Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The State of the Union, 2011

Nicely Stated

What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow. –President Barak Obama

When I was a kid I attended a church camp and learned a song. It only had two phrases: “Praise ye the Lord” and “Alleluia.” The boys sang one phrase and the girls the other, and we were encouraged to compete with each other with regard to volume. In addition, when one group was singing it stood up while the other quickly sat down. The result resembled a reciprocating engine and achieved noise levels similar to those produced by high school basketball fans stomping on bleachers.

Every time I have watched the State of the Union Address in recent years I have been reminded of that song. The President would say something his party liked and all its members would stand up and applaud. Occasionally he would say something supported by the other party and its members would stand. Often a member, especially of the opposition, thought something sounded good and started to stand, but first hastily glanced at the party leader to make sure it was appropriate. The bouncing up and down and the jerky hesitations were entertaining but didn’t enhance the message.

It was a little different this time. Recognizing the extremes to which partisan bickering has poisoned our national debate, and recoiling from the recent tragedy in Tucson that had stricken close to home, many members of Congress chose to sit next to someone from the other party and not in blocs on their sides of the aisle. It was a symbolic gesture but one that many of their constituents, myself among them, found greatly refreshing.

Oh, yes, the members still bounced up and down, and just about every sentence President Obama uttered was applauded by one group or the other or both. It took him over an hour to give a 30-minute speech. But there was a significant feeling that at least one impediment to comity and compromise had been removed.

President Obama’s speech Tuesday was conciliatory in many ways as well, so Republicans had a number of opportunities to stand and applaud. He obviously recognizes that voters want him to work with the opposition to solve the many problems we face.

Both the Republican rebuttal, given by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the new House Budget Committee chairman, and the Tea Party rebuttal, from Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), who can usually be counted on to say something bizarrely belligerent, were unusually cogent and avoided the usual “social conservative” rhetoric that has polluted public discourse for decades. I didn’t hear abortion mentioned in any of the three speeches, and only the president mentioned gays and immigration, and just briefly. Bachmann, who recently described Obama as “the first non-American president,” stayed on-message with the other two and avoided ad hominem and “birther” nonsense.

The message, of course, is that we have great economic difficulties. Each of the three offered solutions, and while they differed to a great extent, it’s clear there is significant common ground. I found this truly refreshing; perhaps it’s because the Republicans now control the House and will be held accountable for its actions.

President Obama called for new investment in technology to bring about the next industrial revolution, citing past achievements in space and the development of the Internet, both of which spurred the economy. He called for improvements in education and the development of new infrastructure such as mag-lev trains and the next generations of renewable energy and high-speed communications, as well as rebuilding existing infrastructure, as ways to make this happen. He extolled the benefits of pure research in a newly-competitive world.

He called upon Congress to revise the tax code. “Over the years,” he said, “a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all. But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and it has to change.”

Get rid of these loopholes, he said, and the corporate tax rate can be lowered. This would make U.S. companies more competitive with the rest of the world.

He admitted that some government regulations do more to stifle business than to protect the public, while others are unnecessarily duplicative, and offered to work with lawmakers to revise them. But he made it clear that some regulations were necessary, including those recently imposed on the financial industry, and that he would resist efforts to dilute them.

The president got a well-deserved laugh when he said, “I’ve heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law.” The House, of course, has wasted most of its first weeks this session tilting at that windmill. Obama made it clear he wouldn’t allow a return to the status quo ante but agreed that “anything can be improved.” If there’s something wrong with it, he said, “let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward.”

That probably didn’t assuage the Republicans in the least, but it’s certainly a statement of political fact. If the GOP wants to abolish the health care law, it will have to win the 2012 election, and win it big, to do it.

Obama offered a number of cost-cutting measures. Republicans interviewed afterwards decried them as too little too late, but they represent fertile ground for compromise, and that’s a start.

Has civility returned to Congress? There are some hopeful signs. Let’s see if they work together tomorrow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Our Political Parties - V

Declining to State

You must pick one or the other although neither of them ought to be what they claim. –Bob Dylan.

