The Liberal Apocalypse

Deep in the Bible Belt folks know the comfort of the coming Apocalypse.  Most have enough sense not to try to predict its exact date, but just about anyone can appreciate its appeal.  The End of Days is an escapist/revenge fantasy in which all those fools who doubted us will weep amid a variety of sadistic torments while we enjoy an everlasting snow day.

How many of us who were raised in the era before constant electronic communication remember the feeling of coming home to an empty house and wondering if The Rapture had occurred?  Come on, don’t be shy, go ahead and raise those hands…

In this age of equality, why should liberals miss out on the apocalyptic fun?  Turns out there’s a long secular history of apocalyptic thinking and it has produced policies just as toxic as anything dreamed up by fundamentalists.  Going all the way back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th Century people have been warning that our prosperity will be our undoing; that capitalism and growth will leave the world a scorched, lifeless heap.  They’re still wrong.

Now the normally rational Tom Friedman is ringing that bell in a New York Times piece.  He is embracing the work of doomist Paul Gilding and announcing that “The Earth is Full.”  Friedman and Gilding are a little late to this party.  Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich predicted population doomsday almost half a century ago.  So how are those predictions turning out?

Human populations, which the Malthusians in every age predict will overwhelm us any day now, not only failed to do so, they seem to be approaching a peak of around nine billion perhaps later this century.  One of China’s worst looming problems among a galaxy of looming problems is a potentially catastrophic population decline.  Everywhere in the world where free markets and economic vitality have triumphed population growth is slowing and in some cases beginning to reverse.

The Malthusians have been consistently wrong for more than 200 years – a worse record than Harold Camping, but we just can’t stop ourselves from buying what the doomists of every persuasion are selling. The population/environmental end of the world fills the same psychological gap for the left that fundamentalists address with their ever-imminent Apocalypse. They even use the same language and imagery. There’s a perverse voice inside that us that craves The End, regardless of our religion or politics.  We’ll create that narrative out of whatever spare parts we have to work with.

Civilization always feels fragile and unnatural, doomed to collapse.  Yet on it goes.  Challenges like terrorism, global warming, and water scarcity come up, but solutions are always found somewhere between the panicked alarmists and the militant deniers.  It is innovation that makes us human and it is innovation that keeps us alive.

We are some very clever monkeys.  It would be a mistake to bet against us.

Does the Iowa Caucus Matter?

Some have speculated that the Iowa Caucus, with its quirky, undemocratic style is losing its relevance.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Recent history demonstrates that the Iowa Caucus is an absolutely critical step toward the highest ambition of most Republican Presidential candidates – a successful broadcasting career.

It’s not so important anymore for that other thing.

Iowa’s first in the nation nominating caucus is a bizarre animal.  I’m not going to even try to describe the details.  It is not a primary.  It’s not an election.  It’s a very personal, participatory process, the kind of thing that in our day and age is tough for ordinary people to fit into their lives.

In both Parties it grants disproportionate influence to folks with too much time on their hands.  For the Republicans in particular, the Iowa Caucus skews toward the deeply religious and the…uh…less rational.  It has become a hefty investment of time and money that a serious candidate would do well to avoid unless he intends to build his entire career around the religious right (see, George Bush II).

Since 1980, there have been five elections in which there was no sitting Republican President.  The Iowa Caucus picked the Republican winner in those nominating races only twice, Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush in 2000.

In ’96, there was no real Republican competition, but Dole still only edged out by hyper-conservative talk show host Pat Buchanan by a few points.  Bush in 2000 was running as the candidate of the fundamentalists against a stiff challenge from John McCain.  McCain mostly skipped Iowa, finishing fifth there.

But don’t discount Iowa.  Half of the past six Caucuses successfully identified the frontrunner for the most important race in the modern Republican politisphere – who’s going to get the fat contract with the evil lamestream media.  Look at this list of first or second place finishers and it reads like a TV Guide:

1988 – Pat Robertson (finished close second to Dole)

1996 – Pat Buchanan (finished close second to Dole)

2008 – Mike Huckabee (won outright while McCain finished 4th and eventually took the GOP nomination)

And you can identify the biggest GOP losers by the Iowa Caucus results too.  Alan Keyes was an aspiring AM radio ranter and perennial candidate in 2000 when his third place finish in Iowa badly dented his status.  He still finished two notches ahead of John McCain, but that sort of thing only matters if you’re trying to become President.  The best Keyes could do after that was a brief stint on MSNBC and a comic role as a Republican Senate candidate in Illinois.

