Saturday, November 29, 2008

Changing the Cabinetry

Fifteen or so years ago, as a new Russia emerged for the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, the American news media used to report of this or that Russian political figure that he "was a former Communist." It was always delivered ominously, in somber tones meant to chill, and to suggest that really the old evil empire crowd had not gone away.

Of course, most in the media failed to recognize or acknowledge that running a country the size and complexity of Russia requires people with some level of experience. In the early 1990s the only people in Russia with that experience were, ipso facto, former Communists. In fact, virtually everyone, except those in the gulag, was a former Communist.

I've been remembering that episode of obtuseness as I've listened to certain of the chatter that has greeted President Obama's (and let's just call him president shall we? He is certainly carrying out the job with more energy than the guy still eating dinner in the White House) cabinet picks: Wait! These people have connections to the Clinton Administration! Obama is abandoning his promise of change because he's bringing to the White House people who already know their way around!

The charge is absurd on its face, and plenty of people have pointed that out. Americans may say they want people "outside the Beltway" but those people tend not to be very effective once they get to DC. Jimmy Carter was elected because a nation hung-over from Watergate wanted someone with no Washington connections. Carter didn't do so well translating that outsider status into effective governing.

But rather than rehearse the obvious need for experienced people, especially at a moment of crisis, let me offer another way to measure change: Compare these nominations with George Bush's eight years ago.

Bush's top picks revealed the extent to which we were all trapped inside the Bush Family Dysfunctional Thanksgiving Dinner. Colin Powell and Condi Rice were selected precisely because of their connections to dad and were designed to bring back dad's friends to the White House. The picks which proved most consequential - Rumsfeld and Cheney - took us even further back, all the way to the Ford Administration, where Cheney helped kill Ford's energy plan among other things.

But perhaps the nomination which best demonstrated just how inept this administration would prove to be was John Ashcroft. You will recall that Ashcroft got the job of running the Justice Department because he lost his Senate seat in the 2000 election. To a dead man. The reward for failing to beat the deceased Mel Carnahan was the job of Attorney General. It was the first example of what became all too common: for Bush, our MBA president, no failure is so great that it doesn't deserve a promotion. (And at the very end of his administration he continues to operate in exactly the same way, giving bailout money to the bank executives who got us in this mess in the first place).

Ashcroft's nomination told us all we needed to know about the coming administration - its contempt for brains, for integrity, for competence, its true-believing zealotry. By comparison, Obama's selections represent an dramatic and welcome change indeed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gates Keeper?

As Barack Obama's cabinet has been shaping up, rumors circulate that he may keep current Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his position. More than anything else, Obama has demonstrated a desire to have smart, competent and pragamatic people around him and Gates may be all those things. Many in the media and in Congress have given him high marks for his work at the Pentagon, though honestly, after Donald Rumsfeld a crash-test dummy would have been an improvement.

Keeping Gates in the job would also allow Obama to make real his promise to put aside partisanship in favor of effectiveness, demonstrating to Republicans his willingness to bring them into his process of governing. (Caution here: Bill Clinton made a similar gesture when he made Republican William Cohen Secretary of Defense. That certainly didn't curb the rabid, drooling Republicans on Capitol Hill any.)

What troubles me about keeping Gates on in his current job, however, is precisely this: by keeping a Republican holdover in the Pentagon, Obama would tacitly concede the assertion that Republicans are "stronger" on national security and defense issues. This was the one issue area where McShame held any advantage in most polling. It remains the most stubborn myth of the Republican Party.

In fact, of course, by any and all measures we have, the Bush/McShame foreign and military policy has been a disaster for American security and our global position. We didn't get a chance to talk about this much during the fall campaign, because national security issues - and the war in Iraq - disappeared from discussion, were understandably buried under the collapsing economy.

