Sunday, January 31, 2010

Frank Rich

In today's NY Times, Frank Rich addresses this new prohibition, discussed below, against "blaming Bush" for the problems the country faces currently.  During Obama's State of the Union, John McCain can be seen chuckling and mouthing the words, "blaming Bush."

Rich writes:
Perhaps McCain was sneering at Obama because of the Beltway’s newest unquestioned cliché: one year after a new president takes office he is required to stop blaming his predecessor for the calamities left behind. Who dreamed up that canard — Alito? F.D.R. never followed it. In an October 1936 speech, nearly four years after Hoover, Roosevelt was still railing against the “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government” he had inherited. He reminded unemployed and destitute radio listeners that there had been “nine crazy years at the ticker” and “nine mad years of mirage” followed by three long years of bread lines and despair. F.D.R. soon won re-election in the greatest landslide the country had seen.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama in the Lion's Den

I came to Washington with a freshman congressman named Barney Frank. In his fourth month in Congress, he offered an amendment on the floor of the House that would have had the effect of reducing price supports for dairy farmers. His purpose was to build a record of fiscal responsibility in order to answer the question "Where are you going to get the money to pay for the increases you want in social programs." At the time, the federal government was buying billions of pounds of dairy products due to over-production caused by high support prices. The case for Barney's amendment was self-evident.

Nevertheless, farm state congressman were enraged by the amendment. They lined up by the dozens to take him on in debate on the floor. Many were very patronizing, suggesting this new guy from an urban area couldn't possibly understand the complexities of agricultural economics.

He schooled them. He stood alone on the floor, took them on one by one, and demolished every argument. He clearly won the debate. It was, to coin a phrase, a slam dunk.

Of course, his amendment went down to defeat by about 70-360. It was an early lesson for me that being right, doesn't mean you win.

I have never, before or since, seen such a display of intellectual courage...until yesterday. I thought Obama's performance before the House Republican Conference was a tour de force. I thought he was tough, but not angry. Extremely knowledgeable, but not arrogant. And he had a few flashes of humor. The man is fearless.

He seems to be conducting an ongoing seminar testing the proposition that the American body politic can operate on an adult level. He refuses to succumb to soundbite politics that have typified most policy debate over the past 20 years. And he calls it out when others so engage.

David Axelrod has already suggested future encounters with the Republicans like this. Stay tuned. Frankly, I will be surprised if the Republicans agree. But, if they do, he will have real progress in changing the way things are done in Washington.

Meanwhile, in a further example of his wit and authenticity, he did a little color commentary on today's Georgetown/Duke basketball game. I still love this man. Check it out.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

George Who??

Obama's First State of the Union delivered. It helped stabilize my faith and confidence, which, as per the previous post, was getting wobbly. I appreciated his feistiness. On the two raps from the left, I agree with one and disagree with the other. I agree that he still seems to be holding back on healthcare. I'm hoping that he knows the fix is in for passage of the Senate bill, with tweaks in reconciliation. And his invitation to Republicans into the process was rhetorical, since I am convinced that they have not and will not bargain in good faith. If anything, the Massachusetts result will only increase their determination to block everything.

I reject the critique from the left on the so-called budget freeze. Frankly, I agree with the Republicans that it's too modest to have any economic effect as fiscal policy. But it should have some modest symbolic effect. It is the most controllable part of the budget, so it is appropriate to try to limit overall spending in that category as a first step in reigning in the deficit. As long as it isn't a line by line freeze, it seems like a good, and frankly necessary, step. It's really not a freeze, it's a cap. But I guess freeze polls better.

My favorite moment was the following:
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.
Now the Republicans and their sympathizers in the media have howled over this. "He's got to stop blaming Bush!" "It was a campaign speech!" Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) called it "whining" on NPR this morning.

Baloney! We need more of this.

The Republican game is clear. At its most simplistic, they are trying to avoid taking responsibility for mess we're in. But their plan is even more insidious and sometimes seems to be working. Some in the media seem to be buying their scam. Here's how it goes:

Step 1

Make it inappropriate for Democrats or the President to assign any responsibility for the country's problems to Bush or the Republicans. Call it partisan, or whining or unbecoming of the president. Get the conventional wisdom spouters in Washington to flag this and tut tut every time some Democrat mentions Bush. Thereby, they separate Bush and the Republicans from economic mess they created.

