Archive for the ‘Politics 2008’ Category

The Thinker

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is cbs.com, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.

 
The Thinker

The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

 
The Thinker

The end of the middle class

My thanks to commenter George who, five years after it was published, left the first comment to my 2003 post, The Dual Income Trap. George is one of millions of average Americans who has meticulously played by the rules and done all the prudent things. By doing so, he now finds his family preciously hanging on to its middle class existence. In a way, George is lucky. Millions of others are not so lucky. They have lost their houses and in many cases, their jobs too and are now scrambling. I hope that most have some place of refuge for hard times, perhaps just a spare bedroom in Mom and Dad’s house. Others have downsized their lives and are living in apartments, which hopefully are more affordable. It was clear that their house was not.

The pain Americans are going through can be understood not just in unemployment statistics but also by other shocking statistics. For example, one in ten Americans are receiving food stamps. Autoworkers are feeling in a particularly precarious position. It is not just the members of the United Auto Workers that are wondering how long they will be employed. Demand for cars, including foreign cars, is way down, despite gas prices at $1.60 a gallon. If you are a UAW worker, you have the sinking feeling that you are about to kiss a living wage goodbye forever. Yesterday President Bush approved $17.5 billion in emergency loans to GM and Chrysler. He did so not because he has any sympathy for the UAW and its workforce (whom you can tell he detests) but to ensure they do not collapse until after he leaves office. That way he cannot be blamed for their demise.

This economic crisis should pretty much kill off the middle class as many of us knew it. I define “middle class” as being able to own your own and maintain a single family home, have a car or two, raise a couple kids and live in a generally safe neighborhood. In reality, this life was going anyhow. George mentions that his family income is around $100,000 a year. The real price of admittance to the middle class these days is about $100,000 a year in family income. There are exceptions of course because there are parts of the country where the cost of living is remarkably low. Particularly if you live along one of the east or west coasts, if you do not have $100,000 in family income you can pretty much rule out a standard of living similar to the one (presumably) your family had growing up.

As for those with a family income in the $40,000 to $80,000 range, these people have now largely been priced out of the middle class. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones who have been predominantly getting the shaft during this severe recession. Our nation’s autoworkers have epitomized the collapsing middle class. However, their situation is hardly unique and is emblematic of a very broad problem.

There is little in the way of silver linings here. One lesson these people have learned is that they can no longer charge the difference between their desired standard of living and the standard of living they can afford. Now, assuming they are not in bankruptcy, many find that their credit limits have been reduced and their monthly payments have increased. Some sort of credit correction was probably due anyhow, but this is a hell of a time to go through it. Much of the economic shock we are now enduring is due to the collapse of credit. No wonder we are spending less. No one is willing to lend us the money to live beyond our means anymore. Frugality has become necessary. This means fewer dollars circulate, which translates into a large economic downturn.

Many of the formerly middle class are moving swiftly into what can charitably be called the lower middle class. I prefer to be more realistic and call them the working poor. You are in this class if you find that one or more of the breadwinners are working two or more jobs just to survive. Granted, finding any job in these times is going to be challenging. Good luck even finding a job paying starvation wages at your local Wal-Mart. Most likely, any health insurance, if you had it, has vanished. You may have been living paycheck to paycheck before this economic crisis. Now you are in survival mode, desperately trying to keep a roof over your head and your aging cars usable until the economy turns around.

Even when the economy does turn around, do not expect that your financial situation will markedly improve. Perhaps with the collapse of housing prices you will be able to afford a single-family house again. The dual income trap though will not be going away and is likely to only be exacerbated.

The middle class has been destroyed. It was not an accident because to kill it you had to move money from the middle class to either the poor or the rich. It went to the rich because, unsurprisingly, they have power. Starting in earnest with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rich pulled every lever to make sure they paid less in taxes and you effectively paid more. Government costs what government costs, after all. Whether by increasing taxes for those of modest incomes or through deficit spending, the effect either way is to push the burden on the rest of us less capitalized. If your taxes were cut too but deficit spending made up the difference, it meant that wealth was moving overseas. The effect was to move our collective wealth elsewhere and since most of it was vested in the middle class, the middle class lost wealth. That is one reason why unsecured credit card debt kept climbing. Think of it: when President Carter was in office, we were the world’s largest creditor nation. We owned much of the world. Now we are the largest debtor nation. We are owned by much of the world.

How to change the situation? I wish I could be as optimistic as our new president, but I think he is on the right track. We have to transform our country so that it is the engine of a new 21st century economy. We have to offer products and services that this new resource-constrained world will need. Being the leaders in manufacturing clean technologies will be key, because these will be new technologies will be in high demand, hence profitable, hence wealth builders. If we can do this then perhaps the broken middle class will reemerge.

Our middle class needs to reemerge because our nation cannot be wealthy if its wealth is vested mainly in its aristocracy. Ordinary people power an economy. Until ordinary people have money to power it again, the economy is likely to remain poor. Unfortunately, this transformation process, if it can be done at all, will take decades. We have no choice but to start now. Let us hope our competitors are less adept at creating this new economy than we may be.

 
The Thinker

Kissing the Rust Belt goodbye

If you want to know why the Republican Party is rapidly becoming the party of the Deep South only, you only have to observe the votes this week by Senate Republicans to block a bailout of our domestic auto industry. Thirty-five Republican senators blocked the bill, which actually won in a 52-35 vote. However, Republicans chose to invoke the cloture rule, which meant that 60 votes were needed to actually pass the bill. Therefore, it died leaving President Bush in the ironic position of deciding that maybe he needs to find $15 billion of the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street to keep millions of automotive and automotive related jobs from vanishing in this country.

