No simple solutions to our complex and messy world

The Thinker by Rodin

Kentucky senator Rand Paul has been busy pushing the Libertarian gospel lately. Today’s New York Times (which is one of the few sites we can read for free on our cruise ship) talks about his recent appearance at a libertarian meeting in Virginia where he was busy preaching to the faithful. If only government were minimal and capitalism were unrestrained, he preached, freedom would blossom and life would be beautiful.

Doubtless he got many rounds of applause for expressing these sentiments. The meeting contained the usual interest groups drawn to libertarianism: the John Birchers, the obsessively anti-war, the isolationists, ideological capitalists, extreme civil libertarians and not a few overt racists. Racism is a view that Senator Paul rejects, although his father, crank and former representative Ron Paul did raise money for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The money was used to start the institute, and which is overtly racist.

It’s not hard to find groups with simple solutions to our world’s complex problems. They tend to go by one word banners: socialists, libertarians, communists, fascists, free-marketers, environmentalists, unionists and many more that I am sure you can readily bring to mind. What’s true of all of these one size fits all solutions is that when they have been tried they haven’t worked. Libertarianism hasn’t been properly tried, and there is a good reason for that: it simply won’t work. Occasionally you see efforts that meet the spirit of a philosophy and you can observe the wreckage. The state of Florida that we return to on our cruise ship tomorrow has libertarian Rick Scott as its governor. He’s running for reelection but is certain to lose, after four year of libertarian-lite government and overwhelmingly conservative Republican control. During his governorship, Florida suffered disproportionately as businesses fled the state. With the thinnest of safety nets, the poor descended further into poverty and crime increased. Housing prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

Communism was given a good long run and failed miserably. It sounded good in theory, but quickly morphed into a dictatorship of the proletariat that looked a lot more like fascism which, in fact, it was. Those communist governments that remain are largely so in name only. China is still officially run by the Communist Party but Chairman Mao would simply not recognize it. If he were alive, he’d be fighting to overthrow it. Cuba remains the only truly sizable communist state in the world and is mired in poverty. Venezuela looked a lot like a communist state, but is really a socialist state. By the time of its next election, if not sooner, it will cast off socialism. The cost of socialism has been borne out in hyper inflation and high unemployment rates.

Successful states, such as they are, tend to be those that are politically hued. They are invariably democracies. Establishing democracies tend to be straightforward. Keeping a democracy, which is currently not happening in Egypt, tends to be much harder. Running a democracy takes a lot of work. It expects those in charge to be civilized and to follow an agreed on constitution. It expects its citizens to put a democracy above their own political persuasions. Democracies generally require a reasonably educated and informed populace and need neighboring states with hands off attitudes toward it. In a democracy, political consensus rarely lasts for long. When consensus is absent it becomes paralyzed. We have seen this played out in the United States the last few years. Democracies also need independents, who tend to be its most valuable asset. It is independents that break political logjams by voting for their interests rather than a partisan agenda.

Rand Paul is probably hoping to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He is busy trying to increase his political capital and to sell himself as viable to the party’s establishment. In doing so he must subtly show himself as not as hardcore libertarian as his hardcore activists would like him to be. He must come across as likable, not extreme, which is why he is distancing himself from the racist wing of the Libertarian Party. Even if he were fortunate enough to be elected President, he would certainly not be working with a Libertarian controlled House and Senate. Political compromise would still be required. He could make some changes via executive order to make the executive behave more libertarian, but he cannot overturn a law or abolish an agency or department. Even with political gerrymandering, it is very difficult to achieve one party rule. When it happens, it tends to fracture. There are many wings of the Libertarian Party, and they would fracture along predictable political fault lines. But even if consensus could be achieved, there is still a Supreme Court that as an institution resists change.

Our society is a tangle of laws, free market capitalism, entrepreneurship and various political and social forces, all interacting in a generally messy manner. It is human nature to look at such a messy system and to want to straighten it out in a way that matches your political inclinations. But it will remain a mess regardless of who is in charge and what philosophy of the day is dominant. Technology will continue to make advances. Humans will probably continue to populate the planet beyond our ability to sustain the population.

