Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Waiting for High Winds and Water

On my first magazine job, the editor I worked for was a kind and generous man who had suffered a psychiatric breakdown and recovered. In a book, he described how the normal defenses of daily life disappear and anxiety comes pouring in, washing away the dull cocoon that lets us walk around in the world, blocking out dangers and feeling safe.

In times of imminent disaster, we all suddenly become aware of how thin a crust of earth we walk on and that it could suddenly crack and swallow us.

Some get panicky about trees they usually never notice that could snap and crush their roofs or suddenly feel stripped naked by living in a high-rise.

We see others on TV screens, lying on beaches in denial and refusing to evacuate their coastal homes as waves rise.

Most take a middle course, stocking up on food, water and batteries to feel prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Times like these tell us something about ourselves, how we perceive the world and deal with its contingencies.

At advanced age, my role model is an actor who was still appearing on stage in his nineties. Asked how he did it, he replied, “I get up every morning, have breakfast and read the obituary pages of the newspaper. If my name isn’t there, I get dressed and go to work.”

When the winds and water subside, we can all do the same.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Gone with the Washington Wind

In this era of human folly, the natural world conspires to offer a contrast between what can happen to individuals after “All men are created equal.”

As Hurricane Irene postpones a tribute to a great figure of the last century, the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, the aftermath of this week’s earthquake brings forward one of this century’s puniest, Eric Cantor.

The rain and high winds will prevent Barack Obama’s eulogy on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech Sunday, but the House Majority Leader takes the stage with an “I have an obsession” declaration by announcing that any aid to his district, the epicenter of this week’s earthquake, would have to be offset by cuts in the Federal budget.

“All of us know that the federal government is busy spending money it doesn’t have,” Cantor tells constituents while touring damaged buildings.

Forty-eight years ago, at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King told multitudes that “we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note...that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights' of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...’

“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Martin Luther King and Eric Ivan Cantor were created equal in America, but they ended up at opposite ends of the moral universe in Washington, D. C.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bush Nostalgia

Dick Cheney is back with snarling memoirs. Libyan rebels find a Qaddafi picture trove of “my darling African woman,” Condoleeza Rice. And Karl Rove, desperate to head off the hated Rick Perry, in his scramble to find a candidate to stop him, should be turning to Jeb Bush any day now.

What the patriarch of the clan, George H. W., called “Bush fatigue” only three years ago may be dissipating sooner than expected, although Cheney may bring some of it back as he prepares to flog his book.

“There are going to be heads exploding all over Washington,” he warns, trolling a tidbit that he urged W. to bomb Syria over a suspected nuclear reactor in 2007 but no one in the White House agreed with him.

Condoleeza Rice comes back in a more romantic haze with the discovery of Qaddafi’s adolescent album, recalling an al-Jazeera interview: "I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders...Leezza, Leezza, Leezza...I love her very much. I admire her and I'm proud of her because she's a black woman of African origin."

With polls showing Rick Perry soaring ahead of Bachmann, Romney et al, unless Sarah Palin surprises her Fox colleague Rove by actually entering the race next month instead of just disrupting it for publicity, he may be urging Jeb Bush to head off Perry.

Jeb Bush Jr. has endorsed Jon Huntsman, but unless his rationality gains traction soon, a Bush III candidacy is not out of the question.

Who would have thunk it?

Update: Karl Rove is stepping up his Fox criticism of the Republican field. Can a Jeb Bush push be far behind?

Winning a Wizard-of-Oz War

It’s all over but finding Qaddafi, yet freeing Libya leaves not only all kinds of questions about its future but a dizzying dissatisfaction over exactly how a ragtag rebellion morphed into a fighting machine that stormed into Tripoli and brought down a heavily armed regime with such apparent ease.

The superficial answer is air power, with NATO and particularly France leading the way, but there must be more to it than that. Why is there a lingering sense of “Wizard of Oz” revelations to come about what was going on behind the curtain?

How deeply involved were NATO and the U.S. in providing armor, organization and direction for rebels who began rising up with none of the above?

And more to the point for Americans, even without “boots on the ground,” exactly how much of our resources were committed by the White House without consultation with or agreement by Congress?

Hardly anyone, except his potential 2012 opponents and the John McCain gang, will deny the President’s deftness in dancing around the legalities of our role in bringing down a ruthless dictator but, for those already troubled by scope of American involvement in a Middle East morass, what does success in Libya portend for easing out of commitments there that are dragging down our own economy?

Such questions fall far short of Ron Paul’s certitude about getting out entirely, but they suggest an issue that should be seriously discussed in the presidential campaign but is more likely to appear in gotchya sound bites.

E. J. Dionne applauds the President’s dexterity in being aware of “the difference between middle-ground policies, which flow from his natural instincts, and soggy, incoherent compromises with opponents who will say he’s wrong no matter what happens.

“Obama used the greater freedom he has in foreign policy to define the middle ground in the Libyan case on his own terms. ‘It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,’ Obama said in March. ‘But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.’”

But he may also want to stay alert to what can happen when the “Wizard of Oz” curtain falls and the man handling the levers is in plain sight.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shaking Up Washington

If Nature abhors a vacuum, it finally sent a message to empty-suit Eric Cantor by touching off an earthquake in the district of the House Majority Leader who last spring tried to defund the U. S. Geological Survey, which sends out early warnings about tremors.

Cantor is unlikely to be any more impressed by this 5.9 example of his own stupidity than he was in pushing the government toward default in the debt-ceiling debate. In Congress’ stampede toward invincible ignorance, Cantor is the undisputed leader of the pack.

But he is not alone. In the anti-Obama blogosphere, quake reports featured news that the President was on vacation and not in Washington closer to the epicenter to stop it while the British press, with no phones to hack, nonetheless described him as shook up and missing putts.

Meanwhile, in the other big news of the day, GOP presidential hopefuls were busy unlinking cause and effect by decoupling the President from the fall of the Libyan regime, harrumphing that he did too much or too little, too soon or too late to topple Qaddafi and, oh yes, what happens next?

In this news never-neverland, no earth-shaking event goes unspun, and the fact that millions of Americans were briefly unnerved by the realization that the world is not as controllable as they thought gets lost in the babble.

It may have been symbolic that, when the quake struck, Senate members in the Capitol for a pro forma session had to scurry to a nearby basement to get it done.

That should give them some idea of how the rest of us feel all the time.

