Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Obama Should Get an A on Foreign Affairs



While much has been written and said about President Obama’s handling of domestic matters and of course most especially the economy, foreign affairs, as almost always in America, except in time of war, have received but cursory attention. 

After World War I the nations of the world looked to America for leadership - we punted and enclosed ourselves in a naive type of isolation.  After World War II, when we were the only democracy left with any real economic and military clout, we accepted world leadership - but, the world quickly divided into two camps: the capitalist west and the communist east (eventually a third bloc the non-aligned arose among the third world countries).  From 1948 to 1990 our foreign policy was reactive to that of the Soviet Union and consisted of doing whatever we had to to maintain our allies (witness our support until 1960 of European colonialism) and encourage countries to oppose the Soviet bloc. We found ourselves in bed with fascists and militarists in third world countries because they often professed anti-communism (sometimes just to get our economic and military aid).  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America became the sole super power and for another decade basically our position became the world’s position.  We encouraged Europe to join us in seeking peace in Bosnia and ending genocide in Kosovo.  But when we ignored Rwanda so did other nations. Pres. Clinton risked his political capital by involving himself in the age old problems of Ireland the troubles in the North were resolved.  In the 1990's we never lost votes at the United Nations because we were THE power.

Then came the twenty first century and the Bush-Cheney administration.  The US pursued a foreign policy of being a world bully. As far as other nations were concerned it was our way or the highway. All the outpouring of international sympathy and support for the US after 9/11 was squandered by the administration in its misadventure in Iraq. And,  in Afghanistan, where we had international support, the ball was dropped so all the eggs could be put in the Iraq basket.  All the old anti-American shibboleths going back to the turn of the century days of dollar and gunboat diplomacy reasserted themselves and we became a nation with few true allies

President Obama has reversed that downward course.  He has restored America’s position in the world as an honest broker that supports human rights and economic and political freedoms. And,  a nation that respects the sovereignty of the other 196 nations on the planet. In Africa, Obama has supported democratic elections as a means of transfer of power - most notably in the Ivory Coast,- and peaceful resolution of civil strife in Liberia,  Sierra Leone and Guinea.  When opposition figures win and the incumbents refuse to recognize the results we have taken a role in support of negotiated settlements, e.g. Zimbabwe and Kenya.  In North Africa after supporting the people in Tunisia and Egypt we assisted, primarily by supporting our European allies France and Great Britain, the people of Libya in their successful revolution to overthrow the dictator Qaddafi.  In Sudan after years of civil war the US was the leading force in support of a UN peace plan that allowed the African people of South Sudan to form their own nation and free them of the northern Sudanese arab dictatorship.  In doing that we broke with the post WWII American policy against countries dividing themselves ( a policy that we maintained to no avail in Yugoslavia as it unraveled) and returned to the Wilsonian commitment to self-determination of peoples.

In Asia President Obama has reestablished solid relations with India, the world’s largest capitalist democracy, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, one that is developing both democracy and a free market system.  Those who fear that China will dominate Asia in the future should realize that our support of these two nations, along with Japan and South Korea on the Pacific rim; and Australia and New Zealand in effect contain China although we don’t talk about it in those terms.

In the Middle East Obama has tried to be even handed.  The US has publicly supported the popular Arab Spring (so far a North African Spring) in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.  Whether that support will help the Arab people remains to be seen. And his Israel-Palestine positions, often in sync with past administrations have drawn at times both praise and criticism from both sides indicating he must be doing something right.   His support of Israel is rooted in a century of American history and our national interest and not like the radical right wing tea party Republicans (who are more right wing on Israel issues than the right wing in Israel) on some apocalyptic belief a united Jewish Jerusalem being requisite to the second coming.

I believe that only domestic right wing Republican opposition and the longevity of Fidel Castro has prevented the Obama administration from resolving the fifty year break between the US and Cuba.  In the next few years that breach will be healed, democracy restored to Cuba and it will be an economic boon to both nations. I hope Obama is guiding our ship of state when it again docks in Havana.

President Obama has pursued a foreign policy of fully participating in international organizations. These very organizations that are based primarily on American ideas and American constitutional structures: the United Nations, the specialized agencies, e.g. WHO, ILO, and the regional organizations OAS and NATO.  Obama has called for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by all but 7 other nations in the world (Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Nauru, Tonga and Palau: some list for the US to be on.) and a plethora of international conventions signed by both Bushes, Clinton and Carter languishing in the dysfunctional US Senate.  

