Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mission Accomplished




The President won't say it, but I will.  Candidate Obama promised to withdraw our combat troops from Iraq in about a year-and-a-half, and focus efforts instead on Afghanistan, and President Obama has done exactly what he promised, on schedule, and with hardly a mishap.  It's hard to think of too many presidents in my lifetime who consistently did pretty much what they told us they were going to do.

Nobody is saying that all the problems of Iraq are solved, but I also don't hear too many people arguing that a larger continued U.S. military presence in Iraq would be helpful in solving them.  Which means that in addition to applauding the successful withdrawal of 100,000 combat troops from Iraq, we should also cheer the fact that we have achieved something approaching political consensus on what was a pretty contentious issue during the campaign.  The White House and the Pentagon should get some credit for that achievement also.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Inside John Boehner's Brain

Having learned the technique from watching the movie Inception, I decided to invade one of John Boehner's dreams, and force him to sit down for an interview about his recent speech on the economy and his strategy for capturing the House this fall.  Here is a transcript:

Q: You accuse the administration of spending the last 18 months borrowing and spending the economy into the ground.  Couldn't that same accusation have been made against the last Republican administration?

A: It's different when Republicans borrow and spend the economy into the ground.  Because we did it by cutting taxes for rich people, and fighting unnecessary wars.  The Democrats do it by building roads and bridges and schools and other things that people don't need.

Q: I see.  You also said that all the stimulus spending has gotten us nowhere.  But you favor tax cuts, and the largest part of the stimulus in fact was tax cuts.  And economists say that the stimulus bill in fact preserved millions of jobs.

A: Don't trouble me with the facts.  It's my job to scare people into thinking that Obama has raised taxes, even though he cut taxes.  It's also my job to scare people about the deficit, even though Republicans don't give a crap about the deficit.  If we cared about the deficit, we probably wouldn't have quadrupled the national debt under the Bush administration, would we?   Everybody knew that the stimulus bill should have been even bigger for it to really get the economy going.  But Republicans couldn't very well go along with that.  And since we all voted against it, we can't very well admit that it was helpful.  The truth is that the longer the economy stays in the toilet, the easier it is to blame the Democrats for people's problems.  And that will help elect Republicans.  So why would we want to go along with anything the Democrats are proposing to solve the country's economic problems?

Q:  Thank you for your candor.  You also must understand that most of the economic facts you cited in your speech were wrong or misleading.  How do you justify doing that?

A: Do you seriously think it matters whether my facts are factual?  Plenty of people will believe whatever information I want to give about about taxes and deficits.  Look, half the Republican base believes the sun revolves around the Earth.  I am not going to let truth get in the way of a good argument. 

Q: So what's the Republican plan for getting the economy going?

A: We don't have to have a plan.  We just have to criticize everything the administration is doing, and try to prevent them from doing anything that people will actually like.  Of course we do think it is vitally important to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that are due to expire at the end of the year.

Q: But wouldn't that only make the deficit even larger?  And aren't the Bush policies what led us into the recession in the first place?

A: I guess you weren't listening when I explained to you that Republicans really don't give a crap about the deficit, were you?   Come to think of it, we're not that concerned with whether the economy recovers, either.  What is most important is that I scare enough people into voting Democratic Congressmen out of office, so that I can become the next Speaker of the House. 

Q: Why are you calling for the resignation of Tim Geithner?  Wasn't he part of the team under Bush's Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson that bailed out the banks and AIG way back in the fall of 2008?  And didn't those actions save the financial system from collapse?

A: First of all, it is important for people not to understand that the bailout program was conceived during the Bush administration.  Because the people don't like the bailouts, even though we all know that they worked, so we don't exactly want to remind them that the bailouts were Paulson's idea.  We want them to blame Obama for the bailouts.  Second of all, if we call for the resignation of Obama's economic team, that also helps make people think that the bad economy is all the Democrats' fault, even though we know that the economy fell off a cliff under Bush, and has been growing under Obama, and we also know that the Republicans are doing everything we possibly can to slow the recovery down further.

Q: Since I am inside your dream, I wonder if it would be possible to implant some new ideas in your brain, just like in the movie.

A: Sorry, my brain is not receptive to any new ideas. 

Q: Thank you for your time, Mr. Boehner, that was very enlightening.

A: Well, it's only a dream.  In real life I would have to tell you I actually believe the nonsense I am spouting.

