Thursday, October 14, 2010

A new number one

In this PBS "Need to Know" podcast, my fellow rustbelt intellectual, Rick Karr, explores the reasoning behind Washington Monthly's university rankings and the meaning of American meritocracy.

The Washington Monthly approach rewards universities that give a lot back to the taxpayer, and are a sharp contrast to the US News and World Report rankings which focus on selectivity, SAT scores, and perceptions of prestige. Whereas the US News ranking typically puts Harvard University at #1, the Washington Monthly ranking finds that University of California-San Diego is the best university in America. Rick talks to Washington Monthly's Paul Glastris, and then talks to me about some of the differences between the 2 number 1s: Harvard (where I received my PhD) and UC-San Diego (where I now teach).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Too Little, Too Late?

Today's Times has a front-page story about attack ads now, finally being launched by Democratic Congressional candidates. It seems that these campaigns have finally recognized that many of the Republicans running against them are sleazy, corrupt, tools of big business, or out 'n out lunatics.

The question, of course, is whether it is too late to alter the dynamics of these races. Had they been run right after Labor Day, perhaps; in the last week of September, I dunno.

At the risk of stating what is so obvious it is cliche, the issue now is voter turnout. There is no question who the angry motivated voters are: they are the roughly 30% of Americans who are, in their own way, fascists. I don't use that term glibbly - we ought to be forthright that a sizable portion of the tea baggers, the Palinites, the Bachmann-ites, were they a political movement in a European country, would be described as "far-right" "ultra-nationalist" and "neo-fascist." Like the National Front in the UK or the Le Pen movement in France. In this country, however, we call them a major and respectable political party.

So will these ads wake up the rest of us and get us out to the polls? It is too late to change minds, I suspect, but it isn't too late to turn out voters.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Choose Your Narrative

For six or more months now the political story line playing in the media has been the crumbling of the Democratic party and the newly resurgent and confident conservatives, embodied by the Tea Partiers. We've all accepted this story more or less and as a consequence in the run-up to the midterm elections the question being debated is only whether the Democrats will suffer a defeat like they did in 1994 or will it be worse?

There has been another version of events out there, needless to say, and only in the week or so has it started to appear in the mainstream. Rather than witnessing a conservative revival, we are actually watching the implosion of the Republican party as it eats its own young.

The recent Republican primaries in New York and Delaware were the events that put this narrative on the media radar screen, but the story has been out there ever since Rand Paul won his Republican primary in Kentucky, and Earl Grey Aficionado Angle won in Nevada. While all politics is indeed local, taken together this Republican primary season demonstrates that the party has been hijacked not simply by its very right wing - which is true - but by its genuinely lunatic fringe.

As a result, the Republican mayor of Reno, Nevada has announced that he will be supported Harry Reid; Charlie Crist is running as an Independent for Senate in Florida and has a good chance of winning; the right-wing vote for governor in Colorado is deeply divided now that former Congressman Tom Tancredo - a nut of the highest order - is running on the American Constitution Party ticket; and most recently Lisa Murkowski has announced her write-in campaign for Senate in Alaska, after she lost to a right-wing Tea Bagger in the primary.

All of which is good news for Democrats - or it ought to be. What confuses me is why Democrats seem so beaten and dispirited right now. And, more to the point, why the predictions are that they won't turn out to vote. President Obama has scored more major legislative victories in his first 18 months than all but a handful of presidents and we have our tails between our legs.

Republicans will always have the advantage of money, and of a party discipline that Leonid Brezhnev would have envied. But the opportunities right now not simply to retain control of the House and the Senate, and to strangle the Tea Party in its crib strike me as quite good.

So c'mon folks - the only way to ensure that my second narrative, the story of GOP self-destruction, prevails is we all energize and turn out the vote to repudiate the Tea Party.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tea Drinking and the Ironies of History

Whatever else the tea drinkers who assembled in Washington on August 28 might have accomplished, they did manage to turn the National Mall into an irony-free zone, at least for an afternoon.

They certainly seemed oblivious to the obvious ironies of the day. Like the fact that even as the tea party movement was portraying itself as a “grassroots” upwelling from the people, the New York Times and the New Yorker were running big stories about the right-wing billionaires who are funding the whole show. I’d like to get me some of that “populism.”

