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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Out Of The Smoke

Will Gingrich Turn Out To Be the Anti-Romney, Romney-Lite, or Hyper-Romney?

As Herman Cain’s popularity declines in the wake of multiple sexual harassment allegations, GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney finally finds himself . . . now in a tie with Newt Gingrich. After a disastrous campaign kickoff, Gingrich recently experienced a surge in the polls, triggered by Cain’s deterioration and a string of solid debate performances. His former spokesperson, Rick Tyler, predicted this outcome back when many political commentators were pronouncing Gingrich dead on arrival.

“Surely they had killed him off . . . But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.”
Current Republican Presidential
hopeful and former individual
mandate advocate Newt Gingrich

It is yet another indication that the conservative core simply cannot bring itself to embrace Romney. Their distrust centers on Romney’s moderate-to-liberal past and nothing is more anathema to them than the fact that Obama based his federal healthcare reform law, so despised by them, upon Romeny’s own program in Massachusetts, with its dreaded individual mandate. They fear Obama will be able to campaign effectively against Romney in the general election on this basis alone.

Romney has been walking a tightrope, defending his record to the right delicately balanced against assurances to the right that he opposes the individual mandate. There were things he would do differently in Massachusetts, given the benefit of hindsight, he concedes. Moreover, even things that worked for his state will not necessarily translate to the federal level.

Neither potential GOP voters nor his Republican challengers are buying it. During a recent appearance on FOX News, Michele Bachman fumed, “We have candidates that are compromised on the individual health care mandate, which is Obamacare.” She damned Romney not only for implementing it in Massachusetts but insisted, “It was [his] idea.” Romney received a challenge along the same line during a GOP debate at the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

It is unsurprising that Romney’s denials resound so weakly. His connection to and endorsement of individual mandates goes back a long way.

Romney first endorsed the individual mandate on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1993, long before it was a controversial topic. “I am for people, individuals – exactly like automobile insurance – individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”

A decade later, he collaborated with then Senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote a more centrist solution to healthcare reform than her doomed attempt at a single-payer system. A July 2005 article in Hotline about one of their joint appearances described Romney as endorsing not just state-based mandates but “some federal mandates” as well. A New York Sun article about the same event reported, “Both politicians appeared to endorse proposals to require all individuals to have some form of health coverage.”

Romney’s writings also betray his true feelings. In 2005, he wrote, “You have a responsibility to buy insurance . . . We need some significant changes to ensure that every American is insured, but we should make it clear that a 21st Century Intelligent System requires everyone to participate in the insurance system.”

In a June 2007 op-ed piece for the Des Moines Register, Romney wrote, “Personal responsibility extends to the purchase of health insurance. Citizens should not be able to cheat their neighbors by not buying insurance, particularly when they can afford it, and expect others to pay for their care when they need it.”

Again, in 2008, he wrote, “We should insist that everyone above a certain level buy coverage (or, if they are opposed to insurance, post a bond).”

Despite his efforts to distance himself from past rhetoric, Romney continues to contradict himself occasionally regarding individual mandates. As recently as May 2011, he told Meet the Press, “I’ve said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you’re going to be held accountable.” When asked by the show’s host if this constituted a mandate, Romney characterized it as “a variation on it.”

Little wonder then that the far right continues to recoil from Romney. It is also unsurprising they would turn back for a hard second look at Gingrich. No straight shooter like Newt is going to be unclear about his opposition to Obamacare . . .

. . . except their hard second look is going to discover that every quote and cited writing above came not from Mitt Romney but from Newt Gingrich. And if such sentiments and history make Romney unattractive to the Republican base, it seems unlikely that Gingrich will get a pass for them either.

This scrutiny has already started. Dana Millbank of the Washington Post judges Gingrich as a potential anti-Romney and finds him wanting. “His problem . . . is that he is entirely too moderate . . . The ideas that made him a conservative revolutionary in 1994 make him squishy in 2012.”

Gene Healy of the Cato Institute is even more caustic. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Examiner, Healy groans, “Has it really come to this? Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? . . . Yet a look at his record reveals that Newt is hardly the ‘anti-Mitt’ – he's Mitt Romney with more baggage and bolder hand gestures.”

