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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Alan Jacobs is Right on Sullivan

I have been toying with the idea of using the term "Christianism" because I have often found Andrew Sullivan's use of the term he created to be helpful, but Alan Jacobs has written a spot-on critique of a fuller explanation of the term by Sullivan. If you are interested in discussions about fundamentalism, religious right, evangelicalism, etc. be sure to read it. I would add that Sullivan's rejoinder to Jacobs' critique makes it even clearer to me that I am not where Sullivan is at.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The New Greatest Generation

In my article for Commonweal I quoted with strong agreement President Obama’s words that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”. What I did not write about, but what I have felt deeply the last couple years, is that we need our soldiers home in their communities and families. They have served tour after tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have suffered physically and mentally, and their time to come home is long past. I was heartened then to see this week’s Time magazine cover story by Joe Klein on precisely this subject—the positive impact of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on their homeland. This line from Klein dovetails perfectly with Obama’s: “veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are bringing their leadership lessons home, where we need them most.” We need these men and woman, and we need to help them. Our politicians have betrayed them with their militaristic policies, but we as a people can do right by them by helping them make the difficult transition home and by urging our politicians to think of the price them and their families have to pay for the decisions they make.

Obama and Libya

As regular readers of this blog will recall, I vehemently opposed Obama’s initial efforts in Libya, but the more I understood of it the more it made sense to me. What his political opponents derisively dismissed as “leading from behind” was what actually intrigued me about Obama’s Libya policy. My initial opposition to American involvement was rooted in a reflexive opposition shaped by President Bush’s types of military interventions where America always had a heavy military footprint and a resulting long-term commitment of blood and treasure. I commented early on that Obama could turn into the “crown prince of pragmatic progressivism” if his goals for Libya could be met with the kind of minimal, though decisive, military involvement he envisioned. Although the results took longer than he had hoped, it is a remarkably short, low casualty result when we consider the decades of military dictatorship Gadhafi subjected the world to. It is further evidence that Obama’s presidency is not on the “Carter trajectory” that his political opponents are trying to convince us of. I gave Obama the benefit of the doubt in Libya based on the strength of his operation against bin Laden, and now I am very much prepared to defend his wisdom in how he has acted with regard to Syria. This is also a moment to acknowledge the foresight of Samantha Powers, a key adviser to Obama and the leading voice for American military involvement in Libya. These are remarkable times in the Arab world and the Obama administration is working in unchartered territory in the midst of a seriously weakened economy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Romney's Carter Metaphor

Mitt Romney is running a serious campaign for president, much more coherent and consistent than his last run four years ago. He is an accomplished businessman and politician and I certainly hope he ends up at the top of the Republican ticket—that would be a good sign for the country that the Republican Party is serious about governing. I have relatives in Massachusetts who have directly benefitted from his efforts there to reform health care and if he were to win in 15 months there is at least a chance that health care reform nationally will not be completely repealed.

As part of his current campaign for president he has turned to what is apparently an effective trope in the Republican heartland—comparing President Obama to President Carter. This is a smart political strategy given the almost universal hatred of Carter among Republicans and the almost universal love for the man who vanquished him, Ronald Reagan. It also makes sense given that Carter is the last Democrat to only serve one term in office, something Romney hopes to repeat for Obama. But whatever utility the comparison has for Romney on the campaign trail, and despite Obama’s admitted difficulties with the economy, the Carter metaphor is bogus in terms of substance. The deciding factor in Carter’s defeat, most historians agree, was the Iranian hostage crisis. It seemed to symbolize for many Americans the sense that America was failing. There is nothing similar on Obama’s record, and in fact his signature foreign policy success, the raid on bin Laden, is notable for its outcome being the exact opposite of Carter’s attempted raid on Iran to free the hostages. Carter also suffered terribly from Edward Kennedy’s extraordinarily foolish decision to run in the primary against Carter. The only politician who could conceivably mount as damaging a campaign against Obama is his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and that is not about to happen.  Kennedy’s decision was emblematic of another major difference—Carter failed to effectively govern with Democrats in the majority of the House and Senate all four years. Obama has a strong argument to make that Republican obstruction is a key part of his struggles, an argument Carter could not make.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rick Santorum, Civility Cop

It is refreshing to see, after lo’ these many months, Republicans policing each other’s extremist language. It seems that Rick Perry has crossed some heretofore unknown line in his crass invitation to violence against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last night. Karl Rove, fresh off of his work spearheading the Republican takeover of the House with all its rhetorical and ideological extremism, was quick to denounce his Texas frienemy in terms that bode well for a renewal of civility in the Republican primary:

You don't accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of being a traitor to his country. Of being guilty of treason…And, suggesting that we treat him pretty ugly in Texas — You know, that is not, again a presidential statement…If Rick Perry were to be elected president he'd be saddled with Ben Bernanke who has a term. He's an independent chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, appointed by president and confirmed by Congress and serves for a term and the president couldn't even ask him to resign. So, this is — I hope this is not the first of sort of over the top statements.
Rove’s comments are significant though not altogether surprising—he can read polls showing that the extremism of the Republican Party hurts their aspirations of regaining the presidency, and he also has a long time history of tension with Gov. Perry. More interesting is the reaction of another candidate in the Republican primary, Rick Santorum. He took to the airwaves today to scold Perry, saying “We don’t charge people with treason because we disagree with them on public policy…You don’t up the ante to that type of rhetoric. It’s out of place.” This is rich for anyone who has followed the history of Mr. Santorum. Among his many vicious assaults on his political enemies, two stand out. This from April of 2009 refers specifically to President Obama:
"Watching President Obama…helped convince me that he has a deep-seated antipathy toward American values and traditions…His nomination of former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh to be the State Department's top lawyer constitutes further evidence of his disdain for American values." (emphasis added)
In a 2011 speech defending the Crusades Santorum declared that “the American left…hates Christendom. ..They hate Western civilization at the core. That's the problem.”  
So while I share Santorum’s concerns about Perry’s rhetoric, I can’t help but wonder if his newfound sense of civility is not tied to his efforts to garner support from those who supported the genuinely civil Tim Pawlenty, whose exit from the campaign Sunday led to immediate speculation that Santorum stood to gain. Given Santorum's track record, it is at least ironic to see him taking on the role of civility cop.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What longing for Hillary conveniently ignores