Just as it is clear that a 21st century Democratic New Deal must come to the rescue of an economy ruined by 30 years of Republican Free Market Fundamentalism, so too we need to have a dramatically new approach to military policy. Robert Gates might well execute such a policy, but Democrats need to take charge of this in order to finally kill the idea that Republicans have kept us safer.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

GM, We Told You So

Most observers agree that the age of Free Market Fundamentalism is now over. With the swirl of events leading up the election, we didn't take the time to pause long enough over Alan Greenspan's Oscar-worthy performance in front of Congress where he did a remarkable imitation of the police lieutenant Louie in Casablanca: He was shocked, SHOCKED that bankers could behave this way.

During the reign of the Fundamentalists, not only were the unregulated markets supposed to solve all our problems - that didn't work out so well actually - but we assumed that the private sector was the source of all wisdom. About everything. The best the benighted public sector might hope for over the last generation was to enter into a "public-private partnership" through which private enterprise would share all its experience, sound judgment and good leadership with the otherwise hapless public realm.

With this in mind, I point out this small irony to GM's Rick Wagoner, and the other auto executives currently shuffling around Washington looking for a bailout handout:

Let's start by giving GM credit for some success. While GM and the others have failed to keep up with the competition from Honda and Toyota in the business of making cars, they have succeeded in lobbying Congress and the Bush administration to keep fuel efficiency standards low. The auto industry couldn't afford that kind of regulation, Congress was told, and Congress has no business telling GM how to run its business anyway.

So now it turns out that no one wants to buy GM's over-sized SUVs and GM doesn't have fuel-efficient alternatives to offer consumers. How 'bout that. Follow this with me. If GM had embraced higher fuel standards, rather than lobby to defeat them, they might have been forced to make better cars? And if they had been forced to make better cars, perhaps they would be better positioned in the current marketplace? And if they had better cars to sell right now, perhaps their financial situation would not be so dire?

I wonder if Rick, hat in hand, now laments those lost opportunities.

The Big 3 may in fact be too big to fail - too many Americans might well suffer if they went out of business. The Big 3 may have to be bailed out in some way. But perhaps we should conclude from this that maybe, just maybe the public has not only the right to regulate the market in ways that advance the common good, but also a wisdom that GM and the others clearly don't. Maybe it is time to recognize that businessmen can learn a few things from the public sector too. Perhaps it is time to say to GM (and AIG, and all the rest): we told you so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faithful Citizens? Papal Politics, 2008

Over the course of its nearly 2000 year history, the Catholic church is certainly no stranger to hypocrisy. To review that litany here would take up far too much space, but I think Daniel Goldhagen, in an essay some years ago in the New York Review of Books, explained the source of that hypocrisy persuasively.

The Catholic church occupies a unique position in the world as both a major religion and a nation-state. In the former role, it offers moral prescriptions - or threats - to adherents; in the latter role, it must move in the world of politics and power.

Dancing between these two roles has enabled the church to defend its hypocrisy in one arena by justifying it in the other. So, for example, when people have asked how Pope Pius XII could have, in good conscience, sat on his hands while jews were deported to the camps during World War II, his defenders have insisted that the Pope had an obligation to protect the institution of the Vatican, which might have been destroyed had the Pope spoken out. When, on the other, many wondered what business some bishops had inserting themselves so aggressively into the 2004 presidential campaign by denouncing John Kerry's pro-choice position, the bishops insisted that they had a moral duty to speak out. And so it has gone, deflecting criticism on one front by retreating to the other.

Which may help explain what the Times reports today. Among those already lining up to attack the Obama administration - along with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and John Boehner - are Catholic bishops. Never mind that the administration is still two months away from moving into office.

The issue, naturally, is abortion, and more immediately the likelihood that President Obama will reverse the Bush ban on stem cell research. (Note: I can't resist pointing out this particular feculant hypocrisy. The bishops believe that to use stems cells in medical research is to destroy a human life. Catholics have always had a testy relationship with scientific research - the Vatican finally repealed its Inquisition ruling against Galileo in 1992! When couples pursue IVF procedures, however, lots of eggs get fertilized and only a few implanted - the rest wind up destroyed. No public call yet from the bishops to close down these "baby-killing" clinics).