Nor did they seem fazed that featured speaker Glenn Beck - former shock-jock, now Messiah Complex victim - was exhorting the nation to return to “traditional values.” Beck has made his career playing so fast and loose with the facts that he no longer knows when he is lying and when he’s not. This is the guy, after all, who lied to the ladies on “The View.” How low can you sink?!

Many people got upset that the event took place on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at the same location where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” You could see that this would make some people touchy since the tea partiers want to re-open debates most of us thought were settled long ago, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 14th amendment, which was passed in 1868. Ironic for sure.

Personally, I got the biggest giggle being lectured at by Sarah Palin about “character.” When the going got tough up there in Alaska, not only did Governor Palin quit her job in order to cash out, but she gave one of the most memorably bizarre speeches ever delivered by an American politician who wasn’t drunk. A model for any of us facing tough times.

The biggest irony of the day, however, came from Abe Lincoln, whose memorial was appropriated for this tea party.

Lincoln, if memory serves, was the president who prosecuted the Civil War against the southern confederacy. He fought the war for two reasons: first, to preserve the Union; second, to end slavery in the United States. When he promised, in the Gettysburg Address, a “new birth of freedom” he wasn’t talking about the freedom of the wealthy to get richer, which is what the tea drinkers seem to have in mind, but about removing the stain of slavery from the fabric of the nation.

In order to achieve those goals Lincoln engineered the largest expansion of the Federal government and of Federal power to that point in our history. He instituted the nation’s first military draft; he suspended habeas corpus rights. Most importantly, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was viewed by slave owners as an outrageous infringement of private property rights. Abe Lincoln was arguably the first “big government” president.

He did all this over the yapping objections of those who insisted on “states rights” because he knew that only through the actions of the Federal government would the institution of slavery be crushed and freedom granted to roughly 4 million enslaved Southerners.

Had Lincoln left the question of slavery to the Southern states, how much longer would that human tragedy have endured? Hard to say, but the Confederate Constitution, the legal framework for the nation Southerners fought to establish is pretty clear about this. It reads: “no law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

And yet there they were, thousands of tea drinkers standing in front of Lincoln talking about the evils of the Federal government and the need to return to states rights. All with straight faces. Martin Luther King might have been spinning in his grave, but I think I saw Abraham Lincoln roll his marble eyes in disgust during those speeches.

So the next time you want to have a little fun, ask one of these Earl Grey aficionados about Abe “Big Government” Lincoln. Ask them which side was right during the Civil War. And since the “states rights” position was on the wrong side of history about slavery, and about segregation, ask them why they think they think they’re on the right side now? You’re liable to get some rambling, semi-coherent answer that will be positively Palin-esque.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baghdad Goodbye

Today the last American combat troops left Iraq, nearly 7.5 years after Bush/Cheney launched this military fiasco. There is no measure of this war that makes anything other than an unalloyed disaster with few parallels in American history - not the number of deaths and injuries, the $2 trillion spent on it, nor the way it has weakened the American position in the region and the world.

The Obama Administration deserves - and will surely not get - a great deal of credit for fulfilling this campaign promise. After all, even as Obama may be sinking us deeper in Afghani quicksand, he resisted calls to abandon his original timeline in Iraq.

Violence has subsided in Iraq and a measure of stability has returned, but in fact the country remains a basket case and will be that way for some time. The troop escalation - the so-called "surge" - led by Gen. David Petreaus (to whom George Bush more or less abdicated his role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in 2007) deserves some credit for this.

But the surge was always intended to create enough safe space for the Iraqis to come up with a long-term political resolution to the civil war of 2004-07. That, clearly, has not yet happened. Politics has ground to a halt in Iraq months now after the elections. There is still no real government now in Baghdad, and none on the horizon.

Some while ago I suggested the right analogy for the Iraq war was not Vietnam, but Cambodia. There, after the United States contributed to the destablization of the country, the country descended into a fratricidal, genocidal civil war, brought to an end - ironies of ironies - when the Vietnamese invaded and restored some order.

American combat troops are not necessary for whatever may happen in Iraq going forward and it is long past time for them to come home. Let's hope Obama is demonstrates similar resolution with his timetable to get American troops out of Afghanistan.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Xenophobia I Can Believe In

Not too long ago I attempt a little piece of research. I wanted to know how many military bases the United States maintained overseas. Answer?


Suffice it to say that the number runs well into the many dozens if not several hundreds. They range from the venerable and infamous, like Guantanamo Bay, to the much more recent and volatile, like the staging areas in several of the 'Stans that the military has used for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the bulk are left over from the Cold War when the United States established this global military presence to counter the Soviet threat.