I admit that the thought has passed through my mind in recent weeks: what if Hillary had won instead of Obama? What many have been saying to themselves or friends is now being said by prominent progressives: we would have been better off if she had won. But such thinking ignores the issue of health care reform and how each of them fared in leading to its passing. Health care reform is a signature goal of progressive governance since Harry Truman, and it played a key role in the election of Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama. Given Hillary Clinton’s pivotal role in the abject failure of President Clinton to achieve significant reform, it is understandable why Clinton apologists would be ignoring this point. But any thoughtful analysis must reckon with these facts:

1.     President Clinton and President Obama attempted health care reform on a major scale.
2.     Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind health care reform in Clinton’s administration.
3.     Health care reform failed to pass under President Clinton.
4.     Health care reform passed under President Obama.
5.     The attempt to pass health care reform played a key role in creating a conservative backlash against Clinton and Obama in the midterm elections of their first term resulting in Republican majorities in the House of Representatives each time.
6.     President Clinton did a better job of outmaneuvering the conservative Republican House than President Obama has done.

Those who pine for a President Hillary Clinton focus all of their attention on fact #5 while forgetting facts #3 and #4. My question to progressives is this: would you rather have a president who achieved the most significant piece of progressive legislation since LBJ, but who is faltering against the conservative backlash against it, or a president who failed miserably to enact the same type of legislation but did a better job of dealing with the political fallout?

The answer seems obvious to me. The Clintons had their chance to lead on health care reform and they failed just miserably. It is time to stop yearning for another Clinton term and start focusing on defending the advances Obama has made.

Bachmann, Lizza and Schaeffer(s)

I am writing first ever airplane blog having shelled out a few bucks for wifi on my ATA flight to southern California. The five hours of flight time gave me a chance to read the much-discussed article on Michele Bachmann by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker. Nancy Pearcey, whose book Total Truth is grossly mischaracterized in the article, has written a response to the article, as has Joe Carter, whose blogging at First Things I have referred to before. I completely agree with them that Lizza has done a disservice by describing Francis Schaeffer and Pearcey as "Dominionists", a term Pearcey had never even heard of, and that the article engages in simplistic "cut and paste" journalism unbecoming of a serious journal.

Having said that, and in no way meaning to minimize Lizza's thin understanding of American religious history and culture, I disagree with wholesale dismissals of the article. I think Lizza has provided a valuable, if flawed, examination of Bachmann's radical roots and is right to see her as symbolic of a brand of evangelicalism that many evangelicals would just as soon keep buried in the basement.

For instance, although I agree with Os Guinness and others that Francis' son, Franky Schaeffer, has done the historical record a disservice with some of his rants against his father, I think that the quote Lizza has of Franky in this article is on the mark. Quoting in its entirety, here is Franky's contribution to the article:

I asked his son Frank, who directed the movies—and who has since left the evangelical movement and become a novelist—about the change in tone. He told me that it all had to do with Roe v. Wade, which was decided by the Supreme Court while the film was being made. “Those first episodes are what Francis Schaeffer is doing while he was sitting in Switzerland having nice discussions with people who came through to find Jesus and talk about culture and art,” he said. But then the Roe decision came, and “it wasn’t a theory anymore. Now ‘they’ are killing babies. Then everything started getting unhinged. It wasn’t just that we disagreed with the Supreme Court; it’s that they’re evil. It isn’t just that the federal government may be taking too much power; now they are abusing it. We had been warning that humanism followed to its logical conclusion without Biblical absolutes is going to go into terrible places, and, look, it’s happening right before our very eyes. Once that happens, everything becomes a kind of holy war, and if not an actual conspiracy then conspiracy-like.”

I think that is true of a lot of evangelicals and Catholics, not Schaeffer alone. The conspiratorial mindset, the willingness to believe that "seculars" or "liberals" would be willing to do just about anything to advance a single-mindedly pro-abortion vision led Schaeffer and many others to a Manichean view of American politics inconsistent with other aspects of their thinking. This mindset has spawned much that is destructive in our political discourse, including the Bachmann campaign. Whatever else we might say against Franky, we can't blame him for pointing this out.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Drama needed

