Friday, January 30, 2009

Down to the Hard Core

Republicans these days like to claim that the Bush-Cheney administration wasn't really a conservative Republican administration at all, a sweaty, desperate maneuver that may nonetheless serve some function at least by helping some of them go on. The rest of us might do well to note that the last administration was full-speed ahead on tax cuts and deregulation as a way to strengthen the economy for the past eight long years, and that the result of this strategy was ever-more disparity between the rich and what used to be called "the poor" but what we might as well now call "everybody else," and the current position of the economy, butt-up in the ditch. Thus one can only shake one's head in disbelief at the latest soundbite coming from the congressional Republicans, that their stimulus proposal contains "more job-creation" than the Democrats', a slogan based on the entirely discredited notion that giving all the money to rich people is merely efficient administration and not willful sabotage of the government, a project they enthusiastically support when they think no one is listening.

Meanwhile President Obama was probably making a rare slip into snarkyness when he tossed off the line that Republicans shouldn't just sit around listening to Rush Limbaugh, and I imagine Obama regretted his loose tongue this past week as Mr. Limbaugh has enjoyed the (as everyone is saying) "ka-ching" cachet of being singled out in this way. But after a couple days of this, I'm wondering: maybe it's not such a bad idea if the conservative movement is identified in the public eye with Rush. His followers are legion, but not that big of a legion. When he says that everyone is expected to bend over and grab their ankles because Obama is black (and lord knows nobody ever criticizes black people, right?), if everyone else is paying attention we might start to notice that there are bigger legions out there. Limbaugh as titular head of the conservatives: I find that that grows on me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

From Baseball to Basketball

George W. Bush was a baseball president. Understanding baseball was the key to understanding his methods. In baseball you have to maintain consistency over hundreds of innings, racking up statistical victories. Steady relentlessness is everything, and the view is long. Barack Obama is a basketball president. In basketball you set up the play in a fast-moving situation, looking a few steps ahead.

Applying this to the wrangling about the stimulus package, what we have today is a Democratic president who is politically armed to the teeth, with the country behind him, the party heavyweights gathered close, and a legislative majority, and he's the one making nicey-nice and heading up to the Hill. And we've got the Republicans, dangerously exposed and vulnerable, and they're the ones complaining and being obstreperous. That sure looks like a set-up to me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This isn't 1993

Barack Obama has outlined an ambitious agenda for his first "one hundred days," the initial months of a presidency when new presidents traditionally exploit their mandate, their "honeymoon," and the political difficulty of attacking a president who still enjoys the hopeful expectations of the electorate. This agenda includes closing Guantanamo, drawing down the troops in Iraq, and moving on a much larger bailout of the economy than anyone has ever seen. This week, perhaps because it was felt that something ought to be presented for the gay community to atone for the Rick Warren flap, we hear that Obama intends to rescind the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay military personnel.

This item invites reminiscence of the early days of the Clinton administration. Clinton tried to establish a gay-tolerant military. He also (with the prominent participation of his wife) tried to move forward on an ambitious reform of health insurance and health care. Notoriously Clinton met with failure on these and other early initiatives. There was even a Time magazine cover of the "incredible shrinking president." Some speculated that he would be altogether unable to govern. Today, mindful of this history, some are cautioning that Obama should go slow. I think that Obama is nothing if not measured, but more importantly there are huge differences in the political circumstances of 2009 as compared to 1993.

Bill Clinton won the election of 1992 by a plurality, splitting the vote with Bush and Perot. He managed to win the Democratic nomination that year largely because more senior Democratic politicians (Mario Cuomo for example) made the calculation that the incumbent Republican would win reelection after Reagan's domination of the previous three elections. Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, public confidence in Republican foreign policy was high: "triumphalism" was the neologism of the day. Clinton and his ally Al Gore were Democratic Party upstarts. Their strategy of staking out centrist positions squeaked them into office but did not endear them to the Democratic establishment or to the liberal electorate. They were on their own.

Today the situation is entirely different. The incoming Democrat has been elected with one of the biggest electoral vote margins of modern times. The outgoing administration leaves in public disgrace, with the Republican Party bleeding voters. Both the economy and US foreign policy are widely perceived as in critical condition. Obama has packed his incoming administration with the most powerful Democratic politicians in the country and with officials with deep connections to the Congress. There is token resistance to a stimulus package from some right-wing backbenchers, otherwise everyone wants to get in on the action. Resisting Obama is, for the moment at least, politically unwise in the extreme.

Under these circumstances Obama, if he continues to be as adroit as he has been so far, ought to have little trouble with, for example, closing Guantanamo and reaffirming our commitment to the Geneva Conventions. I'd say he can still pile a little more onto his plate. Here's my suggestion: unilaterally normalize relations with Cuba, rescind the blockade, rescind Helms-Burton. If Obama were to do that, Cuba would be completely transformed within twelve months: no more Cuban Communist Party, no more loss of business to the Canadians, Spanish, Japanese and Argentines that would more sensibly be handled by US farmers and business. I don't see how anyone could stop this.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

0-2 for Harry Reid

Harry Reid badly miscalculated when he tried to punish Joe Lieberman for supporting John McCain and for speaking at the Republican Convention. In the end the Senate majority leader had to stand by Senator Lieberman's side before the cameras while Joe smilingly explained that he had been given everything he wanted. This week Sen. Reid appears to have done it again, putting his foot down that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich could not succeed in appointing Roland Burris to fill the remaining two years of Barack Obama's senate seat, as it now appears he may.

There are two questions with which I am not interested today: First, I don't care to go after Harry Reid except on one particular point. Secondly and more importantly, there is a legitimate issue as to whether Roland Burris is likely to be a good senator, but this issue is mitigated by the fact that a) it's impossible to know such a thing for certain and b) in two years the voters will be able to make the choice for themselves.

I think that the issue with Harry Reid here is an attitude that party bosses in Washington are entitled to power in state politics. On the right the idea of "states' rights" is a shibboleth (not an incoherent one) for conservativism shading off into libertarianism shading off into racist and fascist elements. But progressive political reform also confronts the centralization of power and loss of respect for voters.

The voters of Connecticut, for example, took the really extraordinary step of re-electing Joe Lieberman as an independent after he had lost the Democratic senate primary: as clear a political mandate as one could have. You're welcome to be his ally, or not. In the Illinois case, Gov. Blagojevich is not only under no indictment as this is written, he also continues to be the democratically elected governor of Illinois. His right to a legal process is absolute. The state legislature may or may not be able to impeach him. But all the party leadership in Washington needs to remember is this: the Illinois state government will send their choice for senator when they have determined who that will be. There is a process, and no reason to think that the process needs help. Just as an independent senator doesn't need guidance from party elders.