Thumbs Down

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.

My day looked like it was to be like any other when I began my morning.  I was reading the Washington Post and had made it through most of the A Section and was all but finished with the editorials and Op-ed columns when I came to the last column.  It was by E. J. Dionne and entitled Lost in the Middle.  It amounts to a frontal attack on “centrism”, which he calls “bland centrism”, as well as “bipartisanship”, which he notes is “a close cousin to bland centrism”.   In his closing paragraph he qualifies himself by stating that there’s nothing wrong with “sensible centrism that tries to balance competing goods”.  In the meantime he’s dissed Secretary Geithner’s plan to aid the banks as well as the moderate Senators who were instrumental in crafting a stimulus bill that could be passed into law. 

I am including the column here because I want people to see it, but I’m not goint to critique it here, at least not today.  My efforts today are going to go into writing an opinion piece for or letter to the editor of the Washington Post.  Rules at the Post require original content and so I can’t write here and expect that they’ll publish it.  At some point, published or unpublished, I will print what I write here.  Needless to say I was pretty angry at the column.  It does great injustice to those who are trying to do the right thing and further betrays the columnist’s extreme ideological bias.    

Wish me luck.

What could and should have been an opportunity to bring our political leadership together to reach consensus on a plan to extricate the country from a severe economic crisis has turned into a living, breathing example of why our political system is broken.  Coming as it has in the first weeks of his presidency, Obama has been handicapped in his ability to control the situation.  It has, however, been a first and big misstep, one from which I doubt if he’ll fully recover.  By this I mean the change that Obama promised to bring to the country will be much less than it could have been.  We will see change, of course, in substance (liberal vs. conservative), temperament (considered vs. rash), and style (warm vs. haughty) but we will not see the sweeping promise of a post-partisan America.  Obama’s biggest mistake was in letting Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives, hotbed of liberalistas that it is, take the first crack at the stimulus bill.  That set the stage for disaster and ‘close to disaster’, if not outright disaster, is what we appear to have achieved.  Liberal Democrats are screaming about Conservative Republicans and vice versa.  Bipartisanship, unless you can call three Senators bipartisan, is dead on arrival.  So much for post-partisan America.

This did not have to be.  For one, the President’s Day deadline was artificial, and all but assured a half-baked and un thought-out stimulus package.  I see no point in really following this story any more.  The damage has been done, primarily to the prospect of doing business in a profoundly new way in Washington.  As for the stimulus bill, it will either help cushion the free fall the country’s economy is in or it won’t.  If it does help, things will still be bad enough to enable Republicans to claim it was a huge waste of money (campaign issue 2010).  If it fails, the Democrats can blame the Republicans in not letting them pass a bigger package.  It will be no-win for the American public and I fear it could be the issue that helps propel an unreformed Republican Party back into power, at least in the House and Senate, although this will probably take until 2012.  This is all a nightmare from my centrist perspective.

I was going to talk about some other stimulus ideas, such as the novel gift card idea, or critique Paul Krogman’s blast at “The Destructive Center” but what is the point.  Novel ideas aren’t welcome and liberal ideologues like Krogman, as their conservative ideological brethren, will keep blasting away at all who don’t share their ideololgical worldview.  It’s very disappointing.  Welcome to American Politics, 2009 Edition. 

The news this morning doesn’t look as good as it did yesterday on the stimulus front:  It’s unclear whether Labor, and thus its supporters in the Senate, will approve of the watered down “Buy America” provision; apologists for the House bill are coming out of the woodwork to defend the original bill, apparently including the President; and the reformist momentum that seemed to be present on Tuesday has apparently stalled.  What does it mean?  It increases the chances that a highly flawed bill could be the one that’s voted upon by the Senate as early as today.  There’s still hope, however.

As concerns the “Buy America” provision you can read of yesterday’s developments in these two stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively:  Senate Agrees to Dilute ‘Buy America’ Provisions and Stimulus Bill Gets Housing Tax Perk.  As I noted yesterday “Buy America” a terrible idea.  While I’d prefer no such provision, the added language, should help.  According to the above-referenced Times story, the words added to the provision are the following:  “applied in a manner consistent with United States obligations under international agreements.”  My concern here is that this will just open the door to questionable domestic interpretation of what is legal under international agreement and in turn to claims by other countries over that interpretation.  This is all to appease Labor.  Distasteful policy making.

