Archive for December, 2009

Dysfunction

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

As we stumble to the end of the year, the lingering image in my mind from that past twelve months is how divided the country appears to be and how difficult it has become to govern. 

The Republicans appear to have adopted a scorched earth strategy regarding the Obama administration. They are going to stand in opposition to everything that this administration attempts to accomplish in the hopes that it will improve their changes to regain some of the power that they lost in the 2008 (was it only a year ago) elections. 

As evidence of how single-minded this opposition is, the Republicans threatened to hold up a defense department spending bill which could have forced the defense department to close down in an effort to exert some leverage in the health care debate They have also asked that amendments be read aloud in the chamber simply to delay the inevitable vote that they were destined to lose and then criticized the resulting vote because it occurred in the wee hours of the morning. 

If this were producing better legislation through some sort of tough bargaining, I could accept that these tactics are serving the American people. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. 

The result of this tactic is that the path to 60 votes without Republican participation, gives a few senators inordinate power. Though this could be viewed as an exercise in old-fashion politics, it also ended up twisting this bill in ways that did not benefit the greater good. 

So rather than work to make the bill better, the Republican opposition has in fact made the bill worse and they appear poised to take credit for that effort. 

Now you can say that this is how business gets done in the Congress, but the facts simply don’t support that view. In the 1960’s, filibusters were threatened on only 8% of the legislation that was introduced – famously civil rights legislation being the predominant target. In the 1980’s that rose to 27%. Since 2006 when the Democrats regained control of Congress, the Republicans have threatened to filibuster 70% of the bills that were introduced. 

The Republicans have countered that this must be a uniquely Democratic problem, since they were able to accomplish quite a bit during the Bush years.  That claim doesn’t actually ring true when you look a little closer.  

Mr. Bush never asked the Congress or the American people to pay for any of his initiatives. His tax cuts were not balanced by spending cuts, in fact much the opposite. He hid the cost of his wars from the public. He gave the pharmaceutical companies a big bonus through an expensive Medicare drug benefit that remains unfunded. It was a congressional feeding frenzy where both Democrats and Republicans got fat. 

The only surprise is that the Republicans are now characterizing Democratic spending proposals where funding is fully disclosed and scored by the CBO as irresponsible. 

Now that it appears that health care insurance reform will pass, we’ll get a chance to see if the Republicans will be able to capitalize on their strategy. 

The economy appears to be in recovery, though job growth remains anemic.

The housing market is reviving in part due to historically low prices and interest rates.  Foreclosures remain a serious problem that is now the result of unemployment rather than bad loans.   

Many of the biggest companies that received federal funds early in the year have paid the government back. 

The stock market just hit a fourteen month high.

The dollar just hit a three month high.

Crime is at the lowest point it has been since the ’60’s.

We are making progress on climate control issues, though Republicans appear determined to deny that a problem exists. 

Our international standing is on the upswing. We were able to salvage the recent climate talks because of President Obama’s willingness to negotiate directly with the Chinese. We are making progress with Russia on pressuring Iran to curtail their nuclear ambitions. We are also making progress with Russia on our own treaty to reduce our respective weapons stock piles. Israel and Palestine are moving closer toward an agreement. We also had broad international support for our expansion of forces in Afghanistan.  

President Obama has also demonstrated that he is up to the task of being the commander-in-chief and certainly takes his responsibility to protect the American people seriously. 

Most importantly, 30M people who don’t have healthcare insurance because of cost or pre-existing conditions, will have an opportunity to purchase insurance that they can afford. I wonder how many of those people are going to vote for Republicans?

Wonderland

Monday, December 7th, 2009

“Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, even them that contended with thee: they that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought.” Isa 41:12

Afghanistan may be the most accurate litmus test of the degree to which this country has become polarized.

In the drum beat leading up to President Obama’s decision to send more troops, there were several narratives.

The Cheney branch of the Republican party were four square behind General McChrystal and criticized the administration for taking too long to give the military what they want. The narrative they were preparing was that the Democrats could not be trusted to protect the country because they didn’t have the right stuff when it comes to use of the military. What they were predicting was a decision to disengage.

The Kerry branch of the Democratic party were four square behind Joe Biden who questioned the logic of any plan that relied on the central government. They viewed the government as corrupt and felt that our best option was to disengage and refocus our efforts on containing the Taliban to Afghanistan and preventing them from spreading their influence into Pakistan. What they were predicting was a repeat of Viet Nam.

President Obama chose a moderate course of committing more troops with a clear goal of handing the fight back over to the Afghan army and police and a clear timetable for withdrawl. He did this at great risk to his support among liberals, but received virtually no credit from conservatives.

What may be even more surprising is that he received wide spread support internationally including many countries who backed their verbal support with money and troops. He also received support from General McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry who represented both camps in the internal discussions at the White House.  Both liberals and conservatives, however, continued to play out the narratives that they had prepared virtually ignoring the reality of the decision that he made.

So what is going on?

We appear to have entered into a political Wonderland where perception has replaced reality. This political Wonderland has only good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the ones that agree with you. The bad guys are the ones that disagree with you.

In this Wonderland, you get your information from sources that agree with you. Those sources make their money telling you how bad the bad guys are, and that they can’t be trusted. Only good guys can be trusted and they back it up with a daily dose of good guy propaganda to support their claims. Good guys lose any sense of community with bad guys and instead regard them as extremist unstable lunatics. Demographics force news delivery organizations to pick sides in order to survive. Even those that attempt to remain unbiased are branded as good or bad whether they like it or not. 

This is a very dangerous situation for democracy. Democracies depend on active dialog and compromise. When dialog stops, democracy stops working.

The Republican strategy for success is to purify their message and their party. They will form a coalition of unrepentant hard liners around their core issues of anti-government, pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and anti-immigration. They will make it very clear who they are and who they aren’t, and if you aren’t with them on all issues than you will be targeted as a bad guy. 

The Democratic strategy has always been to have a big tent, but that tent is also straining because for the past eight years they have been the party whose primary purpose was to remind everyone that they didn’t vote for Bush. Now they actually have to govern and they are finding that that they share some of the blame with the Republicans for the breakdown in communications. They are finding that it is no easier to govern from the left than it was for Bush to govern from the right.

The real problem, as demonstrated by the public response to Afghanistan is that there doesn’t appear to be a safe stable middle ground in the electorate anymore. The polarized electorate forces people and news organizations to choose, and they refuse, the right and left will choose for them. 

I applaud President Obama for his attempts to move and govern from the middle. I think that this is the healthiest thing that he can do to demonstrate that government does have a productive role in the lives of its citizens. Time will tell whether this investment bears fruit. 

One can only hope that enough people will reject the rhetoric of both the right and the left, and that a new middle will emerge like the Cheshire cat materializing behind his smile.