Senate Republicans effectively gave the finger to Americans autoworkers this week, while also scorning them by telling them that they were paid too much. (This takes a lot of chutzpah when a senator’s salary is $169,300 a year, and a senator’s pension benefits for even a short stint in the Senate would make autoworkers swoon.) Yes, a bankrupt GM, Ford and Chrysler would probably destroy the evil United Auto Workers. It would also destroy the livelihood of millions of Americans, not just the autoworkers themselves, but a vast network of suppliers, dealers and merchants that eke out a living based on Detroit. But hey, that evil UAW would sure learn a lesson!

Yes, color the Midwest blue. If it is not entirely that way today, it will be in the next election. Moreover, if the key to winning the White House is to win Ohio, I may be in my grave before the next Republican ascends to the White House. (That would be fine with me, providing I live to a very ripe old age.) It used to be that you were showing your patriotism by buying American cars. Maybe you paid a bit more and maybe your car was not as reliable comparable with a foreign model. Nevertheless, it was “Made in America”, and that helped put food on your table, your neighbors’ tables and kept your community vibrant. Now in the bizarre world inhabited by a majority of Republican senators, you are showing true love of country by killing off our domestic automobile industry!

You see this is love. When your father beat your bums black and blue with his leather belt, he was doing it because he loved you. It was tough love. Never mind this sort of tough love that many of us endured growing up would now be considered child abuse. But it is okay to do it with auto industry workers and the vast numbers of workers who earn their living off our auto industry because, well, they are all adults! After all, it is not child abuse if they are not children.

Now the truth is that those of us who did have their bums beat black and blue by our dads (or in some cases, our moms, or both) do generally love them, in spite of their past proclivity toward inflicting violence on minors. You cannot divorce mom and dad. However, you can throw your senator out of office when their term expires. If they just don’t get it, that they are there to serve the interests of the American people, you simply vote for someone who does.

It is unsurprising that those Republican senators that voted for the bailout seemed to represent swing states. Few Republicans from swing states voted for the bailout, but there were some, including Allard from Colorado, Burr from North Carolina, Coleman from Minnesota, Ensign from Nevada and Gregg from New Hampshire. One thing these senators do have in common is that there is little or no auto assembly in their states. I have some advice for these senators: do not expect much in the way of contributions from the National Automobile Dealers Association for your reelection campaign.

There is no question that Detroit has been a follower rather than a leader in the auto business. Its management has been abysmal. However, the United Auto Workers has been accommodating about cuts in wages and benefits, somewhat begrudgingly of course, just not enough to keep up with the competition. What is true is that American automakers cannot be as agile as the foreign competition. For in most other countries the government provides universal health care for all, liberating manufacturers from these costs, or at least allowing them to be controlled. In our country, they are generally borne by employers. However, American cars no longer really deserve a bad quality rap. As Consumer Reports has documented, American cars are now often as reliable as their foreign competition. Part of the problem is the perception, which is often no longer true, that buying American means you will get a less reliable car.

You would think that if American autoworkers were so well paid that they would be living opulent lives. That is clearly not the case. The average assembly line worker for GM makes $28 an hour in wages. This is about $58,000 a year, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but not outrageous for a skilled assemblyman. All this assumes of course that they have steady employment. The auto industry has many ups and down, so it is unwise to count on full employment. It is true that autoworkers receive benefits too, but so do many of us who are employed. The cost of benefits is nowhere near the inflated $70 an hour figure bandied about. The Big Three’s pension costs are so high because they also have the legacy of pension costs for existing retired workers and their spouses. Foreign car companies do not have this baggage.

We should look on the $15 billion bailout as an interim measure to help put in place a structure that will make our car companies competitive again. At some point, this will likely mean shifting costs for pensions off the car companies and onto the taxpayer. Then American car companies can compete on something like an equal footing.

Meanwhile, by their votes, Senate Republicans have simply gained the contempt of many in auto producing states. Once you hold someone in contempt, it is nigh impossible to be held in esteem again. This is why Republican opposition to the automotive bailout was so needlessly counterproductive. Even the White House gets it. President Bush understands that his legacy rests on very shaky premises. To leave the White House with the American automobile industry collapsing around him will seal his fate in history.

Based on Senate Republicans’ foolish votes, people like me hoping to see even larger Democratic majorities have new reason for optimism. Any Joe the Plumbers out there living under the illusion that Republicans actually care about people like them are now thoroughly disillusioned. Instead, Senate Republicans are reminding them of their dear old dad and his leather belt, and senators are telling them to lower their trousers and assume a right angle. Why is Dad punishing them? Apparently, they had the audacity to expect a living wage.

Maybe they should run for the Senate instead.

 
The Thinker

Bum deal in Chicago

The city of Chicago provides my other story epitomizing what is wrong with today’s America. Unlike the death of a Wal-Mart employee by stampeding customers, which largely got lost in the news, this story at least got some attention. It deserves more.

More than half a million Americans lost their jobs in November alone. So perhaps the plight of just two hundred employees at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago does not matter. Unlike most of America, which is not unionized, Republic Windows & Doors is a union shop. Its workers belong to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Supposedly, in the event their employer goes under, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act makes their job losses less painful. This law requires that covered employees, in most situations, must get sixty days of notice before a layoff or sixty days of salary.