In its 2007 voter's guide, "Faithful Citizenship," the church suggests that there are a number of issues, in addition to abortion, that ought shape a good Catholic's vote: poverty, the degraded environment, torture. But abortion trumps them all, and many Catholic bishops instructed their flocks this way.

The Catholic church has become a single-issue operation not, I suspect, because of a moral calculation, but rather because of a political one. The Church in the United States - or at least much of it - has decided to be vocal about abortion because it can make common political cause with conservative Protestants for whom abortion is also the one and true issue. If Church leaders were actually to speak out about the Iraq War, for example, they would risk alienating those Baptists and Pentacostals and Whatever-It-Is-Church that Sarah Palin belongs to.

By fixating on abortion to the exclusion of every other issue of social justice, the American Church made a choice to tether itself to the Republican Party. In so doing, it believed it would have a seat at the table for the Thousand Year Rovian Reich that the Republican Party promised. And now, like the Republican Party, it now finds itself with eggs on its mitre. Catholics voted for Obama by 54%; Hispanic Catholics by an even larger margin.

So the fighting among the Bishops now meeting in Baltimore to plot their attacks on the Obama Administration looks much like the civil war erupting among angry Republicans. Should the Church double-down on its bad bet, threatening even more divine retribution for anyone who supports abortion rights and family planning? Or should it try to soften its position to appeal to alienated parishoners/voters?

Either way, the choice will be a political calculus masquerading as moral certitude.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Buckeye Blue(s)

Ohio was called early on Tuesday night! Most of us assumed we'd be waiting until midnight to figure out just how many ballots the state GOP had stolen. But the race turned out to be less close than some polls predicted - 4 points. A convincing and triumphant performance, and a relief to those of us who have felt like pariahs for the last four years, being personally blamed for the 2004 results.

That all said, a few other things to notice: Buckeyes bucked the national trend and turned out in lower numbers than they did last time. Strange because the weather was stunningly beautiful all across the state and in 2004 it was 48* and rainy all day.

In a post here some weeks ago I suggested that the turn-out key might be not how many Obama voters came out but how many Republicans stayed home. That seems to have been the case. Obama got about as many votes as Kerry did -roughly 2.5 million though this time that amount to 51% of the total. What that also means that McShame's 2.5 million was nearly 350,000 votes less than Bush got.

Obama clearly did well in the urban areas of Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland. Most stunning, he took Hamilton County in the southwest corner of the state. Hamilton includes Cincinnati, but is otherwise deeply conservative. Bush won the county with 52.5%; Obama won it with 52.1%. That may be the most dramatic percentage switch of any county. Likewise, Obama nibbled away at the margins in some rural areas as well. These counties are filled with Pavlov's Republicans - Heinrich Himmler could run as a Republican in these area and be guaranteed about 55%.

Yet, even in this I suspect that Obama ate into these margins largely because Republicans stayed home. Here in Greene County Bush won with 61%; McShame with 58%. That's three points. But Bush got about 45,000 votes here; McShame got 39,000. Kerry got 29,000; Obama 27,000. I haven't looked at too many other counties yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if this pattern repeated itself in several other places. The punch line, I think, is that we have a rare instance when a lower voter turn-out helped the Democrat.

I bring all this up because I think it raises an interesting question about campaign organization. There is no question that Obama built an amazing machine even in these parts of the state. I was a part of it and it was truly inspiring. We also know that Kerry built very little and relied on a slap-dash effort by Move-On. Yet, at least in Greene County Kerry got more votes. I'm not sure what to conclude from this except perhaps to say that Ohio may still be an essentially Republican state, despite the 2006 elections and the triumph of Tuesday night. They just didn't want to vote for McShame.

