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

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Fragility of Victory

President Obama will make good on another campaign promise today. He will announce a plan, developed in consultation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and Iraqi commander General Raymond Odierno, which will withdraw the bulk of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 31, 2010. Somewhere between 35,000 to 50,000 solider will remain in Iraq, in order to advise and train Iraqi troops and conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions with them, until December 31, 2011.

Obama briefed Democratic and Republican leaders about the plan and both sides expressed concerns. Democrats grumbled over an increase in the timetable for withdrawal to nineteen months, as compared to the sixteen months Obama promised during his Presidential campaign, as well as the size of the remaining residual force. For their part, Republicans feared troop reductions were occurring too quickly, thereby sacrificing security gains.

John Bolton, the former Bush Administration’s UN Ambassador, summarized Republican anxieties last night in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“We've just seen a vindication of President Bush's surge policy in the recent [Iraq] provincial elections,” Bolton said to loud applause. “The Surge policy had both a military and a political component. The military component has had extraordinary success. The political component is making considerable progress. But we're seeing an Administration so committed to satisfying the left of the Democratic Party that it could well jeopardize all of that.”

Protecting the successes of the Surge was a chief talking point for Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona when he ran against Obama for President last year. McCain prides himself on his knowledge and experience with foreign affairs. He bragged about his frequent trips to Iraq to consult with generals on the ground there and chastised Obama for failing to do the same. Republicans and most Independents consider his expertise in military matter unassailable and many Democrats were willing to concede the point.

Even so, McCain has proven highly capricious and contradictory in evaluating the breadth and lasting impact of the Surge over the past two years.

McCain criticized the Bush Administration for insufficient troop levels in Iraq almost from the start of the war, maintaining the smaller forces strategy championed by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was lacking in judgment. Yet he worried that the Surge former President Bush finally authorized was still too small to get the job done.

In January 2007, he told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I am concerned about it, whether it is sufficient numbers or not. I would have liked to have seen more.” One month later, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, McCain’s doubts only seemed to have grown.

“I am very nervous about this new strategy. I am very doubtful that we have enough troops. I don’t know if the Maliki government will be strong enough.”

Six months later, the Surge’s initial success impressed McCain but he still lacked faith in any lasting improvements from it. “If we set a date for withdrawal, there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and the entire region will be engulfed, and we will be back,” he told supporters during an August 2007 Michigan fundraiser.

One month later and McCain’s regard for the accomplishments of the Surge had grown. “Anbar province is one of the more stable parts of Iraq thanks to the success of this new strategy,” he told a crowd during a Labor Day visit to Iowa. “Some people are calling it the McCain surge but that’s not really true,” he modestly added.

In November 2007, his enthusiasm hit a new high. “Despite what you may see from other sources, we are winning in Iraq,” he assured a crowd while on the campaign trail in South Carolina. “The point is we are reducing our casualties and we are succeeding. I can see a scenario now where we could be withdrawing in the coming months.”

Fast-forward four months and McCain still has faith in the surge. “We have achieved enormous success . . . we have them on the run . . . There is no doubt in my mind that the surge is succeeding,” he told a reporter in Pennsylvania in March 2008. However, he now equivocates over the possibility of withdrawal, worrying the insurgents “might be able to carry out some spectacular suicide attacks . . . they are still a very viable and tough enemy.”

One month later, in Kansas City Missouri, McCain’s exhorted the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “There is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq – we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.” It is positive stuff but in less than six months McCain has actually scaled back from having withdrawal in sight to no longer seeing defeat.

Speaking with reporters in May 2008 in Ohio, McCain asserted, “We are winning and we will win” in Iraq but “I'm certainly not putting a date on it.” Once again, he goes on to warn violence in Iraq will persist but now believes it will be “spasmodic and much reduced.” What is more, “Civil war will be prevented, armed militias will be disbanded, security forces will become professional and competent, and the government will be able to impose its authority in every province of Iraq and properly defend its borders.”

In July 2008, he tells a crowd in Maine that U.S. forces in Iraq “will come home with honor. They won’t come home in defeat,” thereby implying victory had been achieved.

At this same time, McCain ignited a hotbed of controversy over the role of the Surge as compared with other concurrent developments in Iraq. During an interview, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric mentioned Barack Obama’s contention that a Sunni insurgency against al-Qaida in Anbar, begun before the Surge, was at least as responsible for improving security there. McCain angrily characterized this as a “false depiction.”

Only a few days later, he was backpedaling. “A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components,” McCain told reporters in Pennsylvania. “I'm not sure people understand that ‘surge’ is part of a counterinsurgency.”

In August 2008, McCain’s indecision about the state of the Surge’s success continued. “In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first,” he said at a Florida campaign stop, suggesting that victory remained unachieved.

The same month, he told Pastor Rick Warren during an interview at Saddleback Church in California that General Petraeus was a “great leader . . . who took us from defeat to victory in Iraq,” suggesting we had already won there.

In an address before the American Enterprise Institute just this Tuesday, McCain warned withdrawing troops too quickly from Iraq could result in “losing fragile gains” made there. So as of February 2009, the success of the Surge does not equate to a complete or lasting victory in his mind.

In this speech, McCain also deftly combined the Surge and Sunni insurgency into a single, seamless strategy, as if no difference between them had ever existed in his mind.

“The Surge of troops conducting counterinsurgency operations, combined with a quickly spreading Anbar Awakening, transformed the country in less than a year.”

Yet this very statement places McCain’s prowess at defining victory in Afghanistan as much in question as his ability to do so for Iraq.

In a self-laudatory speech in New Mexico in July 2008, McCain proclaimed, “Senator Obama will tell you we can't win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the Surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. It is by applying the tried and true principles . . . used in the Surge – which Senator Obama opposed – that we will win in Afghanistan.”

However, in his Tuesday speech, McCain insisted the lack of an Afghan insurgency against the Taliban and al-Qaida would make success of any U.S. Surge there “harder and longer” to achieve.

None of this serves as a criticism or “gotcha” against Senator McCain. He is a dedicated American and public servant doing his best to make sense of a complicated situation.

It most definitely serves as a criticism of a pro-war talking point used by McCain and many other conservative hawks. They maintain it makes no sense ending the war by some arbitrary date, insisting the only strategic approach is when commanders on the ground declare victory achieved.

House Minority Leader John Boehner echoed it again last night in reaction to Obama’s plan. “While it may have sounded good during the campaign, I do think it's important that we listen to those commanders and our diplomats who are there to understand how fragile the situation is.”

The problem here, as the above amply demonstrates, is that while soldiers may hate war, they tend to have a difficult time getting out once engaged, continually seeing new threats and new opportunities. In this sense, they are all Alexander, weeping because there are no worlds left for them to conquer. It earns them our admiration for their bravery and selflessness but it is not necessarily strategic.

Wars often begin with military actions that precede official declarations of war by the governments of the nations involved. However, wars end solely when governments officially declare them over. Such declarations usually synchronize with the cessation of military actions but there is sometimes overlap.

General Andrew Jackson fought and won the Battle of New Orleans a full two weeks after the U.S. and Great Britain had signed the Treaty of Ghent. General George Patton’s antagonistic comments, including calls for war, against the Soviet Union following the Allied victory in Europe horrified and outraged his superiors, even if they did ultimately prove prophetic in nature.

Whether Obama requires sixteen months, nineteen months, or longer to complete his drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq will depend upon the exigencies of the situation as it develops. However, he will remained fixed on the goal of withdrawal, making his approach far more consistent and strategic than any McCain might have employed as Commander-In-Chief, following the same sources and standards that left him unable to make a reliable evaluation of the Surge, let alone the war as a whole.

Victory is indeed a fragile thing and, unlike war and battle, far too serious a matter to be left to generals.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not Quitters

Everyone was quick to emphasize that President Obama’s address last night to a joint session of Congress was momentously important and yet not a State of the Union speech. By what designation then should we call his oration?

In some ways, Obama delivered a reckoning, much along the lines he has been using to describe the current economic crisis since taking office. In his verdict, blame rests on everyone – from government to banks to citizens buying bigger homes than they knew they could afford. Yet there was also a distinctly upbeat side to his judgment as well.

“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this – We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

The applause that met this line was a combination of encouragement and relief. Pundits and politicians alike had begun to worry that Obama’s truth telling was too gloomy to promote his programs for recovery. In attempting to reflect what was really happening, they worried Obama was depressing markets and public confidence even further.

Was the President cynical? Disheartened? Even fearful?

Obama blew away such concerns last night. His instrument of choice for doing so was not rhetoric like the example above but rather the dizzying breadth of his proposals.

In addition to promising we would bring a credit crisis, a mortgage crisis, an auto industry crisis, and an economy in recession all under control, Obama also chose to move forward with major initiatives to develop new forms of energy and regulate existing ones as well as reforming healthcare and education.