The only constant in life is that it changes, otherwise it would not be life. People through their governments must try to manage this chaos as best they can. Whatever system is tried is going to have its disadvantages. In the case of libertarianism, it is simply unworkable, as is true of any “-ism” philosophy. No system will perfectly fit all the myriad cases it is expected to address. Any system will favor some at the expense of others. The best political system will be one that understands these dynamics and will tend to intelligently accommodate the current changes that are underway.

This is a much harder road to follow. It requires debate, discussion, compromise, science, respect for science, respect for people of all beliefs, lots of education and open debate. It requires an understanding that compromise is imperfect but necessary. It requires respect, if not admiration, for those willing to compromise and a realization that perfection is rarely achievable and when achieved rarely lasts. It requires an acknowledgement that no system will be perfect, that external forces will affect whatever system is in place, and that adjustments will be required. Most importantly, successful governorship is simply being pragmatic and flexible. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s as perfect as we are likely to get at governing.

The Republican Party is looking for a few more loonies

The Thinker by Rodin

Every time I think Republicans cannot get any crazier, I am proven wrong. The latest example is of course Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who last week said that women who are raped have this heretofore clinically unknown ability to ward off rapist’s sperm, thereby not getting pregnant. But this can only occur in the case of a “legitimate rape”.

Silly me, I had no idea that rapes could be classified between legitimate and illegitimate. I thought by definition rape had to be non-consensual sex, but not in the crazy world of Republican ideology. I’m not sure but I think their wacky thinking runs something like this: some women secretly want to be raped. Maybe they go down dark alleys in miniskirts hoping some rapists leap out from behind trashcans. Why would they do this? Because they are so desperate to conceive that the only way they know how is to get raped. Going into bars and winking at strange men doesn’t occur to them. This sort of rape, in the view of Akin I imagine, is an illegitimate rape. If the woman welcomes the chance for rape and gets pregnant, consciously or unconsciously, she must want the child and thus she should not be allowed to have an abortion.

Thinking about this preposterous logic for a bit, there must be all sorts of illegitimate rapes. If your perverted and abusive father decides to rape you, well, no matter how vile it was that he raped you, you still love your father, right? So of course this is not a legitimate rape. Carry the child to term. Live with not only the shame of being violated by your own father, but having to explain or hide this from your child for life, as well as support him with no help from the government. After all, this child deserves life, even though being the product of incest he or she may well suffer genetic deformities.

Akin’s amazing and wholly unscientific beliefs raised howls of concerns from fellow Republicans. The howls came not for his beliefs but because he had the audacity to express them. (Naturally, he had many supporters, including women in his own district.) After all, his views are now codified in the 2012 Republican Party platform, which, if Tropical Storm Isaac ever leaves the vicinity of Tampa, will be routinely adapted by Republican delegates at their convention this week. That’s right. The Republican Party platform calls for all abortions to be outlawed via a constitutional amendment, with no exceptions for rape, “legitimate” or otherwise. It’s all about respect for life or something.

It’s hardly news that their respect for life ends at the moment of birth. From that moment on, new mother, you are on your own. Do not expect one penny from the government for your child. In fact, don’t expect the government to provide any prenatal care for you to carry your pregnancy to term either. Anyhow, once your child is born, forget about food stamps, forget about WIC supplements, forget about welfare, and forget about any form of government assistance. Your new baby can die of starvation and disease for all the Republican Party cares, because any of that is socialism, which is much worse than having no respect for life before birth. Hope instead for charity from non-governmental organizations. When questioned on the topic during the Republican presidential debates, that was Ron Paul’s solution. Magically, churches and private charities will step up and help all these poor children, even though they proved incapable of doing it before we invented these child welfare programs, as evidenced by all the homeless kids in the streets back then. Presumably in the new Republican order child protective services are out as well, at least at the federal level. If, like in the nineteenth century, life impoverishes these children then it’s okay if your kid ends up on the street. Maybe he can scrape together a living shining shoes or something. He has to learn self-reliance and personal initiative anyhow. Eating dog shit for dinner builds character. Children should embrace devastating poverty: it is an opportunity to prove your mettle.

