Between an economic rock and a hard place

The Thinker by Rodin

Truth seems to be a precious commodity these days. Truth is not always easy to handle, but it does has the virtue of being true. Given the truth, you at least have a chance of working your way out of a problem. Unfortunately, there are many vested interests out there willing to lie or give us only partial truths purely to advance their agendas at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The current presidential campaign needs a whole lot of truth from both President Obama and future Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Of the two, Obama at least is closer to telling us the truth, but he is shielding Americans from harder truths. I wish that Obama could simply dump his posturing and nuancing and simply tell us the truth. It would be especially welcome to hear some truth about the economy, particularly yesterday when our unemployment rate crept up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent, while we actually very modestly increased hiring.

Republicans are all over the report, of course, pointing it as more evidence of a failed presidency. No question about it, 8.2 percent unemployment is not great, particularly if you are unemployed and don’t wish to be unemployed. Is it Obama’s fault? Shouldn’t he be held accountable because he is president?

Obama at least has a net increase in jobs during his administration and twenty-seven months of consecutive job growth, which is more than you can say about the George W. Bush administration. I think Obama has done a remarkable job dealing with an economy that at the start of his term looked like it was heading into a new depression. At least we are heading in the right direction.

Yet the reality is that neither Obama nor a President Romney can work miracles on this economy by himself. This is because the president has limited powers. The alchemy of presidential power happens at the edges, if it happens at all. Mostly it occurs when the president is successful in persuading Congress. This was hard for Obama even when Democrats were in charge, and virtually impossible now. Moreover, there are systemic problems that are at work that are likely to cause relatively high unemployment rates for years to come. Some of these can be ameliorated; some cannot. There are some short-term strategies that will improve the situation, but fixing the long-term problems is tough and cannot be solved by doing more of the same.

Here are some truths about our economy I wish I would hear from anyone running for public office:

  • We are in a hell of an economic mess mostly of our own making. Yes, it is partially the result of lots of things outside of our control, such as the closely connected international economy. It is also due to our inability to come to a political consensus. This, more than anything else, is the root of our problem, and our problems will likely linger until broad consensus is reached.
  • Europe matters. It is going into another recession. It has and will continue to affect our economy, and is probably the reason our job growth is slowing. Austerity in Europe is leaving people there poorer, and thus they cannot buy as many of our products and services, plus it adds uncertainty to the whole world economy. To some extent, our economy will be impacted until Europe itself achieves political consensus and its economy rebounds. And that is something neither Obama nor a new president can fix.
  • The economy is not going to improve by cutting public spending. Doing so will only cause the economy in the short term to get worse. This is because, no matter how inefficiently, spending money employs people. And when people are employed they mostly spend the money, which stimulates the economy.
  • Sustainable growth happens when we make new products or services that other people broadly want. And that does not happen through inertia but through a lot of research, investment and through having a highly skilled work force. It happens to some extent through government investments. The Internet, the key to our modern economy, was not a result of entrepreneurial behavior, but a result of a government research product.
  • Wealth does not trickle down. It grows as a result of a burgeoning middle class. The one percent already have virtually all they need and are not going to spend enough of their capital to grow the economy for the rest of us.
  • Growth requires infrastructure. The surest way to cripple our economy in the long term is to neglect infrastructure spending. Austerity will do just this.
  • We are all going to have to pay more taxes. If we are stupid enough to delude ourselves that we don’t have to, we will move our country down the economic ladder, eventually moving us into a second world status. Governments don’t exist to redistribute all wealth, but do need to redistribute some wealth; otherwise you don’t have a government. If it doesn’t, bridges don’t get built, roads don’t get paved, power grids deteriorate, children don’t get educations, shoddy medicines end up on the market and unsafe food ends up on our shelves and in our bodies. Our economy, including our national defense, depends on having our infrastructure in place.
  • The education of our citizens is a critical, if not the most critical, of all the factors underpinning our long-term economy. The free market cannot solve this problem. If it were possible, there would have been no reason to create public schools in the first place. True sustainable growth comes from maximizing the educational potential of all our children and applying it to products and services the world needs. That means we want all children capable of it to go to college, if possible. We want to inculcate a curiosity in our children and provide an environment that rewards creative thinking. We must invest in our children’s education, if for no other reason so they can sustain us in our old age.

In short, we are in a huge economic mess and the choices we are making or not making are making it worse. We need a national strategy that fundamentally addresses these issues. Tax cuts won’t solve the problem. Corporate welfare won’t do it either. We can start with spending heavily on infrastructure, through deficit spending if necessary. Perhaps we need a national infrastructure bank. Such a bank would serve to depolarize the issue of spending money on infrastructure. And it would certainly stimulate job growth, as well as better position us in a competitive world.

An adult in charge

The Thinker by Rodin

According to the latest AP-GfK poll, President Obama’s approval rating is at sixty percent. Much of this can be attributed to the death of Osama bin Laden. This high won’t last, but with ratings like these even at nine percent unemployment, America is feeling unusually favorable toward our president. This includes those ever-fickle independents. If Americans are generally satisfied with a president, they tend to stick with him for a second term. Consequently, it will be hard for Republicans to develop a compelling case against his reelection. Also working in Obama’s favor: a breathtaking lack of compelling Republican challengers.

Republicans may not be fact-based or evidence-driven, but thankfully at least our president is. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been dealt such an ugly hand upon taking office. FDR did much to soften the Great Depression by reducing unemployment almost in half, but it took a war to fully pull America out of its funk. After two years, we are technically out of a recession, but because of gas price increases, high unemployment and depressed housing prices most of us still feel like we are in one. Obama has done much to bring the change that he promised, but it is clear there is still much to do.

One thing that has worked in his favor is his willingness to work strategically. His ability to focus on something that would change the dynamic in the War on Terror, through finding and killing Osama bin Laden, was but one example. Obama had planned to start withdrawing troops this year from Afghanistan. With Americans solidly wanting us to get out of the country, he may finally take up my suggestion and withdraw. Our objective, at least as it was originally conceived when the War on Terror began, is accomplished. Al Qaeda, if there is anything left of it, likely doesn’t have more than a few dozen people in Afghanistan. The Taliban are again out of power. Combine a withdrawal from Afghanistan with a nearly complete withdrawal from Iraq, and he can claim two foreign policy successes. (Timing will be important, however. The Afghan government was never likely to remain in power for long after we left, and almost certainly won’t be able to once we are gone. If its government has to fall, it’s best to make sure it happens shortly after the election.)

