Friday, October 28, 2011

Obama 43, Congress 9

On Halloween weekend, Americans apparently are tired of all-tricks, no-treats on Capitol Hill, sending approval ratings down to the GOP’s favorite single digit while the President sees a slight gain in public favor.

Gallup attributes the Obama bump to Iraq troop withdrawal, a rising stock market and that golden oldie, the death of a Mideast tyrant, reflecting Gadhafi’s demise as it did that of Osama bin Laden.

Congress’ near-death experience requires little explanation as lawmakers stumble toward a Thanksgiving deadline for debt reduction looking like the one-trick turkeys they have been all year since Tea Party freshman took over the House, gabbling no to everything but spending cuts.

It’s been so long since even a slight spurt of good news that we may have trouble digesting it all, like too much Halloween candy—-a Brussels bailout for European economies and a good third quarter for own—-and even some relief from Republican 2012 presidential puffery as Rick Perry decides to skip some future debates and let all the money he has raised do the talking for him.

Meanwhile, as an extra bonus to all this good cheer, the Occupy Wall Street movement keeps going and puzzling the pundits as a new survey shows they don't approve of anyone in Washington.

With all these signs that there may be an American future after all, let’s give the kids some healthful fruit and nuts along with the sweets Monday night.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Supercommittee in the Sandbox

Democrats are offering a $3 trillion debt reduction of tax increases and spending cuts, including as much as $500 billion in savings from Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs to revive the Obama-Boehner Grand Bargain on the debt ceiling that Eric Cantor and his Tea Party House cohorts torpedoed last summer.

The proposal would include as much as $300 billion to stimulate the economy, but this would require Republicans to stop acting like spoiled Baby Boomers in a sandbox, clutching their favorite toys and refusing to share anything with anybody.

For someone of an older generation, such behavior recalls an early childhood memory in the Great Depression. Walking down the street, my mother grips one hand and in the other is some small object. I ask for something but she refuses. In a wailing rage, I fling what I am holding to the ground and, as my mother keeps pulling me along, I see another child pick it up. Now I want it back with all my heart. I learn that, if you ask for too much, you can lose what you have.

In post-World War II affluence, later generations grew up never having to realize that you can’t have everything, and their overblown sense of entitlement has now hardened into an adamant refusal to face the reality of not enough to go around.

All this is perfectly captured in an Esquire blog post by Charles Pierce, quoting a recent Paul Ryan speech:

"We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition. Because what we will end up doing is we will convert our safety net help people who are down on their luck get back onto their feet into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency which drains them of their incentive and the will to make the most of their lives."

Pierce calls this “pure Ayn Rand. ‘Makers vs. takers.’ Moochers and leeches. You and Them. But especially Them. But not in a divisive way. Oh, no. The Congressman doesn't believe in divisive class rhetoric. He said so...And he is not engaging in the politics of division himself. Oh, no. He's just sad--mournful, even--that the ‘conceits of liberalism’ are on their way to dividing the country into ‘makers versus takers.’ And you know who you are, don't you? And who They are. And what They are taking...from You.”

Well said and sad. If nothing can get Ryan, Cantor et al out of the Ayn Rand sandbox, there will be fewer and fewer toys to go around for all.

Sandbox Update: Reflexively John Boehner rejects the Democratic proposal—-for one thing, not enough Medicaid cuts for those people down on their luck with their feet up on the hammock.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Back-to-the-Future Political Movies

Hard times in the 1930s produced a golden age in Hollywood as Americans, helpless in real life, sought escape at neighborhood movie houses. Today, those Depression classics are being remade and brought into our living rooms to be sold as reality.

The GOP is doing the horror films. Frankenstein has morphed into mad scientists working feverishly in the lab to animate a new Rick Perry from old political body parts but, even as the Creature starts to look plausible, it unexpectedly starts to bolt from the lab to run loose and babble about Birtherism .

Herman Cain is the new Dracula, bouncing out of his coffin after dark to suck the blood out of government, all the while smiling fiendishly in weird commercials.

Mitt Romney, of course, is the Invisible Man, mostly unseen but striking nameless fear in the hearts of the natives.

As time goes on, however, the Republican debates are getting less scary and beginning to look more like the zany efforts of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields.

Over at Poverty Row, there are the Frank Capra films, with Occupy Wall Street recreating “Meet John Doe” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” good-heartedness looking for populist heroes to pull out a last-minute happy ending without jumping off a tall building or collapsing from exhaustion.

The Tea Party is reliving all those “white telephone movies,” in which the over-privileged babbled about taxes and servant problems over cocktails, went on scavenger hunts and generally acted like horse’s asses for the amusement of the 99 percent who could afford a quarter for the price of admission to shake their heads over such antics.

Where does this leave Barack Obama? He’s been spending much of his time redoing old John Wayne movies by taking out bad guys before the final reel, but such heroics are not selling well with what Variety used to call the Hix in the Stix. (Even Michelle Bachmann can’t keep the cowboy hero straight in her mind from John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer).

If business doesn’t pick up, Washington may have to reinvent Bank Nights and Bingo to sell tickets at the box office. For this movie lover, there was more creativity back then—-and sanity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mother of All Scare Commercials

It ran only once 47 years ago, but a one-minute effort for LBJ’s 1964 reelection campaign was still being parsed yesterday at a college symposium as “the most negative political ad in American history.”