“No Drama Obama”. It is a nickname that has stuck and a nickname that reflects a key part of Obama’s appeal in 2008. His firm, steady, deliberate leadership in the financial crisis of 2008 was exactly what was needed and he was rewarded with the booming election victory in November of that year. But the crisis we are now entering calls for something different from the president, and I don’t know if he has it or not. It calls for dramatic, bold, visionary leadership that is risky but necessary. The president must step forward with exactly what he believes is needed in terms of long-term debt relief. In his speech today he again pointed to the general framework and outline of his “balanced approach”, and he is right politically and policy wise in that framework. But the generalities that should have resulted in a grand bargain with Boehner two weeks ago are not sufficient now. Clearly he was right and Boehner should have struck a major deal that would have calmed investor worries and set the country on a path to fiscal strength, but that moment is gone. With each passing day the effects of that failure become clearer, but so to does the need for a new strategy by the president become clearer. He must go public with the specifics of his plan: how would entitlements be reformed? How would defense be cut? How would the tax system be reformed? How would income taxes on the wealthy be increased? The only way forward, given the collapse of private negotiations, is public persuasion and confidence building. He will expose himself to considerable political risk, and he has been right to avoid that up to now (just his general statements about entitlement reform has gotten him virulent attacks from the Left), but now there is no choice. If he waits for the supercommittee to present its proposals that will be months from now. By that time additional credit rating agencies will have lowered our ratings, Europe’s fiscal crisis will have deepened and America’s stock market will have fallen more in response to the political vacuum. He can not wait for the political cover of the supercommittee’s report—he has to step out and lead with his plan. He needs to take it to the country and do what only the president can do in our system of government. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Boehner Dip

The Boehner Dip
As the media continues to bury Obama, it is high time that the reality of what Speaker Boehner has wrought upon the economy gain emphasis. I am on the road at my folks in Chicago and I don't want to take the time to develop this too far, but simply consider these two excerpts from the same news source, Zacks Investment Research.
Two weeks ago this was the daily market report: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) gained 152 points or 1.2% to settle at 12,724.41. The blue-chip index fell short of the year’s intra-day high by less than 100 points. The Standard & Poor 500 (S&P 500) surged 1.4% to finish the day at 1,343.80. The tech-laden Nasdaq Composite Index was up 0.7% and closed at 2,834.43…The markets had been anxiously awaiting a resolution to the issue of raising the debt-ceiling, which will take the country’s rating down from the current ‘AAA’ rating if negotiations fail. Thankfully, there were hints of progress being made between the White House and the Republicans about sealing the deal that would slash the government’s deficit and lift the debt ceiling. This immediately led the markets higher after an impasse over the debt-ceiling talks had dampened the mood since last week." [emphasis added]
This was today's report two weeks later: "Uncertainty over economic growth kept investors jittery, though the benchmarks escaped recording their longest losing streak since Jimmy Carter’s days in the White House…[9 days]As the day began, investors were once again bogged down by concerns about the economy and the markets opened with steep losses. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dipped 166 points before recouping its losses to settle at 11,896.21, up 0.3%. The Standard & Poor 500 (S&P 500) added 0.5% to finish the day at 1,260.36. The Nasdaq Composite Index closed with gains of 0.9% at 2,693.07…Traders opined that a report in the Wall Street Journal had sparked the rally, as the website stated the last three directors of the Fed’s monetary affairs division, Donald Kohn, Vincent Reinhart and Brian Madigan supported a new stimulus plan which the Federal Reserve might consider implementing." [emphasis added]

This is the report published Friday, about Thursday's free fall: "The broad sell-off in the market and resulting panic led to the Dow, Standard & Poor 500 (S&P) 500 and the Nasdaq plunging 4.3%, 4.8% and 5.1%, respectively. Each benchmark posted its share of records, though none of these brought any cheer to investors. The Dow settled at 11,383.83, losing 512 points, the steepest such decline since Dec. 1, 2008... In one of its worst sessions since February 2009, the S&P 500 settled at 1,200.24. The Nasdaq suffered its worst session since January 2009 and closed at 2,556.39. "

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Morning After

Speaker Boehner and the country awake to a new reality. Just days after going “mano a mano” with the president it is clear that

any credibility he had in claiming that his restive members could get behind a consensus debt deal has vanished…In a highly embarrassing development, Boehner must now move his bill to the right in order to secure enough votes from his own party. The Speaker's failure exposes an uncomfortable reality for the GOP: A final debt ceiling compromise will likely require a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass the House, and the outspoken conservative wing of the party will not be on board…but it's clear now that Speaker Boehner will need Democratic votes to get any compromise through the House. And that leaves the Republican leader with two options: abandon Tea Party freshmen and form a coalition between his most moderate members and 150+ Dems, or potentially allow the last best hope for a debt ceiling deal to fail in his chamber, with nothing but market panic left to make his members reconsider. Either would be a bruising choice for the embattled Speaker.

No wonder Time is predicting a “coming GOP split”:

As two roads diverge before the GOP on the debt ceiling, it’s increasingly hard to see a path that leads to party unity. Go right and the GOP risks default and, as McConnell has warned, being blamed by the center for an economic disaster. Take the center path – there is no left turn here – and Republicans risk an angry Tea Party base and potential primary threats. From the advent of the Tea Party to purity tests and the 2010 primary challenges, the split has been a long time coming.

