Obama demonstrates he is the real grown up in the room

The Thinker by Rodin

Our national government currently resembles a three-ring circus. Between carbon copy Republicans running for president on a platform of mostly hot air, pabulum from the so-called leaders of the U.S. congress and the weird rulings and opinions from our Supreme Court justices, a whole lot of nothing meaningful is happening in Washington at your expense.

There is thankfully one exception: we’re getting a lot of leadership from President Obama. And yesterday, the president tentatively scored a major win: a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, in concert with four other major powers that participated in the talks. The agreement reduces Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the next ten years and Iran gets release from the crippling sanctions against the country. This will be done through unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities and sealed commitments to reduce its uranium stockpiles.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the agreement was announced but I was also grinning. In his first presidential campaign, Obama had promised change we could believe in. It’s been hard to deliver a lot of this change given the relentless obstruction in Congress, but this agreement should it be realized certainly will be change I can believe in. This is the kind of change I voted for, and it’s meaningful change.

While Republicans fall over themselves to deny global warming, restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and make life increasingly miserable for the poor and the wretched, at least Obama has kept his focus long term. While CEOs do conniptions to show higher quarterly profits, our president has ignored the rhetoric of the moment and concentrated on what we paid him for: real leadership. And boy did he deliver yesterday!

Consider what would happen if “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” John McCain had been elected president instead of Barack Obama. It’s pretty clear what would have happened based on McCain’s own words then and over the last six and a half years. Negotiate with Iran? It would not have been an option. It would have been framed as negotiating with terrorists. It’s quite likely that instead we would now be hip deep in another long, ghastly and frighteningly expensive war with Iran. Bombs would be dropping. Our ships would be shelling Iran’s shores. Aircraft would be dropping bunker-busting bombs all over the country, and maybe outside of it. Our troops would be dying, and overstretched in the area, which is already rife with conflict. That region would be even more so with a major war in Iran and the Islamic State even more resurgent. Consider what would be giving up now if we were at war with Iran: support for the Iraqi government, and the Kurds and pretty much anyone else trying to contain the Islamic state, and that’s just for starters. Our attention on other threats in Asia and Africa would be largely nonexistent.

This new war, as awful as it would be, would be far more awful because it would set in motion a series of future wars. Rather than contain Iran’s nuclear might, it would unleash decades of future madness in that region. Iran, which already hates America, would find it hated us even more due to the war. It would be working that much harder to undermine our national security through its proxies. You don’t have to look far in the Middle East to see how the hate business propagates endlessly. Israel and Palestine are locked in an eternal war fought as lots of major skirmishes. Each action by Israel or proxies for the Palestinians simply set up the participants for the next one, and further inflames tensions, making it impossible for them to cool. There is no military solution to their problems, just as there is no military solution to the West’s conflict with Iran.

The difference is that unlike Israel’s relentless intransigence, the United States can affect real political change through diplomacy instead of war. Obama figured that out long before he was president. He realized that the most important thing was to stop the cycle of hate and paranoia, because this puts out the flames of war. He spoke openly to the Iranian people that change was possible. He said that Iran and the United States did not have to be eternal enemies. He said we could resolve our conflict through diplomacy, but only if both sides were earnest and passions could cool. To improve the odds he worked with an international coalition not just to maintain sanctions on Iran but also to work together to find a peaceful way to lift them through a comprehensive agreement. And amazingly with the help of two hard working secretaries of state (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) and of course our international partners (which gave us credibility), they pulled off this agreement.

Of course there are no guarantees that Congress will approve this agreement. It will probably be rejected, but because it is not a treaty, Obama’s veto of their bill rejecting it probably means he will win. This is because Congress probably can’t muster two thirds majority in both chambers to overrule his veto. Of course it is fraught with lots of potential pitfalls. But it also significantly reduces Iran’s nuclear weapon making capability and brings Iran back into the international community. It eases tensions and allows time for Iran’s demographics to take hold. It is a country full of young people, and it’s likely as they age they will have much more liberal values than their current leaders. You can see this from the satellite dishes on pretty much every house of size in Iran today. Iranians are more than ready to embrace Western values. They are just waiting for the political climate to change.