Step 2

Hang every problem we have on Obama. Blame the situation on his policies, both those he has enacted, like the Recovery Program, and those they've succeeding in blocking, like healthcare (so far), climate change, banking regulation, etc. Make the Obama agenda into a status quo that has failed. This, despite the fact that every respectable economist has confirmed that the "stimulus plan" actually worked. If anything, it was too small. State that, after a year in office, the fact that Obama has only ended the recession and not brought about full employment is proof that his policies are an utter failure.

Step 3

Propose the same policies that created the economic collapse, tax cuts for business and the wealthy and deregulation of every sector of the economy. Since these proposals are different from the "failed Obama program" and accountability for Bush and the Republicans have been banished from the debate, they are presented as something new. Republicans then become the party of change.

Viola, black is white, up is down. And the Republicans are back in charge accelerating our decline as a country.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama at One Year

Count me as a Koolaid drinking supporter of Barack Obama. Whatever I believe about his position on any given issue - and I disagree on some, I fundamentally trust him. I trust his motives, I trust his intelligence and I trust his judgment...I think. Yes, even I am getting a bit wobbly right now. Like everyone else, I was stunned by the slow motion train wreck in Massachusetts. And I'm deeply disappointed with how much it seems to have rattled the Democrats in Congress. If the Republicans were in the same position, they would have rammed the Senate bill through the House by now, if only to make the point that the voters in one state can not scare them. Why the hesitation among the Democrats? They've already voted for the bill in one form or another. How do they think they will diminish their political risk by refusing to vote for essentially the same bill again and at least get credit for the accomplishment? I just don't get it.

Which brings me back to Obama. Why doesn't he just demand the House pass the Senate bill and fix it in the reconciliation process? Since I still trust his motives, intelligence and judgment, I can only assume he knows what he's doing and will bring this to a good place. But my faith is weakening.

It helped me to read an evaluation of Obama by Chris Patten in the European Voice. He's the former governor general of Hong Kong before it was handed back to the Chinese and is an enlightened political observer. Yes, he's European, so his opinion is disregarded as socialist and elitist by red-blooded Americans. But I've always respected his insights. Here's what he said about Obama:
Pragmatic and highly intelligent, sooner or later every issue receives the full attention of his forensic curiosity. Recalling Hillary Clinton's famous Democratic primary television advertisement, Obama, it turns out, is exactly the sort of president that most of us would want to have in the post for that 3am phone call about an international crisis. He would not be afraid to act, but he would be prepared to think first.
And that's what I admire most about Obama. He thinks things through and doesn't claim to have a divinely inspired gut, like his predecessor. Like Patten, I feel like he's been pushed around a bit in his first year in office, by Benjamin Netanyahu, by the Chinese, by the Republicans in Congress. But my hope is that, like John Kennedy being pushed around by the generals on the Bay of Pigs and Khrushchev in Vienna, the experience will toughen him up for when he confronts his own version of the Cuban Missle Crisis (let's hope with somewhat lesser stakes).

Which leads to Patten's larger point in his piece. He identifies to the greatest crisis facing humanity right now and it's not global warming. Rather it's nuclear proliferation.
The nuclear issue is one of the biggest items on the Obama agenda. How it is handled will help to define his presidency....These are going to be some of the major questions for Obama over the next year and more. If he gets them right, he can forget about his short-term critics. Fortunately, he is smart enough to know this.
Coincidentally, there was an NPR story this morning about a new documentary on nuclear proliferation in which Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn, cold warriors all, advance their own grave warnings about this threat. Look for that issue to take center stage in the months ahead. It will be interesting to see how that one gets politicized in the efforts by his opponents to "break" Obama.

In the meantime, we toil in the weeds of domestic legislation. I do believe Obama's got to chalk up some wins on the smaller issues, like healthcare and the economy, in order to give him the political heft to deal with the fate of humanity, a challenge with which Republicans seemed blithely indifferent.