Everyone seems surprised by the president we actually got. Like most liberals, I was hoping for a more comprehensive health care reform than the half-baked mess we actually got. I did not expect him to turn out to be as centrist a president as he is. In some ways he is Republican in the 1970s mold. He is a centrist to all but Republicans who by moving their goal post so far to the right claim he is a socialist. He turned out to have way more energy than I expected. Bill Clinton was legendary for his short sleep cycles and long working hours. I don’t know how many hours Obama actually works, but I am amazed by his ability to smartly multitask, to delegate responsibly, to ask the right probing questions and to play his cards close to his chest. He might want to take up competitive poker in retirement.

I remember groaning last December when before the new Congress took office he pushed for a politically risky set of spending cuts and tax reductions. However, it was a smart thing to do. It postponed inevitable confrontations with Congress and kept a fragile recovery from faltering by putting more money into Americans’ pockets. Frankly, it was both smart and gutsy. He knew that if given a choice between cutting spending and pocketing tax cuts, Republicans would pick the latter. He made their weaknesses work to his advantage.

Obama also surprises in unconventional ways. Few people pay attention to our space program, but essentially Obama decided the way we were doing manned spaceflight needed to evolve. He then directed the private sector to pick up the slack of getting our astronauts into orbit. It was time, fifty years into the space race, to let private industry bear these costs and risks instead of the taxpayer. Bush’s Orion program smelled from when it was first announced. You knew there was going to be (and there were) cost overruns and delays, and it would be done inefficiently. However long it takes for companies like SpaceX to provide NASA with a commercial vehicle to put astronauts in space, it will be done faster and cheaper than with requirements and oversight coming out of NASA. Instead, NASA can concentrate its manned spaceflight program on areas that matter: outside of earth orbit as well as devote more resources to its highly successful and cost efficient unmanned program.

If Obama has any genius this might be it: to see the underlying problem in any system or endeavor and sense what it truly takes to fix it. Obama understands things all politicians should understand but many deliberately choose not to understand. He understands that to reduce deficits in the long term, you need to increase deficits in the short term. The real problem with our trillion-dollar deficit is not the cost of entitlements, although Medicare and Medicaid cost increases are serious. The real problem is that our federal government is funded primarily through income taxes, and when people are unemployed or earn less, they pay less income tax. When millions are thrown out of the workforce in a short period of time, which is exactly what happened during this Great Recession, tax revenues plummet. It is not politically possible for budgets to be cut that much at same time, particularly when Americans particularly need services governments provide in recessions. So deficits increase.

I have yet to hear one prominent Republican admit the simple truth that declining income taxes are the principle cause of our current deficit. Of course, not many of them will admit that two unpaid for wars and an unpaid for expansion of Medicare contributed to the problem either. Cutting spending and increasing taxes would both reduce the deficit, but neither or both really solve it. A robust economy where the government gets a reasonable but not excessive share of the wealth is the way to really get rid of deficits. We know it works because it worked in the Clinton Administration. Confidence begets more confidence. Prosperity balances budgets and eventually creates surpluses, if spending is held in check with economic growth. High stakes showdowns over a debt ceiling does not engender confidence; in fact, it engenders just the opposite.

It would be hard to imagine a more irascible opposition than the Republican opposition that Obama currently has. It is one driven almost entirely by principle, much of it logically inconsistent. What a noxious brew they are, setting impossible demands to cut trillions in return for raising our debt ceiling. Yet, the crazier and more irascible that Republicans become, the more pragmatic and sober Obama appears. For the president, it becomes a virtuous cycle and for Republicans it merely lowers their overall low approval ratings even further. The burden for compromise shifts to Republicans, particularly when Obama and the Democrats are willing to go half way and they are not. Republicans are unlikely to capitulate entirely, but eventually the obvious self inflicted political carnage will likely result in small increments to the debt ceiling while parties try to work things out. A true grand compromise is unlikely given that there is so little common ground and an election will loom. Americans however want bipartisanship, and seeing none of it from Republicans merely reinforces their current case of buyer’s remorse. The advantage in the 2012 elections thus clearly swings toward the Democrats, who, the referenced AP poll show are picking up traction. On only one issue, national security, does the country trust Republicans more than Democrats, and that’s by a single point.

The middle is where elections are won but Republicans simply will not go there. Obama though has occupied that field and Democrats, somewhat reluctantly, are moving in as well. He is building political capital by being the only adult in the room.

It’s a shame though that he’s the only one.

bin Gone, and good riddance

The Thinker by Rodin

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.

Greater national dysfunction dead ahead

The Thinker by Rodin

In about two months, citizens will go to their polling station and choose their elected officials. God help us, because no matter which way we are likely to vote nationally, we’re going to be screwing ourselves and our nation.

If the election were held today, it looks likely that Republicans would retake the House, but the outcome is much less certain in the Senate. There is some possibility that Democrats will retain both houses of Congress, but even in that event Democrats will be trying to govern with much smaller majorities. Regardless of who wins, Barack Obama will still be our president. This means the only possible outcome is more dysfunction between branches of government, exacerbating the sorts of tactics that Americans are already sick of.

Polls show that voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans and pine for this idealistic notion that both parties will somehow put nation above party. As if. Instead, they have to vote from the slate of candidates they got. The dynamics suggest that in about ten percent of the House races (a remarkably high number) voters will vote their local bum out and vote in the bum from the other party.

Sweeping your current bum or bums out of office may give the illusion of changing the dynamics, but it will not. Partisanship will only increase, if that is possible. So if you think you are already frustrated with government now, just wait until you vote your passions and elect a newer even more highly partisan set of into office. I’m afraid Extra Strength Tylenol won’t cure this headache.