Last time I checked, however, the Cold War is over. In fact, the college students I now teach were all born after the end of the Cold War. For them it might as well be ancient history, like the Victorians, or the War of 1812. And yet we remain saddled with this Cold War military infrastructure. Tens of thousands of soldiers in places all over the world, costing us hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The bloated Pentagon budget has been the budgetary elephant in the room as Congress frets about deficits, debt and spending cuts. Nor is that obese budget liable to be put on a serious diet, given how geographically spread out military spending is, and how important it is to the economy of the those red states whose politicians complain loudest about government spending.

Yet surely the vast number of overseas installations is an easy place to start the slashing. What possible justification can there be, after all, for keeping 65,000 troops in Germany?! Or even in South Korea, whose own military is now one of the most advanced in the world?

Surely there must be a way to tap into the nativism and xenophobia currently abroad in the land and turn it toward a movement to bring our troops home from these far flung places. Americans are famously suspicious of foreign places and we don't like foreigners. So can't we put those forces to work for good instead of evil and use it to shrink the American military presence around the world?

PS. After I wrote this little essay I picked up the NY Times Magazine and found Deborah Solomon's interview with Barney Frank. It seems that he and Ron Paul have found some common ground on this very issue!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Still Biden His Time

Almost exactly two years ago (??!!) I wrote a piece here complaining about Barack Obama's decision to make Senator Joe Biden his running mate. I argued that it was a safe, reassuring choice rather than one that carried any real political juice. A senior, well-respected senator; strong on foreign policy issues; no wacky skeletons in his closet., bringing with him ALL of Delaware's electoral votes.

Two years later, and 18 months into the Obama Administration, I want to reiterate my complaints. Biden may well provide the President with all sorts of useful advice on all sorts of matters. Indeed, from what I have read, his may be the sanest voice on Afghanistan, insisting that our best strategy is to neutralize Al Qaeda and, more or less, leave.

He has also served the useful function of being the butt of the jokes made by late-night TV hosts against the administration. People in the mainstream may still be a tad nervous about laughing at the President, but Biden provides as least one punch-line a week.

But for a long time now the office of Vice President has required another task as well: attack dog for the President. Spiro Agnew may have set the mold; Dick Cheney raised it to an apotheosis. Biden has avoided it.

The President is not supposed to engage in partisan bickering, nor is he supposed to score cheap political points. He is supposed to remain above the fray - at least publicly. The Vice President is supposed to be out there flogging the political opposition, rallying the base, and getting angry at all the things which demand anger. Biden hasn't done those things.

So for all of us who are baffled at the way the administration has allowed the message to spun by the rabid right-wing without offering any significant defense (to say nothing of an attack to put the Republican party on the defensive) I remind you: that isn't the President's job (and given all we know about this President, it simply isn't in his temperment). It's the job of the VP.

And Biden isn't rising to the challenge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Immigration reform: Start with small steps

Another player has entered the immigration battle as the Justice Department sues Arizona over its new immigration law. And the reason the fight is centered in Arizona is that reform has failed in Washington.

Like the characters in "Hot Tub Time Machine," reformers are stuck in 1986. That's when Congress passed, and President Reagan signed into law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which married border control and the legalization of millions of illegal immigrants.

Reformers today are misguided to seek a similar "grand bargain" on immigration. History shows 1986 was an anomaly, and the desire to get everything for a controversial group typically gets nothing. But there's hope: A few in the movement have begun to see that getting meaningful action will require small steps and "mini-bargains."...

To read the rest of this post (written before today's big court decision), please click here:

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Executioner's (Happy) Song

It's one of the thorniest aspects of the capital punishment issue. And yet we rarely talk about it, hiding our heads in shame, hoping it will go away.

I'm not talking about the legal niceties here, not about what might or might not be cruel and unusual. Ethics schmethics. I'm talking about the "image problem" state-sanctioned killing causes. We all have to be conscious of our image in this Facebook-saturated, twittering society, and governments who kill people are no different. They worry about their image too.