In fairness, Gingrich vigorously contends he has changed his mind about the individual mandate. Of course, Romney does too and this hasn’t gotten him very far to date. It is reasonable to expect Obama’s handlers to hammer Gingrich hard about this, if given a chance in the general election. For that matter, none other than Romney will probably run the issue into the ground during the primaries.

Gingrich’s attacker on this subject during the debate was Romney. “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you,” he told Gingrich.

“That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation,” replied a flustered Gingrich.

“And you never supported them?” Romney countered.

“I agreed with them,” Gingrich conceded.

“Oh, okay,” Romney coolly corrected. “That’s what I’m saying. We got the idea from you and the Heritage Foundation.”

“Okay. A little broader,” said Gingrich, mollified although undoubtedly still unhappy with the exchange.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times believes this issue is unlikely to sour the conservative base on Gingrich because his appeal lies elsewhere. “[Gingrich] is less a traditional conservative than he is a kind of right-wing futurist . . . But whereas most right-wing futurists tend to be libertarians who take a somewhat jaundiced view of partisan politics, for Gingrich civilization itself hangs in the balance in every election cycle. The glittering future he descries can only be won through a confrontation with the enemies of progress – namely, liberal Democrats.”

Somewhat in line with this analysis, Gingrich argues, plausibly, that his past attraction to the individual mandate was because it seemed a saner alternative than the even more draconian (i.e. “socialist”) measures advocated by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.

However, conservative thinker Peter Sunderman addresses why this could be a weakness for Gingrich too. “Republican party leaders have had a hard time addressing health policy issues over the last few years," he writes in the Libertarian journal Reason. Rather than make a prolonged case for health policy that does not involve endless expansion of entitlements and insurance subsidies, the GOP has instead focused primarily on reacting to Democratic proposals.”

If Gingrich is poised to become the next conservative darling of this Presidential election cycle, then the question remains as to exactly what kind of a darling he really is. Is he the anti-Romney, Romney-lite, or hyper-Romney? Gingrich needs to get a credible answer to this question soon. Otherwise, scrutiny by the Republican core may find that the man who emerged out of the smoke of disaster did so from smoke that he was blowing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Joe Paterno’s Shameful Failure Provides a Teachable Moment

According to the Urban Dictionary, a big man on campus (B.M.O.C.) is “a highly respected person, or someone in a position of authority (e.g. ‘You gotta check with the B.M.O.C. before you make that move’.)” In the comic strip Peanuts, one of Snoopy’s personas, Joe Cool, is a B.M.O.C., if only in his own mind. Another college Joe – Paterno, in this case – and B.M.O.C. was summarily fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Paterno announced his intention to retire as Penn State’s head football coach at the end of the current season.

Both announcements were part of the fallout from the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on forty counts of sexual abuse against eight underage boys over a fifteen year period. Sandusky founded a charity, called Second Mile, which provides programs for disadvantaged youth. He used the organization to find troubled, vulnerable boys on whom to prey. He is, simply put, a monster.

Two campus Joes - Snoopy (left) as Joe Cool still hangin'
around while Joe Paterno (right) heads into ignominy

The university and local police became suspicious of Sandusky as early as 1998. It seems hard to believe Paterno was unaware of the rumors. Regardless, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach reported to Paterno in 2002 that he personally witnessed Sandusky having anal sex with a boy he assumed to be about ten years old in the showers of the Penn State locker room. The next day, Paterno referred the matter to his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and then . . . did nothing more. Curley also ignored the report.

When the story first broke, Paterno issued a statement in which he insisted, “I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention.” This is absolutely true. Moreover, there is no evidence Paterno was complicit in any sexual abuse against children. He is not a monster. He is, simply put, an abject failure as a coach, a leader, and a B.M.O.C. Sandusky’s sins were driven by some sick compulsion that he obviously could not control and well may not understand; Paterno’s failing go to the very heart of his job responsibilities and the persona he portrayed.

In his retirement statement, Paterno conceded, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” He also claimed his decision was solely with the school’s best interests at heart. “The Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status . . . I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.” A cynic might conclude Paterno was simply attempting to save himself from further scrutiny, firing, or worse. However, even taking him at his word, it was woefully too little and far too late.