During the network airing of a Hollywood biblical epic back then, amid cheery product pitches, suddenly there was the image of a little girl pulling petals from a daisy and counting erratically, to be replaced by a nuclear countdown as the camera zoomed in on her eye, froze and cut to a mushroom cloud explosion with Lyndon Johnson intoning the warning that the election stakes are “we must love each other or die.”

The commercial played off Barry Goldwater’s defense of extremism and offhand suggestion about defoliating Vietnam with nuclear weapons but never mentioned his name. Yet the message was clear: Vote for LBJ or die.

It never ran again but didn’t have to. Coming two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, American voters were highly sensitive to the dangers of nuclear war and susceptible to the suggestion that a steady hand in the White House was crucial.

The campaign commercials are starting again now, and they doubtlessly will be tough and bitter, but there is no way to raise the stakes any higher. This is a time of fear and outrage, but no one can claim our physical survival is at stake.

The daisy commercial was produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, an upstart agency back then, and I was on a committee with Bill Bernbach as he created an ad two years earlier to support a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, was on the committee, too. He hated ads and had threatened to sue his publisher for trying to put them in his paperback child-care book. Nonetheless, he posed for a Bernbach ad that showed him towering over a little girl with the headline “Dr. Spock is Worried” about the dangers of nuclear fallout that ran in 700 newspapers.

The treaty was signed and approved by the Senate but, after JFK’s assassination, there was still enough American anxiety for the once-seen daisy commercial to become a classic.

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign will no doubt emphasize hope and renewal again but, especially with all the new media available, there will still be a big role for the use of fear on both sides. Let the little horror movies begin.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Herman Cain Has Won

Second prize in the GOP presidential contest is a lucrative stint as a commentator for Fox News, and the Pizza Man has a lock on that, which makes it surprising that Karl Rove is the first to count him out as the nominee.

Holding up a list of Cain flip-flops and walkbacks, his future colleague decrees that it “has created an image of him as not being up to this task. That’s really deadly."

But in the Fox alternate-reality stable, that’s no disqualification—-check out Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Rove himself. Going off half-cocked is part of the job.

Actually, Cain started his gaffefest on Fox earlier in the year telling the pundit he is most likely to replace, Glenn Beck, that his statements about not having a Muslim in his cabinet do not reflect a long record of being a non-discriminatory employer.

A new height in bi-partisan affirmation action could be reached by programming Cain against MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, another failed presidential candidate who just became a cable host after a long career as an activist minister subsisting on “love offerings.”

For Cain, this new career would be a step up from being on the payroll of the Koch brothers. Rupert Murdoch pays better and offers job security as well as exposure for lecturing and selling pseudo-books.

Winning the GOP nomination, as Palin explained in bowing out, would be settling for second best.

Update: Now Rove and Cain are playing verbal beanball, with the latter accusing the former of try to help Romney and Bush’s Brain retorting that Cain is providing material for Democratic attack ads.

Looks like a good format for a new Fox show next year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Smart End to a Dumb War

This week Barack Obama answered a question David Petraeus posed eight years ago. A division commander as the Iraq invasion began in 2003, the General was troubled about what a young Illinois legislator would call a dumb war, asking “Tell me how this ends.”

Over 4400 American lives and more than a trillion dollars later, President Obama has replied to Petraeus by withdrawing all troops from Iraq by year’s end.

In his Weekly Address, the President notes, “As we remove the last of our troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan...(W)hen I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in these wars. By the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and an increasing number of our troops will continue to come home.”

So ends the most needless war in American history, not with a bang of victory, but a whimper of hope that what the U.S. leaves behind will honor all those lost lives and the damaged souls who came back with psychic scars. Even as we leave, sectarian strife is stirring again.

Like a footnote to all this folly, Condoleeza Rice’s memoir emerges to narrate the 2006 turmoil in the Bush Administration when Iraq seemed to be breaking apart.

“So what’s your plan, Condi?” Bush asked at one point. “We’ll just let them kill each other, and we’ll stand by and try to pick up the pieces?”

Angered by the accusation, she responded that “if they want to have a civil war we’re going to have to let them.”

All along, the former Secretary of States recounts, Vice President Dick Cheney (whose staff was “very much of one ultra-hawkish mind”) and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld (who resigned after the 2006 election) kept pushing for deeper involvement in Iraq.

The ultimate irony of this tragic war is that Petraeus himself helped provide a less-than-humiliating end with the Surge. A combination of anti-insurgent strategy and a buying-off of Sunni leaders in the Awakening, the General, by now in military charge, pacified the country enough so that the U.S. did not have to leave Iraq as ignominiously as we did Vietnam by flying diplomats off an embassy roof.

Decades later, Vietnam is no threat to the U.S. Will Iraq be as tranquil after the passage of that much time?

Yet for now, most of our troops there will be heading home for the holidays as Barack Obama smartly ends what he once called a dumb war.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Chapter for "Profiles in Courage"

Eric Cantor is a rising Washington star, as JFK was when he published his 1955 best seller about political fortitude. But sadly Cantor doesn’t have a stylish collaborator like Ted Sorensen, and his turgid essay on American success was scheduled for more turbulent times, producing a chapter to qualify for “Profiles in Caution.”

At the Wharton School of Business yesterday, the House Majority Leader was to enlighten future tycoons about income inequality when his staff made the discovery that the lecture would be open to the public, which could include a few Wall Street protesters.

Cantor was a no-show.

The Wharton students missed his family story: “My grandmother and her family fled religious persecution to come here at the turn of the last century...