I’ve scarcely mentioned one the biggest political blocs of all, the self-styled independents. They don’t rate an initial capital letter because they do not exist as a political party. They are defined by what they are not.

In my state, people who don’t choose a party when they register to vote are referred to as “Declined to State.” It makes them sound like they’re trying to hide something. I think “Unaffiliated” is a kinder moniker, and a more precise term.

Whatever you call them, unaffiliated voters are a big percentage of registered voters, about 30%. The biggest group of all, of course, is composed of those who don’t vote or don’t even register. At least the independents participate in the process.

In presidential election years, usually a little over half of the voting-age population actually makes it to the polls. Some years it will break the 60% barrier. In off-year elections, it’s usually less than 40%. (See for statistics from the years 1960-2008.)

The breakdown of Republicans, Democrats, and independents is roughly one-sixth of the eligible population each. Every year a few members of each of the two major parties choose to vote for the opposition candidate, but most of them stick with their own parties. That means that the independents are actually deciding general elections. The problem is that they have no voice in primary elections.

In order to win, a candidate from either party has to keep his party’s voters motivated and convince a majority of the independents that he is the best choice. Many good candidates who could put such a coalition together never get the chance, because the views of party members don’t always match those of independent voters. The result is a complicated dance to attract party members during the primary season without alienating independent voters who will be needed the following November.

I can understand why many people choose not to participate at the party level. They may see the parties as unnecessarily partisan and vociferous, but ironically they help make them that way by not getting involved and diluting the venom. Others simply find politics uninteresting. I can understand that. I feel the same way about sports, and ballet, and whatever the heck Lindsay Lohan does besides get in trouble. I can’t tell you who won the last World Series, or what teams are still in the running for the Super Bowl, but I can give you a pretty accurate list of the U.S. senators whose seats will be up for election next time, and which ones are likely not to run. Different strokes for different folks.

Some say we should have more than two parties, but no one seems to be able to put a viable third party together. Ross Perot came close, as did George Wallace before him, but there never seems to be a critical mass. Even if someone did succeed in creating a viable third party, I’d bet that it would soon replace one of the existing parties rather than compete with them both.

So I expect independents to remain a major force in our government for the foreseeable future, and I think that’s a good thing. A candidate from either party who sticks too closely to that party’s core message won’t make it. The party faithful may not support compromise, but their candidate has to. Independents haven’t found it desirable or comfortable to register in either party, so neither party line will attract their votes. The large number of independents requires candidates, especially presidential candidates, to espouse a less partisan approach and speak to the issues that concern the unaffiliated at the moment.

Two days after he barely won the 2004 election, George Bush, Jr. said, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Just after the 2010 election, the new house speaker-apparent, John Boehner, said, “The American people spoke and I think it’s pretty clear the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people.”

Well, Mr. Speaker, maybe that sentiment will work better for you than it did for Mr. Bush, but I doubt it. “The American People” in this case were a motivated Republican base and a majority of the independents who chose to vote this time around. If there was a mandate, it was for more jobs and a better economy. It remains to be seen if the tactics of the GOP in the House will bring those things about to the satisfaction of the independents who supported its candidates, or if they will decide to do so again in 2012.

Even the biggest landslides in recent history represent the votes of only 25% to 30% of eligible voters, and in no case was the winning party able to duplicate its success two years later.

Those of us who have chosen to be Democrats should remember that if we win next time around and avoid saying that it’s pretty clear the Boehner-McConnell agenda is being rejected by the American people.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Our Political Parties - IV

Ethical Cleansing

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat. –Will Rogers, 1879-1935.

In my experience, the Democratic Party is like a bus. Those who get on first every four years get to drive, but they have to pay for the gas, too. If they don’t, someone else takes over and the rest of us are happy to be along for the ride. Sometimes we get as far as Washington.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party is the party of Labor, of the common people. Common people may be common, but they’re incredibly diverse, and you will definitely find all kinds of people at a Democratic meeting or rally or barbecue.