There is much Obama has not done and there is much to criticize in his slow drawing down of the war in Iraq and his escalation in Afghanistan.  But the core of foreign policy is setting a tone. Whether the world sees an evil empire, or a fin de si├Ęcle imperialist power, or an ideologically driven military regime or a shining city on a hill often decides the place of a nation in the world community.  We live, as the Republican Wendell Willkie said over seventy years ago in “One World”.  That may be difficult for the right wing Tea Party radical Republicans who have a problem with our being One Country to accept, but it is truer today than in 1940.  Barack Obama’s foreign policy, as implemented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,  has restored America to its place as the moral leader of the world -- the beacon of democracy represented by the Statue of Liberty (in NY Harbor or historically in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square).  It may not get him re-elected, but it may go a long way to making this a more peaceful world and a peaceful century.

27 Sep. 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Change Penn. Electoral Vote System - Rig the 2012 Presidential Election




The radical right wing Tea Party controlled Republicans have a new plan to guarantee that Pres. Obama is a one term President. Just throw aside the twentieth century’s fair play in politics rules and revert to the nineteenth century’s parties in power stay in power however they must.

In Pennsylvania the Radical Republicans want to change the way electoral votes are won. Since as long as anyone can remember the popular vote in PA was accumulated statewide and the electoral votes awarded to the winner. In fact, that is the way that all but two states currently run their Presidential election.  Only Maine and Nebraska award votes by Congressional district. Under the proposed PA plan the winner of each Congressional district - gerrymandered by an all Republican controlled process this year - gets one electoral vote and the winner of the state gets two.  Most projections show that either candidate is likely to win PA electoral votes by a margin of one or two.  Which means that a candidate has more to gain by campaigning and paying attention to the voters of a small state like Vermont than Pennsylvania.

I believe the electoral college is an anachronism and a throw back to times when the people weren’t trusted to select their own rulers.  It was a compromise that was involved in the big state/small state conflict as well as the legislative/executive dichotomy and the concern of whether candidates could campaign in a spread out country with little inter state transportation and that was in 1787.  By 1796 Presidential contests had become national campaigns and by 1828 the popular election of electors had replace the state legislatures’ selecting the electors.

Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century states changed their system of choosing electors depending upon which candidate would have the advantage or which state machine wanted to control that states votes and whether that machine thought it could best control the voters, the districts or the legislature.  This type of politics continued with the admission of Nevada as a state in 1864 to guarantee Lincoln 3 more electoral votes (he didn’t need them).  The readmission of southern states was often timed to impact the elections of 1868 and 1872.  In 1876, the infamous Tilden-Hayes election, when the Republicans stole it for Hayes, Colorado was admitted as a state in August too late for popular elections so the legislature chose 3 Republican electors.  Tilden won the popular vote, Hayes the electoral after a stacked commission gave him disputed ballots but the 3 from Colorado were crucial.  In the latter nineteenth century the admission of western states and the division of territories (Dakota for example) into two states was often done because Republicans expected to get more Senators and more electoral votes.

Then came Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive movement.  Popular vote and winner take all became ingrained and even when Democrats had almost total control of the states and DC, e.g. the 1930's and post 1964, no changes were made in the system to advantage one party.

Many people, including myself believe that the electoral college should be abolished and the President should be elected by direct national popular vote. There is even a way to do that without amending the constitution.  Each state (and some already have) could choose to give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  If all the states did that we’d have direct national election.

The same tea party controlled radical right wing Republicans who want to abolish the social and economic programs of the twentieth century and do so in the name of strict construction of the Constitution, now want to use that Constitutions most obsolete provision to rig the Presidential election.  They want to abolish district electoral vote in Nebraska where Obama won 1 vote while McCain got the rest and institute district electoral proportionality in Pennsylvania and any other large state that Obama or a Democrat is likely to win. 

If these tea party radical right wing Republicans are successful we will likely see a President elected without a plurality of the popular vote. In the context of the polarized politics of today that will be the final nail in the coffin of the national government. Our President will have no moral authority to lead in domestic or foreign affairs. And a broken system will be broken more.  The belief of people that their vote counts will be further reduced as they see the permanent political class exercise crass political power to maintain that power.