Attempting to pass himself off as middle management rendered powerless by university bureaucracy is particularly galling. The person committing the crime (Sandusky) was a former player under Paterno; so was the person (McQueary) reporting the incident to him; so was the person (Curley) to whom Paterno passed the buck. The B.M.O.C. in this situation was clearly Paterno. Curley had previously tried to force Paterno to retire – twice – back in 2004 but lacked the clout to do so.

Paterno recently became the most winning NCAA Division 1 coach of all time. I do not agree with FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock that “There should be an asterisk next to JoePa’s 409 victories.” Paterno’s successes on the football field are incontestable. However, much of Paterno’s reputation derived from his reputation as a straight shooter, a decent guy, a proud molder of the “young men who have been entrusted to my care,” to use his own words. The motto of his football program was “Success with Honor.” This incident has permanently stained that reputation deeper than any asterisk and just as incontestably.

Yet even in his nadir, Paterno provides a teachable moment for those whose success or failure means far more than a winning or losing football season.

Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy both were fired this week, although they would probably prefer to insist they chose retirement. Both are B.M.O.C.’s for their respective countries and governments. Both were once popular figures, beloved in spite of their foibles and sometimes because of them.

Both now face scorn at home and by the international community because their nations teeter on the brink of economic collapse. Neither was solely or even primarily responsible for the problem but both saw it coming and did nothing substantial to stop it. As a result, they lost trust with their Parties, their people, and the rest of the world. Once they lost that trust, they were finished.

Then there is President Obama, the big man on our own national campus. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds an impressive seventy-six percent of those surveyed feel the current economic structure of the country unfairly favors a small proportion of the rich over everyone else. Fifty-three percent believe in significantly cutting the national debut by reducing spending and the size of government. Forty percent agree with both of these principles. What is more, half of all respondents poll identify (strongly) with Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

These numbers cause MSNBC’s First Read to conclude, “Heading into 2012, America is looking for a populist . . . There's an angry electorate out there, ideologically spread across the political spectrum.” Obama began his term as a champion for the working and middle class with large legislative packages, such as his economic stimulus and healthcare reform. However, these both were watered down as a kind of peace offering to conservatives who opposed them. This was to no avail for a GOP uninterested in compromise.

In early 2010, I predicted Obama would turn toward a more populist approach with financial reform. Instead, he seemed to become even more passive and willing to allow opponents to co-opt issues and direct the political conversation. He has been adopting a fighting tone of late but many are skeptical this is nothing more than empty re-election campaign rhetoric.

Papandreou nearly scuttled the Greek bailout deal with the European Union by a cynical populist attempt to subject it to a public referendum. Likewise, Berlusconi has thrown Italy into even greater instability by a cynical populist insistence on elections instead of an interim government. In both cases, these leaders seem transparent in attempting to buy time and save their political hides rather than making tough/unpopular choices in their countries’ best interests.

The United States has a way to go with its own economic problems before it reaches the same degree of crisis faced by Greece and Italy. However, the unappealing vibe I get too often from Obama is that he is so obsessed with keeping his legacy untarnished as to prohibit him from doing the dirty work required to build an actual resume. He may win a second term and prove himself more Clinton than Carter. However, even Clinton’s Presidency – for all its admitted right-center accomplishments – is as easily viewed a disappointment for the progressive reforms it never realized.

“No guts, no glory,” is what Paterno might tell Obama if the President played for him. Obama certainly entered his Presidency with a reputation for being Joe Cool. However, as Paterno illustrates, he could leave it with a far less desirable reputation. And once a B.M.O.C. losses trust, his aura of coolness . . . he is finished.

The Penn State Board of Trustees has sent Paterno to the showers. Whatever treatment he receives there is likely to be better than that received by the ten year old boy whose welfare he ignored. As for Obama, he has a year in which to prove to voters that he is more than the average Joe.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Goldfish Syndrome

Maybe the Lack of Leadership We Perceive Is Due to a Lack of Followers

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou will be leaving office, following a no-confidence vote in parliament. The affair has thrown his already beleaguered nation into even more chaos. The vote resulted from Papandreou’s startling decision to subject a bailout deal negotiated with the European Union to a public referendum, followed by his equally abrupt decision to withdraw the referendum. These twin moves were like political shock and awe on the Greek parliament, Greece’s EU neighbors, and the world economy.

