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

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pledge of Aggrievement

The Real Polarization in Politics Today Isn’t Policy or Ideology but Demonizing the Opposition

House Minority Leader John Boehner and the Republican Party released a Pledge to America on Wednesday. Anticipating gains in House and Senate seats rivaling or even exceeding the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, the GOP hoped to seal the deal by parroting Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America from that election. They intended to reassure voters fed up with Washington how Republicans will lead them.

Despite plenty of patriotic jingo, the document feels less like a Pledge of Allegiance about restoring America to greatness and more like a Pledge of Aggrievement, carping about everything changed and changing in America.

As the Associated Press reports, “The plan steers clear of specifics on important issues, such as how it will ‘put government on a path to a balanced budget.’ It omits altogether the question of how to address looming shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, which account for a huge portion of the nation's soaring deficit, instead including a vague promise – ‘We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs’.”

In contrast, the document is quite specific about what it will undo. Republicans promised to repeal healthcare reform and end all economic stimulus programs. They pledged to forbid allowing the Bush tax to expire, making them permanent instead. They swore to cut spending back to 2008 levels, with the exception of defense, and freeze the tax code for two years. They assured they would prevent any form of carbon tax. They vowed to keep terrorist trials off U.S. soil and in military tribunals.

They also promised to continue their opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. They implied a promise to prevent gays and lesbians from serving in the military or marrying openly, at least until such time as the institutions currently discriminating against them voluntarily decided to reverse their positions.

The Pledge to America is, in short, a justification of and paean to everything Republicans have said “no” to over the past two years. It seeks, in no uncertain terms, to paint their opposition as heroism in the face of a dangerous regime. “Our government has failed us,” declared Republican House Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. By “government,” McCarthy meant “Democrats,” characterized by the Pledge as “arrogant,” “out-of-touch,” and “self-appointed elites.”

The conventional wisdom runs that our nation’s two major political Parties are each growing more extreme and polarized. While this is unquestionably true, I assert it is also exaggerated. The Democratic Party’s core is more than its loony far left. The sum total of the GOP is more than its fanatic far right. The extremism and polarity lie less in specific policy or general ideology and more in both Parties’ practice of demonizing of the opposition.

While Republicans have been the most egregious offenders, in my opinion, especially in recent years, Democrats bear plenty of culpability too. If the GOP’s Pledge is short on fixes and long on complaints about what is wrong, so the Democratic response to it avoids defending their record of the past two years in favor of dire warnings about the eight years that preceded it. “Republicans want to return to the same failed economic policies that hurt millions of Americans and threatened our economy,” announced a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The temptation to demonize opponents has long existed in American politics. Just as it is usually easier to tear down than build up, so it is easier to scoff at the solutions proposed by others than offer viable solutions of one’s own. Traditionally, partisans mitigated this urge by realizing they and their opponents shared a common love of country or, at minimum, realizing too much demonizing left themselves open to charges of placing politics before country.

The clever but unfortunate solution to removing this restraint was to portray the opposition as beyond merely misguided but also dangerous and perhaps even malicious and unpatriotic. In light of such villainy, playing politics was synonymous with placing country first and justifiable.

Republican political operative Karl Rove understands this very well. He wrote to his fellow conservatives in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday about the importance of the Pledge in this regard. “What's brought Republicans so close to victory are their deep differences with Democrats. Now's the time to emphasize those policy disagreements in every way possible.” Except the document is not about policy differences but proclaiming, “Oooo, Democrats . . . scary!” thus leaving Republicans as sane and safe by contrast.

For their part, Democrats have been too quick to handle those disagreeing with them by hanging offensive and provocative labels on them, such as “facists,” “racists,” and “Islamophobes.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes that for many conservatives, “Obama has become the object of their fear and rage that their America is being lost.” Yet much the same is true for George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan among liberals.

Heartening evidence exists that ordinary Americans remain more honest and decent than the political spin machines give them credit. Ruth Marcus, another Washington Post columnist, viewed focus groups conducted by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. The groups consisted of about thirty women each. All were from American’s heartland, all had some college and family incomes under $100 thousand, and all experienced negative impacts from the recession. They split equally between 2008 Obama and McCain voters and all were likely to vote in the fall midterms.

Even 2008 Obama voters were unwilling to give the President an unqualified endorsement for re-election in 2012. Words used to describe him varied from “disappointment” to “scares me.” In spite of this, both Marcus and the pollster were amazed at the amount of tolerance and sympathy for all the women toward what Obama was trying to do. Everyone shied away from blaming him for the current state of affairs.

“Poor Obama comes in and people expected him just to fix it all. People expected too much,” said one woman from Saint Louis. She was a McCain voter, by the way.

These women reserved their real anger, the anger that so many politicians have been trying to tap into lately, for members of Congress – the opposition Party as well as their own. In Marcus’s words, they were “exasperated by Washington lawmakers seemingly incapable of learning to get along.” Words used to describe them included “juvenile,” “boneheads,” “poison,” and “far removed from the working middle class.”

Some of the Republican ideas about healthcare reform, government spending, and taxes are good. I hope for their incorporation into legislation over the next two years and that Democrats will not obstruct them, as Republicans were so often guilty. At the same time, even if Republican sweep into a Congressional majority, I hope they do not shut out good Democratic ideas altogether, as Democrats too often did to them.