All of these proposals represent daunting undertakings, failure to achieve progress in any one of which has been enough to hurl past Administrations badly off track. Combining them with climbing out from under our current financial mess requires a faith as Herculean as the inevitable effort Obama guaranteed will follow.

We may disagree with where Obama wants to go and/or how he proposes to get there but it now seems impossible to accuse him of trepidation. If anything, his determination to forge ahead with so much at such a difficult time reflects an unperturbed fearlessness on his part that some will doubtless now criticize as recklessness and overreaching.

Obama concluded his speech with as pragmatic a definition of bipartisanship as any imaginable.

“I know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed . . . That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.”

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana delivered the Republican response. Granted, the task he was given is a traditionally difficult and thankless one but for a rising star within the GOP, I saw little charisma or dynamism in his presentation. This aside, Jindal did a credible job delivering the main Republican message, promising to work with Obama except in those (frequent) cases when the Party chooses not to do so.

Jindal seemed sincere enough when he swore, “Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say – Our party is determined to regain your trust.”

Yet in response to a primarily economic speech, Jindal attempted a demarcation between the two Parties along the following lines.

“To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you – the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything.”

Fair enough but this sounds remarkably like the economic prescription offered during the 2008 campaign by John McCain and rejected by voters.

I have to agree with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who dubbed Jindal the “anti-Palin.” I suspect most Democrats would prefer to face his policy wonk assiduousness over her folksy but often divisive ideologizing in 2012.

As for the rest of Obama’s speech, perhaps the most intriguing line came during a portion on education, when the President challenged young people to seek at least one year of post-high school education.

“And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

What (if any) may be the effects on inner city black youths, who often experience some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, when the first African-American President says that dropping out of school is not only uncool but also unpatriotic? The same query occurs over his admonitions to their parents to turn off the TV and help them study. The spirit of Bill Cosby seems to be overshadowing the Obama Administration’s Education Department.

Never mind Cosby, Obama was almost Bush-like in his jingoism. He also used a common Bush Congressional speech device, introducing a “gallery of heroes” seated around the First Lady. Obama’s gallery had some twists, however. In addition to the airline pilot who coolly and safely landed his disabled jet on the Hudson River and a bevy of military personnel with overseas service, there was also a bank president who gave away his multi-million dollar bonus to his struggling employees and denizens of tornado-ravaged Kansas town using their rebuilding efforts as an opportunity to employ clean energy.

Finally, there was a South Carolina teenager who wrote a letter to Obama, begging for Congress and him to help repair her dilapidated high school. Although their building was hopeless, the girl and her peers were anything but this.

“We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself . . . so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”

This last line, quoted by the President, may well have been the rallying cry of Obama’s speech and his fledgling Presidency. He may not succeed in every endeavor. He may even fail spectacularly at all of them but he will not quit. Quitting is for the fearful and Obama proved last night that he is not among their number.

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Impediment to Clear Thinking

If you supported Barack Obama during the Democratic primary season last year, you learned there was one incontrovertible rule of contemporary politics – never count Hillary Clinton out. Love her or hate her, the woman is a human dynamo who never backs down. She brought a contest that was supposedly a mathematical impossibility to a dead heat, at least in terms of pledged delegates and the popular vote. The more critics dismissed her candidacy, the better a candidate she became.

Therefore, I viewed pronouncements by pundits that Clinton was out of the loop and highly frustrated by her new role of Obama’s Secretary of State with a certain degree of skepticism, even when the cynics included former Clinton insider Dick Morris.

To be sure, many Obama supporters were alarmed and dismayed when the President-elect offered the State job to his former rival. They feared Clinton as too strong-willed and independent to be a team player. Since he could not count on Clinton to clip her own wings, these analysts concluded, Obama would have no choice but to marginalize her once he took office. Indeed, some mused this was the explicit objective of Obama’s much vaunted “team of rivals” approach.

By February 9, Morris apparently had bought into this logic. He wrote a column in The Hill that (mockingly?) fretted Clinton’s “job description is dissolving under her feet.” Pointing to roles being staked out in foreign policy by other Obama officials, ranging from Vice-President Biden to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Morris characterized Clinton as “surrounded by people who are, at best, strangers and, at worst, enemies” and judged her “essential problem is that she is an outsider in the current mix.”

Morris correctly notes, “The power of the Secretary of State is not statutory, nor does it flow from the prestige of the post’s occupant . . . The power of the Secretary of State flows directly from the President.” Since Obama had paid scant attention to Clinton since taking office, Morris concluded Clinton must be ruefully finding herself left “with only a vestige of the power she must have thought she acquired when she signed on to be President Obama’s chief Cabinet officer.”

Consideration of a more rigorous nature might have factored in Obama’s extensive preoccupation with an economic stimulus package and domestic agenda during his first days in office. Yet even if Morris numbers among those who insist an Obama Administration must deal with everything at once, the past week should leave no doubt that Clinton is large and in charge at State.

Clinton’s expedition to Asia has placed her front and center as America’s voice to the rest of the world.

Beginning in Indonesia, Clinton repeatedly hammered home the main message of her trip – the Obama Administration's readiness and willingness to listen and engage the world.
She did so not only by meeting with government leaders but by appearing on TV and radio programs, touring public places, and engaging in town hall-style meetings, all meant to directly engage foreign populations.

Foreign crowds often greeted Clinton with rock-star receptions in the countries she visited. Some of this was due to Obama’s own positive image. However, her own reputation and relationships built from past travel in the region also played a part.

Clinton was far more than merely an agent of goodwill to Asia and she delivered several strongly worded statements while traveling there.

When North Korea used the birthday of Kim Jong Il to claim the right to “space development,” a term it has used in the past to disguise long-range missile tests, Clinton warned against such a launch, saying it would damage that nation’s prospects for improved relations with the United States and the world. She also conceded the U.S. is concerned North Korea may soon face a succession crisis to replace Jong Il.

In Japan, she expressed the Obama Administration’s support for Prime Minister Taro Aso, despite his unpopularity at home, by inviting him to Washington, thereby making him the first foreign leader to visit Obama at the White House. She also signed a historic military accord removing some of the U.S. soldiers stationed on Okinawa to Guam, dealing with long-standing tensions over U.S. military personnel on Japanese soil.

Concluding her tour in China, Clinton tried to sell continued investment in the U.S. despite the recent economic downturn. Pointing out the deeply entwined economies of the two countries, Clinton argued the U.S. taking on more debt was necessary for China to recommence exporting to their largest market.

Yet the candor and bluntness that marked her trip was also on display here. In fact, on the question of human rights, Clinton managed to raise the hackles of progressive advocates with her comments every bit as much as those of her Chinese hosts. While she admitted she would raise the topic with Chinese officials, she shrugged off all expectations for a meaningful response, explaining, “we pretty much know what they're going to say.”

Some saw this as removing pressure from the Chinese and throwing away a U.S. bargaining point. I disagree completely.

The U.S. government has reprimanded China for decades over its human rights violations – sometimes sincerely, sometimes hypocritically – and China has consistently responded we have no right lecturing them about their own internal affairs. This approach tends to leave the ball at least partially in our court.

By suggesting low expectations because we do not believe the Chinese have any real interest in human rights, Clinton is being less diplomatic but she clearly leaves Beijing’s communist government bearing the weight of the moral argument.

“I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking,” Clinton told reporters traveling with her. “And I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious.”

Well played, Madame Secretary.

Yet if Clinton’s trip ought to erase all doubts among the Morris cynics that she is nothing more than window dressing in the Obama Administration, it should likewise lay to rest the worrying and fretting by Obama supporters over her as an uncontrollable prima donna.

Throughout her sojourn, Clinton reiterated repeatedly that she was traveling as the ears, mouth, and brains of the Obama Administration overseas but not its soul.

“President Obama is so focused on our problems at home,” Clinton explained at one point. “He's not going to be able to travel as much as he wants to. So it is important that I get out and do as much travel as possible to send a message that he wants the world to hear.”

At another stop, she complimented her boss, saying, “I think President Obama has an extraordinary capacity to [engage] because of the really positive feelings that he personally engenders.”

“To a lesser degree I have some of the same capacity,” she then demurred.

Clinton is unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell in temperament and training. However, both are high-profile figures, rightly viewed as “outsiders” in their respective Administrations. Yet Clinton is quite like Powell in two aspects. First, she is going to play the loyal soldier and place service to her country ahead of personal ambition, at least for the present. Second, she has the savvy and the will to carry out her mission most capably.

Some of us made the mistake of counting her out too soon last year. Morris committed a similar error earlier this month. Let no one else make the same mistake again, lest they also – in the words of a wise woman – suffer from an impediment to clear thinking.