They got only three days because Republic Windows assumed it would get credit that it did not receive. They requested credit from their creditor, The Bank of America. Ironically, Bank of America recently received $25 billion courtesy of the American taxpayer because it was having a financial crisis of its own from foolishly investing in sub-prime mortgages. However, Bank of America summarily refused to extend any of that credit to Republic Windows. With no money to draw from, Republic Windows felt it had little choice but to shut down promptly. It provided its workers just three days notice before closing the factory. Employees received no severance pay.

Probably because its workforce is unionized, the uppity employees of Republic Windows decided that, gosh darn it, they were entitled to the benefits due them under law! They occupied the plant (with the grudging approval of management, who said they could only do so if they kept the equipment in good order) while others protested outside the factory and tried to draw media attention.

It is unlikely that these employees would have fought their situation if they were not unionized. Only 12% of the American workforce today is unionized. With a union behind it, employees had a ready structure in place to stand up for what was lawfully due them. Chicago is also a heavily Democratic area and one of the more unionized areas of the country. (Indeed, Chicago features prominently in the union movement, which makes the location of this incident particularly appropriate.) It took a few days but their cause drew some media attention. Recently indicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was among a small number of politicians who rallied for the union workers. Even President-Elect Obama came out in support of these union workers. (Unsurprisingly, there was no similar statement from President Bush.)

All this publicity is beginning to show some results. Bank of America reluctantly joined talks with Republic Windows and the union. Talks are still underway and if press reports are to be believed, Bank of America reluctantly suggested it could lend Republic Windows enough money so it could pay its employees’ claims. Another bank, JP Morgan Chase reportedly is also offering a loan of $400,000. It is even possible, with the heat it is under and with the inconvenient fact that it took $25 billion in tax dollars, Bank of America may extend all the credit needed so that Republic Windows can stay in business. I hope that in this situation its employees retain their jobs that seemed certainly lost. If so, it will only be due to their backbone to protest loudly and vigorously.

Bank of America, like many troubled lenders, eagerly took taxpayer money. Unbelievably, it was never required by the government to use the money to issue loans. That’s right, our government was so incompetent (or devious) that it issued hundreds of billions of dollars to lenders with no requirements that they use the money to address the credit needs of the employees and businesses that were fueling the recession. Bank of America, like most banks taking the handout, seems more concerned with its own profitability and solvency than in lending money.

As this situation proves, lack of money can triumph over rule of law. If a company has no money to live up to its requirements under law, apparently it feels it can walk away from them. That seems to be the case with Republic Windows, although it is a fair question to ask how they could pay severance if they did not have the money to do so.

In today’s America, labor is simply not valued. It has been this way for decades, but the problem now has becomes more obvious with our major economic downturn. Good, decent and hardworking Americans get to take it on the chin with nary a thought for their financial plight. Rather, employees are routinely treated like a drunk tossed out on the street. One day management smiles at you and then next you are as valuable as used toilet paper. However, because they are unionized, workers at Republic Windows could fight back.

The Republic Windows protest may be (I hope) the catalyst for real labor reform. Our new president is sympathetic to unions. In addition, it appears that a larger Democratic congress will enable passage of the Employee Free Choice Act into law. This urgently needed law will go a long way to leveling the playing field, that has given management the upper hand in labor negotiations.

In the long term, expanded workers’ rights are probably in business’s interest too. We cannot sustain the economy forever with an American middle class that continually shrinks and loses income every year. Generally, workers are more productive when they feel vested in their jobs. Employees who have to continually worry they can be thrown out on the street at any moment are likely to be skittish and disloyal to those they work for.

In any event, it is nice for a change to see workers stand up aggressively for their rights and get some results, even if it still means they lose their jobs. At least they should get the severance lawfully due them. Our nation is a country of laws. This case demonstrates that it is important that the law should be not just respected but also actually followed. I hope workers everywhere are watching and learning. Workers deserve a fair deal again. We deserve better treatment than the shabby way we are often treated by employers today. What happened in Chicago is Dickensian. We are human beings, not rubbish to be discarded the moment it becomes convenient for an employer.

 
The Thinker

Advice for Republicans likely to go unheeded

This is not a happy time for Republicans. Let’s face it, it’s a bummer when your presidential candidate, despite being something of a pragmatic across the aisle type, still loses by seven percent. Nor is it good to have lost six more senate seats (with the possibility that two more may be lost) and twenty-four house seats. If you are a Republican, you have to look hard for any good news. The only good news I could find is that Tennessee is bucking trends and is becoming more Republican. Its legislature is now in the hands of Republicans for the first time since reconstruction.

It is no fun being out of power. Only in the U.S. Senate do Republicans have any hope of flexing their muscles and that is only if they keep Democrats from winning a sixty seat filibuster proof majority. A count of ballots in Minnesota, which is still underway, shows that challenger Al Franken is less than a hundred votes from taking the seat of incumbent Norm Coleman. In Georgia, if the dynamics of the race change just a little in a runoff election between incumbent Saxby Chandler and challenger Jim Martin, the seat could move into the Democratic column also.

To think that just a few years ago Republicans were doing arrogant things like redistricting Texas congressional districts out of turn. Its champion, former Republican House Whip Tom Delay, resigned his seat after being indicted for violating election laws in 2002. (To add insult to injury, a Democrat now holds his seat.) After Republican successes in the 2004 election, Karl Rove excitedly talked about a permanent Republican majority. Now Republicans have lost the presidency, are at least nine seats away from a senate majority, and would need to turn 41 house seats to gain a majority there. Even with governorships, things look bleak. They are down to only 21 governorships, and lost another Republican governorship this November. It sure looks like the Republican Party is becoming just a regional party of the Deep South. The Rocky Mountain States are slowly turning blue: Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico all voted for Obama this year. Even deep red Idaho decided it preferred Democrat Walt Minnick in District 1 to incumbent Bill Sali.