We need allegiance, not aggrievement, between the two Parties over the next two years. Sadly, each side will likely remain too dedicated to playing politics and winning partisan battles to let this occur. In doing so, they act not only against the country’s best interests but also their own. In order to win the “permanent majority” that Rove once envisioned for itself, either side must win over the souls of the opposition. The first step to doing that is conceding their opponents have souls in the first place.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Still Some Gas Left in This Old Clunker

Obama’s Stimulus and Auto Bailouts Were Expensive, They Also Successfully Saved Us From a Far Worse Economy

The pendulum of political momentum is swinging hard toward the right in my home state of Ohio. Polls show incumbent one-term Democratic Governor Ted Strickland likely to go down to his Republican challenger. In the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by George Voinovich, former Democratic Attorney General and current Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher once enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls. Today, Republican candidate Rob Portman, a former Bush Administration official, commands a similar advantage.

Democratic voters in Ohio’s big cities are unenthusiastic. Republican voters in suburbs, small towns, and farms are angry and animated. Independents are flocking back into the GOP’s tent. Portman explains why, using a popular talking point employed by Democrats since the early days of President Obama’s tenure.

“Independent voters in Ohio always make a difference,” said Portman. “They gave the [Obama] Administration a chance and saw all their hopes disappointed . . . A stimulus package that not only didn’t work, it didn’t work and spent too much.”

The idea of the stimulus as a failure resonates well with voters in a state with unemployment running above the national average. Plenty of economists at conservative think tanks pronounce it a fiasco. Other economists call such charges patently false.

The latter got some validation this Monday, when the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) announced the recession, which officially began in December 2007, officially ended in June 2009 with the beginning of an expansion. "The recession lasted eighteen months, which makes it the longest of any recession since World War II,” according to the bureau.

Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton professor and former Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, published a paper in July entitled, How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End. Using quantitative models, they empirically prove the turnaround was a direct result of the Wall Street bailout, the bank stress tests, the emergency lending and asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, and the Obama Administration’s fiscal stimulus program.

Blinder and Zandi demonstrated the nation’s gross domestic product would be about 6.5 percent lower this year lacking these programs. What is more, job losses would run over sixteen million as compared to the eight and a half million actually experienced. Finally, the economy would experience ruinous deflation instead of low inflation.

Republicans were also quick to criticize bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, calling them unjustifiable and rewards to labor unions for supporting Obama in the 2008 election. Others bewailed the program as propping up out-of-touch management’s greed and incompetence. Detractors were equally derisive regarding the Administration’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, incenting Americans to trade in old cars for newer, more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly models.

Obama defended bailouts at the time, arguing U.S. auto designers were still capable of creative innovation and autoworkers still hard working and quality conscious. Of course, that seemed hard to reconcile with the concurrent program encouraging us to cast off their old products and characterizing them as “clunkers.”

Two years later, it appears Obama’s faith in the domestic auto industry is paying dividends – literally. This week, GM CEO Daniel Akerson announced plans to issue shares of preferred stock that will pay dividends and convert to common shares in 2013. Likewise, Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said last week he expects an IPO by his company in the second half of next year.

After receiving bailout money, GM underwent an aggressive reorganization. The new General Motors is selling cars, making money, and repaid $6.7 billion of the $50 billion loaned to it. Its less valuable assets, including dilapidated Detroit factories, became a separate subsidiary, named the Motors Liquidation Company. This company has filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan detailing how it will sell off these assets.

As a result, GM will announce on Friday it is recalling four hundred laid-off workers to make four-cylinder engines at a plant in Spring Hill Tennessee. This is in addition to nearly seven thousand jobs restored by the company since the bailouts, including twelve hundred at a plant making small cars in Lordstown Ohio, near Cleveland. Even two of the closed assembly plants have found buyers and a third in Shreveport Louisiana will continue making cars until its shutdown in 2012.

AutoPacific, an automotive research firm based in Tustin California, just issued its 2010 New Vehicle Satisfaction Survey, which rates how satisfied owners are with forty-five aspects of their cars as well as what they would like to see improved. The best car overall was the Suzuki Kizashi. However, some interesting and highly encouraging results emerged when AutoPacific founder and president, George Peterson, crunched the numbers to determine which vehicles have most improved and most declined over the past five years.

The five most improved vehicles were all American models. The Ford Taurus moved to 4th position in 2010 from 192nd position in 2006, the Ford Escape moved to 31st from 191st, the Ford F-150 moved to 11th from 163rd, the Chevrolet Suburban moved to 39th from 147th, and the Chevrolet Equinox moved to 36th from 133rd. In all cases, the improvements resulted from Detroit listening to customers and retooling to create more desirable interiors/exterior as well as improved fuel economy/engine performance.

At the other end of spectrum, the five vehicles with the greatest decline were all Japanese. The Toyota Tacoma dropped to 221st position in 2010 from 63rd position in 2006, the Suzuki Grand Vitara dropped to 179th from 58th, the Subaru Tribeca dropped to 183rd from 70th, the Honda Element dropped to 199th from 94th, and the Nissan Quest dropped to 164th from 59th. All suffered from quirky designs that eschewed customer input for gimmickry and reliance upon brand reputation.

Love him or hate him, while Obama’s economic policies might have been more effective, less costly, shown quicker results, or just simply different, there is no question they had a significant positive impact on an economy teetering at the brink of disaster when he entered office. Dissatisfaction over the slowness of the recovery is understandable and perhaps justified but without the stimulus, we might have had no recovery at all.