“We are like goldfish, waiting with our mouths open,” lamented writer Petros Tatsopoulos on Greek television, about the ongoing drama.
Carassius auratus auratus  –
the common goldfish

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson sees it as a microcosm of poor leadership in response to harsh economic realities across the planet. “The global economy is faltering and no country has assumed leadership in organizing recovery. There is a loss of control, a vacuum of power,” he frets. “Time was when the United States automatically assumed the leadership role . . . [but] America’s capacity and desire to lead have flagged.”

In many ways, Papandreou’s ill-advised maneuver was not surprising to me. Last Sunday, the center-left Greek newspaper To Vima reported that a majority of Greeks viewed the EU bailout deal negatively. Papandreou was making a desperate populist bid to save his political hide. It failed because different concerns motivated parliament, including his own Socialist Party, than those motivating the public.

When politicians are out of sync with the public, conventional wisdom usually puts the blame on politicians. In this case, the Greek public is out of sync with reality. The EU bailout is not so much an escape as sufficient forgiveness of Greek loans as to allow that country to solve its debt problems with hard work. However, the Greek public has made it abundantly clear they do not want to undertake that hard work and they hate the EU for making them face it.

It is unlikely that the European Union hates Greece any less than Greece hates it at this point. However, the EU is in sync with reality and appreciates a default by Greece would prove far too damaging in today interconnected world. In contrast, the Greek people cannot see beyond the fishbowl of their own selfish concerns. They float at the top of that bowl, mouths agape, watching national events that seem almost alien to them and unwilling to participate in any solution beyond griping about government.

Some might argue that government has imposed the fishbowl upon them and Greece would do much better in the wild (i.e. free markets and default). The real problem, in my opinion, is isolation. Carp are a naturally gregarious species, as far as fish go. Fond of schooling, they seldom fight or compete in ways that harm one another. Goldfish may still retain these qualities but get little chance to practice them when swimming alone in their small bowls.

The situation is no different here at home than in Greece. Both Parties agree unemployment is a huge problem facing this country. Two job stimulus bills proposed by President Obama have died in the Senate. The latest failed, in part, because Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, felt their personal conservative principles could not allow them to vote with the rest of the Party they normally caucus. Fifteen jobs bills passed by the Republican House have died in the same Senate because Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada places partisanship above negotiation and compromise.

If you hope for salvation from a Third Party, the current candidates are uninspiring. Occupy Wall Street is a fledgling movement that is still too preoccupied over its outrage about problems to construct and offer solutions. Its lack of leadership is a point of pride for its members. The Tea Party is a more mature movement but stresses small government and individual liberties so absolutely that they seem to see constructing metaphorical fishbowls as the solution to most national or global problems.

David Brooks summarized the situation nicely in the New York Times. “The United States is a country that has received many blessings, and once upon a time you could assume that Americans would come together to take advantage of them. But you can no longer make that assumption.”

In this sense, I agree that we suffer from a lack of leadership but not necessarily from a lack of leaders. There is a plethora of idea offered from both sides of the political spectrum. What we appear to be suffering from, in my opinion, is a dearth of followers. The latter is just as critical an input for leadership, after all.

Great leaders inspire others to follow them. In this case, Samuelson notes how “leaders can emphasize policies that encourage recovery and reject policies that retard it. Demonstrated leadership instills confidence that accelerates economic expansion.” Yet I wonder how easily any familiar leader – contemporary or historical – would fare with most modern Western societies.

The old saw runs that a leader without followers is just a guy out taking a walk. Conversely, I maintain that a school of carp that can not/will not swim together is nothing but a lot of goldfish in fishbowls. Our desire for results and benefits combined with our lack of will to commit, bear burdens, and even endure hardships leaves me thinking that far too many of us, like the Greeks, suffer from goldfish syndrome. Perhaps the time has come for us to stop waiting, shut our mouths, and learn to start swimming together again.