich, congratulations, and you will then fall into the category where you'll have to pay a fine if you don't provide health insurance that Senator Obama mandates, not the kind that you think is best for your family, your children, your employees, but the kind that he mandates for you. That's big government at its best.”

He touched on it yet again, albeit less directly, on the topic of trade agreements. “I am a free trader,” he confirmed and then charged, “I don't think there's any doubt that Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes.” The last time the U.S. followed such a policy, McCain concluded, “we went from a deep recession into a depression.”

There is really nothing new in McCain seeing Obama as a big government socialist and himself in the opposite mode. The Republicans repeatedly said at their convention that they felt government should get out of the way of individuals. McCain is just endorsing this viewpoint and condemning his opponent for failing to do so. However, on one topic – the Supreme Court and its position on several issues – McCain seemed to think socialistic government intervention is not only desirable but also a moral and legal imperative.

The two candidates profoundly disagreed over whether Roe v. Wade was decided correctly but both pledged not to use a judge’s position on that case as a litmus test for appointing Supreme Court Justices. McCain pledged a complete indifference to ideology and pointed to his past confirmation votes for liberal Justices as proof. Obama argued that general ideology and judicial temperament deserved consideration.

He pointed to the case of Lilly Ledbetter as an example. She sued her employer for pay discrimination after finding out, following years of loyal service, that she had received less pay than her male counterparts despite doing the exact same job. The Supreme Court shot down her suit because it had taken her too long to bring it.

“I think that it's important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will,” Obama said. “And that's the kind of judge that I want.”

McCain was outright dismissive about Ledbetter’s discrimination claim. “Obviously, that law waved the statute of limitations, which you could have gone back twenty or thirty years,” he snapped. “It was a trial lawyer's dream.”

Obama thought Ledbetter knew best whether she was the victim of unfair treatment and deserved to seek restitution for it. McCain felt the government knew best.

McCain then went on to lambaste Obama for one of his votes in the Illinois State Legislature regarding partial birth abortions. “One of the bad procedures, a terrible . . . I don't know how you align yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro- abortion movement in America.”

Obama replied, “I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there's an exception for the mother's health and life, and this did not contain that exception.”

McCain jumped on that answer as disingenuous. “Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He’s for the health of the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health, unquote.”

McCain has a point in saying that consideration for the woman’s health is a provision that is ripe for abuse but this is a straw man argument if used to suggest the woman’s health is not a viable and significant consideration during pregnancy and one probably best left to doctors.

On the subject of vouchers, he mocked Obama’s arguments against them. “Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working?”

Yet is not McCain saying here that even though partial-birth abortions are sometimes the best procedure, we still should never use them because we cannot be sure they are always medically necessary?

When Obama objected to cries of “traitor” and “off with his head” directed at him by crowds at McCain/Palin rallies, McCain had a strong moment defending his supporters. “I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens . . . because someone yelled something at a rally.”

Yet is not McCain saying here that because a few doctors might perform a partial-birth abortion out of personal preference or convenience rather than medical necessity, then all doctors should be viewed with suspicion and prohibited from using the procedure?

What is more, McCain is saying that government and not the woman and her doctor should decide if a late-term abortion is the lesser risk than carrying a problem pregnancy to term as well as which medical procedures strike non-medical professionals as too grotesque to be permissible. Obama stated he believed “women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers are in the best position to make this decision.”

Finally, if everyone supposedly knows that “health of the mother” is just liberal code-speak for “without limits,” then what about McCain’s standard for how he will pick Supreme Court Justices? “I will find the best people . . . who have a history of strict adherence to the Constitution.” Doesn’t everyone also know that “strict Constructionist” is just Republican code-speak for “socially conservative.” This is the standard President Bush claimed to follow and it gave use Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.

On the controversial topic of abortion in general, Obama says, “But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together.” McCain says, “Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that . . . We have to change the culture of America.” Obama is looking for ways in which everyone can have a voice and follow their beliefs and values. McCain is looking for ways to bring everyone around to his camp’s beliefs and values.

Excuse me, Senator, but that sounds an awful lot like women should have to pay a fine (or worse) if they have an abortion when government think they should not or file a lawsuit that government regards as trivial rather than do what they think is best for their families and themselves. That sounds like big government. That sounds like social warfare.