Update: The nation’s capital survives the earthquake with little damage, except for a slight crack at the top of the Washington Monument. Can they use that detection equipment inside the Capitol?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Obama's Martin Luther King Moment

As he prepares to dedicate a Washington Memorial to the spiritual leader on the 48th anniversary of his “I have a dream” speech this weekend, Barack Obama should be drawing inspiration as much from Martin Luther King’s dedication to fighting poverty as racial inequality.

At this historic moment, the nation’s first African-American president is a profile in irony. The candidate who campaigned against “dumb wars” is achieving yet another victory over tyranny in the Middle East but remains helpless against intractable foes in Washington, D. C.

As he prepares to go into battle with Congress over unemployment, the President would do well to adopt Dr. King’s “soul force” against Tea Party obstruction to investing in America’s economic future, to advocate with passion for today’s victims who are "smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society."

As Washington visitors start drawing inspiration from a 30-foot statue of Martin Luther King emerging from two huge mounds to illustrate his invocation, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” the President he made possible should overcome his aversion to displaying public passion and rally the nation in his memory.

If Dr. King were still with us as an 83-year-old patriarch, nothing would have pleased him more.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rick Perry, Manchurian Candidate?

A hard-boiled campaign is being run for the GOP’s most soft-headed aspirant by a group of political scientists.

We learn this from a reporter’s electronic book about them, “Rick Perry and his Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America.”

For his 2006 Texas campaign, they ran experiments testing the effectiveness of campaign tools: candidate appearances, TV ads, robocalls, direct mail—-the equivalent of applying randomized drug trials to politics.

“No candidate,” claims the author, Sasha Issenberg, “has ever presided over a political operation so skeptical about the effectiveness of basic campaign tools and so committed to using social-science methods to rigorously test them.”

All this conjures up a scary picture of white-coated Frankensteins in a lab unleashing a Manchurian Candidate to mesmerize voters into electing a President recently characterized by a prominent Republican as “an idiot.”

Not to worry. We have been here before in the 1960s when rented social scientists were all the rage in “Mad Men” ad agencies, promising to brainwash Americans into buying their products.

It all led to the story of a dog food scientifically concocted, market-tested, demographically promoted and put on the shelves, only to fail miserably in sales. Asked for an explanation, the scientists explained, “The dogs didn’t like it.”

Whatever his eggheads concoct, Americans will find Rick Perry’s ignorant certitude hard to swallow. The country may be going to the dogs, but its tastes have not deteriorated that much.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beyond Too-Tired Terrorism

Half a century ago, there was a jokey bumper sticker: “Support Mental Health or I’ll Kill You.” Now British researchers into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are under physical attack and death threats for suggesting the disorder has psychological origins.

Aside from the question of where victims find the energy for such violence, this fatigue-afflicted terrorism reflects nagging questions about where psychiatry ends and psychobabble begins.

With all respect for those who practice a profession that helps untold millions struggle with true mental illness, in the past half century we have gone from uninformed denial to extremes of medicalizing what used to be seen as bad behavior.

We all do it, including bloggers like me, who subject public figures based on their media lives to Freudian explanations for their greed, deception and irresponsibility. But our ignorance is encouraged by hucksters like Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew et al, who package glibness into TV ratings.

Marginal figures aside, it’s disturbing to find how many serious psychiatric diagnoses turn out to be more descriptive rather than prescriptive—-not only Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but Attention Deficit Disorder and a whole cluster of Personality Disorders—-for which there is no consensus about effective treatment.

Our impotence to deal with inner darkness brings yet another twinge with news that Gabrielle Giffords, after being shot in the head last January, has just been told about the other victims and has had to relive the shock of that day while her assailant awaits preening in the spotlight during his trial early next year.

In the “It only hurts when I laugh” category of frustration, all this recalls a moment from the 1983 movie, “Lovesick,” in which the figure of Sigmund Freud hovers over the antics of psychiatrists.

“I only had a few insights,” he says sadly. “I didn’t mean for it to become an industry.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tea Party Tipping Point

Take it from Eric Cantor, no less: It’s time for the Congressional wrecking crew that damaged the nation’s credit to cool it.

The House Majority Leader, who helped derail his Speaker’s Grand Bargain on the debt limit, is now urging Tea Party followers not to sabotage next year’s spending bill

“I have heard some assert that certain sectors would be better off under the sequester,” he writes to members about the use of a device to force automatic spending cuts. “I believe this is false and would unnecessarily induce more uncertainty and a worse policy outcome.”

Cantor’s conversion to traditional legislative procedures may have something to do with the rising public anger against his zealot freshman with recent polls showing the Tea Party ranking lower in public approval than Democrats, Republicans and even Muslims and atheists.

As 2012 draws closer, Democrats are organizing to use that discontent with protests against Tea Party excesses at the ballot box and to pressure Congress to create a “super-committee” on job creation to supplement the one now in place on debt reduction.

In his Weekly Address, the President tries to get a running start against GOP opposition to the jobs plan he will unveil after Labor Day:

“There are things we can do right now that will mean more customers for businesses and more jobs across the country. We can cut payroll taxes again, so families have an extra $1,000 to spend. We can pass a road construction bill so construction crews--now sitting idle--can head back to the worksite, rebuilding roads, bridges, and airports.

“We’ve got brave, skilled Americans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s connect them with businesses that could use their skills. And let’s pass trade deals to level the playing field for our businesses. We have Americans driving Hyundais and Kias. Well, I want to see folks in Korea driving Fords, Chevys and Chryslers. I want more products sold around the globe stamped with three words: Made in America.”

If the White House wants to do all that, and more, to get the economy moving, it will have to recognize the public’s growing disaffection with Tea Party obstruction and find ways to start steamrolling ahead with or without them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Defining Dumb Down

In a week of campaigning, Rick Perry has made Michele Bachmann look positively professorial.

The previous frontrunner specializes in little gaffes--like mistaking serial killer John Wayne Gacy for the cowboy star, starting the Revolutionary War in Concord, N. H. instead of Lexington, Mass., mistaking the anniversary of Elvis’ death for his birthday and worrying about the rise of the Soviet Union, which hasn’t existed for 20 years.

But Perry has not troubled himself with such trivia, choosing instead to go for Texas-sized ignorance about bigger subjects such as evolution, climate change and Social Security, bringing the level of often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt to new presidential campaign highs.

