Post-partisan


An Op-ed in today’s Washington Post offers an example of a mis-guided argument that predictably emanates from the extremes of the partisan spectrum following an election, usually from the party and extreme ideology that has suffered  a big loss.  Today’s example is offered by Michael Lerner in a piece entitled Save Obama’s presidency by challenging him on the left.  Mr. Lerner argues that Obama’s problem is that he hasn’t been “progressive” enough and that it may be necessary to have a Democratic primary challenger from the left in order to force Obama to the left in order to win in 2012.  To those of us in the center of the spectrum, this is utter nonsense.

I’ve rarely witnessed a more clear voter rejection of a party in power, and an ideology, than what occurred in the U.S. in November.  Democrats got shellacked because they were perceived by the electorate as taking the country too far left — in the direction of higher taxes and more government.  That clearly isn’t popular in this country.  Notice I said perceived.  The Republicans did a very good job of painting President Obama and the Democrats into this corner, often inaccurately, but the party itself and its progressive wing aided and abetted.  Nancy Pelosi, Queen of the California’s extremely liberal congressional delegation, was the perfectly wrong choice to be the face of the party.  She is ‘nails on a chalkboard’ to much of America.  In addition, Democrats have puzzled over why the business community and independents supported Republicans as strongly as they did in the election.   Much of the standard Democrat election rhetoric is about class struggle, the little guy against the evil corporate behemoth.  That may sit well with the base of the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t sit well with the majority of Americans.  No, what President Obama and the Democrats need to do for the next two years is appear to the American electorate as the rational, sane and relatively centrist alternative to Republican ideological excess. Democrats’ clearest path to control and the re-election of President Obama is moderation — a la Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were also constrained by Congresses not in their control and each of whom were re-elected handily.

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a great mistake in their apparent conclusion that it was their conservative ideology that won them election in November.  The reason the electorate voted for them in November was because they weren’t Democrats – they were the “other”, the alternative party.  This was exactly the reason that Democrats, including Obama, won in 2008 — because they were the “other”, the alternative option to George Bush and the Republicans.  These last two elections haven’t been about the electorate supporting a party so much as completely repudiating the party in power.

Thus, the last thing Democrats need to do is up the stakes and offer the electorate a clear picture of a party controlled by left wing ideologues.  Let Republicans hang themselves on their own petard — by viewing that it was their ideology that won them this last election.  The party that grabs the center, that demonstrates to America that it is willing to compromise and to find rational solutions in the middle will be the choice of an electorate that can once again be expected to vote to reject an ideological extreme.

It is my view that 2012 is shaping up as an election that Democrats should win, but it is distinctly losable.  Just consult with Mr. Lerner.  He has the strategy for losing all figured out.

Expect to hear a lot from me in the coming weeks about No Labels.  A posting on this weblog in mid-October introduced readers to the group.  To refresh, No Labels is a grassroots organization of people who believe we should “Put Labels Aside” and “Do What’s Best for America”.  We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.  I will be attending the national kickoff for No Labels in New York City on December 13 and will make an effort to post on the event in real time from New York.

In the last few weeks there has been growing national publicity about No Labels, including an excellent Op-ed in this mornings Washington Post by William A. Galston and David Frum entitled A no labels solution to Washington gridlock.  I recommend the piece.

Also, for those of you in Washington, DC, I am hosting a Meet Up on January 4, 2010 (at a location still to be determined) to meet and discuss No Labels.  We’ll talk about the December 13 National No Labels Kickoff in NYC and what those of us in DC can do to advance the No Labels agenda.  You can sign up for the Washington DC event here.

For those of you in other parts of the country, there are Meets Up planned in early January in a number of locales.  See the No Labels website for details.

I’ve addressed my concern with over-identification with political party a number of times on this blog over the years.   One such posting was entitled The Negative Consequences of Identification With Political Party.
It’s a big problem. Now comes along a group, about which I’m still seeking additional information, called No Labels. I’m intrigued. Could this be a MoveOn for Americans tired of partisan politics and interested in solutions?
Watch this YouTube video and let me know what you think.