Hillary Clinton is serving as Secretary of State on her own terms but that is far from the same as insisting that everything related to foreign policy must be done by her or be done her way. Obama is lucky to have her.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Alternative Aesop

The Crow and the Pitcher

A crow that was perishing with thirst spotted a pitcher and immediately flew to it in the hope it might contain water. Upon reaching it, the crow discovered, much to his grief, that the pitcher contained only a small amount of fluid at its bottom. Strain as he might, the crow could not reach the precious liquid through the pitcher’s narrow mouth and long neck.

Exactly why the crow was so darn thirsty in the first place or why a stray pitcher might be its only chance of finding water is unclear.

It may be this story took place in a desert. If so, it would have to be a mighty stupid crow that would choose to make its home anywhere so inhospitable as a desert. However, this crow was actually quite clever, as you will see later on in the fable, so that scenario does not seem very likely.

Moreover, what would a pitcher be doing in the middle of the desert, anyway? It does not seem the sort of thing a person would easily set down and then forget about in an environment where scarcity of water drives every conscious act. Maybe someone temporarily left it next to a spring or oasis for filling. Yet, if this were true, then the crow would have plenty of water that was more easily accessible, so this does not seem very likely either.

Maybe the land where the crow lived was undergoing some sort of terrible drought. On the other hand, if this were the case, it seems reasonable that a crow, particularly a clever one, such as this crow, as you will see later in the fable, would just go elsewhere to find water. I mean, it’s a bird. It can fly. It has ready means to both catch sight of and travel to even relatively distant sources of water. Crows are natural scavengers. Why would this one be hanging around and wasting its time with some dumb pitcher?

I guess the drought could have been sudden, widespread, and intense in a climate change nightmarish sort of way. Still, the timeline for the story is ancient Greece and this would mean it was millennia before either any human-manufactured carbon dioxide global warming or Al Gore making scary films telling us about it, so this scenario suffers from intractable continuity problems.

The only other possibility is that the story takes places on some tiny island out in the middle of the ocean without any fresh water sources but this would be an even stupider place for the crow to have picked as its home. Maybe the crow found itself stranded on the island after a hurricane blew it there but this seems awfully unlikely. Could a bird as small as a crow survive something that traumatic? Does Greece even have hurricanes?

What is more, let’s not forget about the pitcher. Finding a piece of man-made crockery on a desert island is even more implausible than finding it in the middle of a mainland desert.

Most unclear of all is how a crow clever enough to do the thing this crow ends up doing, and just wait until you hear about it, does not simply tip over the pitcher and drink its contents as they drain out.

No, no, no! Nothing about this story adds up.

Oh, well . . . we’ve gone this far, I suppose we might as well continue and just accept the premise on faith. This fable has a really great ending and moral that I would hate for all of you to miss and besides it’s not as if any other truly terrific stories haven’t suffered from questionable beginnings. I mean, how likely is it that Atticus Finch, an intelligent, educated, sensitive man, would choose to remain living and raise his two motherless children in a poor, Podunk, racist town like Maycomb Alabama?

But perhaps I digress . . .

Anyway, the crow attempted every act of physicality of which he was capable, as well as several others of which he was not, without any luck reaching what he desired at the pitcher’s bottom.

He was almost frantic with thirst by this point. A lesser crow might have given into despair but, as I think I previously mentioned, this was an especially smart crow. What made him so clever is also unclear. Perhaps in his quest for suitable bodies of drinking water, he happened to perch upon the bathtub of Archimedes at the very moment when that eminent mathematician and sage had his revelation about proportional displacement by volume.

If that was what happened, we must forgive the crow for not drinking at this point because it was bathwater, after all, and not that of Angelina Jolie. Plus, he was frightened away, as I am sure most of us would have been by the sight of a naked and possibly mentally unstable Greek man jumping up out of a bathtub.

Whatever the case, the bird had a “Eureka!” moment of its own. It immediately flew off – not in search of water this time but small rocks. It soon returned with one clutched in its beak and dropped it into the pitcher.

Because the mouth of the pitcher was so narrow, the rocks were really no larger than pebbles and the bird had to repeat the process over and over and over again. Nonetheless, the accumulation of rocks, which sank to the bottom, caused the level of the fluid in the pitcher to rise until it was quite close to the top.

Only then did the thirsty crow pause in its efforts to take a much-deserved drink . . .

. . . and promptly fell over to commence a protracted and unpleasant death.

You see, the liquid in the pitcher was not fresh water but rather a distillation of hemlock. Incredibly, it contained the remains of the poison drunk earlier that day by Socrates as his accepted punishment for the crime of “corrupting” Athenian youth.

The crow might have alerted himself to his danger had he bothered to sniff the liquid and detected its pungent odor, reminiscent of parsnips. In fairness, crows rely much more on their sense of sight than that of smell, so perhaps we cannot damn him too much on this point. Conversely, his reliance on vision places the crow in a particularly bad light for failing to notice the body of the dead philosopher lying stretched out a mere five feet away from the pitcher.

Apparently, cleverness and acute observation are not mutually dependent.


“By necessity, some inventions are a real mutha.”

– or –

“Little by little gets the futile job done.”

– or –

“It is not whether you see the glass (i.e. pitcher) as half-empty or half-full but rather you correctly see what is next to the glass that marks discerning judgment.”

– or –

“Sometimes knowledge is much more important than imagination (sorry, Einstein).”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Independent of Moderation

Amidst a post-Judd Gregg Obama Administration, the deconstruction of bipartisanship by Washington’s talking heads continues this week, including an op/ed piece in Monday’s New York Times by James Morone, a Professor of Political Science at Brown University, as well as thoughts on Tuesday by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Both men not only accept but also welcome and celebrate sometimes-acrimonious debate as a far more representative environment for democratic government than some sort of genteel tea party or consciousness-raising love fest. Furthermore, both men dismiss calls for a return to some golden age of bipartisan cooperation as based on quixotic daydreams rather than historical fact.

There is obvious Truth in such assertions and their pragmatism is admirable. Yet such viewpoints fail to acknowledge or explain the extreme polarization that has developed within partisan politics in recent decades, a phenomenon so pronounced it is obvious even to causal political observers.

Morone certainly goes too far in suggesting that all bipartisanship is merely an illusion in which the minority Party is “cowed” into submission, either by the majority Party’s sheer dominance or outside events. We have entered a new paradigm in which both Parties view any compromise as weakness and defeat. We have witnessed the birth of a new breed of politician, who favors confrontation over consensus and values halting all progress over conceding a single principle. There is only absolute victory or non-ceasing opposition.

What has given rise to this partisan polarization within the Parties? Paradoxically, I believe it is the simultaneous rise of Independent voters.

Morone is exactly right in suggesting that most successful past Presidents were effective not so much in reaching out to rival politicians but to the American public. They convinced average voters their Party’s ideology was in voters’ best interests and used this as a groundswell of popular support for their positions – the Presidency as bully pulpit.

Every U.S. politician since 1980 has been trying to create their version of Ronald Reagan persuading conservative blue-collar workers to his cause (the so-called Reagan Democrats). Like Reagan, Obama won “the middle” by carrying a majority of Independent voters. However, his electoral success did not translate into any type of political persuasiveness. Obama’s stimulus bill received not a single Republican vote in the House and only three in the Senate.

The difference lies in the fact that Reagan Democrats were Democrats. Although persuadable to vote for the occasional conservative candidate or issue, they still mostly voted along Party lines. This made them a force within the Democratic Party and the more moderate/centrist politicians they helped to elect were the ones who sometimes compromised and helped pass Republican legislation.

Such Party moderates are increasingly rare. Bluedog Democrats still exist in the Midwest and South but the more liberal Democratic leadership views them with great suspicion and often seek to marginalize them. Across the aisle, the concept of a liberal Republican lies buried along with other political dinosaurs and even moderates receive derision as RINOs (i.e. “Republican In Name Only”) from their right-wing colleagues.

Cohen suggests, “Most [contemporary politicians] come from exquisitely gerrymandered districts created by computers that . . . are frequently reliably liberal or conservative. The computer has deleted the middle.”

Cohen is spot-on in identifying the outcome but confuses it as a cause. Those who blame computers for humanity’s problems understand neither human nature nor computers. The computer is only a tool that allows human mendacity, like all forms of human intellect, to proliferate at ever-increasing speeds. Our faults lie not in our pixels but in our politicians.

Whether the rise of extremist cores droves moderates out of the two major Parties or the exit of moderates allowed the Parties to become increasingly extreme without consequences at the polls is probably a self-fulfilling, downward-spiraling feedback loop. However, two results are undeniable.

One is the increased polarization of the Parties, due to the presence of fewer moderates/centrists to check partisan extremes. Second is the rise of Independent voters, who do not vote for political Parties or even necessarily along ideological lines but for individual candidates and issues.