Forty year ago, when President Nixon nominated a Supreme Court Justice widely considered “mediocre,” Sen. Roman Hruska defended the choice: "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?”

By that logic, the current GOP presidential field has opened new vistas for the intellectually challenged, with Perry taking it all into uncharted territory.

As Republican hopefuls pile on the President as an elitist out of touch with the American people, they are offering the alternative of uninformed certitude in many flavors.

Little wonder that the lone exception, Jon Huntsman, is tweeting his supporters: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

In this political climate, many undoubtedly will.

Update: A former Reagan and Bush I White House official Bruce Bartlett labels Perry “an idiot.” So far no rebuttal by any organization that defends idiots from being defamed.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin continues her mental strip tease with a scheduled Labor Day weekend speech in Iowa, telling reporters, “To be fair to those supporters and potential supporters who are waiting on figuring out what the set field will be, I want to be fair to them and make sure that they don’t feel like they are just hanging on to something that’s not going to happen.”

Asked about Perry, Bachmann and others, Palin says, “I don’t worry about any of the candidates...I would just run my own race, if I were to run.”

The Stupidity Sweepstakes, however, would be seriously overcrowded.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"What Does a Woman Want?"

Freud’s perplexity comes back in a bizarre juxtaposition between a GOP debate question about Michele Bachmann’s vow of wifely “submission” and a new HBO profile of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, my colleague and friend half a century ago.

Bachmann fudges her religious stance into mutual respect, but it recalls those “Mad Men” days when wives kept house and shopped in the suburbs, while husbands coped with the “real world” of business and politics.

Now, with three women on the Supreme Court while others run for President, HBO is reintroducing Steinem to younger generations of a society that is backsliding into a parody of all that as Sarah Palin’s momma grizzlies grab for political power while denying the full personhood for both women and men that Steinem sought.

In the 1960s, Gloria was first known for going undercover to publish a two—part article, “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”

But she was no stereotype. Behind the long streaked hair, tinted aviator glasses and model’s face was a gifted writer with an active social conscience. After reading her post-Bunny work, I asked Gloria to become a contributing editor of McCalls. She agreed, stipulating that she could escape the contract if I were no longer editor.

During a period of testing the limits of substance for a mass magazine, Gloria developed ideas, recruited contributors and did some writing herself, including a profile of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn. We worked closely and became friends.

I never saw the Gloria Steinem of Beautiful People fame, described by Time as “one of the best dates to take to a New York party these days--or, failing such luck, one of the most arresting names to drop.” At the time she was in a monogamous relationship with a comedy writer, a handsome man who saved most of his wit and charm for his work.

At Gloria’s suggestion, my wife and I invited them to dinner. Between “Hello” and “Good night,” Gloria’s friend, later to become a mainstay of “Saturday Night Live,” emitted fewer than a dozen words while the three of us engaged in lively talk with occasional sidelong glances to make sure he was still there.

Back then, Gloria’s energies were directed at such issues as racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. She phoned in January, 1968.

“We’ve got to help McCarthy.”

I had met Senator Eugene McCarthy and disliked him, but he was the only candidate trying to stop the war in Vietnam. Gloria was recruiting magazine friends to produce an eight-page paid supplement for the Manchester Union—Leader, the conservative newspaper that blanketed New Hampshire, for the primary in March.

Half a dozen of us met in my office on a Saturday morning, settled on a format and then went to McCarthy’s hotel. He greeted us with undisguised boredom. Whatever we asked, his response was to turn to a campaign worker with a yawn and say, “Oh, there’s something in the files about that. Would you try to find it?“

We went back to the office, rewrote old material and polished it. When McCarthy almost upset LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, conventional wisdom credited college students ringing doorbells. No one mentioned our supplement, which reached far more voters.

Gloria went off to help Caesar Chavez and migrant workers in California, but in a piece for New York, “Trying to Love Eugene,” she described our meeting with McCarthy: “Somewhere there is a tape of this fiasco that could be sold as a comedy record.”

The feeling was mutual, I learned years later when I involuntarily had to go to lunch with McCarthy. “Gloria Steinem?“ he sniffed. “Oh, yes, she was the one with the short skirt and white boots up to her navel.”

In 1968 I made Gloria an offer she couldn’t refuse. But she did.

I was helping run the company as senior vice—president, and we needed a new editor for McCalls. I went to Gloria’s brownstone, and we spent hours talking. “You’re getting more involved in women’s issues,” I argued, “and here’s a chance to run the largest women’s magazine in the world without interference.”

She wanted to think about it overnight. The next day she called. “All my friends I say I should do it,” she said. “But I can’t.”

Gloria said she didn’t want to give up writing, but my impression was she was not ready to commit herself to women’s issues only. The next year she became a political columnist for New York.

Four years later, Gloria was starting Ms. Magazine, and we had a talk that would foreshadow both the success of the Feminist movement and its limitations. To reach large numbers of women, I argued, it would have to go beyond the political and deal with their personal lives.

It never did and, despite its influence, had a small circulation and no commercial success. Watching the HBO documentary, I could see a parallel in Gloria’s own life, which she has since devoted to the cause to the exclusion of all else but a brief late marriage that ended with her husband’s death.

It’s sad that generations of women, who benefited from her life work, now have to be introduced to her as an historical figure. But in the light of the caricatures of women now on the public stage, they should get acquainted with Gloria Steinem and realize how much they owe to a former Playboy bunny.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Obama Still Whistling in the Dark

If there were a color-coded warning system for the national mood, it would be turning deep grey, verging on black.

Approval ratings for Congress and the President hit long-time lows.

Karl Rove publicly prays for new GOP candidates to emerge as Rick Perry revs up a hoof-in-mouth campaign that Bill Clinton calls “crazy” but nonetheless jumps ahead in a poll of Republican preferences.

And a respected economist, predicting a double-dip recession, asks, “Is capitalism doomed?”

For those of us who have lived through a Great Depression, a World War, McCarthyism, Vietnam and George W. Bush, it’s tempting to say that this, too, shall pass—-as it undoubtedly will—-but the depth and duration of America’s current distress is hard to foresee.

Yet beyond understanding is the failure of a President who came to power with promises of Change, Hope and a “Yes We Can” attitude to rise to the challenges with more than tepid determination, doing the equivalent of “leading from behind.”