“But our country isn’t like that. America offered opportunity. My grandmother eventually made her home in a working class section of my hometown of Richmond. As you can imagine, in the early 20th century, the South wasn’t often the most accepting place for a young Jewish woman. Widowed by age 30, she raised my father and uncle in a tight apartment above a tiny grocery store...She worked day and night and sacrificed tremendously...

“All she wanted was a chance--a fair shot at making a better life for her two sons. And if she were still alive today, I know she would be blown away to know that her grandson is not only a Member of the U.S. Congress, but now the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

An inspiring, albeit familiar American story, from which Cantor draws an odd lesson about a generation that produced scientists, scholars, Supreme Court justices, statesmen and philanthropists who gave back so much to their country.

His father made a ton of money in real estate, and now Cantor is protecting his version of the American dream by sabotaging even tiny tax increases for billionaires that might ease the pain of the poor and helpless while backing Tea Party proposals that, according to economists, "“would quickly destroy millions of jobs while creating enormous economic and social upheaval.”

“There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society,” Cantor’s screed says.

“They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream.”

Profiles in Cowardice? JFK would have wept.

Friday, October 21, 2011

End of What's-His-Name

News from Libya provokes reactions as weird as the man himself: “CBS: Qaddafi. ABC: Gadhafi. NBC: Khaddafy," tweets a White House correspondent. A satellite radio reporter adds: “Gadhafi is dead--someone reach into his wallet and look at his driver’s license so we finally know how to spell his last name!"

Along with death jokes, a tyrant’s last minutes are on prime-time in a cellphone cinéma vérité montage for family viewing, a long way from early days of TV when Abraham Zapruder’s home movies later emerged as the only record of JFK’s assassination.

The Libyan dictator’s bloody end is telescoped into only a few hours of a Thursday by 21st century technology—-from rumors to confirmation by mobile phone video, TV viewing, cable commentary and even a blog prediction of punditry to come.

The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan said half a century ago, and today’s messages are multiple and immediate. Even Hillary Clinton’s unguarded first reaction to the news is on the screen.

By late evening, Jon Stewart’s take on GOP partisan puffery is available with the carping of ancient John McCain and Tea Party neophyte Marco Rubio, who had earlier in the day been busy refuting charges of retouching his family’s history as Cuban refugees.

To round it all out, the Daily Beast provides an excerpt from Condoleeza Rice’s memoir of her uneasy encounter with the Libyan loony who had a fixation on her as “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.”

It all ends with a glimpse of the future as the new Libyan government offers up its first official lie—-that the dictator was killed in “a crossfire” when pictures clearly show him bloodied, captured and being menaced with his own golden gun.

As Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his nightly newscasts, “And that’s the way it is” on October 20, 2011.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Case for Hillary as VP

A year ago, Washington rumors had Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton switching jobs for 2012, and that was before the Tea Party wrecking crew came in, brought government to a standstill and created an anti-Obama climate that threatens a hostile takeover of the White House next year. (President Perry? Cain? A compliant Romney?)

The idea was dismissed out of hand back then, even though Bob Woodward, after months researching an Obama book, said, “It's on the table. And some of Hillary Clinton's advisers see it as a real possibility in 2012. President Obama needs some of the women, Latinos, retirees that she did so well with during the 2008 primaries...The other interesting question is, Hillary Clinton could run in her own right in 2016 and be younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected president.”

For an election that will define America for decades ahead, it’s no comfort that the President is still ahead of Congress in the approval race to the bottom and raising tons of money from Wall Street (even Romney’s old firm). Disillusioned Democrats and Independents will need every bit of reassurance they can get that the crazies won’t take over the country.

Such a switch in running mates would be seen by cynics as a “Dump Biden” movement, but the potential positives far outweigh such carping. For a start, Hillary Clinton’s presence on the ticket would point up Obama’s foreign policy successes—-taking out bin Laden and drawing down troops, however slowly, from Iraq and Afghanistan—-and point up GOP empty rhetoric on the subject. And Biden’s long Senate experience would serve him well at the State Department.

As Secretary, Mrs. Clinton has been reassuringly firm and resolute, qualities not overabundant in the Obama era, and as a running mate, she could help restore whatever hope and confidence remain from 2008.

In an era of total disarray in traditional politics across the spectrum, an Obama-Clinton ticket would be a reassuring reminder that “Now is the time for all good men [and women] to come to the aid of their party.”

If they don’t, Heaven help us.

Update: An analysis in the Caucus observes: “The challenge for the president and his advisers in the coming year is to figure out how use his success in foreign policy and war-fighting to offset his difficulties elsewhere.”

How better than to put his foreign-policy commander on the ticket with him?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Huntsman Wins a Debate

The candidate who gained most from a Republican bickerfest in Las Vegas was the one who saved airfare and stayed in New Hampshire talking to voters face to face. At the very least, Jon Huntsman was not embarrassed by squabbling on the stage.

It started with Rick Santorum introducing himself as someone who was going to catch the redeye to be with his daughter in the hospital and quickly went downhill in political relevance.

Starting in poll-numbers order, Herman Cain took 999 heat but kept insisting his critics were comparing apples and oranges. If political rivals couldn’t understand his proposal, voters could go to his website and all would become clear.

But it was Mitt Romney, caught between two Ricks, Santorum and Perry, who was the punching bag of the night, struggling to get a word in edgewise as his critics pounded him for recommending Romneycare for the nation and hiring illegal aliens to cut his grass, both transgressions of almost a decade ago.