While Independent voters have grown in numbers, they have failed to grow in practical political power. Any number of third Parties exist which reflect some or all moderate values but none have gained national influence.

The closest anyone may have come was Ross Perot’s two Presidential runs in the 1990s. Running as an Independent in 1992, Perot achieved just under nineteen percent of the popular vote nationwide and finished second in two states – Maine and Utah. This was the best showing by a third Party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Yet Perot was strictly a one-man show and his poll numbers rose and fell according his eccentric behavior and his willingness to spend his own money.

Perot tried creating the Reform Party and running again as its candidate in 1996. Unlike his first attempt, he accepted campaign donations this time around. However, the more Perot looked like a typical politician, the more the public tired of him and he finished with only eight percent of the popular vote. What is more, the Reform Party created no national organization. Ex-professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s 1998 election as Governor of Minnesota was its only notable victory.

Without political clout, many Independent voters find their choice of desirable candidates even more limited than when they were the moderate elements within established Parties. As a result, they often wind up choosing “the lesser of two evils” or even voting against a particularly repulsive candidate rather than voting for a commendable one.

Political strategists in both major Parties observed this fact and learned they need not win the hearts and minds of Independents so much as scare or disgust them about the opposition. This has led to the increased use of ever more vitriolic negative campaigning, which in turn contributes to hard feelings and a more partisan tone in Washington.

Independent voters deserve no special blame for the sequence of events that has transpired but what they initiated remains both ironic and highly frustrating. In their desire to escape mindless partisan extremism within the major Parties, their exodus only helped to exacerbate the problem by removing checks on partisanship’s worst excesses and robbing them of the (limited) political influence they once held.

Republicans and Democrats may appear to act on their best behavior to woo Independents but this is the real illusion of modern politics. Despite priding themselves on their autonomy, Independent voters are often those most manipulated by the Parties, using fear-mongering and negative campaigning, to drive them (temporarily) into their respective camps.

Sadly, the chief result of a large bloc of Independent voters has not been to force more centrism into politics but rather to leave the two major Parties more independent from moderation and alternate viewpoints than ever. It has allowed the core constituencies that remain to divorce themselves from restraint, compromise, and – all too often – common sense.

Friday, February 13, 2009


“He must have been noodling this over the weekend.”

That was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s laconic evaluation as to why Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire decided to withdraw his name from the nomination he accepted just ten days earlier for Secretary of Commerce.

His recantation sent shockwaves through Washington and set talking heads twittering anew over President Obama’s failure to achieve a new bipartisan tone in Washington. This indictment rings true where early, meaningful participation by the GOP during drafting of the economic stimulus bill is concerned. In the case of Gregg, not so much.

Others intimate that a string of failed nominations points to naïveté and poor judgment in Obama’s leadership. Again, such an evaluation seems on target for some of the other high-profile withdrawals, such as Bill Richardson and Tom Daschle. It is off the mark about Gregg.

The Senator was responsible and self-effacing when parting ways with the Administration. “I made a mistake,” he said. “The President asked me to do it; I said ‘yes.’ That was my mistake, not his.”

Moreover, Gregg had nothing but praise for Obama. “He has been a person who has reached out and aggressively reached out, across the aisle. And I immensely respect that and I immensely respect him.”

For its part, the White House was gracious and conciliatory in its acceptance of Gregg’s decision. Obama vowed he was “going to just keep on making efforts to build the kind of bipartisan consensus around important issues that I think the American people are looking for." Obama said he was glad Gregg “searched his heart” and changed course before his confirmation.

“It's better we figured this out now than later,” echoed Emanuel.

This is all well and good but the vague reasons cited by Gregg for his departure do not convince or satisfy.

“The bottom line is this was just a bridge too far for me . . . For thirty years, I've been my own person in charge of my own views, and I guess I hadn't really focused on the job of working for somebody else and carrying their views, and so this is basically where it came out.”

After fifteen years in the Senate, Gregg does not know how to compromise or be a team player? Senators accomplish nothing by acting independently.

Gregg also cited “irreconcilable differences” with the President’s stimulus bill.

Yet just a few days earlier, Gregg had praised this very bill and lectured his Republican peers on opposing it for purely political purposes. “This is not a time for partisanship. This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well.”

Yeah, that is correct. So what happened?

Finally, an Obama Administration decision to have Census Bureau officials report directly to the White House as well as to him reportedly displeased Gregg. The 2010 census could have profound political impacts, since population serves as the basis for drawing Congressional district boundaries. Gregg, like many Republicans, feels the Administration’s attempt at overt control is dangerously politicizing the process.

This is a legitimate complaint but it is also the most disappointing aspect of Gregg’s withdrawal. Despite increased White House involvement, the Census Bureau remains part of the Commerce Department. As a Republican, Gregg might have played an invaluable watchdog role to curb Democratic excesses.

Republicans of all stripes were complimentary – one might even say jubilant – regarding Gregg’s change of heart.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lauded Gregg for having “made a principled decision.”

“What Judd Gregg showed today is that he's not willing to swap his integrity for a place in the Cabinet,” declared former Bush political advisor Karl Rove.

Ed Rogers, a former White House staffer for Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. and now Chairman of BGR Group, had a different take. “This nomination was a flawed concept,” he explained, not because it was bipartisan but because Gregg was not Commerce material. “If a Republican were elected president and needed a list of one hundred likely candidates for Commerce Secretary, Gregg would not be on it.”

Apparently, Gregg is too good and simultaneously not good enough to serve under Obama. Republicans are admirably thorough at covering all their bases.

Linda Chavez, a former member of the Reagan administration and currently Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, probably expressed the GOP position most honestly, when she said bluntly, “Bipartisanship is highly overrated” and “2010 is just around the corner.”

The Republican philosophy is clear. Anybody who compromises is weak. When Obama fails to compromise, he is betraying his promise of bipartisanship. When Republicans fail to compromise, they are upholding their principles. It is too cute by half and I do not think it will persuade Independent and moderate voters that Obama is a milquetoast, unless he becomes flagrantly obsequious in his continued efforts to reach across the aisle.

Despite reports that a former staffer was under criminal investigation for allegedly taking baseball and hockey tickets from a lobbyist in exchange for legislative favors, Gregg said he was not a subject of the investigation. He further insisted the vetting scrutiny that toppled other Obama nominations had nothing to do with his withdrawal.

However, a senior Administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that Democrats believed Gregg would have faced potentially rough questioning from fellow Republicans during his confirmation hearings because of his willingness to cooperate with the opposition. “I think what ended Judd Gregg's hope of and desire of being the Commerce Secretary wasn't anything any Democrat said or did but what Republicans said and did,” said the official.

Gregg also announced he would not run for re-election to the Senate when his current term expires in 2010. It is possible some private matter, such as his health or family, is forcing him to remove himself from politics altogether and this is the real reason for his decision not to serve.

Lacking this as certainty, however, it is difficult not to conclude the noodling Gregg has supposedly been doing in his head eventually worked its way down his spine and turned what used to be his backbone into a wet noodle. As regards Obama’s backbone, do not expect him to bend over backwards in a bipartisan limbo for Republicans when filling any future Cabinet positions.

It was Gregg who sounded rather naïve and more than a little Kum-ba-ya yesterday when he explained he accepted – and perhaps even campaigned for – the Commerce job despite known ideological differences with Obama because of the “euphoria of [my] desire” to serve and his genuine belief that Obama will have a “good Presidency.”

McConnell said he expected Gregg to receive a “standing ovation” when he walks into the next gathering of the Senate Republican Conference.

This sounds exactly like the proper reward for Gregg. When the applause fades away, will Gregg consider the sixty seconds of approbation from his peers are what he traded for a lasting voice in helping to write history?

Gregg is no more a failure in all this than Obama. He is a terrific disappointment, however. At a time when his Party is out of power and complaining about it, he received an opportunity to assume a leadership position that would have allowed him to serve Republican interests within the system as well as serving his country. He chose the safety of partisan approval instead.

Ach, such a noodling!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln and Evolution

Today marks the bicentennial of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born February 12, 1809. Several have noted curious connections between these two men, most notably New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in recent times, with the publication of his book Angels and Ages – A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.

Lincoln and Darwin both lost their mothers in early childhood. Both had distant relationships with their fathers, at times bordering on loathing. Boyhood friends described both as tenderhearted and hating all forms of cruelty. Both suffered from depression and severe stomach pains on and off throughout their lives. Both men doted on their wives and both lost three children.

Each was raised Christian but struggled with religious doubts. While always a person of faith and a rigorous student of the Bible, Lincoln belong to no organized religion and supposedly scoffed at most. For his part, Darwin eventually proclaimed himself an agnostic.