The hubris of a week ago has vanished for traditional conservative Republicans. Their attempts to blame Obama and his "jello-like" negotiations and his "irresponsible press conference" look like the ridiculous delusions they were at the time. They failed to see what is now clear to the nation--their only chance to do the right thing is to compromise and cut the Tea Party off at the knees. Instead of reverting to blaming Obama, this Friday lets hope they join with him.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Palin won't get in line

How appropriate that on the day that traditional conservatives assured us they would force the radicals to “get their a** in line”, as Speaker Boehner put it, we hear from Sarah Palin. I have avoided all mention of Palin at this blog, but I must refer to here because her actions today demonstrate a broader point. Palin is the ultimate example of how traditional conservative Republicans have nurtured and enabled the extremists that they now seek to control and tame.  Traditional conservatives made Palin by bringing her on to the GOP ticket, they remained silent as she accused the president of “palling with terrorists” and they have had to live with her presence ever since lest they alienate the very people that her extreme rhetoric helped to bring into the party. It turns out that a lot of these folks are like Palin and they really meant the extreme things they said and will hold to the extreme positions they took—they weren’t just going to fall in line and forget that they really do believe Democrats are socialists, Obama is a Muslim, the Federal Reserve is evil. So today, as the ultimate traditional conservative Boehner tried to rein in the extremists that he allowed into the party, Sarah Palin took to facebook to remind the freshmen congressman that she helped elect that she really meant what she said to them months ago. She sent them an open note in which she referred them back to a letter that she had written them months ago. It is worth reading in full, so here it is in all its Palinesque glory (shame?):

Out here in proverbial politico flyover country, we little folk are watching the debt ceiling debate with great interest and concern. Today I re-read the open letter I wrote to Republican Freshman Members of Congress in November 2010, just days after they were ushered into office in an historic landslide victory due in large part to the activism of commonsense patriots who are considered part of the Tea Party movement. I respectfully ask these GOP Freshman to re-read this letter and remember us “little people” who believed in them, donated to their campaigns, spent hours tirelessly volunteering for them, and trusted them with our votes. This new wave of public servants may recall that they were sent to D.C. for such a time as this.

The original letter is pasted below, with added emphasis to certain passages that I feel are especially relevant to the current discussion. 

All my best to you, GOP Freshmen, from up here in the Last Frontier.


Sarah Palin

P.S. Everyone I talk to still believes in contested primaries.


November 13, 2010

Welcome to all Republican Freshmen and congratulations!

Congratulations to all of you for your contribution to this historic election, and for the contributions I am certain you will make to our country in the next two years. Your victory was hard fought, and the success belongs entirely to you and the staff and volunteers who spent countless hours working for this chance to put government back on the side of the people. Now you will come to Washington to serve your nation and leave your mark on history by reining in government spending, preserving our freedoms at home, and restoring America’s leadership abroad. Some of you have asked for my thoughts on how best to proceed in the weeks and months ahead and how best to advance an agenda that can move our country forward. I have a simple answer: stick to the principles that propelled your campaigns. When you take your oath to support and defend our Constitution and to faithfully discharge the duties of your office, remember that present and future generations of “We the People” are counting on you to stand by that oath. Never forget the people who sent you to Washington. Never forget the trust they placed in you to do the right thing.

The task before you is daunting because so much damage has been done in the last two years, but I believe you have the chance to achieve great things.

Republicans campaigned on a promise to rein in out-of-control government spending and to repeal and replace the massive, burdensome, and unwanted health care law President Obama and the Democrat Congress passed earlier this year in defiance of the will of the majority of the American people. These are promises that you must keep. Obamacare is a job-killer, a regulatory nightmare, and an enormous unfunded mandate. The American people don’t want it and we can’t afford it. We ask, with all due respect, that you remember your job will be to work to replace this legislation with real reform that relies on free market principles and patient-centered policies. The first step is, of course, to defund Obamacare.

You’ve also got to be deadly serious about cutting the deficit. Despite what some would like us to believe, tax cuts didn’t get us into the mess we’re in. Government spending did. Tough decisions need to be made about reducing government spending. The longer we put them off, the worse it will get. We need to start by cutting non-essential spending. That includes stopping earmarks (because abuse of the earmark process created the “gateway-drug” that allowed backroom deals and bloated budgets), canceling all further spending on the failed Stimulus program, and rolling back non-discretionary spending to 2008 levels. You can do more, but this would be a good start.

In order to avert a fiscal disaster, we will also need to check the growth of spending on our entitlement programs. That will be a huge challenge, but it must be confronted head on. We must do it in a humane way that honors the government’s current commitments to our fellow Americans while also keeping faith with future generations. We cannot rob from our children and grandchildren’s tomorrow to pay for our unchecked spending today. Beyond that, we need to reform the way Congress conducts business in order to make it procedurally easier to cut spending than to increase it. We need to encourage zero-based budgeting practices in D.C. like the kind fiscally conservative mayors and governors utilize to balance their budgets and reduce unnecessary spending.

There in the insulated and isolated Beltway you will be far removed from the economic pain felt by so many Americans who are out of work. Please remember that if we want real job growth, we must create a stable investment climate by ending the tidal wave of overly burdensome regulations coming out of Washington. Businesses need certainty – and freedom that incentivizes competition – to grow and expand our workforce.

The last thing our small businesses need is tax hikes. It falls to the current Democrat-controlled Congress to decide on the future of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. If it does not permanently renew all of them, you should move quickly to do so in the new Congress. It would remove from households and businesses the threat of a possible $3.8 trillion tax hike hitting all Americans at the worst possible moment, with our economy struggling to recover from a deep recession! You must continue to remind Democrats that the people they are dismissing as “rich” are the small business owners who create up to 70% of all jobs in this country!

Another issue of vital importance is border security. Americans expect our leadership in Washington to act now to secure our borders. Don’t fall for the claims of those who suggest that we can’t secure our borders until we simultaneously deal with the illegal immigrants already here. Let’s deal with securing the border first. That alone is a huge challenge that has been ignored for far too long.