The whole Republican Party has embraced crazy and unworkable ideology over reality. Try to find just one position in their party platform that is congruent with actual science. Please let me know if you find one, but I can save you the research: you won’t. Tropical Storm Isaac right now looks like it is bearing down on New Orleans, which almost seven years ago to the day devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas. President Bush dealt with the situation eating a birthday cake with John McCain on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. He entrusted FEMA to a former director of an Arabian horse association. He showed his respect for life by allowing senior citizens to drown in New Orleans nursing homes.

So what among other things would the Republican Party do today if their policies were adopted? To read from one plan, newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s plan, NOAA’s budget would be severely curtailed. The National Weather Service is part of NOAA, as is the National Hurricane Center. Some Republicans, like Ron Paul, would be thrilled to get rid of the Commerce Department altogether. (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.) Which would leave it to the private sector to make hurricane predictions. Doubtless The Weather Channel would step up, buy their own weather satellites and hurricane spotter airplanes. Of course, hurricane forecasts would only be available to those who could afford to pay for it.

Reason simply plays no part in the Republican Party. It’s all about crazy ideology. It’s all about staying true to principles, principles that repeatedly have been proven false. Mitt Romney’s plan for the federal budget is fundamentally and mathematically flawed, as documented by many nonpartisan organizations that have studied it. But that doesn’t matter, first because they won’t admit they can’t do math and second because they must be true to principle, no matter what. The orthodoxy says taxes must be cut, particularly for the richest and somehow draconian cuts in services (but not the military, naturally, which will get an increase) will balance the budget. As if taking all that money out of the economy will somehow have a positive rather than a negative effect on the economy. Ideology, like religion, does not require reason. It simply requires unyielding, unreasonable and crazy faith, the sort, sadly, rampant in churches principally in Republican strongholds. It’s the sort of faith that lets you blithely ignore the scientific consensus on global warming and evolution.

And so boldly the Republican Party sails off in search of ever righter and crazier ideological waters. It is ideology so weird and reckless that their hero Ronald Reagan would be beating on the doors of the Democratic National Committee asking for readmission to the party.

Can you believe the unbelievable? Can you vote for policies that have proven catastrophically incorrect not once but twice? Can you suspend all the evidence and believe your president was not born in the United States and is a secret Muslim? Can you ignore the fact that our president actually loosened gun control laws and yet believe he is trying to take away your guns? Can you believe that President Obama wants to turn the United States government over to the United Nations? Can you believe that two plus two equals five? Can you believe that women who have suffered a “legitimate” rape have some secret spiritual powers to kill bad rapist sperm but let the good sperm, like your father’s, go through?

You can? Then the Republican Party is for you. And they have a big tent, because there are plenty of crazy people under it already, and they need just a few more to gain control and ensure complete national dysfunction. They are doing it, of course, on principle.

Election 2012: It’s looking like 1964

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the year when because of the bad economy Republicans are supposed to be shoe-ins for election. When the president is floundering due to a bad economy and high unemployment (so the theory goes) the alternative, no matter how poor a choice, should coast to election.

Elections tend to be fickle events and often turn on last minute happenings. Still, when one projects the current state of politics forward to November, conventional wisdom seems likely to lose. If I were President Obama, I would not spend too much time worrying about his reelection. Instead, I would spend more time working to elect a Congress that will work with him during a second term. Trends suggest this election will resemble the Election of 1964. In that election, President Lyndon Johnson cruised to an easy election. (He assumed the presidency on the death of President Kennedy.) Democrats also picked up thirty-four House seats and two Senate seats.

Back in 1964, the Republican Party was about as confused a party as they are today. The conventional wisdom forty-eight years ago was that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller would cruise to his party’s nomination. Rockefeller though had some Newt Gingrich in him. He was not the bombastic, bomb-throwing Republican like Newt. That dubious honor went to Senator Barry Goldwater (Arizona). Rockefeller was an establishment Republican. He spent much of his time as governor building highways, not fretting about cutting taxes. Rockefeller modeled Gingrich in that his personal life left much to be desired. In 1963, he divorced his wife and married a woman fifteen years his younger on the rebound. In the divorce settlement, his new wife’s ex-husband was granted custody of her children. This fed rumors of adultery, which became a serious liability for Rockefeller, and helped drive the candidacy of the bombastic Barry Goldwater.