A simplistic view of the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the former are fighting for something and the latter against something. Consequently, the words “liberal” and “conservative” have some validity in describing them. When they’re at their best, the Democrats are working for their vision of fairness and equity, strengthening the middle class, and reducing poverty. At their best Republicans are working for their vision of fairness and equity, protecting the upper class, and keeping Democrats from going overboard in their efforts.

Years ago my brother-in-law signed up to run for country commissioner in our little county on the Republican ticket. If he had signed up as a Democrat, we would have welcomed him with open arms along with anyone else willing to run for the seat. But he chose the GOP, and he didn’t consult with the county chairman or the other powers-that-were at the time. They had already chosen someone else to run for the position and they were not happy with this impertinent upstart.

Despite their best efforts, he won the primary. In retaliation, those powers-that-were redoubled their opposition in the general election. This time, they won. They got his Democratic opponent elected, and considered it a victory.

I have always considered that incident indicative of the differences between the two major parties. It’s one reason I’m a Democrat. When we’re at our best, we encourage participation from all sorts of people and we make rules, sometimes ridiculously complex rules, that give everybody a voice in the process.

In recent years the Republican Party, at least those members led by Limbaugh and his clones and the Tea Party, has been “purifying” itself to make sure everybody in the party who holds office or speaks out toes the party line. Everyone has to be for tax cuts for the rich and famous, prayer in school, capital punishment, and automatic weapon ownership, and against abortion, immigration, health care for the poor, wardrobe malfunctions, and so on.

This purification is sowing the seeds of the party’s demise. My greatest fear is that the Democrats will follow suit.

In the last primary election, spent a lot of money trying to defeat Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, because not all of her votes fit in with MoveOn’s version of the party line. (She opposed the “public option” for health care.) Sen. Lincoln had a hard fight without such assistance because it was a Republican year and because Arkansas is not a safe Democratic state. She managed to limp through the primary and a subsequent run-off to get the nomination, but was defeated soundly in the general election by Republican John Boozman.

I don’t think Lincoln had a chance this year, but I think MoveOn’s efforts were against the party’s long-term interest. We Democrats need to be inclusive, or we’ll end up pure – and irrelevant. Such “ethical cleansing” on the GOP side will drive people out of the party, and many of them will end up as Democrats – unless the Democrats do the same thing. Then they’ll end up as independents poxing both our houses.

Instead of trying to purge our party, let’s build it up. There’s one constituency of the Republican Party that has been disgruntled in recent years: the fiscal conservatives. Our party has a better record in that regard than the GOP, at least since the Bush, Jr. years. If we take up that mantle, and make it clear that we are for social justice within a financially sound system, some of those disaffected people can feel comfortable on our side of the aisle.

One of the things I find most annoying about the GOP, especially in Congress, is its lockstep mentality. Trying to get Democrats to sing in unison is like herding cats (or as author Ari Berman put it in the title of his recent book, Herding Donkeys). I like that. I’d sure like to see a few more Republican legislators crossing the aisle when they recognize that a pending bill is a good one. But their party tends to be very retributive when this occurs. Consider the fate of Sen. Arlen Specter: a Republican Party that doesn’t have room for Arlen Specter is a Republican Party in trouble.

Capitalists, conservatives, corporations, and the cautious deserve a voice. I think a healthy Republican Party is good for the Democratic Party. Despite its recent gains in Congress and across the country, I don’t think the Republican Party is really that healthy, and I don’t think that’s good for my party either. We are forced to respond to the loud but largely irrelevant tirades of the GOP’s lunatic fringe, and it dumbs down the discussion.

