Thursday, November 15, 2012

Compromise or Betrayal

The Politics of Gridlock

So, I wrote the Washington Post, again. Something like Letter to the Editor number lebenty-leben, I’m guessing. They didn’t get around to publishing it (quelle surprise!), but here it is:


Obama did not lead a U.S. retreat from the world,” Jackson Diehl writes in “Foreign policy red flags “(Post, Nov. 12). “Instead he sought to pursue the same interests without the same means.”

Obama has withdrawn ground troops from war zones, cut the defense budget, and backed away from nation-building projects and from U.S.-led interventions, Diehl tells us. That sounds to me like a decision to pursue distinctly different interests around the world and, more specifically, to make it clear that the U.S. will no longer police the world to secure all the advantages that once accrued under Pax America.

If my understanding is correct it might mean that U.S. corporations can no longer invest and operate globally backed by the threat of force. If my understanding is correct it might also mean that groups with historic grievances against the U.S. (real or imagined) will unfortunately have more space and freedom to plot anti-American violence. Indeed, that might make Americans a bit more vulnerable, a risk that we will have to figure out how to manage and reduce by other means. But if we can do this through a “lighter footprint” globally, we might become one of the principal architects of a more peaceful world.

Or is Diehl suggesting that a heavier footprint might get better results? Are we talking, say, the Bush footprint, which resulted in upwards of one million Iraqis and Afghanis dead or displaced, thousands of American fatalities, and a military budget that roughly doubled from the first Bush-year to the last? Is that the footprint Diehl is recommending?

Jeff Epton

That’s the letter, but there’s more to say, of course. Obama’s “lighter footprint” still includes drone attacks, Guantanamo and anything but a get-tough-with-Israel element, but at this time in history, and after almost 50 years of disappointment with American foreign policy, I’m more than willing to settle for half a loaf.

And, speaking of compromise, disgruntled leftist though I may be, I’m ready for more of it. If Barack Obama wants to trim a little around the edges of programs I support, including Medicare, in exchange for Republican votes for higher taxes on the wealthy, other revenue increases of various kinds, closing tax code loopholes or ending subsidies that supplement the profits of oil companies and hedge funds and other corporate actors, and continuing reductions in the military budget, I’m ready to sign on.

Some of those cuts likely will harm individuals and communities that need more, not less, government assistance or protection. But without Republican support for revenue increases the country will continue to be pummeled by the effects of political gridlock.

Of course, there are lots of possible compromises that will provide no long-term benefit. Any worthwhile deal with Republicans in Congress must be part of a strategic assessment that suggests that the Republicans who do compromise will be willing to do so more than once.

I don’t know what criteria to apply in reaching such a conclusion, but I’m fairly certain that there are Republican senators and representatives who believe that a deal of some sort would be better for the country than falling off the fiscal cliff and also believe that Republicans who continue on their present reactionary path might well be overwhelmed by an approaching demographic tsunami.

There will be plenty of folks who wish to argue with this approach. People who believe that compromise can easily convert to betrayal. Robert Borosage lays out that perspective in persuasive detail in “A ‘grand bargain’ on the fiscal cliff could be a grand betrayal.”

Borosage’s main argument is that going over the fiscal cliff will not immediately do the kind of damage that so many observers are predicting. Further, he says, the nation does not have a debt or deficit problem, but a jobs problem that needs to be addressed first. And, finally, that there is plenty of time next year, after going over the cliff that is not a cliff, to address the problems created by lapsed tax cuts and automatic budget cuts.

But I’m not persuaded. I agree with the proposition that getting more people back to work is more important than addressing the deficit. But what Borosage and I believe is not going to compel action. The end of the payroll tax cut is going to reduce household income for even the poorest working families by a meaningful amount. That’s not going to get anybody back to work. There are more layoffs coming, as well, as the fiscal cliff approaches.

Sorry I am that compromise is necessary, but January will not create a more flexible Congress or present new opportunities to pass another sorely needed stimulus bill. Stimulus items like spending for infrastructure, extending unemployment benefits, and preserving the payroll tax cut are going to take compromise, now or later. Election victories notwithstanding, coaxing the right number of Republicans to vote with Democrats is going to take giving up something.

Though Jackson Diehl’s Nov. 12 piece left something to be desired, two Post columnists wrote rather more interesting columns that ran on Nov. 14. Dana Milbank’s “The Confederacyof Takers” points out in substantial detail how well most red states do feeding at the public trough. “Red states receive, on average, far more from the federal government in expenditures than they pay in taxes. It is the opposite in blue states,” Milbank wrote.