You will hear the usual noise from the war hawks about why this agreement is actually a calamity and how we are selling out our values not to mention our national security. In reality, Obama is holding us to our values, showing that we are a nation that values peace and goodwill. This buys real national security because when people don’t have reason to hate you, something called real peace happens. Obama is showing that we can model what is best about our country to the rest of the world again, rather than assert what is worst about it. He is reminding us of a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s when this was the United States and we really were that shining city on the hill. We sponsored the United Nations. We rebuilt Europe. We built international coalitions to handle the Korean conflict. We fed much of the malnourished world. We were an awesome country back then.

To quote the late Hubert Humphrey, I’m as pleased as punch with our president. Obviously he is not a flawless president. I too have major concerns with some of his decisions as president. However, his focus on a long game and doing the intelligent thing rather than the emotional thing certainly garners not just my respect, but also my deep admiration and gratitude.

Thank you for being one of the few grown up leaders in our government, Mr. President.

47 mutineers

The Thinker by Rodin

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

John Kerry: Yesterday’s News

The Thinker by Rodin

John Kerry may have lost the 2004 election but he is clearly running for 2008. His consolation prize for losing was a couple million names on his email list. Since last November he has been busy stuffing my email box. It was vital to him that I knew he was doing his best to put kids first, stop John Bolton’s nomination as our U.N. Ambassador, keep Senate filibuster rules in place, submit bills to help Iraq war veterans, among other efforts. Occasionally I bite and sign an electronic petition. It’s a pretty painless thing to do. But I realize these efforts don’t amount to much. I understand what is really going on. John Kerry doesn’t want me to forget about him when he runs for president again in 2008. Next time he figures he doesn’t have to spend quite as much effort going house to house in key precincts in early primary states. Instead he can solicit those of us on his massive mailing list for campaign cash.

Well, I have news for you John. It’s not that I don’t respect you or your positions. You are a liberal Democrat after all. It’s just that, well, you are yesterday’s news. I like many other Democrats was lukewarm when you emerged from the Democratic pack. On the other hand there was the alternative: four more years of George W. Bush. So it was easy to write those checks. I sent you $450 in the last campaign. When I couldn’t give any more money to you because of election laws, I gave to the Democratic National Committee. And I gave lots more to MoveOn.org and other interest groups. But here’s the thing John: just because I gave you money didn’t mean I was enthusiastic about you as a candidate. And I’m sure not enthusiastic at all about you running for president again.

2004 was a year when a Democrat should have won the White House. George W. Bush had racked up an appalling record. But still you lost. I admit you did well in the debates. But you still bungled the larger campaign. Your campaign seemed to be run by a bunch of rank amateurs. They were clueless responding to organizations like the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. So much mud was slung at you but you didn’t know how to sling it back. For months you dithered over actions like calling Bush to task for his bungling on the war in Iraq. Maybe you spent too much time fretting that maybe it would make you look unpatriotic. Or perhaps you were too intimidated by the Swifties to simply acknowledge the truth that Howard Dean so eloquently and convincingly stated back in 2003. Whatever. Rather than setting the agenda you fell for every trap the Republicans put out for you. Rather than being on the offense you were continually on the defense. You could have acknowledged that your vote on the Iraq war was simply a mistake. Then you would have had credibility. Instead you tried to have it both ways.

You came across as an egghead because you are an egghead. I am sure you had your share of adversity in life, and I certainly acknowledge that you served honorably in Vietnam. But you come from a privileged and elite background and it shows. I’ve never seen anyone who looked more at home in a three-piece suit than you. You must have been born in a suit. So you didn’t connect with ordinary Americans. Whatever sense of empathy you tried to project, we could tell it was insincere.

