Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Year of Us & Them

It's been a long year politically, no matter what side of the aisle you prefer. It seems like every single issue became a sharply divided fight. That in itself may not have been exceptional in our nation's history, but it was more than just partisan wrangling. I have to wonder how long it's been since Congress has exhibited gridlock of this level. I've certainly seen times when there were nasty political fights, but I don't recall another time where things had devolved to this level of stupid.

I know it seems that I am looking at things through Democrat glasses. I'll admit there is a bias that I am fully aware of, but this is not simply a case of a liberal viewpoint. What makes this last year different is the way the Republicans have chosen to approach the Obama Presidency. Not by pushing their own bills, but simply to sit in the stands and vote 'No' on pretty much every vote. No engagement or discussion. They just vote 'No' on any legislation proposed by Democrats and especially anything supported by the President. Then they run outside and make speeches for the cameras and blogs, decrying the partisanship of the process and how Democrats are ignoring the will of the people. It would be a losing strategy if not for how easily the American public can be baited and tricked into impatience and outrage. As the old saying goes, you get the government you deserve in a democracy. This is how the Bush Administration managed two terms. They masterfully wielded the 'fear' card to diffuse any public backlash that might arise from the careful trimming of civil liberties and massive military expenditures.

I have to give the Republicans credit for their ability to hold together in a solid phalanx on any issue. It's this ability that has always scared the hell out of me about the party. The Democrats have always been more fractious and prone to inner discord. I'd say it's more 'free thinking'. But the Republicans have this 'Children of the Corn' ability to band together as if they are all of a single political mind. I often wonder how they manage to force their more moderate members to follow along. Perhaps simply by threatening their re-election campaigns? Maybe they're threatening their children? I don't know, but whatever it is, it's certainly effective. The synchronized voting wouldn't be so worrying if confined to the occasional issue, as in the past. But when used across the entire Congressional term, that's when things have gone over the edge. What that tells me is that the choreographed voting has nothing to do with individual beliefs or considerations and everything to do with what they are told to do. This should be unacceptable from either party. It invalidates the whole idea of campaigning for office. Since all Republicans are functionally identical, why should anyone care what their name is or what they supposedly stand for? All we would need to know is if they can read, write and follow instructions. No active intellect required. Certainly simplifies voting.

Government is more than the competition between a couple of static political platforms! I remember issues in the past that tended to polarize Congress, yet even then you would see the odd Dem or Republican cross the aisle to vote their conscience.  But this last Congress has become nothing more than a schoolyard at recess. One side is so defensive about being the smaller group and so worried that the other side might do something that is popular that they're sulking in the corner and refusing to let anyone play. I have never been so disgusted with my government as I am now. And it's not because the Republicans won't rubber-stamp Obama's policies the way they did for Bush. It's because they won't even engage in the discussion. They spend more energy talking to the camera, Tweeting and posting inane comments on Facebook than they do in any kind of conversation with Democrats. They have taken the filibuster to heights undreamed of in the previous history of our nation. After holding fairly steady for decades, the number of attempts to block even the introduction of legislation has DOUBLED in the current session of Congress, and this session is far from over yet. In other words, the minority party has fought every single action by the majority party from day one. This is far beyond policy disagreements. This can only be a concerted effort to stop anything the President proposes. Not because it's questionable policy, but as overall political gamesmanship to make Obama and the Dems look ineffectual. Admittedly the Democrats are scarily good at this on their own. Put simply, Republicans have shown quite clearly that the needs of the Nation take a back seat to the needs of the party. The Republicans are too busy trying to discredit the majority party to notice that the building is on fire. This cannot continue.

The icing on this cyanide laced cake is that so many Americans don't seem to see or even care. We have historically looked to the government, right or wrong, for leadership in tough times. When things are at their worst we tend to follow anyone who speaks with authority. So without thinking things through, Americans have essentially ceded control to the loudest cry. Currently that is the Republican party. Even though it's a whiny, self serving screed. Yet the American public follows along the way they are told; they get angry at what they are told they should be angry about. Over and over they are manipulated with sound bites and corporate sponsored misinformation campaigns. Verifiable lies are allowed to not just sit unchallenged but are made the centerpiece of supposed legitimate arguments. Death Panels? Lie. Government takeover of healthcare? Lie. No terrorist attacks under Bush? Lie. None under Bush after 9/11? Lie. Obama as a Socialist fanatic? Lie. The Democrats ignoring Republicans? Lie! The list is seemingly endless. We Americans are currently getting the government we deserve. Oh yes, indeedy. A dysfunctional mess that accomplishes little other than filling the airwaves with noise. We voted in Obama by a solid majority, because we knew things had to change, only to then become furious that the new Administration is actually changing things! Oddly enough, you can't have change without change. And even if a bad decision is made, it's not the end of the country, as the 'Tea Bag' fringe dwellers like to claim. America is not a Faberge egg. We won't shatter if jostled. We elected President Obama and the Democratic majority to alter the course of the previous 8 years and deal with an economic crisis. We MUST let them try to do that. Not without some counterbalance, certainly. But we can't expect them to accomplish anything with half the government sitting in the dark, fingers in their ears yelling, "Lalalalalalalala, I can't hear you!"