We are at a familiar place. Obama under siege with a big speech coming up. He's nailed it every time before. I'll be watching his State of the Union tonight with my "hope" only slightly diminished.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On a Lighter Note

An elderly couple walked into the lobby of the Mayo Clinic for a checkup and spotted a piano . They've been married for 62 years and he'll be 90 this year .

Check out this impromptu performance. Gives me hope.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Frying Pan or the Fire

Since the Massachusetts election debacle, we have come to an interesting place on the healthcare debate. There are two schools of thought on the situation:

1) The Democrats moved too far to the left and lost the independents. Therefore, they need to dramatically scale back their ambitions on healthcare reform. Either cave to whatever the Republicans want, or pass some modest tweaks.

2) The Democrats moved to far to the center, trying to accommodate centrists or even Republicans, constantly compromising to the point that the base of the party became disillusioned. So, the solution is for the House Democrats to suck it up, pass the Senate bill and work on tweaks through the reconciliation process that only requires 51 Senate votes in order to enact legislation.

Politically, I can't really say which analysis is correct. Interestingly, adherents of both schools of thought claim that following the other will result in an election catastrophe in the Fall, if followed. In that respect, they both could be right. Who knows. That's a long way off. Stuff happens. No one would have predicted Sen. Scott Brown, even as near as a month ago.

Politics notwithstanding, only option 2 will result in significant policy change. The House has already passed a healthcare reform bill, one that is even more liberal than the Senate. Republicans are going to try to hang that around Democrats' necks no matter what happens next. There is no increased political risk to voting for final passage and, having actually accomplished something, there could be less.

They have to pass the Senate bill.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Memorable Dinner

I had a fascinating dinner with some colleagues two nights ago. I blogged about it on my other professional blog, World of Public Affairs, but thought readers of this blog might also be interested.

If so, click here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Random Thoughts

I've spent the last two days on official work on Tokyo and it's been a bit exhausting. Dinner almost immediately after arriving at the hotel. It was a gathering of leaders from my firm from around Asia and it represented another reminder of how fortunately I am to be in the business I'm in, communications, and to be working for the firm I do. It was and is a truly remarkable group of people.

Our President of China was honored for his recent engagement to be married. In his remarks, after being introduced as a poet, he reminisced about his friendship with beat poet, Allan Ginsburg. Apparently, Ginsburg struck up a friendship with him during a visit in which my colleague was his translator in a visit to China. Ginsburg made some controversial comments and was extremely impressed when his translator accurately translated them. This was at a time when doing so came at some political risk for my colleague. He was and continues to be a very principled man and we are lucky to have him in the firm.

For dinner, we had something called Shabu Shabu. They set a pot of water on a hot plate in front of you. Then they bring a bowl of vegatables, which are dumped into the boiling water. Then comes thin sliced beef, which you are instructed to swish in the boiling vegetable broth only long enough to say the words "shabu, shabu." So, it's barely cooked, but delicious.

Yesterday, we had an all day session discussing business in the Asia region. Our program began with a professor who does a lot of TV commentary who was very critical of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). He said they had no agenda, just wanted to be loved by the people. The only thing that protects their political situation is the fact that the recently ousted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are even more "stupid" than the incumbents.

I got back to the hotel at about 7 pm. Had room service dinner and went to bed. Up at 3:45 am.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Revolutionize the Senate

James Fallows has a great piece in the Atlantic Monthy that ruminates over the supposed historic decline of the U.S. as a world power.  Most of the article is a rebuttal of that proposition.  His arguments are relatively persuasive and it does give hope for the future.