And now with 2008 clearly in mind you are doubtlessly trying to follow your media handlers’ advice by trying to project the image of a new John Kerry. The new John Kerry seems to be markedly more anti-gay and “mainstream” than the one that ran in the election. Now you want to pretend you are a Washington outsider. Sorry John, you are so intimately connected with the inside the Beltway political establishment that you might as well be a zebra trying to change its stripes. You look ridiculous and insincere in this latest role. We all see through it. But somehow you find yourself saying stupid stuff like the Massachusetts’s Democratic Party made a mistake for supporting same sex marriage in their platform. You said it does not conform to the broad views of party members.

Are you sure about that John? My sense is that if you asked most Democrats they’d say they definitely support gay marriage. They might support civil unions, but not because they believe in a “separate but equal” status for gay couples, but because they realize it may be a pragmatic step toward ensuring that gays someday have the same privileges as any other citizen. In other words John, a mainstream Democrat believes passionately in equal rights and responsibilities for all. Who is the out of the mainstream Democrat, John? I would say you are, particularly because I don’t believe you really believe your own dogma. When you said during the campaign that you were for civil unions but not for gay marriage we Democrats sensed your position was just marketing. Your latest image remaking is bogus too.

You want to know why so many of us were drawn to Howard Dean? It was because he was the real deal: a man who said what he meant and was passionate in his convictions. It was obvious from the tone of his voice, his body language, his red face and his throbbing neck veins that he meant what he said. He didn’t mince words. He wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He connected. You don’t.

So sorry John. I am sure you are a nice man and one of our better senators in Congress. But you really aren’t all that special and I don’t consider you presidential material. I am sure you would have been infinitely better than the bozo currently in the Oval Office. At least you have some critical thinking skills. But there are many better Democratic candidates out there. In match ups of potential Democratic challengers you are an also ran. Forty percent of Democrats surveyed prefer Hillary Clinton. You only draw eighteen percent.

John, if you are the Democratic nominee in 2008 you will likely get more money from me. We Democrats must remain united, even if our picks turn out to be somewhat odious. But I will be working for someone else during the primaries. Do not assume that because I sent you money that I am necessarily enthusiastic about you as a candidate. For most of us on your precious mailing list, you are yesterday’s news.

Selling Fear

The Thinker by Rodin

For a left brained person like myself it is hard to understand how a couple weeks before the election, polls can show George W. Bush a few points ahead of Senator John Kerry. Kerry should be the obvious choice. In normal times he would be the obvious choice. But in this election the usual factors that would defeat an incumbent may not work.

When a president’s approval rating hovers in the mid forties (where Bush is at currently) his reelection is usually in deep trouble. When this happens independents will usually break for the challenger, not the incumbent. Any impartial observer of this election would have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for four more years of George W. Bush. His record is a disaster, both domestically and internationally. He has created the largest annual budget deficits in our history in just four years, after taking over a surplus. On the jobs front he will certainly be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs during his term. Middle class jobs are disappearing and those that replace them tend to pay less. Health insurance costs are going through the roof resulting in more people without health insurance. Gas prices are at all time highs. Internationally we failed to find and kill the person who carried out the 9/11 atrocities, invaded a country that was no threat to us and managed to earn the disgust of much of the international community. When handing out political favors Bush’s rich friends always get top preferences. So how could it be that Bush could possibly win this election?

It could be the liberal media isn’t liberal at all, which is pretty obvious to me. It could also be that Kerry is an incompetent campaigner. The presidential debates dispelled that notion. Not only did Kerry win all three debates but also Kerry comes across as presidential and very sober. Unlike Bush, Kerry actually has realistic plans for dealing with our current problems. Perhaps the “liberal” label pinned on Kerry still causes independents to recoil in horror. I don’t quite understand it because I don’t see anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously talking about getting rid of liberal programs like Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. But it’s pretty clear that if there were a median scale with 1 being very liberal and 10 being very conservative, Kerry might rate a 3 but Bush would be a definite 10. In other words Bush is much further from the mainstream than Kerry could ever hope to be. At least Kerry actually advocates fiscal responsibility. The Bush solution is to open the treasury vault wide to all of his cronies. There is no limit to the amount of tax money he is willing to give away to special interests that will lend him support.

