Republicans


It seems as good a time as any to reflect briefly on the recent election and the myths that have developed as to the reasons for the Democrats’ “shellacking”.

Among Democrats of the liberal variety, I’m seeing all too many who fault the President and Democrats for not going far enough:  there should have been a larger stimulus; we shouldn’t have compromised on health care; and “cap and trade” was the right thing to do.  And yes, Nancy Pelosi was brilliant and did nothing wrong.

I personally believe that the public was never overwhelmingly against any of these three major Democratic initiatives.   With the exception of cap and trade, which was always in my opinion the coward’s way out and not the best means to address climate change, the other two initiatives were necessary.  However, both of these necessary initiatives, stimulus and health care reform, were very poorly executed and that poor execution left a sour taste with people – a sour taste that was remembered on election day.  The public was simply exhausted and disgusted by the never-ending debate of a health care bill where no one, least not the President, seemed in charge.  As for the stimulus, I think people remembered how blatantly the Democratic congressional leadership administered favors to political constituencies rather than just executing a bill that got the biggest bang for the buck.

More simply put, the process destroyed the products.  Yet my fundamental point is that the electorate’s massive negative reaction in just-concluded election was not about any one of the above things.  It was, however, about a cumulative impression of one-party dominated processes that involved some really ugly sausage making.  That in turn left a cumulative impression with much of the electorate that the country was left with legislation that nobody understood, cost a whole lot of money, and massively increased the role of government in our lives.  And, perhaps most importantly, the economy still sucked.

In the midst of gigantic collective anxiety about the economy, the perception of a massive government expansion as being the cure for what ailed the country did not work.  In fact it raised the reddest of flags to an insecure nation, an insecure “center-right” nation.

So what it appears that Democrats intend to do to remedy things in the next Congress is to entrust the party’s message going forward to none other than the folks who so badly bungled things in the last two years:  Obama, Pelosi and Reed.  I think this a huge mistake for Democrats.  A softer and more “centrist” face would be much more effective in opposing the almost certain Republican-dominated policy folly that’s coming — that folly being the ultra conservative notion that by shrinking the government and lowering taxes we can solve all of the country’s problems.  We can’t.  Yet with the Democrat’s proposed messengers, the debate will polarize into  “More Government” versus “No Government”.  This is so unnecessary.   While I see no signs that Republicans will amend their “no government message, the Democrats can still alter their message, but they will need new messengers in the both the House and Senate to accomplish this.

I can only hope Democrats in Congress will yet decide that new leadership is required in the next Congress.   Let Democrats lose the fallacious belief that party hasn’t been liberal enough.  The party needs to recognize that America isn’t ready for a European-style social democracy.  So go ahead and pursue “liberal” policies – that is the essence of the Democratic Party — but do so incrementally.   And for now, occupy the center ground that’s been abandoned by the Republicans.

In closing let me observe that while each party is right to try to move the country in the direction it thinks the country should go, the problem arises when either party becomes too impatient and wants to change the status quo overnight.  American’s don’t like radical change and will resist what they perceive efforts to legislate such radical change (the November elections).  The solution is a slow but steady movement firmly rooted in the “center” ground.  I’m convinced it would be a winning strategy for any party that chooses to adopt it.  Given that Republicans appear to believe that they now have a mandate for radical change, the obvious path for Democrats is to learn from the last two years and adopt a more moderate path – a path that recognizes its priorities but also one that can resonate with a centrist America.

Maybe this is why I’m a Republican.  I have a healthy distrust of government when it comes to finding new ways of taxing its citizenry so that the government can allocate (spend) those resources instead.  While I think Republicans have gone significantly overboard in their opposition to tax increases and support for most tax decreases, Republican distrust of government distrust of public spending at the expense of private spending is fundamentally healthy.

While I reserve judgment on President Obama’s newest plan to raise taxes–his plan to raise $210 billion from “curbing offshore tax havens and corporate tax breaks”–I have suspicions that it but the move of dedicated big spender seeking new sources of revenue to fund his expansive federal social agenda.  The story can be found in the New York Times’ Obama Asks Curb on Use of Havens to Reduce Taxes.  It is the source of the quotation above. 

I’m not going to say much more.  I don’t know enough about the details, but I am suspicious.  This proposal needs thorough vetting on Capital Hill and elsewhere.  There is much we all need to learn about the pros and the cons of the proposal before we make it law.    

There is a must-read opinion column in the Washington Post this morning by Robert J. Samuelson.  It’s entitled The Bias Against Oil and Gas.  It is spot-on.