Even impatience with the recovery’s pace may be unrealistic. “Economic activity is typically below normal in the early stages of an expansion and it sometimes remains so well into the expansion,” the NBER noted in its announcement. Furthermore, unemployment usually continues rising after a recession ends. For example, it took no less than nineteen months for unemployment to peak after the 2001 recession, which was far less severe than the most recent one.

Portman and other Republicans are currently riding the voting public’s frustration with Democrats’ inability to handle the economy, much as Obama rode to victory two years earlier from voters’ displeasure with the GOP on the same topic. Their seeming fickleness is only human – unemployment lends itself to impatience with big plans and long cycles. However, some of the tales Portman and his cohorts are telling voters to convince them their anger is not only reasonable but also fact-based are just not true.

Voters may well give up on Obama just as many Republicans insisted it was finally time to give up on Detroit two years ago. Obama’s faith proved justified in the latter case. Maybe voters will come to see the same about him over the next two years if a Republican Congressional majority proves equally unable to jumpstart the economy.

Perhaps Americans will find there is still some gas left in this old clunker after all.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pith And The Pendulum

Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Democrats All Need to Come Back to Reality . . . But Mostly Democrats

pith (noun) – important or essential, significant or weighty, forceful or vigorous

The surprise win by Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell over the mainstream GOP’s choice of moderate Mike Castle in the Delaware Senate Republican primary has both Parties claiming victory and disputing the other side’s interpretation of events.

Democrats gloat O’Donnell’s extreme and sometimes ridiculous positions/statements has turned what appeared a close race into a sure win. Polling data agrees with this assessment. Even Rasmussen has moved Delaware from “Leans Democrat” to “Solid Democrat.” Republicans insist O’Donnell will close her current eleven-point deficit by November, just as the much-maligned Sharon Angle has pulled neck-and-neck with Senator Harry Reid in Virginia.

A weak but growing optimism has sprung up among Democrats that the Tea Party will prove an anchor around the neck of the nascent Republican comeback. They predict the gaffes and reactionary views of Tea Party candidates will drive voters away from the Republican brand and back to them. Republicans counter a grass roots movement is afoot to reject failed Democratic policies, insisting progressives “just don’t get it.”

Both sides need to be brought back to reality and the pundits were busy this morning attempting to convince their own that nothing is foolproof in politics, especially these days.

Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer insists the populist surge that brought O’Donnell victory in Delaware is pure debacle. “The very people who have most alerted the country to the perils of President Obam’s social democratic agenda may have just made it impossible for Republicans to retake the Senate and definitively stop that agenda.”

On the other hand, moderate columnist David Brooks of the New York Times contends Tea Party rhetoric has not scared away heartland Americans from the Republican ticket, including all-important Independent voters. He cites pollsters Charlie Cook, Peter Hart, Associated Press-Gfk, and the Pew Research Center to back up his claim that Americans currently “feel philosophically closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats.”

Back at the Washington Post, liberal columnist Eugene Robinson unhappily agrees that Tea Party histrionics will not translate into a backlash against Republicans. “Try as it might, the GOP probably can’t defeat itself. Not this year, anyway.”

The reason, according to Brooks, ought to be obvious. “It doesn’t matter that public approval of the GOP is now at its all-time low. It doesn’t matter that the Tea Party rhetoric is sometimes extreme . . . The economy and the Democrats are handing the GOP a great, unearned revival. Nothing, it seems, is more scary than one-Party Democratic control.”

The 2008 election was not an ideological shift, despite leaving Democrats firmly in control of the Legislative and Executive Branches. Instead, it reflected dissatisfaction with Republicans over languishing prosperity enjoyed disproportionably by the wealthy, foreign wars that were too expensive in both dollars and lives, and coddling of corporate greed that led to financial markets melting down.

Likewise, regaining control of the House and/or Senate in 2010 will not represent ordinary Americans rejecting President Obama’s attempts to move the country toward socialism. Instead, it will reflect dissatisfaction with Democrats over an agonizingly slow recovery and woefully insufficient job creation.

The pundits are divided, along surprising lines, over the of wisdom of bringing Tea Partiers into the Republican tent by former Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as well as other far-right populists. The mainstream Republicans who went along with such invitations “now have to worry about being devoured,” jokes Robinson.

Brooks, also in a facetious mood, posits Palin is surely a “Democratic double agent . . . [leading] large sections of the GOP into an intellectual cul de sac.” Krauthammer is less jovial, denouncing her endorsements as “reckless and irresponsible.”

Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan does not think Tea Partiers are in the GOP tent at all. She believes while mainstream Republicans argued over invitations, “a virtual third party was being born.”

However, Paul Goldman, a political strategist and a former chairperson of the Virginia Democratic Party, considers Palin underestimated by the opposition and underappreciated by her peers. Writing in the Washington Post, he calls her “the best asset the GOP has right now,” precisely for keeping Tea Partiers – and their votes – inside the Republican tent. “She remained strong and stood by her Party. She has become a bridge between the old Republican guard and the growing right-wing dissatisfaction.”

I agree with Goldman. A few far-right wing nut candidates might lose Republicans some seats this fall but this is nothing compared to scores of such candidates running as the third party Noonan envisions and effectively splitting the conservative vote. Granted, extremist candidates and officeholders could hurt Republicans down the road but Republicans need to win with what they have, just as Democratic progressives needed but sometimes have regretted attracting conservative Bluedogs into their tent.