The liveliest exchanges were a bidding war for the most lethal fence to keep out Mexican immigrants, who are coming here less and less because of our economic woes. Cain stood by his “joke” to fry them, while Michele Bachmann vowed to close off “every mile, every foot, every inch” of the border and Perry upped the ante by proposing more boots on the ground and the use of Predator drones. Most of this was set off by a question about how they would appeal to Latino voters.

A question about Romney’s Mormon religion brought the expected safe responses, highlighted by a fervent testimonial to the importance of faith in American politics by Newt Gingrich, the only Speaker of the House to be reprimanded and fined for ethics violations, who converted to Catholicism at the behest of his third wife in 2009.

For a jaded observer, all this falls under the heading of entertainment, with the bonus of watching audiences responding with wild enthusiasm to the most extreme and irrational punchlines, but the real thing had fewer laughs than last weekend’s SNL sketch that was protested by Santorum for positioning him at a gay bar.

Whatever Huntsman gained by staying away, it couldn’t have been less than the accomplishments of those who were there.

Update: In New Hampshire, the missing-in-action candidate told voters, "I was offered an invitation to a game show tonight, playing out in Las Vegas--it's called the presidential debate."

At another stop, Huntsman said, “All I can say is they're missing out on a huge opportunity by not embracing a total boycott of the Nevada caucus and doing what the New Hampshire voters would expect. And that's to stand in a town hall meeting, delivering a vision for this country, and taking questions from average voters here."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupying Wall Street Journal

Rupert Murdoch seems sufficiently recovered from his Fleet Street troubles to be tapping into the Wall Street protesters with the full weight of his attack journalism.

Today he takes down the Journal paywall to tell us all: “In interviews, protesters show that they are leftists out of step with most American voters. Yet Democrats are embracing them anyway.”

A former Bill Clinton pollster, based on results of “the first systematic random sample” (oxymoron, anyone?), reports that “the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence. Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda.”

It hasn’t taken long for attention payers at Think Progress to pick apart those figures and show them to be distorted in the usual style of Murdoch journalism. What else is new?

From the cheap seats of the empire, the New York Post is agog with headline news: “Thieves preying on fellow protesters,” reporting “Occupy Wall Street protesters said yesterday that packs of brazen crooks within their ranks have been robbing their fellow demonstrators blind, making off with pricey cameras, phones and laptops--and even a hefty bundle of donated cash and food.”

Phones were presumably taken before Murdoch operatives could tap into them, and notice that nice tabloid touch “within their ranks,” as if lower Manhattan were devoid of unaffiliated sneaks thieves, although the Post story goes on relate, “Crafty cat burglars sneaked into the makeshift kitchen at Zuccotti Park overnight and swiped as much as $2,500 in donated greenbacks from right under the noses of volunteers.”

Elsewhere, there are confusion and mixed signals about the movement with Wall Street lobbyists “livid” at Democrats while the President himself in an interview attempts a straddle:

“I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests...In some ways, they’re not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party. Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them.”

Barack Obama is keeping his prototypical cool and Rupert Murdoch as always is going for the journalistic jugular as the political pot keeps stirring in lower Manhattan and Washington.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Park of Protests and Dreams

Police arrested 175 Occupy Chicago protesters in Grant Park this morning, recalling not only the night Barack Obama was elected but one when I was tear-gassed there 43 years ago. [correction: see comments]

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," the President-elect told 250,000 celebrants three years ago, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

Those words are now like ashes in the mouth of a voter and 1968 Democratic convention delegate who was in that park half a century ago as American kids were being gassed, clubbed and herded into police vans at gunpoint for exercising their freedom of speech while at the convention Walter Cronkite was looking at the scene and telling TV viewers in disgust, "It makes us want to pack up our cameras and go home."

In 1968, after defeat of an anti-Vietnam war resolution, another delegate, Jules Feiffer, and I had taken a convention bus into town. At a traffic light before the Mayflower Hotel, cops with clubs and soldiers with rifles were pushing kids into the park. We got off the bus, joined the crowd and were immediately separated by a surge of bodies. With a wet handkerchief over my face, I stumbled along until I finally found an exit and a taxi back to my hotel with stinging eyes.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was with Barack Obama on his night, had protesters removed today, but he is no Richard Daley, only another political figure caught up in that narrative of America still being played out in that Chicago park, a story of the conflict between power and values with no end in sight.

I never visit the city without stopping at the Art Institute to stand before Georges Seurat’s overpowering painting, La Grande Jatte, to soak in the serenity of a nineteenth century scene of peace, tranquility and order, to be reminded that, both then and now, all its beauty is only a dream of what goes on beyond those museum walls.

But it’s a beautiful dream, and there will always be those who want to make it real, no matter how ugly the outside world becomes.

Update: “There is a disconnect” between Wall Street and Main Street, says William M. Daley, son of one Chicago Mayor and brother of another, who made his fortune in the financial world.

“Nine months into his tenure as White House chief of staff,” writes John Harwood of the New York Times, “Mr. Daley feels the chill from former Wall Street colleagues who now see President Obama’s administration as a hostile force.

“At the same time, he eyes the swelling Occupy Wall Street protests against the industry that made him rich. Those demonstrations could give his party a counterweight to the Tea Party right--but also underscore Mr. Obama’s inability to invigorate the economy.”

Grant Park has probably not seen the end of clashes between anger and dreams.

Cain, Koch Brothers' Goose Liver?

Force-feeding is an unexpected subject this weekend as Herman Cain aces a “Meet the Press” grilling while gourmands stuff themselves with soon-to-be-illegal foie gras at a Los Angeles eat-in protest.

