November 2008

The more I learn of President-elect Obama’s cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees, the more I gain confidence that Obama could be a great president.  The centrist approach he appears to be taking is a winning approach, both for the country and electorally.  The team being assembled, with few exceptions, seems to be extremely capable and ideologically moderate.  The foreign policy team in particular is looking extremely good.  While I might question whether Hillary Clinton is the best choice to be Secretary of State, her apparent selection is a mainstream appointment, as would General Jones be as National Security Advisor.  The apparent decision to keep Defense Secretary Gates in his position for at least a year is also most welcome news.

These appointments are welcome because they represent an Obama that wasn’t evident during the primary, when to a large extent he campaigned for and ultimately won the pacifist vote, for lack of a better term.  He went for and won the voters who were opposed to the Iraq war and wanted out, full stop.  By contrast Hillary became the “war” candidate, taking a less strident position on the withdrawal of troops.  That Obama is appointing a team more in line with her campaign than his is comforting to me as it is, in my opinion, the more responsible approach.  My biggest concern during the campaign was what I considered to be Obama’s completely irresponsible position on withdrawal from Iraq.  

I remain disappointed in candidates that cannot run more transparent campaigns–running on who you really are and what you really believe in rather than on what you think voters are looking for or what it takes to win.  Obama clearly ran such a campaign–dishonest might not be too strong term.  So-called “progressives” or the “pacifist” wing might have a justifiable gripe with the man.  From my perspective, at least on this issue, I am gratified that he’s apparently about to do the right thing now that the campaign is over.  It is indeed good for the country.

In this vein, E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post yesterday makes an argument that President-elect Obama is beginning to look very similar to President Bush.  Not President George W. Bush but his father, President George H.W. Bush.  Here’s an excerpt from the column entitled Obama’s Bush Doctrine:    

What’s most striking about Obama’s approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by working to improve the country’s image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.

This sounds a lot like the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, and it makes perfect sense that Obama has had conversations with the senior Bush’s closest foreign policy adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Obama has drawn counsel from many in Scowcroft’s circle, and Gates himself was deputy national security adviser under Scowcroft.

Dionne also observes that Obama’s worldview was largely “hidden in plain sight” during the campaign.  While Dionne notes that Obama did indeed severely criticize the Iraq War, Obama also made the case during the campaign for “justified” war.  Perhaps Obama was more transparent than I just accused him of being after all.

There are a number of additional appointments to be made to the administration about which I remain very concerned.  They are the appointments of the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA).  All three will have an enormous impact on our country’s energy policy and its ability to create a policy that rationally addresses the energy and environmental challenges faced by the country.  In my view, the Secretary of Energy’s first duty should be as the country’s spokesman-in-chief on the country’s energy policy, selling hard policy decisions and educating as much as anything else.  The implementers of that policy, however, will be as they always have been the Interior Secretary and EPA chief.  A rogue appointment in any or all of these positions could wreak havoc on the ability of the country to achieve a rational and viable energy policy.

In terms of the speculation about these positions I reference an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled EPA, Interior Dept. Chiefs Will Be Busy Erasing Bush’s Mark.  That headline isn’t a good sign about what’s to come.  I know that rap is that Bush has allowed rape of the nation’s public land and allowed polluters free reign.  The truth is considerably different.  Sure, environmental groups are angry, but a rational energy policy will require that every interest group be a little bit angry.  The speculation seems to be that the Obama appointments will leave environmentalists dancing in the streets.  If that indeed happens, woe to the country and it’s energy future.  It will have meant that we aren’t making rational decisions but environmentally popular ones. 