In other news, the state flipped 2 House seats, which is a major accomplishment given the near-perfect gerrymandering engineered by the GOP in the last round. In a previous post I suggested people watch the OH-7 where I thought Sharen Neuhardt had a chance to win a seat vacated by a long-time Republican incumbent. David Hobson was sent to Washington for 18 years and made absolutely no impression there at all. Neuhardt lost - big - to a Steve Austria who had been term-limited out of the State Senate. He was described by a local paper as never having had an idea that didn't come straight from the GOP headquarters. He is now Congressman Austria. Ah well.

So perhaps the most interesting news of the election here is that the Democrats took control, just barely, of the State House. The districts get re-drawn in 2 years with a Democratic governor and a Democratic House. It's gerrymandering time!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Parents Beware! You May Regret Obama

Much has been made of the youth vote, which turned out in big numbers for Obama. Less has been made of the youth vote of those too young to vote. Like my children.

My 9yr old daughter was the first in our household to get on the Obama bandwagon. Back in February, well before the Ohio primary, she posted a sign on her bedroom door anouncing that no one could enter unless they supported Obama. She was joined shortly - about 15 minutes later - by her younger brother.

This posed problems for their mother since she was still leaning to Hillary. Undecided still, I kept my mouth shut, and my daughter went to sleep every night in Obama Pyjamas provided by her grandparents.

All seemed fine through the summer and fall as all four of us worked hard for Obama. My children turn out to be very effective door-to-door canvassers. I woke my daughter up late last night so she could see Obama's speech, which moved both her parents to tears.

Then this morning I began to see it all going bad. I was greeted by several requests - demands really - involving candy, parties and puppies and each punctuated with "Yes We Can!" I could only counter with: "No you can't!" which really doesn't have the same bumper-sticker resonance.

Parents beware: Obama's election has created empowerment run amok, at least on this domestic front. The rebellion has begun here - it must be squashed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Power of the Conservative Brand, or A Glass Half Empty

It's the day before the election, Obama is still up in the polls,  and he even made a Halloween visit to my hometown (Highland) in the really-red Rust Belt state of Indiana.  (This was big news--the last president or presidential candidate to come to Highland was Calvin Coolidge.)  But it is not difficult to see the glass as half empty.  No matter what happens tomorrow, I can't help but think, the Democrats have already lost. 

How can one be so glum in this time of potentially historic victory?  Because the Left still seems to be losing the branding battle.  What is astonishing about this election and these past few years is that "conservative" is still a label of pride in mainstream American politics--and "liberal" remains a pejorative.  That this is so remains a testament to the power of Republican marketing and branding.  

Consider this:  it is certainly not difficult to make the case that a (neo)conservative ideology led to a war in Iraq that was (by the standards of the war's early advocates) a colossal failure and managed to destroy America's standing in the world.  This debacle could have banished conservatism to the sidelines of American politics for a generation.  But it hasn't. 

Consider also that it is not difficult to make the case that conservative principles have not only wrecked the nation's foreign policy, but have also brought the nation's economy to its knees.  A de-regulated market preceded a credit crisis and conditions that many are comparing to the Great Depression.  

And yet conservatism remains, for the most part, untainted.  

Don't believe me?  Look at the presidential debate transcripts.  Yes, it is true that McCain has run from the Republican party, and has emphasized his past bipartisanship.  The "Republican" brand has suffered greatly from the damage to the foreign policy and especially the economy.  

But in the debate, McCain could still believe he was scoring political points by calling Obama a "liberal."  And Obama defended himself by saying--proudly--that he has worked with Tom Coburn, who Obama bragged was "one of the most conservative Republicans."    

In other words, the economy is in ruin and we are bogged down in an endless war (or at least an apparently endless nation-building project), but Obama is up only 7 points--and the "conservative" brand remains popular and amazingly blemish-free.  

If Obama wins on Tuesday, I will certainly celebrate.  But I'll also be thinking about the remaining battle:  a re-branding effort for liberalism so that a destroyed economy and/or a disastrous war are no longer necessary for a Democratic victory in a presidential campaign.