Hope in the Middle East

Martin Indyk, one of the senior U.S. diplomats in the Middle East during the Clinton administration, had an interesting column in the New York Times yesterday applauding the re-commencement of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  He believes conditions may finally be ripe for a more comprehensive agreement because of the decreased level of violence in Israel, the pause in settlement activity, and popular support for a two state solution among both Israelis and Palestinians.  Indyk also points out that virtually all of the details of an ultimate peace agreement have already been hammered over years of past negotiations, and are well known to both sides.  All that has been lacking is the political will to put a deal in place.  On the other hand, see this more pessimistic analysis in the same paper a few days previously, which explains why the political will may very well be lacking.

Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the region see political benefit to maintaining a state of war.  Indeed, the maintenance of conflict justifies the existence of groups opposed to peace.  An argument can even be made for preserving the status quo as a means of placating elements opposed to a two state of solution.  To allow those elements to prevent formalization of a peace agreement would to be to give in to hate and fear.  Indyk quotes Shimon Peres's comment that “history is like a horse that gallops past your window and the true test of statesmanship is to jump from that window onto the horse.”  The time may have come to take a leap.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vacation

Reporting live from Martha's Vineyard where the president and I both just happen to be visiting at the same time (just so people don't think I am following him around, I should mention that I think I've been coming to the Vineyard longer than he has):  What a shame the Obama family didn't--or couldn't--see the spectacular Oak Bluffs fireworks display my family saw this evening.  I'm guessing the security restrictions that would have been necessary to allow his family to attend such a huge open air event would have made the experience unpleasant for everyone.   It was all such a piece of Americana however, with the band playing Sousa marches, the huge crowd on the gigantic open lawn surrounded by Victorian houses, and the small town atmosphere, that I thought it was too bad they did not attend.

And what a shame for my family and our hosts that we missed seeing the president when he dropped in on a Vineyard Haven bookstore this afternoon.  This morning we were also conscious the First Family was visiting when we had breakfast at Katama Airfield (which happens to be a really popular place for breakfast) and noticed that almost all the private pilots were grounded.  This is a small island, and everyone seems to be aware that the President is here.

It might also be a shame that I brought my laptop with me on vacation.  I thought it would be a good idea to keep up these postings for my dozens of eager readers.  But it's August, and the media seems preoccupied with a lot of silly stuff (well maybe that's not too different from usual).  I'm thinking maybe cable news and the whole blogosphere should just take a vacation when there's not much of substance to talk about.  On the other hand, I see that the Israelis and Palestinians may be ready to resume direct negotiations again.  That could be important.  That could be another great achievement the Obama administration is not going to get much credit for.  But I don't have much to say about that right now, and I think I should just get back to my own vacation.

UPDATE 8/21:  Tonight our party which had expanded to 12 all ended up out to dinner at a Thai restaurant in Oak Bluffs, after which we told the four teenagers in the group to head out to the streets and have fun.  What a contrast to the First Family, which needs to organize a Secret Service detail to allow their daughters to try to have a semblance of a normal life in the same town.   Anyway, after we went out for ice cream and to hunt down our kids, lo and behold, my friend Adam spots Sasha and Malia across the street at the arcade, where we all eventually caught a glimpse of them.  I did not take pictures, which the Secret Service seemed to discourage. And I was even resistant to mentioning this event here.  As I tried to explain to my daughter, I am not running some kind of cheesy celebrity-spotting website.  I'd rather leave that sort of thing to the mainstream media.  But, all right, I'll admit it was cool to cross paths with the First Daughters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Confrontational Politics

Frank Rich in the New York Review  and John Judis in The New Republic, both generally sympathetic to the Obama presidency, have written pieces that feed into what I would consider the mistaken conventional wisdom that the president is failing to get his message across.  Their prescriptions are similar: Judis thinks Obama needs to be more confrontational and more populistic.  Rich thinks he should place less faith in the "best and brightest" team he has assembled, particularly in military and economic matters, and that he should reexamine his faith in bi-partisan pragmatism.

A lot of critics on the left seem tired of non-confrontational politics, and are just itching for a good old-fashioned fight.  This attitude may be healthy considering that midterm elections are coming up, and some good old-fashioned fighting is probably called for.  It is also an understandable attitude considering that liberal supporters of the administration have had to swallow a number of compromises in their goals, and considering that we have had to contend with a highly obstructionist attitude on the part of Republican members of Congress, as well as other vicious, unfair and negative attacks from the right.