What people fail to realize is that national security needs to be part of every public lands decision.  While it’s easy to suspect that the opening of public lands to oil and natural gas development in the west is simply about Republicans doing favors for their friends in the energy industry, it is much more about reducing the country’s dependence upon imported oil.  This country pays a very dear price for that foreign dependence, including, I would argue, every death that has resulted from the war in Iraq.  There is no justification for a single death that is consequence of our thirst for oil.  Beyond conservation and an all-out effort to develop substitute fuels, the country MUST develop in a much more robust way than it has done in the past (yes, even under Bush) to develop its own domestic oil and natural gas resources.  There is no other rational choice.  Yes, we wouldn’t do it in an ideal world, but we aren’t living in an ideal world.  We have to make tough choices and developing America’s domestic oil and natural gas resources is one of those tough but necessary choices until the day comes that our country’s economy is no longer as reliant as it is on carbon based fuels.  It is fantasy to think that by reducing domestic production we can bring the “renewable future” into existence sooner.  We can’t.  We will only bring about more imports and all of their adverse consequences (economic, environmental, national security).

So, bringing me back to the point of all of this, the appointments at Interior, Energy and EPA are indeed important ones.  The appointees need to be able to see the entire picture, not just the narrow picture that the traditional environmental groups would have us see.  Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that any of the names being publicly mentioned for these positions are leaders if this kind.  Here’s an excerpt from the above-referenced Washington Post story of those being talked about for Interior Secretary:   

The list for Interior is almost as long. Two House Democrats, Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) are contenders, but Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, as well as three former Interior officials — David Hayes, John Leshy and Clark at Defenders of Wildlife — have all been mentioned.

I’d argue that each of those individuals mentioned above would likely have a focus that is entirely too much Sierra Club Newsletter and not enough Foreign Policy Magazine.  Let’s hope that Obama surprises here, too, and brings us people with new and different perspectives and who are capable of making the tough decisions and listening to all sides of an issue before deciding.  A first step is realizing that while Bush Administration policies in these areas were far from perfect all of the time (deeply flawed is perhaps a better way of putting it) they were often right as well and a complete reversal of course would not be good for the country.  

For now, we must wait and see. 

I have been amazed for years at how I’m considered liberal by my conservative friends and conservative by my liberal friends.  I am truly betwixt and between.  What it feels like to me is political homelessness.  I have nowhere to live, occupying it seems the no-man’s land of American politics.     

To give you an example of how my views are considered heretical to most Republicans, I am going to link today to my posting yesterday on, the new Republican web site.  The post yesterday was entitled The Importance of the Centrist Voter to the Future of the GOP.  It is substantively identical to my post yesterday here entitled Rebuilding the Republican Party.   Take a look at the comments that have been posted.  Weigh in there if you’re so inclined.  Reading these I can only conclude that I am indeed not going to feel comfortable any time soon in the Republican Party.  A consolation is that, at least so far, Obama’s administration isn’t looking half bad (more on that in a subsequent post).

A new web site has been started by a group of Republicans that believe that the Republican Party must rebuild, at least in part, by matching the internet savvy of the Democrats and the Obama campaign.  The site is entitled Rebuild the Party.  I’ve signed up and have been blogging there a bit.  I must say I don’t believe its going to work.  The Republican Party needs more work that rebuilding the way it communicates to voters.  It must also change the message.

What I believe, and what I’ve also shared on the above-referenced site, is that the Republican Party has no future unless it can appeal to the centrist voter (center left, center, and center right).  To win that voter, the party must become something more than a party of two issues:  lower taxes and social/fiscal conservatism.  It must go backwards in time to find the party it once was which was a party that could stand for a number of things the public values but none of which was more important than the others.  This was the point of my citation of a Charlie Cook column in The National Journal called Missing: Seller’s Remorse.