On foreign policy and national security, I urge you to stick to our principles: strong defense, free trade, nurturing allies, and steadfast opposition to America’s enemies.  We are the most powerful country on earth and the world is better off because of it.  Our president does not seem to understand this. If we withdraw from the world, the world will become a much more dangerous place. You must push President Obama to finish the job right in Iraq and get the job done in Afghanistan, otherwise we who are war-weary will forever question why America’s finest are sent overseas to make the ultimate sacrifice with no clear commitment to victory from those who send them. You should be prepared to stand with the President against Iran’s nuclear aspirations using whatever means necessary to ensure the mullahs in Tehran do not get their hands on nuclear weapons. And you can stand with the Iranian people who oppose the tyrannical rule of the clerics and concretely support their efforts to win their freedom – even if the President does not.

You need to say no to cutting the necessities in our defense budget when we are engaged in two wars and face so many threats – from Islamic extremists to a nuclear Iran to a rising China. As Ronald Reagan said, “We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.” You will also have the opportunity to push job-creating free trade agreements with allies like Colombia and South Korea. You can stand with allies like Israel, not criticize them. You can let the President know what you believe – Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not a settlement. And for those of you joining the United States Senate, don’t listen to desperate politically-motivated arguments about the need for hasty consideration of the “New START” treaty.  Insist on your right to patient and careful deliberation of New START to address very real concerns about verification, missile defense, and modernization of our nuclear infrastructure. No New START in the lame duck!

You can stand against misguided proposals to try dangerous, evil terrorists in the US; precipitously close the Guantanamo prison; and a return to the failed policies of the past in treating the war on terror as a law enforcement problem. Finally, you have a platform to express the support of the American people for all those around the world seeking their freedom that God has bestowed within all mankind’s being – from Burma and Egypt to Russia and Venezuela – because the spread of liberty increases our own security. You, freshmen lawmakers, can and will be powerful voices in support of foreign policies that protect our interests and promote our values! Thank you for being willing to fight for our values and our freedom!

In all this, you should extend a hand to President Obama and Democrats in Congress. After this election, they may finally be prepared to work with Republicans on some of these issues for the good of the country. And if not, we will all be looking forward to 2012.

Remember that some in the media will love you when you stray from the time-tested truths that built America into the most exceptional nation on earth. When the Left in the media pat you on the back, quickly reassess where you are and readjust, for the liberals’ praise is a warning bell you must heed. Trust me on that.

I and most Americans are so excited for you. Working together, we have every right to be optimistic about our future. We can be hopeful because real hope lies in the ingenuity, generosity, and boundless courage of the everyday Americans who make our country exceptional. These are the men and women who sent you to Washington. May your work and leadership honor their faith in you.

With sincere congratulations and a big Alaskan heart,

Sarah Palin

Joe Wilson Now Key to Boehner's "Win"

The symbolism is rich--those on the inside are reporting that Boehner's desperate effort to secure votes for his own extremely conservative proposal is now dependent on the support of Joe Wilson. Yes, that Joe Wilson, the extremist who shouted out "Liar" at President Obama during his health care speech to Congress in 2009. Wilson is important for another reason, rich in historical symbolism--he is the head of the South Carolina group of congressmen Boehner is frantic to appease. Yes, South Carolina is again the center of extremism and legislative intransigence. But do not fear, we are assured that these are good Christian men thinking things through. You can't make this stuff up:

"Several sources say the South Carolina delegation — which includes five Republicans — could be key in getting the vote across the finish line. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) visited the leadership office suite in the Capitol Thursday evening.
Adding even more drama to an already chaotic evening in the Capitol, several members of the South Carolina delegation retreated to an ornate chapel to pray on the issue.
Asked whether divine inspiration might hit during prayer, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a freshman from Charleston, replied: “Divine inspiration already happened. I was a lean no, and now I’m a no.”
A few key South Carolina Republicans were then seen in GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office as the vote remained delayed on the House floor."

Chickens Coming Home to Roost in their HOUSE

Tonight we are witnessing in real time the inevitable consequence of 30 months of playing with rhetorical fire—the House is burning down under the heat of its own radicalism. Speaker Boehner, who just days ago was accusing President Obama of failed leadership and “jello-like” negotiations, is facing the unflinching reality of his own decision to court and empower the most extreme group of congressman since the 1960s. After assuring the public that it was President Obama’s fault that there was a failure to achieve a compromise, Boehner has failed to get the votes for his very own plan to raise the debt ceiling with no tax increases, only budget cuts.

It is too early to declare his efforts dead, but it is not too early to face the music—there is nothing Obama could have done to clinch a deal with House Republicans. This is a tiger that no one can ride, unleashed on the body politic by cynical, manipulative operatives hungry for power and willing to say anything about the president and his proposals in order to defeat him. But now we see that those who they nurtured into power really believe the things they have been saying—about the president, about the federal reserve, about the role of government and about the evils of compromise.

This should serve as a wake up call to everyone who believed that the extreme rhetoric of the House Republicans and the conservative movement was just “politics as usual.” All who winked and nodded as the most extreme elements in our politics tore into the president now must face the fact that they have the responsibility to bring this country back from the brink. They have to face the obvious conclusion—only a balanced approach that can garner Democratic support will rescue us from default and true crisis. They have to deal with the President with respect and partnership and genuine compromise. And they have to turn away from the rhetoric and the political faction that rhetoric has created and join with Democrats to pass a package like the one the president was offering last week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tea Party Tiger Turns on Boehner

When negotiations on a grand bargain broke down last week, many conservatives tried to shift the conversation to the supposed failures of Obama as a negotiator and leader. My point in recent blogs has not so much been to defend Obama’s every step in these many months, but to ask more fundamental questions about what drove Boehner’s decision to end the negotiations for a larger budget deal and focus on his own narrow debt ceiling proposal. I believe it is folly to assume that President Obama could have done anything that would have led to anything resembling a compromise—the driving forces in the Republican Party have demonized Obama, embraced no-tax increase orthodoxy and become convinced that this is the moment to radically redraw the fiscal direction of the country. The reaction within the Tea Party and among their supporters in the Republican caucus in the House to Boehner’s own proposal gives fresh support for my argument.

