January 21, 2010

Things Are "Changing" All Right

Probably the best blog I read on a regular basis is Glenn Greenwald's Salon column, which is alternatively labeled "Unclaimed Territory," which is how his old independent blog used to be titled. Glenn gets quoted a lot in news media, and is something of a thorn in the side of Establishment journalism because of his habit of pointing out the systematic fallacies in "Beltway Conventional Wisdom." You might summarize Glenn's main point this way: what is cited as "mainstream opinion" in America is actually nothing of the kind; rather, it is a self-serving consensus worked out by media and political elites as a justification for what they would like to keep doing regardless of "mainstream opinion." Whether he is conscious of it or not, I think Greenwald's ideas are derivative of Noam Chomsky's seminal insight, that "manufactured consent" actually controls the parameters, or bandwidth, of "acceptable" political opinion in American public life.

Two political issues illustrate the accuracy of Glenn's argument: the war in Iraq and the late, lamented "public option" in the increasingly useless "health care reform" bill staggering its way through Congress. On the cable talk shows, on the editorial pages of the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, the claim was often made that the "people" supported the Iraq War and did not favor a withdrawal, precipitous or otherwise. As Greenwald documented over and over again, citing statistically accurate surveys of public opinion, by about 2005 the majority of Americans in fact did favor a withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq, and this percentage grew to over 60% as the war raged on and casualties mounted. This did not stop the Democratic and Republican leadership in both the Senate and House from labeling the "anti-war" crowd radical and "leftist," nor did it stop the talking heads on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos from repeating ad nauseum that the "people" wanted to withdraw from Iraq only on a "responsible basis," when the "mission had been achieved." The "people" interposed no such caveat; they just wanted us to get the hell out.

The same dynamic has occurred with respect to the public option. A decisive majority, more than 70% of the American people, favor the essential expansion of Medicare to cover everyone. Some polls put the number as high as 74% when support crested. That hope is gone now, lost in the dilatory and confusing "deliberations" of Congress, as they and the White House worked out deals with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Party operatives within the Democratic Party, such as Evan Bayh, nevertheless claim that Massachusetts was lost because the Democrats kowtowed too much to their "leftist" wing in the health care debate. Run that one by me again? No, don't think so. The Democrats lost because they never get anything frigging done.

The media and political elites in the Imperial City live in a comfy and insulated little world where the maintenance of the status quo is profitable, career-enhancing and self-perpetuating. The madding crowd out there on Main Street is a disturbing element for this complacency; the trick is to mollify the unrest while maintaining the status quo, because that's what keeps the money flowing from Wall Street, Big Pharma and Lobbyist Nation.

It now appears that this gambit is becoming less and less successful. The "Renegade," Barack Obama, threatened to upset the apple cart when he was running for office, to challenge this smug self-satisfaction when he arrived at the White House. On arriving there, however, something happened. The origins of his reversal (many call it a betrayal) can be debated without any kind of definitive answer. I choose to look at the situation "behaviorally;" I don't think there's much doubt that he's not doing what he said he would do (one can cite many, many examples of his reversal of position), and the reasons for that are beside the point. The real point is that now he, and the other political elites who played the game of placating the unrest of the common man with ineffective gestures, are beginning to pay a heavy price. The election of Scott Brown and the Republican upsets which preceded his victory in Virginia and New Jersey signal a further advance in what I called in a previous blog "the rise of grudge voting."

These Republicans are being put over the top by independent voters, the same voters who elected Barack Obama. I note today that at long last Obama is talking about (horrors!) actually using the anti-trust laws for the purposes they were enacted: to break up monopolistic behemoths that are "too big to fail" and pose a threat to free competition. That's how far the Washington Establishment had slipped into its solipsistic trance: it looks "radical" now when a Chief Executive talks about enforcing laws put on the books during the term of Teddy Roosevelt. What next? A prosecution for violating the War Crimes Act? (Let's not get hysterical.)

My guess is that these impotent gestures won't make any difference now. It's just a little too obvious what they're doing, and why. Besides, this kind of stuff is not the same as actually being on the side of the Little Guy. If they were on the side of the Little Guy, they would tell credit card companies that they cannot charge usurious rates. They would make the re-importation of prescription drugs legal, and they would allow (for crying out loud) Medicare to use its bargaining leverage with pharmaceutical companies to bring down the price. They would repeal the Bankruptcy Reform Act, Joe Biden's Frankenstein monster of anti-populist intent. These things all provide direct, immediate help to the cash-strapped denizens of Main Street, and they don't cost the federal government anything (they save money). And Congress and Obama won't do any of these things because they would upset their corporate donors. So they engage in these pantomimes of compassion, like "regulating" the size of Wall Street banks. Whoop-de-you know, like-do.

The slightly satisfying feeling now, however, is that this crap isn't going to work anymore. Obama is going to do for the Democratic Party what George W. Bush did for the Republicans: bring it down around his ears. And seriously - who would have predicted that?