Having read much of the commentary on the new site and particularly the 20+ comments responding to one its blogger’s postings, I am left to conclude that the “Traditionalist” side of the debate will win the battle for the soul of the Republican Party for now.  Those are the folks who say we must simply reaffirm our “conservative principles” and reject any substantial reform.  I addressed this a few weeks ago in my piece entitled The Future of the Republican Party.  At it’s core was a brilliant Op-ed by David Brooks of the New York Times which talks about this battle for the soul of the GOP.  The Brooks piece is entitled Darkness at Dusk.  I agree with Brooks.  The Reformists will lose and the Traditionalists will win at this point in time.  Too bad for the party and the country.  I can only hope and pray that Obama is able to steer a relatively centrist course.  If he does, we’ll have a “liberal” Ronald Reagan on our hands and he and his political progeny could govern for a long time — long enough for the Republican Party to learn the lessons that the Conservative Party in Britain has had to learn.   

This is a country of centrists (center left, center and center right) — maybe not 80% but a solid 35-60%.  I suspect the political spectrum rendered graphically would resemble a bell curve.  The fringes, which those on the political right inhabit, is relatively small, maybe 20%.  This group’s brethren on the left wing fringe likewise possess about 20%. There remains, therefore, in the middle about 60%, forming the bulk of the bell.  Depending upon where you draw the lines on what constitutes the “center” that center ranges, as I said, from 35-60%.  I prefer to think about the center as 35% – a group of voters that is perfectly capable of swinging right or left. 

The point of this is that you need this center to win and a political party which puts lower taxes and social/cultural conservatism at the top of it agenda is not going to win that center very often unless the choice on the left is equally onerous.  George Bush won twice not because America (and the center) was ever enamored with his message but because between a choice of far left and far right, America was more comfortable going right. Someone less conservative than Mr. Bush, all things being equal, would probably have had bigger wins.  McCain might have won, too, if he hadn’t ruined his brand in the primaries by pandering to the right (necessary to win most GOP primary elections) and then sticking with the rhetoric throughout the campaign (and via the Palin selection). 

Reform in the GOP requires restructuring the party so that it can appeal to a broad coalition of voters.  With only two pillars, lower taxes and social/cultural conservatism, the coalition will be a relatively small one indeed.  What I believe Mr. Cook was suggesting in his column, is that with a greater number of pillars, the party can still stick to certain core principles but they’ll be balanced by a number of other pillars that centrist voters are likely to find more appealing.  The party can therefore attract and energize a larger group of voters.  What it will require is toning down the cultural/social and lower taxes rhetoric and emphazing a few other important issues as well. 

As a center right Republican it was easy for me to be a Republican when the party stood for more that I believed in than what I didn’t.  Today, the party seems to stand just for things I don’t believe in.  I can get that with the Democratic Party as well (a few things I agree with but most I don’t).   I would still prefer to be a Republican but not when the party stands so stridently on issues that both offend me and indeed, as a gay Republican, threaten my welfare and that of fellow gay Americans.

As I indicated above, I don’t think that Republican Party is going to emerge again any time soon, and it will probably result in my becoming, most regrettably, an Independent.  For now, I will hold off on that decision and just hope and pray that Obama stays a centrist course for both the good of the country and to prevent an unreformed Republican Party from swinging back into power in 2 or 4 years in reaction to a Democratic Party that has run amok.

Paraphrasing Senator Dirksen, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.  It used to be that billions were big bucks, now it’s trillions.  The above graphic, courtesy of the New York Times today, can be found in its entirety (apologies for it not all fitting on the screen here) as part of the story entitled U.S. Plans $800 Billion in Lending to Ease Crisis.  An even more detailed graphic from today’s New York Times can be found here.  I’m glad someone is tracking this stuff in such detail.

It’s all very difficult to grasp, even with graphics.  All together it tells us something very remarkable has happened, something that is scaring a lot of really smart people into taking extraordinary measures to keep the American (and world) economy afloat.  We even learned yesterday that Warren Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway Company are suffering the consequences of this derivative-inspired crisis.   See the story Buffett to Offer Details on Derivatives in yesterday’s New York Times.  Is nothing safe from this? 