But he does have one huge caveat.  His view presupposes that the steps that must be taken to preserve America's position in the world.  However, to the extent any of those steps require government action, his view is sobering.  His correctly focuses his attention on that most undemocratic dysfunctional institution, the United States Senate.  Because we now have a new de facto requirement that it requires 60 votes to accomplish anything...literally anything, the bias against action is nearly insurmountable.   And this is a new thing.  As Fallows points out:
When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it’s unchangeable. Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the “saucer” George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might “cool,” into a deep freeze and a dead weight.
Of course, as a Democrat, it is enormously frustrating that that "blocking minority" is composed mostly of Republican senators, who disproportionately represent those low-population states who have undemocratic representation in the Senate.  It's a double whammy.  The Senate starts off undemocratic due to the apportionment of senators.  Then you add the 60 vote rule and you've got the Politburo.  Very sad.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Honorable Conservative

Add Judge Richard Posner to the very gradually growing list of intellectually honest conservatives who are will to acknowledge that the actual events of the last year discredited their economic theory.  Alan Greenspan has admitted that he placed to much trust in the free market to rein in financial misbehavior.  Now, Posner, an extremely prolific writer who's considered one of the smartest conservative economic thinkers in the country, has come around, as well.

In the current New Yorker, he is quoted thusly:
We are learning from it [the economic collapse] that we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.
This is huge.  As noted but the New Yorker writer, John Cassidy,
As acts of betrayals go, this was roughly akin to Johnny Damon's shaving off his beard, forsaking the Red Sox Nation and joining the Yankees.
Now, thanks an analogy I get.

People like Posner prove how utterly out of touch the current Republican leadership is, both party and congressional.  They think they claw their way back into power by bamboozling the public that our current travails are all the fault of Barack Obama, shameless trying to shout there way past the fact that it's their failure and corruption that put us in the mess we're in.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

John Stewart at His Best

His account of the "underwear bomber" is one his best ever, in my opinion:

Even If The Bomb Works, There's Gonna Be 72 Very Disappointed Virgins

Check it out.  Watch the whole thing.  Hilarious.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Terror 2.0 by Yemen
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Sunday, January 03, 2010

My Favorite Twilight Zone Episode

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on my all-time favorite Twilight Zone episode, Five Characters in Search of an Exit.  It depicts five people with easily identifiable roles, a soldier, a ballerina, a clown, etc., who find themselves in a plain white cylinder that is open at the top.  They don't know how they got there, have no memory from before they got there and don't know what the cylinder is.  Periodically, the deafening sound of bells ringing rattles the cylinder.

The soldier motivates them all to try to escape through the top and they try various means.  Finally, one goes over the top and the rest remain puzzled as to where he went.  The scene then shifts and the ending is both amusing and deeply depressing.

I've read some reviews online that trashed the show.  I don't think they get it.  For me, this show is an allegory of the human condition.  How did we get here?  Why are we here?  And what happens when we go "over the top?"  Fundamentally, we have no greater understanding of these deep questions than the characters in that cylinder.  Maybe I was in my most deep existential angst stage at the time, but that show haunted me for years.  Still does.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Twilight Zone Marathon

The ScyFy channel runs an annual Twilight Zone Marathon every year during New Year's and I love it. They run back to back episodes around the clock. It allows me to check back in on some of my favorites and discover new episodes. And it reminds me what a genius Rod Serling was. I am also struck by the provocative themes he explores in the show. A recurring theme is Nazis and the Holocaust. I just watched a very vivid episode , entitled Death's Head Revisited, that follows a former Nazi's camp guard who revisits Dachau and encounters the ghost of one of the inmates he tortured and killed. While the images in the show are subdued and depict the actual camp and the posts where prisoners were hung, the script is brutal, with some pretty explicit descriptions of what went on in the camp. In the end, the former guard is forced to endure, in his mind, the full range of suffering he inflicted on others. It was powerful.

But there was another episode, entitled He's Alive, that was amazing in the degree to which it remains relevant today. It starred a very young Dennis Hopper playing a pathetic neo-Nazi whose rantings are ignored until he receives advice from a mysterious, shadowy figure. The show was an hour long, which suggests it was a special episode when it first aired in 1963. The Hopper character gives fiery speeches that, in large part, would not be out of place in one of today's Tea Party rallies. It's all about "patriotism" and the degree to which "others" are threatening our freedoms. Very, very timely.

What is clear is that Serling had an acute sense of the fact that all human beings have in them the capacity for evil. And we all need to be very aware of that fact and not pretend that "we" are good, but "they" are evil. We clearly need his voice today. It's sad that he died so young of lung cancer. Of course, he's got that ever present smoking cigarette during his intro to each episode, which is a kind of unintentional horror story all its own.