If you really care what happens to America and our world policies, pay attention. Don't assume everything your favorite pundit says is the absolute, unadulterated truth. Think about it yourself and see if it makes sense. I like Keith Olbermann, but I am well aware that he does occasionally drift across the line, though I think it's from frustration rather than malice. What scares me is that listeners of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck don't seem to have the same realization. Beck practically lives in the fringe and Limbaugh has become so enamored of his own voice and the adulation of his fans that he doesn't appear to filter himself anymore. He actually says everything that crosses the transom of his mind without ever thinking it through. His comments after the Haitian earthquake are an excellent example of this. If an issue is of interest read different views, and really think about what they are saying and if it actually makes sense or is just self serving noise. It is probably best to try and avoid the noisemakers on the fringe though. They exist primarily as self promotion machines and are rarely more substantive than a WWF Wrestling event.

Most importantly, write your Senators and Congressional representatives. Email, Postal and phone calls. Democrats AND Republicans. Every one who represents you. Tell them what you think. Tell them what you want. Tell them what you don't like. Be reasoned and direct in what you think, but avoid emotional rants that might get you dropped into the wing-nut category. I know it's easy to just sit back and not get involved, but that is what many in Congress want. As long as you say nothing, they can presume to decide on your behalf in any way they see fit. Demand that they do their jobs and work with all the other children in DC to do what America needs and not what is politically advantageous for them or their sponsors. Because they will keep doing what's in their best interests until they feel it's in their best interests to change!

Below are links to find your Senators and Representatives. Everyone has two Senators and a Representative who directly represents them. Write to ALL of them. Write often on any issue you care about. They are supposed to be representing you, not their own interests or those of their largest donors. Make your voice heard!!

Contact the Congress
Electronic Frontier Foundation: Contact Congress Page

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mother Nature Knows No Borders

As all have no doubt heard, Haiti was rocked last week with a strong earthquake centered not far from the capital, Port-au-Prince. This has reduced the city to a rubble. There are many ways to help by donating to the relief effort. The simplest, if you have text messaging on your cell phone, is to text the word Haiti to 90999. This will donate $10 to the Red Cross and will be charged to your phone bill. You can find a long list of other organizations and ways to help HERE and at the White House web site.

Unfortunately, there are those who will inevitably try to profit from this tragedy so beware of bogus pleas via post, email, Facebook, Twitter and the like, that ask for donations. I recommend sticking to the major organizations such as ones referenced in the above links or other trusted sources.

But do help if you can. Contrary to the pathetic whining of a few conspiracy theorists, this is not a political or racial or nationalistic issue. Natural disasters can happen most anywhere, whether earthquakes, wild fires, hurricanes, tornados, mud slides or floods, so you never know when you might be the one left with nothing and in need of help. We are at our best when we help others, no matter who or where in the world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Lost Art of Honesty

Since the attempted bombing of the airliner over Detroit, MI on Christmas day, a number of Republicans have risked muscle pulls running to every talk show and/or the nearest keyboard to comment to every blog and news page. What have they been saying? That's where it gets psychedelic. Most have seemed to parrot the same lines over and over, as if (insert sarcasm here) they were using the same boilerplate strategy. These luminaries, and I use the term lightheartedly in most cases, include former VP Cheney, Senator DeMint (SC), Congressman Hoekstra (MI), Congressman Peter King (NY) and Republican National Committee Chairman Steele among others.

I'll avoid another in depth examination of the hypocrisy and the truly unprofessional way Cheney has repeatedly attacked President Obama from the beginning of his term. But Cheney and the rest of these oh so vocal Republicans have found a new low. Considering the history of some of these guys, that's an accomplishment. The manner and substance of their comments are something even their most avid supporters should be up in arms about. They have regurgitated a collection of lies and hair-pin opinion reversals of staggering proportions. We're talking about verifiable lies and verifiable reversals of opinion on a nearly identical incident that occurred eight years ago.