Only one part of the Republican agenda is clear: they will spend most of their time until the 2012 elections investigating the Obama Administration at length for alleged malfeasance. It will definitely take some digging because so far, the Obama Administration has been remarkably scandal free. At least Republicans will know what scandal looks like, because they are experts at it. Whether malfeasance actually exists or not is beside the point. One of the few powers Congress can wield in this environment will be the power of investigation so all that is needed is the possibility of malfeasance. So instead of just bottling up appointees and judicial nominations, Republicans will likely bollix up the rest of government as well, ensuring little actual governing is done. This will, of course, give them something to run on in 2012: can’t you see how little Democrats accomplished?

The other power Congress holds is, of course, the power of the purse. With an expected influx of Tea Party activists, expect that a sizeable minority of Republicans simply won’t vote for anything that resembles spending. If you want a preview, simply look to California where its dysfunctional system requires two thirds of both houses to pass a budget. While that is not true in Congress, in the Senate either party can effectively hold the other party hostage unless one side can cobble together sixty votes. The House though may start to envy the Senate. Pity orange-skinned speaker-in-waiting John Boehner. He will have the impossible task of trying to govern House Republicans, a sizable minority of whom won’t allow themselves to be swayed on any issue. After all, they will have gotten into Congress on a platform of no compromises anytime, anywhere.

Yet spending bills must be passed at some point, right? In California, the answer is “no” as long as Republicans stayed united. The ensuing mess led to massive cuts and layoffs, leaving California a largely dysfunctional state and, not coincidentally, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. I suspect that we will see a repeat of the budget showdown of 1995, which furloughed millions of federal workers and left most agencies, except the few that had an appropriation, mothballed. This time though, emboldened with fresh Tea Party members, it is likely that House Republicans simply won’t give in at all. The Senate is likely to be more reasonable, but it’s unlikely an acceptable spending bill will emerge from conference that either the House or the Senate will endorse.

Even if one emerges, can it sustain a presidential veto since in all likelihood such a budget will extend or expand tax cuts for the rich while decimating social spending? The answer is already clear (no), but if dealing with the budget were not enough, there are other recent laws, such as the health care reform law, that Republicans are chomping at the bit to repeal. They ultimately won’t go anywhere either during this presidency, but it will engender a lot of negative energy and hot air.

I expect that unstoppable force is going to meet immovable object. The result will not be pretty and will sour voters even more on government. Congress may look at its current dismal approval ratings as the good old days.

Is there good news in all this? Yes. The good news is that the issues animating voters to the polls this year, our less than stellar economy, is likely to finally recede in voters mind in 2011 and 2012 as our slow recovery is actually felt by the working class, albeit in fits and starts. The economy won’t be quite what it was, but we are likely to see the unemployment rate recede to more politically acceptable levels. Both sides will of course claim credit for it while castigating the other side that the economy isn’t doing better. Voters will get to sort it all out again in 2012.

The surest path to returning a Republican to the Oval Office in 2012 is of course to bet against our recovery, which is why disingenuous Republicans will be doing just that. They will secretly welcome high unemployment and exploding deficits, because it undermines the Obama Administration. In short, there is little upside for Republicans to improve the economy, deficits and the employment picture, particularly if it vindicates the unpopular but necessary long-term strategies Democrats and the Obama Administration have been fostering to achieve long-term growth.

I wish there was an island I could go somewhere until it all blows over in 2012. Meanwhile, I fear for our republic. Governing requires compromise and there will be none of it until 2013 at the earliest. My only question is who will ultimately be held responsible for the ensuing mess? The Republicans of course hope it will be Democrats and the Obama Administration, but if 1995 is any guide having the ability to govern but refusing to do so sours voters’ opinions of you, particularly when social security checks don’t arrive on time. In short, obstinacy is an effective short-term strategy, but a poor long-term strategy for staying in power. Say what you like about the Democrats, but at least they governed, despite near unanimous Republican opposition.

Consequently, any electoral gains Republicans make in this year’s election are likely to recede in 2012.

Glenn Beck and the unbearable whiteness of being

The Thinker by Rodin

Every generation brings us great leaders as well as mediocre ones. Every generation also brings us charlatans: people optimized to reinforce our prejudices and whip us up into a cyclonic frenzy. In this decade, there is quite a queue of people competing for this position, but arguably none are trying harder than Fox News commentator and telegenic crybaby Glenn Beck.

Beck’s rants and chalkboard “lessons” are a confusing muddle of selective history and bad analysis. However, they do serve the purpose of stirring up his base. Political change happens only by action, so in that sense Beck is a genius. Beck’s world is a weird, hyper-paranoid sort of world. As much as Beck rails against Nazis, in fact Beck and Adolph Hitler share much in common. Hitler may have been promoting the Aryans and Beck might be fighting for the poor and oppressed WASPs of America, but both are essentially racists. Beck would doubtless say he is not a racist, but based on his passion and vitriol he sure cares a whole lot more about white conservatives than other ethnicities. Both depend on bogeymen and straw men to peddle the false assertion that whites are being discriminated against and are blessed with some sort of enlightenment absent the rest of us mere mortals.

Jokesters like him would normally be laughed off the stage, except Beck has an exceptionally uncanny ability to connect deeply to the greatest fears of conservative white American then stoke them. He is the Father Coughlin of his generation. Beck and Coughlin are chips off the same block. Coughlin was a radio minister during the Great Depression. Beck has both a radio and television show. Coughlin’s fears were largely focused on Jews. Beck’s bogeymen are Muslims who because they are not Christian or Jews are therefore scaaaaary. In fact, his bogeymen are pretty much anyone who is not white or conservative. He just picks one of the shelf to fit the message of the day.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his abhorrence for all things Barack Obama. As much as he fears Islam, he fears his false projection of Barack Obama much more. Barack Obama is apparently every encapsulation of evil imaginable, a true Antichrist. Among Obama’s many sins is Beck’s conviction that Obama is a black racist with a deep-seated hatred of white people. Granted, there is no evidence to support this ludicrous claim. If it bore any semblance of truth, perhaps Obama would have started with his own white mother who he loved rather than abused or abandoned. His mother stood by him, nurtured him and helped him fit in the largely white world they inhabited. In fact, Obama grew up largely estranged from black culture. It was not until he finished college and moved to Chicago that he really connected to his African American side. Even today, many African Americans view him as not quite one of their own. These little details of course are lost on Beck because it does not fit his projected image of the nefarious and evil Obama that he wants to promote.