January 20, 2010

So long, Massuchusetts

The one positive development I can see in the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's former seat in the Senate is that I don't think we'll have to listen to Harry Reid talk about the "60 vote rule" nearly as much anymore. Indeed, I imagine that 2010 will be Harry's own last year in the Senate, since if the Republican "tsunami" is going to sweep anyone from office in November, surely Mr. Mumbles would be one of the first to go.

I never quite understood why the Democrats thought they had 60 votes before this election, however. There were only 58 Democratic Senators when Ted Kennedy was with us. They count Bernie Sanders, the independent Socialist from Vermont, as one of their own, of course, and that makes sense. But they also count Joe Lieberman, and that makes no sense at all. Joe Lieberman is an Independent who simply plays the Democratic Leadership for fools, claiming to caucus with them in order to keep his committee chair, and otherwise doing anything he can to thwart their ambitions, whatever those might be. Joe Lieberman campaigned for John McCain. How bright a picture does a guy have to paint?

Still, this nonchalance of mine can only carry a person so far. The election of a Republican as a Senator from Massachusetts, cradle of our liberal democracy, is a very ominous sign. The cable news guys & gals, always looking for a takeaway line, read these results as a "wake up call" for the Dems. They better get cracking, et cetera. We all know it's too late for that. The Democratic ascendancy was about one thing and one thing only: public revulsion at the manifest atrociousness of the Bush Administration. It did not have much to do with enthusiasm for Democrats per se. They were, however, the other brand, and the good people of this battered land invested their hopes with them.

That would have been the moment to do everything differently - January, 2009. A Democratic Renaissance. Institute radical departures from everything Bushian. Withdraw all the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, begin the process of dismantling half of all those foreign bases and forts, investigate and prosecute all the horrendous torture and detainee abuse, perp walk half of Wall Street for massive securities fraud, begin massive investment in a new energy regime and public transportation - clean the frigging house. The American people would have been thrilled with the prospect of a new sheriff in town, and American progress toward sustainable prosperity.

Instead, Obama and the Democratic Leadership wanted to see how many of the Bush-era "initiatives" and "approaches" could be salvaged and continued under their regime. Can you believe that? That's what they decided to do. In their view, Bush had been such a singular success in managing all of his wars and the American economy that he was worthy of emulation. It worked for him, why not for us? Let's just leave everything the way he left it.

Astounding. So, for now, we have 57 Democratic Senators, 41 Republicans and 2 Independents, one of whom is a Democrat and the other is another Republican, so it's 58-42, which means Harry Reid can stop counting and resume mumbling about parliamentary procedure or whatever it is that he gets paid to do. As we all have learned by now, absolutely nothing can be accomplished in American government unless there are 60 Democratic Senators.

Except, of course, when the Republicans win a few seats in November and, mirabile dictu, for some reason find themselves capable of doing anything they want, just as they did under Bush. That's something I never quite understood. I'm at a loss to think of a single crappy thing Bush wanted to do where he was stymied by the "60 vote" rule. Did the Democrats ever deny him war funding? Stop his illegal wiretaps? Repeal the Patriot Act? Force him to balance a budget?

Nope, none of that ever happened. I would say it's just as well that the Republicans Are Coming, the Republicans Are Coming, but it isn't just as well, as we all know. It's going to be a nightmare. The Republican Party has transmogrified into some very weird parody of its old self, typified by such political practitioners as Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney, who operate on the outside (currently), and by guys like Tom Coburn ("death penalty for ob-gyns who do abortions!"), James Inhofe ("global warming is the greatest hoax on mankind in history!") and Mitch McConnell (well, - Mitch McConnell). All the solons in Washington are going to be living in communal frat houses with Bible readings every morning, and carrying on strange, ritualistic practices at night by candle light, and then swaddling themselves up in diapers and calling in the madams to administer their discipline. American government is going to descend into a kind of hybrid version of 1984 and Rosemary's Baby.

So - a weird, fetishistic government, crucifixes painted on our tanks as they roll through Islamic countries as our wars rage on, a bankrupt Treasury, a lawless approach to Constitutional rights, a decimated economy. Let me know when the fun begins.

A pundit once said, commenting on Michael Jackson's habit of sleeping each night in a hyperbaric glass coffin, "there's a fine line between the weird, and the really, really weird, and Michael has crossed it." We are nearing that Rubicon ourselves. Think fondly on 2009 and 2010; for all of their shortcomings, they will be remembered as the pause before the Storm.

January 18, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. O

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to come to terms with my feelings about the Obama Administration, my pervasive sense of disappointment and loss of interest in the political process in general. As the old Yiddish saying has it, live long enough and you'll see everything; and I don't recall ever being this surprised (I think that's the word) by a candidate as I've been by Barack Obama.

In one sense, of course, I'm just jealous. He's got a cool job: the Oval Office, good salary, huge perks, immense staff, and his future is secure. He'll really start making the money after his term or terms are up. That's the way it goes in modern American politics. It's really a branch of the entertainment business for its media-genic stars.