Consequently, Republicans are now engaged in a lot of soul searching. How to get back into power? Recent history would suggest that their best bet is to hope the current guys screw up. Republicans have to hope that Barack Obama turns out to be as inept as President Bush, but it sure doesn’t look that way. The appointments Obama is making as he puts his government together suggests we will have a deeply pragmatic new president, bent on making the government work actually for the people. What a radical idea!

History would also suggest to Republicans that if your message is not selling then you should change your message. Strangely, as I read news stories, the idea of changing the Republican brand seems to be off the table. Take this story in yesterday’s Washington Post. Two fairly young Republican activists have created RebuildTheParty.com web site. They want to be as successful in engaging the Netroots as the Democrats have proven to be. Good luck with that. As for maybe changing their ideology? That seems off the table. The article quotes Republican Vander Platts, “We have followed the misguided advice of ‘experts’ to abandon our principles and move to the middle so we can supposedly win. In essence, we have become ‘lukewarm’ on life, on marriage, on the Second Amendment, on limited government, on balanced budgets”. His viewpoint is widely shared among Republicans. They believe they can win by more forcefully asserting the same messages that has led to their massive defeats. Never mind that America has never been a pro-life country, or that it is warming towards civil marriage for gays, or that it is not exactly embracing limited government. By being obstinate on these losing issues and by assuming incorrectly that America is naturally a center-right country, Republicans will magically get back into power!

To which I, a passionate Democrat, stand up and applaud. Yes, please Republican Party; continue to tell America that if elected you will deliver more of what we do not want. Not that I think one party rule is necessarily a good thing, because Democrats have proven to be equally as corruptible and myopic as Republicans. I worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s where influence was purchased. For example, a $5000 contribution got you into “The Speaker’s Club” where you had regular opportunities to press handshakes with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and provide him with your valuable perspective.

Republicans, you can keep your values and become a party that becomes increasingly irrelevant with every election. Or you can morph a bit toward the center and have a chance at governing again. In the spirit of bipartisanship, let me outline a Republican recovery plan.

First, the Republican Party has to fess up to its major and egregious mistakes. Mistake number one was George W. Bush. He has been something of a nuclear bomb to the Republican Party. He has been a total disaster of a president. You need to admit you made a colossal error in judgment by helping this guy become our president. Time columnist Joe Klein today said it accurately and succinctly: “At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks.” Do not let this guy anywhere near a Republican candidate again, not even for a closed-door fundraiser. Divorce yourself from the dude. If you see him walking down the street, cross over to the other side. Apologize to American. Here’s a script you can use. “You know, as a Republican I just have to apologize for helping to elect George W. Bush. If we had known he would turn out to be so bad, we would have voted for Al Gore. Sorry, we blew it.”

Second, you need to admit that you governed unwisely and badly when you controlled Congress. I hear a tiny mea culpa when you talk about getting back to your “core principles”. Except for a couple years under Newt Gingrich, I have never known a Republican president or a Republican congress that actually practiced what it preached about fiscal discipline. You need to put forward new candidates that have successfully demonstrated that the values they preach have worked. Frankly, you should consider any Republican in Congress to be tainted if they voted for the Iraq War or voted for bloated new federal programs or subsidies. I guess that means pretty much everyone in power in Congress except maybe Ron Paul. Do your best to get these losers out of office and maybe you can get some credibility back again.

Third, some policies you are fighting for the American people are never going to subscribe to, so stop bothering trying to sell these things. When you do, you just alienate voters. If you have to have these values, hide them until you get into office. No Democrat today with the exception of a few cranks will vote for gun control. Is it because they don’t believe in gun control? In many cases they would love to see gun control, but they also know it is no way to stay in power. Congratulations, you won the gun control debate. That debate has been won for generations, if not forever. Now you must give up a few of these loser issues too. You must stop bothering trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. Instead, you should be crossing the aisle to come up with solutions that reduce the likelihood that a woman will need to have an abortion in the first place. I don’t care how “right” you feel your position is, you cannot win this debate. Trying to do so merely inflames the opposition more, making your goal that much harder. Think of Sisyphus. You could save a lot more babies by giving money to Planned Parenthood so kids could get contraceptives than you ever will in a fruitless endeavor to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Fourth, give up the idea that you can solve deficits through cutting taxes. Its corollary: give up the idea that you can reduce the size of government. That’s only going to happen if we reduce our population. Why? Because the more of us there are around, the more services we need, the more we are in each other’s faces and consequently the more regulation will be required to keep us civilized. Another corollary: give up the idea that more freedom is always good. Freedom has consequences. If I have the freedom to drive a SUV, I am infringing on other’s rights to have a cleaner environment. We all want to have as much freedom as possible but we also want to be around as a species and have a clean planet in a couple hundred years too. We cannot accomplish it with unbridled selfishness masked as “freedom”.

Fifth, I hate to break it to you, but you guys and gals come across as really arrogant and obnoxious SOB’s. (I know the same could be said about many Democrats.) None of us have the answer to all of life’s questions. Nor does one philosophy fit all people. You need to develop a little humility. The good news is you have already mastered the passion thing.