Take, for example, the problem one Ronnie Lee Gardner has caused the good folks in Utah. Gardner was sentenced to death in Utah in 1985. Back then, death-row prisoners got to choose the method of their own execution (hey, it was a more permissive time) and Ronnie Lee chose the old-fashioned firing squad. Fast forward 25 years, and now Utahans (Utah-ites?) don't want to load up the 30-30s "because of the media attention and bad image" they feel firing squads bring to their state. (Quoted NY Times, 4/24) They would prefer that he be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of chemicals. (The NRA, which funds much of Utah politics, has objected strenuously to "this blatent assault on the 2nd ammendment." "Guns are how we've always killed people," an NRA spokeman said, "Not just in Utah, but in every damn state in the nation. Shooting people with guns is one of our most deeply cherished American traditions.")

Or look at the problem the Saudis are now confronting. The Saudis want to kill Ali Hussain Sibat because he was convicted of "sorcery" for, among other things, predicting the future. (Presumably, not his own, or not very successfully). Being a less enlightened society than Utah, Saudi Arabia prefers to execute people by chopping their heads off with a long, curved sword. But you see the problem: doing so would make Saudi Arabia look like the sort of country that would, well, chop off someone's head with a long, curved sword. How is the Riyadh Tourist and Convention Bureau supposed to do market that!? (The SLCSA - Saudi Long Curved Sword Assocation - has objected strenuously to the delay in this execution. "Long curved swords are how we've always killed people," an SLCSA spokeman said, "Chopping off heads with long curved swords is as Saudi as stoning women for adultery.")

So I say to Utah: shoot Ronnie Lee and do so proudly. Don't worry that this public execution might become a public spectacle. It won't harm your state's image one whit. In fact, why not use it as the basis of a PR campaign: "Utah - XXX days since a botched execution. We're much better than Ohio!" or "Utah: We'll shoot you if you if you ask real nice!"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who Speaks for the Banks??!!

What do you see when you look at Mitch McConnell?

I know. You see a shriveled old white guy, the sort of guy whose sagging face screams "restricted country club!" You see a face - nay, a person - of the sort that Grant Wood used to paint. Kentucky Gothic.

But I'll tell you what I see as I look into those doleful eyes. I see vulnerability. I see pathos. I see loneliness. I see the Lorax, with a southern drawl.

You remember the Lorax, right? The Dr. Seuss book? He was the fuzzy little creature who tried all by himself to defend the forest against the ravages of industry. He famously took his solitary and courageous stand: "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you sir, at the top of my lungs - that thing! That horrible thing that I see! What's that thing you've made out of my truffula tree?"

That's Mitch McConnell. Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on the loneliest cause of righteousness in our country today: Defending Ginormo Wall Street Banks from any sort of reform.

Sure, it's easy to pick on the banks and the bankers. It's easy to blame them for, well, everything they screwed up for the rest of us. Fish in a barrel easy. And all this anger about how we had to bail them out? Well, that has really brought out our uncharitable side, hasn't it. They needed our help - when your neighbor comes over for a cup of sugar, you don't hold it against them for the rest of eternity, do you? Are you proud of yourself for all that anger?

Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell is defending the banks as a way of appealing to the better angels of our nature, and progressive people ought to applaud his lonely work. After all, he is the Senate Minority Leader, and aren't we progressives always trying to champion the interests of minorities? Likewise, The Louisville Lorax is simply trying to protect this tiny number of bankers from the bullying of a great mob. There are so many of us, and so few of them - they need someone to stick up for them, and Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on that job.

So the next time you see The Louisville Lorax on TV, or hear him deliver his talking points in that weird way where he repeats everything he says three times but doesn't actually say anything, or at least anything that Frank Luntz didn't write for him because that's all he really knows how to read, don't get angry. Repeat after me:

"I speak for the banks, for the banks have no tongues (Note: strictly speaking they have dozens and dozens of high-paid lobbyists who function as their tongues). And I'm asking you Sir (presumably here President Obama, who Mitch would never call "sir" but probably "boy") at the top of my lungs - that reform. That horrible reform that I see. What's that reform you've made out of my truffala tree?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Civil War - Now 100% Slavery-Free!

Let me start by saying that I wrote the last essay before I learned that the Republican Governor of Virginia had declared a "Confederate History Month" purged of any mention of slavery. I confess as well that as a history professor - you know, a PhD in history, lots of courses in history, lots of courses I've taught, yadda yadda - I always thought the the Civil War was really fought over the issue of slavery. So I thank the Honorable Governor for setting me straight on this.