Both men rapidly rose from relative obscurity into the world spotlight and greatness in their fifties and within a year of each other.

Lincoln suppressed issuing his Emancipation Proclamation for months, even though he believed it the right thing to do. Darwin put off publishing On the Origin of Species for years, even though he felt certain he was correct. Both hesitated out of fear how the public would receive these works.

Their enemies often caricatured the two as apes or monkeys – Darwin because of his contention that men and apes shared a common ancestor and Lincoln due to his less-than-handsome physiognomy.

Indeed, it is important to remember that both men were controversial and had real enemies during their lifetimes and both remain disliked by many up to the present day. Conversely, both men’s admirers tended to mythologize them after their deaths, which often works to their detriment when attempting to evaluate them and their contributions historically.

Yet the most surprising link between Lincoln and Darwin is the role each played in helping to fight the scourges of racism and slavery. Just as surprising is how each man’s personal positions on these topics differ from our expectations and their public accomplishments.

Darwin was a pureblood abolitionist, from a family of abolitionist leaders going back at least as far as his maternal and paternal grandparents. For Darwin, holding such strong sentiments was as natural as breathing.

“Great God, how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth, Slavery, abolished!” he exclaimed in an 1861 letter to a friend.

Darwin did not share his grandparents’ activism in the abolitionist movement. This is hardly surprising, as slavery had been illegal in Great Britain since before his birth and outlawed in its colonies by the time he reached adulthood.

However, Darwin’s second major publication, the Descent of Man, in 1871, scientifically established all human beings as members of a single species, Homo sapiens, and descended from common ancestors. This contradicted and undermined the teachings of pro-slavery groups that non-whites were different – and inferior – species from whites.

Darwin came to prove what he had long suspected – that slavery was wrong because it denied the basic equality of all races.

“Unless we willfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge approximately recognize our [commonality]; nor need we feel ashamed of it,” he once wrote.

Lincoln’s contribution to ending slavery in America is far more direct but he came to it slowly. His sole interest at the start of his Presidency was preserving the Union. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation partly as a military tactic to break the South’s reason for fighting and partly to ennoble an increasingly bloody and heart wrenching war.

What is more, despite a lifelong detestation of slavery, Lincoln was far from progressive, even for the Nineteenth Century, when it came to equality of the races. He retained many racist views regarding blacks. The following except from his debates with Stephen Douglas during their 1858 Senate race is now widely quoted to demonstrate this.

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

However, when the mythology falls away and we view Lincoln, warts and all, it leaves his opposition to slavery still admirable, albeit more human and less ideal. Ignorant and outmoded as his views on blacks may now seem, Lincoln nonetheless championed legal equality for slaves because he saw no way to reconcile slavery with the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

In the same debates with Douglas, he pushes aside his personal feelings to make a case for this supremely American principle.

“I agree with Judge Douglas that [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”

And does so again, even more eloquently, here.

“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world . . . It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread . . . and I'll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

By the end of his Presidency and life, Lincoln had begun to reconcile himself to the eventuality of blacks and whites coexisting as well as full African American citizenship. In a speech before a crowd at the White House, he called for the right to vote being extended to some, better-educated blacks. John Wilkes Booth stood listening within the crowd and it was this announcement that hardened his heart to kill Lincoln.

Lincoln and Darwin never met and it is unclear if Lincoln ever even heard of the British naturalist. Nevertheless, the way each shifted the prevailing beliefs and institutions of their era – with continued influences still felt in modern times – inextricably links them together. In no way is the link more important than their joint affirmation of basic humanism, one out of Nineteenth Century scientific empiricism and the other out of Eighteenth Century Enlightenment philosophy.

For Darwin, the evolutionist, his personal belief in the concept was virtually innate and unchanging. For Lincoln, the backwoods child of poverty turned prairie lawyer, his personal beliefs were ever altering and adapting to meet the realities and exigencies of the nation he ultimately not only preserved but also made over into something superior than its earlier form. One might say that Abraham Lincoln evolved and forced the United States to evolve with him.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Masochistic Markets

A masochist is one who derives (usually sexual) pleasure from being hurt and/or humiliated. Often commingled with sadism (S&M), it is related to but separate from other sexual deviations, such as dominance & submission and bondage & discipline. The whole subculture derives it name from the writings of such authors as the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Modern psychologists believe S&M is less about sex and more about control. The control craved by a sadist is straightforward; it is more subtle for the masochist. The masochist seeks to control another individual by placing (i.e. forcing) the other into a position of dominance over them. Masochists desire the compliance, helplessness, and even pain that follow their submission because these provide a therapeutic escape from stress, responsibility, and guilt.

After watching them in recent months, and especially over the past week, I have begun to suspect that Wall Street and other markets of forsaking their long-standing love affair with free, unfettered capitalism and twisting themselves into a distinctly masochistic bent for government intervention and regulation.

These masochistic markets have chosen U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to portray the role of Marquis de Sade in their caprice. Unfortunately, for them, Geithner is ostensibly too much a straight arrow of capitalism to play along.

Yesterday, Geithner unveiled a much-touted plan by the Obama Administration to make financial markets more accountable as it attempts to spend the rest of the TARP money authorized it by Congress and perhaps look for more beyond.

His proposals were generally panned as good intentioned but lacking in details. Yet the vacuity of Geithner’s proposals was entirely intentional, if Oval Office scuttlebutt is accurate.

Geithner apparently emerged the winner from a hot and heavy debate with Obama’s senior advisor, who wished to place restrictions far more draconian on financial institutions seeking federal aid. They worried the poor economy and populist anger over extravagant executive compensation could cause a backlash if government did not tighten the screws on companies receiving bailout money.

For his part, Geithner worried the bailout would not work if there was too much government intervention and restrictions over markets and industries. He also worried that extensive government regulation would discourage private investment.

It makes sense intrinsically. Yet one only has to watch Wall Street’s reactions to two Geithner announcements in the past week to see logic is standing on its head these days in the markets.

Last Wednesday, Geithner stood solemnly next to Obama as the President announced the imposition of executive salary caps and other strictures for any firms accepting additional federal monies. The Dow’s response was slowly to gain about 150 points over the next several days.

Yesterday, Geithner disclosed the “business friendly” TARP restructuring for which he had fought so hard. The Dow nose-dived over 380 points over a single afternoon in reaction to his largesse.

Given the anger they face from the public and the calamitous uncertainty of recent months, banking and investment firm CEOs would rather face up to harsh details than receive no details. In their own weirdly controlling way, they want the therapeutic release of forcing the Obama Administration into a position of telling them what to do.

They want to know what new regulations and restrictions they will have to exchange for additional capital, even if those restrictions are more stringent than anything associated with TARP to date. They want to know what value the Treasury and Federal Reserve will place on “bad assets,” even if that value is less than what they paid for them. They want government to stem the tide of foreclosures, even if that means federal judges forcing them to accept reduced mortgage payments.

At the macro level, this impetus may well be subconscious on the part of markets. However, there is no doubt that some financial executives consciously understand their own culpability in creating the current mess and desire some form of punishment/reckoning.

“Many people believe – and, in many cases, justifiably so – that Wall Street lost sight of its larger public obligations and allowed certain trends and practices to undermine the financial system's stability,” said Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of the Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

In an op/ed piece for the Washington Post, Charles Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is even more direct. “Should we opt for even more pain now to gain a better future? For instance, should we create new controls to stamp out much sin and folly and thus dampen future booms? The answer is yes.”

“Sensible reform cannot avoid causing significant pain, which is worth enduring to gain extra safety and more exemplary conduct,” Munger continues. “And only when there is strong public revulsion, such as exists today, can legislators minimize the influence of powerful special interests enough to bring about needed revisions in law.”

Garry Evans, Chief Asian Equity Strategist with HSBC in Hong Kong, said Geithner was skirting around what many investors have already concluded – the U.S. may have to nationalize banks for a period.

Geithner offered to be a doula for bankers and help them work through their pain when the thing bankers really seem to want is a dominatrix.

Geithner was afraid that too much tough talk would scare away investors when investors had apparently decided they liked it when the Obama Administration talked dirty to them. They were disappointed when it failed to then tie them up and spit on them.

Geithner decided the best approach was to offer lenders a mixture of carrots and sticks when all lenders appeared to fancy was for him to hit them with the sticks and tell them they had been very bad and did not deserve the carrots.

Geithner may not be ready to serve as the de Sade for these masochistic markets, either by training or personal inclination, but one thing ought to be clear to him by this point. If there is ever a good time for government to intrude on business and abrade it with regulations, it is when business asks it to do so.

Most contemporary psychologists do not view masochism as a sickness, so long as all the participants involved are consenting. Thus, while offering treatment for it through analysis and other means, individuals are not so much “cured” of their masochistic longings and behaviors as outgrowing them.