More recently, Beck counted as one of Obama’s defects the liberation theology he claims he believes in. Apparently this version of Christianity, in Beck’s (and others) minds, is wrapped around the notion that we are all oppressed and part of being a Christian is to free yourself and others from the yoke of oppression instead of just sin and the devil. At the same time that Beck rails against Obama’s brand of Christianity, he also asserts that Obama is a secret Muslim. Many others on the right (but not Beck) assert that Obama is not a native born citizen of the United States, hence an illegitimate president. At the same time (wait for it), Obama is neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but a secret secular atheist, as attested by the fact that he is not become a settled member of a congregation since he became president. Barack Obama: the amazing polymorphic president! It’s obviously past time to find a stake and a bulb of garlic. One cannot be too careful with these Antichrists.

At most only one of these can be true but of course, facts hardly matter. As Hitler and many before and after him have learned, what is true is irrelevant; what matters is what you can get people to believe. If you repeat a lie often enough and convincingly enough a certain number of us sheep apparently accept it as fact. The dishonest formula never changes: pick selective facts, distort other facts, openly lie about many other things and (most importantly) stoke what makes us anxious.

Plenty of us are anxious these days, just as our parents or grandparents were during the great uncertainty of the Great Depression. When you feel uncertain, you are much more likely to believe the implausible or the downright ludicrous. You need something tangible that you can grasp onto to make sense of the suffering and chaos, rather than the intangible reality where cause and effect are often murky. Beck has proven to be a master of feeding our fears and vanities. In his mind, white America is and has always been gifted, glorious, entrepreneurial, deeply Christian and intimately involved in a sacred quest for righteousness directed by God himself. Our actual history of course is replete with voluminous episodes to the contrary, such as our enslavement of African Americans (and others), subjugation of women, forced extraditions and massacres of Native Americans and, more recently, illegal and immoral wars in the deserts of the Middle East. I am not suggesting that the history of White America is entirely bad, just that we, like every other ethnic and racial group out there, have a checkered past. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise, but truth is apparently irrelevant when it does not suit a particular political end. The masses must be fooled into thinking they are nobler than they are.

What I find personally most grating about Beck (and the same is true with Sarah Palin and the many, many others generally lumped under the “Tea Party” umbrella) is he emulates the whiny, victimized people he is supposed to loath. Goodness, they are so oppressed; it’s amazing they can even get out of bed in the morning given the onerous taxes they are paying, even though federal taxes are the lowest in generations. They are innocent victims of sinister forces flagrantly out to oppress them at the enrichment of everyone else. These are the same sorts of ridiculous persecution arguments that Hitler made. What malarkey! We should naturally recoil against them.

In fact, large numbers of White Americans are suffering, particularly in largely white areas of America like the Appalachians. This is because of many factors, but principally is due to the Great Recession, which itself was primarily caused by the overleveraged society Republicans fostered in the 2000s. Whites have been hard hit in many areas, but in most cases were not as severely hit as other ethnic minorities. Whites as a class will probably never have to deal with the high unemployment rates of blacks, or teenagers in general. For those who fell off the economic cliff, it hurts badly, regardless of your ethnicity. However, despite the paranoid rants of people like Beck, no one is out to get whites in particular, which means Beck and those like him are either charlatans or delusional. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The bad economy falls into the vague category of “shit happens”.  Much of it was probably preventable. We could have lived more prudently over the last few decades. We could have balanced our budgets. We could have not rushed into wars of choice. Nevertheless, even if we had done all those things, there are still larger forces at work, such as the rise of China as an economic power, that would still have impacted our economy, perhaps even triggering our current recession. Suggesting that these problems are because Obama is a secret Muslim, a black racist, or is deliberately targeting whites for economic discrimination shows their incredibly shallow thinking. It also perpetuates a culture of victimhood, which, call me crazy, I thought conservatives were against. I thought conservatives were all about accepting your licks and standing on your own two feet. I thought more so than Democrats, conservatives realized that life was unfair so just get over it.

That’s the image, of course, but the reality is now the opposite. Beck is the poster child for white victimization, a role he is glad to accept as it makes him independently wealthy. So where does one look today for real manhood? Where do you find the attributes of great men: graciousness, civility, and someone who does not thrive on a culture of victimization and whine about the unfairness of life, but pragmatically deals with the mess life has thrown at him? There are millions of us out there, but for Beck, he could look at Barack Obama as he actually is. It is no wonder that Beck, Palin and so many others loathe the man. He is demonstrating the way they should behave if they had real character, if they had not grown up spoiled and whiny. Obama is the grown up. They (and Beck in particular) are playing the role of the whiny brats on the playground. It should be embarrassing to anyone to see this behavior in people who are adults.

Obama understands what Beck fails to grasp: you don’t deal with reality effectively through a policy of extreme adherence to orthodoxy. Heck, we just got over the ultimate test case with George W. Bush’s eight years of national folly. If you find yourself surrounded by shit, which was exactly where Barack Obama was on January 20, 2009, you grab a shovel and start shoveling. That has been what Obama has been doing since his first day in office. He is not naïve enough to think that he will make every decision correctly, but he is smart enough to realize that blind orthodoxy cannot change reality. Instead, you first accept reality in all its messiness and ugliness and find realistic ways to deal with it.

Beck, basically you are a whiny brat. It’s no wonder that you loathe Barack Obama so much, because real manhood scares the shit out of you. Obama demonstrates true manhood every day: you deal pragmatically with what is before you with civility and grace.

Beck, be a real man. I dare you. I double dare you.

News alert: Supreme Court decisions are inherently political

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to be the newest Supreme Court justice? If you did, you may well have experienced déjà vu.

About the only thing that changes in these hearing is the nominee. The questions are all eerily familiar, as are most of the faces on the committee, which do not change a lot. Senators ask lots of probing questions that the nominee will tend to dodge. Most of them will be about controversial issues like gun control and abortion. The president’s party will generally throw softballs and be effusive with their praise for the nominee. The nominee will dodge most questions saying of course they cannot say how they will rule on hypothetical future cases. They will say that they will weigh the issues that come before them fair and impartially. Then, the Senators will generally vote the way their party leaders want them to vote because they are not jurists, they are politicians. This time around, since every Republican senator is scared that a vote for Kagan will inflame the Tea Party, only one or two Republicans will be brave enough to break ranks. The only real question is whether there is something about the nominee controversial enough for the opposition to attempt a filibuster.