Joe the Plumber might like McCain’s policies but Josephine the Plumber (remember those old Comet cleanser commercials? John McCain does) might not be so enthusiastic.

I tend to stand with Obama’s Vice-Presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who argued in his debate that Democratic economic policies were not socialistic but common sense fairness and plain human decency. However, if we are going to get socialism in some form from our next President, regardless of who that may be, I think I am more comfortable with “big government” sticking its nose into Joe the Plumber’s wallet as opposed to it sticking its nose into Josephine the Plumber’s legal rights and vagina.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mahoney Is a Warning to Dems

If the polls are correct, Democrats might well find themselves with Barack Obama in the White House and increased advantages in both houses of Congress come next year. If so, they might well take a painful but valuable lesson from Representative Tim Mahoney of Florida in what they must not do with their mandate.

Back in 2006, Mahoney, a Democrat, won Florida’s 16th Congressional District after six-term Republican incumbent Mark Foley resigned in the wake of a scandal. Foley sent sexually explicit messages via the Internet to underage male pages. Democrats considered Mahoney’s win a major coup because the majority of voters in the district are Republican.

Mahoney campaigned two years ago to return morals and family values to Washington. ABC News recently revealed Mahoney began an extramarital affair at the time with Patricia Allen, a campaign aide. Mahoney fired Allen this year and ended up paying her a $121,000 settlement, presumably to keep her quiet about their affair and avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Now Politico reports this apparently was not Mahoney’s only adulterous liaison. A person close to the Mahoney campaign confirmed a second affair to the Associated Press last night. The other relationship was with a high-ranking official in Martin County, part of Mahoney’s district, conducted over a similar period as his affair with Allen.

This is potentially serious because Mahoney was busy lobbying the Federal Emergency Management Agency at around this same time for a $3.4 million reimbursement for Martin County for damage caused by hurricanes in 2004. FEMA approved the money in late 2007.

This all comes as a blow to Mahoney, who boasted of having a “comfortable lead” in what most pollsters insisted was a tight race for re-election this November.

Mahoney issued a statement that read, in part, “I take full responsibility for my actions and the pain I have caused my wife and daughter. No marriage is perfect, but our private life is our private life and I am sorry that these allegations have caused embarrassment and heartache.”

The bottom line is that Mahoney’s “apology” does not ring true. He sounds more sorry about being caught than doing anything wrong. It may be true in our post-Clinton world of politics that extramarital affairs are not, in and of themselves, grounds for dismissal. However, there are larger issues at play here that Mahoney refused to address altogether.

Instead, he struck a defiant tone, insisting his campaign would go on and expressing faith that voters would continue to support him. He was adamant that he “did not violate his oath of office or any law.” He even went so far as to suggest the various revelations surfacing against him were “politically motivated.”

Mahoney has called for an investigation into his own conduct by the House Ethics Committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also called for an inquiry. This is good because if Democrats are smart, they will throw Mahoney under the first bus that comes along – and the bigger and the longer a streak he leaves on the pavement the better.

It is not breaking that way so far, at least locally in Florida. The Sarasota Herald–Tribune reports that Jim Stevens, Chairman of the Charlotte County Democratic Executive Committee, as well as other Democratic officials, are inclined to give Mahoney the benefit of the doubt.

With Democrats trying so hard to increase their majority in the House, it may be tempting to fight giving up the win of an unexpected Republican seat from two years ago but give it up is exactly what they ought to do. If what Foley did was bad enough to lose him his Congressional seat, Mahoney’s mistakes deserve the same.

The very worst thing Democrats could do at this point is to float some moral equivalence argument that suggests extramarital affairs between consenting adults are completely different from the stalkings of a pedophile. Sexual innuendo is not the issue here. The way Mahoney and Foley are all too similar is their insistence there is no real foul – that they are the victims of their accusers rather than the betrayers of their families and constituents – because “no real crime was committed.”

Both state and federal authorities ultimately cleared Foley of criminal wrongdoing but that did not save him with Florida voters. Mahoney should receive no better at their hands.

When one Party gains office as a reaction by voters to the wrongdoings of the other, there is nothing the successor Party can do to break the already fragile public trust more quickly than to engage in the exact same behaviors themselves.