The most relevant admonishment for both Parties comes from Noonan. “This fact marks our political age – The pendulum is swinging faster and in shorter arcs than it ever has in our lifetimes.”

The pendulum swung away hard from Republicans in 2006 and 2008, thrust in that direction by voter economic distress. It is about to swing away from Democrats, propelled by the same sources of discontent.

The caveat for Tea Partiers is that the pendulum’s arc is likely to continue as swiftly for them as it has for anybody else. The caveat for Republicans is that the pendulum is not swinging toward them so much as it is swinging away from anything perceived to be the status quo. The worst mistake they can make it to interpret the shift as a desire for a (permanent) return to normalcy, including "normalcy" as they tend to define it.

However, the greatest caveat remains for Democrats, especially those still in denial or those now trying to convince themselves the pendulum is out-of-control and doomed to flatten conservatives waiting for it with open arms. The pendulum is real, its swinging is real, the swing in under control, and it has pith – it is significant, weighty, and vigorous.

Democrats need to wake up to the new reality awaiting them for the next two years. As Robinson sternly concludes,
“Counting on the Republicans to self-immolate may be the Democrats’ hope, but it's not a plan.” Lacking a plan, Democrats will discover a pendulum that is out of control for them. They will awaken to unspeakable horror as the main characters in a story, entitled “The Pith and the Pendulum.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fear Itself And The Fearful Who Fear It

Our Over-Reactions to the Threat of Terrorism May Come to Endanger Other Cherished Freedoms

French authorities evacuated the Eiffel Tower yesterday after the Parisian landmark received an anonymous bomb threat. The threat turned out to be a hoax but French police were already on alert. The French legislature voted yesterday to ban Muslim women wearing burqas in public. Al-Qaida and several other Islamic extremist groups had vowed violent retaliation if the law passed.

The Western world now views Islamic terrorism and Islam in general with extreme apprehension and misgiving, flinching reflexively at its possible displeasure. This is certainly true right here in America, where we just observed the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

We launched a war in Afghanistan to find those responsible for that atrocity and bring them to justice but our response was not limited to overseas. The federal government revamped security at airports and on airplanes that remains strictly enforced. Congress passed an array of measures, known as the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement and the Executive Branch broad powers to deal with terrorism. These stripped virtually all legal/civil rights from those accused of such crimes and potentially curtailed the civil liberties of every American – all in the name of safety.

Such law passed and receive renewal/extension because our leaders at the time began assuring us al-Qaida was plotting other large-scale attacks before the smoke and ash from September 11 had cleared away. Our leaders further assured us that al-Qaida was a large, global, active organization, posing a substantial and imminent threat to U.S. security.

As it turned out, al-Qaida has not successfully carried out any other large-scale attacks on American soil. Yet the people fearing further attacks in the aftermath of September 11 insist the danger is as urgent as ever. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney fretted on the political talk show circuit back in 2009 that moves by the Obama Administration to relax/repeal some of the measures put in place by the Bush Administration was “making America less safe.”

As recently as this week, Marc Thiessen, a former Bush Administration senior official and currently a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute), wrote the following classic argument from ignorance in the Washington Post. “There is no evidence that al-Qaida’s intent to replicate or exceed the destruction of September 11 has abated . . . Is it really safe to assume it is not planning something equally staggering for the 10th anniversary?”

Nobody doubts al-Qaida’s continued existence or plotting against America. I have argued many times that we are not significantly safer today than we were before September 11. However, I think many are overstating just how unsafe this makes us and we are grossly overreacting in our response tactics to this threat.

A new study issued by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center and chaired by former Republican Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, also co-chairs of the September 11 Commission, promotes this same reasoning. The report says the U.S. intelligence community was wrong about al-Qaida intentions of “matching or besting the loss of life and destruction” it caused on September 11.

“The threat that the U.S. is facing is different than it was nine years ago,” the report concludes. “It is now clear that militants see operational value in conducting more frequent and less sophisticated attacks, which are harder to detect and require less high level coordination.”

In light of such growing evidence, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek asks, “Have we gone too far? Is the vast expansion in governmental powers and bureaucracies – layered on top of the already enormous military-industrial complex of the Cold War – unwarranted?”

He answers in the affirmative goes on to fret, “It has become an article of faith that we are gravely threatened by vast swarms of Islamic terrorists, many within the country. [It] has fueled a climate of fear and anger. It has created suspicions about U.S. Muslims . . . Ironically, this is precisely the intent of terrorism.”

ABC News anchor and commentator Ted Koppel explains this last part further. “The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response,” he writes in the New York Times. The worst possible excess response is blind panic, causing society and government’s normal structure and operations to descend into chaos. This was never even remotely a concern for the U.S. following September 11.

However, as Koppel notes, “The insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security. Each incident provokes the contemplation of something worse to come.” Another excessive response is one completely out of proportion to the threat. The U.S. has been guilty of this type of overreaction repeatedly. The result, Koppel grimly concludes, is “a swollen national security apparatus” and an America “so absorbed in our own fury” that we are “oblivious to our enemy’s intentions.”