The rich crop of religious fundamentalists and wingnuts in this year’s GOP race mean that Iowa will likely be more important than ever.  The race will be particularly critical for Herman Cain, who like Alan Keyes in 2000 is hoping to take his AM radio shtick to a bigger audience.  Likewise, former Senator Rick Santorum needs a strong Iowa showing if he’s ever going to get a syndicated show.  He had only achieved “contributor” status prior to this run.

But this race will ultimately be the Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s to lose.  Anything better than third place and she might finally be able to leave the drudgery of Congress behind for the one place on Earth where she’s ready for prime-time – Fox News.  Good luck and Godspeed.

As for the GOP nomination, well, someone will win that I suppose.

Sex Tips for Politicians

This post is specially dedicated to my thousands of admiring readers who are major political figures (you can’t prove otherwise).  It’s time we had a grown-up talk.

When Bill Clinton left office I thought it was finally safe for children to watch the news again.  But clearly you folks need some help dealing with two very important subjects: The Internet and your personal sexual choices which creep me out.  Why?  Not to save your careers, or protect the Republic, or advance your political agenda.  I want you to listen to my advice because I’m sick of hearing what you cheeky monkeys do with your free time and I’d like a break.

Many of you came of age in the era of the rotary dial phone, so let me take a moment to explain the Internet.  The Internet is a place where people post semi-anonymous naked pictures of themselves for anyone to enjoy.  It can also be used for other stuff like playing games, stealing classified information, pirating movies, and virtual farming.

But, mostly it’s for nudity.

You may be thinking, “Awesome, how can I get started?”  You’re right to be excited, but first things first.

You need to understand that some of your more repressed constituents might respond negatively to unsolicited messages which include pictures of your crotch (or “weiner” as the kids call it these days).  The Internet might seem like a magical, anonymous place where you can finally let your pervy self breathe free, but don’t be fooled.  Whatever you do there will eventually find its way onto the pages of the New York Times.  We all know this won’t stop you from sending sexually explicit messages to underage staffers, but it requires you to make some plans for the future.

Regardless of your party affiliation, policy positions, or the “substantive issues” you think people ought to be focusing their attention on, you will need to have a plan for what to do when (let’s just skip the “if”) those animals in the lamestream media notice what you’ve been doing with your Twitter feed.  I want to help you help me by having your lewd behavior disappear quickly from the headlines.

The good news is that this new era of electronic political sex scandals works just like the good old days when drunken politicians used to drown pretty girls after driving off a bridge.  Don’t let the fancy technical details dazzle you.  Responding to your digital scandals requires the same political blocking and tackling you learned after that incident at the frat party.

Regardless whether the scandal you’re experiencing is the result of electronic fumbling or failure to pay off your gay masseuse/meth dealer, your response should be the same.   The next time you’re caught sending lewd emails, get arrested soliciting sex in a bathroom, or find that your private stash of totally awesome self-crotch-portraits has been raided and shared on the Interwebs, stop for a moment to think before your next move.

In that moment you must resist your overwhelming urge to lie.  This goes against every political instinct,  but trust me this terribly embarrassing incident is the one time in your political career when it might actually pay to tell the truth.  Tell the whole truth.  Tell it once.  Then kiss your miserable wife and go home.

Compare these examples.

Democratic Congressman Barney Frank engaged in a years’ long relationship with a gay prostitute.  Along the way he used his political position to help the guy deal with his criminal problems.  Career-ender, right?  Wrong.  Frank candidly admitted what he had done and convincingly denied what he hadn’t.  He is still one of the most powerful figures on Capitol Hill.

And it works just as well for Republicans.  Even if you’ve built your career on half-sincere religious prudery, all is not lost when you’re caught at a brothel.  Remember Sen. David Vitter’s career-ending scandal?  Darn right you don’t, because he handled it correctly.  He acknowledged the provable details in a written statement, stopped talking to the media, ignored the more disgusting details as they emerged, and waited for America’s collective attention deficit disorder to work its magic.  And he continues to collect a federal paycheck as a Louisiana Senator.

If you look into the camera, tell it straight, and hold your ground you can get away with anything in this country.  Newt Gingrich cheated on I don’t know how many wives.  He blamed it on America for being so unbelievably hot he couldn’t stand it.  And now he’s a serious (well, serious Republican) Presidential candidate.

Compare that to John Ensign, the only honest to God Pentecostal and authentic Promise Keeper in the Senate.  He got caught cheating on his wife.  Yea, that’s all.  No call girls or diapers or corpses.  Easy, right?

Instead of using the Vitter Gambit like a pro, he tried to shut the matter up by arranging a political job for the woman’s angry husband and funneling business to him through his political donors.  Then he paid the woman off with $96,000.  Entirely unnecessary, not to mention expensive.  Oh, and criminal.