David Gregory does little to ruffle the candidate’s smooth-as-pate patter, even as Associated Press reveals that Cain’s “economic ideas, support and organization have close ties to two billionaire brothers who bankroll right-leaning causes through their group Americans for Prosperity.”

On MTP, Cain dismisses as “a joke” his electrified border fence line that has been drawing cheers from campaign crowds, but the extent of his ties to the Koches is no laughing matter. Supporters may point out that Reagan fronted for General Electric after his failed movie career, but the Great Communicator was not advocating frying illegal aliens or overtaxing the poor.

Back in what used to be Reaganland, a Hollywood version of Occupy Wall Street takes place in a high-priced eatery named “Animal” as patrons stuff themselves with the goose liver that will soon be illegal under a new state law.

Libertarians may be outraged, but the ban was passed through efforts of animal rights’ organizations, one of whose leaders belittled the eight-course foie gras meal:

“The idea of paying upwards of $100 to eat pieces of a diseased organ would be laughably funny to most people if it didn’t involve cramming pipes down birds’ throats and painfully force-feeding them.”

At the very least, Angelenos know how the delicacy some of them savor is created and how much killer cholesterol it contains, but the electoral dish that the Koch brothers are serving has more in it than the pizza and burgers that made Herman Cain rich and famous.

"Herman Cain is the first presidential corporate spokes-candidate," says a liberal activist. "The best way to have your issues talked about in the issue debate is to have a candidate in your pocket with snappy comebacks and easily branded policy papers which mask how destructive they would be."

As the new GOP frontrunner moves ahead, voters will want to know much more about what, like unfortunate geese, they are being force-fed by lazy journalism not for their own nutrition but to serve the ulterior motives of billionaires with funnels.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Year That Could Change Everything

With twelve months to go before The Election, Occupy Wall Street has to morph soon into more than a messy mirror image of the Tea Party without its political focus.

Half a century ago the emotional energy of street theater protest was not enough to save America. We started the 1960s with a Cuban Missile Crisis victory of JFK followed by the Civil Right Act and Great Society dreams of LBJ, but the rage over Vietnam and what it did to the economy gave us Nixon, four more years of war and Watergate.

The stakes are even higher now—-2010 showed that the ballot box is what counts and, if the nation is to be spared who-knows-what under Mitt Romney or whoever with a compliant Congress, those who are horrified at that prospect must do more than vent their anger.

Body-rhetoric demonstrations have to be quickly converted into political organization and effort, and channeled toward success at the polls next November.

That means forgiving the failings of a finger-in-the-dike presidency and rallying behind not only Barack Obama but House and Senate candidates such as Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and others to defeat Tea Party House freshman who have been holding even John Boehner hostage for the past year.

Expressing moral outrage is fine, but OWS protesters should recall how Ralph Nader fervor gave us George W. Bush instead of Al Gore in 2000 and start doing the hard scut work of raising money and ringing doorbells for 2012.

All this recalls 1964 when historian Richard Hofstadter gave “the paranoid style” a name during Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency against LBJ:

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds...who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority...a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy."

Half a century ago, Goldwater lost decisively when he claimed that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Today, Mitt Romney and his GOP foes make Goldwater look like a flaming liberal, and the only way to stop them is to avoid emulating them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Scrambling American Stereotypes

Mitt Romney is liked but not well-liked. Herman Cain could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

Images from post-World War II theater arise as “Death of a Salesman” meets “The Music Man” in a 21st century culture clash that defies rational explanation.

Like “Dr.” Harold Hill, who sold band instruments and uniforms without knowing how to read music, Cain is dazzling even stubborn Iowans with his 9-9-9 version of “76 Trombones.”

Alongside him, “inevitable candidate” Romney is looking like Willie Loman dragging sample cases through the territories, hoping his faith in a shoeshine and a smile will see him through.

What we have here is a weird political fever dream that scrambles American stereotypes into a new kind of stew.

Romney keeps telling voters about the good old ways of doing business while Cain, whose chief economic adviser turns out to be a small-town Wells Fargo stockbroker, just keeps smiling and tap-dancing toward an office that would put his finger on the nuclear button.

Meanwhile offstage Barack Obama is gearing up and rehearsing for his repeat performance, hoping to remind audiences that how the hills were alive with “The Sound of Music” only three years ago.

How will all this song-and-dance end?

Update: Like the old Broadway shows, opening night performances are stacked with friends, backers and supporters to laugh and cheer, but the debates have gone them a step further by keeping critics out of the seats completely to watch on TV.

We learn now that “the press often remembers the debates less by what was said, and more by where they were put and what they were fed.”

No business like show business.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

GOP Truthiness

The next debate may have to carry fact-check subtitles but, to get the flavor of this one, the Caucus blog parses some of the more flagrant examples of Truthiness.

My favorite is Newt Gingrich’s inversion of an advisory on prostate tests for men from a policy that could save lives and needless suffering into an example of Sarah Palin’s death panels, which was named “The Lie of the Year” in 2009 by an award-winning fact check site.

But how to choose? Practically everything out of Michele Bachmann’s mouth was so goofily untrue that there could have been a running translation: “If it rains frogs tomorrow, it’s Obama’s fault, and I voted against it.” She even bragged about refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which could have brought down the government, but we did learn that she is a tax lawyer with a lot of foster children.

When a reporter suggested that actual numbers showed that his 999 plan wouldn’t work, Herman Cain breezily told her the figures were wrong. He wouldn’t name his secret economic advisers, but his sly smile suggested that he might be working on an 888 special for the primary season.