The president and his staff are painfully aware of all this, which is why finding the right nominee is important. Diane Wood, for example, was probably crossed off because she was just a tad too liberal to escape a Republican filibuster. Kagan though was unusual because she had never been a judge. Her lack of a record was something of an asset. Senators were left to fume about minor actions she took while dean of the Harvard Law School. With Democrats in the majority and little in Kagan’s record to get bent out of shape over, Kagan seems likely to be confirmed by the Senate in about a month. But that’s okay. Obama was replacing a liberal justice with another liberal justice. Overall, the balance of power on the court was unlikely to change, with conservatives on the court tending to win most decisions. Expect a real brouhaha if a conservative justice retires and we have a liberal president, or visa versa.

What really annoys me is the elaborate pretense from both senators and the nominee that they will be impartial. What else is the nominee going to say, really? If a nominee were honest, they would admit that virtually all of the Supreme Court’s decisions are political. Senators claim they want impartiality when it is clear they really want a judge that will rule in a partisan matter aligned with their political ideology. When Chief Justice Roberts underwent his confirmation hearings, he went so far as to say that he saw the role of the justice to look at the law and the particulars of the case and then rule whether the case amounted to a ball or a strike. He seemed to be implying that any case could be rendered as either black or white.

As if it is ever that simple at the level of cases the Supreme Court deals with. If a case were easy to decide, it would not have gone through district and appellate courts first, nor would the Supreme Court have bothered to even hear the case. Any case the court agrees to take is going to be inherently squishy and political in nature. While everyone seems to understand this truth, no one will acknowledge it.

The reason you know I speak the truth is that everyone is deeply concerned about the nominee’s record of dealing with controversial or squishy cases. Why? Because these cases help disclose their tendency to apply their political ideology to actual cases. In Kagan’s case, along with many other nominees, their political ideology is hardly a secret. No president is going to nominate someone they think will be at odds with their ideology. Sometimes they don’t get the nominee they expected. Both recently retired justices Stevens and Souter were nominated by Republican presidents, but turned more liberal as they aged. Subsequent nominees have been much more ideological, as presidents worked hard to make sure their ideology rippled through the court long after their terms expired.

The result is a court that now renders a lot of near split decisions, generally on the most controversial political cases. Particularly with controversial cases, it’s not hard to figure out how justices will rule. While the rationale will differ, they will generally line up along their political ideology. Justice Kennedy is usually the only swing vote, and lately he has been trending more conservative. He may be the only impartial justice on the court.

Of course, justices will be influenced at least to some extent based on their feelings and the way they were raised. When there is ambiguity and you have to make a decision, where else will you turn? At the Supreme Court’s level, where cases are inherently squishy, of course those factors are going to weigh more heavily than they will at a state or county court. In the lower courts, the judge is often required to interpret the law a certain way. At the level of the Supreme Court, as much as some on the court would say otherwise, they make the law by deciding the case.

The Second Amendment, for example, was genuinely ambiguous. Did it mean that everyone has a right to own a gun, or did it mean that people had the right to own a gun only because they might need to help support a militia someday? The Supreme Court in a number of recent rulings seems to be saying that the part of the amendment dealing with militias is interesting background history but irrelevant. Everyone has the right to own a gun. The court parsed the arguments and history of the Second Amendment and there was evidence of original intent in both directions. The court, based on its ideological leanings, made the political decision to interpret the amendment (yes) liberally. It could have said it was so ambiguous that Congress needed to pass a clarifying law. It did not.

Often the Supreme Court will, by the narrowest of margins, overturn a ruling by an appeals court that was also decided on the narrowest of margins. That so many different “impartial” judges can see these murky cases in so many different ways and come to so many different conclusions just goes to prove that Robert’s “balls and strikes” argument is hollow.

Everyone understands the reality, which is why the president is so careful not just with Supreme Court picks but also with picks for district and appellate courts. The more judges he can get confirmed that align with his ideology, the better the odds are that over time these jurists will issue rulings that also align with his ideology. This is also why senators, through the use of dubious tactics like secret holds, try to bottle up nominees for lower court judges that are the least bit controversial.

At the federal level, all but the lowest courts decide cases that are inherently political. That’s the way it has been since the birth of our republic and the way it will be while our country exists.

It would be nice if we would stop pretending it is otherwise.

The price of limited government

The Thinker by Rodin

Thirty seven days and counting. British Petroleum is now attempting to inject heavy mud a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to plug its gushing Deep Horizon oil well. BP claims that only 5000 barrels a day are leaking from the well. 60,000 barrels is a more realistic estimate, and it may turn out to be even more than that. By putting so many dangerous oil dispersants on the surface of the oil, BP is mitigating the public impact of the spill. Although some oil is leaching into Louisiana marshes and onto Alabama beaches, the dispersant is drastically reducing this problem. The vast majority of this oil is somewhere below the surface, wreaking who knows what havoc on the Gulf’s marine life.

It is clear at this point that even if this spill were capped tonight, it will be the largest oil spill in history. It may turn out to be less visible than the 1988 spill in the Puget Sound, thanks to all the dispersants being used to hide the problem. It is likely though that this catastrophe will be felt for many years, if not decades. It may be the seminal event that ends deep water oil exploration in America for good. Based on recent polls, it might also serve as a catalyst for moving toward a clean energy future. There is nothing like an egregious example to focus the nation’s attention on a problem.

Meanwhile, the public is losing patience with the Obama Administration’s handling of the problem. In actuality, the federal government is doing quite a bit. Unfortunately, what it is doing is trying to mitigate the effects of the spill that has already happened but which it is powerless to solve itself. For example, it is helping coordinate the laying of millions of feet of booms that may help keep the oil from coming up on beaches and marshes. I work for the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director has been camped out on the Gulf Coast working eighteen hour days helping to marshal the USGS response to the problem. (Yes, we do have plenty of scientists who can help with the problem. After all, assessing the likelihood of new areas of oil is part of our mission.) Many other agencies are doing the same thing. Unfortunately, while we can put a man on the moon and cure many diseases, there are still some things even the great and mighty federal government cannot yet do. One of those things is fix a spewing oil well a mile below sea level.