Now instead of running for President he’s looking at his retirement options, which include a shot at free federal room and board with unlimited homemade tattoos.

Don’t be a Weiner.  Even in the Internet Age, whatever you did can’t top Ted Kennedy.  Don’t bother lying.  And definitely don’t spit out bizarre evasions in front of Rachel Maddow.  If your story makes sense and the details check out, the public will lose interest within a week or so regardless of how disgusting your actions might have been.

Swallow your pride, acknowledge what you did, and decide what to do with your career.  And please get off the front page.  We have more important things to be disgusted by.

Memorial Day

Over a casual business lunch last week a friend shared some personal stories of his youth in Soviet Russia.  He and his wife managed to leave the Soviet Union just as Communism was collapsing.  As we listened to his mostly humorous stories over I asked, “When was the first time you read George Orwell’s book, 1984?”  His tone changed and he explained.

It was the early ’80’s.  His wife had a friend in medical school whose Finnish wife had smuggled a Russian-language copy of the book back into the country after a visit home.  Possession of the book would not only compromise any hope of a promising career, but land them seven years in prison.

The man agreed to let them borrow his copy for only one night.  Husband and wife stayed up all night reading, absorbed in the forbidden story.  They weren’t able to get to the ending before morning came and she had to discretely return the book.  He wouldn’t get an opportunity to read the ending for almost a decade.

Few of us know what it’s like to be so starved for access to ideas that we would stay up all night to read a book.  Tonight I can read George Orwell ’till my eyes bleed.  Or watch reruns of American Idol.  Or sleep soundly in safety.  We are free to choose how we will use our time and where our minds may wander thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before us, and those who remain on the ramparts.

May God grant peace to those who gave the ultimate price for us in war.  And may we all, in the exercise of our great freedom, remain ever mindful of our debt to them and to this Republic.

Saving Rep. Ryan

Paul Ryan’s effort to breathe new life into Medicare is tragically demonstrating the cost of trying to be a serious adult in the lunatic political climate we have built.  Many inside the Party have said over the past decade or so that there’s no harm tolerating the loony wing.  There are no enemies to the right.  The extremists generate energy, suck the wind out of opponent’s plans, and help win elections.  What’s the harm?

If you want to see what ten years of balls-to-the-wall, unfettered, Republican nutjobbery has cost us, look no further than the way we are losing the critical debate over debt reduction and Medicare.

In response to Ryan’s plan Democrats are fielding some of the most irresponsible and fact-starved arguments we’ve seen from them in a generation.  We should own the high ground on this issue and be in a position to scatter them.  But…we spent the whole spring looking for a birth certificate.  We have wasted our credibility peddling craziness and weakened our capacity to stage a grown-up debate over real issues.  We brought this on ourselves.

Fat lot of good it does you to win an election if your tactics make the country ungovernable.

We have to find a way to rally.  This issue is what the Republican Party is supposed to be good at and Ryan is doing a hell of a job of representing us.  His unflinching courage offers us an opportunity to recapture what we do best.

Ryan’s plan to restore Medicare’s solvency can be boiled down to these points:

- Change nothing for anyone 55 and older.

- Those younger than 55 will, when they reach retirement age, receive vouchers allowing them to purchase a Medicare health insurance policy of their own from a private insurer.

- Starting in 2022, the age of Medicare eligibility will begin to increase by two-months per year until it reaches 67 in 2033.

- Standards for private Medicare plans would be set by the federal Office of Management and Budget and everyone of retirement age would be covered regardless of medical condition.

- The subsidies for premiums would be reduced for people at higher income levels.

- The amount of the health insurance subsidy would be based on the anticipated cost of insurance under Medicare, which is currently estimated to be about $8,000 a year.  Its growth would be tied to inflation (instead of being tied to usage).

- Recipients would also be eligible for an annual federal contribution into a medical savings account for their use for up to $7,800.  The growth of that amount would also be tied to inflation.

You can find these facts in the Congressional Budget Office’s report on Ryan’s plan on pages 7-9.

A few more facts:

- This is not a particularly radical plan.  This is very similar to the way the French and the Dutch deliver their sumptuous “socialized medicine” to their citizens.  They get their extremely high-quality medical care from private doctors and hospitals paid for with private health insurance which they purchase on a subsidized basis.  This is also very similar to the way federal employees, like your Congressmen, get their medical care.  In short, this plan adopts some of the most successful practices from European countries.  Help me understand how mimicking Holland can be a lunatic right-wing scheme.