As to the backlash against efforts to reform the House bill, there are two pieces worth noting.  The first is the President’s Op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post.  It’s entitled The Action Americans Need.  It’s disappointing.  It doesn’t say much and seems designed to comfort the interest groups on the left who don’t want to reform the House bill.  The President continues to work with Senate moderates, however, to find compromise.  This is good.  Today’s other apologist, who I sometimes suspect has an office in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters so partisan is he, is E. J. Dionne who spouts a lot of nonsense in his column in today’s Washington Post.  The piece is entitled Time to Play Hardball.  No, Mr. Dionne, it’s not.  Hardball won’t get additional Republican votes, which is what this bill needs.  It is also worth reminding ourselves that no compromise bill is going to get overwhelming Republican support.  It won’t because the majority of Republicans are too partisan or too ideologically conservative to be able to move to the center for the greater good.  But they don’t matter.  Those who matter are the relative centrists.  Get few or none of them and the bill has failed, even it it passes.  Get most, if not all, of them and it means the country has probably produced a better bill than the one that passed the House last week.  

Finally, as concerns the reformist efforts getting stalled, I note a fine editorial in the Washington Post this morning.  The Post editorial staff gets it.  The piece is entitled The Senate Balks: Why President Obama should heed calls for a more focused stimulus package.  Because I agree with it in toto, here’s the editorial in its entirety:    

Today in The Post, President Obama challenges critics of the $900 billion stimulus plan that was taking shape on Capitol Hill yesterday, accusing them of peddling “the same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis” and warning that, without immediate action, “Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.” A thinly veiled reference to Senate Republicans, this is a departure from his previous emphasis on bipartisanship. Still, as a matter of policy, Mr. Obama is justified in signaling that the plan should not be tilted in favor of tax cuts — and that the GOP should not waste valuable time trying to achieve this.

However, ideology is not the only reason that senators — from both parties — are balking at the president’s plan. As it emerged from the House, it suffered from a confusion of objectives. Mr. Obama praised the package yesterday as “not merely a prescription for short-term spending” but a “strategy for long-term economic growth in areas like renewable energy and health care and education.” This is precisely the problem. As credible experts, including some Democrats, have pointed out, much of this “long-term” spending either won’t stimulate the economy now, is of questionable merit, or both. Even potentially meritorious items, such as $2.1 billion for Head Start, or billions more to computerize medical records, do not belong in legislation whose reason for being is to give U.S. economic growth a “jolt,” as Mr. Obama himself has put it. All other policy priorities should pass through the normal budget process, which involves hearings, debate and — crucially — competition with other programs.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is one of the moderate Republicans whose support the president must win if he is to garner the 60 Senate votes needed to pass a stimulus package. She and Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska are working on a plan that would carry a lower nominal price tag than the current bill — perhaps $200 billion lower — but which would focus on aid to states, “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, food stamp increases and other items calculated to boost business and consumer spending quickly. On the revenue side, she would keep Mr. Obama’s priorities, including a $500-per-worker tax rebate.

To his credit, Mr. Obama continues to seek bipartisan input, and he met individually with Ms. Collins for a half hour yesterday afternoon. We hope he gives her ideas serious consideration.

Let’s hope the efforts of the Senate moderates continue today and a number of the bill’s unstimulative excesses are cut from it.  Then let’s hope it passes the Senate with a healthy majority.  This would be good news for the country.

Nothing on the American political agenda is as important right now as the country passing a stimulus bill that actually stimulates the economy.  This means a bill that begins to compensate through public expenditure for the staggering drop in private expenditure by Americans that is causing huge employee layoffs from one side of corporate America to the other.  We need a significant stimulus bill and we need it sooner rather than later.

This has been my message on this weblog for several days now: it has to be the right bill and one that does more good than harm.  And the bill that passed the House on Wednesday night was not the right bill and it was not one that will clearly do more good than harm.  However, some, like Eugene Robinson in his column entitled Blind Unanimity in the Washington Post today, seem to be arguing that the Republican opposition to the bill was not the consequence of legitimate substantive objections to the bill but that it was just Republicans being partisan and ideological Republicans (you know how those Republicans are).  This is most certainly not the case, as I discussed in my post yesterday.  A bill less one-sidedly put together and more the product of a thoughtful, bi-partisan effort placing greater reliance on expert economic opinion would surely have produced a healthy number of Republican votes, and may yet as the Senate takes its turn at producing a stimulus bill, hopefully a much better one.