As readers will know, I believe that the biggest threat to a successful Obama presidency lies in Nancy Pelosi and her House of Representatives.  Their full-left tilt, if left unchecked, will mean measures more extreme than are both wise for the country and sound politics for Democrats and especially Obama.  Politically, too far left means the Democrats give Republicans the amunition to potentially scuttle Obama initiatives and perhaps even alter the composition of the House and Senate over 4 years.  The good news is that there are mechanisms to neutralize Ms. Pelosi and her band of liberal brothers.  One of these is called the United States Senate.  For the good of the country, the Senate is almost always the more deliberative and cautious body.  Even better is when you have moderates of either party in the Senate working for reasonable compromise.  We saw it in the last administration when a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to defuse “the nuclear option” threatened by harder core Republicans in response to Democratic foot dragging on the confirmation of federal court nominations.  We are also fortunately seeing it in this administration and this piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln called Building Bridges on the Hill informs us as to why they believe that moderates working together is a good thing.  Here’s an excerpt:  

As moderate leaders, it is not our intent to water down the president’s agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it. Moderation is not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake. Practical solutions are practical because they offer our best chance to make a difference in people’s lives today without forcing our children to pick up the tab tomorrow.

As a centrist, or “moderate”, I could not agree with the words above more.  Moderation is absolutely not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake.  What it is about is finding rational solutions that work irrespective of party and party politics.  That is the core message of this blog–its raison d’etre.  Thank you Senators for attempting to give it life in the United States Senate.

I am going to do my best to not let this posting turn into a rant.  The catalyst for my irritation, if that’s the right word for what I’m experiencing, was a story in Saturday’s New York Times entitled Administration is Open to Taxing Health Benefits.  Here are the opening paragraphs of the story, which I recommend reading in full:

The Obama administration is signaling to Congress that the president could support taxing some employee health benefits, as several influential lawmakers and many economists favor, to help pay for overhauling the health care system.

The proposal is politically problematic for President Obama, however, since it is similar to one he denounced in the presidential campaign as “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.” Most Americans with insurance get it from their employers, and taxing workers for the benefit is opposed by union leaders and some businesses.

In television advertisements last fall, Mr. Obama criticized his Republican rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for proposing to tax all employer-provided health benefits. The benefits have long been tax-free, regardless of how generous they are or how much an employee earns. The advertisements did not point out that Mr. McCain, in exchange, wanted to give all families a tax credit to subsidize the purchase of coverage.

At the time, even some Obama supporters said privately that he might come to regret his position if he won the election; in effect, they said, he was potentially giving up an important option to help finance his ambitious health care agenda to reduce medical costs and to expand coverage to the 46 million uninsured Americans. Now that Mr. Obama has begun the health debate, several advisers say that while he will not propose changing the tax-free status of employee health benefits, neither will he oppose it if Congress does so.

At the time Senator McCain proposed taxing employee health benefits I thought it was an interesting idea that needed to be considered.  I was impressed with the independent commentary I read at the time that suggested that it was indeed a good idea.  However, Mr. Obama not only said “no”, he said “hell no.”  And, he not only said “hell no,” he made it a primary campaign issue, and called it, as reported in the excerpt above, “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.” 

Now we learn that a lot of people, the President apparently included, have long thought this to be a good idea and worthy of consideration.

To say I am deeply disappointed by this news is a gross understatement.  President Obama campaigned on bringing change to America and yet he was willing to employ this most craven of political tactics–saying whatever he needed to say–in order win an election.  Post-partisan indeed.

This is hypocrisy in action.  And while I will admit that such behavior is generally expected of politicians, I would note that this man promised us something different.  What we learn is that’s he’s just like everyone else.  He is as much of the school of ‘whatever it takes to win politics’ as anyone else.  The ends (a Democrat with a good heart and intellect) justifies the means (LYING).  It certainly doesn’t in my book.

The system is screaming for reform.  It is broken and must be fixed if we are to have a hope of achieving our goals.  This leads me to conclude that Obama is not the man we can fully trust to bring about this reform.  He’s apparently no different from most who play today’s political game.   While I never believed that Obama was a saint, I certainly wasn’t expecting that he’d be so callous as to make a major campaign issue out of something with which he didn’t actually disagree.  It would suggest he is but a reformist poser. 

 

There is a story today of a cabinet secretary who this week made a controversial decision that set new policy for the department he heads.  The decision was controversial, apparently, because he followed the unanimous recommendation of scientists within his department “rather than letting political factors influence him.” 

The cabinet secretary is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  His decision was to “stick with a controversial Bush administration move that took gray wolves off the endangered species list in most of the northern Rockies”, so reports the Washington Post in its story today entitled Salazar’s Wolf Decision Upsets Administration Allies.  

As I was reading the story I wasn’t surprised at the reaction.  Environmental groups demand total fealty to their view of the world.  Either you follow their prescription or you are anti-environment.  It is their way or else.  What really raised my ire, however, was the following paragraph from the Post story:

One House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, framed it in even more blunt political terms. “I just don’t see what this does for us,” the lawmaker said. “Here we are alienating people who did the most — who did a lot to help us in the last election.”