- Nothing about this proposal would end Medicare.  Many Medicare recipients already get their coverage through private plans.  This proposal would only shift the current public-private balance of Medicare coverage much more solidly in the direction of the private sector and remove much of the federal government’s direct involvement in medicine.

- Ryan didn’t just pull this plan out of the depths of his brainy little head.  This model was developed by Democrats in the 90’s during the last great effort to rescue Medicare.  Ryan is trying to build a sensible, bi-partisan approach.  Clinton’s budget director, Alice Rivlin, helped Ryan put his plan together.  Although much is being made of her disagreement with Ryan, they only differ over a few details.  The substance of the plan, a shift to private vouchers, is the same as what the Democrats were working on more than a decade ago.

This plan is not the end of the world.  It would not kill people.  It would not deny anyone access to healthcare.  Those are lies, but there is a certain karmic justice at work here.

In considering Ryan’s plan we need to evaluate these tough questions in an honest debate:

1) Who would we prefer to trust with the bulk of the job (not all of it) of managing the growing cost of health care, the federal government or private insurers?

2) Can private insurance, with federal oversight and regulation, deliver an honest, capable, and competent service to seniors and the poor?

3) This is an important question and we have to be honest with ourselves – does it really make sense to place the burden of choosing an appropriate health plan on the shoulders of elderly, ill, and economically disadvantaged citizens, or are we just setting them up to be fleeced?  How can we best protect the most vulnerable?

4) Will the shift in financial incentives created by Ryan’s plan make a meaningful difference in the wider problem of health care inflation, or will other measures be needed to bring down costs?

The value of Rep. Ryan’s Medicare plan hinges on the answers to these questions, not hysterical raving about Republican hatred for the old and the poor.  Maybe the time has come to give Medicare recipients more choices.

We need credible voices who can explain what Rep. Ryan is actually trying to accomplish with Medicare reform.  But you can’t explain the hard facts behind Medicare through a megaphone while dressed in a Ben Franklin suit.  It just doesn’t work.  This is a fine moment for the Party’s most sober voices to emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding and join the fight.

Can we toss out the rest of the junk and work on these questions?  Do we as a culture, not just as a Party, still have the capacity to work on hard problems like this?  It’s time to prove it.

Is Obama Black?

Cornel West made news this week for his escalating attacks on the Obama Administration.  The Princeton professor and prominent author is one of those political figures like Ron Paul whose sincerity, bluntness, and occasional insight make them consistently attractive in spite of their larger body of extreme ideas.  Like Paul on the right, West carries heft on the Democratic outskirts and his decision to confront Obama from inside the Black community is significant.

But not as significant as what he actually said.

West opened up a subject that has been off-limits up to now – Obama’s blackness.  West claimed that “all he [Obama] has known culturally is white” and “when he meets an independent black brother it is frightening.”  He went on to state that Obama is more comfortable with whites and Jews.  Classy.

In essence, West is condemning Obama for undermining the left’s central criteria for authentic blackness. That criteria?  Acceptance of the belief that black victimhood is perpetual and inevitable in America (see John McWhorter’s book, Authentically Black).

Naturally, West’s comments have caused a stir, though the ruckus is mostly confined to the left.  Let me just say that as a white guy, I find some guilty satisfaction in seeing a leftist black leader get himself bogged down in the same swamp of racial misunderstanding and misinterpretation that has frustrated white politicians for years.  Dr. West, thank you very much.

So is Obama black?  What should “black” mean?  I can’t claim the authority to say it is just one thing.  But it is hard to conceive of a version of a black American heritage that has no relationship to the experience of slavery or Jim Crow.  In that sense, Obama is an African-American as a consequence of having a Kenyan father, but he is not black.  Viewed through that definition a lot of the other weirdness we are experiencing suddenly makes more sense.

What difference should Obama’s heritage make?  Hasn’t America treated him in the same manner it treated anyone else of his skin color?  Well, yes and no.

Obama had an African father who was out of his life at an early age.  He was raised in a middle-class white family in the state of Hawaii, which The Simpsons once correctly described as one of the “freak-states.”  That upbringing delivered him a unique set of challenges and opportunities, but those were not a set of experiences common to most blacks in America.

Chris Rock has summed up blacks’ complicated relationship to America: “I love America, but if you’re black you gotta look at America as the uncle that paid your way through college,…but molested you.”  One of most stubbornly lingering legacies of Jim Crow is the affect it had on blacks’ ability to accumulate wealth and get an education, two of the bedrocks of the American Dream.  Until the 1960’s, education for blacks was extremely difficult to acquire, especially a quality higher education.  Any wealth a black family accumulated was subject to being taken away from them on a whim, with no meaningful protections.  The results were that blacks lagged in both areas.