Yet those like Cheney and Thiessen continue to peddle their fear, arguments from ignorance, and forebodings over what might happen to attentive audiences. They point to numerous uncovered plots and thwarted/failed attempts by terrorists since September 11 as proof of the continuing danger, never acknowledging that a planned attack is not the same as an executed attack nor an unsuccessfully executed attack the same as a successful one.

The reason behind their appeal is simple. If the neocons have no other shining legacy for conservatives, it is their success at ingraining a mindset in the American collective consciousness that the threat from terrorism is overwhelming and imminent. Moreover, they have convinced us that surrendering liberties to ensure freedom is neither lazy nor cowardly but rather an act of wise pragmatism by a democratic society.

A McClatchy-Ipsos poll this past January found fifty-one percent of Americans agreed, “It is necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to make the country safe from terrorism.” Only thirty-six worried, “Some of the government’s proposals will go too far in restricting the public's civil liberties.”

The usual bromide to quote here is Benjamin Franklin’s admonition, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” However, I find myself drawn to the famous opening lines of FDR’s first inaugural address. “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Of course, Roosevelt was not talking about the threat of Islamic extremist violence. He was referring to the potential greater dangers resulting from the economic crisis we came to call the Great Depression. Yet this makes the comparison even more compelling, in my opinion.

The same “anti-socialism, protect individual liberties, return to the traditional values of the Founding Fathers, take back this country” conservatives who deride big government in virtually every other instance are most often the staunchest supporters of things like the Patriot Act and other measures that trade freedom for safety. However, there are other types of safety besides physical safety from terrorist attacks.

There is economic safety, for example, and we are still limping out of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Now convinced that surrendering civil liberties to be safe from terrorism is not only acceptable but prudent, how willing might certain politicians find Americans to give up other rights and protections for, say, job security? How even more willing might we be to see certain types of people – such as immigrants, illegal or otherwise – lose their rights and protections altogether? We could always invent a new term to avoid squeamish legal and ethical questions, such as “enemy workers.”

The very reason many big corporations give for not investing the billions of dollars they are known to be sitting on to create new jobs is their fear over what Obamacare and other Democratic policies might bring. How far would business-friendly Republicans go to assuage Wall Street's fears?

When conservatives flock to voting booths, intent on returning control one or both houses of Congress to Republicans and Tea Partiers after the midterm elections this fall, they had better think twice about the beliefs and motives of the representatives they are choosing. They might also consider how far and how easily the “safety over freedom” mindset, which they have helped give precedence and legitimacy, is subject to potential abuse.

To paraphrase FDR, we have nothing to fear but fear itself . . . and the fearful who fear it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mosque and Quran

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

One of these things is not like the other,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the other
By the time I finish my song?

I am willing to believe Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s motives were good when he decided to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. However, fact remains that the vast majority of non-Muslim Americans to whom he intended outreach saw it instead as an act of (unintentional) offense and provocation. Naturally, they expressed their disapproval. Some of their reactions were also (unintentionally) offensive and provocative.

Enter the Reverend Terry Jones. I am even willing to believe that when he organized a Quran book burning – I consider any book burning vile by its very nature – he meant well, no matter how misdirected his motives. Once again, the vast majority of Americans he intended to champion objected to his gesture as offensive provocation.

Some conservatives who opposed the so-called Ground Zero mosque, such as Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, and Pat Robertson, managed to condemn Jones without a need to draw parallels between him and Rauf. Others could not resist the temptation.

FOX News commentator Glenn Beck proclaimed, “It’s just like the Ground Zero mosque plan. Does this church have the right? Yes. Should they? No. And not because of the potential backlash or violence. Simply because it is wrong.”

Author and commentator Ann Coulter concurs, “The reason not to burn Qurans is that it's unkind – not to jihadists, but to Muslims who mean us no harm. The same goes for building a mosque at ground zero – in both cases, it's not a question of anyone's ‘rights,’ it's just a nasty thing to do.”

I do not have a problem with people objecting to Rauf or Jones or both. There are some obvious parallels between the two beyond their unpopularity. Rauf began by reaching out to Christians in a bid for peaceful coexistence. Jones began by taking a stand against what he saw as an inherently violent religion. Overwhelming criticism has reduced both to defiant positions of self-defense. Even if they prevail, the diminution of their aspirations cannot render their results as anything other than abject failures.

Likewise, both men have conceded they could be wrong. Rauf admitted in an interview with CNN that he might have chosen a different location if he had anticipated the backlash it would create. “If I knew this would happen, if it would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn't have done it,” he said. Jones told reporters he continues to pray over whether he is interpreting God’s will correctly. He now says the burning is on hold but not canceled.

Nevertheless, I draw the line at arguments of equivalence between the two situations. Rauf’s project is essentially constructive in nature, while Jones’s bonfire is nothing but destructive. Rauf never set out to offend anyone. Jones intended to offend Muslims – his whole point was to shake them up in some way. Rauf claims no objections to Christianity as a religion, whereas Jones most certainly has problems with Islam.

Granted, all this proceeds from my assumption that both men sincerely meant to do good by their actions. Many of Rauf’s critics have suggested the Imam’s true motives are far more nefarious than he claims. They suggest the Ground Zero mosque’s developers intend it as a kind of war memorial, celebrating a great Islamic victory over the West on September 11.