So why is Bush even competitive? The only thing that comes to my mind is that much of America is still gripped by fear. Why shouldn’t it be? Since 9/11 it’s been an “all fear, all the time” administration. To ensure that we are always fearful the Department of Homeland Security makes sure we always know the current fear level. Simply go to the DHS home page to see how fearful the government wants you to be today. Oddly it has never gone below “elevated” so we should always be on our guard.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Upon examining my own motives my fear of terrorism was one of the reasons I began an active search for a federal job close to home. Working in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. and having worked in the city on 9/11 I experienced some of the horror of that day personally. I was ultimately successful and now work three miles from the house at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. So if fear can motivate a left brained person like me it likely can motivate a whole lot of others too.

In retrospect we understand that the 2002 elections were won on fear that our nation was going to be rife with incidents of Islamic terrorism. We were told that only the Republicans had the maturity and judgment to deal adequately with such a grave national emergency. Never mind that the Democrats had backed the same antiterrorism legislation as the Republicans. Republicans in general and Bush in particular were utterly shameless in their pandering to our fears. And we succumbed. As a nation we wanted to suck our thumb and pretend our Big Daddy would make everything right.

In poll after poll while Bush gets poor marks on domestic issues he gets high marks on national security. So as long as Bush can persuade voters that terrorism is still a major national problem he can keep riding the coattails of our 9/11 fear. To some of us trusting Bush to do right on national security seems ludicrous. A president who preemptively invades another country that had no connection to our national security or 9/11 logically is not demonstrating good judgment. But apparently what is at work here is not a left-brain analysis but a right-brain reaction. Lots of people are right brain dominant and are ruled more by their feelings than by dispassionate logic. If I had to guess I’d bet there are a whole lot more left brained Democrats than Republicans.

I think my reaction to find a job outside of Washington D.C. was an entirely logical response to 9/11. I had witnessed the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon on 9/11 firsthand. So my fear that I might be a future victim if I worked in the city was entirely plausible. On the other hand to think that we are protecting our national security by invading countries that pose no threat to us is illogical. Yet it was an emotional response that many could relate to. It said to the world “Don’t mess with the United States or we’re going to squash your country like a bug.” The reality of course was something completely different. We can win a conventional war against any other nation except possibly China. But as we seem to be demonstrating in Iraq we are unlikely to succeed in the securing the peace phase following the war. But terrorism generally operates outside nation states and breeds the most in countries that most closely resemble anarchies. Logically to win the war on terrorism we should be securing nuclear and chemical stockpiles and changing the conditions that breed terrorists. But that doesn’t have a whole lot of PR value. It doesn’t satisfy our need to see some concrete results. When we have bunker busting bombs blowing apart alleged terrorist bunkers we feel better. “See? We’ve destroyed an apartment complex in Falluja today harboring terrorists! We’re winning the war on terrorism!”

If the Bush-Cheney team can keep us in fear and if it succeeds in populating the meme that its strategy is actually making our nation safer it might win the election. So this election may come down to whether Democrats can succeed in engaging the left brains of voters. If we can do this we should be able to win this election. If we don’t not only will we lose but also we actually put our national security in a lot more jeopardy. When times are tough and scary we need to think clearly and with reason, not succumb to “feel good” emotional balms for our fears. Let’s hope we can disengage the reptilian portions of our brain just long enough to throw Bush out of office on November 2nd.