Rick Perry continued to look like one of those old Polaroid pictures from which the developing strip has been removed too soon, answering every question with a reference to an energy plan he will be unveiling some time or other and fading away before our eyes.

By contrast, Mitt Romney looked presidential, sort of, but created a sound bite for an Obama commercial by damning the Detroit bailout, which could lose him Michigan, where he grew up.

This long-running GOP game show may have finally jumped the shark, but at least last night’s installment was carried by a channel that all but the most dedicated viewers couldn’t find.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wall Street Protests: Back to the Future?

Mushrooming from lower Manhattan, the inchoate backlash brings expectable reactions in Washington from Democratic cheerleading to GOP hypocrisy.

As Eric Cantor calls protesters “a mob...pitting Americans against Americans,” Nancy Pelosi reminds the Tea Party toad, “I didn’t hear him say anything when the Tea Party was out demonstrating, actually spitting on members of Congress right here in the Capitol, and he and his colleagues were putting signs in the windows encouraging them.”

But beyond the usual Washington spitting contests, where could all this be heading?

One of the blessings or curses of age is everything is a reminder of something that happened before. Today’s flashback is to “The Greening of America,” a huge best-seller published in 1970.

The New Yorker devoted almost 70 pages to excerpts from a Yale law professor’s screed:

“There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence...

“The logic and necessity of the new generation--and what they are so furiously opposed to--must be seen against a background of what has gone wrong in America. It must be understood in light of the betrayal and loss of the American dream, the rise of the Corporate State of the 1960's, and the way in which that State dominates, exploits, and ultimately destroys both nature and man. Its rationality must be measured against the insanity of existing "reason"--reason that makes impoverishment, dehumanization, and even war appear to be logical and necessary...

“We seem to be living in a society that no one created and that no one wants.”

Coming at the end of the turbulent 1960s, Charles Reich’s book was a runaway best-seller that inspired both adoration on campuses and heavy criticism (Newsweek called it “a scary mush.”)

As a prediction of what may happen now, the history of Reich’s zeitgeist book is not reassuring. It stirred up resistance to the early Nixon years but also failed to head off Watergate.

Looking back, the most promising effect of “The Greening of America” was the spreading of a message, however flawed, of hope and change. Professor Reich himself was a 40-year-old virgin when he wrote it and went on to discover his own homosexuality and made no effort to conceal it.

During that time, Hillary and Bill Clinton were in his Yale classes, and he recalls:

"Hillary was a most exceptional student, the kind the professors rarely get and they cherish when they do...I hardly ever saw Bill Clinton in class.”

When you spread ideas around like acorns, you can never tell what may sprout where.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Will Huntsman's Sanity Sell?

The clearest voice for sanity in the GOP race has gone all in for tomorrow’s New Hampshire debate with a foreign-policy speech that actually makes sense. But will sanity sell?

“We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-cold war infrastructure,” Jon Huntsman says. “It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st Century world and the growing asymmetric threats we face.”

The former ambassador to China argues that “America once had a foreign policy based on containment--the containment of Communism. Today, we need a foreign policy based on expansion--the expansion of America’s competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements...

“Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons is not a viable path forward. We need more agility, more intelligence and more economic engagement with the world.”

As he has before, Huntsman calls for an end to the war in Afghanistan, characterizing it as “cultural arrogance to think we can make tribal leaders into democratic leaders,” and advocates counterterrorism as an alternative to nation-building.

For Huntsman, who has closed his national campaign headquarters in Florida, the New Hampshire primary is make-or-break and tomorrow’s debate may be his Last Hurrah to move up in the race.

He will be facing Mitt Romney’s one-size-fits-all foreign policy and, of course, the master of double talk, who responds with his answer to a tough question on the subject:

“I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions,” says Herman Cain, “and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know? And then I’m going to say how’s that going to create one job?”

That attitude may actually give Huntsman a chance to point out that, if the U.S. were to stop wasting trillions of dollars in the Middle East, there would be money available for all those magic tax cuts to save the economy.

But he will have to speak up quickly before the candidate of the walking dead, Rick Santorum, jumps in to call him a traitor.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Making Sense of the Stimulus

In this political climate of loud no’s and yesses, good journalism is vital to disentangle all the maybes and what if’s.

As Republicans brand the 2009 stimulus of $787 billion a total failure and Democrats defend it as keeping the recession from getting worse, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post reports what economists and politicians were actually thinking and doing back then.

He cites the 2008 book of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, “This Time Is Different,” a study of nine centuries of financial crises: “In their view, the administration wasn’t being just a bit optimistic. It was being wildly, tragically optimistic...

“In March 2009, Reinhart and Rogoff took to Newsweek to critique the ‘chirpy forecasts coming from policymakers around the globe.’ The historical record...showed that ‘the recessions that follow in the wake of big financial crises tend to last far longer than normal downturns, and to cause considerably more damage. If the United States follows the norm of recent crises...output may take four years to return to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment will continue to rise for three more years, reaching 11 to 12 percent in 2011.’”

But nobody in the Obama Administration or Congress was listening. Looking back now, Peter Orszag, who headed the Office of Management and Budget then, tells Klein, “I didn’t realize we were in a Reinhart-Rogoff situation until 2010.”

On the other hand, John McCain’s top economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin, doesn’t think the White House made matters worse: “The argument that the stimulus had zero impact and we shouldn’t have done it is intellectually dishonest or wrong. If you throw a trillion dollars at the economy, it has an impact. I would have preferred to do it differently, but they needed to do something.”