Compare his current bus tour with Harry Truman’s whistle stop campaign in 1948. Truman gave a “do nothing, good for nothing” Congress hell while Obama, faced with a hyperactive body wrecking the economy, is giving voters little more than a shrug and excuses for inaction.

Asked by an Iowa voter why he doesn’t take “a harder negotiating stance” against Republican intransigence, the President responds:

“Now, I know that people would like to say ‘Well, just do something to get these guys under control,’ You don’t want to reward unreasonableness. Look, I get that. But sometimes you’ve got to make choices in order to do what’s best for the country at that particular moment.”

In Minnesota, he tells a crowd, “Everybody cannot get 100 percent of what they want. Now, for those of you who are married, there is an analogy here. I basically let Michelle have 90 percent of what she wants. But, at a certain point, I have to draw the line and say, ‘Give me my little 10 percent.’”

With all due respect to Michelle Obama, that’s the equivalent of giving the schoolyard bully your lunch money and new blazer, hoping he’ll treat you better tomorrow.

What’s even more frustrating about Presidential passivity is evidence that the “Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic.”

In the face of all this, as the GOP tries to sort out the loonies who would oppose him next year, is the question of why Barack Obama doesn’t seize the moment to regain control of the national dialogue.

Why is he now promising to deliver a major jobs speech to jump-start the economy after Labor Day? Tomorrow wouldn't be too soon. Whistling in the dark is just not a policy.

Update: As only 26 percent of Americans back the President’s handling of the economy, he is advised to fall back on FDR’s advice during the Great Depression, “Above all, try something.”

If Republicans want to block bold proposals, at the very least put them in the position of having to persuade voters that doing nothing is the best cure for a double-dip recession.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Whose Lunch Will Rick Perry Eat?

At first glance, the Texas governor looks likely to rain most on Michele Bachmann’s parade by out-evangelizing her with the Religious Right and setting a high bar, as he did in her Iowa hometown, for practicing local politics as a contact sport.

But Rick Perry’s well-financed campaign is going after Mitt Romney, too with a jab at him today in Des Moines, “Take a look at his record when he was governor...Running a state is different than running a business.”

In Waterloo yesterday, Politico reports, Perry arrived early, “working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely to a windy Abraham Lincoln impersonator, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible.

“But Bachmann campaigned like a celebrity. And the event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners.”

As he goes after his top two opponents, Perry will undoubtedly be matched up with Ron Paul in a weird ideas contest by reporters who mine his record and writings in which he complains that practically everything is unconstitutional, but the Texan brings to the Republican race something unseen since the days of George W. Bush.

Can anyone imagine sitting down with Bachmann, Romney or Paul for a beer? Perry looks like he could easily outdo any of them in that department.

Update: Romney chooses not to fire back at Perry, saying only, “I’ve learned how the economy works and I believe that skill is what the nation is looking for. And I respect the other people in this race, but I think the only other person who has that kind of extensive private-sector experience besides me in the Republican race is Herman Cain.”

If Romney thinks he can hold off Perry by staying above the fray, he is making a crucial mistake. He is going to be in a knife fight, and it won’t be with Herman Cain.

Update 2: Beer buddy or not, Perry is taking flak from Bush’s old team in a renewal of an old rivalry.

Karl Rove is blasting W’s Texas successor with a rocket saying “you don’t accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of being a traitor to his country and being guilty of treason and suggesting that we ‘treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.’”

Perry may have to take time out from blasting Obama and his GOP rivals to cover his Lone Star rear.

Arab Spring, American Fall

The overthrow of despotic Middle East governments is followed by an insurrection in the U.S., not against decades of tyranny but to destroy centuries of democracy that have served the national well.

Today’s “hyper-connected world” cuts both ways, empowering both the oppressed in the Arab world and the over-entitled and ignorant here.

As Barack Obama’s approval ratings fall to a new low, the GOP gives us potential replacements who would put the nation into default (Michele Bachmann), gut government completely (Ron Paul) and denounce Social Security as unconstitutional (Rick Perry).

Those who rail against “elitist” politicians are demonstrating what pseudo-populist demagogues can do to stir up misinformation and class hatred in the age of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV.

When FDR fought “the unscrupulous money changers” of Big Business and Wall Street during the Great Depression, there was no Rupert Murdoch to undermine him with wall-to-wall Fox News sniping and Wall Street Journal denunciations of a sitting President as “an anti-American leftist.”

Americans hear more from corporate lobbyists than the sanity of Warren Buffet who declares bluntly, “While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks...My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

Even a former Karl Rove White House deputy now writes: “If taxes cannot be raised under any circumstances, then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism...There is something amiss when the political pressure in a party, any party, is so intense that it prevents a serious intellectual conversation from even taking place.”

As the President embarks on a tour to educate voters about the economy, he will encounter fewer such supporters than those who want to ride into office next year to run the country into Third World ground.

Update: Confronted in Iowa by a Tea Party member protesting Joe Biden’s description of his heroes as “terrorists” during the debt ceiling debate, Barack Obama tells him:

"Now, in fairness, since I've been called a socialist who wasn't born in this country, who is destroying America and taking away its freedoms because I passed a health care bill, I'm all for lowering the rhetoric."

The President talked to the protester privately afterward, but he is going to have to do better than reasoning with such people one at a time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bachmann and Paul Make Hay in Iowa Straw

A member of Congress who voted to send the U. S. into default is Iowa’s choice for the country’s next president as Michele Bachmann narrowly wins the state’s straw poll over Ron Paul, who would take the government out of everything, with Tim Pawlenty a distant third.

The non-binding nonsensical balloting will nonetheless be parsed for political meaning in the coming days as lesser candidates like Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and even Pawlenty have to rethink their chances in next year’s primaries.

Rick Perry, who was in South Carolina, finished ahead of Mitt Romney, who didn’t campaign but took part in the TV debate this week.

Now we know who evangelicals in the Corn Belt would put in the White House, but we’ll have to wait months to find out what the 99.99 percent of other Americans think.

For fans of charts and graphs, New York Times resident wonk Nate Silver has a presentation to show that the Straw Poll predicted the success in the caucuses of George H. W. Bush in 1980 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, picking “a variety of ‘intangible’ factors that don’t show up well in other variables, and therefore serves a useful role as a leading indicator.”

Well, yes. But neither won the Republican nomination in Iowa’s zany processes of repudiating the tradition of “one man, one vote.”