First, according to every one of these guys, President Obama doesn't talk about terrorism enough. They seem to feel that merely speaking the word 'terrorism' acts as a sacred chant to ward off evil. They claim Obama doesn't even seem to want to use the word 'terrorism'. Uh-huh. I see. Ok, let's take a couple minutes of quick research to confirm, shall we? I'll even be fair and ignore the post Christmas day remarks.

- December 10th speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Terrorism, was mentioned directly twice. And this was for the Peace prize.
- December 7th remarks with Turkish Prime Minister in Oval Office. The word 'Terror' or 'Terrorist' used twelve times.
- December 1st remarks at West Point on the Afghanistan strategy. Six times.
- November 24th remarks with Indian Prime Minister in the East Room. Seven times.

Basically, anytime the President has spoken about foreign policy he has mentioned terrorism. Keep in mind that I spent less than five minutes researching this and all I did was got to the White House web site and do word searches through the President's posted speeches! It hardly takes Woodward and Bernstein to dig up this info.  And I didn't even check all of the posted transcripts for the preceding month. So this accusation is an outright lie. Obama has not stopped talking about terrorism. What he has done is stop talking in abstract terms like 'War on Terror'. This phrase, like the 'War on Drugs,' is a great slogan, but is a lousy basis for foreign policy. It's much more accurate to focus on Al-Qaida and other specific organizations. The 'War on Terror' is, like the one on drugs, unwinnable. It's a practical impossibility to catch or kill all terrorists or even all those who just want to attack America. Obama is quite correct in concentrating on the most important and achievable goal of fighting and destroying Al-Qaida and other groups like it rather than some vague, ill defined concept.

Then Obama was chided by several of these individuals for waiting so long to respond to the Christmas day attempted bombing when he didn't make a formal statement for three days following the incident. Also he was ripped for intending to prosecute Abdulmutalib in Federal Court. This is obviously a case of amnesia brought on by acute 'InTheMinoritus'. Let me refresh their memories. On December 22, 2001, Richard Reid was apprehended on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami when he attempted to set off an explosive hidden in the hollowed out bottoms of his shoes. He was arrested, tried and convicted in Federal court. He is now serving three consecutive life sentences without parole in a Federal SuperMax prison in Colorado. As you'll note from the date, this happened at the end of the first year of President Bush's first term. Reid used the same explosive that Abdulmutalib attempted to use and like the 'underwear bomber' was unable to actually get the explosive to detonate.  Explain to me why Federal court worked fine in Reid's case and faced no objections under the Bush/Cheney Administration, yet it's now considered outrageous to use it in the current and nearly identical situation? And, as to Obama's three day reaction time? Well if you want to get into that level of minutia, Bush actually waited six days to make a formal statement after the 'shoe bomber' was arrested. Does any of this make sense to anyone? The hypocrisy is so thick as to be almost a solid mass.

It's fair to question how Abdulmutalib should be treated, as it is a bit of a gray area if you look at the 'enemy combatant' definition. But to look straight faced into the camera and act shocked when eight years ago you had no problems with an almost identical situation is beginning to strain my surprise muscle. These individuals are so shameless it makes me ill. I swear that if Obama had decreed that the 'underwear bomber' be sent to Gitmo for interrogation, they would have demanded he be tried in Federal court! How do they even keep things straight with so much spin?

And in a continuation of this despicable trend we have people like Rudi Giuliani. Last Friday we had this nugget from the self styled 'terrorism expert'. "We had no domestic attacks under Bush," Giuliani said. "We've had one under Obama." Really, Rudi? Are you sure? Later, on CNN, he backpedaled. "I usually say we had no domestic attacks, no major domestic attack under President Bush since Sept. 11,  . . . I did omit the words 'since Sept. 11.' I apologize for that." Well, that's better, but you'll notice the careful use of 'domestic', then quickly narrowed even further with 'major domestic'. The reason he had to do that is because there are a whole string of incidents during Bush's tenure that were defined as terrorism, the above mentioned 'shoe bomber' being the first to come to mind. But we also have the multiple deaths from the anthrax mailings, the Muslim man who plowed his SUV into students on the UNC campus and others that all had a terrorist tone to them. Of course by pulling back so far from his original statement he has pretty much invalidated his entire point. And what's with "I usually say..."? Usually? Has he really gotten to the point where this is some scripted talking point? But Gulliani is not the first or the only one to come out with verifiable lies such as this. Back in November, former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino passionately proclaimed that "we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term in office." She even said it twice during the broadcast! Without any seeming thought to the fact that 9/11 happened on . . . September 11th, 2001, over eight months into Bush's first year in office. This sort of blinkered nostalgia that is being slathered all over the media is astonishing. It's as if the Bush years were a time of milk and honey rather than a time of sharply rising tensions, the beginning of two long and costly wars and a significant number of terrorist related incidents. Either Perino is stupid or just lacking the ability or desire to be ethical.