What we are left with from Klein’s much-needed reporting is the conclusion: “These sorts of economic crises are, in other words, inherently politically destabilizing, and that makes a sufficient response, at least in a democracy, nearly impossible...

“That isn’t to say that this time couldn’t have been different or that next time won’t be. But it is no accident that these crises so often turn out the same, in so many countries, with so many types of governments, who have tried so many kinds of responses.

“In general, the policies that are vastly better than whatever you are doing are not politically achievable, and the policies that are politically achievable are not vastly better.”

As discomforting as that may be, there is one heartening sign in this, if not for the economy, at least for American journalism. We have been given this compelling analysis not by a graybeard of the media establishment but a 27-year-old former blogger doing the homework that politicians hope that thinking voters will never see.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Silent Majority, 2011

This weekend, GOP presidential candidates are groveling at the “Values Voters Summit” in Washington, a noisy minority with frontrunner Mitt Romney defending his faith from attacks as “a cult.”

All this is reported with a straight face by media large and small, who a generation ago would have dismissed such fringe doings as a crackpot sideshow.

Today, the Tea Party and the Religious Right hold America hostage, with few signs of dissent among America’s real Silent Majority (not the one Nixon trumped up in the 1970s).

What’s changed?

"The consumer boycott is the only open door in the dark corridor of nothingness,” Cesar Chavez said decades ago while trying to lift West Coast grape workers out of virtual slavery.

Back then, sympathizers stopped eating grapes, and it made a difference. Now, Wall Street protests sputter on, but there are few other avenues of expression for those who feel their government has been the victim of a hostile takeover.

The Koch brothers, funders of the Tea Party, pull strings from their hundreds of billion dollars a year redoubt, barely noticed let alone punished by a consumer backlash.

If we stopped buying Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpet, they wouldn’t notice. We only hear of their empire when they are caught, as they recently were, trading with Iran and paying bribes to foreign countries.

So we are left with the well-meaning but disorganized Occupy Wall Street protesters.

“My bet,” writes Gail Collins, ”is that these folks will only be remembered for having been there, taken a stand. But that’s no little thing. We all complain, but they showed up.”

If somebody would only tell us where, more of our Silent Majority might show up.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Elocution Election: Substance Doesn't Count

The contest for the GOP presidential nomination is like one of those grade-school elocution contests, in which the winner was always the kid who declaimed the best, without the least idea of what he or she was talking about.

Herman Cain is spouting nonsense, but he does it with enough verbal dexterity to keep pundits busy pointing out that none of it makes sense while Tea Party voters lap it up.

Rick Perry, on the other hand, has dived in the polls, less for his policy positions than hoof-in-mouth delivery of staff-written sound bites. Cable keeps showing his mangle of a perfectly reasonable line about Romney’s flip-flopping, reminiscent of George W. Bush’s inability to keep straight the “Fool me once, shame on you” chestnut.

Ron Paul has honed his Libertarian certainty combining some sense with outer-space weirdness to the extent that he now gets applauded equally for anti-war sentiments as the notion that uninsured young people without health insurance have a choice of charitable help or dying.

After hours of more-anti-Obama-than-thou declaiming, the debaters will turn to foreign policy next week, in which up to now their pronouncements are characterized as “vague, sometimes surprising and occasionally confused.”

The notion of a glassy-eyed Michele Bachmann with her finger on the nuclear button hasn’t sunk in yet, and there isn’t much chance that her opponents will be pushed any closer to coherence on foreign policy, although Jon Huntsman will give it a try.

But if one of the others can come up with a new anti-Obama one-liner without flubbing it, the former Ambassador doesn’t stand much chance of scoring by making sense.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Sarah, We Hardly Knew Ye

After JFK was killed, two of his aides wrote a sad book, “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye,” titled from an old Irish ballad. The memory arises with news (Oh, heartbreak!) that Sarah Palin won’t be running for president, after all.

So ends another era in American politics, as brief as Kennedy’s, not with a bang but a whimper as the inspiring figure tells followers, “When we serve, we devote ourselves to God, family and country. My decision maintains this order.”

The nation’s loss will be hard to bear, but there is some consolation for the grieving in the words of that song, mourning a wounded patriotic warrior of another century:

“Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo/Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo/Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg/Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg/Ye'll have to be put with a bowl out to beg/Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.”

In Mrs. Palin’s case, there is the consolation that, if the Lord does not provide, St. Rupert Murdoch will and, though she will be gone, she will not be forgotten.

Update: Palin mourners are being disrespected by other politicians and what she calls the lamestream media, but their reactions only confirm their insensitivity to her unique place in our world—-far above politics as usual, in an alternate universe most of us just don’t understand.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Romney-Rubio? Uniting the GOP Divide

With Chris Christie folding, it looks like Mitt Romney has won the Republican tontine—-a survivor not a savior.

As he celebrates on the campaign trail in Florida, he may be within shouting distance of his logical running mate, freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who would bring youth, Latino-ness and a few months of legislative experience to the ticket.

Rubio has been busy polishing his credentials. Just back from a trip to Libya with John McCain, the 40-year-old son of Cuban exiles has candidate written all over him. A Catholic, married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader and father of four, he has been called “The First Catholic Protestant Senator” for ties to both his own church and evangelicals.

In hailing Romney’s inevitability, David Brooks asserts that he is “the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That’s a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.”

The Romney-Rubio pairing looks inevitable. The other possibilities all have bad baggage. Paul Ryan would evoke rising disapproval of Boehner’s do-nothing House, and none of the clowns who will keep opposing him in the remaining 50 GOP debates would bring Romney any of Rubio’s youth, freshness and lack of a record to be attacked.