First, these quotes from an interview in the Daily Beast with Mark Meckler, the cofounder of the largest Tea Party group in the nation.

Is there any scenario where you think it would be OK to raise the debt ceiling?  No.
What do you think about the proposal that Speaker Boehner has put out? It’s an embarrassment. He proposes $1.4 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. Legally, no Congress can bind a future Congress. Anything he promises about what future Congresses will do, they simply can’t make that promise. In the real world, we call that a lie. If you promise something that you have no control over, that’s called a lie. In Congress, it’s called a promise. We don’t understand how the American people don’t get that. Number two, no Congress has ever been able, by wish or by promise, to bind future Congresses to spending cuts. When past Congresses cut spending under their own budgets, those spending cuts will never and have never materialized. It’s smoke and mirrors and the American people understand this.

Given the influence of the Tea Party on House Republicans it is no surprise that Speaker Boehner is having a devil of a time keeping his ranks behind him as the vote on his plan nears. Check out this bit of backroom maneuvering, reported in Politico:

Scrambling for votes on his troubled deficit package, Speaker John Boehner bluntly told wavering GOP lawmakers Wednesday morning to “get your ass in line” behind his debt ceiling bill…The hard line from Boehner came as there was a serious internal blowup over the Republican Study Committee, a bloc of conservative lawmakers chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio). Jordan, who is opposed to the Boehner plan, was forced to apologize on Wednesday after an RSC staffer sent out e-mails to outside conservative groups asking them to target GOP lawmakers to oppose the leadership proposal. House Republicans were infuriated by the RSC tactic, which even targeted dues-paying RSC members, with some threatening to quit the group…The RSC missive angered some rank-and-file Republicans who came under fire from outside groups, including Rep. Renee Ellmer (N.C.), Todd Young (Ind.) and Bill Flores (Texas). Elmers stood up at the GOP Conference meeting and blasted the RSC for the move, saying she was ashamed to be part of the group, according to sources in the room. Afterwards, Elmers said she may quit the RSC.

Now Boehner might very well be able to overcome this resistance and gain a majority for his plan, but doesn’t his struggle to gain support for his own plan demonstrate the point that the Tea Party tiger would never have been tamed to support a grand bargain that had Obama’s support? Conservatives kid themselves when they imagine that to have been possible. Anxious progressives who have been ready to throw Obama under the bus for his concessions should note how this episode is vividly putting before the public mind the extremism and intransigence of the Tea Party. Polls are clearly showing the public recoiling at the Tea Party vision for the debt celing crisis and holding Republicans accountable for unleashing this tiger on the body politic.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Borking of Barack Obama

The Borking of Barack Obama

In 1987 President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The reaction to that pick was so unique and so extreme that a new verb entered the English language—Borking. To this day a true political junky will use that word as shorthand for over the top rhetoric, character assassination and no holds barred political discourse. While the resistance to the pick succeeded in stopping Bork’s nomination it also stained the body politic. Any fair telling of the story acknowledges that the way Judge Bork was treated set a precedent for future Supreme Court nominations that has damaged the common good. I say this as someone who generally leans Left on national politics. To this day I am uncomfortable thinking about Ted Kennedy because I so associate him with his vicious attacks on Bork. I believe that my party, the Democratic Party, hurt not only itself but the good of our country by unleashing a new type of political attack on judicial nominees.

I raise this story now because I feel that the shoe is on the other foot. Now it is the Republican Party that has so demonized and diminished President Obama that they have made genuine compromise with him something to be feared within their party. And yet I still hear Republicans try to claim that the way Obama has been treated is just politics as usual, just the kind of cute rhetoric that all politicians use. They would like to go on as if the last 30 months of verbal assaults against the president has no bearing on their party’s ability to reach a meaningful compromise on the debt crisis. They sound like Democrats in the 1980s trying to live with themselves after the crushing of Robert Bork. They so want to believe that their consciences are clear that they ignore the obvious. After creating a picture of Obama as a socialist, Muslim, terrorist pal, unnatural citizen they would have us believe that this rhetoric has no connection to their unwillingness to compromise in the debt ceiling negotiations. Why can’t they just face the reality that they upped the anty, they pushed the envelope, they went beyond the norm, and now they are living with the consequences.

Here is what I would like to hear, just once, from a Christian conservative Republican—“We went too far. In our zeal to defeat Obama we delegitimized him to a large chunk of our base. We should not have done this. We did to him what Democrats did to Bork. We were wrong and if we are going to work for the common good we have to acknowledge that.”

If I could just hear something like that, instead of what always sounds like minimizing or justifying or excusing away or trying to make moral equivalence, it would be nice, it would be Christian. 

What motivated Boehner?

In my last blog I linked to a couple different articles that I have found compelling and that are striking alternatives to Timothy Dalrymple’s narrative. To recap, Tim argues that Speaker Boehner is justified in walking away from the negotiations last week because the president had poor motivations for the negotiations (only in it to “achieve a legacy-burnishing grand compromise”), deceptive in his negotiations (“jello-like”) and “irresponsible” in his Friday press conference (“the worst sort of demagoguery”). Tim leaves totally unexplored the logic behind Boehner’s stated reasons for walking away from the negotiations, reasons I find significant and telling. Here are two other writers who provide a different perspective and motivation for Boehner’s decision to walk away from the negotiations.

