Monday, May 21, 2012


Marco Rubio, Republican Senator from Florida and the new Republican hope to attract Latino voters has declared in his campaign to get the Vice Presidential nod from Romney that Barack Obama is the most divisive president in our nation's history.

That Rubio charge can be addressed on a number of levels.  First, historically he’s just wrong.  Abraham Lincoln’s election was used as an excuse by some southerners to get their states to secede from the Union.  Ultimately a Civil War ensued because the “divisive” President Lincoln insisted on keeping this one nation.  Six hundred thousand Americans died, four million slaves were freed from bondage and America remained one nation. But if you believed the southerners, and the northern Democrats, it was all due to that divisive “Black Republican”  A. Lincoln.

President Andrew Jackson because of his successful attack on the Bank of the US was censured by the Senate; and, the political parties of the 1830's were developed around whether you liked or disliked “King Andrew”.

And of course there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (referred to as Rosenfeld by his anti Semitic conservative opponents).  The haters hated him.  He said he reveled in their hatred.  And because of the unity of the country after Pearl Harbor the popular image is not of the divisiveness of the 1930's.  A divisiveness by the way that pitted a minority of voters against a clear and recurring majority.

Now along comes Barack Obama.  Following eight years of the Bush-Cheney Presidency in which the concept of dividing our people by age, gender, class, ideology and life style met its apogee and was the political strategy of both the election of 2000 (where a majority of the American voters rejected it) and 2004.

President Obama since his inauguration has made effort after effort to work with his opponents.  He even adopts their policies to the chagrin of liberal Democrats and then the right wing radical tea party Republican turn on him.  They blame him for the failures and or weaknesses of their policies that he institutes.  And they deny him credit for his successes - such as saving the American auto industry.  In the election of 2008 Obama did not make an issue of McCain being born in the Canal Zone but the right wing tea party Republicans continue to this day to make an issue of his birth in Hawaii. In one state, Arizona, they are even trying to deny people the right to vote on his re-election. The Republicans in the Senate filibuster every proposal and delay every appointment.  The attacks on the President make the attacks on Bill Clinton seem mild in comparison. 

On the first matter to come before the administration the President compromised on the amount of the stimulus and while economists now concede that that program prevented the economy from getting worse their remains a strong contingent who believe that it should have been much larger.  The President  has given ground to the Republicans on program cuts as they hold expiring programs and debt ceilings hostage - the result - while the private sector tries to reinvigorate the economy the Republican forced compromises reduce the governments participation in pumping up the public sector.  On health care the President compromised - dropped the Democratic public option and incorporated the Republican individual mandate and so what did they do -- appealed to the  Supreme Court to ditch the plan because it contained their individual mandate.

Who here has been divisive - the President who smiles when attacked and offers to reason together  -- or the Republicans who cannot concede even the fact of his birth not to mention the sincerity of his patriotism.

Rubio and The Romneyites are the dividers.  Romney with his million dollars of commercials even divides his own party as he destroys his primary opponents.   For these radical right wing tea party Republicans to now claim that it is Obama who has been divisive is “like the pot calling the kettle black” or maybe that’s the problem - they can’t deal with the fact that the kettle isn’t aluminum.

21 May 2012    

Sunday, May 13, 2012

America Needs A New Party System

Many pundits say what this country needs is a third political party, one that mixes social issue liberalism with economic issue conservatism - we have that in the Libertarian Party but it hasn’t taken off. That’s because the American political system has been structured, by the state constitutions and election laws, to create and maintain a two party system.  We use single districts with majority winner in a general election after party primaries to select legislators.  We make it difficult for anyone but the candidates of the major parties, usually defined as parties that received a large threshold percentage of the vote in the previous state or national election, to get on the general election ballot...

What we need as the twenty first century unfolds is not another political party but another party system.  We need major revisions in our election processes and election laws.  California is pioneering a concept of holding a primary in which all can vote and all can run and the two major vote getters (regardless of party) are then on the November ballot.  This has the advantage of giving voters whose party cannot win a gerrymandered district a voice in the general election.  It also further reduces the value of party labels - and in many ways that is what parties have become now just labels.