Update: As Bachmann does a victory lap on the Sunday talk shows, Pawlenty drops out of the race, saying only about the other Minnesotan he bashed in the debate Thursday night that she will be “tested” in the nomination contest.

“I think she’s qualified,” he says. “She’s going to have to make her case.”

Onward and downward.

Rick Perry's Ketchup Campaign

In a popular 1960s movie, an aged President recalls the good old days when “we poured God over everything like ketchup.” That line elicited a laugh after John F. Kennedy moved a new generation into the White House and promised to send a man to the moon.

Today, ketchup will be back on the American political menu as Texas Governor Rick Perry declares his presidential candidacy in South Carolina and heads for Iowa and New Hampshire two weeks after holding a Christian prayer rally in a stadium back home.

Perry’s blurring of the line between church and state comes into the 2012 campaign with bundles of money from so many Super PACs that it has inspired an Iowa commercial by Stephen Colbert’s parody of the process.

But other GOP candidates won’t be laughing as the man who succeeded George W. Bush as governor of Texas enters the contest with convictions that make his predecessor look like a centrist. Perry was an early idol of the Tea Party when he delighted them with talk of Texas seceding from the Union if Washington didn’t mend its ways.

Obama advisor David Axelrod reacts to Perry’s entry into the race by citing his “record of decimation” on health care and education while claiming that job growth in Texas has been due to “profits from the oil industry, a growing military and receiving aid from the Recovery Act.”

If the Religious Right has been looking for an ideal candidate, Rick Perry will do nicely until or unless Sarah Palin decides to crowd into his pew next month.

As Perry was announcing, Palin turned up to be "spotted--and-swarmed" yesterday at the Iowa State Fair.

Update: Perry in New Hampshire is greeted by a protester with a sign, “The U. S. is not a theocracy,” and gives him a thumbs up. What, me worry?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Republicans Go Beyond Obama-Bashing

For entertainment value, last night’s Iowa debate was irresistible as GOP wannabes finally realized that pounding the President is not enough to make any one of them stand out.

So they finally took out after one another (Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul vs. Rick Santorum) and that ever-reliable villain, the media (Newt Gingrich belaboring Chris Wallace for gotcha questions to avoid talking about his campaign disasters).

In the course of all this, they filled the screen with amusing but, according to The Caucus, “misleading, incomplete or simply false claims” about the debt-ceiling debate and the S & P downgrade, among other subjects.

The Washington Post lists lies about everything almost too numerous to count.

Yet, it was stimulating to see Bachmann and the seven suits waking up from the delusion that one of them will breeze to the nomination by being more anti-Obama than the rest.

After Pawlenty took a practice swing at the President, he was prodded into going after Bachmann, and the two Minnesotans squared off with accusations that actually resembled what used to go on in a primary fight, both of them drawing blood on the other’s rewriting of his or history—-Bachmann’s inflating her four undistinguished House years into Joan of Arc heroics, Pawlenty trying to smooth over his governorship by denying any straying from Tea Party orthodoxy.

Gingrich, with no persuasive answer about the dismal history of his campaign, lit into Wallace and Fox News for being more interested in his trivial mismanagement than grand ideas.

For an observer from another political planet, Jon Huntsman was quietly impressive in denying that he was in “the wrong party” by making what used to be orthodox Republican points before candidates became subject to Tea Party litmus tests, but he elicited no wild applause from the crowd.

But the gloves are off in the GOP pre-primary season and, with the imminent addition of Rick Perry and possibly Sarah Palin in the fall, there will be no lack of color and conflict in the contest.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The GOP's Palin Parasite

Parasites are usually smaller than the hosts they feed off but, in this Republican pre-primary season, actual candidates are being afflicted with a giant publicity-sucking organism that attaches itself to their campaigns and draws away attention.

After driving her bus tour into New Hampshire to overshadow Mitt Romney when he was making his presidential announcement, Sarah Palin is revving up the engines again to move into Iowa this weekend and rain on the parades of Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul et al after they they take turns attacking the President in their TV debate tonight.

"The heartland,” she tells supporters, “is perfect territory for more of the One Nation Tour as we put forth efforts to revitalize the fundamental restoration of America by highlighting our nation's heart, history, and founding principles."

Mitt Romney has taken a leaf from Palin by showing up for a couple days and getting out of town before anybody can accuse him of campaigning seriously for Straw Poll attention. Such bite-and-run tactics are intended to infect the balloting without raising expectations.

Palin, who invented the strategy, is showing up in corn country to resume highlighting such “founding principles” of America as Obama-bashing, telling supporters she’s “excited to try some of that famous fried butter-on-a-stick, fried cheesecake-on-a-stick, fried Twinkies, etc. I’ll enjoy them in honor of those who’d rather make us just ‘eat our peas’!”

As a Gallup poll shows Palin stirring more excitement than the declared candidates, one of the dropouts, Haley Barbour, notes that "she could raise enough money to burn a wet mule."

There may be some strange odors coming emanating from the Iowa corn fields this weekend.

Update: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that U. S. alcohol expenditures correlate with education--the more schooling, the more boozing. Could anyone with brains watch the Iowa dog-and-pony show unfortified against parasite infection?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Turning Against the Tea Party

Wishful thinking perhaps, but the tide of madness that has washed over Washington may be ebbing.

A new CNN poll shows even more Americans want tax increases for the wealthy (63 percent) than major cuts in domestic spending (57 percent), leaving Republicans with the highest unfavorable ratings since the Clinton impeachment 13 years ago and Democrats gaining slightly in approval.

Such fallout from the debt-ceiling debacle suggests that voters have finally seen the Tea Party’s true agenda, not of reforming government but destroying it, and started to recoil from the sight.

Whether or not such sentiment is translated to the halls of Congress depends on two GOP leaders, John Boehner and Mitchell McConnell, who have painted themselves into a Tea Party corner and need a rationale for working themselves out of it.

In a column, Thomas Friedman weaves a fantasy about a White House meeting to do just that.

In it, Boehner announces that “our legislators are ready to reopen negotiations immediately on a ‘Grand Bargain’...and that everything will be on the table from our side--including tax reform that closes loopholes and eliminates wasteful subsidies, and, if need be, tax increases. To those who voted for us, rest assured that we will bring our conservative values to these negotiations and an emphasis on markets and meritocracies...