Why? Because Congress has never told the government it should be directly in this business. It probably will be in the future. We do have some research submarines that can descend to those depths, but not many and as best I can tell none equipped with the specialized equipment needed to solve a problem like this. Even our navy’s submarines rarely go more than 2000 feet below sea level. Why? Well, it’s very hard for a submarine to go that deep. The water pressure on hulls becomes enormous. It is hard to put any man down there for any length of time, and even if you did have the right vessel it cannot go up and down quickly without subjecting its crew to the effect of the bends. The oil companies though do have some robotic equipment that can handle those depths. It’s just that nobody ever required them to develop and test machines that could fix problems like this. All those safety measures were supposed to prevent this accident from ever occurring. It does appear that the personnel at the Minerals Management Service were unduly under the influence of the oil industry. Some federal employees of MMS illegally accepted gifts, trips and even prostitutes. These employees were identified some time ago and many were actually fired. The oil companies determined these bribes were much less costly than the alternatives. It is very clear that there was an incestuous and unhealthy relationship between regulators and those being regulated.

Granted, the president can and probably should be more on top of the situation. He should be and probably is knocking some heads. But the sad reality of the situation is that while the government can bring resources to bear on the problem, it really can’t fix this problem. In the worst scenario we will have to wait sixty more days for BP to complete a relief well to staunch the flow from the well. In the meantime we have to hope that the desperate measure of injecting heavy mud and then concrete will cap the well.

It should be noted that previous administrations, principally Republican, were far more attuned to giving the oil companies whatever they desired than regulating them. As with the financial crisis, this is largely a problem that the Obama Administration inherited. Granted it has been in office sixteen months, but with cries from Republicans to “drill baby drill” and with a major economic crisis, working on deep sea drilling safety was on no one’s major list of problems. The public however is simply impatient. It wants things done, and it wants them fixed now even if the federal government cannot fix them. The public is fickle about these things. Many of these same people just six weeks ago were calling for limited government. Unfortunately, this is an example of what can happen when you have limited and corrupt government. If Tea Party members succeed in controlling Congress and the White House, limited government would likely not include regulating the oil industry at all. If they decided it was a governmental matter at all, they would push it down to the states.

This unfortunate incident simply reinforces that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who before the incident was all about limited government, is taking the federal government to task for not solving this problem. The smell of overwhelming hypocrisy from that area of the country is nearly as overwhelming as the smell of surface petroleum. It is easy to be in favor of limited government until, of course, you need the government not to be limited.

If the government’s mission is now to include this as well, then expect that government will grow and cost more. Taking steps like splitting up the Minerals Management Service into three agencies is long overdue. This is something unsexy that the government can do to address future problems, but it does nothing to solve the immediate crisis. I can say this: it won’t be cheap but if we truly want to enlarge the size of government to ensure accidents like this are unlikely to happen in the future, the government will find a way. It may take a decade and cost billions of dollars, and it may raise the cost of gasoline a dime a gallon, but government can make it happen. It just will not happen overnight.

A habit all presidents should take up

The Thinker by Rodin

No, I am not talking about President Obama’s smoking habit that he apparently has not kicked. I am talking about this habit:

Inside, Obama found crinkled notebook pages, smudged ink, cursive handwriting and misspelled words — a collection of 10 original letters that he considers among his most important daily reading material, aides said. Ever since he requested a sampling of mail on his second day in office, the letters have become a staple of his presidency. Some he immediately reads out loud to his wife; others he distributes to senior staff members aboard Air Force One. Some are from students requesting help with homework; others are from constituents demanding jobs or health care. About half of the letters, Obama said during a recent speech, “call me an idiot.”

I know some of my readers think Obama is an idiot, but in this particular case, he is one smart president. Perhaps other recent presidents have done something similar to this. Some very distant presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, made a regular point of reading and often responding to their public mail. These days with three hundred million Americans and the ability to send the president email at a whim, the president, not to mention the rest of government, is inundated with correspondence from the public. No president can or should even begin to try to read it all. However, reading ten letters a day at least keeps the president somewhat grounded in the life of ordinary Americans.

You can bet to the extent that George W. Bush read public mail at all, it was carefully filtered by staff to reinforce whatever they wanted him to hear. Otherwise, who knows, he might have learned that Iraq was not developing nuclear weapons. Yet Obama’s staff, by his order, actually gives him a representative sample of his official public mail. In a country as diverse as ours, even two friends will not agree on everything. So you can bet that what Obama is reading is often annoying and pedestrian, as well as heartfelt. In any event, if you really want to do the work of the American people, you have to know how they feel. Because Obama takes the time to read a sampling of his public mail, we learn something you cannot say about many presidents: he really does want to make sure public policy aligns with the actual needs of the American people, not what he thinks they need. Moreover, he is using what he is reading from the public is shaping policy.

What a concept! Somehow, you know that if we had gotten a President Hillary Clinton (or a President John McCain) instead of a President Barack Obama, she would not be regularly reading samplings of her public mail. Oh sure, she cares about Americans but this would never occur to her. I doubt she would be holding regular town hall meetings either. Even his critics I think would have to agree that Obama genuinely wants to hear from diverse points of view, and values input from ordinary citizens. Moreover, Obama is making conversations with citizens a part of the ordinary way he does things. It is very refreshing.

Obama, like most presidents, hears criticism that he inhabits an ivory tower. This is simply not true. Few modern presidents with the possible exception of Bill Clinton come from such ordinary roots. President Obama does not have to hear what it is like to live on food stamps. For a time, his family depended on them. He does not have to try to understand racism and multiculturalism. He grew up in a multiracial household. Some would say he came from a middle class family. It is more accurate to say he came from the working poor, which is probably where he acquired the smoking habit. He also understands how hard it is to make ends meet. It wasn’t until his first book sold well that he managed to pay off his student loans. Yet he also understands to some extent the life of the privileged and the wealthy. He worked on Wall Street early in his career.