So what should a future Republican Party look like? That’s for you guys to decide, because you can count me out. In general, you in the Republican Party urgently need to come to grips with the dichotomy between your glorified and absurd idealism and the real world the rest of us live in. If you want to earn back your street creds, give us safe neighborhoods, good schools and make sure the trash gets picked up on time. Show us leadership. If there is a new problem that government needs to address, tell us how you will find the money to pay for it. Your “you can have your cake and eat it too” philosophy is both ludicrous, dumb and has proven extremely dangerous. The wreckage is all over Wall Street and in our diminished portfolios. We see it in estimates that we need to spend a trillion dollars on our infrastructure alone just to get it up to code. That we have to spend this money now is because we didn’t spend it back then when we should have. You get the government you pay for.

If you seriously want us to have smaller government, make sure you point out to voters all the disintegrated roadways and bridges that will result. Or you can say these are common public assets and we all need to step forward and pay our fair share of taxes to fix them. The first few times you say this, it will come out weird. However, eventually you will be able to say it with a straight face. Say it often enough and you will believe it. It’s called stewardship.

So get real. Get grounded. Step away from the extremes. Be pragmatic. The best part of being a Republican is the hope and love of country that you express. Lose the naivety but keep the love of country, and join the rest of us in making this the best country for all Americans, not just people for who think and act like you.

 
The Thinker

Worst President and Administration Ever

Like most Americans, I am wondering why we have to wait fifty-eight more days for a new president. Couldn’t Bush and Cheney just tender their resignations now? Nancy Pelosi would then become our president for the next fifty-eight days until President-Elect Obama takes office. Yeah, I know Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal, but she could hardly make things worse than Bush and Cheney and she would be a caretaker only. At least someone with a brain would be in charge until Inauguration Day. Meanwhile, women everywhere would rejoice because we would have (however briefly) our first female president.

If Bush and Cheney had any sense of patriotism, they would resign right now. However, it looks like they will not only tenaciously cling to power until January 20th, but they are working feverishly to make sure their toxic legacy will last beyond the inauguration. Not only have they left us with an economy that is in shambles, in their final days they are busy creating future havoc. Regulations are furiously being written, sometimes bypassing the public comment process, to ensure that our problems will continue to only get worse after they are gone. Yes, in their final days the Bush Administration is making sure it protects fewer endangered species while opening up more federal lands to energy exploration. Meanwhile, in various federal agencies its senior executives are busy “burrowing in”, i.e. changing their status from political appointees to civil servants so they can hang around and attempt to bollix up the Obama agenda, all while drawing high salaries and having the benefit of civil service job protections.

The faults of this Administration are so numerous and egregious it is hard to know which ones to single out. I keep looking in vain for something I can say in favor of this administration. I am reduced to exactly one thing: the Bush Administration has dramatically boosted the money spent on antiretroviral drugs for those with HIV and AIDS in the third world, while also strong arming drug manufacturers to make these drugs available to the third world at just above cost. Naturally, Americans who came down with HIV or developed AIDS had to pay top dollar for their drugs. Maybe they should have moved to Africa, where they might have gotten the lifesaving drugs for little or nothing.

Republicans spent much of the last few years screaming at Senate Democrats for blocking so many appointments and judgeships. In retrospect though the Democrats showed great foresight. Bush came into office with a conservative agenda. Conservatives believe in smaller government. While smaller government eluded him as it did other recent Republican presidents (in fact, Bush made government much bigger), his sidekick Dick Cheney proved unusually adept at throwing monkey wrenches into the gears of government. The result is a government that while it costs much more, is now also far more dysfunctional than it ever has been. Some examples:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends much of its time trying to reduce Section 8 housing for the poor.
  • The Department of the Interior is busy opening pristine national lands to energy exploration.
  • The Department of Defense is overextended and our armed forces are exhausted. Our fancy military equipment has been squandered in the deserts of Iraq fighting the wrong missions.
  • By taunting North Korea and Iran, and labeling them as part of a bogus Axis of Evil, both countries have become more isolated and dangerous.
  • Our Department of Homeland Security could not even provide disaster relief to the residents of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, perhaps because the director of FEMA knew how to raise Arabian horses, not provide emergency services.
  • No one in control of our government saw the housing bubble coming because they were too busy trying to give Wall Street exactly what it wanted. In fact, through changes in the law our government encouraged the sort of behavior that exacerbated the crisis.
  • We added four trillion dollars to the national debt in eight years, which was at about six trillion when Bush took office.
  • We engaged in an embarrassing national folly in Iraq that even if President Obama can get us out within sixteen months will probably cost us a trillion dollars. The long-term care for veterans injured in the war will continue for decades. Meanwhile more than four thousand of our soldiers died in the conflict started to remove weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average is about two thousand points below when Bush took office. Stocks now have approximately the same value they had in 1997. We have, in effect, wiped out all of the wealth that we accumulated in the last decade.
  • Our national infrastructure is in shambles. An interstate bridge collapse in Minnesota killed thirteen people while thousands of bridges that do need repair languish for lack of funds.
  • The rich have gotten much richer; the middle class has shrunk and have had their real earnings decline.
  • This administration spent much of the last eight years denying global warming was even occurring. After much hooting and jeering from scientists it finally agreed it was happening, but said it was part of a natural cycle so we should not do anything about it. Later, it agreed that we were part of the problem, but that we should do nothing more than set goals to reduce the problem. Meanwhile, environmental standards were regularly loosened.
  • We went to great length to limit research on embryonic stem cells, which in fact are not even alive unless implanted in a uterus and given some time to gestate, while taking extraordinary action to make sure the hulk of Terri Schiavo’s brain dead body stayed tethered to medical equipment for more than a decade.
  • Our brave servicemen and women who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up with substandard care and spend much of their time dealing with a dysfunctional and understaffed medical bureaucracy.