How we got into this mess is addressed by Thomas L. Friedman in his New York Times column today.  It is a worthwhile-read.  Citing New York Times reporting earlier this week on the fall of Citigroup, Friedman in a piece called All Fall Down gives us some perspective on the origins of the crisis and who’s to blame.  Again, it is all so very complicated.  He closes his column with these words:

That’s how we got here – a near total breakdown of responsibility at every link in our financial chain, and now we either bail out the people who brought us here or risk a total systemic crash. These are the wages of our sins. I used to say our kids will pay dearly for this. But actually, it’s our problem. For the next few years we’re all going to be working harder for less money and fewer government services – if we’re lucky.

A couple of themes have dominated my postings of the last few weeks.  One is the sorry state of the GOP and the likelihood that the party will ignore the calls to reform and will instead hunker down with the same old brand of conservatism that’s failed it the last two elections.  The other theme pertains to my view that the Obama administration needs to plot a relatively centrist course, ignoring calls from the left (particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives) to pursue a decidedly “progressive” agenda.  The concern is that if Obama does otherwise he will invite a voter backlash in 2 or 4 years.  My nightmare is a scenario where the GOP hunkers down with its same old message and Obama is unable or unwilling to pursue a centrist course and suffers massive losses in the 2010 or 2012 elections, or both.  The result will be but a swing of the pendulum from left to right with a damaged or destroyed Obama presidency and a resurgent but unreformed Republican Party.

In his November 22 column in the National Journal, Charlie Cook engages in a fascinating, and I consider a must-read, analysis of the how the Republican Party has gone from a party that represented a number of key principles (anti-communism, strong national defense, balanced budgets, moderate sized government, low taxes, law and order, relative social and cultural conservatism) to party that represents only two (low taxes, strident social and cultural conservatism).  He concludes that the party may well win the next election, but not because it deserves to win, but because the Democrats have failed–my nightmare.  The piece is entitled Missing: Seller’s Remorse.  

While I agree with virtually everything Mr. Cook says in this column, I was particularly struck by his assertion that the GOP’s extreme stands, for instance on embryonic-stem-cell research and in the Terri Schiavo case, caused many “centrists” to begin to regard the GOP as the “radical” party, not the Democrats.  I could not agree more.  The Schiavo case was a clear turning point for me where I began to ask myself:  “Who are these people?”  “Is this still my Party?”  This reality was only reinforced by the vote of the majority of Republicans last month rejecting the Rescue Bill in its first vote in the U.S. House. 

For me to be able to have a chance of fully embracing the GOP again, it needs to stand as it once did on a number of principles, most, if not all, of which I can agree upon.  Otherwise, may Obama stay a centrist course. 

Where do you stand on the political spectrum?  Left, Right, Authoritarian, Libertarian? 

Thanks to MW at the Divided We Stand weblog, I was introduced to a test designed to determine where one stands on the political spectrum.  Unlike most such tests, this one isn’t just focused on left-right but also adds the dimension of authoritarian, libertarian.  The test is by the group Political Compass and can be found here.  Take the test and let me know where you stand.  Try as I might I’ve been unable to paste a copy of my graph into this posting.  By way of description, I am dead in the center (left-right) and 4 1/2 boxes down on the authoritarian-libertarian scale.  My libertarian bent probably explains my historical inclination to support GOP candidates, otherwise it seems I’m about as center (left-right) as it’s possible to be.   

Perhaps it’s too early sing hallelujahs but the news concerning President-elect Obama’s key appointments is music to a centrist ear.  It increases the chances this President could be a great one.  An article to take a look at in this regard is in the New York Times this morning.   It’s entitled Obama Tilts to Center, Inviting a Clash of Ideas.  There’s also indications that President-elect Obama intends to nominate James L. Jones to be his national security advisor.  This is also incredibly good news.  This story can be found in the Washington Post this morning and is called Jones Would Bring Broad Experience to Security Post.