Trust-busting, financial reform, Social Security, Civil Rights, Medicare, Environmental Protection, Earned Income Credits, and almost every positive and progressive program enacted after 1901 was done so at the urging and lobbying of the President of the United States. The President was seen as the one person who represented and spoke for the entire nation.  Since the tea party radical right wing Republicans can’t find a national program they like little wonder they now want to destroy the office they don’t like as a further way to dismantle the national government and return us to a confederation of fifty states.  The President ends his speeches with “God Bless the United States of America”; but, I suggest we’re reaching the point where we had better end speeches with “God HELP the United States of America”.

20 Sep. 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lessons From NY 9 Special Election



Tuesday, Sep 13th the voters of New York City’s 9th Congressional District (neighborhoods in both Brooklyn and Queens) elected a Republican to Congress for the first time since the early 1920's. I served in the NY Assembly for eight years in the 70’s and 80’s from a Queens district.  Though I did not represent the areas in the current 9th Congressional District I know the neighborhoods and the people who reside in them. They rarely vote Republican and then only when faced with a really poor Democratic candidate (and David Weprin is not the poor quality candidate that the media makes him out to be) or when they are angry and want a change like when they voted for Lindsay, Guiliani and Bloomberg.

Democratic leaders in DC had pushed Anthony Weiner to resign after his sexting scandal and that resulted in the special election.  The election is being played in the media as a repudiation of Obama and the Democrats who now appear to have shot themselves in the foot. Of course the same Democratic leaders who threw Weiner under the bus are now throwing Weprin under the bus and blaming him for the defeat.  David Weprin is a competent and effective legislator and a good campaigner – national Democratic leaders want credit  when anyone wins and won’t take blame when someone loses.

Special elections are local elections and often don’t give us indications of national mood. But earlier this year the Dems nationalized the NY 26 special election with the Medicare issue and they won.  Now the Reps. nationalized the NY 9 special with the jobs issue, Israel and Obama and they won.  What are the lessons to be learned here.

Lesson #1 - the electorate is volatile and no seat is safe based on past voter history or registration. No candidate can simply assume they will win because others of their party  won for the past hundred years.  If a candidate can amass the resources to mobilize an effective campaign and seize upon the  popular mood they can defeat the “can’t lose” candidate.

Lesson #2 - President Obama is the leader of the Democratic party . He is now a drag on local candidates.  His evident need to talk about everything and seemingly always to do so in a way that turns off part of the Democratic base is a downer.  There was no need for him to reiterate the American position that Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders which he did in such a way that most people took it as his new position. So he turns off some of the Jewish voters - a fifty year mainstay for Democrats.   After a month of promising a great jobs bill he ends with 1) refusing to call a special session in August, 2) caving to Boehner on when he can address Congress and, 3) now agreeing that he’ll sign whatever little pieces of his package they deign to send him. So people don’t think the bill is going to accomplish anything no less get enacted. And when during his jobs speech he stated that entitlements like Medicare needed to be reformed, if they were going to be secured for the future, he gave legitimacy to the arguments that the Republicans are using and probably convinced seniors that it doesn’t matter which party is in power.  Even when he decides, rarely it seems, not to take a position he loses base enthusiasm --  his failure to speak out against the union busting efforts of the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio clearly dampened the enthusiasm of  organized labor.

Lesson #3 - Democrats like Republicans should give their elected officials some slack.  If a Democrat commits an indiscretion, like Weiner did, let him finish out his term - no need for a special election to give right wing Republicans another opportunity to spend their millions to defeat progressives.  Now if some Democrat elected official steals money or commits a violent crime they should be hounded out of office - but if someone cracks and does something stupid or disgusting do what Republicans do -- look the other way (actually they defend their transgressors and I’m not suggesting that Dems should do that although we did a good job of defending Pres. Clinton)

Lesson #4 - Democrats should stop picking candidates from among the permanent political class. We should stop trying to pick a candidate based on gender or race or ethnic background or religion figuring that will make victory all the more probable.  Democrats should focus on solid progressive issues - govt. support for jobs, maintenance of social security and Medicare and rebuilding America not other countries.