There’s an Op-ed today in the New York Times by David Brooks entitled Cleaner and Faster that does a great job of explaining why the stimulus bill that passed the House this week was a bad one.  It is a MUST-READ.  Here are the opening paragraphs of the Brooks piece:

Throughout 2008, Larry Summers, the Harvard economist, built the case for a big but surgical stimulus package. Summers warned that a “poorly provided fiscal stimulus can have worse side effects than the disease that is to be cured.” So his proposal had three clear guidelines.

First, the stimulus should be timely. The money should go out “almost immediately.” Second, it should be targeted. It should help low- and middle-income people. Third, it should be temporary. Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

Summers was proposing bold action, but his concept came with safeguards: focus on the task at hand, prevent the usual Washington splurge and limit long-term fiscal damage.

Now Barack Obama is president, and Summers has become a top economic adviser. Yet the stimulus approach that has emerged on Capitol Hill abandoned the Summers parameters.

In a fateful decision, Democratic leaders merged the temporary stimulus measure with their permanent domestic agenda…    

Indeed they did.  The bottom line is that the stimulus bill as it stands today is a failure to be as good as it can be.  While I suspect we would need weeks and months to create something approaching “perfect”, there’s still a chance that a significantly better bill can be crafted by the U.S. Senate over the next week or so.  Let us hope so.  The country cannot afford a stimulus bill where its consequences risk being worse than the cure.  And, it cannot afford to pass a bill this consequential without significant bi-partisan support.  Fixing one will fix the other. 

Al Gore for Secretary of State?  The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argues in his Op-ed today (Obama’s Cabinet: Start With Al Gore) that Al Gore would make a great choice for Secretary of State.  My response:  No, thank you.  I think this would be a dreadful choice.  The guy has proven that he’s off the deep end on the climate change debate.  Climate change is indeed a most serious issue that must be dealt with.  What’s needed, however, is a comprehensive solution that includes a complete rethinking of our country’s energy policy.  Al Gore is incapable of doing this.  He “knows” too much already.  That’s the problem with the entire country on energy, we all “know” too much without in reality knowing anything.  Real solutions to our energy dilemma and climate change will require going back to square one and rebuilding the paradigm.

Meanwhile it seems that Senator John Kerry may be a front-runner for Secretary of State.  That is according to Al Kamen in his Washington Post column today (In a New Administration, Some Brand-New Jobs).  Under the heading “An Uncomfortable State of Affairs” Kamen points out that the concern is not so much Kerry for Secretary of State but that the next in line to chair the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is uber-liberal Russ Feingold.  That, it seems, has folks worried.  And well it should. 

A situation with peoplelike Waxman chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Feingold chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is just the nightmare scenario that could insure a conservative backlash in 2-4 years and limit Obama’s potential to succeed as the country so needs him to.  If selecting Kerry means Feingold at Foreign Ops, then Kerry needs to stay where he is.  Kerry is no centrist himself, but compared to Feingold he’s a conservative.  

We’re presented with a duality in the form of columns in the New York Times today.  One is David Brooks’ Change I Can Believe In, the other Paul Krugman’s The Obama Agenda.  One is a must-read in my opinion, the other, not.  I would suggest that the duality represented here can be summarized as non-partisan/partisan or perhaps rational/irrational.  In any event I suggest reading both columns.  Leftist partisans will undoubtedly prefer the Krugman piece, folks in the center to center right will find more merit in Brooks’ piece.

Two excerpts.  From Brooks:

I have dreams. I may seem like a boring pundit whose most exotic fantasies involve G.A.O. reports, but deep down, I have dreams. And right now I’m dreaming of the successful presidency this country needs. I’m dreaming of an administration led by Barack Obama, but which stretches beyond the normal Democratic base. It makes time for moderate voters, suburban voters, rural voters and even people who voted for the other guy.

The administration of my dreams understands where the country is today. Its members know that, as Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it on “The NewsHour,” “This was an election where the middle asserted itself.” There was “no sign” of a “movement to the left.”

From Krugman:

But will the election also mark a turning point in the actual substance of policy? Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes, he can.

Right now, many commentators are urging Mr. Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform.

Let’s hope that Mr. Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice.

About the political argument: Anyone who doubts that we’ve had a major political realignment should look at what’s happened to Congress. After the 2004 election, there were many declarations that we’d entered a long-term, perhaps permanent era of Republican dominance. Since then, Democrats have won back-to-back victories, picking up at least 12 Senate seats and more than 50 House seats. They now have bigger majorities in both houses than the G.O.P. ever achieved in its 12-year reign.