For those pining for a true conservative, Goldwater more than delivered. He wanted a much more aggressive war in Vietnam than Johnson had delivered, and was fanatically anticommunist. His rhetoric suggested that preemptive use of nuclear weapons was okay, which greatly alarmed most Americans. Despite this, Goldwater was successful in achieving the nomination, in part due to Rockefeller’s marital missteps. He even narrowly won the California primary, which largely sealed his nomination. The contrast could hardly have been sharper in the 1964 election: a true conservative vs. a Texas Democrat who was part redneck but doggedly in favor of civil rights. Goldwater won only six states and accumulated only 52 electoral votes.

Contrast Rockefeller and Goldwater with the current field of Republican presidential candidates. No matter who is eventually nominated, they will be (to quote Mitt Romney) “severely conservative”, or at least be forced to run as one. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, each is as at least as alarming as Barry Goldwater was in 1964. There is nothing the least bit moderate about any of them, at least judging by their rhetoric. Moreover, each carries “severe” baggage. Romney is the flip flopper to end all flip floppers, willing to say virtually anything for a vote. Gingrich has a history with Americans that conjures up nastiness and revulsion. Ron Paul wants to go back on the gold standard, favors a policy of isolationism, plus wants to cut the government roughly in half. Rick Santorum thinks birth control should not even be covered by insurance plans. This is borne out in polls where each candidate is polled against President Obama in a hypothetical election. Talking Points Memo keeps a list of these head to head matchups. In the best of them for Republicans, Obama leads Romney by seven points. If the election were held today, he would trounce Gingrich by thirteen points, Ron Paul by ten points and Santorum by seven points.

As I said, dynamics can change as the campaigns get underway. However, it’s already understood that Republicans are underwhelmed with their candidates this year. This is evidenced by substantially lower rates of participation by Republicans in primaries and caucuses to date compared with recent years. Unless their nominee can subsequently animate Republicans in a way they so far haven’t, this trend is likely to continue through the election, giving Democrats an enthusiasm advantage. Surprisingly, Democrats appear to be rallying behind Obama in this election, and their enthusiasm level seems quite high, in spite of the fact that Obama has governed the country more like a 1970s establishment Republican than a Democrat.

Of course, the biggest factor determining this election the state will be of the economy. It remains to be seen how it will play out, but the recovery seems to be becoming tangible to ordinary Americans at last, with the unemployment rate likely to be below eight percent in a month or two. This is a rate that is still too high, but the unemployment rate seems to be steadily dropping rather than holding steady. As a trend, it suggests whatever Obama is doing is working, at least belatedly. Independents would be hard-pressed to choose an unknown commodity over a known one that is delivering, particularly when the choice may affect their job prospects and bank balances.

Will all this good economic news make the public more forgiving toward their Congress? There is little evidence of this, with approval ratings of Congress hovering in the 10 to 13 percent range. What’s hard to figure out is how much of this disgust will translate into “throw my representative out of Congress too”. If so will it be bipartisan, or partisan? Given the likely higher enthusiasm from Democrats in this election, it seems likely that Democrats will benefit from these dynamics rather than Republicans. Republicans have two small factors in their favor: voter ID laws likely to reduce votes from minorities and completion of redistricting, making Republicans more likely to retain seats than lose them.

There are a lot of retiring Democratic senators this year, so Democrats will be fighting headwinds trying to retain their narrow control of the Senate. 2010 turned out to be a change election in favor of House Republicans. Two years though of a Tea Party dominated House have left most Americans infuriated with their obstructionism and unwillingness to compromise. Disapproval of Congress is today higher than it was prior to the 2010 election. Given that many Republicans are likely to sit out this election, it’s not unreasonable to think that Democrats will regain control of the House. I think the odds are at least 50/50 Democrats will succeed.

I do suspect that barring any great surprises that Obama will cruise to an easy reelection. This will be for no other reason that he is a defender of the status quo, and Americans like their Social Security and Medicare. The Senate is likelier than not to switch to Republican control, but only narrowly if it occurs. The means that Democrats can keep the Senate as bollixed up as Republicans have done. If I had to bet, I’d bet that Democrats will regain the House, marginally lose the Senate and retain the White House.