“To my Tea Party colleagues, I say: thank you. Your passion helped spur the nation to action, but the country cannot be governed, and our future secured, by bowing solely to the passions of any single group--liberal or conservative...Tea Party activists are true patriots and they will work with us as well. President Obama: Let’s fix the country together and then compete in 2012 over who can best manage a growing pie rather than a shrinking one.”

In Friedman’s daydream, the President responds by proposing a “National Commission for American Renewal,” for which “Everything will be on the table --spending cuts, tax reform and increases, a framework for restructuring the debts of Americans whose homes are under water and the investments we need to renew the primary sources of our strength — infrastructure, education and scientific research. Each component will be integrated and timed to minimize pain and maximize job creation...

“But the most important thing that will be on the table will not just be a plan to make our country solvent. It will be a plan to make America great and guarantee that another generation will enjoy the American dream.”

Friedman’s fantasy may seem unlikely in these days of national nightmare, but with both parties facing the rising wrath of the American people, their leaders have much more to gain than lose by trying to live it out.

Plane Truth

In an echo of 9/11, an aircraft flies over Manhattan, not into buildings but over them, trailing a banner, “THANKS FOR THE DOWNGRADE. YOU SHOULD ALL BE FIRED.”

Wall Street turns to be the secondary target of the sentiment, which originates with a single-mother stockbroker, who wanted to send the message to Congress in a D. C. flyover but was stymied by restricted air space regulations.

The gesture by a citizen who considers herself apolitical, a typically American form of protest with words rather than explosives, is an apt symbol for the mounting frustration with the office-bound bunglers in both Washington and Manhattan who, charged with saving the economy, are instead speeding up its downward spiral.

Shouldn’t we all be contributing to the cost of the flight?


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

President Romney?

It’s looking like 1976 again. A nation suffering from political post-traumatic stress syndrome (Watergate then, the economy now) is shying away from more of the same in Washington and ready for a less polarizing president or, in a more cynical view, open to the idea of keeping the Oval Office vacant.

Back then, enter Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer who had gone to the Naval Academy and become governor of Georgia. His counterpart today is Mitt Romney, a Mormon missionary who made millions by cutting jobs in merging companies before becoming governor of Massachusetts.

Carter was a blank slate, Romney is a blackboard being continually erased and rewritten until all that’s visible is chalk dust.

Now Romney is back from vacation during the debt-ceiling battle, calling the President responsible for the credit downgrade.

With the GOP presidential field as it is, Romney looks like the compromise choice for all but those who would be willing to see the Party go down in ideological flames--if he can stay major gaffe-free in the coming months.

The White House seems to share this view and is preparing to run against him. “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments,” says one strategist, “he will have to kill Romney.”

The attack plan has two prongs—-picturing Romney as changeable and inauthentic to the point of being “weird” and tearing down his claims as an astute businessman.
“He was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners,” says David Axelrod, “but not nearly as good as saving jobs for communities. His is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street.”

As Democrats prepare to paint Romney as a retarded Gordon Gekko, the real weirdness will be in Iowa for the straw poll this weekend, with the usual rock bands, barbecue and ice cream as the collection of clowns who oppose him try to gain purchase for the primaries.

Leading the pack will be Michele Bachmann, fresh from a Newsweek cover that actually makes her look weird and assorted dwarves like Pawlenty and Santorum with an undeclared Rick Perry skulking off stage.

Romney, who lost to Huckabee in Iowa in 2008, will run a stealth campaign for the straw poll, showing up at four events and a TV debate, while pretending to turn up his nose at such events as the fried Oreo contest, in his usual strategy of trying to have it both ways.

Against this competition, Romney is looking good. Even Jimmy Carter would have stood a chance. But unless the President steps up to make his own case for reelection in the coming months, a largely negative campaign might put a President Romney in the White House.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Downgraded and Degraded

Our political warriors today have an instinct for their own jugulars, bleeding America with self-inflicted wounds in a time of turmoil.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Today we have political pygmies whose bitter bickering is not about worthy causes or high achievement but scoring points and winning the next election. It is the critics who have vision but no power to shake sense into the caricatures that angry and frightened voters have sent into the arena, grasping at “change elections” rather than stability.

The S & P downgrade, flawed as it is, is a clue to the price we are paying for this inversion, creating not only more economic chaos but even worse blame-trading than in the antics that helped cause it in self-perpetuating rounds of stupidity.

The critics that TR loftily dismissed are the ones who are talking sense, as Fareed Zakaria does in a commentary, “We’ve Downgraded Ourselves”:

“Democrats now feel they need to mirror the Tea Party's tactics and are becoming unyielding on any cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare. Republicans, emboldened by the success of their bullying, have closed ranks more solidly around a no-tax agenda.

“But the only solution to America's debt dilemma will need to involve both cuts to entitlement programs and higher tax revenues.

“Congress is more polarized than ever before...and that polarization has resulted in paralysis.”

How did we get to the point where those who are driving the bus are up front fighting over the steering wheel while the rest of us, who can see the twists and turns up ahead, are sitting terrified in the back seats?

Update: During another disastrous day for the Dow, the President has only platitudes: "Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a triple-A country."

In situations like this, Tuesday has usually been a day of recovery as bargain hunters come in and lift the market. If they don’t, fasten your seatbelts.



Sunday, August 07, 2011

Diagnosing Obama

Distressed by George W. Bush, even those of us who try to resist psychobabble eventually succumbed to seeing him as a reformed drunk who had found God and was punishing the nation with the limitations of his uncomprehending new-found piety.

Now Drew Westen, a practicing psychologist and political consultant, offers a diagnosis of Barack Obama that, in all fairness, deserves similar consideration--of how he took office in a frightening time when Americans “needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.

“And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right...that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

“That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit--a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

“But there was no story--and there has been none since.”

If that sounds like an unrealistic alternate history, it nonetheless brings into focus a picture of the Barack Obama that millions hoped for but who never came forward.

Instead, we got a more intelligent but equally misguided version of Bush’s vision of himself as a Uniter in a time that cried out for another FDR to fight against the forces that had brought the nation to the brink of economic ruin.

“Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze,” Westen writes. “Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public--a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.

“Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century...He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.”

Now, bloodied not as a warrior in the debt-ceiling battle but as an ineffectual bystander, the President faces reelection trying to “recapture the political center” and “continues to struggle to win back the support of moderate and independent voters, polls show.”