Energy is critical to the healthy functioning of the U.S. economy.  It is, therefore, a crucially important issue for President Obama to get right–to address in a rational manner.  The point here is that Obama’s “bias” against oil and natural gas will have consequences.  These consequences include failure of his “energy policy” and quite possibly failure of his economic policy upon which so much, even rhetorically, rides on the over-estimated potential of renewable energy.  Worse yet, it means that Republicans may be handed an issue, when oil prices once again soar (and oil prices will again soar, trust me), that gets them re-elected before they deserve to be.  The loser will be the country.

The point here, and I am certain the prime motivation behind Mr. Samuelson penning the piece he did, is that there is time to correct course.  There is still time to get it right.

There are a couple of reasons in particular why someone as brilliant as Mr. Obama has gotten this issue so terribly wrong.   One, and at the top of my list, is that our president doesn’t really understand energy policy.  This is understandable.  Although Illinois is an oil and natural gas producing state, it is not Texas.  While once a significant producer, Illinois’ production has declined and oil’s economic significance to the state is limited.  Additionally, spending a career in Chicago and so little time as a Senator representing the entire state, President Obama has had little opportunity to be educated.  Thus he, like most Americans, has learned about energy not by first hand experience but by what he’s been informed about energy, and particularly about oil and natural gas, by popular culture.  Popular culture tells us that oil is dirty and is bad for people and the planet and the way to move ahead is to not drill any more dirty oil wells.  It tells us that solar and wind are clean and abundant and we must only try harder and that will be our future.  As nice as this sounds, however, it is myth.

Another reason Obama has this wrong is alluded to in Mr. Samuelson’s column.  It is the power of the environmental groups and the fact, quoting Mr. Samuelson that “[t]o many environmentalists, expanding fossil fuel production is a cardinal sin.”  Given that environmental groups are an important contituency of the Democratic Party, Democrats are loathe to challenge its orthodoxy.  Yet a rational energy and economic policy demands a overt challenge.  Unless challenged it will lead the country down a path that does not lead to energy self-sufficiency.  It will lead to even more oil imports in the years ahead.

Expanding domestic oil production is not inconsistent with our country’s, and the world’s need, to limit the burning of fossil fuels in the years ahead.  That need is properly addressed through legislation that will begin to put a cost on the burning of fossil fuels so as to discourage its use.  In the meantime, the goal of this country needs to be moving as much production as it feasibly can back to this country.  We must never lose sight that every barrel not produced at home will otherwise have to be imported.  And every barrel of oil imported amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs going overseas.

Energy and economic policy will only work if built on a rational foundation.  It is time to re-lay the footings and begin to construct an energy policy that has architectural grounding.   

 

In a follow-on to yesterday’s posting, there are two additional pieces today, both in the New York Times, that address the Republican Party’s identity crisis.  The first is a front page article, above the fold, by Adam Nagourney and David M. Herszenhorn entitled G.O.P. Debate: A Broader Party or a Purer One? The other is on Op-ed by former Governor (and EPA Administrator) Christine Todd Whitman entitled It’s Still My Party.

I am convinced the Republican Party’s only path forward is to become a party that can not only tolerate a variety of perspectives, but can accommodate those perspectives in its platform and in the way it governs.  Frankly, I don’t see this happening for a while.

My history as a Republican goes back 37 years.  Although I’d always identified as a child as a Democrat, I was a Scoop Jackson or moderate Democrat, at least on defense issues.  When the party rejected Scoop Jackson for the presidential nomination in 1972 and nominated George McGovern, my path forward was clear.  I was able to comfortably remain a Republican up through the George W. Bush’s first term, although the Reagan ascendancy was a mighty challenge.  When the conservatives began to exert control of the party in 1976 when Reagan challenged President Ford for the Republican nomination, I first witnessed the ‘purist’ wing of the party in action.  At my local ward meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I saw the purists in action for the first time as they showed up in droves and defeated the Ford slate.  At the state party convention the purists would later deny slots on the state’s delegation to the national convention to New Mexico’s sitting Republican Congressmen and Senator, who had all supported Gerald Ford.  Four years later I held my nose and voted for Reagan and, to my surprise, I did come to regret that decision.  I even served as an Reagan alternate delegate from New Mexico to the 1984 GOP convention.  What was notable was that although I was viewed then within the delegation as a “moderate”, that was still apparently OK.  It isn’t today in most places.

In her Op-ed Christine Todd Whitman argues that it’s important that “moderates to stay [in the party] and work from within. One thing we can be sure of is that we will have no impact on the party’s direction if we leave.”  She goes on to observe that “[t]o the extent we lose more members of the Republican Party, we lose what ability we have left to affect policy, and that is going to be devastating to our nation. Our democracy desperately needs two vibrant parties.”