So that is what governing is about, is it?  Doing what the “people who did a lot to help us in the last election” want rather than the right thing?  I have every reason to believe that Secretary Salazar’s decision was the right thing.  And for that he is criticized.  Shame on him for doing the right thing, the politicians are saying. 

This is what is wrong with Washington, what is wrong with our system as it has evolved.  Doing what is right and what science and reason and logic tell us need to be done often play second, third and fourth fiddle to politics.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  The American people elected this president in large measure because of his promises of change.  It is clear beyond doubt that the country craved change.  It wanted when it voted for Obama and it wants now for its government to change.  It wants the system to change.  What better way for change to manifest than for a cabinet secretary to do the right thing rather than the political thing?

Get ready for more stories like this.  Such conflict will be inevitable if Secretary Salazar continues to do his job well.  For if he’s doing his job, he is going to have to often ignore political constituencies of the Democratic party and sometimes make decisions with which they won’t approve.

What’s important here is that Secretary Salazar and his counterparts in government continue to have the support of the president.  Trust me that there are many more controversial decisions that Salazar is going to be required to make if he’s going to do his job well and do what’s right for the country.  Mr. Obama needs to make real his promise of change and back Mr. Salazar as he makes tough decisions in the national interest.  This could include decisions to open the offshore to oil and natural gas development or perhaps even to rethink development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  We can never forget that environmental groups have a very parochial interest.  However, Mr. Salazar and the president whom he serves must balance these most parochial of interests with larger ones that include national security and the economic well being of our citizens.  Real change means putting politics in clear second position to making hard and rational decisions.

I argued in a posting before President Obama was elected that Obama had the potential to be able to do things as president that a President McCain could not.  I reasoned that because the American public would not believe that President Obama or his appointees were beholden to oil and natural gas development interests that the President and his cabinet could make rational decisions that might benefit those interests in way that a Republican could never do without being accused of playing politics–of doing favors for his supporters.  All of America would suspect that politics was at play if President McCain’s Secretary of the Interior announced the country was going to open the offshore to development or take gray wolves off the endangered species list.  But if President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior were to make such a decision mustn’t it surely be because it was the right thing to do since his political interests would not only not be be served, but be dis-served by such a decision.  Wouldn’t America respect that?

We’ll have to see.  The problem is that politics stands always ready to rear its ugly head and the power brokers, like the anonymous House Democrat quoted in the Post story, will demand that that we not alienate the Democratic Party’s friends. 

Real change, change that we can believe in, demands that the right thing be done and that politics as usual doesn’t hold sway.  Let’s hope this is an indication that real change is not only possible under this president but, indeed, is already under way.

        

This is yet another post that takes President Obama to task, constructively, I hope, for trying to do too much, too fast, too soon.  It is a relevant because the fallout from “too much, too fast, too soon” is of consequence, both substantively and procedurally.  At the more benign end of the realm of possibilities, this approach to governing will but limit the potential of the Obama presidency to do good and significant things.  At the other end, this approach could destroy it.    

Over the past few days I’ve cited a number of columnists who believe that Obama isn’t taking the economic crisis seriously enough, with a subtext that he’s taking on too much additional.  Yesterday’s posting provides links to the relevant columns.  Today, Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post comes to the President’s defense (Multi-Front Mandate: Why Obama is Right to Pile His Plate High).  While I disagree with Mr. Robinson and think he’s both missing the point and burning straw men, I am including his alternate view to make clear that my sentiment and those of the columnists previously cited, is clearly not universal.  Robinson’s viewpoint also adds perspective. 

There are also two other columns of note in today’s Post that are relevant.  The first is Michael Gerson’s Party-Line President: A Post-Partisan Dawn Quickly Turns False and the second, Charles Krauthammer’s Obama’s Science Fiction

Let me start with the Gerson piece.  While I generally agree with the gist of what Mr. Gerson is saying today, I am not quite where he is yet, although I could get there.  I am still willing to cut the president some slack; it is after all quite a difficult challenge to do everything perfectly when you’re doing so much at one and the same time.  President Obama’s position on stem cells, noted in the Gerson piece, might be a case in point.  While the Bush policy needed to be changed, the decision Obama made could have been better.  An opportunity was missed.  It is on this point that I think the Charles Krauthammer piece is of merit.  Mr. Krauthammer is one who believed that the Bush policy on stem cells was overly restrictive.  Yet, he has grave misgivings about the policy announced by President Obama yesterday.  In my relatively uninformed opinion on this, it is clear that this a very complex issue that will demand a solution that is also very thoughtful and complex.  It would appear that Obama’s decision yesterday was far too simple.  It could have been much better.   