But Barack Obama’s problem has less to do with left, right and center than with his psychological resistance to taking on that role of warrior against political and economic madness. A close study of what FDR and even Harry Truman did under similar circumstances might rouse him out of his mediating trance.

He should have learned by now that, if you are going to lose crucial battles, it’s best to go down fighting.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Prices of Nuclear Power

On this day sixty-six years ago, the world changed, but now hardly anyone remembers that the first atomic bomb in history was exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

News traveled slowly those days. I was a 21-year-old soldier in southern Germany waiting to be sent to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan, and it was only days later we learned of a new weapon that had been used there. Without TV or Internet, the news conveyed no sense of a bomb that would eventually kill at least 90,000 people and, three days later, more than 60,000 in Nagasaki.

All we knew then was that World War II was over and that we would not have to keep living with an I.O.U on our lives, held by persons unknown, that could be called in at any moment. It took much longer to understand the moral price for our ransom.

It was a year later that the New Yorker humanized the devastation by devoting an entire issue to John Hersey’s account of how six survivors lived through the carnage and millions of Americans fully realized what we had done.

In Japan today, the anniversary is being marked in the shadow of the nuclear disaster unleashed by an earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. Renouncing nuclear weapons, Japan has been relying heavily on nuclear power for energy.

But now the Mayor of Hiroshima says ruefully, "Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident has occurred, the continued and ongoing fear of radiation has generated anxiety among those in the affected area and many others. The trust the Japanese people once placed in nuclear power has been shattered."

Those of us who lived through the trust that our own country put in that overpowering source of energy 66 years ago can understand how he feels.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Standard & Poor Tea Party

They just threw America's credit rating off Boston harbor.

The privately owned profit-making agency that fueled the economic crisis of 2008 by ranking Wall Street collections of junk-mortgages AAA has downgraded obligations of the United States to AA+, after a half-day delay to consider a Treasury Department notification of a $2 trillion error in their math.

In the world we live in, this move will shake confidence not in Standard & Poors but the U.S.

Even worse, the rationale for "the downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics," citing "political gridlock" in government policy-making.

Translation: They are dampening their pants over Tea Party terrorism in the debt-ceiling deal and covering their posteriors over the prospect of more of the same.

As the White House and GOP prepare to point fingers at each other in a blameathon, it might be noted that one of S & P’s recommendations for a remedy is that Washington try to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years and that anything less would be insufficient.

Oddly enough, that’s the amount that could have been saved if Republican diehards had not made it an article of faith to preserve Bush tax cuts for the superrich.

No one can be sure what the S & P downgrade will mean to the markets in the long run, but one possibility is that it may cut into future Wall Street bonuses and reduce their income by more than that.

Someone may want to explain it all to John Boehner and his Tea Party gang that rejected Obama’s Grand Bargain.

Update: Paul Krugman notes that “S & P is just making stuff up--and after the mortgage debacle, they really don’t have that right.

“So this is an outrage--not because America is A-OK, but because these people are in no position to pass judgment.”

The anger is bipartisan. Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican who heads the House Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, says “it was speculative for the agency to use predictions of what Congress would do in the future as a rationale for a downgrade.

“One thing that puts them out in uncharted waters is trying to predict what the political environment is going to be. They’re not predicting an overly cooperative environment in Congress and that’s a very subjective call.”

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Why Wall Street Has the Willies

Decades ago, when I worked for one of America’s richest men, Norton Simon, he told me, “I stay out of the stock market. You could spend every hour trying to figure out what they’re thinking and still be wrong half the time.”

That advice comes to mind as stocks continue to dive in the days after a “conservative victory” in the debt-ceiling fight that should have cheered up markets by avoiding a default, cutting government spending and preserving the heavy hitters’ tax cuts, with more of the same in sight.

The talking heads will have convoluted explanations for crashing stock prices involving double-dip recessions and global fears, but a non-investor with no financial expertise whose interest is anthropological curiosity rather than greed can suggest something simpler.

As much as its denizens rail against regulation and government interference, there is something Wall Street hates and fears even more—-unpredictability—-and Washington’s recent behavior has given them a taste of Tea Party craziness with its Congressional freshman and GOP Presidential candidates saying in effect, “To hell with the economy--we want what we want.”

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman says “markets are pricing in terrible economic performance, quite possibly a double dip. And it also says that Washington’s deficit obsession has been utterly, totally wrong-headed.”

A non-Nobel onlooker would only add that markets are also pricing in Congressional crazy, and that’s what may terrify them most of all. Wall Street’s “fear factor” has a life of its own and may be telling us something we really need to know.

Update: "The debate over raising the debt ceiling, which brought the nation to the brink of default, has sent disapproval of Congress to its highest level on record and left most Americans saying that creating jobs should now take priority over cutting spending, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"A record 82 percent of Americans now disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job." The other 18 percent can't all be on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Republicans have seized on the stock price decline to point out that, in the State of the Union message, the President bragged about the market “roaring back,” and that the last time the stock market declined for nine straight sessions was during Jimmy Carter’s days. No political winners this week.

Obama's Unhappy Birthday

In less than three years since his election was seen as the nation’s triumph over its own history, a combination of his own shortcomings, crushing economic challenges that destabilized the electorate and residual racism has put Barack Hussein Obama in danger of becoming a one-term president.

At his birth 50 years ago, his parents’ marriage was illegal in 16 states of the Union. Now, at the low point of his tenure in the nation’s highest office, the President is still seen as illegitimate by millions of Americans. (No other has been the target of a Birther controversy and polls showing large numbers of voters think he’s a Muslim.)

Yet, for all that prejudice and a drumbeat of accusations that he is a closet radical, Barack Obama’s birthday woes ironically stem even more from his own political misjudgments in acting as a mainstream mediator rather than a strong leader.

If there was anything his “Change” supporters expected, it was the kind of determination he showed in pushing through a badly needed stimulus bill over wall-to-wall Republican opposition (only three in the Senate and none in the House voted for it) as the first President in memory not given even a brief “honeymoon” by the other party.

Yet, after that adamant opposition was clear, Barack Obama made two crucial mistakes—-the strategic one of devoting 2009 to health care reform rather than job creation and compounding it with the tactical error of not pushing a plan of his own but letting Congress in an ugly spectacle that disgusted voters produce a 2000-page abortion, which the GOP converted into the political weapon of “Obamacare” that helped spawn the Tea Party.