The sad truth is that I could easily fill up ten pages or more with more examples like these and I would have hardly scratched the surface. It would be easy to say that this Administration was just inept, but the sad truth is they were inept when they were needed to be savvy and malicious and mendacious when they were not, answering only to themselves and tone deaf to anyone with a different opinion.

If any good is to come out of this, it is that the Republican Party has become a minority party with little likelihood of resurgence for at least a decade. In addition, social conservatism has backfired and neoconservatism has had a stake driven through its heart. It seems that with such sterling examples of what doesn’t work, we have a good idea what will: just do the opposite.

Meanwhile, all Americans are enveloped in a feeling of dread knowing that if any team can make things worse in just fifty-eight more days, the current boobs can and probably will. January 20th cannot come soon enough.

 
The Thinker

Message to Sarah Palin: please, please fade away!

Like many electoral weary Americans, I have this urgent post-electoral request of Governor Sarah Palin: is it too much to, like, just fade away? It’s the patriotic thing to do.

John McCain knows his job as loser is to fade away. The press is helping. The other day he spoke at a campaign rally for incumbent Saxby Chambliss, who is in a runoff election for the Georgia Senate seat against Democrat challenger Jim Martin. You probably didn’t know this. That is because the press largely ignored the event. CNN showed some live pictures from the rally, but was far more interested talking to Ted Turner, who was also at the rally, than reporting McCain’s endorsement speech.

But Sarah “I can field dress a moose” Palin, McCain’s stunningly bad choice for a running mate, simply refuses to fade away. She had her sixty days of national fame. She liked being recognized by sight by most of us in the lower forty-eight. Between her welcome home rally, an interview in her home with NBC’s Matt Lauer (where she made some moose meat chili in her gosh darn real kitchen), another interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and trying to steal the show at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida, Mrs. Palin is working hard to make sure we will not forget her.

I know I sure would like to forget her. I would like to forget the $150,000 her campaign wasted on her clothes and a hairdresser. I would like to forget her annoying “you betcha’s”, her Canuck accent, her high heels and her pregnant daughter Bristol. I want to forget about Trig having Downs Syndrome, and her being for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. I would like to purge forever from my brain her claims about being a tax cutter when she raised taxes on oil companies. I would like to forget about the bloated sports complex she built in Wasilla as mayor. In fact, I would like to forget even the name of Wasilla. I would love to forget her crude campaign to remove her ex-brother in law from the state police. I would love to forget that condescending wink she gave during the vice presidential debate. If she would just fade away, maybe in time these memories would vanish!

In short, I would be happy to go back spending as much time hearing about the governor of Alaska as I do about the governor of Delaware. Unfortunately, the media will not let me. They remain intrigued by all things Sarah Palin and she is happy to take every opportunity to make sure she stays in the national spotlight. Is she trying to succeed in her comeback by never leaving our national consciousness? You betcha! Since we are pretty much sick of Paris Hilton, she is glad to assume the role of our new national feminine distraction. The first rule of politics is that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

It might help if our president elect spent more time in the public spotlight. Instead, Barack Obama seems determined to hide behind the scenes until President Bush leaves office. It is already clear what an Obama Adminstration will look like: it will be unsexy, low key and pragmatic, lead by a serenely unruffled president. Our new president may have a magnetic personality to many, but if he likes being vainglorious, he is keeping it well hidden. In the years ahead, when there are political successes from an Obama Administration, do not expect them to break out the champagne that often.

So perhaps instead the media fixates on Palin. Palin knows that she has an image problem. The whole point of inviting Matt Lauer to Wasilla was to begin an image makeover. Maybe Mrs. Palin does know that Africa is a continent after all (it was an urban legend that she did not, but it sure sounded like something she would not know), but she might be able to soften her image a bit by showing that while being governor she too is a domestic goddess like millions of other wives and mothers. Obviously there is little point in softening up her image if she imagined governor of Alaska being the zenith of her career. No, quite clearly being a party’s vice presidential nominee and speaking to all those adoring crowds whetted her appetite for grander ambitions. Her next stepping-stone may be to serve in the U.S. Senate. Her real ambition, after having a thorough image makeover, might well be to be the nation’s first female president. If I were Palin, I would begin with a large number of flashcards. Maybe she can borrow some from Bristol.

Given that the Republican brand is in tatters and a plurality of Americans thought she was unfit for the vice presidency, let alone the presidency, she might not be the ideal candidate in 2012. In fact, if the Republican Party wants to control Congress and the White House again, some reinvention of the party will be necessary. Clearly, what they are selling no longer holds much appeal with swing voters. It is unlikely that this can be done in the short term. Sticking to principles no matter how unworkable they have proven in the past, is something most Republicans view as an asset. Arguably though, John McCain did relatively well in this election in part because his role as the Republican maverick did help with some independent voters. In a disastrous electoral year, he only lost by seven points. A repackaged and more mainstream Sarah Palin could appeal to independent voters. To do so, she will have to help persuade Republicans to be less insular and headstrong party. This could be a big challenge as she exhibited both these characteristics during the campaign. Palin shows some accommodation toward reality. She is more tolerant of gays than many Republicans, perhaps due to a pervasive libertarian streak out West.

While I desperately want Sarah Palin to go away, some other part of me hopes she stays in the public spotlight because her presence is likely to be counterproductive. Now that her brand has been established, changing her image is going to be quite challenging. Memories of Republican rule may fade in time. However, if she is there as a constant reminder of why Americans threw Republicans out of power, this could actually help broaden the Democratic Party as well as harden the still wet cement of its electoral footings.