The news this morning all but offsets the somewhat disappointing developments in the U.S. House of Representatives this week.  I am particularly delighted to read of the possibility of General Jones’ appointment to the national security office in the White House.  My familiarity with the General comes from his work as the head of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Such an appointment would mean that there really will be someone who has President Obama’s ear who knows something, in fact quite a lot, about energy and the national security implications of our dependence upon foreign oil.  The above-linked Washington Post article suggests that Jones would also like to expand the National Security Council’s “role to encompass more energy matters”.  This is a tremendous idea.

It would mean that for the first time in a long time this country would have a chance of crafting a rational and balanced national energy strategy.  Republicans have traditionally excluded environmentalists from a full seat at the policy table and Democrats have traditionally excluded anyone who knows anything about energy.  This would shake things up.

I’d like to close with a excerpt from one of my first postings on this blog from back in early August.  The posting is entitled Flip-Flopping Away and Nixon in China.  While I don’t suggest that at this point that Obama should immediately go as far as opening the Arctic National Wildlife to development, I do suggest that he at least consider it with all of the relevant factors (environmental, national security, economic) on the table, not just some of them. 

Let us assume that Senator Obama is elected President and soon into his Presidency announces not only full support for offshore drilling but support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  What will we make of this?  The left, of course, will be outraged.  The right will have mixed feelings in that a desired policy outcome will have been achieved but at the cost of being politically outmaneuvered and losing an issue that had been solely theirs.  It is what might be called the “Nixon in China” phenomena.  When it happens we don’t expect it although we will likely soon come to regard it as the right thing to do, as it probably truly is.  The fact is that sometimes the breakthrough policies are best achieved by a President from the party not aligned historically with the policy.  It may be the only way we can make radical policy shifts in America.  This is because we never fully trust the motives of the long time advocate — detractors would claim and the public would see the merit in claims that the President is just paying back supporters.  This is what has happened with President Bush on the oil and gas development issue.  He has no environmental credentials and was, after all, an oilman.  However, the only possible explanation for a President Obama taking such a move would be that it was the right thing to do.  Why else would he do something that would risk the wrath of his own party’s supporters?  The net result would likely be that Congress and the public would have little choice but to accept it.

Given our present political environment I sometimes think that the above scenario is the only one capable achieving a significant increase in the amount of oil and natural gas produced domestically – something I clearly believe is in the country’s best interests (as long as we continue to decrease our total consumption of fossil fuels and try ever harder to find alternative energy sources).  It is another potential reason for me, who sees energy policy (including climate change) as being of the highest national importance, to vote for Obama.  Notwithstanding what the Party platforms that will emerge from Minneapolis and Denver this summer will tell us, there is an argument that an Obama Presidency would have a greater chance of solving our energy dilemma in a comprehensive way, ala Nixon in China, than would a McCain Presidency.  We’ll have to see.

Yes, indeed, we’ll have to see.  But the odds are getting better.  Hallelujah.

I continue to be concerned about the apparent ascendancy of liberals on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House.  So readers are clear, my concern with liberal ascendancy is not ideological.  It is solely practical.  I am concerned with the consequences of “liberal” policies on both the ability of Obama to succeed as President–something the country desperately needs him to do–and on the country and its economic well-being.  I will address this latter point in more detail below.  In the meantime, I observe that the Nancy Pelosi wing in the U.S. House is gaining strength and the moderates continue to be marginalized.  This is not good news.  But of good news is that the president-elect is apparently putting together a pretty good team of people.  There is hope!  An excellent perspective on this is offered by David Brooks in his column today in the New York Times.  It’s entitled The Insider’s Crusade.  Brooks points out that by and large the team that’s being assembled appears to be largely comprised of insiders (a good thing according to Brooks) and admired professionals who are open-minded, not excessively partisan and not ideological.  He also adds that many on the team come armed with “practical creativity.”  So, all things being considered, from an appointments standpoint the president-elect is putting together a pretty good team that is not particularly “liberal”.  Read the David Brooks article.  It’s a good one.