Obama can still get re-elected.  He has a year to re-energize his base and win again the independents (the Republicans are lost and he and his people need to accept that).  He may be able to turn the contest around and not be a negative on down ballot Democratic candidates.  But, he will not possess the coattails he had in 2008.  And his campaign needs to remember that Harry Truman won even though the Republicans ran their strongest candidate Dewey against him.  Obama needs to understand the election will be about him and he has to win it -- the Republicans are not going to lose it. If Democrats think that a right wing Republican is easiest to beat - well I was there in politics in 1980 when Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan (Dems said he was to dangerous to win); and I was there when Dukakis lost to Bush (Dems said he was too elitist to win) and I don’t want to be there when Obama loses to Perry (Dems say he’s too crazy and boorish to win).

15 Sep. 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Looks Like the Middle Class Has to Save America Again




Overlooked in the history of our country is the recurring contribution of our middle class citizens to saving the nation politically, militarily and economically.  When the history of the Revolution is written all focus is on the well to do founding fathers; the leisurely, often aristocratic, intellectuals - surveyors, lawyers, plantation owners, retired tradesmen, who led the meetings and rallies and populated the state and national congresses. Yet it was the middle class, the subsistence farmers, the craftsmen and trades people and mechanics from the towns and cities, and the young men who were the year round patriots and the mainstay of the militias and the Continental Army.  And when it came time to ratify the Constitution, while the leaders wrote the pamphlets, it was the middling classes who voted for the delegates to the eleven state conventions that first ratified the new constitution.

In every war this country has engaged in -- wars declared by the well off and supported by their spokes people -- it was the sons and now daughters of the middle and poor classes who fought the battles and did the dying.  In the great Civil War the well off could hire substitutes for $300 to serve in their stead if they didn’t wish to fight.  One of the few wars in which apparently everyone participated, except those with physical disabilities, was WWII.  It may be that without Lincoln the union would not have been saved but it was the people who saved the union.  And it was the people who 75 years later defeated Nazism.

Now America faces a great economic and a concomitant political crisis.  Our economy has ground almost to a halt. We no longer manufacture many things and as a service economy we now find fewer citizens able to afford the services.  Where are the rich and well off? They gamble on Wall Street and monitor the fortunes of their 401K’s.  These so called job creators are hunkering down and worrying about themselves - if for $300 they could pay someone to stand in and take this hit for them I’m sure they’d love it.   It is the middle class that is suffering most and is most anxious about the future.  Millions are unemployed with little hope of re-employment.  Many have just given up and are trying to survive until they can collect social security and get Medicare. 

And, politically the country also stagnates.  The country is experiencing the greatest degree of ideological polarization since the 1790's and the 1850's.  The former led to a political revolution the latter to a bloody civil war. The middle class today is constantly told that to solve the economic crisis we need to cut back on the Pell grants their children need to go to college; reform or gut Medicare which they depend on the give them low cost health insurance when they reach 65; “fix” (a word that means abolish, emasculate or reform deepening upon who uses it) Social Security - the one program that the middle class always could count on when they retired because they paid into it and they didn’t have to worry about the “vagaries of the economic system” affecting it. If you are a middle class union member your right to collectively bargain is under attack in a number of states, even if you are a private sector employee.  If you are a public sector employee (e.g. post office, school teacher) you peruse the news daily to see if your job is being cut. 

It is clear that only the middle classes can save America today.  Only the middle class can stand firm and demand that their elected officials represent them not the rich interests.  Only the middle class can insist on the nation honoring its commitments made in law (social security, Medicare) to its seniors and its veterans.   Only the middle class can restore this economy by consuming to the extent they can recognizing that only then can we restore America.  The wealthy just won’t share the pain nor fairly contribute to the solutions.  The poor don’t have the resources to do either.  So middle class America which hasn’t failed in the past most now step up to the plate again.

The middle class must dismiss the false populism of the Tea Partiers and the attempt to use partisan political leaning and race to divide them.  The middle class should not get caught up in the passions of those on the left who would spend their time bemoaning the failure of the wealthy to man up.

It’s not the right wing religious radicals who should take back the country.  And it shouldn’t belong to the twenty-first century’s version of Robber Barons.  The great American middle class should take back their country.  They fought for it - they have bled for it - they built it.  America doesn’t belong to its permanent political class or to its wealthy - America belongs to the People.  America belongs to the ordinary people - the ones God loved which is why he made so many of them.