We have very pressing problems in this country, and it will take rational compromise from both sides to solve them. The longer we delay the worse they get.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Our Political Parties - III

The Brand New Party

This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot. –Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), 1832-1898

What a bizarre phenomenon is the Tea Party. It seemed to spring forth, like a toe fungus, in 2008 – coincidently an election year. There is no national headquarters of this organization: every chapter – indeed, every member – seems to be autonomous. Although the message is obscure, the common themes seem to be concern over the national debt and deficit, support for the Constitution, opposition to waste, fraud, and abuse, and a preference for smaller government.

It sounds like just what the Republican Party needs, doesn’t it? At first glance it seems to be an association of fiscal conservatives, a constituency who have found the GOP disappointing in recent years. Perhaps it could be the vessel of retribution for the profligate wealthy, or at least a balance to their astonishing excesses.

But look closer. They all seem to be White folks, generally older White folks, and they all seem to be very mad about something. Surely it is the wild-eyed fiscal insanity of recent years, when stockbrokers and bankers, abetted by free-market legislators who had systematically dismantled long-standing regulations of their industries, went berserk and almost took us into worldwide depression.

Well, no. These people are mad, but not about that.

A group of Teabags actually held a rally in the town nearest to mine last year. I happened to drive by just as it was winding down. I saw that several people were displaying signs, but I could only read one as I passed. It said, “Forget Your Dogs and Cats – Spay and Neuter Your Liberty!” I have no clue what that was supposed to mean, but I’m sure it was heartfelt. It’s typical of the disparate and convoluted messages of the Tea Party.

Look yet closer and you’ll see something else: a tendency to blame Barak Obama for our economic ills. Many of the Teabags profess to be particularly angry at Obama’s bailout of the banks.

Uh, well, uh, that happened a couple of months before Mr. Obama took office, didn’t it?

Shh! Don’t confuse them.

I think the real cause of their anger is Barak Obama himself. He’s a Muslim and he wasn’t born in this country and, well… dammit, he’s Black!

Oh, shoot. We’re back to the xenophobes again.

Nonetheless, Tea Party wingnuts won some primaries last year, and a few of them made it through the general election. GOP establishment types lauded and kowtowed the movement (and provided some generous funding for it), but there’s mutual suspicion between the two groups. They do seem to be in unison, though, when they disparage the President and those who support him.

So, no. This is not a group of fiscal conservatives. Their support of the Constitution is also limited. The distillation of their message seems to me to be that if George Bush, Jr. did it, it was just fine, and if Barak Obama did it, it’s unconstitutional.

I am a Democrat, as should be quite obvious by now, but I really believe we need a healthy Republican Party, or at least a healthy second party. But while bigotry and corporate idolatry may have gotten the GOP a slug of new seats in Congress, those seats are by no means safe. How the Republicans act in the next few months will determine whether the pendulum swings back at the next election, and if it does, the party will find it difficult to regain its present strength.

The Republicans have taken over the House of Representatives, and now they will be responsible for its success or failure. They are in their third day in the majority. They have read the Constitution aloud, promised to repeal the health care act, decided that tax cuts are not subject to “paygo” restrictions, and threatened to shut down the government when it reaches its current credit limit in just a couple of months. The rhetoric is flowing and they claim the November election gave them a breathtaking mandate to do these things. We’ll see.

Perhaps they should have followed the lead of the new Senate, where on the first day a number of Democratic members proposed changes in the Senate rules that would reduce the mind-numbing inaction and institutionalized logjams that have plagued it in recent years. After this heartening display, the Senate recessed (as opposed to adjourning, so that the first day would continue when it reconvenes) until the next day – which it determined will be on January 25th.

The House may get into a lot of trouble before then, but the Senate won’t be making any blunders at all. As the senators left town they looked back at the House, which was trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Our Political Parties - II

The Grand Old Party

Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past. –William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

The Democratic Party is the party of Labor, and the Republican Party is the party of Capital. That statement is true, but woefully incomplete.

First of all, it should be obvious that there are a lot more laborers than there are capitalists. As a matter of fact, the percentage of the wealthy in this country has been shrinking considerably in the past four decades, even as the percentage of wealth they control has risen. How in the world can the capitalist party gain the support of so many laborers?