In that sense, the Mahoney affair is a warning to a Democrats and an example in a microcosm of exactly what will happen to them if they do not deliver on the change their Presidential candidate has been promising.

“We wish this hadn't happened like this,” Joan Fischer, president of the Charlotte County Democratic Club. Nobody ever does but that is the way both opportunities and obstacles tend to happen. The trick is to maximize the former and minimize the impact of the latter by facing up to them instead of denying them or pretending they are something different.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Real John McCain

In recent days, the McCain campaign has taken to asking, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” Unable to make headway in the debates or polls on differences over the issues in light of the recent financial crisis, McCain declared last week he was determined that the final month of the campaign would be about Obama’s character. What has evolved since says loads about the character of the Republican Party.

The effort began by Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin, who questioned Obama’s relationship with William Ayers. Four decades before Obama first met him, Ayers was a member of the violent, radical Weather Underground movement. Palin said that made Obama guilty of “palling around with terrorists.” She made it clear that Republicans should also resurrect Obama’s past relationship with Reverend Wright and use it against him, in her opinion.

Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, went after Obama on the subject of Iraq, accusing him of disloyalty to the troops and saying she was “chilled” when he voted against war funding while her son was serving in harm’s way.

At a Palin rally in Estero Florida, introductory speaker Sheriff Mike Scott of Lee County, once again referred to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama,” with stress on his middle name, a practice that McCain had previously denounced.

At a McCain rally in Davenport Iowa, the Reverend Arnold Conrad of the Grace Evangelical Free Church offered an opening prayer in which he stated “millions of people around this world” were praying to other gods – such as the Hindu pantheon, Buddha, and Allah – for Obama to win “for various reasons.” Conrad concluded, “And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their gods are bigger than you if that happens.”

Bobby May, McCain’s campaign chairman in Buchanan County Virginia wrote a column in a local paper, The Voice, entitled, “The (Clarified) Platform of Barack Hussein Obama.” In his article, May opined that, once elected, Obama would hire rapper Ludacris to paint the White House black and change the national anthem from the “Star Spangled Banner” to the “Black National Anthem.”

Yesterday, FOX News aired a program hosted by Sean Hannity, called “Obama & Friends – The History of Radicalism.” It examined Obama’s past ties with Ayers and others and included highly provocative and unsubstantiated accusations, such as Obama’s work as a community organizer was really “training for a radical overthrow of the government.”

The impact of all this on Republican voters is to take anger and frustration over the current state of the election and bring it to the boiling point against Obama in a very personal way, at least if the crowds at McCain/Palin rallies last week were any indication. Cries of “traitor,” “terrorist,” “treason,” “liar,” and even “off with his head” and “kill him” have been heard at various gatherings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

To be clear, McCain and Palin neither directly encouraged such comments nor said anything so incendiary themselves. However, these outcries went unchallenged by them, leaving the implication that the GOP candidates consented to or even approved of such sentiments.

Indeed, at a rally last Thursday in Waukesha Wisconsin, when a man in the crowd told McCain “I'm really mad” because of “socialists taking over the country,” McCain voiced agreement. “I think I got the message,” he said. “The gentleman is right . . . We need to know the full extent of the relationship [with Ayers].”

McCain stoked the fires of personal attack again in Albuquerque New Mexico. “Whatever the question, whatever the issue, there’s always a back-story with Senator Obama,” he said. “My opponent’s touchiness every time he is questioned about his record should make us only more concerned.”

The intensity of conservative voter anger has begun to worry the media’s liberal and moderate pundits. David Gergen commented to Anderson Cooper on CNN the other night about “free-floating sort of whipping-around anger that could really lead to some violence.” Added Gergen, “I think we’re not far from that.”

Rather than change the tone of the election in his favor, McCain is drawing criticism from many different quarters.

David Brooks kicked things off Friday, talking about the “class warfare mentality” that has sprung up in the GOP, whereby the middle-class and middle America are taught to fear educated progressives as dangerous. “But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin,” he writes. “Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the ‘normal Joe Sixpack American’ and the coastal elite.”

His New York Times colleague, Frank Rich, followed him the next day, fuming, “The McCain campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism.”

Novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, fretted in the Washington Post on Sunday over the Republican tendency to paint Obama as a Muslim and then conflate that with something evil. “Do they not understand the kind of fire they are playing with?” he asked.

Today, Hendrik Hertzberg admonishes in the New Yorker, “But ‘negative’ hardly does justice to the mendacity of the [McCain/Palin] campaign of vilification that bracketed Nashville.”

But perhaps the most damaging reproach was delivered by Democratic Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights leader and someone McCain once described as one of the “wisest” men he knew and whose advice he would seek as President. Lewis posted in Politico that Alabama Governor and Presidential candidate George Wallace “never threw a bomb” but “created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks.” In much the same way, Lewis continued, “Senator McCain and Governor Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division.”

It is easy to accuse McCain of irresponsibility and even baiting over all this. However, I think we have been seeing an internal struggle between what I have previously described as the two camps within the GOP. The first of these camps, once personified by McCain, seeks moderation and bipartisan cooperation. The other camp, increasingly personified by Palin, pursues a strident extremism that condemns all opposing views as debauched and disloyal.

For about a week, McCain acquiesced to the tactics of the latter camp, just as he has modified or repudiated so many of his pervious moderate views in an attempt to curry the favor of the Party’s far right-wing base. Yet by last Friday, after he and Palin had gone their separate ways campaigning, he seemed to lose his heart for it and he stood up against his own Party.

At a rally in Minnesota, a woman in the crowd told McCain, “I don't trust Obama. I have read about him. He's an Arab.”

McCain tiredly shook his head in reply and said, “No, ma’am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about.”

He told the same crowd, “I have to tell you, [Obama] is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States.”

Later, at a different rally in Lakeville Minnesota, McCain confronted another angry group of supporters and told them, “If you want a fight, we will fight but we will be respectful. I don't mean that has to reduce your ferocity. I just mean to say you have to be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him, and I want everyone to be respectful.”

In response to this plea of viewing Obama not as a monster but as a human being, his own Republican supporters loudly booed McCain. For my part, this simple act of decency was the first hopeful sign of I have seen from McCain since he first announced his candidacy. This is not a person seeking to incite others to fanaticism and violence but rather a candidate who has been incited by the worst elements of his own Party to win at all costs and abide no ideology but their own myopic worldview.

Officially, the McCain campaign has not officially disavowed its “gloves off” approach. When the Obama campaign objected to crowds threatening to kill him at Republican rallies, the McCain campaign said that proves Obama “doesn’t understand” voter outrage. A statement issued by McCain characterized Congressman Lewis’s criticisms as “a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale.”

Nevertheless, there are some signs that McCain is backing off. Palin has dropped the association with Ayers from her stump speech, although she has replaced it with a diatribe against Obama’s support of late-term abortions for women whose life or health are at risk, drawing cries of “killer” from her audience on Sunday. McCain eventually repudiated the comments of the sheriff in Florida. The McCain campaign has dropped Bobby May in Virginia.

I do not know what the next three weeks will bring. However, if McCain loses this election, I hope he has begun to realize that, much like in Iraq, it is not winning or losing but rather the manner in which the battle was conducted that allows a soldier to walk away from a hard-fought war in pride rather than disgrace. And if McCain should win in November, I see the first flicker of hope that he might govern like the candidate and public servant I came to admire in 2000 rather than the sellout of 2008.

Who is the real John McCain? I dearly hope it was the man booed by an irate mob last Friday.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Hand at the Tiller

John McCain lost last night’s Presidential debate in Nashville. It was not due to lack of trying or failure to execute; he did a good job presenting himself in many ways. The problem for McCain is that too much in this election is beyond his control. The current financial crisis in the credit markets as well as the larger economic downturn are the most obvious examples. However, as regards the debate, Barack Obama keeps taking the matter out of McCain’s hands by failing to gaffe or otherwise implode.

Every time the two appear on stage together and Obama holds his own against McCain, it undercuts the Republican line of attack that Obama is not yet ready to be President. What is more, any presentation of the two side-by-side reinforces the Democratic talking point of Obama as the future and McCain as the past.

One reason not contributing to McCain’s loss, in my opinion, was his decision to forego personal attacks on Obama’s character during the debate, as some argued he should. I am not sure why he did so – whether it was a calculated decision to avoid appearing too negative or a principled decision to avoid such campaigning, at least for his own part.