No Escape from the Truth

The Thinker by Rodin

I love presidential debates. It’s a shame we have to go four years between them because they are such fine theater. Despite attempts by the Bush team to control every aspect of the debate it turned out that the candidates came through in all their resplendent humanity. Unfortunately for George W. Bush the American people got to see the real Bush, not the stage-managed Bush. For Bush prior to last Thursday the 2004 Presidential Campaign meant reading from prepared scripts to partisan crowds meticulously screened to ensure zero dissent. The picture presented was fundamentally false as is almost everything else about George W. Bush.

But last Thursday we got to see the real W. And it was not a pretty sight. It turned out that the real Bush was peevish. Scowling. Haughty. Sneering. Aloof. Detached. He looked like a man getting a high colonic. And he conveyed all this without evening opening his mouth. When he did open his mouth he was rambling, repetitious, bumbling and at times wholly incoherent. I actually felt sorry for my Republican friends on Thursday night. I’d hate to have to try to sell swing voters on the virtues of George W. Bush based on this performance, viewed by 62.5 million Americans.

Not that Kerry had a perfect performance. He started out a bit rough but he improved as the debate progressed. While he took notes as Bush spoke Kerry wore a very slight but noticeable “cat that ate the canary” smile on this face. But I would have looked smug too. It would be hard not to smile while watching your opponent make such an utter ass of himself. But unlike Bush at least Kerry could put together a sentence with some nuance to it. This is a skill that Bush simply does not possess. About all Bush could say was “It’s hard work” ad nauseam. How would he know? Bush has never known hard work. Yet even if he had known hard work, what’s the point of hard work if it doesn’t achieve results? Of course it’s hard work to try to turn a flawed strategy into something viable. It’s hard work because you are going against inertia.

But even if Bush had the gift of glibness that night Kerry had one other weapon in his arsenal for which there was no adequate response: the Bush Record. I thought Dick Gephardt was being charitable when during the primaries he called Bush “a miserable failure”. All Kerry had to do was articulate his failures so those who had spent the last four years detached from politics could hear them. It wasn’t so much Kerry who was devastating to Bush. It was Truth: pure, unadulterated and unembellished truth plainly articulated that really turned the tide for Kerry. You cannot BS the truth.

Yes, Kerry had W metaphorically pinned right down on the mat. How can Bush possibly claim that Saddam was a threat to the United States when there was no evidence to support it? No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq despite pre-invasion claims that Saddam was reconstituting weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that in spite of complete assurances to the contrary that there was no connection at all between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. We have nine thousand troops in Afghanistan where the enemy of 9/11 still lurks and 115,000 troops in Iraq, which holds no national security interest to our country whatsoever.

It was a brilliant stroke for Kerry to quote back Bush’s own father on the dangers of trying to take over Iraq. It was also brilliant to quote Bush’s own Secretary of State on the “Pottery Barn Rule”: You break it (Iraq), you own it. Every time Kerry uttered yet another simple but obvious truth about Bush’s inept war on terror the fog cleared a little. By the end of the debate it had lifted entirely and Bush was naked. We could see George W. Bush for who he truly is: a pretty pathetic, fraudulent and spineless guy high on rhetoric but short on accomplishments.

And it will not get any better for either Bush or Cheney. I have little doubt that John Edwards will clean Dick Cheney’s clock in tomorrow night’s debate. It is certainly advantageous that Edwards is an ex trial lawyer and a maestro at debating. But again it won’t take much for him to show the fraud that is Dick Cheney either. There are too many quotes out of Dick Cheney’s mouth to possibly take him seriously as an authority to be trusted. As the leader of the neoconservative wing of his party and arguably the real power behind the presidency he has nothing good to show for it. All of his assertions have proven completely wrong.

The Bush team can only hope that prejudice and hubris will win them this election. That’s all they’ve got: their committed base. But it’s not enough to win. There are more Democrats than Republicans in this country, and the Independent vote is going to skew toward Kerry. Although it is hard to see a month before the election, only the most improbable of events or the most inept last month of campaigning by Kerry and Edwards will keep John Kerry from the presidency.