But it got me to thinking. If I've so completely misunderstood the Civil War, then perhaps I've misunderstood lots of other things about Southern history too. And if its time to celebrate the Confederacy, then why not party over those other things as well. Why stop at Confederate History Month in Virginia?! Here are some ideas for other celebrations we should mark throughout the calendar:

Segregation Appreciation Days! - Let's take a week and turn back the clock, back past 1954 (Brown v. Board) all the way back to 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson). For this week, let's bring back the rich traditions of segregation to the South. You know, like separate water fountains. Denny's Restaurants could refuse to serve black patrons and NOT have to worry about being sued. Because after all, segregation was really about "states' rights" - not about keeping negroes in their place.

Plantation Days! - Not too many people in the South actually own plantations any more, but we can update those good old days can't we? The plantations may be gone, but lots of white folks in the South have lawns right? And those lawns are often cared for by landscaping companies that employ Mexicans. So during Plantation Days, just don't pay them. Threaten to call the immigration authorities if they make a stink about it. They'll get back to mulching right quick I reckon. I'm thinking sometime in the spring when the magnolias are blooming for this.

Gov. Orval Faubus Week! - During the first week of the new school year let's honor the great states' rights champion, Arkansas' own Orval Faubus, by standing in the doorway of our local schools and refusing entrance to any non-white kids. Especially the Asians, who work harder than our kids and are getting better grades and going to better colleges. I hate that.

Secession Summertime! - All that talk by Gov. Rick Perry and others about seceding from the Union is just hot air. Southern states don't want to leave America - they can't afford it. Not with the balance of payments being what they are. Geez, if the South really did try to form its own country (again), its social statistics would resemble Nicaragua's, only without the charm and with much worse food. But during Secession Summertime all those Yankee tourists could be treated like foreign visitors, forced to show ID papers or passports, shaken down for cash at the border. That sort of thing. Who knows? maybe that would raise enough money to ease that balance of payments.

The Klan Kat Walk! - Let's face it: One of the reasons the Klan has dwindled of late is the fashion. Very few of us look all that good in nothing but white, the cuts on the robes and hoods aren't flattering and it's really tough to get the barbeque stains out. Why not put a little hipster edge into the ol' KKK by sponsoring some Klan fashion shows? See what creative variations on the old standard can be. Could be a way to promote young, up-and-coming designers, maybe raise a little money for the local John Birch Society. Just because you're going to a cross burning doesn't mean you have to look frumpy.

The Holiday Book Burning! - The Republican majority on the Texas State Board of Education pointed us in the right direction with their recent decision to re-write American history to make it more, well, Republican. So let's close out the year by having big book burnings around the South to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Preferably near one of those 10 commandments monuments. What a spectacular way to honor the baby Jesus, watching all those books about slavery, reconstruction, segregation and lynching go up in flames. Jesus doesn't want us to read those books, he wants us to handle snakes and watch preachers on the TV. Who doesn't love an old-fashioned book burning?

It's time to stop being ashamed of all that history. Embrace it, hold it, cherish it, and in so doing, make it up, ignore it and lie about it. After all, if the Confederacy had won the war, we'd all be a lot whiter, wouldn't we?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The General Vanishes?

Poor Ulysses S. Grant.

Saving the Union by defeating the Confederate army and being elected twice to the Presidency is no longer good enough to secure a place for posterity. Republicans, led by Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, want to take the portrait of Grant off the $50 bill and replace it with one of Ronald Reagan. I had forgotten that Grant graces the $50, but Republicans handle a lot more those bills than I do, and apparently they want to see Reagan’s face every time they slap one down at a West Hollywood club.

No disrespect to General and President Grant, these Republicans insist, just time to honor Reagan. Again. And they’re right, at one level. This isn’t really about Grant or his bearded face. It is part of a much larger Republican project of re-writing the history of their own party to expunge it of anything that doesn’t conform to their current, hard-Right agenda.

Sixteen Republican presidents have occupied the Oval Office since the first, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860. Now, like the relatives nobody wants at Thanksgiving, Republicans don’t want much to do with most of them any more. Of course, some of them we would all like to forget – like the disgraced Richard Nixon, and “Uncle Warren” Harding, and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But when was the last time you heard some Republican politician singing the praises of Dwight Eisenhower or even Teddy Roosevelt?

They don’t want to acknowledge that Eisenhower was perfectly content with most of FDR’s New Deal, or that Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of environmental conservation. They certainly don’t want to be reminded that Richard Nixon tried to create a national health care system.