Still, apart from the need to run a rousing fall election campaign, which the public will understand and expect, I think it would be a mistake for Obama to abandon the non-confrontational, post-partisan style that has gotten him this far.  First of all, why would he tamper with success?   He did not do so during the campaign, despite repeated calls to get tougher against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  He did not do so in the battles with Congress to pass major pieces of legislation.  And guess what?  He won the election without getting into the mud with Clinton or McCain.  And Congress passed the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill, and the financial reform bill without the president ever having to abandon his efforts to work with any serious proposals from  the opposition party.  No one can say that a different style would have been more successful.  And the fact is that the Obama presidency has already been enormously successful, to the consternation of critics from both left and right, who just can't seem to understand how the Obama team seems to pass bill after bill despite its supposedly weak-sounding themes of pragmatism and consensus.

Second, adopting a populist or confrontational tone now would amount to a betrayal of the message that appealed to so many Americans from the time of Obama's inspirational 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, when he asked us to get beyond Red State America and Blue State America and consider that we all might be part of the same United States of America.  A lot of cynics and seasoned political observers might think those sentiments are hopelessly naive, and are ready to give up trying to reconcile opposing points of view, but abandoning that message could cost Obama substantial support among many millions of people idealistic (naive?) enough to find some hope in it.  My guess is that opponents on the right would love nothing more than to see President Obama turn into a fiery populist who would rather fight the opposition (and sometimes lose) than attempt to work with his political opponents (and generally win).  The first thing the Rush Limbaughs and John Boehners and Mitch McConnells would say if a new more partisan Obama emerged would be: "See?  We told you he was a dangerous, anti-American, fire-breathing socialist."   These people would love nothing more than a fighting non-compromising Obama.  Their biggest frustration is that Obama keeps reaching his hand out to them.  They would much rather have the public see his fist.

I'm sure there are ways the Obama team could improve its communications and perhaps modify some of its policy directions.  I'm sure they are already doing that.  But critics like Rich and Judis should not expect a fundamental change in approach from a team that came into office promising a new kind of politics.  And it is way too premature to make any judgments that a more non-confrontational, pragmatic kind of politics has failed.

(Politics in Mexico, from Sodahead)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Religious Freedom

Of all of Thomas Jefferson's achievements, the three he selected to be inscribed on his own tombstone were authoring the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  This is the main paragraph of that statute:
We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
People who are trying to restrict the establishment of a mosque anywhere in America would do well to remember that religious freedom is one of the founding principles of this republic.  Anyone who criticizes the president for standing firmly for the right of Muslims to build a mosque in lower Manhattan is taking a position that is fundamentally un-American, or at least anti-Jeffersonian.  And anyone who thinks the president was being inconsistent by making clear that he was not commenting on whether this is a good place to situate a mosque is not paying attention to what Obama actually said.  There is no inconsistency in standing up for people's rights while remaining neutral, or even questioning, whether they are acting wisely.  If that is inconsistent, then the First Amendment is inconsistent, because it says exactly the same thing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Intra-Party Squabbling

So Robert Gibbs is frustrated at the left wing base of Obama supporters because they are never satisfied. And so the left is now mad at Robert Gibbs for being frustrated.  And when Gibbs tried to placate the left, that only seems to have made matters worse.   I would urge both sides to kiss and make up.  At a time when the Republicans, despite their excellent opportunity to take advantage of popular discontent to score some election victories this fall, seem to be falling prey to squabbling among themselves, the Democrats ought to be acting like the responsible adults who are in power.  Unfortunately, Democrats can never seem to stop fighting among themselves, whether they are in or out of power.

From his perspective,it is understandable that Robert Gibbs is frustrated.  It's bad enough that he has to contend with critics on the right claiming the administration is pursuing a socialist agenda.  I'm sure he would appreciate more understanding from critics on the left.  Gibbs sees first-hand that no matter what Obama does, he can't win.  If he tried harder to satisfy his right wing critics, he would face even more criticism from the left.  And vice versa of course.

But let's also acknowledge that the Obama base is understandably frustrated by the compromises that were made to pass legislation they fought hard for.  The base feels taken for granted.  The administration could perhaps do more to let the base know they are appreciated: the fall elections depend on keeping the base supportive, as well as attracting the support of moderates and independents.  The way to do that is to convey the message that the people in charge know what they are doing, and they have a large base of support.  So it seems a waste of energy even to talk about why Robert Gibbs is mad at liberals, and vice versa.  OK, I'll stop talking about it now.