Even after that, the President has been a slow learner, failing in December 2010 to take his last chance to kill tax cuts for the superrich that would have reduced the deficit by $4 trillion in a decade, judging that newly elected Tea Party House members would have to negotiate after they took office.

We all know how that turned out. Even as late as last month, he was hoping to make a Grand Bargain with John Boehner, with no apparent awareness that diehards led by his own deputy Eric Cantor would not let him.

Now the narrative is all about liberals feeling let down, but that may be less about ideology than temperament and, as 2012 fund-raising goes into high gear, Barack Obama is not in a hopeless situation.

With the GOP as divided on a nominee to oppose him as it was in the debt-ceiling crisis, he may rediscover the campaign inner warrior that served him so well in 2008. More than just an election is at stake.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Just think about Harry Truman and start giving ‘em hell.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

No More Boring Politics

“May you live in interesting times,” reputedly an ancient Chinese curse, comes to mind in the aftermath of this week’s fiasco as all signs point to hostage-taking as the new political norm rather than an aberration.

“The debt ceiling should not be...used as a gun against the heads of the American people,” the President says in his concession, but Mitch McConnell sees it differently.

“Never again,” the Senate GOP leader warns before untying the economy from the railroad tracks, “will any president, from either party, be allowed to raise the debt ceiling without being held accountable for it by the American people and without having to engage in the kind of debate we’ve just come through.”

A confirming sign comes from that human barometer Orrin Hatch who, up for Senate reelection, discovers that “I’ve been a tea party person I think since before the tea party came into existence.” The only Republican to eulogize Ted Kennedy at his memorial service will no doubt explain that his praise of bipartisanship then was only a temporary lapse.

This news comes as his junior partner Mike Lee, who upset long-time Utah conservative Robert Bennett in 2010, forms a new Tea Party fundraising committee to “find and support candidates for federal office who share my view that federal government has become too big and too expensive.”

Hatch and Lee have cooked up a proposed balanced budget amendment to limit spending to 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product and require Congressional supermajorities to raise taxes, which has Democratic incumbents scrambling to devise a less toxic alternative.

The outlook for more of the same “interesting times” recalls that the purported Chinese curse escalates into two stronger ones: “May you come to the attention of those in authority” and “May you find what you are looking for.”

Republicans already have. It’s time for Democrats to start looking--hard.

Update: Now Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has a birthday card for his former boss, telling reporters, “He is willing to do unpopular things, the necessary things to keep this country moving forward. I have great admiration for his determination, his grit, his willingness to not do the politically easy thing, to do the tough things. Sometimes I would advise him to do the politically easier thing and he rejected that advice because it was not good for the country in the long term.”

Nicely said and undoubtedly true, but the White House has to find ways to translate that into the less flowery language of contact-sport politics.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

First Step Off a Cliff

Now that it’s done, the President is calling the debt-ceiling deal “an important first step to ensuring that as a nation we live within our means,” but it looks more like falling off a political precipice.

Even as he reiterates that “we can’t balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the brunt of the recession,” Barack Obama says ruefully, “Voters may have chosen divided government, but they sure didn’t choose dysfunctional government.”

Today, even divided government may sound like an advance from where we are as John Boehner crows, “When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy.”

Yet the Speaker may be whistling in the dark as much as the President because 98 percent won’t be enough for his Tea Party zealots who, having failed to send government crashing down, will be on his heels to keep pushing it harder toward the cliff edge.

As Barack Obama tries to recoup his political equilibrium by passing off what just happened as no big deal, the truth is that his Bad Deal will be seen in contrast to FDR’s New Deal to restore the economy from the Great Depression.

In his 1932 nomination speech, Roosevelt made a promise to the American people and kept it:

“Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth... I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”

By comparison, Obama has been sounding an uncertain trumpet while in full retreat. As he celebrates his 50th birthday and tries to regain his momentum, the President will have to regain a sense of direction. The next step could be a big one.

Congress' Undeserved Giffords Moment

Curmudgeon Alert: The scene as she appeared in time to vote on the debt ceiling was clearly heartwarming for members of the House of Representatives and Americans who saw it played and replayed on TV. But with all due respect and admiration for Gabrielle Giffords, it granted an unearned moment of human feeling to politicians, most of whom have been behaving atrociously on life-and-death issues for millions of other Americans.

“Everybody’s heart was so grizzled and hardened,” says Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Giffords’ friend and chair of the Democratic National Committee. When she entered the room, “everybody’s heart just melted.”

“Suffice to say,” Nancy Pelosi gushes, “it was one of the most thrilling moments for all of us to see this real heroine return home to the House and to do so in such a dramatic time and make it even more dramatic.”

But Giffords’ moment of personal heroism should not obscure the ongoing heartless and mindless behavior of her other colleagues, John Boehner and his Tea Party gang.

If Giffords’ vote had been crucial in frustrating their intentions, would the teary Speaker and his troll Eric Cantor have hesitated to challenge her competence?

Politicians who can praise 9/11 responders to the skies and then try to deny them medical care are capable of anything.

All the best for a full recovery, Congresswoman, but take your time in getting back to this toxic environment.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Anti-Stimulus Bill

By the end of the day, Congress and the President will have enacted legislation to take considerably more money out of the economy than the Stimulus bill put into it in February 2009 with tax cuts and infrastructure investments to offset the effects of a looming Depression.

The $787 billion back then is dwarved by the estimated $2.5 trillion in cuts to the budget over a decade by an agreement that will be passed as the price of raising the debt ceiling.

What’s changed since then is not the slow, precarious recovery of the American economy but the phenomenon of a social movement transformed into a political force by the 2010 elections that, in the words of a New York Times editorial, has led to “a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists...

"Reasonable people are forced to give in to those willing to endanger the national interest.”

This is happening despite the warning of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission, which has advised against spending cuts for at least a year to protect the economic rebound.

"Their fear, and the fear that I share,” says Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin diplomatically, “is that if we make spending cuts at this point, it will not help economic recovery."

Robert Reich, who was secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, puts it more flatly: “The heinous deal is preferable to economic catastrophe. The outrage and shame is it has come to this choice.”

Paul Krugman, as is his wont, takes it to the extreme by calling it “a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.”

The level of outrage is not the point here. The important question is how did government with a gun to its head become the norm, and what are the President and his party going to do to change that?