My suspicion though is that the Republican Party of 2012 is going to try to look at lot more like the pragmatic, intelligent and bipartisan Mitt Romney than the eccentric Sarah Palin. In the short term, it will probably not succeed in this marketing, given its long history. However, if Americans need a constant reminder of why they threw the Republicans out of power, having Sarah Palin regularly in the media could be the gift that keeps on giving to the Democratic Party. Since Palin insists on being in the media spotlight anyhow, perhaps I just need to cover my ears instead.

 
The Thinker

America loves “socialism”

One of the more baffling attacks during the recent presidential campaign were stern warnings from John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin that the election of Barack Obama would lead to socialism. Pretty much anything Barack Obama proposed in the way of new government programs amounted to socialism. Health care reform: socialism. Raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year: socialism. According to their campaign, Obama’s programs were designed to take away your freedoms and give the government more power. These tactics seem to have worked to some degree. Since Obama’s election, gun sales have gone way up. Despite promises from Obama to the contrary, gun owners believe that Obama will take away their right to bear arms.

Ironically, the Bush Administration, through its own ineptitude, is moving us closer to real socialism than anything that is likely to happen during an Obama Administration. This is because many Americans have no idea what socialism actually is. They confuse new government programs with socialism.

In a true socialist state, the government controls the means of production. If you want to see socialism at work, take a trip to Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez Frías has nationalized the country’s oil industry, its telephone industry and dozens of other industries. He is working to nationalize the country’s health care system too. If we had socialism in the United States, there would be no GM, Ford and Chrysler. Instead, we would have the Agency for Automobile and Truck Production, which would probably be part of a new Department of Industrial Production. Yet, because of the market meltdown, we are moving in that direction. As a condition for providing bailouts to banks, investment firms and other industries, Congress demanded an equity stake in many of these firms. After all, if these institutions revive and become profitable in time then after providing all those billions of tax dollars to keep them afloat, taxpayers should enjoy their share of the profits.

Still, having a major equity stake in a company like AIG, or a bank like WaMu, is a long way from managing these institutions. Given that these institutions collapsed from their own mismanagement, it is unlikely that federal overseers will do a worse job of managing them. Nor are federal bailouts unprecedented. We have done it many times before, with Chrysler in the early 1980s and with many savings and loans later that decade. Sometimes, as in the case of Chrysler, taxpayers actually got their money back. In general, the government has no long-term interest in owning these companies. It wants to make sure the American taxpayer is not fleeced, if possible, before returning them back over to the private sector. That is not socialism; that is being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.

If programs that redistribute wealth are socialism then clearly Americans are comfortable with socialism. The whole point of government is to redistribute personal wealth. We could have eschewed taxes when our country was formed. We learned that it is hard to protect the nation by hoping many unpaid farm hands toting guns would show up when faced with insurrection or invasion. We form governments to handle common societal problems too big to be solved individually. Duh!

No Republican or Democrat that I am aware of (except possibly for a few cranks, like Ron Paul) has called for abolishing our social security system. An attempt by the Bush Administration to just tinker around the edges (their proposal to allow younger workers to redirect some of the money going into social security into private accounts) was soundly rejected by Congress. Now, with the collapse of the financial markets, just the idea is laughable, never again to be resurrected. It turns out that mortgaging our retirement on risky and uncertain financial markets is unacceptable. We want some assurance of a reliable income in retirement.

After forty years of success, Medicare is also not going to be abolished either. Currently it is the primary means for older Americans to get health care after retirement. It is in effect a national health care system for senior citizens. It has had its issues over the years, but has been widely embraced by Americans since it was enacted during the Johnson Administration. Indeed, it has been expanded. The apparently “socialist” Bush Administration, as one of its early initiatives, expanded the Medicare system to include a new prescription drug benefit.

Moreover, if we are going to promote rugged individualism, what is with all those hundreds of billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies? Most of that money goes to predominantly red states. How many farmers who voted for McCain/Palin are anxious to lose their subsidies and take their chances in the free market?

No, when Republicans rail against expanding the size of government, what they really mean is they do not want to expand it for those they feel are not “enfranchised”, i.e. not “real” citizens (people like them). This means they are perfectly okay with programs like the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, but are leery about programs that, say, subsidize housing for the poor. The way Republicans see the world, the poor need to be more miserable, because if they are more miserable then they will have more incentive to escape from poverty through their own wits. They will become little Horatio Algers by working their fannies off and moving to the middle or upper class, just like George and Louise Jefferson. Then maybe they will be part of the enfranchised class and get more of those nice federal benefits, like that sweet home mortgage interest deduction. Never mind that most of those who do move from the lower to the middle class do so only because the government lent a helping hand. (My wife and I are examples. Our first home was financed with the help of FHA. We are now prosperous upper middle class adults.)

These “socialist” programs continue year after year because they are popular and they generally seem to work. If they were not they would be abolished. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Americans tend to like government programs in general. If there is a disconnect, it is that while Americans want these programs, they do not necessarily want to pay for them. This really is the root of our deficit spending problem. As I discussed elsewhere, deficits simply drive down the value of the dollar overall, so deficit spending tends to be counterproductive in the end.

We are about to see the return of a progressive administration. Yes, we are going to see bigger government, just as we got it under Bush and every administration in memory except possibly under Carter. While government will grow, government is likely to change in different ways under an Obama Administration, with less money being wasted in military adventures and more money being directed to solve problems closer to home. We will not mind that much either. We will not even care if our taxes go up, so long as we get national health insurance as part of the deal. What is most important is the net effect on our wallets. If we can find a way to get health care less expensively through a government managed program, we are going to embrace it. Simply having the certainty that health care will be there when we need it, whether we are employed or not, will be an enormous relief to the vast majority of Americans.