In the “for what it’s worth” department, one of the appointments referenced by Brooks in his article is Phil Schiliro, chief of staff of the U.S. House Government Operations Committee.  His boss at the committee was none other than uber-liberal Henry Waxman.  More on Mr. Schiliro can be found in this Washington Post Story.  Here’s an excerpt:

He is a ruthless partisan,” said Mark Corallo, a Republican strategist who faced off against Schiliro as a top aide on the government reform panel when the GOP controlled the House. “He is the kind of guy who’s going to fight tooth and nail for his side, but he’s not going to be odious and disagreeable and hateful.”

He’s not likely to lose, either.

I am particularly interested in seeing who the president-elect selects to lead the Departments of Energy and Interior and the Environmental Protection Administration.  With energy, and its economic ramifications, looming as such a gigantic issue on the horizon, I’d also like to see the appointment of an energy and environmental czar who would have the mandate and portfolio to coordinate development and execution of rational national energy/environment/economic strategy.   All of these appointments need to be persons who have a rational knowledge of the energy industry and understand the critical linkage between energy, the environment and our economy.  An energy/environment policy that doesn’t fully factor in the economic consequences of policy decisions will be a shortsighted policy indeed.  This makes it all the more critical than the appointments to all of these positions be people who can stand up to the special interests on the left whose energy and environment worldview has historically been deeply under-informed.   

America is reaping the economic benefits of low energy prices right now.  The crisis seems behind us.  It isn’t.  While we can be thankful from an economic standpoint that energy prices have fallen (imagine what the economy would be doing if energy prices were still at the late summer peaks) we must be prepared for the inevitable spike in prices that are coming, particularly in natural gas.  From my meeting in Santa Fe this week I got the clear picture, listening to energy industry leaders, that the low prices are resulting in significantly lower expenditures on drilling.  Lower expenditures on drilling means, necessarily, less supply down the road and this means that we will once again, soon, be facing much higher natural gas prices (about 18 months – just in time for the 2010 elections).  This supply crisis will be exacerbated by an energy/environmental policy that further restricts access to public lands and makes it more difficult and expensive to produce this country’s energy resources.  (This includes removing incentives for oil and gas companies or taxing them more.  Too many people fail to comprehend that the reason for incentives and tax breaks is not to “help” the companies but to incentivize behavior on the part of these companies that benefits the country.)  Let’s hope that President Obama realizes this linkage between the economy and energy/environmental policy as he makes additional appointments to his leadership team and otherwise crafts energy policy.  The country can’t afford otherwise.  

There was an article in the Washington Post today indicating that Henry Waxman of California (Beverly Hills and other liberal environs) was gaining ground in his quest to become Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  It’s entitled Waxman Backed to be Energy Chairman.  It is, as of this morning, official.  Henry Waxman will be the next Chairman of the Committee.

I’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now in this column about the need for President Obama and the Democrats to stay in the relative center of the spectrum if they want a successful Obama presidency.  This move today makes that, in my opinion, much less likely.  This country needs a “do-it-all” energy strategy that garners the support of Republican and Democrat alike.  Henry Waxman as Chairman of this most powerful committee does not bode well for that end.  Quoting Congress Daily in a “Breaking News” story this morning, “it signals the rise of California liberals.”

Having said that, I wish him well.  I will diligently support all efforts by the chairman and the committee to pursue rational energy policy initiatives.  May I be completely wrong about Mr. Waxman and may the country succeed in attaining the energy security it so desperately needs.  

As for Mr. Dingell, I heard or read in the last couple of days that Mr. Dingell always gets even.  It may be weeks, months or years but he will get even.  I wish Mr. Waxman and Speaker Pelosi the best of luck. 

The Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post today gives a good account of the visit yesterday by the leaders of the Big Three automakers to Washington.  Flying in on corporate jets was a terrible idea.  A federal bailout as they envision it is a terrible idea.  The piece is entitled Auto Execs Fly Corporate Jets to D.C., Tin Cups in Hand

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