Although I may not change my party registration, I am functionally an Independent these days, for the party has left me and the things it once stood for.  It has become something else with which I rarely identify.  At this juncture I am also tired of doing battle with the purists.  I am of the mind that the only way the purists are going to learn their lesson is the hard way in a succession of devastating losses.  Either that, or, the purist Republican Party needs to be isolated with the formation of a new political party in the center.  I agree with Christine Todd Whitman that it will be devastating for the country to have one-party rule.  But that doesn’t mean that second party needs to be the Republican Party.  Let’s get a third party in the mix that can draw moderate Democrats and Republicans and challenge both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  Let the Republican Party stay pure and let’s give the Democratic Party to Nancy Pelosi and her friends on the left.  Let the rest of us join and belong to a brand new party.

That would be my choice, although it’s been pretty clear to me since I started this ‘centrist’ blog, that there been no groundswell of people who agree with me.  Certainly moderate Democrats are not disaffected at present with a capable President who’s steering a relatively moderate course.  And Independents seem to like the middle ground and the ability to move back and forth as they see fit.

So for now I must just watch the show from the sidelines, the show being the Republican Party’s process of trying to make itself relevant again.  What I know is that I have no intention of being part of the process.  I’m tired of tilting at windmills.

My first reaction when I read that Senator Specter was to become a Democrat was shock.  I hadn’t thought he’d take such a radical step.  Make no mistake, in America changing one’s party is a radical action.  I had thought that perhaps he’d become an Independent – a far easier step along the continuum of politics.  No, he had decided to make the full leap.

As I’ve had a day to think about it and to read the numerous stories and commentary in the Washington Post and the New York Times, it’s made more sense to me.  For readers who aren’t regular readers of this blog, I, like Senator Specter, sit in a place on the political spectrum that is hard to categorize–liberal on this issue, conservative on that, and, often, very centrist.  Yet I would have a lot of trouble becoming a Democrat.  I would have trouble for the same reasons I have trouble any longer calling myself a Republican.  Each party has wings and viewpoints with which I am in vehement disagreement.  For me, it is merely trading one set of issues with which I agree/disagree for another.  For Senator Specter, however, it would appear that in his calculation it was what will be necessary for political survival.

While I’d have preferred he become an Independent and run as an Independent in Pennsylvania in 2010, he obviously calculated that such a move would unlike result in his re-election.  Instead of one one party opposing him, he’d have two.  And since it seems our system is such that unless you’re either a Republican or a Democrat you don’t have much chance of being elected in America, one must chose one party or the other if one hopes to be elected to public office.

For the time being I don’t have that dilemma.  I can be an Independent.  Still, I would very much like to create a middle-of-the-spectrum party that would have a chance of seriously playing in the political game with the big two.  It would reform the big two like nothing else I can think of.

In a Washington Post editorial this morning entitled Aisle Crosser, there is a quote of Senator Lieberman, a rare elected Independent.  Here’s what he’s quoted as saying:  “You know, it’s good for the Democratic Party, bad for the Republican Party that Arlen Specter left them and joined the Democratic caucus.  But you know what? Overall, it’s not great for American politics, because both parties should have moderate or centrist wings in them that . . . [create] more opportunity for common ground and less partisanship.” 

I couldn’t agree more.  In an ideal world Arlen Specter could have remained a Republican and still been renominated by his party.  This isn’t an ideal world.  He would have been beaten by a conservative ideologue in the Republican primary.  Personally, I would like to remain a Republican and fight for a more moderate party.  However, I don’t see that happening in the next decade.  So Specter is going to seek his home as a Democrat and I will seek mine as an Independent.

My hope is, as unideal as this situation is, that Senator Specter can and will remain a voice of moderation and principal in his new party.  My hope is that he can try to pull Democrats to the right more successfully than he was able to pull Republicans left.  I actually think he’ll have better luck.  Smart Democrats realize that the secret of winning elections is drawing in the center.  Republicans are, as I indicated above, a decade of losing elections (hopefully) away from learning this lesson.  In the meantime we have to hope the Democrats don’t head full-tilt left and contribute to a Republican win before they’ve learned their lessons.  Then we’re all in real trouble.

In closing let me recommend another two pieces on this topic, this first from the New York Times.  It is by Senator Olympia Snowe and it’s entitled We Didn’t Have to Lose Arlen Specter.  Also well worth reading is this New York Times blog by David Brooks and Gail Collins entitled Specter, At Least for Now.