Obama didn’t grow up hearing stories from relatives about encounters with a racist Sheriff.  He didn’t face the limitations of a troubled school.  He wasn’t raised with a latent understanding that any accumulated wealth was a vulnerability.  He didn’t share any of the cultural cues so broadly experienced by blacks of his age in our country.  So, good for him, right?  So he lacks some of the burden of being raised black, what difference does it make?

It certainly gave him some strengths.  He got an education that would have been very difficult for others of his time to receive.  Think back to all those awkwardly racist comments made about Obama by Democrats back in the primaries.  Remember how “well-spoken” and “clean” he was?  What they were fumbling to express was that Obama was carrying none of the cultural markers born by black Americans.  He was free from the legacy of a second-class education, poverty, limited opportunities and most importantly of all, the anger.  He was an African-American who wasn’t black.  We don’t have a taxonomy for that.

In many ways, the strengths of that upbringing were what made his election possible.  I would argue that they have also made it exceptionally difficult for him to govern.

It’s not just that his “blackness” is suspect.  Obama is chronically foreign.  If he wasn’t raised in a typical black culture, he wasn’t raised in a typical white one either.  Even George W. Bush, born wealthy in Connecticut, raised in privilege, divorced in every conceivable way from the realities of middle-class American life was able to communicate as if he knew us.  That’s because he basically did.  For all his insulation, Bush’s upbringing prepared him to deal with mainstream America.  He could communicate his agenda, read the winds, and understand how his decisions (not just his speeches) would be received.

Obama’s background, whatever good things it may have done for him, does not seem to have granted him the kind of innate familiarity with the everyman culture of American life that even a George W. Bush could manufacture.  When the time comes to move past soaring homilies and talk brass tacks he can’t seem to connect.  And he bowls like his thumbs are broken.

Life under the Obama Administration is like being governed by a competent and admiring Norwegian.  He means well and has some fine ideas, but he seems baffled by us.  He struggles to comprehend our guns and our religion, our fears, our idioms, and why we don’t recognize the value of his sensible ideas.  He never seems to know what he’s stepping in.

In some subconscious way, I think this combination of dark skin and foreignness feeds the hysterical Obamanoia we are living through.  It makes it possible for politainers to portray a center-left compromiser as some kind of Marxist – or anything else their imaginations can conjure.  An “authentically” black President, for example, would probably have understood the Shirley Sherrod scandal at first whiff.  A Bill Clinton or even a George Bush would understand what’s in the heads of the Tea Party supporters and known how to handle them.  Obama struggles to get them they way you struggle sometimes to know what your dog is thinking.

Obama’s background sets him apart either from the blue-blooded upbringing of our Bushes and Gores, or the folksy everyman heritage of a Clinton or Reagan.  More than that, it sets him apart from…well, just about everybody.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that.  No one, black or white should have to apologize for failing to suffer from racism, or having a background that doesn’t fit into a neat box.  That’s not the point.

The point is that American politics is very personal.  We like to believe that we elect people who reflect ourselves.  Bizarre as it may be, even a George W. Bush had to operate under a carefully crafted illusion of familiarity.  It is very hard to get elected in this country on the basis of how unique you are.  It is even harder to govern that way.

Maybe if he had gone to Wall Street, or taken any other job instead of jumping straight from Harvard to “community organizing” he would have had a chance to get to know us.  Maybe standing around in a cube farm, talking about weekend plans, or even sitting in a board room, he would have developed a feel for how middle America thinks.  At any rate, it didn’t happen.  It’s not clear how he’s going to get a crash course now.  Reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (or The Cosby Show) might shed some light, but they can only accomplish so much.

America will probably have a black President someday.  If not, it will be because the term loses its meaning over time.  Perhaps that is already happening.  Maybe that’s what Cornel West is really concerned about.

But America will have a President who understands her, for better or worse, probably sooner than the Democrats would prefer.  Whether you choose to classify him as black, white, gray, or pink, Obama for all his fine qualities, is not that guy.

Free Rand Paul

The old Democratic argument that health care is a “right” has always rankled me.  Extending the definition of Rights to include anything in the world that seems like a good idea cheapens what we have achieved.  In our political system Rights are sacrosanct.  As citizens and heirs to a great legacy we have an obligation to live, fight and if necessary die to protect the Rights that gave birth to the American idea.

A good education, a job, a nice home, health insurance, life insurance, a car; these are all valuable.  Using government policy to make them more broadly available is great.  But are they inalienable Rights granted by our creator and equally guaranteed to all people?  Absolutely not.