Maybe such will be the case with our current masochistic markets, when and if the economy grows more solid and secure. Until then, the Marquis de Geithner needs to crack the whip with them . . . in more ways than one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not Perfect

“You know, look, it's not perfect.”

That was President Obama yesterday, addressing a crowd in Elkhart Indiana about the economic stimulus bill turgidly moving through Congress. By a prime time press conference last evening, Obama waxed on the subject with slightly more articulacy.

“The plan is not perfect. No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope.”

Granted, no piece of legislation ever passes into law without room for improvement. Nonetheless, Obama’s use of the term “not perfect” for this particular bill emerges as the clear understatement of the year as well as his Presidency to date.

In many ways, the term “failure” does not apply with the stimulus bill.

The legislature is moving through Congress relatively quickly, albeit slower than Obama wishes, particularly given its unprecedented size. Obama has gotten largely what he wants, both in terms of scope and the mix of tax cuts and spending that make up the package. Both versions of the bill passed their respective houses of Congress and by sufficient majorities to stifle GOP delaying tactics. Changes and concessions were limited and usually improved the final product.

Although some time – again, more than Obama desires – will be required to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions, there is a good chance the final bill will pass Congress by similar or even greater margins.

The problem for Obama with this bill is not what he gets or when he gets it but rather how he gets it. During the Presidential campaign, Obama promised to attempt bringing a bipartisan spirit to Washington. His first major attempt to do so has met with stridently partisan opposition from Republicans.

There are many positives in what Obama has done to promote the stimulus package, despite the GOP’s rejection of it.

He began by speaking of the universal need for stimulus rather than presenting his own uncompromising blueprint for it. He invited key Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House, employing persuasion and a call for unity.

When not a single House Republican voted for the package, Obama stepped up his rhetoric and began using the Presidency as a bully pulpit, speaking directly to the American people. He shifted his focus from all Republicans to potentially persuadable moderates.

While his warnings over dire consequences for failing to act cannot help but recall the fear mongering so common in the recent Bush Administration, they also contained grains of Truth. What is more, Obama never questioned the sincerity or patriotism of those who disagreed with him.

Yet in spite of these laudable efforts, his former Presidential contender, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is correct when he repeatedly criticizes the legislation for its lack of bipartisanship. “Republicans have not been brought in to the degree that we should be,” he told the Washington Times in one interview.

Obama did make a mistake with the stimulus bill and it is important he learn from it going forward. Yet the mistake lies not in how he handled Republican opposition during the process but rather how he handled his Democratic cohorts at the start of it.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California hit the nail on the head when she said, “I think it is important that [Obama] reached out. But lesson learned – It would have been better for him to send up his idea of a bill instead of having House Democratic leaders initiate the process.”

Even more germane than Presidential direction, Democrats must immediately stop the practice of drafting important legislation by a handful of leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Banking Committee Chairperson Barney Frank, and House Appropriations Chairperson David Obey – usually behind closed doors.

This group is both too ingrained in partisan Democratic politics and too timid in their new majority, fearing GOP input even when they know they have the votes that will ensure ultimate passage of any critical elements. By shutting out Republicans at the start, they destroy the necessary buy-in that even Obama’s most sincere requests for input at the end cannot engender.

The difference between the shutout in the House and the few but critical votes won in the Senate illustrate this perfectly. It is probably no coincidence the only three moderate Republicans who wound up voting for the bill were also the ones invited to help compromise on it.

This lack of buy-in made the jobs of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl far too easy and the victories they achieved much less impressive than they exulted over. Then again, politics is all about perception and Obama’s blunder of shutting out Republican input at the start allowed to GOP legislators to coalesce in opposition around the sheer size of the bill.

Writing in the National Journal, Charlie Cook contends, “The House-passed package suggested an effort exclusively of, by, and for Democrats and it played to some of the worst stereotypes of the Democratic Party and of politics as usual on Capitol Hill.”

“In his bipartisan outreach, [Obama] failed to define and defend the major thrust of the House bill, allowing it to be inaccurately portrayed by Republicans . . . as filled with worthless pork,” agrees Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

The latest Rasmussen survey indicates forty-three percent of voters now oppose the stimulus plan, while only thirty-seven percent favor it. Sixty-two percent want the plan to include more tax cuts and less government spending.

The above is true despite the fact a recent Gallup poll found Americans favored government funding of infrastructure improvements and other projects over tax cuts as a superior way to create jobs by a margin of fifty percent to forty-two percent.

The difference between these seemingly conflicting mindsets is a clear victory for Republican partisan propaganda over Obama’s more recent attempts to ratchet up his defense of the stimulus bill.

Yet those who see Republicans as having handed Obama’s promise of bipartisanship next to his head on a platter with these votes are guilty of overstatement.

Some Republicans see and understand the difference between tactical opposition to Obama on stimulus versus a strategic defeat of his long-term goal of bipartisanship.

“The President has done a good job reaching out to Republicans and he has said he wants to approach this crisis . . . on a bipartisan basis. That's good, and we're willing to work with him on that. But this bill is not the President’s bipartisan plan," said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas on Fox News Sunday.

Likewise, the American public rates approval of Obama’s handling of the economic stimulus bill at sixty-seven percent, as opposed to only forty-eight percent for Congressional Democrats and thirty-one percent for Congressional Republicans.

A Rasmussen poll taken at about the same time finds only thirty-nine percent see Obama as guilty of overt partisanship, while the same group finds Congress guilty of partisanship by a margin of fifty-eight percent for Democrats and fifty-two percent for Republicans.

By opposing Obama simply for the sake of opposition, Republicans run the risk of appearing bellicose and obstructionist to necessary progress.

“I'm always concerned when the Republican Party takes a negative position on something that should be moving forward,” worried moderate Republican Representative Michael Castle of Delaware.

“[House Republicans] are talking too much about opposing,” echoes Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer. “They're talking too much about voting ‘no’ and not about how they're going to solve these issues. I'm proud the Party took a stand on principles but I also want to hear about how the Republican Party leaders intend to solve problems.”

Nor is the GOP is likely to win the hearts and minds of voters with boasts like the one from Republican Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who suggested last week that the Party is learning from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban.

Overall, Obama deserves good but not excellent marks for his attempts to bring bipartisanship to Washington. However, his stumbles with the stimulus bill teach an important lesson. He must get his own Party in order before he begins outreach to the opposition.

Actually, that is a pretty good lesson for Republicans in their role as the loyal opposition as well.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Needs of the Business

The company for which I work has not yet formally announced it will pay bonuses this year but most employees are hopeful, since we were profitable throughout the year and generally met or exceeded financial performance goals.

The company continues to deal with its own unique challenges, due to some bad decisions by senior management about a decade ago, and the current recession is not making it any easier to get by. As a result, it came as no surprise when the Senior Vice-President of Human Resources announced there would be no raises this year.

While some old-timers grumbled about happier times past, many of us were simply happy to have jobs. Whatever our personal situations and needs, raises were being withheld because of the “needs of the business” and this was a concept we all understood.

After all, nobody wants to increase their personal income at the expense of the continued existence of that income. Our only leverage is leaving the company in search of better opportunities. This is an unattractive prospect to most of us for a variety of reasons and we know there are plenty of competent unemployed folks out there who would love to take our places if we left. Therefore, we shut up, suck it in, and take one on the chin.

Thus, it struck most of us as delightfully fair when President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner announced their intention to imposed $500,000 caps on senior executive pay for the most distressed financial institutions receiving federal bailout money. In addition to the cap, the federal government imposed other restrictions as well.

The order bars the most senior executives from any severance packages if fired and severely limits the compensation of others, in an attempt to eliminate the “golden parachutes” so common among company officers of failed businesses.

Likewise, it requires boards of directors to adopt policies on spending for big-ticket items, such as corporate jets and entertainment, in order to prevent executives from disguising luxurious rewards to themselves as normal business expenses.

It expands the compulsion to “claw back” bonuses and other incentives for executives if those executives knowingly provided inaccurate information related to company financial statements or performance measurements. This addresses the way CEOs and CFOs all too often “cooked the books” to make companies appear more profitable than they really were.

Finally, awarding executives with bonuses and incentives necessitates placement before the stockholders of non-binding “say on pay” resolutions, the idea being greater transparency for huge compensation decisions previously made behind closed doors in boardrooms.

The President’s proposal met with popular reaction among lawmakers. Even many Congressional Republicans feel the ways chosen by some financial institutions to spend their TARP bailout money so far borders “close to being criminal,” in the words of Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top GOP member of the Banking Committee.

The mood on Wall Street was very different. Bankers and market analysts not only bewailed government intrusion but also argued the restrictions would hinder rather than aid economic recovery.