(AP photo from Politico)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Attacking the Constitution

It's hard to remember a time when there was so much talk of Constitutional crisis, and so little justification for it.  We had a real Constitutional crisis during the Nixon administration.  And we had real efforts at nullification during the civil rights and school desegregation battles in the 1950's and 1960's.

Today we have manufactured Constitutional crises.  For example, some have proposed repealing the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship for children born in the United States as a way of dealing with the "anchor baby" problem.    But the real problem is that we have  over 10 million undocumented aliens here right now, and a lot of them have children who are already citizens by virtue of the 14th Amendment.  We are not going to solve that problem by repealing the 14th Amendment, because that would not strip citizens of their citizenship retroactively.  Repeal would merely remove citizenship rights for future generations.  So if we did nothing else about immigration, depriving future generations born in the United States of citizenship could actually increase the number of illegal aliens.  Talk of repealing the 14th Amendment is therefore nothing more than a distraction from dealing with current problems.  And since such an effort would probably take years, and is highly unlikely to succeed, this kind of talk represents sheer political pandering.

Then there is all the talk of states trying to avoid the insurance mandates and other provisions of federal health care reform legislation.  Some of this talk is based on the long-discredited nullification theory.  Some is based on the Tenth Amendment; and some is based on simple ignorance of concepts such as the Constitution's supremacy clause.  Supporters of nullification rarely mention that its most notorious use in modern times came in resistance to school desegregation.  They forget that we fought a Civil War to demonstrate that states do not have the right to secede unilaterally from the Union.  And like the talk about amending the Constitution to deal with the immigration issue, all the talk about states' rights to reject federal health care initiatives does nothing to solve real problems.  First, because efforts such as the vote in Missouri to remove the federal health care mandates are legally meaningless:  either the federal government has the power to enact such a law or it does not.  The law's effect cannot be nullified by any state legislature or state ballot initiative.  Second because threats by states not to follow federal law do nothing to solve the real problems of making health insurance available to everyone who needs it.  Attempts to manufacture a constitutional crisis over this issue thus represent an effort to distract attention from solving real problems.

Why the need to inflate mere opposition to federal legislation into a challenge to the legitimacy of the federal government itself?  The Obama administration has done nothing qualitatively different from predecessors on either of these issues.  On immigration, if anything, the Obama administration has enforced the law more strictly than the Bush administration, and has advocated comprehensive reform not all that dissimilar to what Bush advocated.  The new health care law cannot be said to be more intrusive than Medicare or Medicaid, which take money out of every American's paycheck every week to pay for somebody else's health care.  And the stimulus and bailouts represent less of an expansion of federal power than FDR's efforts to end the Great Depression in the 1930's.  Nevertheless, some people see these policy debates turning into a kind of revolutionary hysteria.  Obviously, I'd rather see us debate these issues in a calm and rational way, but that seems to be too much to ask these days.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Birther Update

On the 49th anniversary of the President's birth, we learn that the latest CNN poll shows that 27% of Americans still doubt that Barack Obama was born in the United States.  (The figure rises to 41% if you are a Republican, proving that Republicans are by nature more skeptical of public records than the average American.)   It is a shame that more Americans do not read my blog, because they would no doubt have been impressed by the post I did a year ago describing my most ambitious feat of reporting, an arduous expedition that should have put this controversy to rest definitively.  (See my blog post titled Obamaland.)  I personally verified that Hawaii is part of the United States of America, and I saw with my own eyes, and photographed, the places where Barack Obama lived as a child.  On the other hand, I understand that there is a lot of scientific evidence supporting  the birther position, summarized here.

But here is a quote (from the CNN article) from the Governor of Hawaii, who I guess is among the 59% of Republicans who accept the theory that the President was born in the United States:
"I had my health director, who is a physician by background, go personally view the birth certificate in the birth records of the Department of Health. The president was in fact born at Kapi'olani Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. And that's just a fact.
It's been established he was born here.  I can understand why people want to make certain that the constitutional requirement of being a, you know, natural born American citizen … but the question has been asked and answered. And I think just we should all move on now."
I couldn't have put it better myself:  "Just we should all move on now."  Exactly.  Can we take the governor's word for this, or must I make another trip to Hawaii to gather even more evidence?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Magical Thinking