Consequently, it should not be a surprise that he reads some of his mail and holds regular town halls. This connecting with ordinary Americans is how he has successfully navigated through life. He stays grounded in the real world, which can be almost impossible within the White House and its security bubble. It’s what is making him an effective president, and which might put him in the pantheon of great American presidents.

I hope he takes it a few steps further. One of the problems with being president is that there is no end to the demands on your time. Town hall meetings are fine, but much of the rabble is kept out by the Secret Service. He should also attend focus groups. His staff should contract with a polling firm like Gallup and have them occasionally fly in representative samples of Americans. He should invite them to the White House for focused discussions, or periodically meet groups off site in real America, say a Best Western conference room. Perhaps once a week his staff could pull some random person or family from the White House tour. He could sit down for coffee or a beer, away from cameras and the press, just to hear firsthand what their real life is like.

Many find it annoying, but what I admire most about President Obama is his ruthlessly pragmatic way of governing. It drove both sides of the political spectrum crazy during the health care debates. No side got everything they wanted, but when he finally decided to engage on health care reform, he made it happen. Despite whining from Republicans, the laws look amazingly like what Republicans like Newt Gingrich wanted enacted back in the 1990s but now decry. It’s neither left, nor right. It’s mainstream. Moreover, the more I read about the law, the more I find to admire about it. For example, employees can reduce health insurance costs by practicing preventive health care rather than reactive health care. This is not just smart; it is very smart. Not everyone will change lifestyles when given a financial incentive to do so, but many will. Over time, these sorts of strategies move mountains. Over a generation, strategies like this cut our national smoking rate from 50% of adults to about 20% of adults today.

As long as he is president, I hope President Obama continues to read those ten letters a day as well as hold regular town hall forums. This is time that is wisely invested and should be a required practice for future presidents of any party affiliation.

Divided we fall

The Thinker by Rodin

I woke up this morning and realized I was living in the Divided States of America.

Actually, I have known this for quite a while, but in the last week or so, it has all become so very crystal clear. Like dust on the furniture so thick you cannot see the wood underneath it, I have been sort of pretending to myself that we really do not have completely dysfunctional government. You might say this morning I awoke fully from my intellectual stupor.

Here is what is clear: Republicans will put party and wacky extremist principle before their country. In fact, so will many Democrats. It’s my tribe over your tribe. Our country can go to hell for all they care, and as long as their base is happy, it does not matter. Take the latest cause for bitching: our exploding deficits. Republicans, who were happy when they were in charge to cast votes that caused the deficits in the first place, are now all about fiscal discipline. However, they are not enough about fiscal discipline to, like, actually do something about exploding deficits like maybe raise a tax or two, or simply let a tax cut expire. That might show leadership and political weakness. It’s too scaaaary for them to go there. What would their fellow tea baggers say if they actually moved toward a middle ground?

What an irony. Instead of showing courage, they are actually showing cowardice, not to mention abuse of their public office. When a nation has two wars going on, exploding deficits, ten percent unemployment and hosts of other major problems clearly it is the job of government to come together for the good of the country. At times like these, we need a government that cares more about whether the nation holds together at all, than whether a party gains or loses seats in the next election. By digging in their heals, of course, these political obfuscators only make the situation much worse and I might add much more costly. Inaction only breeds the bigger deficits about which they claim to be so upset.

Scared of rising deficits? It’s not too hard to figure out what’s driving most of them. It’s health care costs. What gives when they rise unchecked? Pretty much everything else gets short shrift, just the way your house would if you neglected the roof and invested it all in lottery tickets instead. If you don’t fix health care, everything continues to get much, much worse. So what is Congress busy doing? It’s trying to not fix health care, even though through a reconciliation process there is an obvious way to do so. Can’t do it. Too scaaaary.

It’s too scaaaary to do lots of things apparently. Too scaaaary to stop telling our military industrial complex to make lots of weaponry we don’t need. To scaaaary to raise taxes on the wealthy back to where they were when Bill Clinton was president and we enjoyed record prosperity. Change is just so darn scaaaary, at least when it requires political compromise. It’s in to be extremely partisan. It’s scaaaary to compromise.

I do give President Obama credit for trying. He was quite brave standing in front of the Congressional Republican Caucus in Baltimore last week. He could not have been more polite and respectful. He simply told Republicans that they have an obligation not just to oppose but also to find middle ground and work on behalf of all Americans. What an idea! It appears that it was not a message they wanted to hear.

It would be nice if there were any leaders in Congress willing to move toward the middle, but it’s hard to see where they will come from because to lead you necessarily take risk. The “leadership” got where it is primarily by moving toward the extreme and eschewing political compromise. What we need is someone with a very firm paddle to move these recalcitrant assholes. They are not leaders. They are pathetic whiners too busy covering their backs to care about the country they claim to love.

It sure would be nice just to hear a tad bit of honesty from these weasels. A mea culpa would be nice. How about this for a start: “You know what? At the time we passed those enormous tax cuts, they seemed like a good idea. They were a mistake. A big mistake. I regret with my whole heart voting for them because they caused this fiscal mess we are in right now. I also regret my vote for the Iraq War. What a waste of money and precious American lives! I cannot undo those votes, but I can vow to do what is right for my country from now on. I will vote to let those tax cuts expire as my contribution to helping reduce our $1.3 trillion dollar deficit. Moreover, I will work with my colleagues from the other side of the aisle to find some middle ground to solve many of our other pressing problems, like health care reform. It’s going to hurt, but I will give a little. In return, I expect the other side to give a little too. It may cost me my party’s nomination, but this time I really will act in the best interest of the American people as a whole, not for my political base. I know this process will be imperfect, but it will be better than the mess we have now. I will not contribute toward anymore of it.”

Gosh, I would vote for someone like this if he (or she) were sincere and actually followed through, even if they were a Republican. It’s not being mavericky, it’s being a statesman. It’s called doing your fucking job.

I would like to see the leadership on both sides of Congress come out with statements like these where they honestly acknowledge their mistakes, pledge to end the pointless finger pointing and pledge to do their jobs. I would like to see the leadership arm-twist their whips and committee chairmen into following along. If necessary, I would like to put the leadership of Congress and the White House in a room with nothing but Dominoes pizzas slipped under the door until they find middle ground. Moreover, I would not let them see their spouses or their children until we have a health care bill that contains costs and covers all the uninsured, a jobs program that puts people back to work doing meaningful work and a climate bill that actually shows Americans want to join the rest of the world in surviving as a species.