“That is pretty draconian – $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus,” huffed James Reda, founder and managing director of James F. Reda & Associates.

“If I didn’t pay [bonuses], the people were going to go . . . These people didn’t choose to cure cancer. These people didn’t choose to do public service work . . . These people chose to make money,” argued Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.

“The consequences of it is going to be a massive brain drain of senior talent from those companies that have taken TARP money to those companies that have not,” lamented Donald Straszheim, managing principal at Straszheim Global Advisor.

“Companies that need the most talented people to fix their problems won’t be able to pay them,” agreed Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Company,

Pearl Meyer, senior managing director at Steven Hall & Partners, told Fortune magazine this is already happening. “Right now AIG is hemorrhaging people and they are being grabbed up right and left.”

It seems extraordinary to me that banks would be so eager to take on senior managers who helped drive their old companies into the ground. Yet even if this mindset prevails, it is notable the food chain will be filled from the other end, such that executives at financially troubled banks who refuse to work for reduced pay and bonuses have a long line of eager replacements, much like the situation at my company.

Why would conservatives object to this? They are the ones, after all, who believe Darwinian competition within the free market is the answer to every problem from globalism to substandard public education. Apparently, they do not like the concept so much when it reaches into their own executive suites.

Lauren Smith of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, as well as other analysts, predict a talent flight from the big firms to smaller investment banks. That sounds like it could help strengthen the financial services industry across the board and help temper the excesses that result from oligopolies of a few giant companies.

Many pundits are suggesting that now is the perfect psychological moment to punish Wall Street’s elite. The fantasizing of Los Angeles Times columnist Pat Morrison sums up this mood nicely.

“Oh, I want it. I want it bad . . . when Barney Frank starts hauling fat-cat CEOs before his committee, I want him wearing a barbecue apron. Instead of a gavel, I want him wielding a barbecue fork the size of a trident . . . I want groveling. I want show-trial sweating and stammering. I want their nine-figure bonus checks endorsed over to the rest of us. I want my 401K money back. I want blood.”

Granted, the reality is a bit more complicated than simple vengeance.

Timothy Egan makes a better analogy in the Washington Post with Major League Baseball stars. While we all find their multi-million dollar salaries preposterous, most of us just shrug so long as they keep slugging home runs and making brilliant fielding plays. Only when their performance fails to meet expectations do we truly begin to pillory them for still receiving such exalted sums.

Likewise, most of us grew disgusted by stories of highly compensated executives during the 1990s and beyond but we accepted it so long as our retirement accounts and own small investments continued to grow. When the economic downturn began, we began to object, much like baseball, at disconnects between the “superstars” and the rest of us.

We lost raises and bonuses, and sometimes our jobs and houses, because of their greedy and/or bad decisions. They walked away with huge exit packages, only to have a different company hire them into a similar position at another outrageous salary.

Obama objected more to this inequity than the mistakes made by Wall Street and others when he announced the new limitations.

“This is America. We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. But what gets people upset – and rightfully so – are executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.”

Treasury Secretary Geithner was somewhat more direct.

“There is a deep sense across the country that those who were not . . . responsible for this crisis are bearing a greater burden than those who were.”

House Financial Services Committee Chairperson Barney Frank was predictably even blunter.

“People really hate you,” he told a group of bankers the other day. “And they’re starting to hate us because we hang out with you. You have to help us deal with that. You have to avoid being stupid.”

Once again, big business wants it both ways. They want assistance but at no cost to them. They want to keep enjoying the same immediate, overwhelming, non-ending gratification that helped get us all into the current mess where we currently find ourselves.

By taking TARP and other federal money, that makes me – as a taxpayer – kind of their boss for a change. I do not want revenge and I do not want to punish anybody. However, just once, I would like a chance to tell the kind of people like the people for whom I work what they kept telling me as they followed other rules for themselves.

To wit, just as bonuses and salaries were good in good times, so it is appropriate for some shared sacrifice in bad times.

C’mon, folks, the needs of the business dictate. Either pack up you bags and leave in search of greener pastures, with no golden parachutes to hold you up, or shut up, suck it in, and take one on the chin.

Oh, yeah . . . and stop being stupid.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hidden Mosaic

Discovery News reports archeologists found a Roman mosaic floor beneath the Catholic Cathedral of Reggio Emilia in Italy. Composed of tiny tiles, the mosaic is notable because of three mythological scenes portraying naked human figures.

Symbols associated with the figures –an ivy crown, a lotus flower, a fish, two ducks, and a type of crooked cane called a lituus – suggest they are associated with a Roman religious cult known as the augurs. Thus, early Christians built their church over what was once a temple to a cult of pagan gods.

Archeologists say this was no oversight and it was quite common in the Third Century A.D. for Christians to build on top of preexisting structures. Indeed, the builders clearly saw the mosaic floor and treated it with little regard, erecting the pillars of their church’s foundation directly on top of it.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital, Republican Senators have been eyeing President Obama’s Cabinet nominees with a scrutiny that would make any archeologist proud.

If Obama’s supporters view him as some sort of “messiah,” building a new church of credibility and high ethical standards over the ruins of George W. Bush’s Washington, then a hidden mosaic lying beneath it has been brought to light that strikes many of them as heretical in nature.

This mosaic contains it own collection of individuals, each stripped naked in the light of public inspection.

First, some Republicans raised concerns over Eric Holder, the first African-American nominated for the post of Attorney General. Holder was involved with the pardon of fugitive and Democratic contributor Marc Rich as well as a decision to reduce the sentences of sixteen members of the Boricua Popular Army, categorized by the FBI as a terrorist organization. He eventually earned confirmation.

Next, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, withdrew his name because of a federal grand jury investigation into pay-to-play dealings on his part. Richardson feared the airing of this issue at his confirmation hearings.

After this, Senate confirmation hearings for Treasury Secretary designee Timothy Geithner revealed he had not paid $35,000 self-employment taxes for several years, even though he had acknowledged his obligation to do so. Geithner also incorrectly deducted the cost of his children's sleep-away camp as a dependent care expense and his housekeeper's employment visa lapsed during the last three months she worked for him. Despite considerable doubts and notable embarrassment, the Senate confirmed him.

Then came yesterday, bringing with it a double whammy.

Nancy Killefer, nominated for the position of Chief Performance Officer, withdrew her name because she feared a distraction over a 2005 incident, in which the District of Columbia government had filed a more than $900 tax lien on her home for failure to pay state unemployment tax on household help.

Finally, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, withdrew later in the day over a public outcry. Some had long insisted his work at the law firm of Alston & Bird was tantamount to lobbying.

However, the real deal-breaker came with the revelation he received access to a limousine and chauffeur while a paid consultant at InterMedia Partners but did not declare it on his annual tax forms. Daschle reportedly also did not pay taxes on an additional $83,333 that he earned as a consultant to InterMedia Partners and revised his deductions to remove $14,963 in charitable donations claimed between 2005 and 2007.

These public figures also had another common factor beside corruption – they were all members of or closely connected to the Clinton Administration.

Holder was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and Deputy Attorney General. Richardson was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Energy Secretary. Geithner held an array of Treasury positions, most notably Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. Killefer served as Assistant Secretary for Management, CFO, and COO at Treasury. Daschle was Senate Majority Leader for six of the eight years of Clinton’s Presidency.

My intent here is not to damn the Clinton Administration as unusually corrupt. Rather, the Clinton Administration was characteristically corrupt and this is damning enough, given Obama’s campaign message to sweep away “business as usual” in Washington.

How such a politician would end up with Cabinet nominees of this ilk is simple enough.

While Obama’s supporters loved his freshness, some of them – and certainly most of his critics – deeply worried he lacked the necessary experience to govern competently. The financial crisis that exploded during the closing months of the campaign, combined with ongoing concerns over national defense and foreign policy, only served to exacerbate this apprehension. Quite possibly, it ultimately extended to the President-elect himself.

In casting about for Democrats with real-world federal government experience, Obama had few choices beyond former Clinton officials. As a result, his proposed Cabinet quickly became top-heavy with them.

Obama argued that he would be the moral beacon who would guide his subordinates to use their impressive experience to reform the very corrupt system of which they were all products. It seemed to work. Democrats and Republicans alike praised the competence of the team he selected. His approval ratings soared.

Obama built an impressive-looking church of credibility. Alas, it was only a matter of time before the mosaic of the old cult of Clinton, nee competence, began poking through and disturbing its pristine façade.

Daschle claimed an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times was among the things that motivated him to withdraw. This thesis, nailed to the door of the church of credibility, asserted, “Daschle is another in a long line of politicians who move cozily between government and industry. We don’t know that his industry ties would influence his judgments on health issues but they could potentially throw a cloud over healthcare reform.”