Here is Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast, reflecting on the broader rhetorical context of Boehner’s decision:

We’ve watched for three years now as the right has unloaded every manner of vitriol on Obama it can think of. Muslim, socialist, communist, fascist, terrorist, what have you. Whenever someone crossed an obvious line—say, with a racial joke—defenders popped up: Come on, it’s just rhetoric. Not that big a deal.

But a group’s rhetoric has a way of creating its own reality, which in turn forces a certain kind of behavior. If you say someone is a terrible American, even if you’re just joking at first, eventually you believe it. And if you believe it, how can you negotiate with the person? You can’t. You can only defeat him.

Dana Milbank on the broader policy context of the president’s tax proposal:

So far, the Default Caucus is disregarding the advice of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, warnings from Standard & Poor’s, the record of Ronald Reagan and even the permission of Grover Norquist, the conservative loyalty enforcer who said that ending the Bush-era tax cuts would not violate lawmakers’ anti-tax pledges. The Default Caucus has dismissed all compromises. Obama and Boehner’s “Grand Bargain”? The “Gang of Six” proposal? Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s plan? No, nay, never. Even Tom Coburn’s plan to shave deficits by $9 trillion was disparaged as a “$1 trillion tax hike.”
Boehner is dealing with a caucus that he helped get elected that is profoundly distrustful of the president and deeply opposed to any tax increase. He is doing the best he can with that reality and maybe Timothy is right that he is doing even better than we realize. But lets not kid ourselves--the idea that Preisdent Obama's negotiation tactics and press conference antics are anywhere near as important to Boehner's position as the rhetorical and policy reality of his caucus is bogus. 

The Debt Ceiling

The Debt Ceiling

I have been out of commission for weeks due to extensive travel and family commitments, but I wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the commentary on the weekend's events.

Timothy Dalrymple has an interesting take on the budget negotiations at his Philosophical Fragments blog at Patheos. He is usually a witty, balanced conservative leaning blogger, so I take his perspective seriously when he argues as he does that the president deserves to be, and indeed is being, played like a drum by Speaker Boehner. According to Tim, Boehner’s brinksmanship is morally justifiable because of Obama’s irresponsibility and “jello” like negotiation posture, and politically masterful because Boehner is going to get significant concessions in exchange for only keeping the debt-ceiling a closed issue through the 2012 elections.

Now I don’t want to try and deconstruct Tim’s take on the chronology of events, the motivations of the president or the political wisdom of Boehner’s negotiating strategy. Wiser, more connected people than I have already provided an alternative narrative to Tim’s and drawn a different conclusion as to the reasoning behind Boehner’s pull out of negotiations. I am even going to let stand Tim’s take on the president’s press conference (he quotes approvingly Hugh Hewitt’s assessment that it was the most “irresponsible presidential press conference in memory”) even though I thought it was one of Obama’s stronger moments of leadership.

No, I want to focus my considerations on what Tim is perfectly willing to concede was the deal breaker for Boehner in his negotiations with Obama on a larger budget/deficit package. Here is how Tim presents it:

According to reports, about a week ago, President Obama and Speaker Boehner had agreed in outline to a package that included $800B in “additional revenue” by broadening the tax base and eliminating certain tax deductions.  The President took heat from his base, and asked for an additional $400B in taxes.  Boehner and Cantor said no, and this came to a head last Friday.

In other words, Tim is conceding that Boehner blew up the negotiations for a broader package because of the possibility of tax increases being a part of the deal. What Tim does not mention, but what is very important to both the context of the negotiations and the mindset of the Republican party, is that the president’s proposal for tax increases came on the heels of a Gang of Six proposal last week that called for significantly higher tax increases than what the president proposed. This proposal, which had the support of Lamar Alexander, the number three Republican in the Senate, was the brainchild of one of the most conservative Senate Republicans in recent memory, Tom Coburn. So lets be clear—the president proposed tax increases significantly less than Tom Coburn and Lamar Alexander and Boehner/Cantor rejected it and killed the negotiations. This may be political “genius”, as Tim calls it, and it may be “clever political maneuvering”, but I can’t help but be disappointed that Tim merely passes over in the significance of what was done by Boehner/Cantor and instead focuses on the political maneuverings since their rejection. Lets be clear--the House Republican leadership has killed a deal that would have cut the deficit by trillions of dollars, would have taken the debt ceiling instability off of the table for at least two years which would have given the broader economy in America and the world much needed stability, and would have demonstrated that politicians are still capable of principled compromise and yet it is the President who is “irresponsible” because he was visibly upset by this at his press conference? I hope I am missing something, but it seems to me that Timothy has missed the point. Republican orthodoxy on taxes has deprived the national and global economy of a significant victory. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fr. Sirico, Hyperbole and Health Care Reform

Fr. Sirico has expressed concern about the unfair descriptions of Ayn Rand. He is upset about the “hyperbolic” critiques of her thought. He is worried about Paul Ryan and others being “tarred and feathered” in a “McCarthyism” way because of kind words they have said towards Ayn Rand. It is for the sake of civility and high-minded discourse, Fr. Sirico would have us believe, that he calls for care in denunciations of her and of politicians associated with her. As I wrote earlier, this is exactly the kind of “salt and light” influence that we all should hope for when clergy engage in public debate. Fr. Sirico has set a model of this charitable spirit in his essay, but I have challenged him to consider how his actions towards President Obama square with this sudden desire for civility. Thus far I have focused on how Sirico has criticized Obama’s visits to Notre Dame and Georgetown. Now I want to zero in on the language that Fr. Sirico and his Acton Institute have used with respect to the central domestic policy issue of Obama’s presidency, healthcare reform. Has Fr. Sirico avoided “hyperbole”? Has he steared clear of “McCarthyism”? Has he employed “images…in a dishonest way?” You be the judge.