As I've said many times, we can differ on policies. We can argue over nuances. We can scream at each other about the correct course of action. But to actually lie and blatantly warp the facts like this is embarrassing and shows a complete lack of even the most basic ethical standards. I'm not naive. I realize that the majority of the politicians in Washington are guilty of at least some corruption and unethical behavior. What is hard to understand is this kind of transparent crap. It's especially insulting, or should be, for all the die-hard supporters of any of these men. Their supporters should be outraged to be lied to, blatantly manipulated and just generally treated like stupid lemmings who will follow wherever their 'leaders' take them. And Americans in general should not stand for it either. Sadly, I expect politicians to bend the truth, but if these guys are reduced to bold face lying they really must be out of legitimate things to rail against. My suggestion? They should just shut up unless they have something constructive to say. I suspect that would result in a long and satisfying silence.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Policy and Impatience

I just read a very interesting and thoughtful article in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The article, titled 'The Carter Syndrome', focuses on how US Presidents often approach policy through four schools of thought:

"In general, U.S. presidents see the world through the eyes of four giants: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary's belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today's Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness."

Full article available Here.

I think this article only underscores the need for a balanced, common sense approach to American policy. None of these schools of thought are workable alone. All suffer from, at their most pure level, an idealism that is unworkable in the real world. Certainly the Bush years, where Jacksonian absolutism held sway, did not solve much yet cost greatly. What is needed, in my opinion, is a core of the Jeffersonian but infused with elements of the others. After all, it's pure common sense that America cannot stop all evil or decree democracy to all the nations of the world. We can't force our ideals on those who resist without becoming that which we have always claimed that we stand against.

Obama is in an extremely difficult situation, as often happens when there is a major change in leadership after 8 years. Part of the challenge is the American people themselves. Conservatives want only a continuation, at least for the most part, of the policies of the Bush years. Liberals want a complete reversal of those policies. Both sides expect everything they ask for, now, or they are furious. As with most things, the truth is in the middle somewhere. The Liberals must accept that Obama cannot simply sign a stack of Executive Orders and whisk away all signs of the Bush years. And Conservatives must accept that the Bush doctrine is inherently flawed and did little in eight years to solve our problems. But none of this is going to happen quickly. America needs to be the one thing it's always been very bad at; we need to be patient.

I do believe that Obama is trying very hard to find that common sense path out of the forest. But since he can't just wrench it all into line with his preferences in one fell swoop, he has to make changes here and there with an eye to the long term rather than tomorrow's headlines. And every policy initiative carries a political cost that he cannot ignore, any more than any other President in our history. And it's these political costs that I believe are the most damaging. Or more accurately, it's the need to weigh them so carefully. I suspect that there are many policies that, given free reign, Obama would change tomorrow. But for every Presidential action, there is an amplified political reaction. Just look at the healthcare reform agenda. It has taken the better part of a year just to get disparate House and Senate bills passed. It still remains to be seen if these two, very different bills can be merged into anything useable. This single agenda item has cost Obama huge amounts of time, energy and intense negotiation and it's not over yet. And just as striking, it may not end up very close to what he actually wanted in the first place. And we still have, in no particular order, the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', security threats, Iran, North Korea, the list goes on. And these are all issues that seem to have few moderates. We seem to be in an era when everything is a partisan war. Obama has to step carefully and pick his fights. He cannot risk too many battles at once without the risk of losing them all.

The irony to it all is that no matter what he does, the Right will scream in horror that he's moving too fast and the Left will roar in frustration that he's moving too slow. Americans, in my opinion, need to step back and take a few breaths before agonizing over what Obama has or has not done. In many cases it's obvious why he's made the decisions he has. Doesn't mean I agree with them all, but I can at least see why he has made them. Americans have to control this emotional knee-jerk reactionist tendency. We must all use our brains and see that there is more to policy issues than simple slogans and sound bites. I think what many just don't understand, is that being President is much more about doing what you Can do rather than what you Want to do.