If Rauf does build, I am sure extremist Islamic agitators will present it in this manner and some in the Arab/Islamic world will celebrate it as such. On the other hand, if Rauf decides not to build, I am equally sure those same agitators will spin that outcome as proof of widespread bigotry and hostility against Islam in the United States – such is the nature of propagandists. Our choice, therefore, comes down to whether we want handfuls of Muslims dancing in the street over a false victory or hordes of Muslims rioting in the streets, storming our embassies, and attacking our troops over a perceived insult.

President Obama has called the Quran burning a “recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida.” I think the same is true for forcing the mosque elsewhere. Stories about an Islamic September 11 war memorial may cause some Muslim hearts to swell with jingoistic pride but terrorists will not convince many poor, disillusioned young people to strap explosives to themselves and detonate in a crowd for a cause already won. That kind of sacrifice comes most readily when the enemy appears overwhelmingly strong, unreasoningly hateful, and continued survival of the bomber’s family, nation, and faith is on the line.

In this sense, terrorists hope Jones burns Qurans more than they hope he repents or caves into pressure. Likewise, they hope Rauf repents or caves into pressure more than they hope he builds. Supporting Rauf and opposing Jones goes the longest way toward thwarting the terrorists and keeping Americans safe.

Others, including Jones, argue that safety in this situation is not acumen but appeasement. “When do we stop? How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?” Jones asks. “Instead of us backing down, maybe it’s time to stand up. Maybe it’s time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior.”

I agree that radical Islam is dangerous and we sometimes have to take stands to contain its aggressions. I further agree that mainstream Islam could and should be doing more than it is today to police its extremist elements. However, forbidding Muslims to build mosques in places “too sacred” to us and, certainly, burning Qurans strikes me as foolishly reckless – the equivalent of sticking one’s nose up in the face of an unrestrained Hannibal Lecter and daring him to “Bite me!”

Actually, Jones drew another distinction yesterday. He temporarily claimed he was calling off burning Qurans because Islamic leaders had promised him they would cancel the Ground Zero mosque or move it to an alternate site. Jones reversed himself when the Muslims he met with subsequently denied they made any such promise. However, if Rauf really gave up his mosque, Jones said he would interpret it as a “sign from God” not to proceed.

Now I see why Jones and some other Christian fundamentalists insist the Allah of Islam is not the same deity as the Judeo-Christian God. The fundies say Allah is nothing but a murderer. Jones, on the other hand, explains that God is something more along the lines of an extortionist.

If any conservative is correct about what we ought to be doing with Qurans, it is columnist Michelle Malkin. “Instead of burning the Quran, Americans need to be reading it, understanding it, and educating themselves about the Quran passages, Islamic history, and jihadi context,” she writes.

Granted, Malkin thinks that, by doing this, Americans will come to realize that Jones is right and Islam is an intrinsically violent religion. I certainly concede that, much like the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Quran is full of confusing, seemingly contradictory, and even disturbing passages. However, whether they love or loathe what they read, at least Americans will make a slightly more informed decision regarding Islam than based on propagandist rubbish from both sides of the debate.

Attempting to guess which thing is not like the other is a pretty easy game with only two things involved. Let’s just consider this “Sesame Street for Dummies.” The trick lies in correctly determining which thing doesn’t belong.

Those drawing equivalence between Rauf’s mosque and Jones’s Quran burning are mostly off the mark. Even if a majority of Americans oppose its construction today, a chance still exists that the Ground Zero mosque could someday become the place of goodwill and healing that some envision. The aftermath of Jones’s bonfire will never be anything but lingering pain, resentment, and retribution. The hardest place to build anything is atop an ash pit – something anyone who has visited or just looked at pictures of Ground Zero should understand very well.

Did you guess which thing was not like the other?
Did you guess which thing just doesn't belong?
If you guessed this one is not like the other,
Then you're absolutely . . . right!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dog Days

The President Is Getting What He Deserves, Americans Are Getting What We Needed

Back in January, I posted that President Obama’s best chance to reverse his falling polling number and shore up Democratic losses in this year’s midterm elections was to sound populist themes whenever possible. I reasoned the President needed to repackage his considerable legislative victories during his first year not as the move toward socialism declared by his political opponents but rather an attempt to use government as a champion for middle class families.

His poll numbers have declined even further and the possibility of a Republican tsunami in November seems even more probable. In spite of this, Obama used a union Labor Day picnic in Milwaukee to continue pushing a populist agenda. He proposed a $50 billion investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. While the nation’s roads and bridges will benefit from the improvements it will bring, the main point of the plan was to create jobs at a time of record unemployment.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good when so many hard-working Americans have been idle for months, even years, at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding,” Obama told the crowd.

Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times loved the speech, calling it “rousing, inspirational and, at times, quite funny . . . If [Obama’s] goal was to demonstrate that he genuinely cared about the struggles of the people in the audience and those watching on television . . . he largely succeeded.” Yet, particularly in comparison to his Oval Office address on the end of combat operations in Iraq, the speech left Herbert scratching his head and wondering, “Where has this guy been for the past year and a half?”

Herbert’s colleague, Frank Rich, agrees, calling the Iraq speech “bloodless.” So does Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. Cohen writes, “[Obama] should have had something momentous to say. In fact, he had almost nothing to say.”

Congressional Republicans predictably lambasted the infrastructure investment proposal as simultaneously too expensive and insufficient at stimulating permanent job creation by private enterprise. Pundits disliked this speech too but could not seem to agree as to why.

Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post portrayed Obama as “doing cartwheels to get attention.” She particularly disliked his attacks against Republican negativity, accusing him of “banging pots at a bogeyman that doesn't exist.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, her cohort Dana Milbank viewed Obama as engaging in “the political equivalent of hiding under the bed.”

The public indisputably perceives Obama as failing to address their needs and concerns. Yet somebody – possibly everybody – is mistaken as to exactly what he is doing wrong.

During his speech, Obama departed from his prepared remarks to complain about those attacking his policies, his religious faith, and his birthplace. “They talk about me like a dog,” he declared.

In response, Milbank smiles that Obama is not a dog but a cat – “solitary, finicky and independent.” On a serious note, Cohen frets, “Obama has allowed others to define him . . . [in some cases] people on the edge of insanity.” The result, Cohen sadly concludes, is the “downsizing” of Obama’s approval/mandate over the past two years; what he calls “The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.”

Cohen appears to agree with House Minority Leader John Boehner that Obama needs to fire his subordinates and handlers. “His staff ill-serves him so that he presents a persona at odds with his performance.”

For Parker, however, Obama’s faults lie not in his Administration’s would-be policy stars but squarely in himself. The President is “out of touch with the American people” she states bluntly. Rich concurs and marvels how “a candidate so attuned to the nation’s pulse . . . has grown tone deaf in office.”

For my part, I reject most of the conventional wisdom regarding the source of Obama’s popularity problems. Unquestionably, the tepid economic recovery, particularly the slowdown this summer, plays a major role but it is hardly the sum total of the dissatisfaction. The fact remains that Obama, much like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even Ronald Reagan, generates consistent, intense partisan dislike among certain voters. We know from the 2008 elections this runs as high as thirty-five to forty percent. These folks will criticize him no matter what he does.

The critical twelve percent or so that mark Obama at the height of his popularity versus his current nadir represent mostly Independents and some conservative Democrats who fear Obama has pushed too radical an agenda and, to a lesser extent, liberal Democrats who fear he has not been sufficiently aggressive. So what caused this shift?

I disagree with the argument made by some that Obama does not know how to be President and/or has never shifted out of campaign mode. He has consistently moved toward what he promised with general success. In some cases, such as closing Guantanamo Bay, he remains committed to his principles but found his original timetable was too optimistic. In other cases, such a winding down combat operations in Iraq, he proved spot on. In still other cases, such as troop levels in Afghanistan, his initial assumptions proved wrong and he evolved new ones.

Many contend he misread both voters and harsh realities by focusing some much time and effort on healthcare reform versus the economy and job creation during his first year in office. Again, I disagree. Just as our national economy survived the Bush tax cuts and paying for two overseas wars, so it will survive Stimulus II, bank/auto bailouts, and ten percent unemployment. Meaningful healthcare reform, on the other hand, while far from a desirable finished product, had to begin now or it may have never happened.

Voter dissatisfaction with Obama comes from a President who has spent the last two years making difficult choices in trying to do exactly what they elected him to do. Some disillusion was inevitable when the excitement of “hope and change” met limited resources and Beltway gridlock. Granted, this does not make the dissatisfaction any less real.

Moreover, it is fair to say that Obama owns some of these problems due to his governance style, which has been considerably lower key than his campaign. Whatever else Obama has done well as President, he has been truly abysmal in the role of de facto partisan head of his Party. Democratic candidates of all stripes are likely to feel this November what Obama is feeling now because of this failing.

Obama is right; we are talking about him a lot like a dog these days. Americans love dogs, valuing their loyalty, enthusiasm, and tireless devotion. These things are just what we want when we are ready to play. However, nothing is easier to ignore than the family dog when things become tenser, partly because of the dog’s very nature. In this sense, Obama was bound to dim in our perceptions despite some legitimate accomplishments. Slow and steady may win the race but it seldom wows the grandstand.

In the matter of healthcare reform, Obama steadfastly held to his guns and sold us what he thought we needed – namely, reliable but boring insurance. Being Americans, we knew we needed this but what we really wanted was a cheap, quick-acting pill. Now, as Obama finally starts to get serious about the economy and job creation, his proposals once again under whelm us. Even his big infrastructure fan, Bob Herbert, admits, “The plan won’t help Democrats in November. It’s already too late for that.”

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer and the dog days. However, labor – or, more specifically, the lack of gainful employment – will make the dog days drag out for Obama through the fall. He is garnering the negative consequences from accomplishing much of what he wanted to accomplish. So are we. It is probably a good thing, the right thing for us in the end but we do not like it now. So we do what any American does in such frustrating times – we kick the dog.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Beck to the Past

The Weekend Rally Demonstrated Both What Is Good and Bad in Contemporary Populist Conservatism

FOX News commentator Glenn Beck held a rally on the National Mall in Washington DC this past weekend. Exact numbers varied but the size of the crowd it attracted was huge and impressive by any standard. Beck insisted the event was apolitical but parallels between it and Tea Party rallies were obvious. In this sense, the rally demonstrated both what is good and what is bad about the populism gaining traction within contemporary conservative philosophy.

The size of the crowd demonstrated irrefutably for anyone who did not believe so already that the Tea Party, in all its various forms, as well as other conservative grassroots activists, are not a small band of far-right fringe fanatics. Instead, they are the most vocal contingent of widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s recent economic performance and the inability of the federal government to address it adequately.