Consider our neighbor Cuba off the shore of Key West. When conservatives criticize Castro’s (permanent) revolutionary regime by noting the utter lack of civil rights and liberties, sympathetic defenders leap forth to proclaim that civil rights aren’t everything. The Cubans, they say, have economic rights. For example, they have socialized medicine. But readers, the defenders of the Cuban travesty have confused economic rights for economic dependency. Private property is an economic right. The fruit of one’s labors is an economic right. Having the government give things to you is more like a voluntary addiction. The Cubans have their healthcare, but they live in a nation where forward progress nearly came to a halt in the 1960s and they have no voice. They are dependent on a government that acts like a bad boyfriend, sometimes kind but more often abusive.
Is it unfair or extreme to bring up the example of Cuba? We are, of course, so very far from their circumstances. The point is not to provoke fear, but to promote reflection. Once government begins to control something, it rarely relinquishes that control. If our government increases its role in providing healthcare to citizens, it will limit the freedoms of doctors, pharmacists, patients, hospitals, and others.


Here Fr. Sirico describes “The Parched Wilderness of Socialized Medicine”.

Here his Institute produces a video about “socialized government healthcare”. Are the graphics and the images done in “a dishonest way”? 

Here he says "This 'reform' will create a system that will put bureaucrats in charge of personal health care decisions -- not doctors. It will give the federal government an avenue to nationalize more than 15 percent of the U.S. economy, thus putting bureaucrats and elected officials in the role of manager and regulator -- much as we’ve seen in banking and automobiles."

Sirico Keeps Digging

Fr. Sirico Keeps Digging

A couple further notes on Fr. Sirico’s unreflective response to my questions.

1.     Why does Fr. Sirico think it proves his point when he lists the history of conservative criticism of Rand? My point was not that he was unaware of that criticism, but that in his framing of his original essay he left the distinct impression to the general reader that the criticism coming against Rand at this moment is on the Left.  In the very first sentence of his essay Sirico said “a politically left operative group in search of the election 'game changer' has set its sights on Rep. Paul Ryan and other conservatives who have said positive things about the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand.” At the conclusion of his essay Sirico said:
It is especially off-putting to see the left employ images of her to tar and feather political opponents in a dishonest way very much reminiscent of the McCarthyism they so frequently denounce. They do not argue with Mr. Ryan—for their own ulterior motives, they merely associate him with an admittedly flawed and mean woman, and think they have done society a service.

All I did in my original post was point out that this was deceptive because the fiercest criticism I have seen of Rand online is at First Things, by any measure a leading conservative periodical. Sirico’s reply to this point is to say that lots of other conservatives hate Rand to--how does that address my observation that Sirico conveniently ignored any and all conservative criticism of Rand and made this into a partisan debate?

2.     Fr. Sirico also says that my analysis of his Notre Dame concerns is “superficial” and therefore unworthy of the good Reverend’s time. What I said in my post was that “Father Sirico legitimized the most extreme anti-Obama elements in the Catholic Right with an open letter to the President of Notre Dame.” I then quoted what I saw as the key elements of his letter. Perhaps it was “superficial” to have only printed some of his letter. So, in the interests of fairness and depth, here is the entirety of Sirico’s letter to the President of Notre Dame. Maybe something here that I failed to include shows Sirico giving the same charity to President Obama and his Catholic inviters as he shows to Ayn Rand’s hermeneutic.

Dear Fr. Jenkins:
You are, no doubt, being inundated with letters, phone calls and emails objecting to the decision of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give the commencement address this year and to receive an honorary doctorate from your university.
I feel compelled to write to you as a brother priest to express my own dismay at this decision which I see as dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father, for your own soul.
I have had the honor to speak at Notre Dame over the years in my capacity as the president of the Acton Institute. I recall the sparkling discussion and questions from the student body, notably from a number of the Holy Cross Seminarians. I have, in fact, been invited to your campus on a number of occasions and on my last visit I was given a statue of the Lladro Blessed Mother in appreciation of my speech. I was told the statue was blessed by Fr. Hesburgh. It has occupied a special place in our religious community since then.
Father, I have no degree or awards from Notre Dame to return to you to indicate how strongly I feel about this scandalous decision. So here is what I have decided to do:
I am returning this statue to your office because what once evoked a pleasant memory of a venerable Catholic institution now evokes shame and sorrow. The statue is simply too painful a reminder of the damage and scandal Notre Dame has brought to the Church and the cause of human life in this decision.
Moreover, I will encourage the young people from my parish and within our diocese to consider universities other than Notre Dame for their college career and I will further encourage other priests in my diocese to do the same. I will also discourage Notre Dame alumni to make donations to the University.
And you may rest assured that I will make this sentiment known from my pulpit and in other public outlets as the occasions present themselves.
This is not a matter of abortion (I presume we agree on how evil it is); nor is it about free speech (you could have invited the president to a discussion for that). This is about coherence. You no longer know who you are as a Catholic institution.
It pains me to write this letter to you. I ask that you go before the Blessed Sacrament and look into your soul – the soul of priest – and reverse this decision before more scandal is brought to the Church.
You and the students under your pastoral charge will be in my prayers and Lenten sacrifices.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Robert Sirico