In the election’s aftermath, Republicans will have to look at the wreckage. The sober ones will have to ask how much of it was self-inflicted by moving even further to the right. As Barry Goldwater put it in the 1964 election, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Maybe not, but extremism by nominees for a political party is likely to be a vote loser. After much moaning and groaning, this may open a welcome space for centrist Republicans again. They are likely to find plenty of independents that were reluctantly voting for Democrats only because there was no centrist Republicans.

The Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot

The Thinker by Rodin

Get out the popcorn! Thanks to Newt Gingrich’s surprising win in the South Carolina Republican primary yesterday, it looks like those of us who enjoy political theater have many more weeks or months of it to revel in. One thing is clear: Republican primary voters are having a hard time choosing from their crop of candidates. You get the feeling Bob Forehead would win if he were on the ballot. (Mitt Romney does remind me a lot of Bob Forehead. It must be coincidence.)

At least it is now down to four: the Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot. A number of other crackpots have already exited stage right, including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Jon Huntsman posed as the moderate candidate in the race, although his tax policies were anything but moderate. Anyhow, they are gone and I for one will miss Bachmann, Cain and Perry for their circus sideshow qualities. It’s hard to lampoon candidates who are already crazy parodies of candidates but simply do not know it.

We are learning some things as these primaries drag on. First, it’s a bad idea to entrust vote counting to the Iowa Republican Party. They must not have excelled in math in school, and they lost votes altogether for some precincts. Mitt Romney won Iowa by eight votes, then some weeks later he lost it, but no one can really say for sure because they also lost precinct votes. Doing all that vote counting at an undisclosed location is hardly a way to instill confidence in the process either. Call it a tie, maybe, between the Mormon and the zealot.

Second, Republicans simply refuse to nominate a moderate. In today’s Republican Party, Ronald Reagan would be castigated as a flaming liberal. Even Jon Huntsman tilted much further to the right than Ronald Reagan ever did. Being angry is considered an asset; being statesman-like means you are a pussy. At least anecdotally, South Carolina Republicans picked serial philanderer Newt Gingrich not because of his family values, but because he was the best of the four of them at articulating their rage. It takes balls to tell an African American to their face their problem is they don’t work hard enough.

Third, for a party supposedly centered on liberty and freedom, they sure don’t want to hand much of it out. In fact, they want to take away a lot of freedoms. One freedom they can all agree on: the right to own lots and lots of increasingly lethal weapons, with no pesky laws to get in the way of you and your paranoia. But on many other freedoms, they would gladly rescind them. The freedom to have an abortion? Perish the thought. The freedom to marry someone you love who happens to be of the same sex? It’s immoral and hence must be outlawed. The freedom of a 17-year old girl to buy a Plan B “after the fact” contraceptive over the counter, which is clinically proven both safe and effective? Not for you, you little harlot. The freedom to vote without having an officially blessed form of state-issued identification? Sorry, no, at least in many of these Republican states which recently passed onerous voter ID laws.

Freedom, as Republicans like to tell us, is not free, which is another way of saying freedom has to be purchased, i.e. it’s sort of like buying emancipation. If you cannot afford to buy it, well that’s just tough. If you want the freedom to vote, then trek down to your local DMV and get an official ID and pay for it with your own money, and do it on your own time. (This is not, they tell us, a poll tax. Go figure.) You have the freedom to eat as much food as you can afford to buy, and if you cannot afford any you are free to starve. The same goes with your health, your employment and your choice of abode. You have the freedom to call a cardboard box home rather than pay rent. Freedom means never getting a handout. Freedom essentially means that those with the means get to have a whole lot more freedom than you do. Also it is an essential part of the government’s mission to remove any possibility that society might help the poor climb the social ladder. As Herman Cain informed us, if you are poor it’s your own damn fault. You just aren’t trying hard enough.

You can see why it would be confusing to Republican primary voters to choose a nominee, although right now anger seems to be a vote getter. In conservative family-values South Carolina of all places you would think that a serial philanderer would have a hard time getting votes. But voters seem more interested in a candidate who can express their anger than one who is consistent with family values. So they cheered Gingrich on in a recent debate when moderator John King asked Gingrich to comment on his ex-wife Marianne’s allegation that he petitioned her for an open marriage. Gingrich turned the inevitable question into a personal attack and the audience roared approval. Perhaps all this family value talk is just talk, as red states have higher divorce rates than blue states anyhow.