Also, check out Harold Meyerson’s “The GOP’s gerrymandered advantages,” which points out that in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania congressional races, Republicans won 30 more seats in the House of Representatives than Democrats, despite the fact that Obama won the popular vote in those states by margins that should have led to a 30-seat Democratic advantage. That did not happen, Meyerson wrote, because Republican gubernatorial and legislative control of those states after the 2010 census permitted significant gerrymandering of House districts. “…by suppressing competition, and crafting uncompetitive districts, [Republicans] maintained their hold on the House last week.”

 Obviously, it will take a while before the full effects of the coming demographic change will swamp intransigent Republicans. In some cases, it will take Democratic victories in tight elections in state legislative districts over the next six years before redistricting will permit Democrats to once more exercise all the prerogatives of the majority party in Congress. But legislative victories for working people and minorities should come a little easier in the future than they have over the last four years.

In the meantime, we should all keep in mind that working people in the red states are suffering, too. After all, capital and organized commercial interests in the south, like weapons manufacturers, oil companies and agribusiness, are siphoning off a huge share of the federal largess that heads that way.

Ordinary folks in the red states are pretty much getting the same shaft as working people elsewhere. They may even have been getting it longer. The fact that they don’t seem to vote their own interests is a measure of how long they’ve been exploited and of the absence of unions to organize and message an alternative. While we are compromising, and strategizing our way to future victories, we ought to figure out a way to talk plainly and supportively to folks in the red states. They are Americans and they are our sisters and brothers.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A meditation on the Romneys

comes to an improbable conclusion

Walking the dog a bit ago and musing, I came across something of a meditation about Ann Romney and about Mitt. I'm feeling pretty well-disposed right now (it turns out the defense of Obamacare is pretty damn good medicine), but I'm still not intending to write anything nice about the Romneys.

The meditation began with a focus on Ann's horse, which, we have been told, has been an important element in the treatment of Ann's multiple sclerosis. Really? And, so, are we to understand that we are to pay no attention to the wealth piled up in the corner, but focus instead on Ann's self, mortal like the rest of us?

I can manage a very little of that, but then the thought comes to mind: How incredibly privileged the Romney's are that they can afford such treatment. Yes, we will all shuffle off this mortal coil, but along the way some of us will suffer more.

None of this means that the Romney's are bad people (though wealth and cluelessness and the desire to lower taxes on the rich is the dangerous wish of a powerful person), but they do not a First Family make. According to media reports, Republicans are doing some serious investigation of their strategies and commitments and exploring options for the future. Let me suggest that they never run a person this rich for the presidency, again.

That wasn't a viable choice this time, and isn't going to be again, I'd wager (though I'm not willing to bet a Romney-style $10,000 on the proposition). Certainly, wealthy men and women are going to be the ones occupying the presidency for as far into the future as we can see, and will capitalize on their stature and our celebrity culture after they serve, but Romney was very likely a zero too far. His $250+ million fortune was less transparent than the fifty-times smaller fortune of the man he ran against and substantially larger than that of the Bush family.

But Obama made what he has on fame and book royalties, both things that have come to him fairly recently in life. And George W. Bush had a goofiness about him that persuaded lots of ordinary folks that Bush was a pretty ordinary guy, too. Lots of voters were okay with a goofy, rich man for president when times were good, but this time around, a rich man who has the same vibe as Thurston Howell III (on Gilligan's Island), would have been kicked to the curb sooner, and long before Obama sleepwalked through the first debate, if the economy had been only marginally better.

Thinking back on images of the campaign, I am struck by how often I recall pictures of Mitt looking befuddled or startled. Looking, in fact, like he has just run up against another manifestation of real life--like mere mortals questioning his judgement or his veracity--that he had never experienced before. Well, the only people I know of who are routinely protected from that sort of collision with reality are CEO's and the one percent. Don't kid yourself, you Republican deep thinkers, everyone was going to figure out that Mitt didn't have a clue, even if the Obama campaign had spent less money trying to convey that impression of Mitt.

I must say I don't envy Republican strategists right now. They must figure out a way to compromise on taxes and the deficit and Social Security and Medicare and the debt ceiling and immigration and infrastructure and climate change while maintaining strong connections to Tea Party supporters, half of whom will demobilize as the economy improves. For the Republican party as it is presently constituted, staying relevant in an age of adverse shifts in demographics and the electoral map  is like being up the creek without a paddle.