Then perhaps we ordinary Americans could feel hopeful again. Most likely we would be so thrilled to see government work again, we would reward those who showed the courage to compromise. In fact, mine is a fool’s hope. Instead, our political parties appear to favor dismantling our country piece by piece than compromise on anything. And so we sink further into the muck, sinking in part because we keep throwing more muck on each other. At some point in our not too distant future, the U.S.A. is nothing will be nothing but an ugly mud pit, fit only for the partisan pigs who brought it down.

As for the rest of us ordinary citizens, we sure would like to have a government that works for us again. Unfortunately, there is no place that three hundred million of us can emigrate to in order to get it.

Two parties could play the disinformation game

The Thinker by Rodin

I suspect that it was mostly us political junkies who watched President Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress last night. My wife cares very much about health care reform, but not enough, apparently, to watch the speech with me. It was one of Obama’s better speeches, but it should have been delivered months ago. His administration has been floundering trying to master the health care reform debate and the speech was a belated attempt to regain control of the debate. For such an important initiative, it required better marketing effort than it has so far received.

Granted, Obama has had a few distractions to deal with, like fixing our tanking economy. It appears that our recession is over, but to the unemployed, whose ranks are likely to continue to swell in the months ahead, this is meaningless. Health care reform appears to be in part a victim of an administration trying to do too much at once. It is also the victim of learning too many lessons from the failure of health care reform during the Clinton Administration. Certain those dynamics are still in play, they appear to have floundered responding forcefully to the new dynamics of the debate. With luck, Obama’s speech at least changed the dynamics.

South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson certainly made a name of himself by heckling Obama during the speech. When Obama said accusations that reform would cover illegal immigrants was false, Wilson stood up in the middle of a joint session and called the president a liar. He has subsequently apologized for the incident, although it sounded halfhearted. While he agrees he acted disrespectfully, he still believes that health care reform proposals will indeed cover illegal immigrants, even though this is demonstrably false.

As Wilson demonstrates, Republicans seem to state as fact what could happen rather than what is actually being proposed. Using the “could” argument, of course, anything is possible. A subsequent Congress could explicitly decide to cover illegal immigrants so there you go, it must be true. In the minds of many Republicans, because anything is possible in the future, this means that Democrats are actively planning to make it so. There is a word for this sort of behavior: paranoia. Sometimes paranoia is justifiable. When paranoia extends to acts that are only imagined but have no basis in fact, one of two things is going on. In the case of Joe Wilson, it suggests a psychosis. Wilson could probably use some therapy, including anger management therapy. Most Republicans in Congress though are too smart to be psychotic. Which means that when they spew garbage like these imaginary death panels they are simply lying. Obama was correct to call those spewing these lies what they are: liars.

Wilson apparently transgressed the line of propriety by expressing his opinion during a joint session of Congress. However, being a politician means that you are free to lie the rest of the time, unless you are under oath. The only thing that really matters is whether voters will hold you accountable for your lies. The odds are stacked in an incumbent’s favor, but in the egregious case of Joe Wilson, perhaps not. His outburst spurred many contributions to his likely opposition candidate in 2010.

It may be late in the game, but maybe Democrats should to respond with a weapon similar to the one launched on them. Such a strategy may be hard to swallow, since it is so disingenuous, but it has proven remarkable effective for the Republicans. After all, if Republicans are going to charge as truth things that could happen, why should not Democrats and the Administration feel free to do the same? Of course, it would have the effect of burning bridges with the Republicans, but heck, Republicans have already burnt the bridges! What is the point of reconstructing the bridge of bipartisanship on the Democratic side if the Republicans are unwilling to also reconstruct their side? As I noted recently, bipartisanship is now perceived as for losers.

Perhaps it is time to marshal forces like MoveOn.org in a deliberate disinformation campaign. What would it look like? Here are some lies that, like the Republican lies, could be true, if not now then in Democrats’ imaginations but based on not wholly unreasonable inferences:

  • The Republican Party has a master plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Republicans hate poor people and want them to die young. Their opposition to health care reform is all about killing these Democrats to create a new Republican majority.
  • Republicans also want to destroy the Social Security system because they see it as just more socialism.
  • Republicans hate all but wealthy senior citizens. They want to destroy Medicare so their access to high quality care is unrestrained. If this means that other seniors die prematurely, that’s okay.
  • Republicans are racists who want to deport African Americans back to Africa and send all Hispanics back to their native countries.

Like Republican lies such as the death panel lie, these lies sound a bit crazy, but not so crazy to not have a whiff of believability to them. For example, it is easy to find quotes by Glenn Beck or Pat Buchanan suggesting they are racists. It is also easy to find far-right members of Congress, like Ron Paul, who really are in favor of getting rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  The reason a smear so often works is because you really only need one egregious example to infer the truth about an entire class. In this sense, these lies are more credible than those Republicans have uttered. Since Republican lies have proven good at putting Democrats on the defensive, it is likely these lies would stick like superglue to Republicans. After all, their recent stints in power have left them with little credibility and their approval numbers are in the gutter. Moreover, the lies would keep Republicans busy explaining why the lies are not true, essentially taking the wind from their sails, as their lies did to Democrats at many town halls this summer.

In reality, it is not Republicans whose votes are needed. They will be opposed to it, no matter how much Obama and Democrats try to sweeten it for them. It is Democrats, particularly those Democrats that represent rather conservative districts and states, who are scared. I see it here in Virginia, a purple state. Senator Jim Webb is calling for more time for discussion and debate on health care reform, as if the last fifteen years have not been enough. Senator Mark Warner is being cautious and hedgy, and in particular seems to be backing away from supporting a public option.

Outspoken citizens at town halls are disproportionately influencing both senators. Numerous polls, such as this New York Time poll, show that the public option is strongly supported by a majority of Americans. Democrats have to summon the nerve to vote the will of their constituents. If they do, they will be rewarded by reelection because they will be seen as working for their constituents for a change. However, capitulation to a loud minority will only help ensure that Democrats reenter minority party status far sooner than need be.