If this is socialism, Americans say: bring it on.

 
The Thinker

Hope reborn and sanity restored

I was not worried about yesterday’s election outcome. When the economy tanked in mid September, it became abundantly clear to me than no Republican presidential candidate could beat this political headwind. The only question was the magnitude of Barack Obama’s win and how many other Democrats would be pulled in his wake. Given the circumstances, the Republicans in general did pretty well.

President Bush, a deeply unpopular president whose approval ratings were in the twenties, clearly dragged down the Republican brand. Republicans also carried an enormous set of baggage into this election. They were instrumental and wholly complicit in creating the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression. It was somewhat karmic that it untimely reached the severely acute phase just six weeks before the election. Republicans had also embroiled the country in two foreign wars and dug us more than ten trillion dollars into debt. Because of their policies, most Americans have seen their real wages decrease. Virtually everyone who put money aside has watched the value of their portfolios drop precipitously. All of these stupid actions were entirely preventable had we elected pragmatic men and women instead of ideologues.

Yet, in spite of all these things, McCain lost by only six percentage points, which suggests his campaign was reasonably effective. Moreover, while Democrats made broad gains in the House and Senate, their gains were not as sweeping as pundits like me anticipated. There are five Democratic Senate pickups for sure, with four races still in dispute. At best only one of the four in dispute will tip toward the Democrats. Democrats will not have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Democratic House gains were relatively modest under the circumstances too. Democrats picked up 19 seats so far while eight other races remain in dispute.

Viewed over the last two years, the magnitude of our political change has been remarkable. Before the 2006 election, we had one party Republican government. In January 2009, we will have one party Democratic government. Republicans will still be able to block legislation in the Senate via filibuster but they do not control the agenda.

Still, thinking Republicans should feel shell-shocked. This election showed that the solid red South is crumbling. In an election or two, it might disappear altogether. Florida has always been somewhat iffy, but was decidedly peeled away. My state of Virginia, which has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, voted for Obama over McCain by five percent. North Carolina still has not been called, but if the current results stands, Obama should carry that state too. McCain is likely to hold on to Missouri, but just barely. While the current electoral count is now 349-163 for Obama, the final count is likely to be 364-174, a trouncing of nearly 200 electoral votes. Moreover, Republicans have no clear path back into power. New younger voters preferred Democrats by nearly a factor of two to one. Their best hope for returning to power is simply to hope that Democrats governed like buffoons too. When the Republican Party eventually is voted back into power, it should look substantially different from the current party.

While for me the outcome was never in doubt, I felt euphoric nonetheless when it arrived. I felt happiest for my African American brethren, most of whom assumed they would never live to see an African American elected President of the United States. The scenes on TV of so many African Americans crying in joy after the networks called the election for Obama were poignant, heartfelt, wondrously joyful and oh so heartfelt, as was Obama’s masterful victory speech. As a metaphor, the election of Barack Obama works well on so many levels. For the last eight years, America has projected itself as an insular, unreasonable, mean and dogmatic nation. Last night I saw reemerge the America I knew growing up. With Obama’s election, racism in our country was dealt a fatal blow and African Americans realized they too were fully enfranchised citizen not just in law, but in fact. A new and better America has emerged that is more tolerant, generous and inclusive than the America of the 20th century. In the 21st century, real America is not rural American, but is colorfully multi-hued, as reflect by its new president elect.

It remains to be seen whether through sheer force of personality President Obama can truly unite us. Unquestionably, he inherits problems of a magnitude not seen in more than a generation. Yet, since we must move through these times anyhow, we are blessed with one of the few leaders up to the job of leading us safely through this treacherous minefield.

For many of us older Americans, the end of the Bush Administration feels like the moments after Watergate’s sad denouement. We remember a sense of relief and a feeling of national shame as we watched the presidential helicopter carry away a disgraced President Nixon. When President Ford told us that our long national nightmare was over, we cried in relief (but not in joy) and wondered if our nation would really remain true to its ideals.

The sad truth for those of us who lived through the Nixon years is that these last eight years have been far worse. Back then we were not numb to the implications of Nixon’s unconstitutional and unlawful actions. Yet President Nixon was at least held accountable by Congress. This congress has given this administration a pass for its crimes. Just to make sure no one is held accountable, President Bush is likely to offer pardons to all the usual suspects. Over these last eight years, we have repeatedly witnessed egregious and previously unthinkable crimes by our government, executed in a premeditated and matter of fact manner by our insular and headstrong leaders. We have seen our nation engage in torture. We have watched our president blithely ignore laws he found it inconvenient by issuing signing statements that he embodied with the force of law. Our armies have inflicted mass suffering on Iraqis by the millions. In doing so, we inherited a staggering karmic debt that will take generations of good deeds to repay. We have spent like a drunken sailor, mortgaged our future and nearly kicked off another Great Depression, bringing the whole world with us. We have witnessed ideology wholly divorced from reality and suffered its disastrous consequences.

My euphoria last night, like that of many Americans, came from the realization that our constitution still works in a creaky sort of way. Sadly, due to our spineless Congress, it did not work through our system of checks and balances, but in a delayed manner through our electoral system. Yet we finally did emerge from our fear-induced stupor and by electing Barack Obama took the critical step necessary to put the nation aright again. In seventy-six days, for the first time in eight years we will have a president that actually puts the rule of law and our constitution first. Imagine that! In seventy-six days, the lunatics will be formally kicked out of the asylum and the grownups will be back in charge.

 

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