Then there is the question: can a true Christian pull the lever for a Mormon? New Hampshire Republicans had no problem, but they are suspiciously secular up there. In God-fearing South Carolina, if your candidate is not a real Christian, he doesn’t share your values, so you cannot vote for him. Instead, pick Gingrich, the faux-Christian instead. You would think his Catholicism would be a stroke against him in a deeply Protestant state, but it’s Christian enough apparently. Besides, Gingrich is about as Christian in temperament as Attila the Hun was a humanitarian, which in fact resembles most so-called Christians that I know.

Which leaves the zealot and the crackpot. The zealot, a.k.a. as Rick Santorum, is so incredibly monogamous he won’t even sit on a sofa with another woman not his wife. He was a huge failure as a U.S. senator but apparently did not get the message, even when he lost his reelection bid by seventeen points. Santorum says he is the only true conservative in the race. Maybe so, but he is conservative in a nasty Fred Rogers sort of way, although he looks great in a sweater vest. This is a guy who is so far to the right that even obvious right-wingers avoid him. His proposal to limit the National Weather Service to issuing severe long-range weather forecasts only was so bizarre and unworldly that not a single other senator signed on as a cosponsor. Santorum is a true conservative indeed. Even I have to give him credit for this.

Then there is the crackpot. Doubtless I risk the ire of legions of Ron Paul fans out there by calling him a crackpot, but he is one. Anyone who refuses to ever make an exception to move outside his or her ideology is a crackpot. One way I can tell a true crackpot is I tend to agree with some of their positions. I agree with Paul that we should be out of Afghanistan, for example. It’s all that other weird stuff he believes in where it’s hard to stifle derisive laughter. He wants to eliminate much of the government including essential agencies like the EPA, kill the Federal Reserve Board, go on the gold standard, and withdraw from the UN and WTO. And for a pro-freedom kind of guy, freedom apparently doesn’t extend to a woman’s right to have an abortion, or the right to have consensual sodomy, since granted to us by a conservative Supreme Court. Calling Ron Paul a crackpot is actually to diminish him with faint praise. Nonetheless, a significant portion of the Republican electorate apparently agrees with this guy. Fortunately, his anti-foreign-policy stand makes it impossible for him to win the nomination. His candidacy does beg the question: who is freakier: the fetishly clean Rick Santorum or the obsessively and ideologically weird Ron Paul? This is the kind of question I could debate with friends all night, and we could never agree on, but it would still be a fun debate.

I plan to stock up on popcorn and hope this nominating process goes all the way to a brokered convention.

Philanderers for president!

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you a better person for being married only once? That’s what I was wondering today as I read this article in the Washington Post. Mitt Romney, currently polling second among Republicans in the run for the party’s presidential nomination, doesn’t have a string of broken marriages to point to. Gosh, he’s been married to the same woman for more than forty years! He likes to draw attention to the fact because it shows you just how much he believes in marriage. You might say he’s a marriage pro. First time up and he hits a home run. Thus, as your president, he’ll hit them all out of the park because his eye is keen and his stroke is true.

You can’t say the same thing about Newt Gingrich, currently the top choice in most polls of Republicans for the same nomination. Twice divorced, he is now on wife number three (Camilla), who he apparently bedded while still married to wife number two (Marianne). Marianne should have seen it coming though because Newt apparently bedded her while still married to wife number one (Jackie). All these are mistakes in Newt’s past that he candidly acknowledges and says he regrets. To show that he has had a change of heart, he has signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge that he will faithfully work for a constitutional amendment defining marriage nationally as the union between one man and one woman. Curiously, the pledge does not require him to be faithful to Camilla, which may be good for Newt given his track record. Not to worry, Newt has said pledged publicly that he will be faithful to her. If this were truly a concern of Camilla’s (and I have my doubts), I’d make him wear a chastity belt and keep the only key.