Let me not return to my central thesis today that President Obama is taking on too much, too fast, too soon.  As I see it quantity and speed have appeared to have been more important to the administration than quality, with fallout that is both substantive and procedural.  The less-than-perfect stem cell policy is an example of substantive fallout.  Procedurally, what’s been sacrificed is “post-partisanship”, which the country so desperately needs.  The system is badly broken and the public has lost faith in it–and rightfully so.  It is important and it’s getting lost.  It is here that I think Michael Gerson in his column makes his best points today.  Having sat in President Bush’s White House, Gerson knows the challenges that face an administration, yet in Barack Obama he expected more, as did so many of us.  This is because Obama so insightfully and eloquently articulated on the campaign trail that something was amiss, that something needed to change.  Yet, we aren’t seeing that change, either substantively or procedurally.  It is, regretfully, business as usual or, as Gerson puts it,  “exactly the way things have always been done.”  

In the closing sentence of his column, Gerson seems to conclude that all hope of a post-partisan presidency has already been lost.  It is here that I disagree.  It is never too late.   

I indicated in a posting yesterday that I would have probably voted for the Stimulus Bill.  That’s easy for me to say, of course, sitting here at my keyboard a mile from the Capitol, where Congressmen and Senators with real responsibilities had to wrestle with the issue.  The fact is, had I been a Republican in the House or a Senator from any part of the country other than the Northeast, I would probably have had very little option but to vote “No”.  Why?  I’d have rendered myself a persona non grata within my caucus and all but destroyed my chances of securing desired committee assignments for years to come.  It could well also have destroyed my chances of being renominated by my party in the next election. 

It is one of the insidious aspects of party of which I’ve previously written.  Party oftentimes forces us away from rationality and doing what’s right.  It is a reason I’ve argued that a path forward for the country in breaking out of our partisan gridlock and doing more of the right thing more often would be electing more true “independents” to Congress.  I don’t mean independents like Bernie Saunders of Vermont or Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who are as Democrat as any Democrat.  No, I mean independents who are truly non-aligned with either party either philosophically or emotionally.  I mean independents who’ll be able to take a good hard look at an issue and vote as reason and their conscience tell them.  While voters will have to be as, if not more, careful than normal in selecting these “independents”, looking for people of sound judgment who are widely respected by their communities, such independent stalwarts should not be hard to find.  They’ll be the level-headed man or woman who’s been doing his/her job well in their community for years.

The reality is that this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.  It would take an organization emerging that could help catalyze and fund such candidacies.  The few who, on their own, consider such independent runs, don’t usually end up running as the obstacles are very high and daunting.  I am convinced, however, it is one of the few paths forward for this country in breaking free of the currently disfunctional system. 

There are two worthwhile Op-eds today that relate broadly to what I’ve discussed above, both in the Washington Post.  The first is by Michael Gerson and is entitled A Bad, Necessary Bill and the second, by Ruth Marcus, Peer Pressure in the GOP.  And, by the way, if you think Washington, DC is dysfunctional, take a look at what’s happening in California in this Washington Post story today.  They’ve reached the breakdown stage, in large measure do to partisan gridlock.  America, isn’t it time for change?                

While I applaud and support President Obama’s efforts to extend an olive branch to Republicans, as long as he leads a party that is as beholden to liberal interest groups as Republicans are to conservative interest groups, there is going to be very little chance of finding “bipartisan” common ground.  Add to this the fundamental interest of both political parties in winning the next election and you can see that there would rarely much interest upon the part of either party in finding common ground.  This is even more true for the out-of-power party, in this case Republicans, as there is little for them to gain in going along along with majority party initiatives.  Expect to see bipartisanship only in crises, natural disasters, national security, etc..  One might have hoped that economic crisis (the largest since the Great Depression) qualified as a reason to come together in bipartisan fashion, but the stimulus bill showed us this wasn’t the case.  For more on this, see my posting entitled Russian Roulette.   

Of interest on this topic today are two pieces, a story in the Washington Post entitled After Stimulus Battle, Liberals Press Obama and an Op-ed in the New York Times by James Morone entitled One Side to Every Story.  The first explains that liberals are now encouraging the President to step forward boldly with a liberal agenda and to avoid unnecessary compromise.  It is a very good piece that I recommend reading highly.  The second opinion piece informs us that partisanship has always been and will always be.  It is in part what makes our system work.  It provides a good perspective.

I will make two general comments and then address, briefly for now, both comments:  1.  America is becoming more polarized; and 2. For a variety of reasons, including the increasing partisanship, America is doing a very poor job making rational public policy decisions in the national interest. 