Yesterday a lawsuit filed by Virginia's Attorney General challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, survived a motion to dismiss the complaint, allowing this legal challenge to be heard on its merits.  And today Missouri is voting on a ballot measure similar to Virginia's statute, that purports to allow Missourians to reject the requirement of an individual mandate. I struggle to understand the thinking behind this spate of lawsuits and other state initiatives.  As a legal issue, the question whether a provision in the federal legislation that would penalize people who choose not to purchase health insurance exceeds Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause, is somewhat interesting, but it seems doubtful that states are taking action for the primary purpose of exploring that interesting issue of constitutional law.  As a political question, I understand the desire of opponents of health care reform to use any means available to derail this legislation.  I think I even understand some of the philosophical underpinnings of this opposition--the distrust of government, the belief in markets, the desire to leave people to their own devices in making decisions that affect their own lives.  It is understandable that people who believe that the government has no business providing any social services to anyone, whether Social Security, Medicare, housing assistance, food stamps or any other form of assistance, would oppose any further intrusion of government into health insurance.

But it is in the practical workings of health insurance that my understanding of this movement starts to break down.  The people behind these lawsuits and statutes must recognize that without some mechanism for requiring healthy people to pay into the system, health insurance becomes increasingly unaffordable for those who need it most.  In other words, if we are going to prohibit insurance companies from turning down or gouging people with pre-existing conditions, we can't allow people to wait until they get sick before they apply for health insurance.  Those who oppose any requirement for making people who do not currently need coverage pay for it anyway, are either deliberately trying to create an unworkable insurance system, or they are the victims of some kind of magical thinking.  The kind of thinking that would allow drivers to wait to purchase liability insurance until after they have an accident.  Or that would allow homeowners to purchase fire insurance after their house burns down.  We recognize (in the case of homeowners, at least mortgage holders recognize) that if we don't require drivers and homeowners to purchase insurance, whether they need it or not, the system will not work.  Somehow we fail to recognize the same reality for health insurance.

The opponents of health insurance reform seem to feel that they do not have the burden of coming up with a plausible alternative.  They cannot point to any other country as a model.  They cannot defend our current system, which costs twice as much as most other industrialized nations, and produces worse outcomes.  And they cannot construct another workable model that satisfies the goal of providing affordable coverage for all.  They seem to be living in a world where the top never stops spinning.  

What would happen if these measures succeeded, and Congress were prohibited from imposing tax penalties on people who choose not to buy health insurance?  Wouldn't that leave Congress only with the alternative of funding health insurance out of payroll or income taxes, the way that we fund Medicare, Medicaid and the VA?  No one seems to question the constitutional authority of the federal government to run a purely socialized system of medicine for the poor, the elderly and for veterans.  If the government cannot enact a hybrid system for the rest of us, would there be any alternative to something like Medicare for everyone?

(magic pill illustration from photobucket)

UPDATE (8/4/10)Missouri primary voters (about 23% turnout) yesterday voted overwhelmingly (over 70%) in favor of the ballot measure that would not require people to buy health insurance until they get sick.  In other news, they also voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure that would allow everyone to have their cake and eat it.

UPDATE (8/6/10):  I read today that Howard Dean thinks we don't need a mandate, and he predicts it will be eliminated once the bill finally goes into effect.  That sounds like some more magical thinking to me, but wouldn't it be nice if he were right. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Respect Your Elders

If there is one thing that the term "conservative" should imply, that would be veneration for ideas that have stood the test of time.  One would also expect that true conservatives would pay attention to the elder statesmen of their movement, people who no longer have a political position to maintain but are still capable of passing down their wisdom.  So here for example, is Alan Greenspan, appearing on the Sunday news shows, urging that the Bush tax cuts be allowed to lapse at the end of this year as scheduled.  Although Greenspan is generally in favor of cutting taxes, he is not in favor of doing so with borrowed money.  And when asked whether he accepts the theory that tax cuts pay for themselves, he said simply, "They do not."

Then there is the distinguished former Secretary of State George Schultz.  The LA Times reports that  Schultz is now one of the leaders of the campaign against Proposition 23, an initiative backed by several oil companies, that is seeking to delay the implementation of California's anti-global warming law, AB 32, which is intended to reduce carbon emissions.  Schultz dispenses the following common sense advice:
"Sooner or later, somehow or other, there's going to be a price put on carbon. So everybody running companies … take a deep breath … better start adjusting to it. We're going to make energy created by the burning of fossil fuels more expensive. That's the idea. So people will use less of it. Those who are creating ways of producing energy with less of a carbon footprint will benefit."
We should pay attention to people like Schultz and Greenspan because they should have no reason to advocate anything other than what they feel is best for the country. Unlike active politicians, they have no ambitions to another office, and they are not beholden to any special interests.  They can simply speak the truth.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP photo from LA Times)