No, the current Republican Party wants to forget about its own past so it can trace its origins exactly as far back as Ronald Reagan. And over the last twenty years the Party has, in an almost Vatican-like fashion, mounted a campaign to have Reagan canonized as St. Ronald. The Party regards his presidency as nothing short of immaculate and miraculous. During a 2007 debate, Republican presidential candidates brought up Reagan nineteen different times when answering questions; George W. Bush, the sitting Republican president at the time, came up exactly once.

Still, this current effort to replace Grant with Reagan on the fifty seems particularly perverse and particularly telling. As Lincoln’s general, Grant took what was a faltering Union military effort and turned it around. His campaign was as grim as it was inexorable, and he was determined that the Union army would triumph over the rebellious Confederacy. It does not exaggerate too much to say that without Grant there very well might not be a United States of America.

In the current political climate, however, this is the history that the Republican party wants to repudiate. Tea partiers fulminating about “state’s rights” and Republican politicians, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who talk casually these days about seceding from the Union, aren’t sure that the right side won the Civil War and certainly don’t want any part of Grant’s legacy.

Likewise, this effort to dump Grant off the fifty represents a symbolic piece of the Republican Party’s “southern strategy,” using race as a wedge issue to attract white voters.

As late as the 1930s Republicans campaigned proudly on their history as the party that ended slavery. In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s Justice Department helped move the civil rights agenda ahead.

Then the Republican Party decided to turn its back on racial progress and cast its future with the bigots and Confederate flag-wavers. Nixon was the first Republican to capitalize on the southern strategy, but not the last. Reagan sneered at the “welfare queen” though it turned out she was fictitious; George Bush I used Willie Horton to strike terror in the hearts of white voters. And so it has gone.

The lily-white Republican party of 2010 wants nothing to do with the man who defeated the Confederacy, and who, as President, oversaw efforts to “reconstruct” a more equitable South.

During the Cold War, experts who watched the Kremlin used to study photographs of official Soviet events to see which Communist Party members were visible and which had been “erased” because they had fallen out of favor. (I've stolen the title of this post from a terrifically fun book about this phenomenon called "The Commissar Vanishes.") Not content to submit its current members and candidates to ideological purity tests it has decided that the past too must be purged of all but the true believers.

I wonder if poor Ulysses S. Grant would really want to be a member of party that no longer wants him as a member.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feeling Better Already

Joe Biden was right the other day. The Health Bill is a big f!@#$ deal.

It is far from perfect and the process of getting it passed confirmed all your worst instincts about the American political system. But it did pass, and as a consequence the lives of real people - lots of them - will be made better. It may be early to say such things, but nonetheless: thisbill may well rank along with Social Security and Medicare as the most significant piece of social legislation in the nation's history. We have become so accustomed to the over-use of the word "historic" by an adjectivally-challenged media that we not quite recognize real "historic" when we see it. But this is the genuine article.

It is a victory and should be celebrated as such. Go ahead: cheer, fist-bump, pop a cork. As they say in sports, a win is a win.

And as with all victories, there must be losers and so let me introduce you to Team GOP - nickname "The Bund" - who threw everything they had, no matter how vile, foul, or dishonest at this bill and came up short.

Team GOP refuses to accept that they have lost (in fact, many who live in their particular flat earth refuse to admit they lost the election of 2008) and so they have simply doubled-down on their opposition, vowing to repeal the bill, or vowing to stall it forever in the Senate, or vowing to block it in the courts etc etc.

This is a losing strategy for Team GOP, though probably not for the individual members who come from safe districts and retrograde states. But the spectacle of Tea Partiers defending their Constitutional freedom to spit on Congressmen while some of the Bundies cheered them on may prove one of those "have you no decency?" moments. The polls are already showing increased support for health care package now that its specifics are being rolled out for people. Come the fall elections, Team GOP will campaign on the opposition to kids with chronic diseases and tax credits for small businesses. Doesn't sound like a winner to me.

Unless, of course, they stake their next "Waterloo" moment on defeat the banking reforms. Then they can campaign on their defense of un-regulated plutocratic bankers. That should go over well.

So Obama just won the policy battle and the political battle. Feeling better?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Take a Deep Breath

The Obama Presidency has failed.