Start producing the campaign buttons.

Update: The remains of the Republican race are seen as a contest between two brackets—-the “establishment” and the “angry fired-up base.” Unless the GOP is suicidal, Romney will prevail and Rubio will be his unity choice for the ticket.

American Underdogs Start Barking

A majority now see Barack Obama as a one-term president and he calls himself the “underdog,” but social networks may be changing the political landscape for 2012 in a way that the new medium of television did during the “youthquake” of the 1960s.

What started as a small disorganized rally on Wall Street three weeks ago is spreading to Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere into a movement.

“With little organization and a reliance on Facebook, Twitter and Google groups to share methods,” the New York Times reports, “the Occupy Wall Street campaign...has clearly tapped into a deep vein of anger, experts in social movements said, bringing longtime crusaders against globalization and professional anarchists together with younger people frustrated by poor job prospects.”

Back in the 1960s, TV made Americans previously politically voiceless and unseen—-women, racial minorities and especially youth-—visible to one another and to the nation as a whole. Power, which had been concentrated in a Washington establishment, was suddenly available to all who flooded the landscape with “body rhetoric” at rallies, protests and street theater for network cameras.

Now, as the Arab spring has shown, social networks can do the same even in entrenched autocracies. An American autumn is stirring against corporate power, bankers and the Tea Party zealotry that is holding Washington hostage during an economic crisis.

The problem with such pushback is that it looks chaotic—-and it often is—-but once started, it can take on a life of its own. While it may come in time to help the Obama reelection campaign, the groundswell will inevitably be prodding the President off his moderate pedestal, if he is to help lead it.

Asked about the Occupy Wall Street protests, the White House responds that “to the extent that people are frustrated with the economic situation, we understand.”

But it will take more than cautious sympathy on the part of the President, it will take real leadership. As unrest starts to crystalize into resistance to the Tea Party’s hostile takeover of the American government, Barack Obama will have to start remembering what happened to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and start showing that an underdog can be a pit bull when it counts.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Obama 2.0 Sightings

As the GOP plods through its revival of last century’s Absurdist masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” (Christie, Palin, whoever), there are reminders that Americans have an actual president trying to govern in the real world.

In his Weekly Address, Barack Obama says, “It’s been almost three weeks since I sent the American Jobs Act to Congress--three weeks since I sent them a bill that would put people back to work and put money in people’s pockets...And now I want it back. It is time for Congress to get its act together and pass this jobs bill so I can sign it into law...

“(O)ne Republican was quoted as saying that their party shouldn’t pass this jobs bill because it would give me a win. Well this isn’t about giving me a win, and it’s not about them...If anyone watching feels the same way, don’t be shy about letting your Congressman know.”

Obama 2.0, the new aggressive version, is still a work in progress, but the last traces of pointless conciliation are fading away.

Even in facing supporters, the President has been standing his ground. Addressing a gay-rights group, he called out Republican wannabes for remaining silent while a debate crowd booed a soldier asking about “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

"You want to be commander in chief,” he reminded Romney et al, “you can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it’s not politically convenient."

At the same time, he did not alter his position on gay marriage. “Every single American,” he affirmed, “deserves to be treated equally before the law,” and went no further.

The emergence of a more combative Obama would coincide with the signs that Congressional incumbents are beginning to feel the heat over their wall-to-wall Tea Party resistance.

It’s past time for the President to keep turning up the heat. He may want to remember how “Waiting for Godot” ends:

The dispirited characters hoping to be saved finally try to hang themselves with one’s belt that breaks and leaves his pants falling down. It would be a shame to lose to that kind of absurd opposition.

Update: The President’s reelection campaign officially declares open season on the GOP pretenders:

“The campaign to win the Republican nomination has become a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Tea Party. They would return to policies that have been tried before and done nothing to improve economic security for the middle class, rewarding special interests who can afford to pay for lobbyists instead of looking out for working families.”

A start, but they can use stronger language than that.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Citizen Cain's 999 Political Whopper

He is good at selling things, and now Herman Cain is outdoing his Burger King and Godfather Pizza triumphs by getting hungry GOP voters to order him up for the White House.

From the bottom of the pack, Cain has surged to third in the national Fox poll at 17 percent, two points behind Rick Perry, after surprisingly eating the Texas governor’s lunch in a Florida straw poll this week.

The political noise is all about Cain’s race, a furor he fuels with the claim that black voters have been “brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.” To up the ante, helpful Pat Buchanan is adding that Cain is an antidote to Lyndon Johnson, who passed the landmark 1964 law to overcome segregation.

“Great Society liberalism,” huffs Buchanan, “has been devastating for the African-American family...he’s saying that they bought an awful lot of liberal propaganda on the liberal plantation.”

As Tea Party members flock to Cain, perhaps to prove to themselves they are not racist, there has been little serious discussion about his core political proposal, the 999 tax scheme, to equalize personal, corporate and sales taxes at 9 percent.

Catchy, if you’re selling pizza or burgers, but a stale rehash of the flat-tax proposals of the past, which were adjudged to be Neanderthal back then—-a plan that would put Warren Buffet’s complaint on steroids by not only equalizing his secretary’s income tax rate with his but the levy on her takeout lunch with that of his corporate profits.

At the last debate, several opponents mused that Cain would be an attractive running mate, and that at best seems to be where he is heading.

But it is a depressing sign of the times that a former fast-food salesman with no political experience is less scary than some of the candidates from whom he might be a heartbeat away in the White House.