12 September 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

Compromise - the Way to Govern or a Dirty Word in Politics.



          During the first half of the nineteenth century there were In Washington DC three legislators (most often in the Senate) who came to be associated with the way that the national government functioned.  They were John C. Calhoun of SC, the apologist for slavery and states rights and even secession, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who was seen as both a staunch Unionist and an opponent of slavery and a supporter of those abolitionists who pursued peaceful means to accomplish their goal,

          The third member of this triumvirate was Henry Clay of Kentucky, known as the Great Compromiser. He owned slaves but opposed the institution of slavery and so was often attacked by folks on both sides of that moral issue.  He believed that only by compromise could government work.  He believed that compromise was when two or more sides to a question got something they wanted  - wanted it enough that they could accept the other side(s) getting something.  He is credited with putting to together the Compromise of 1850, a series of bills, that saved the union from threatened southern secession and resultant civil war ten years before that happened.  And since most historians see the South in a much stronger position, economically and militarily in 1850 then they were in 1860 it can be argued that his compromise saved the union.

          Today America is in the worst economic crisis since the Great depression of the 1930's.  But in todays’ politics compromise has become a dirty word.  Where national leaders like Norris and Vandenberg, LBJ and Tip O’Neill are lauded for their ability to get opposing sides to reason together, today, those who compromise are excoriated as flip-floppers, opportunists and hypocrites. 

          Since the 1994 election of the radical Republicans under Newt Gingrich, with his Contract for America, the right in this country has demanded an ideological purity, more and more precise and limited, from it’s adherents. If the right wants white and the left wants black there will be no gray -- as far as they are concerned it’s white or nothing.

          After almost twenty years of this intransigence, and especially the last three on the part of the right, the left in American politics (liberals, progressives, Move-On.org, AFL-CIO) has begun to demand an ideological purity on the part of its side. Though the left seems still willing to accept a compromise here and there depending on the specific issue, it is being more and more pushed to the extreme ‘to fight fire with fire’ and demand that its representatives not concede points to the right, which doesn’t want to compromise anyway, but to hold fast for left positions.

          Now comes a President who believes in Clay’s injunction that  compromise is they way to govern.  Problem is no one wants to compromise with him and it does take two to compromise.  So he modifies his proposals before presenting them, incorporating ideas and public critiques from the opposition in the belief that it will make the proposal more palatable to the right.  It doesn’t.  Whatever he suggests, regardless of the number of Republican ideas (and Health Care and Financial Regulation are full of them) they reject the proposals out of hand. Anything this President proposes they demand be rejected. 

          So are we governing America today?  No!  We have a dysfunctional and in many ways a non-functional national government (and likewise in the case of many of the states).  It is one party rule and one faction of one party rule or it is ruin.

          What then is the answer.  Henry Clay said he’d rather be right than be President. Should Obama continue his crusade for compromise even if as it seems it may cause him to be a one term President? 

          Or should Obama exercise Leadership?: Present programs without pre- compromise -- campaign for them using Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit, FDR’s fireside chats and Truman’s tour across the country and rally the people of America behind his proposals. Present them in simple understandable terms: e.g. Health Care for All; Quality Public Education;  Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; Let the Rich Share the Burden; Government out of People’s Private Lives.  And run his billion dollar campaign on his set of positions.  Win and defeat the right wing Radical Republicans.  Then with four years and no re-election possible he can offer his vision of government by compromise - something both the right (defeated) and the left (tired and frightened by how bad it got) may be ready to accept.

          A great Leader must stand for something - and such a  Leader can compromise with those honestly willing to, in order to accomplish the things he stands for. Obama has, in the history of his office, models of those who led and compromised when needed and who refused to if necessary: Jackson, Lincoln, TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Reagan.  He also has the model of those who either stubbornly rejected any compromise, e.g. the Adamses, Taylor, Andrew Johnson, or those who failed to lead, e.g. Hayes, Cleveland, Taft, Coolidge, Ford.  It’s Obama’s choice which model to follow - it’s America’s future that rests on the choice he makes. Lead then Compromise or Compromise then try to Lead.

5 September 2011