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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. "