14 months into it, that's the only conclusion you would draw based on the way the press has reported it. And I'm not talking about the vast right-wing noise apparatus. Listen to NPR or pick up any issue of the NY Times, and that's what they're reporting. The latest exhibit in this litany of doomsaying is yesterday's (Sunday) Times Magazine whose cover story is about the failure of Rahm Emmanuel to get anything done. (The Times, for its part, still cowers in fear from being slapped around by Dick Cheney for 8 years. I think they've changed their famous motto on the banner to read: "All the news we're not scared to print." )

But even given the cravenness of the mainstream press, someone ought to mention that this story line of failure and inaction is simply wrong. Obama passed an enormous stimulus bill, whose effects are now beginning to be felt (out here in Ohio we may even get passenger rail service because of it!); he has in fact ramped down the war in Iraq even as he has ramped up the war in Afghanistan, both exactly what he campaigned to do; he has signed a number of important Executive Orders which would have gotten my attention if not for the other larger issues. (I'll mention only that he did away with Bush Administration restrictions on stem cell research).

How soon we forget! And now there is serious movement on a financial reform bill, a real chance of fundamental change in the student loan system (those of us involved in higher ed ought to be cheering loudly about this one), and last week Obama launched an effort to re-write No Child Left Behind, which comes up for re-authorization this spring.

Oh yeah, and health insurance reform. Obama is right that we have never been as close as we are right now to getting a health insurance reform bill - never.

There are plenty of reasons to complain about the particulars of any of these. I certainly don't think the financial reform bill, as it currently stands, goes far enough, nor do I have any enthusiasm for the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But a year into this administration and the economic arrows are starting, tentatively to point in the right direction and even the Pakistanis are now arresting terrorists.

Failure and inaction?

And while we're at it, let's put this in some historical context: no American president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, inherited as many messes as Obama has. The economy may well have been worse in 1933 when FDR took office, but he had few foreign policy issues to worry about (he didn't pay much attention to Europe for several years), much less two bungled and mis-managed wars; Vietnam was certainly a larger mess than Iraq in 1968 but the economy was still humming when Nixon took office. While we're at, for another point of comparison, George Bush II inherited a balanced budget, a budget surplus and a nation at peace. Heckuva job Georgie.

And remember too that when Abraham Lincoln took office the entire Southern congressional delegation left - Obama has accomplished what he has in the face of the most vicious, partisan and obstructionist opposition in American history.

The Times may well be hopelessly craven, but why are the rest of walking around with such a feeling of dread, convinced that a collection of aging white tea-partiers and Palin-ites will take over Washington in November? Let's all take a deep breath, realize how far we've come in the past year, and put the gloves back on. We should all be relishing the opportunity to take on the Party of No and hold them accountable for holding the nation back.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The God That Failed

When I was growing up, one of the feeble responses made by those who still clung to the hope that communism might still triumph as a system of political economy, in the face of all the evidence that it wouldn't, was to insist that it hadn't really been tried. That in the Soviet Union and in China (and in North Korea and Cambodia too I suppose) the real utopian dreams of communism had been perverted into the dystopian nightmares of the Gulag and the Cultural Revolution.

Those late-night dorm-room debates came back to me yesterday as I listened to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (and to every other Republican who said anything) at the health care summit at Blair House. There they sat telling us the free market would really work, it really would fix the disaster that is our health insurance system. Really. See, the free market in health insurance hasn't really been tried, just like communism in China. There they sat, praying to the god that has failed so abjectly and insisting that the rest of us do the same.

These are free- market fundamentalists, after all, and like true-believers of any sort to acknowledge that something might be wrong with their world-view would be to have the whole edifice come crumbling down. And just like Mao's apologists a generation ago, these people will never permit reality to intrude on that world-view.

The fact that we already have a market (and profit) driven health insurance system and the fact that it has failed is beside the point. Since the free market must always generate the best outcome, the state of our health insurance system must be our fault, not the fault of the models that get generated by free market fundamentalist economists.

President Obama deserves credit for taking what looked like a piece of pure political theater and attempting to turn into something more substantive. And it certainly did make clear that the substance of the Republican position is to obstruct, to object, to critique and to put nothing of substance on the table.

So yesterday's event has left us exactly where we have been for some time. Bi-partisan compromise on health insurance reform was never a live option. Two questions remain. First, will Democrats, who enjoy bigger majorities than George Bush ever did in both houses, straighten up and fly right on this issue? And second, will the White House turn the health insurance issue to its political advantage as the November elections approach. At the moment, I don't feel good about either of those things.