The Washington Post, argued back in defense of the cult of competence, contending, “Daschle deserves to be judged also on the basis of his long career in public service and his knowledge of and interest in healthcare reform . . . [I]f Obama still wants Daschle in the job . . . he's entitled to have him.” A variety of analysts and advocates joined in the bewailing over Daschle’s departure this morning, calling it a “loss of momentum” and “serious setback” for healthcare reform.

In many ways, this pruning of some of the Clintonistas may be a good thing in the end. The fierce urgency placed on prior experience was causing Obama to neglect some of the balance he promised for a diverse Cabinet.

Case in point – While the loss of Richardson is regrettable, Obama’s replacement pick of New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg brings in another Republican to an Administration where Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood threatened to be a token representation, given Defense Secretary Gate’s tenure is understood by all to be temporary.

“Gregg is no window-dressing Republican for Obama's Cabinet; he is the real, conservative thing, with an admirable commitment to getting entitlement spending under control,” admires the Washington Post this morning.

Moreover, at a time when Republicans seemed determined to oppose Obama’s stimulus package at all costs, Gregg extols it as an “extraordinarily bold, aggressive, effective and comprehensive plan.”

“This is not a time for partisanship,” Gregg goes on to reprimand. “This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well.”

When Obama said on Monday that he stood by Daschle “absolutely,” Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina criticized him as “losing credibility” with such unrepentant support. “Part of leadership is recognizing when there has been a mistake made and responding quickly,” DeMint lectured.

It took Obama only one day to learn his lesson. “I screwed up,” he admitted repeatedly in various television interviews. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it’s important for this Administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules . . . one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”

Those skeptical of Obama as political messiah are right to feel satisfaction in this self-acknowledgement of his naïveté at governing. However, those who admired him are doubtless also pleased to see a return to culpability and responsibility by the White House.

For all his tirades against the subject, it is ridiculous to believe that a McCain Administration would have contained fewer members with past lobbying ties. It is even more absurd to conclude a President Hillary Clinton would have appointed fewer members from her husband’s past Administration.

As Jody Powell, former Press Secretary in the Carter Administration, told the New York Times today, it is better to establish lofty goals that might go unmet than lack goals altogether. “If you set standards, you’re going to fall short on occasion and you’re going to have to compromise on occasion,” Powell said. “But you’re probably also going to get more done.”

Various pundits predict a setback for healthcare reform with Daschle at the helm or without him. So give another, perhaps more native Obama nominee a crack at it. Let credibility without proven competence balance against competence with proven doubtfulness of character.

Obama chose to build his church not upon a rock but over the shifting tiles of a half-hidden Clinton mosaic. Let us hope, for all our sakes, he sank the pillars of his foundation very deep.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Sixth Amendment

The Constitution has a lot to say in the Bill of Rights as to what constitutes a fair trial. All of these protections are important and emphasizing one to the exclusion of the others is no virtue. Yet this is exactly what seems to underlie the jurisprudence of Colonel James Pohl, the Chief Judge of the Guantanamo military commissions.

Among the first Executive Orders signed by President Obama was one directing Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure “all proceedings of such military commissions to which charges have been referred but in which no judgment has been rendered . . . are halted.” The new Administration wanted time to review the military commissions set up by former President Bush for their basic legality and determine any necessary changes required to them, up to and including their abolishment.

At least two other judges have already suspended their trials. However, Pohl, overseeing the arraignment of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, refused to comply.

Pohl wrote in his ruling that “on its face, the request to delay the arraignment is not reasonable.” He went on to argue that no litigation of substantive legal issues would take place at the arraignment, Thus, nothing would be mooted even if Obama goes so far as to cancel military commissions altogether. This seems plausible enough.

However, Pohl’s contention that his decision was “difficult but necessary to protect the public interest in a speedy trial” seems laughably misguided. The defendant has been in U.S. custody since November 2002. After waiting six years for anything resembling a trial, the four month delay requested by Obama is a justifiable holdup to determine if that trial is legal.

Presumably, Pohl is motivated by Amendment Six to the U.S. Constitution, which ensures the right to a speedy trial. However, he ignores the Amendment’s other components as well as many of those in Amendments Five, Seven, and Eight.

Pohl is no stranger to controversial decisions. Prior to his assignment at Guantanamo, Pohl was the lead judge for several U.S. soldiers charged with abusing prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. In June 2004, he suppressed calls to destroy the prison, labeling it a crime scene and ruling it destruction illegal until completion of an investigation.

Yet even in light of this, he also seemed highly interested in a speedy trial above all other concerns, ruling in August 2004 that the U.S. government must complete three investigative reports about the prison within a month for submission as evidence. Pohl went on to warn he would seriously consider the defendants’ request to dismiss the case if the government failed to meet his deadline.

In the matter of al-Nashiri, Pohl appears concerned with the importance of a speedy trial to protect the rights of victims as well as the rights of the defendant. A Saudi national, al-Nashiri allegedly headed al-Qaida operations in the Persian Gulf area and masterminded the bombing attack on the U.S.S. Cole in a Yemen harbor, killing seventeen American sailors and wounding many more.

The Cole’s former commanding officer, retired Navy Commander. Kirk Lippold, argued the case “needs to go forward,” saying, “The families involved want to see al-Nashiri held accountable for his heinous acts.” Lippold further argued that Pohl’s refusal to comply with Obama’s Executive Order validated the Bush-created military commissions by demonstrating the independence of their judges.

Less biased observers see things differently. Pohl’s bosses indicate they are not inclined to support him. The Department of Defense announced it is taking his ruling under review. A Pentagon spokesperson told reporters there would be “no proceedings continuing down at Gitmo with military commissions. The bottom line is we all work for the President of the United States in this chain of command.”

Even if ultimately overridden, Pohl and other judges like him might wish to revisit their emphasis on expediency as the paramount ingredient for justice. They need look no further for an example than something else Obama signed last week – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Ledbetter worked for a Goodyear plant in Gadsden Alabama for nearly twenty years, eventually rising to a supervisory position. Just before her retirement, a concerned co-worker provided documentation showing her consistently paid less than her male counterparts for the same work. She sued for discrimination and a federal court agreed.

Goodyear appealed and in 2007, the Supreme Court, led by its conservative faction, including President Bush’s two appointees, chose to adhere to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. They ruled Ledbetter had missed her chance, maintaining she needed to file her suit within 180 days of her first underpayment, even if she was unaware of it until decades afterward.

Doubtless, the Justices approved of the argument that relaxing the filing period would encourage (frivolous) lawsuits. Courts must address wrongs promptly, they reasoned, or punishment and restitution lose their meanings.

The new law redefines the filing period to 180 days after each discriminatory paycheck filed, reasoning that each check signifies a new occurrence of the same injustice. It leaves the recovery period for back pay at two years.

Ledbetter stood by the President’s side as he signed the law that bears her name. Sadly, she will never benefit from it. She already had her day in court and nothing now can change the ruling against her. This is the sort of injustice that occurs when the speed with which justice is rendered ranks above the quality of that justice.

Colonel Pohl was more than aware of what Obama’s impending inauguration might bring. At a December pre-trial hearing for accused al-Qaida conspirator Ahmed Darbi, he remarked, “This court is aware that on January 20 there will be a new Commander-In-Chief, which may or may not impact on these proceedings.”

It may be Pohl’s reticence to comply with Obama’s Executive Order stems from his fears that a trial following civilian rules and Constitutional guarantees could compromise al-Nashiri’s successful prosecution.

In his opening statement, al-Nashiri maintained seven confessions attributed to him, including his involvement in the Cole bombing, were false and induced from his under torture. In February 2008, CIA Director General Michael Hayden confirmed the use of waterboarding on al-Nashiri. While the Bush Administration repeatedly defended waterboarding as acceptable, both Obama and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain condemned the practice as torture during the campaign.

If this is what motivates Pohl, his defiance of the President may only hasten to realize his worst fears. The Pentagon-appointed attorney for al-Nashiri says Pohl’s ruling gives the Obama Administration few options and the next step in halting the proceedings against al-Nashiri would be for the government to withdraw all charges.

It is true that al-Nashiri is no Lilly Ledbetter. She was an innocent, who received substandard pay for her best effort, dedication, and hard work. He is most likely guilty of violent and terrible crimes. However, the more obvious his guilt, the easier it ought to be for prosecutors to prove it, even outside the special strictures of military tribunals.

This is the problem with giving law enforcement officials extraordinary tools in the name of keeping us safe. It leads to sloppy police work, whose results do not stand except by creating special courts that are equally sloppy. Swift justice is always desirable; a rush to judgment is never so. There is more to a fair trial than (parts of) the Sixth Amendment.

Judge Pohl would do well to keep that in mind when faced with his next “difficult but necessary [decision] to protect the public interest in a speedy trial.”