From 1792 to 1818 we had our first party system.  Two parties emerged, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, with sharp contrasts on governmental philosophy.  That system ended when one party, the Federalists, became a regional party and was no longer a factor nationwide.  After a few years of a no-party system a second party system emerged from 1828 to 1860 with two major parties Democratic and Whig.  Although some third parties, e.g. the Liberty party, tried to break into the system it was only at the end of the system as the Whigs disintegrated (the first political victims of the slavery issue) that the American and Republican parties emerged with the latter quickly becoming the alternative to the Democrats.  After the Civil War those two party labels continued as the denominators of the two parties in the third party system which lasted until around 1892.  Then there was an interregnum as the Populists and the Socialists and the Progressives tired to break into the system but ultimately by 1914 we were back to the two parties: the GOP (which stands for Grand Old Party although the Democrats are older) and the Democrats.  While the bases and philosophies have changed the two parties that emerged in the post progressive era descending from the two prior continue to this day.  Whether we are in a fourth party system since WWII or still in the third I will leave to historians to debate.

It is time we had a new party system.  Today the two parties have become both rigid in their ideology and exclusive in their activist membership.  The party structures, usually limiting the role that average citizens can play and emphasizing areas of geographical turf that local leaders can easily control, are now ingrained in the various state election laws with most of those structures having been adopted in the first two decades of the last century - that’s right -- one hundred years ago.  The party structures pick the candidates although if one has enough money one can enter a primary and win it.  The voters are presented with two choices in November - if any since most districts in the country, both Congressional and state legislative, are so tilted toward one party that the other party often doesn’t even field a candidate.  And, in many states there are methods by which a candidate can be on the ballot under the label of both of the national parties.

The current system has broken the government.  The ideological chasm between the two parties has morphed into an endless state of campaigning with no willingness to compromise in order to govern because that would mean someone has to alienate their base (bad in a primary) or their donors (worse yet). There is no more moderate center in the Republican Party which is now right wing and tea party ultra right wing and radical religious right.  And the Democrats now consist of New Deal liberals, labor union supporters, and social issue liberals (LGBT and Pro-Choice advocates).  There are very few in either party who hold positions on the spectrum that differ with the bases of their party.

We need a system that recognizes the irrelevancy today of party structures and accepts the reality that voters are choosing candidates; and,  activists are gravitating to campaigns and short term commitments to political involvement.  We need a system that encourages compromise to find solutions to issues.  That might come about if elected officials did not feel married to a party label and a majority of the members of a legislative body needed to work together to even organize the body not to mention pass legislation.  We need a system that takes the best of the past two hundred years and tries new ideas to replace the worst. 

I have been a lifelong Democrat.  Not just one who votes for my party’s candidates but one who has been both elected as a Democrat to public office and served many years in party office. It is time to judge the willingness of candidates to be open minded on the issues and civil in their discourse and intelligent in their mode of governing. It is time to reject blind allegiance to the party label (JFK once said that party loyalty can sometimes demand too much; and we should remember that some of our greatest Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan left their original party to join another - though TR returned.  The greatest party switcher of all time was Winston Churchill who I think belonged to three parties in his illustrious British parliamentary career.)

Let Americans divide if they wish on the matter of the role of government a matter they have always been divided on.  Let them argue over the merits of a national government doing what states can’t or won’t do.  Let them argue over whether we should impose particular religious beliefs on the entire population or embody the compassion and neighborly love that all major religions claim obeisance to.

I believe that the American democratic way of governing is the best yet devised.  It needs to be modernized - we need to adopt ideas that work in other countries like direct election by popular vote of the President.  And we need to make our party system work again - that is able to govern for all.  We need a new party system one that is based not on the number or names of the parties but one that offers the voters choices and a path to functional governing.

13 May 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Three Isms: Isolationism, Interventionism and Idealism

The Foreign Policy of the United States has been non-partisan in the traditional sense of political parties.  There really hasn’t been a Federalist or Democratic or Whig or Republican foreign policy.  At different times in our nation’s history the two parties at the time divided over foreign policy issues e.g. recognition of new republics; acquisition of overseas territories, support of combatants in European or Pacific wars.  The political parties came together whenever the country itself faced a war although really only in the case of the two 20th century World Wars.

But there has been a divide in our approach to foreign affairs.  And it has been not political party driven but philosophical and ideological driven.  In the early days of the Republic the two parties took sides, one pro British and one pro French but in reality one pro orderly monarchial government versus one accepting of somewhat chaotic republican government.   The underpinning argument within our Presidential administrations has been whether to conduct the nation’s foreign policy committed to the Idealism of supporting the founding principles of our Republic.  To do so meant recognizing only freely elected regimes and insisting on a minimal respect for basic human rights before we would trade and interact with a regime.  To do so meant not recognizing a foreign powers takeover of a neighboring nation, e.g. when we refused for fifty years to recognize the Soviet Union’s absorption of the three Baltic nations.