That said, you can always count on those Paul Boys to take a perfectly reasonable idea and go to eleven with it.  Rand Paul in a committee hearing this week on health care launched into an argument that quite frankly I have used myself in the past – that extending Rights into the economic sphere violates the 13th Amendment bar on slavery.  Then he ran away with it.  I had never before heard the idea taken to its most absurd reaches.  In light of Paul’s ridiculous argument, I see I was wrong.

Here’s what Paul said, along with video:

“With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me.

It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses…there is an implied use of force.

“If I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to healthcare, you have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free healthcare would be.”

Paul accidentally exposes the inconsistency that cripples Libertarianism and the Objectivists.  Paul is going beyond the debate over socialized medicine to equate every form of collective action with oppression.  By that intellectually stunted reasoning civilization itself is slavery.  Citizenship is tyranny.  Any form of collective activity that fails to offer an explicit, personalized window to opt-out is theft.

He’s saying literally that if the state defined health insurance as a Right then anyone delivering health care would be made slaves.  Why?  Because if someone has a Right to my labor, I am a slave to them.

My reading of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers suggests to me pretty strongly that I have a clear Right to, among other things, national defense, a justice system, and a jury trial.  So, out on the bizarre fringes where the Paul Boys pass their lives, those who deliver those services are slaves.

The soldiers drafted to fight World War II were slaves, every one of them.  Jurors – slaves.  Their labor is being extorted from them and redistributed to someone who “needs” justice.  And what happens if those jurors decide to do something other than come to court?  Jackbooted thugs come and drag them back.  In PaulWorld (and the Tea Party?) that’s slavery.

Judges?  Black-robed slaves, forced to labor for other ‘s benefit because someone claims a “right” under the “Constitution” to have their legal grievances addressed.

And best of all, I have a Right to be represented by Congressmen and Senators whom I choose in free elections.  See where I’m going here?  As a Senator subject to my Rights and everyone else’s, Rand Paul is by his own definition already a slave.

Sound ridiculous?  You bet it is.

Those who lazily describe health insurance as a “right” are trivializing not just the notion of rights, but the spectacular sacrifices required across centuries to guarantee them.  The Democratic Party’s embrace of this thinking is a disgrace.  Those who trivialize slavery in the manner of Sen. Paul are doing exactly the same thing.  This kind of snarky libertarianism is the sulking, spoiled teenager of our political culture.  It is rotting us at the core.  The right’s embrace of this thinking is an embarrassment.

Paul’s overblown analogy exposed a nasty concept that’s ruining the conservative movement – the idea that there are no authentic values that extend beyond the individual.  On the one side of our politics are people who seem to think citizenship is only about what government can take from someone else and give to them.  The other side is blind to all government does, imagines they are the only ones producing anything valuable, and defines every civic obligation as tyranny.  In the middle are…well, increasingly few who are holding the whole experiment together.

If every obligation we have to each other, every duty we owe to our heritage, to our nation, and to those who would follow us is oppression, we have a short future.  Like it or not, we are in this together.  Citizenship means shared burdens and shared rewards.  If that’s “collectivism,” then the Earth has yet to experience a non-collectivist civilization.  And it never will.

Almost any idea applied rigidly and without reason to every conceivable scenario will break down into absurdity.  Such is life.  Our oppressive civic duties might be relieved someday, perhaps the day after the need to work for a living disappears.  In the meantime a little maturity might help us recognize the shades of black and white that torment dogmatic minds.

I’m sure Sen. Paul is sitting in his grim Washington slave cabin right now pining for lost liberty.  Under the cruel hand of slavery, maybe the Paul Boys will change their minds about Abe Lincoln.  Regardless, I hope they both find their way back to freedom very soon.

Republicans Don’t Know How to Fight

Over the winter the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party did what traditional conservatives have been doing consistently for more than a decade.  He quit.

Chairman Wadhams was facing a surreal re-election battle against a Tea Party/Fundamentalist coalition and the toll was beginning to show.  What drove his decision?  He explained, “I’m tired of the nuts.”

Every party has its fringe and those extremists play an important role in the political ecology.  But when something happens to throw off the balance between serious public service and nutjobbery, it is very difficult to return to relevance.  The Democrats have silly characters like Sheila Jackson Lee, but she’ll never be a serious Presidential candidate.  Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are.  That’s what’s wrong with the GOP.

So why can’t serious Republicans in the Goldwater/Reagan mold fight back?  Why does John Boehner pretend he can ride this dragon of costumed crackpots?  Why have genuine conservative public servants been consistently steamrolled by fundamentalists and Neo-Confederates since Reagan left office?  Because of history.