Bear in mind, also, that this year’s presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies — and the progressive philosophy won.

I think Mr. Krugman makes a dangerous leap here.  As I noted in a posting yesterday, Obama’s win was mostly about the electorate’s strong reaction against the Bush administration.  It wanted change, period.  Only Obama offered that, in substance, tone and temperament.  But as the bitter taste of the Bush-Cheney administration wears off, Obama will have to offer something edible in its place.  A leftist agenda will not be palatable to the majority of the American electorate.

Ultimately, history will the judge.  What do you think?  Comments are also welcome. 

We’re another week closer to an end to this far-too-long presidential campaign.  There’s an amusing cartoon in the Washington Post “Drawing Board” today on the seemingly never-ending campaign.  It’s a political cartoon from Wasserman in the Boston Globe this week.  It’s true, an “election lasting more that four years” is a problem. 

It is appearing ever clearer to me that the Presidential election is, for all intents and purposes, over.  I referenced in a posting earlier this week the latest writings of political analyst Charlie Cook on the subject.  There’s another of his National Journal postings that’s now available to link here.  In his latest one (October 25, 2008), not yet linkable, Mr. Cook makes this statement:

For a political analyst, the normal posture this time of year is much like a baseball umpire’s: hunched over, peering carefully as the ball approaches the plate, watching for whether it breaks left or right, whether it’s coming in high or low. But, these days, we analysts are more like outfielders, watching in awe as a ball seems on a trajectory to not only clear the fence but very likely land in the upper deck.  By every metric, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign appears headed for the upper deck.

Translated, it means that Cook thinks this race is not only over, absent an extraordinary event, but destined to become a big win.  Cook notes too, that with the increasing popularity of early voting, that with every passing day the chances of an “extraordinary” event even being capable of altering the final outcome becomes less.  As I indicated in my previous posting, I hope it is a big win, either way; the country doesn’t need another squeaker.  It’s been very unhealthy.

How are conservatives dealing with this?  I don’t particularly care at this point.  I do hope they’re realizing that the only candidate that stood a chance this year was a “maverick” like McCain who at least had the potential of pulling in a substantial number of independent and centrist voters.  A Romney or a Huckabee couldn’t have done that.  It’s clear that McCain has lost this group though, largely because of the positions he has had to take to endear himself to the conservative elements that now dominate the Republican Party.  Will conservatives learn their lesson.  No, they won’t.  It will take many more drubbings for it to sink in with these folks, if ever.  My days as a Republican are nearing a rapid end.

What I don’t appreciate though is died-in-the-wool Democratic party journalist-apologists analyzing the ills of the Republicans party.  It seems a bit audacious.  Audacity doesn’t stop E. J. Dionne, however, my least favorite Washington Post columnist.  His column yesterday, Civil War on the Right, is on a subject matter where he simply has no credibility with me.  I sure his musings will entertain his Democratic and left wing friends but they offer little insight to anyone in the center and to the right.  Why should they?  Dionne’s feet are so firmly planted in the Democratic Party that his credibility as a commentator lies only in offering insight into the machinations of the left and the Democratic Party.  I know papers need to have left and right wing perspectives but Dionne writes like he thinks he’s a neutral centrist observer of the political scene.  Let me assure him that he’s not.

Finally, there was an interesting column on American health care yesterday in the New York Times by the somewhat odd combination of Billy Beane, Newt Gingrich and John Kerry (Billy Beane is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics).  It’s entitled How to Take American Health Care From Worst to First.  They argue that our medical system could learn from baseball and its use of “sabermetrics”.  It’s a most enlightening read. 

I’ve said here before that I consider the Washington Post to be quite centrist in its editorial content.  Their gift to the left is E.J. Dionne whose columns often appear as if they had been written out of the DNC so thoroughly partisan he is.  His column today Elegy for a Maverick shows us that partisanship.  


Here’s an alternative view to the one posted above.  It is contained in an Op-ed by Frank Rich in today’s New York Times entitled Last Call for Change We Can Believe In:


The argument against Obama’s “going negative” is that it undermines his message of “transcendent politics” and will make him look like an “angry black man.” But pacifistic politics is an oxymoron, and Obama is constitutionally incapable of coming off angrier than McCain. A few more fisticuffs from the former law professor (and many more from his running mate and other surrogates) can only help make him look less skinny (metaphorically if not literally). Obama should go after McCain’s supposedly biggest asset — experience — much as McCain went after Obama’s crowd-drawing celebrity.

Next Page »