Regardless, it was the right decision. Smears just do not work in a town hall setting or any setting that has the object of your smear campaign sitting next to you. This makes it too easy for your opponent to fight back and counter your claims. The ideal political smear is one your opponent never gets a chance to directly address. To that end, smears are best begun in partisan crowds and allowed to work their way through the Internet and other grapevines, ultimately entering the voting booth as unspoken thoughts in the minds of voters.

Instead, McCain choose to try to attack Obama more aggressively based on facts and policy points. However, he did so by recycling talking points from the last debate and the campaign in general, giving them less impact. What is more, Obama was in the room for these attacks and was able to answer and/or contradict a number of them.

The Republican elephant in the room for McCain in any of these exchanges is President Bush. McCain tried, once again, to distance himself from Bush but I do not think Independent voters are buying it. Never mind similarities in policies, there is something in McCain’ very manner of debate and his approach to his opponent that is reminiscent of Bush.

Consider these McCain quotes from last night.

On his superiority at fighting terrorism:

I understand what it means to the Commander-In-Chief . . . I fully understand the threat.

On dealing with our allies:

I know how these people think. I meet with them all the time.

On the premise that Afghanistan and not Iraq is the central front on terrorism:

This war is a long, long war and it requires steadfast determination and it requires a complete understanding that we not only chase down Al Qaida but we disrupt terrorist safe havens as well as people who could provide the terrorists with support . . . it's a fundamental misunderstanding to say that the war on terror is only Osama bin Laden.

On Obama crossing the Pakistani border to take out Osama bin Laden:

He just doesn't understand how the borders work, evidently, to say that. That is an outrageous claim . . . That shows a lack of understanding.

On his ability to lead in general:

I believe I'm going to win because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead. I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made. And I’ve made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. People out there listening know what I believe.

Now if those quotes do not quite seem familiar to those who watched the debate, the reason is that McCain did not actually utter them last night. Rather, they were quotes by President Bush during his three debates with Kerry back in 2004. Despite a span of four years between them, these Bush quotes all sounded, in substance as well as in tone, very like what McCain was saying last night, don’t they?

My point in this exercise is not a “gotcha” on McCain but rather to demonstrate that, despite Senator Obama’s rapid political rise and relative inexperience, much of McCain’s arguments about his superior experience and judgment are less specific to this race than conventional wisdom assumes. Rather, they are merely much of same, tired talking points that Republicans have been using against Democrats for years now.

For all McCain’s insistence on how he has differed from President Bush on numerous issues, including the Iraq War, another Bush quote from those 2004 debates settles the matter definitively, in my mind.

My opponent keeps mentioning John McCain and I'm glad he did. John McCain is for me for President because he understands I have the right view in winning the war on terror and that my plan will succeed in Iraq. And my opponent has got a plan of retreat and defeat in Iraq.

Yet if anybody made the case best for Obama last night, it may have been McCain directly.

At one point, while discussing foreign policy, McCain talked about the importance of “a cool hand at the tiller.” He repeated this metaphor in his excellent closing remarks, saying, “When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller and the great honor of my life was to always put my country first.”

Both of those points are true. We do need a steady hand at the tiller and McCain does have a reputation of placing country first. The problem is that the latter is a non sequitur when applied as a solution to the former. Being more passionate, even more noble and selfless, toward a cause is not interchangeable with rationality and consistency in your policies.

Consistency and calmness is Obama’s strong suit, even at the risk of sometimes seeming too cool and non-empathetic. Obama will not win this fight with a knockout blow, no matter how much events run toward his advantage because that is simply not his style. Rather, once an advantage opens, Obama refuses to let it close again, driving it slowly but surely further apart with relentlessly steadfast dependability.

McCain was able to outflank Obama’s implacability once during this campaign with his choice of Palin as his running mate. But that advantage has run itself out and stabilized. McCain is the one who now must have a knockout blow. Every time he tries and fails, he reinforces the strength of Obama’s consistency as well as his perceived weakness.