I understand that Obama is constrained by finances. He's the CEO of an insolvent company. Revenue from sales (taxes) is much, much lower than expenditures. There are probably many things he would like to do that just aren't possible because we don't have the money. Activity in the main product line of the U.S. Government, war, remains brisk, although there is a very low return on investment (ROI). We don't really know why we're fighting all these wars, but I can understand the appeal of the President's Commander-in-Chief role. So much of what the federal government does is simply the redistribution of taxes (entitlements) that war is about the only area of leadership that makes a president look presidential. Social Security, for example: money in, money immediately out. You don't really need a President for that, just a large accounting agency. The same with Medicare. In a normal fiscal year, that's over half of the budget right there.

So the war budget is without doubt the most fun to play with. It involves large wall maps of Asia, lots of military brass in olive green with gold braid, their chests heavy with medals and decorations, all of them meeting in high-tech rooms to discuss strategy and geopolitics. I imagine it must have been pretty intimidating for Barack when he first presided over such a Situation Room...situation. He was never a soldier, and he doesn't really look like the kind of guy who got into a lot fistfights when he was a kid. Still, he's gotten very good at that gravitas essential to ordering "troops into harm's way." "It's the hardest decision a President has to make," he told Steve Croft of "60 Minutes." That's exactly how George W. Bush used to say it. I notice, however, that it's not so hard that Presidents don't routinely make the decision.

I think in a lot ways Barack Obama is a more talented actor than Ronald Reagan. I know what you're thinking: damned by faint praise. But think about it. Reagan had actually been the CEO of California, the nation's largest state, prior to becoming President. So he had executive experience. He was a remarkably shitty governor, of course, and best remembered for closing the doors of the state's mental health facilities, thus creating the first generation of California's open-air lunatic asylums called the "homeless population." Reagan, a profligate spender, warmonger, delusional fantasist, anti-intellectual to his core: he set the standard by which all succeeding Presidents have been measured, and all of them, even Barack, have made their obeisances to the Great Communicator's lasting influence. They base their impersonation of leadership on his model.

If you'll permit a little armchair Freudianism, I'll tell you what I think might be going on here. Obama is the second Democratic president in a row who grew up without a strong masculine presence in his life. No father, no real father figure. Clinton and Obama were both raised by women who idolized them and nurtured their dreams, perhaps in part to overcome obvious difficulties in their (the mothers') own lives. Boys raised in households where a strong father or father figure rules the roost learn a couple of early lessons about the nature of the greater world. One is that fucking up often has severe, immediate consequences. The other is that the world outside is pretty much a non-ending shitstorm of competition, disappointment, conflict and difficulty, because that's the world Dad inhabits.

Barack Obama's bizarre penchant for "bipartisanship" and consensus, no matter how utterly unrealistic it is in light of the Republican Party's implacable opposition to everything he suggests, may arise from Obama's formative experience. In Clinton's case, I could never understand why the guy always folded so easily when met with opposition. For example (and to cite my favorite case), Clinton backed down on Lani Guinier, his choice for a high post in the Justice Department, because of an academic paper she wrote on cumulative voting as a solution to under-representation of blacks on Southern political councils, boards, etc. Her paper was a theory. Clinton dumped her (the first black woman tenured as a professor at the Harvard Law School) because the conservatives said she was undemocratic. By contrast, Clinton's successor, George H.W. Bush, succeeded in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, he of the pubic hair on the Coke can remarks, because Bush the Elder refused to back down, the Dems be damned. George the First's son, W, was the same way. No matter how bad his idea, he told everyone to pound sand.

O is more like Bubba. Obama doesn't seem to understand that the masculine style of interaction is to take what the other guy will give you, and to fight for the rest. Competition is hard enough as it is; if the other guy wants to concede, great, let's move on to the next round. So Obama repeats his lawn-chair act over and over and over. He gives in on everything. Authority figures (Gen. Stanley McChrystal knee-capped Obama by leaking his own surge plans to the Washington Post, and Obama did nothing about it) intimidate Obama, and he doesn't like conflict anyway.

War, under such circumstances and under such leadership, becomes a nice sublimated outlet for thwarted masculinity. Obama is showin' 'em. He's got more wars going now (I think about four) than Bush ever thought of fighting. Clinton used to bomb Iraq whenever the CSI boys would find a semen stain in another unfortunate location.

It's interesting that the last President who made his abhorrence of war very vocal, who worked (often against the wishes of his own party) to methodically reduce military spending, and who presided over a booming peacetime economy, was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. It used to be that American leaders rose to the top through participation in the violent crucible of masculine conflict, like Ike and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and they learned a balance between diplomacy and defiance. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, whatever works. They were natural leaders who distinguished themselves by the example they set, and not through the simulation of leadership qualities highlighted as part of a marketing campaign.