It’s tough to remain politically relevant if you can’t get elected.  For most of the 20th Century the Republican Party was locked out of real, national, political power by the Democratic Party’s corrupt patronage machine.  The only way to survive in that atmosphere was to maintain discipline in internal disputes and focus your public message on ideology.  Republicans don’t fight in public because for generations they couldn’t afford to.

The only major internal purge in the GOP in the past three generations was William F. Buckley’s successful campaign against the Tea Partiers of his day.  Even that battle, which was so bitter it left the Birch Society completely locked out of mainstream conservative politics until last year, was carried out with white-gloved civility.  Republicans have built an institutional culture that abhors the kind of chaotic, bare-knuckled internal politics that has always prevailed on the left.

Republicans have learned to smile for the cameras while quietly seething.  Democrats’ family photos at the end of each primary season feature battered figures standing on a carpet of broken beer-bottles leaning on each other arm in arm with black eyes, missing teeth, ripped clothing, and heartfelt smiles.  It would be nice to find some happy medium.

Discipline is an asset until the wrong people are in charge.  The “no enemy on the right” attitude adopted in the late eighties has wreaked havoc, with the ’94 election marking a turning point.  The GOP’s internal discipline was a luxury we could afford when we had no real power.  Republican Presidential candidates could hold their noses and give a speech each election cycle at Bob Jones University because it was just for show.  They needed the votes and the lunatics in the audience would never be in a position to influence policy.

But times have changed.  A generation ago Reagan placed us in a position to dominate American politics for a generation or more.  We had built a center-right coalition that captured the optimism of the age.  With Europe finally free we were living in Churchill’s “broad sunlit uplands.”

We were ready to roll back the 19th Century machine politics that dominated Northern cities, make the Party a natural home for the emerging ranks of the Black and Latino middle class, and bring sanity to national spending the way we had done in pockets of local government all over the country for decades.  We were going to replace the backwards, defensive, union-dominated politics that assumed all economics was a zero-sum game.  We were going to eliminate a culture of permanent dependence and build a social safety net that preserved the notion that everyone has potential and poverty is no one’s fate.

Those were good times.  But that coalition was been hijacked, especially after ’94, getting the Party hooked on the cheap high of fear-based politics.  The conservative movement’s crazy cousin is out of the basement and making business decisions for the family.

These days it takes a deliberate effort to devise a political message too absurd, too imaginary, or too stupid to sell on the far right.  Who fought back – in earnest, not just with a wink and a shrug – against the Birther madness?  Who publicly put Michele Bachmann in her place over the FEMA reeducation camps?  Who is standing up to Newt Gingrich’s ridiculous blather about Sharia law or calling out Glenn Beck on his hysterical ranting?

No one in a position of power in the Party has the courage to risk their hide to stem the Party’s long-term slide into entertainment.  They all think they can keep their heads down and ride out this “phase.”  There is no William F. Buckley around this time to right the ship.

The Tea Party, the Neo-Confederates, Birthers, AM-radio ranters, and self-appointed RiNO hunters long ago declared war on the Republican Party and no one from the Party’s traditional core is publicly resisting.  The GOP stalwarts have tried to maintain decorum and remain above the fray.

And they have been consistently rolled; picked off one by one and sent into retirement.

This increasingly dysfunctional family needs a good fight.  Does anybody in the Party’s reasonable center have the courage to step up?  Governor Daniels, are you listening?

What Will Follow The Bin Laden Decade?

It’s very odd how a news item about a death halfway around the world can brighten your day.  The news lifts something dark, heavy and strangely personal from our shoulders.  In a moment like this you recognize with fresh clarity how the shadow of 9/11 has bent our culture across the past decade – The Bin Laden Decade.

I watched the first of the World Trade Center’s towers collapse while standing barefoot in my living room.  More than a thousand miles away, at no risk of personal harm, I experienced a scene like the end of the world.

Anyone witnessing that event could feel the darkness coming, and come it did.  The ’80’s and ’90’s had brought victory after victory for peace, liberty, and the American way.  It felt like the steady progress from better times to even better ones was a sort of birthright.  The world was correcting itself and the century ahead looked so promising it was almost dull.  That grand decade ended in a flash of murderous vandalism, a desperate, doomed gesture from the world’s bitterest losers.  Bastards.

Better times would have to wait.  The Bin Laden Era gave us the global revenge of the retrograde.  Rationalism was drowned out by shouting and bombs, thought smothered by lunatic terrors.  No fear too unreasonable to animate a crowd.  No crackpot scenario too ludicrous to be believed.  No good idea strong enough to sweep away the hysteria and unite us.