Last night, Obama looked confident and relaxed, while McCain looked erratic, frantic, and flailing, even when he was coming on strong. If this election does come down as to whom voters perceive as the steadier hand at the tiller, each debate so far has left Obama looking increasingly Presidential and McCain looking increasingly like a typical politician who is losing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Courting Radicals

“The heels are on, the gloves are off.”

Over the weekend, Republican Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin attacked Barack Obama during campaign stops in Colorado, California, and Nebraska for his ties to former Chicago radical William Ayers. Palin charged that Obama “pals around with terrorists who target their own country” because he “sees America as imperfect.”

Responding to criticisms that she was recycling used material, Plain insisted Obama’s relationship with Ayers “has been known but hasn’t been talked about.” Even if this is correct, fact-checking organizations are taking umbrage over the use of the term “pals” to describe the relationship. The Associated Press reprimanded Palin’s characterization, saying it was “unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subject that John McCain himself may come to regret.”

The specific GOP tactics in this matter may be born of polling desperation but the strategy behind them is one the McCain campaign has followed all along. In difficult, important times such as these, it argues, Americans cannot risk electing a President with radical associates and views.

For its part, the Obama campaign has lately been trying its best to portray McCain as the more radical choice, describing him as erratic and out-of-touch. Their latest ad attacks the provision in McCain’s healthcare plan that taxes employee health benefits for the first time without mentioning the credit McCain would provide to help offset the increase. Politico has already criticized a previous Obama ad along these same lines as “barely true.”

So much for the fervent promises by both candidates to forego deceptive, negative campaigning.

If there is an area where one candidate is clearly more radical, it is over whom they are likely to appoint to the Supreme Court. In this case, McCain stands out as the radical. The problem is not that his choices would be more ideologically driven, although they would be no less ideologically driven either. Rather it is the way in which McCain’s picks would be far more prone to change the current balance of the Court than would Obama’s likely choices.

For the past several decades, the Court has teetered on a precarious balance between a liberal faction and a conservative faction, with one or two moderate Justices in the middle providing the all-important swing votes on controversial issues. President Bush’s two appointments – Chief Justice Roberts in place of Rehnquist and, especially, Justice Alito in place of O’Connor – weighted the balance further in favor of conservatives without tipping it altogether.

Today, there are four usually dependable conservative votes and four usually dependable liberal ones, with Justice Kennedy providing the sole middle-of-the-road swing vote. The key difference between the two ideological factions is their relative ages.

On average, the liberal Justices are a full fifteen years older than the conservative ones. Justice Scalia, at age seventy-two, is the only conservative Justice over seventy, with Roberts and Alito still in their fifties. By contrast, Justice Souter, at age sixty-nine is the only liberal justice under seventy, with Justice Stevens, at age eighty-eight, one of the oldest serving Court members in history.

Based on this alone, there is a chance the next President could appoint at least three Supreme Court Justices. If Obama wins the election, speculation is widespread that Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, and Souter will all retire in order to give the new Democratic President an opportunity to replace them with younger, like-minded Justices. The conventional wisdom further assumes such choices will pass a Democratically-controlled Senate.

Yet even if Obama were able to fill all of these slots, the dynamic of the Court will not have moved one iota from its traditional and current quasi-equilibrium. Only by turning one of the current conservative or moderate slots liberal can Obama fundamentally change the ongoing course of the Court. This seems much less likely, given that moderate Kennedy is the same age as conservative Scalia.

On the other hand, following a McCain victory in November, the liberal Justices will be much more hesitant about retiring and a Democratic Senate less inclined to confirm his appointments. However, their advanced ages raises the likelihood of death or forced retirement among the liberal Justices, due to illness or other infirmity. McCain need turn only one of the liberal or moderate slots conservative to finally shift the balance of the Court in the direction that Republican Presidents have been trying to send it, with limited success, since Reagan. If multiple appointments become necessary, McCain could make a conservative shift in the Court overwhelming and long-lasting.

Deeply polarizing issues are likely to continue coming before the Court. Abortion rights are the most obvious, followed closely by the continuing viability of civil liberties in a post-September 11 age. The Legislative and Executive Branches are unlikely to suffer less from partisan polarization than they do today. In light of this, most moderates, Independents, and other undecided swing voters might well like to see the current uneasy stability of the Court continue or at least accept it as unavoidable.