    

I don’t always agree with the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, as regular readers of this blog will know, but I must say there was little in his column yesterday about the Republican Party with which I could find much to disagree.  The piece is entitled Tea Parties Forever.  What is this thing about tea parties anyway?  It seems completely nuts to me.

Here are some of Krugman’s observations (in quotes) with which I’m in complete agreement interspersed with my own observations: 

“Today’s GOP is, after all, very much a minority party.”  Indeed it is, and getting smaller all of the time.  As crazy as they are, Republicans “could still return to power if the Democrats stumble.”  All too true.  A reason for Obama to moderate and not give them the fuel that will need to power an electoral victory.  “[E]verything that critics mock about these [tea] parties has long been standard practice within the Republican Party.”  True enough.  As indicated above, I don’t get the Republican preoccupation with taxes.  I haven’t for a decade or two.  “Then there are the claims made at some recent tea-party events that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in America… Crazy stuff.”  Yes, indeed.  “For now, the Obama administration gains a substantial advantage from the fact that it has no credible opposition, especially on economic policy, where the Republicans seem particularly clueless.”  It is a huge advantage to have no credible opposition to call you on your misstatements and misrepresentations.  Instead, we have a party that is beyond clueless, which makes even greater misstatements and misrepresentations.  Instead of offering genuinely believable, cogent and economically supportable policy alternatives, they advocate complete nonsense. 

No, this is not a Republican Party with which I can identify.  For the time being I’ve given up even trying to steer it back on course.   It’s hopeless.  The only thing that’s going to work is for the party to lose a few election cycles, maybe the next five.  Let’s just hope circumstances don’t allow them a premature win.  The country can’t afford this present Republican Party in charge again.     

This continues my series about the AIG bonus fiasco, which encompasses both the decision by AIG management to pay retention bonuses (bonuses paid to employees to keep them from jumping ship during a time of uncertainty for the company), and the public and political reaction to them.  The former, while flawed and regrettable in timing and scope, seems to have served a legitimate business purpose.  The latter, being less rational and more emotional, is of much greater concern to me.  As I’ve expressed in my last two postings (here and here), the risk we’re running is reacting to the emotion with a solution that makes things worse.  Goal number one is getting out of the economic quagmire we’re in.  Retribution should be far down the list of priorities and retribution is just what the House tax bill passed last week is. 

Supporting my viewpoint are two pieces today.  One is a story in the Washington Post entitled Advisers to Obama Wary of Bonus Tax.  Obama’s advisers are right to be wary of this tax.  As I’ve indicated before, let’s hope the Senate addresses this more rationally.  The second piece is from the New York Times’ Breakingviews.com feature in today’s Times by Rob Cox entitled Tax on Bonuses Will Hurt Sector.

Both are valuable-reads in understanding the risks of overreacting.

Let me also take this opportunity to say that I think that Secretary Geithner is doing a fine job.  He is showing that he is a rational player trying hard to do the right thing in the face of enormous pressure to do the politically expedient.  He has my total support and confidence.  That President Obama is also standing with him speaks well for the president.  This is the right thing to do, which is very hard for a president to do.

In my post on this blog yesterday I noted the growing chorus of political commentators who believe that this country and its leadership is not taking our country’s present economic crisis seriously enough.  Add one more commentator to the list.  Today in the Washington Post, David Ignatius joins the chorus with his piece A ‘Phony War’ On the Crisis

In his column, Ignatius likens our response to the present “crisis” to the time in history when Neville Chamberlain was still Prime Minister of Great Britain and acting as if the problem with Germany could be dealt with short of war.  It couldn’t then and it probably can’t now.  

This is no ordinary recession.  I have lived through a few and am startled when I read that current unemployment is about the same as it was during the early 1980s.  I was just out of graduate school in the early 1980s and the times had a completely different feel to the times today.  Today, it is as if much of our economy has ground to a standstill.  I talk to friends looking for employment and they are reporting that jobs have almost completely dried up.  And it is going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. 

Ignatius’ perspective on our lack of real action in dealing with this crisis is most valuable.  He faults the President for, in a time of economic crisis, putting together a cabinet with almost no real-world business experience.  Here’s what he has to say about our Republican and Democratic Congressional leadership:

Republicans and Democrats are sticking to party-line votes on many key issues. The Democrats were egregious in packing the stimulus bill with pet projects that won’t stimulate much except campaign contributions and in sticking with earmarks — a symbolic outrage that Obama promised during the campaign he would eliminate. But the Republicans have been even worse in their strategy of opposing recovery plans, which has given a legislative face to Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails.”     