There can be little doubt that Congress has become more polarized.  This is due to a variety of factors but is probably mostly due to gerrymandering by state legislatures.  Congressmen and Congresswomen are sent to Washington by their ideologically left or right leaning districts to pursue that ideological agenda.  That’s makes it very difficult for either party to come together in the center.  That’s not what they’ve been sent by their constituents to do.  I regard this as tragic as it leaves most of the country–those who reside in the middle of the American political spectrum (which I’ve described before, courtesy of Charlie Cook, as between the 35-yards lines)–under-represented and unable to meaningfully advocate for “centrist” solutions.  In addition, party leadership tends to represent the ideological extremes as do the parties’ major interest groups.  

Along with party identification and left or right ideological orientation comes, I would argue, a tendency to begin to place party doctrine or ideological assumptions ahead of careful discernment of the facts of a particular case.  Thus, instead of doing a careful examination of the facts of a particular issue, we apply informational proxies that we have obtained from our party and/or the left or right wing ideological special interest groups that we trust.  We, thus, often by-pass rationality in favor of popular wisdom or group think.  The huge downside is that decisions made irrationally are unlikely to work. 

I am, therefore, not optimistic that the present system, growing more polarized by the year, will be able to fashion policy that will be either be effective or broadly acceptable to the majority of Americans.  Obama’s instincts are correct that the system needs to change.  Post partisanship is a lofty goal, but its not going to happen in our present two party system and he’s not going to lead us there with feet firmly planted in the one of the two dominant political parties.  For post partisanship to really work I would argue that Barack Obama would have to, at least functionally, “leave” the Democratic party and become a true post partisan.  This is unlikely to happen.  Until it does, post partisan talk will be just that.   

 

In a Facebook discussion the other day, someone replied to a comment I’d made with a statement that included the following sentence.  “Liberals are, let’s face it, nicer people.”  The writer was explaining why liberals (Democrats) would make an attempt at bipartisanship now that they’re in power when Republicans never did when they had power.  It’s represents something that I’ve observed for years. 

I live in Washington, DC, which is quite a liberal place.  It’s got to rank up there with Santa Monica and Berkeley in its high ratio of liberals to conservatives.  Most of my friends are far more liberal than I.  And for years, especially when the Republicans were in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, I heard lots about how much more dastardly Republicans were than Democrats.  While I’ll give you that Newt Gingrich as speaker got this whole era of incivility going, he merely started what has become standard operating procedure for the party in power.  No one party is all saint or all sinner.  Both play a pretty mean and incivil game these days.  It is what the parties perceive as being necessary in order to both win elections and advance their partisan agenda.  I find it disgusting and an indication that the “two-party” system no longer works.  It desperately needs to be shaken up.

Supporting my view that both parties play the same game when in power was a story in yesterday’s Politico entitled Partisan complaints come with an echo.  While the story made its basic point well, it also seemed to suggest that Democrats have been a little nicer, the story citing instances where Republicans pushed legislation through the system without minority party participation.  One example given was an energy bill in the fall of 2003.  What it doesn’t mention was that two years later a much more far reaching energy bill, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was passed with strong bipartisan support.  In the latter bill, the committees, minority and majority, worked to produce legislation that could and did garner widespread support.  That the second energy bill was far more expansive and useful to the country speaks to its bipartisan nature.  Bills that bypass the system and are dominated by one party are going to be much more limited in what they can accomplish.

Our system will work best when there is a clear set of rules that both parties perceive to be fair and that are respected by both parties.  A process that is perceived to be fair allows for a congeniality that makes it much harder for the minority to oppose for the sake of opposition.  On the other hand, when one party attempts to shut the other party out of the game, as was largely the case when the House put together its recent stimulus package, the opposition is likely to be much more united and vocal.  President Obama has been right in trying to reach out to Republicans.  Even if ultimately rejected in this instance, he came out better in the eyes of America than did those who opposed him.  Meanwhile the U.S. House of Representatives, and both parties, came out looking bad once again in the eyes of America.  I’ve said before and I believe that President Obama’s biggest mistake with the stimulus was yielding too much control to Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives.  It was incapable of doing what needed to be done here, for a number of reasons.  In the future the White House has to take a much more active lead and try to keep the House under relative control.  It will be the only way that the post-partisan dream can remain alive and ultimately deliver needed legislation in the national interest.  Otherwise it will be business as usual which virtually everyone acknowledges is broken.  And no, I do not believe liberals are nicer people.  It just seems that way to liberals. 

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