If that is true, McCain is the far more radical candidate in this regard. Obama can “do his worst” and will only result in upholding the status quo. McCain, with a single appointment, can change the Court’s probable decisions on a plethora of controversial topics for decades to come.

That is something worth thinking about as the Court takes up its business again on this first Monday in October. Instead of heels and gloves, the time has come in this election cycle to seriously consider the potential fashion statement of judicial robes. Basic black is always in style and now is not the time to be courting a more radical Judiciary.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Toe-to-Toe, Not Foot-in-Mouth

I watched the Vice-Presidential debate last night, sitting in my chair and staring at the television screen, as is my wont. My wife was in the room next door, listening to the TV drone as she worked/played on the computer, as is her wont.

About a half hour or forty-five minutes into the event, she called out, “Is it just me or is Palin getting creamed out there?”

“No,” I said, genuinely surprised. “I think she’s doing a good job at holding her own against Biden.”

“Really?” she replied, her own surprise clearly as deep and genuine as my own.

Our exchange might well summarize the evening in a nutshell. If you listened to the debate, then Biden won it. If, on the other hand, you watched the debate, it was a draw.

This was never Biden’s debate to win. Viewed as Palin’s clear superior in both policy knowledge and debating experience, his bar was set excessively high for him to control the outcome. At best, he would come across as unexciting and at worst, as condescending or a gaffe machine. Winning or losing lay in Palin’s hands alone.

Thus, Biden’s strategy was to not lose and hope that Palin would badly blunder. This did not happen.

Palin did extremely well last night. She was supremely confident and at ease. She oozed likeability and charm when she was connecting with Main Street Americans as well as when she was slipping a knife between the opposition’s ribs with a wink and a smile.

A CNN poll taken immediately after the debates showed about eight-five percent of viewers found her to have performed better than expected. This was partly due to how low her bar was set, based on her limited television interviews. Still, Palin did not merely exceed expectations but actually performed as well as she was capable. On that basis, she should have handed Biden his head on a platter.

The reason she did not is Biden’s relative performance. That same CNN poll showed sixty-five percent of viewers also found Biden performed better than expected. With his bar set unrealistically high, Biden impressed almost as much as Palin with her bar set incredibly low. Palin pulled off the best night she has enjoyed in the past two months; Biden had the night of his life.

Employing a boxing analogy, Biden is a heavyweight and Palin a lightweight in their debating styles. Biden lumbers around without much defense, swinging enthusiastically but not always accurately. Sometimes he takes so long winding up for a punch, his opponent has danced away before he can even throw it, let alone land it.

Palin is much more a natural jabber. She darts in and out, using Republican talking points and sarcasm to take down her opponents with surgical precision, often before they realize what hit them.

The rapid pace of the debate ought to have favored Palin. However, like McCain, she tried a long-shot risk and battled Biden more on his terms, striding out to the center of the ring and trading jabs toe-to-toe with him there.

She was effective in that regard, landing blow after blow after blow. Yet Biden seemed to absorb her punches rather than being throw off by them and for each punch he delivered a factual counterpunch that often left Palin unable to answer. While last night’s format favored her policy shortcomings and rhetorical style more than in-depth interviews, she often seemed unable to deal with the reality that, unlike a stump speech, her devastating accusations and cutting one-liners would not go unmet and unchallenged.

Palin certainly helped her own reputation with last night’s performance but, counter to the forming conventional wisdom, I think she helped McCain too.

First, she helped quiet growing doubts, even among some conservatives, about McCain’s judgment in picking her simply by proving her own mettle. Second, I suspect her performance will reenergize the Republican base in a manner similar to if not quite as intense as her convention speech. Third, it is “safe” for her to appear in public again and she continues to be an effective campaigning tool, if only for the large crowds she consistently draws.

However, with only a month left to go in this contest, Biden did the most direct good for the top of his ticket. He was not especially charming or awe-inspiring about it but he was relentlessly on message in tying McCain to the failed policies of the Bush Administration and much of the current financial crisis and general economic downturn.

Americans tuned into this debate waiting to see which V.P. candidate would under-perform most abysmally. Instead, they saw a lively exchange in which both candidates excelled. This is only to the good for the nation. Biden happened to be the candidate who excelled more and that is only to the good for Barack Obama.