It has well and truly sucked.

The Bin Laden Decade is a time worth forgetting, except for the painful lessons it has (hopefully) taught.  Perhaps a once-young nation now has a bit more maturity under its belt.  Maybe we can now be seasoned and mature without surrendering to cynicism.  Emerging from this time, we should recognize that the values we cherish are slowly but steadily advancing all over the world, with or without an army to impose them.  This is a fine moment to embrace those values more ardently here at home.

All of us owe a hearty thanks to the thousands of men and women in uniform and in the intelligence services whose years of dedicated effort led to justice being done on our behalf.  And we owe a unique debt of gratitude to the men who climbed out of a crashed helicopter in the darkness not knowing how or whether they would return home and did what had to be done.  There are no words to describe that kind of courage and commitment.

History has no corners.  The effort to impose a narrative on events is always somewhat artificial.  But these moments offer symbolic opportunities to mark our culture for the better or worse.  Now we get to decide what will follow The Bin Laden Decade.  We have a fresh opportunity, as keen as the one we fumbled in the weeks after 9/11, to decide who we are and choose a new direction for our time.  Maybe the cloud of weakness and vulnerability that has darkened our vision will lift, like the feeling when you walk out of a dark movie theater after a matinee to face the late afternoon sun.  Our natural American optimism has been with us all along like a neglected toy.  It’s time to pick it up and again play.

God Bless America.

A Warning From Reagan’s Budget Director

In this era of out-of-control political spin I find myself more and more drawn to former political figures – people who have permission to address reality.  David Stockman is old favorite of mine who, in that outsider role, keeps delivering the goods.

I’m probably revealing a bit too much about the giant nerd that I am when I explain that Stockman was a childhood hero of mine.  As a bright-faced wunderkind he led Reagan’s negotiations with Congress over his hallmark 1981 tax cuts.  He was always too candid for politics and his mouth kept him in hot water throughout his four turbulent years as Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

He warned at the time that the tax cuts the Administration was pursuing must be accompanied by reductions in spending or they could lead to catastrophe.  He was rewarded by being  “taken to the woodshed” for his lack of message discipline.  His old warning is poignantly prophetic now and he hasn’t abandoned the theme.

While preparing more comments about the competing deficit proposals I found Stockman’s latest New York Times editorial.  It stopped me in my tracks, saying everything I wanted to express in much clearer language.  I can’t reproduce it entirely, though I very much want to.  You just don’t see this kind of candor in our politics.  I encourage you to read the whole thing here, but I’ve pasted an excerpt below:

“It is obvious that the nation’s desperate fiscal condition requires higher taxes on the middle class, not just the richest 2 percent. Likewise, entitlement reform requires means-testing the giant Social Security and Medicare programs, not merely squeezing the far smaller safety net in areas like Medicaid and food stamps.

“Unfortunately, in proposing tax increases only for the very rich, President Obama has denied the first of these fiscal truths, while Representative Paul D. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has contradicted the second by putting the entire burden of entitlement reform on the poor. The resulting squabble is not only deepening the fiscal stalemate, but also bringing us dangerously close to class war.

“This lamentable prospect is deeply grounded in the policy-driven transformation of the economy during recent decades that has shifted income and wealth to the top of the economic ladder. While not the stated objective of policy, this reverse Robin Hood outcome cannot be gainsaid: the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of households has risen to 35 percent from 21 percent since 1979, while their share of income has more than doubled to around 20 percent.

“The culprit here was the combination of ultralow rates of interest at the Federal Reserve and ultralow rates of taxation on capital gains. The former destroyed the nation’s capital markets, fueling huge growth in household and business debt, serial asset bubbles and endless leveraged speculation in equities, commodities, currencies and other assets.

“At the same time, the nearly untaxed windfall gains accrued to pure financial speculators, not the backyard inventors envisioned by the Republican-inspired capital-gains tax revolution of 1978. And they happened in an environment of essentially zero inflation, the opposite of the double-digit inflation that justified a lower tax rate on capital gains back then — but which is now simply an obsolete tax subsidy to the rich.”

***

And on it on it goes.  This candid assessment comes from the architect of Reagan’s campaign to remake the federal government.  He helped build the system he’s now working to reform.

When you’re so used to being shilled this kind of candor is a deeply mixed pleasure, like facing the noonday summer sun after you’ve been working in a dark basement.  Call me naive, but I actually believe that the country would embrace a credible political figure from either party who had the brass cajones to tell us the truth.  I really wish someone would try.

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