Whatever questions still need answers about the motives of those organizing and funding these rallies, the vast majority of the people turning out to support them are both genuine and sincere. Whether one agrees with what all the things said at the rally, it was a beautiful example of democracy in action, carried out through our right to peaceably assemble and speak our minds.

The first good thing about this populist gathering was the lack of any possible openings for opponents to raise criticisms of racism, thereby forcing conservatives to defend themselves or counterattack in response. This was important since the crowd, as with Tea Party rallies, was predominantly white. The counterdemonstration organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton and others proved unnecessary and felt overwrought.

Many expressed skepticism over Beck’s choice of the anniversary and location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have A Dream” speech for his own venue. However, Beck and the organizers treated King’s memory with the utmost respect and honor. Clarence Jones, King's personal attorney and speechwriter, said he believed King would be “pleased and honored” by the event.

MLK Jr. was a great black American and a hero to most of his race. However, he has become not simply a black American hero but an American hero to all Americans over the years. It is completely acceptable – as well as in line with the doctrine Doctor King preached – that any group of Americans should be able to gather and honor him without requiring significant African American participation/leadership to make the celebration legitimate.

The second good thing about Beck’s rally was its general tone, which felt energized and expressed dissatisfaction plainly but far less angrily and unattractively than have some past Tea Party rallies. The advance request by Beck to all those attending not to bring signs/posters helped to prevent the inflammatory, hateful, and sometimes even violent examples of dissent on which past media coverage have focused.

Such restraint and self-policing are exactly what the NAACP and other groups called upon the movement to do earlier this summer. Beck and other organizers deserve praise for a commonsense approach along these lines.

The third good thing about the rally – and probably the main reason for the first two – was its focus more on joint views in which a majority of attendees believed rather than a disjointed and occasionally incoherent litany of reasons for their anger. I hope the success of the rally and its generally upbeat portrayal in the media will convince more confrontational conservatives that positive campaigning can be just as effective as negative attacks.

In spite of these good things, the rally still carried reminders of the bad things I see in conservative populism. The first of these is its in-your-face piety. While its agitators, such as Beck, love denouncing “liberal intelligentsia elites,” conservatives routinely practice sanctimoniousness on issues they believe themselves the exclusive owners.

For Beck last weekend, one such topic was faith and traditional religious values. Warning the crowd, “For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” Beck implored, “I ask, not only if you would pray on your knees, but pray on your knees with your door open for your children to see.”

Calling on Americans to follow our own values is a far better message than incendiary complaints over the building of an Islamic community center with a prayer room too near Ground Zero as an act of effrontery by an inherently violent, evil religion. Nor do I object to parents engaging in religious/moral instruction with their children.

Yet I cannot help but contrast Beck’s “open door” prayer policy with the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus admonished his followers specifically, “When you pray, enter into your room and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father in secret.” In contrast, Beck seems rather like “the hypocrites, [who] love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” For some conservatives, this seems to be as true for their patriotism as it is for their piety.

Again, I have no objection to pride in this country or its occasional heartfelt expression. However, I get the feeling sometimes that too many conservatives wear the flag on their sleeves as a kind of shibboleth. When speakers like Beck or Palin repeatedly feel the need to insist nothing beyond love of country motivates them, I find it hard to avoid skeptically question whether something else might indeed be motivating them.

The other bad thing I see in contemporary conservatism is the aura of degeneration it projects. Despite a promise by Beck, “Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America . . . and the things that we can do tomorrow,” the very themes of the day – restoring honor, turn back to God, a return to traditional values – were retrogressive, reflecting a backward-looking, rather than forwards-looking, mindset.

This is not surprising, considering the Republican Party’s core audience these days – an audience whose demographics contain many similarities with Tea Party participants. Ross Douthat of the New York Times characterized the rally as “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians.” His colleague, Paul Krugman, adds affluence to the mix, noting, “Nobody is angrier these days than the very, very rich.”

I re-emphasize this is not the supercilious anger of racism. Instead, it is frustration from recognition that cultural/religious conservatives are losing their place as the majority constituency within the U.S. population as well as their past dominance of its leadership positions. In fairness, they have legitimate fears over the current economy and state of the country in general as well as valid criticisms of government’s inability to deal with those problems.

Mixed in with it, however, is disconnection with government and other powerful institutions resulting from their inability to recognize themselves in these institutions to the same degree they so long enjoyed. Little wonder their distrust. Little wonder their embrace of ever narrowing definitions of what it means to be a “real American” and defending that narrowness with zealous unwillingness to compromise or concede. Little wonder their preference for a fuzzily safe past over uncertain future progress.

The anger and frustration currently giving it momentum strike me as symptomatic not of hopeful upward battle but rather desperation over increasingly inevitable diminution. It is like the howl of an abandoned pet dog at the now-empty house where it and its owners once lived. For all the anger and anguish in its bay, this beast is more likely to inspire our pity than our fear.

Tea Partiers and the far right in general are still a considerable force – the rally turnout proved this true. They will continue to be able to exert considerable influence on elections and government policy for some time to come. In the long term, however, they have already reached their critical tipping point and all trends align against them.

Their anger and desire for a return to a “better” (i.e. more comfortable, more familiar) America is understandable but ultimately misguided. The rally shows their greatest strengths lie in their numbers and unity; their greatest weakness lies in their choice of leadership and the direction they are following. Beck reassures them the only way forwards to the future is back to the past. It is a dead end; an approach ultimately doomed to failure.