Anyhow, congratulations to Mitt and wife Ann and forty-two years of perfect fidelity! The great thing about Mitt is I can look at him and know he never cheated on Ann. This is in part because Mormons seem to have some sort of secret inoculation (I think it’s the Terminal Guilt Vaccine), but also because you can see it in Mitt’s eyes: he’s just not the philandering type. He’s just a simple and kind of goofy guy. If he were a horse, he’d insist he wear blinders. Mitt too has signed the NOM pledge, which suggests he wants the rest of us to wear blinders too. It’s just like those monkeys on Captain Kangaroo: hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil. It’s that simple folks, married folks. Except of course for the sinful and chronic philanderers like Newt Gingrich and countless other politicians who don’t measure up to his high moral stature.

Should you vote for Mitt because he is a faithful guy? That should be a strike in his favor if you are a conservative, because true conservatives want to go back as far as possible into the past and relive those glory days. And back in, say, the 18th century, divorce was simply unavailable in the United States. Back then you might as well have connected husband and wife together with a ball and chain. In any event, if found guilty of adultery it was likely a crime and, channeling Nathaniel Hawthorne, fallen women like Hester Prynne might be forced to go around with a big scarlet A on their bodices.

Even if you are a conservative, you might want to give the virtue of fidelity as a reason for voting for someone a second thought. Curiously, Newt did some of his best work as a conservative while cheating on Marianne. Working with Bill Clinton, another fellow philanderer (perhaps that’s why they got on so well), welfare benefits were fundamentally changed and the federal budget actually got balanced. Perhaps it was all that testosterone surging through him due to Camilla’s womanly charms, but he managed to affect change on a magnitude that even Saint Ronald Reagan could not pull off. Remember the episode “Mirror, Mirror” in the original Star Trek’s second season, where an alternate Captain Kirk keeps a convenient captain’s whore in his quarters? If I wanted to further conservative values and Newt became our next president, I’d be chipping in to get Newt a presidential concubine. She might do her best work underneath the desk in the Oval Office.

What amazing accomplishments can the faithful Mitt Romney claim as governor? Well, there was that Massachusetts health care plan, which Democrats modeled in the Affordable Care Act. Now, of course, conservatives revile the ACA for being allegedly socialist. More importantly, it’s reviled because Democrats passed it and that Black-Muslim-Kenyan-socialist-apostate President Obama signed it. In short, all that faithfulness was not only unhelpful to conservative causes; it actually was a detriment. It appears to have interfered with clear conservative thinking.

Curiously, chronic philanderers Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton rate among our most productive politicians. Nice faithful guys like Mitt Romney get one term as governor. Even slimeballs like Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois recently sentenced to 14 years in a federal prison, got two terms as governor. Americans were generally peeved that Clinton was brought up on impeachment charges, and figuratively cried when he left office, giving him approval ratings in the sixties.

Of course, if you are trying to throw sand into the gears of government, maybe a true conservative is what you want. Maybe you should vote for Ron Paul, another candidate whose faithfulness I cannot question. (This is due, in part, to suffering through this movie.) If Ron Paul had his way, our federal government would be largely a shell of what it is today. People like Newt Gingrich though tend to enlarge government because exercising power is not about diminishing power. Think about it: if you diminish your power, you can’t exercise it at some later time. Having power is about making your enemies pay and giving their horde to your friends. Only a die-hard idealist like Ron Paul might actually succeed in shrinking government. To do this, at your center, you have to be ideology centered rather than ego driven.

Unsurprisingly, this is not true of any of the other Republican candidates. They are all drooling from the corners of their mouths because they want to exercise power. If power is diminished, that means everyone has less of it. And where’s the fun in that? It might mean, for example, no constitutional amendment to declare marriage as between only one man and one woman, because you sure don’t want to spend tax money enforcing it. And that might mean deciding defining what a marriage is becomes a matter for each state and keeping the federal government’s hands off the whole issue. That’s not cool. You cannot enforce an ideology that way.

If I actually wanted a politician to get something done and have to pick between a faithful politician and a philandering one, I’ll pick the philandering one. After all, having an illicit affair is not a simple matter. It requires complex skills, surreptitious behavior and high stakes. That sounds kind of what we need in a pragmatic president.

So I say: philanderers for president! And, “Go Newt!”

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The Thinker by Rodin

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.