The history of the Republican Party is indeed a saga of strange bedfellowship. It actually started as a vehicle to express moral outrage at the institution of slavery, and moral outrage has been one of its recurring themes since that time.

Republican leaders would probably rather their party be called conservative than capitalist, and there is a lot of common ground between the two terms. Those who have wealth did not get it, and cannot keep it, by being liberal. Such people who are cautious in their financial dealings are likely to be cautious in social matters as well. They tend to dress like each other and look askance at those whose attire is less conventional. They tend to favor keeping the various institutions of society just the way they have been.

Social conservatives tend to resist the endless, unstoppable change that has characterized the history of humankind. I am sure that there were such people who decried the construction of the Pyramids of Egypt as profligate and unnecessary; more recently their counterparts have decried and bemoaned everything from the shocking display of ankles by women, to the pernicious influence of the nickelodeon, to the degenerate fads of pointillism and cubism, to the decreasing amount of fabric devoted to articles of swimming wear, to the debauchery of the music produced by such impertinent dastards as Beethoven, Joplin, Gershwin, Sinatra, Pressley, and Dylan, to the imposition of the designated hitter rule, and on and on.

And that’s not a bad thing. Society needs a certain amount of inertia. As far as I know the construction of the Pyramids was indeed profligate and unnecessary, unless they had a purpose we have yet to discover. Most of us would agree that change is not necessarily for the better. We may decry the loss of civility, the proliferation of filthy talk, the degradation of women, the “dumbing down” of our educational system. We are all conservative to some extent.

What really worries me about the Republican Party are the “values” it currently espouses. Most of these, in my mind, are xenophobic hatred and bigotry: fear or loathing of Blacks, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, artists, “eggheads,” Catholics, Mormons, poor people, immigrants, Hispanics, and I’m tired of thinking of more because it’s too easy to do.

But many of the people who hold these “values” actually think of them as moral. Many of these people are aligned with the GOP although, thank God, not all Republicans share their prejudices. Nonetheless, it’s pretty hard not to at least pay lip service to these “values,” especially when Rush Limbaugh and Faux News are ready to expose you as heretical if you do not.

To my mind there are a number of different constituencies of the GOP:

1. The very rich and those who wield corporate power.
2. Fiscal conservatives.
3. The well-to-do who have the attitude of “I made mine; let them make theirs.”
4. Those who aspire to be wealthy and think becoming Republicans will help them do so. (It’s amazing how many there are. In my opinion, they are deluded and their party affiliation goes against their own self-interest.)
5. Those who feel threatened by change (including xenophobes).
6. Those who are against abortion.

Probably the largest group is #5, while the smallest is certainly #1. But all the prizes are through door number one, and it is the rich and the corporate power brokers who really exercise the power in the party. As incontrovertible evidence of this, witness the fact that during the recent lame duck session of Congress, every single Republican senator signed a letter to the majority leader saying that absolutely nothing would be passed until all the Bush tax cuts were continued. Barak Obama campaigned to let these expire for everyone with incomes over $250,000, and he was elected by a big majority. During the Senate debate, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer offered to raise that limit to $1 million. There wasn’t a single taker on the GOP side.

That was a display of the real power in the Republican Party.

The cohesion of the several constituencies I’ve mentioned is quite fragile, and I believe it portends the doom of the Republican Party as we know it. Fiscal conservatives, especially, have had a difficult time sticking with the party in recent years while those few powerful people behind door number one have engaged in the biggest hog slop in history.

The 2010 election was a real victory for group #5, but its influence is waning, nonetheless. Today’s young people are far less likely to be bigots than their parents and, especially, their grandparents. African Americans and homosexuals and immigrants and all those other bugbears cause little consternation to the younger generation. As the bigots die off, the GOP will suffer unless it changes its focus. Today’s young people do not listen to Limbaugh or watch Faux News. They listen to music and watch Jon Stewart.

Thank God for that!