Unlike the country’s reaction to the September 11 terrorist-inspired crisis, there is no sense that the country’s leadership perceives the degree of the risk that the country faces, or that we are indeed even in “crisis”.  And, while as a country we perhaps overreacted to the crisis of September 11, it is clear we are not treating our present economic crisis with the respect it deserves.  What it deserves is the putting aside partisan politics and ideological agendas in favor of unified action in the national interest.

One thing the country may need to do is spend additional money, both in supplementing the funds already committed to the banking industry and perhaps in additional stimulus funding.  If it comes to the latter, this time around we need to do it right with clear criteria, developed with leadership from both parties, aimed at maximizing short-term economic impact.

Having said this, however, I fear our political leadership will not act until things get a lot worse.  Let’s just hope that by then it is not too late.     

There is a theme developing among Op-ed writers this week.  It is that Washington, led by our President, is not taking our economic crisis seriously enough.  I alluded to it in a posting yesterday in which I cited and quoted from a David Brook’s column entitled Taking A Depression Seriously.  Today appear three more columns devoted to the subject.  There is Thomas L. Friedman’s This Is Not A Test.  This Is Not A Test in the New York Times.  It is joined by Andrew S. Grove’s Mr. President, Time to Rein In The Chaos and Steven Pearlstein’s It’ll Take More Than Money to Fix This Crisis, both in the Washington Post.

All three of the pieces today are well worth reading.  The Friedman piece takes the administration to task for failing to act as if this is the crisis it is.  In particular he notes the administration’s failure to fill appointments faster and to tackle some difficult political issues.  Republicans aren’t left out of his criticism, and rightfully not. 

The Pearlstein piece argues that “[t]here is still way too much business as usual going on in Washington, on Wall Street and in the media.”  He is especially critical of Congress for its three-day workweeks and earmark-filled spending bills.  Republicans, with “their stubborn opposition to any increase in government spending in the face of a severe downturn”, are not spared.  He calls the irresponsible Republican stance “the economic equivalent of bloodletting”.

The final piece, however, is the most interesting of all.  The author, Andrew S. Grove, is the former chief executive of Intel Corporation and currently both continues to advise the corporation and teach strategy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He confesses to having found himself “wringing my hands, not over the goals President Obama has set but over the ineffectual ways the administration has pursued them.”  Here’s an excerpt wherein he explains a lesson he’s learned from the business world:

I have found that to succeed, an organization must travel through two phases: first, a period of chaotic experimentation in which intense discussion is allowed, even encouraged, by those in charge. In time, when the chaos becomes unbearable, the leadership reins in chaos with a firm hand. The first phase serves to expose the needs and options, the potential and pitfalls. The organization and its leaders learn a lot going through this phase. But frustration also builds, and eventually the cry is heard: Make a decision — any decision — but make it now. The time comes for the leadership to end the chaos and commit to a path.    

Grove goes on to argue that this time has come for the administration in dealing with the economy.  “Until the administration does this, we should not embark on attempting to fix another major part of the economy.”  I could not agree more.  I’ve been arguing for weeks that President Obama is doing too much, too soon, too fast.  There is no issue facing the country more serious than the present economic crisis.  It must be solved.  Nothing matters more.  Yet we are launching into a set of initiatives on almost everything.  I am in agreement with Mr. Grove and the other commentators: fix the economy and then move on to other things.

There’s another great piece by David Brooks in the New York Times today.  It’s entitled Taking a Depression Seriously.  He makes a number of dynamite points.  I will note two.  The first is that the Republican approach to the economy has been completely wrong and as a result has amounted to a mere “no” when so much more is needed.  The other is that Democrats, facing the biggest economic crisis in decades, appear to be doing too much else.  Here’s how Brooks puts this latter point:

Democrats apparently think that dealing with the crisis is a part-time job, which leaves the afternoons free to work on long-range plans to reform education, health care, energy and a dozen smaller things.

I agree as I most often do with Brooks.  It is further evidence to me of a broken political system.  On one hand we have Republicans that are so tied into an ideology where’s there is but one solution to everything economic–lowering taxes–that they can’t mount an effective and rational opposition to the Democratic plan.  On the other hand, we have a Democratic Party that has bungled the stimulus by reducing its effectiveness with an liberal Democratic wish list and doesn’t seem to understand that our country has one very major problem–the economy–that needs solving before anything else is tackled.   

We need something in this country to move us off of our present deadlocked course.  I believe what we need is a viable third party or at least a third force, of independents, who could advocate for the rational without concern for party identification or special interests.  I have concluded that it’s the only path forward.  For now, we will muddle along.  Muddling along, however, might just fail us this time.

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