As Woodrow Wilson and FDR and later JFK raised the idealistic banner of collective security and world organization many took another tack that of Isolationism.  America they argued should mind it own business and not be involved, “entangled”, with any other nations.  Of course most of the isolationists amended that to favor being involved in the problems of the western hemisphere.  They simply wanted to stay out of Europe’s old feuds and for primarily racial reasons saw no reason for the US to be involved in Africa or Asia.  But Isolationism conflicted with the economic interests of the United States.  The need for the new nation to sell its goods overseas and then when the country became large enough and rich enough the desire to buy goods from overseas.  It was difficult to involve the nation in the economic situations of other countries and then not take an interest in their security and order. In the Middle East today oil not only drives our cars it drives American foreign policy in the region. Some reject that and hold to the idealism of the Arab Spring or the re-establishment of Israel.

As idealism began to defeat Isolationism, helped by the World War II isms of Nazism, Fascism and Militarism followed by the post war threat of Communism it led, one almost thinks inevitably, (although I don’t agree that it was inevitable) to Interventionism.  The belief that America the strongest military nation on the planet after World War II and the only super power after 1991 should intervene to bring peace and order, freedom and democracy everywhere in the world. 

As we enter the second decade of the twenty first century whither America’s foreign policy?  Which of the I isms will we follow?  I believe it should be a practical mix.  Of course Idealism should guide us because that has been the guiding light of this nation since pilgrims came to Plymouth and cavaliers to Jamestown.   We should support democratic people-inspired movements in the Arab states, and in Burma and throughout the world.  But support can mean many things.  It does not mean that every time people rise up against an oppressive regime we need to intervene militarily.  We can encourage others to carry the burden and play a supportive role as we did successfully in Libya.  Or perhaps we have to lead and rally other nations behind us as we did in Kuwait and in Bosnia and Kosovo.    Interventionism should be a philosophy of last resort.  And it should be used in limited circumstances when absolutely necessary to save lives and only when no other course of action presents itself.  President Obama’s sending of 200 expert trained fighters to aid three African nations in their attempt to root out an evil warlord was the right thing to do:  limited intervention in support of other governments for a humanitarian reason.

But the U.S. must also learn how to disengage.  We need a fourth ism.  We need to accept when we have accomplished what we can and then withdraw or disengage for those who find the W word too defeatist.  In Afghanistan we destroyed Al Qaeda and enabled the people of that country to free themselves from Taliban tyranny.  Now it is up to them to build a nation and root out corruption.  If they cannot then history tells us they will succumb to yet another regime of dictation.  The United States of America has no long term strategic interest in the nation of Afghanistan.  China and India are relieved that we have taken the Afghan problem off their hands so they can compete with us economically.  Isolationists would oppose a long term strategic agreement with Afghanistan - Idealists would and should also.  Only the McCain type Interventionists (everywhere all the time) applaud this ten year commitment.  There was a time when a long term American commitment was made for national strategic reasons - NATO to keep Europe strong and healthy and avoid a WWIII; the Principles of 1823 a.k.a. the Monroe Doctrine to preserve the America’s from European re-colonization.  And for often idealistic reasons our commitments to individual nations, e.g. Israel, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

We should not Isolate ourselves from the world - our history has proven how shortsighted and counterproductive such a policy is.  Neither should we practice an unbridled Interventionism that is based on never finding a conflict we didn’t like to insist we belonged in.  When history tells us to get out we should.  We involved ourselves in Samoa in the 1880's because we needed fueling stations for our merchant ships.  Today we are still there with half the Samoan islands a US territory - Why?  And while it’s nice to say we are practicing a foreign policy based on the Idealism that drove this nation’s founding, nevertheless sometime idealism can be used as a cover for Interventionism driven by the economic selfishness of those who dominate our society.

We need a practical foreign policy based on the strengths and weaknesses of our nation -- on its economy and its ability to maintain military forces that fit our economic situation.  If we end this great democratic experiment by burying ourselves under mountains of debt accumulated by the effort to have both guns and butter we will simply show that it wasn’t democracy that failed.  We will have failed because of democracy’s inability to rein in those who insisted on guns or those who insisted on butter because those who make the democratic decisions refused to either chose one over the other or cut back both.

In the 1820's in South America, in the 1840's in Europe, after World War I and again in the 1990's America became the beacon of hope and democracy to the masses of people throughout both hemispheres.  We can only be that again if we are true to ourselves and if we make our system work here at home for all.  We can do that by following a foreign policy which I believe President Obama, except in the Afghanistan security agreement matter, has followed - a policy of Pragmatism: -- Stand for our Ideals and  Intervene when and how we can further those Ideals.

2 May 2012