But the somewhat bizarre conclusion to my meditation is the thought that I really do wish the Republicans well. Democrats could use a hand governing the country at this very critical time. A Republican boost could be transformative.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

First we reelect the president

Next we heal the world

Well, so much for my abilities at foreshadowing what I might do next. My last post ended with the hopeful observation that I might write next about "the Chicago Way (here or here, for example)," a concept intended to suggest that dirty tricks and corruption have been refined to an extraordinary degree by Chicago politicians, of which Barack Obama is one and whose campaign, as the story goes, is too slick and too malign for the honorable likes of Mitt Romney.

I intended to belittle the notion that Chicago was so exceptional in the way of corruption and cynicism, and to call on lessons from my own experience as a politician in Ann Arbor and as a journalist in Chicago and Dayton to support an opposite conclusion, namely that politicians are no more corrupt or venal than the rest of us. That's a point that I think needs elaborating and repeating, but I've lost interest in the idea as the topic for this post.

Instead I want to elaborate on a comment my friend "kpdriscoll," left responding to the previous post, a bit about October surprises and the unlikelihood that there are any secrets left about Barack that might come out at the end and damage his political position. I wrote that only Romney could be victimized by the sudden appearance or elaboration on one of his "secrets." I was thinking about, say, the release of previous years tax returns or some nasty story about Bain.

The piece was weak. I wrote what I did because at the time I was feeling a little puny myself. Hell, I've been feeling a little puny for the last month or so. And my lassitude, I am convinced, came from the dread I felt about this election. Obama will lose, Romney will win, I've been thinking for more than a month now, and what will follow will be more of the Republican attack on government, an attack that has already, in the 32 years since Reagan was first elected, significantly defunded the government with severe consequences for the poor, for public education, for college students, for consumers, for healthcare and for the environment, to select just a sample.

In réponse, KP cited Hurricane Sandy as really the only October surprise of this election cycle and expanded with the observation that Sandy injected climate change and the environment back into political debate, however belatedly. This is true, I guess, as far as it goes, but climate change has been injected back into a debate that has been substantially soured by the ongoing Republican project, aimed at deligitimatizing the notion that government can improve and advance our common interests.

The two-pronged attack, defunding and deligitimatizing government, have left the country in a perilous state, especially in regard to a challenge as enormous as global warming and seas rising. Of course, the complete collapse of the U.S. and the global economy would have go a long way toward slowing the increase in the average global temperature, but as George Lakoff points out in "Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy," burning the gas reserves of Exxon Mobil alone would raise the average global temperature high enough to threaten civilization as we experience it. "The oil stored by all the oil companies everywhere would, if burned, destroy civilization many times over," Lakoff continues.

Under such circumstances, it should be obvious that even worldwide economic collapse would not eliminate the threat of devastating climate change (devastating superstorms are already here). It will take a government-led project many times larger than the Marshall Plan, larger than all public and private space exploration to date, to back us away from the damage that has already been done and to do so in a way that maintains the livelihoods, aspirations and quality of life for billions worldwide. It may be that it cannot be done.

It may be that the damage done by Reagan, Bush, Cheney, Bush, Rove, Boehner, McConnell, Romney and others has already crippled the faith that Americans have in their own government to the point that any new Marshall Plan would sound like "Solyndra" in American ears. But taking on that lack of faith and restoring American belief in the power of government to transform the world we live in is the challenge before us.

Like I said, I've been feeling pretty puny. Keeping the faith in the face of the threat presented by Romney has been harder for me than the experience of living with 12 years of Reagan-Bush and another eight years of Bush the Younger. Of course, in this instance, the fact that Marrianne works in the Obama administration and brings home the lion's share of our bacon is a factor, too. Without Marrianne's earning power I'd just be an aging retiree on a fixed income with a 14-year old kid and a terribly spotty work record. I'd be toast. So, yes, I have a personal stake in the outcome.

But I have a personal stake in restoring faith in government. It will not be hearty individualism or capitalism or the right to carry firearms that will protect the lives of the people I love who will be here after I'm gone. It will be American faith in the grand possibilities of collective mission articulated and guided by a progressive, democratic government. Unfortunately, climate change is gonna' keep on comin' while the essential work of restoring faith gets done.

So, first, we need to reelect Obama. Then, at a minimum, we are going to need a President Obama ready to play rough with plutocrats and corporations that have been the principal beneficiaries of the widening wealth and income gap and the deregulation push of the last 30 years. Close that gap, restore justice in the marketplace, and lead.

Do that and billions of us will have a chance of living reasonable lives into the second half of the 20th Century. Fail that and watch the continuing march of reactionaries and worse leading us to a place we never dreamed was possible.