Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 August 2012

Mitt, King of Gaffes


[For reasons why I just topped up my contribution to Obama to the legal limit of $2,500, click here.]

One of the many signs of our national decline is our collective failure to recognize politics as a learned profession.

What do politicians do? Good ones do two things. First, out of all the noise of conflicting advice and popular angst they discern policies that will actually work—that will solve real problems and make people’s lives better. Second, despite all the virulent self-serving propaganda that our First Amendment allows, they get enough people behind those policies to put them into effect.

These two tasks require different skills. The first requires analytical intelligence, at least enough to choose the right experts to heed. The second requires emotional intelligence, plus extraordinary patience. In our noisy democracy, it can involve teaching the retarded.

As I’ve written, the two types of intelligence are different. Leaders can have one but not the other. A leader with poor analytical intelligence but great emotional intelligence can become someone like Hitler or Stalin. In the best case you get someone like Dubya, who provided absolute proof that good intentions are no proof against disaster.

When you get a leader with high analytical intelligence but weak emotional intelligence, you get a good but ineffective leader like Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter. Just as it takes both brains and good intentions to lead well, so it takes both kinds of intelligence.

Some people think Mitt Romney is smart because he got rich. But his actions and policies so far give us no hint of above-average intelligence of either kind. There is nothing original in his plans for us: less regulation, more license for business, more fossil fuels, and lower taxes even for the very rich. The basics of his “plan” are straight out of the Little Red Book, which has been the GOP’s gospel since Reagan.

In thirty years those policies have brought us from top of the world to a rocky path of struggling to stay ahead. They have also brought us three wholly unnecessary and culturally draining wars, in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. So if Romney has analytical intelligence beyond the run of the mill, he’s certainly not showing it in his policies.

But what about emotional intelligence? Does Romney have anything out of the ordinary there? His long list of gaffes, which grows longer every day, suggests not. Let’s take them in rough chronological order:

1. Military service. During the 2008 campaign, a reporter asked Romney why not a single one of his five strapping, healthy sons had ever served our country in uniform. Romney answered that they were serving it in his campaign.

That remark revealed breathtaking egotism—a Romney trademark. But think of its impact on listeners. Suppose yourself to be one of the millions of men and women who served your country in uniform, at great personal hardship and often financial loss. Suppose you had lost a loved one or buddy in combat. How would that quip make you feel?

Can a man who failed to understand that simple emotional cause and effect ever be a good president?

2. Foreign policy. During the 2008 campaign, Romney accused the President (as candidate) of being like Jane Fonda one day and Doctor Strangelove the next.

You had to be a Baby Boomer just to understand the chop. Jane Fonda was a once-popular Hollywood actress who enraged the right by going to North Vietnam while the Vietnam War was raging. Right-wing blowhards accused her of treason. Dr. Strangelove was the demented character from the movie of the same name, who sought nuclear Armageddon with the Soviets.

The target of the chops was two policies that Barack Obama had announced during his campaign. One was a policy of talking with rivals and enemies without preconditions, including North Korea and Iran. The other was a policy of pursuing bin Laden and his Qaeda crew into Pakistan if necessary.

Romney’s chop disparaged these policies thoughtlessly, in the manner of someone running for president of a drunken college fraternity. But in fact those policies were among the most successful in our nation’s history. The policy of talking with enemies without preconditions was one that virtually all of our postwar presidents but Dubya had observed. Eventually, it brought disarmament and the Soviet Union’s virtually bloodless collapse. Pursuing bin Laden into Pakistan brought his execution last May.

So Romney‘s thoughtless jibe was not just a dumb frat-boy chop. It was dead wrong, on two of the most important national-security issues of the last century.

In one sense, Romney’s chop showed a sort of primitive emotional intelligence. Among people disposed to hate Obama for everything he does—largely because of his race and unusual background—it provided more fuel for the fire. But isn’t that what demagogues and tyrants do, not leaders of a democracy?

3. Unemployment. At the outset of his current campaign. Romney quipped that he was “unemployed” and looking for a new job as president. No doubt that gaffe got laughs in the nation’s private clubs where the elite gather. High-rollers often feel the same way when dismissed from boards or high executive positions and looking for something new.

But again, imagine how that jibe felt to the real unemployed: the twenty-plus million who have no jobs, have stopped looking, or are permanently under-employed or self-employed because no one will hire them.

Unlike Romney and the members of his social class, they don’t have tens of millions to tide them over. They don’t have friends in high places who will make sure they get something to do, even if it’s a well-paid sinecure like “consulting.” They and their families will struggle, suffer and, without reliable health insurance, maybe even die.

How did Romney’s “I’m also unemployed” quip sound to them? Do you have to ask?

4. The Brits. You would think that, if Mitt is as smart as he and his supporters think he is, he would learn. He has all the consultants and media training that money can buy. Yet the gaffes keep coming.

Maybe jet lag and the stress of unaccustomed surroundings brought out the worst in him. But at least three new gaffes popped out on his first trip abroad as presumptive GOP nominee, when presumably he was on his best behavior.

The first addressed the Brits’ troubles in arranging solid security for the London Olympic Games. Like the good American poodle that it is, David Cameron’s conservative government tried to privatize the task. The private company involved couldn’t come up with the number of trained officers needed, so the Brits had to call in their army.

Asked about this failure, on the very first day of his introductory visit to our staunchest ally, Romney put his foot in his mouth gain. The failure was “disconcerting,” he said. He “hoped” the Brits would get their act together. Even Poodle Cameron was miffed: he referred obliquely to Romney as a man “from the middle of nowhere.”

Now it doesn’t take much insight or knowledge to know what Romney should have said. Here was a man striving to lead what is still the world’s most powerful nation, visiting its Mother Country and staunchest ally for the first time. He should have said something like this:
“Britain is a great nation with a millennium of experience in effective social organization. It has solved much bigger problems than this one. It held off the Nazi onslaught in Western Europe with historic courage until we Yanks could understand the danger. I have absolute confidence that this great nation—under the leadership of a conservative party like mine—will solve this much smaller problem and make the London Games a smashing success.”

That’s what a diplomat and real leader would have said. To see how far Romney’s performance fell below that standard, just look at his actual words. They sound like a poor student thinking out loud, with mike open, on a difficult question in an oral exam.

5. The Israeli-Palestinian Dispute. The dispute between Israel and Palestinians has gone on now for 64 years. It’s part of the motivation for Arab and Islamic terrorists, and it’s part of the demagoguery that their own tyrants use to keep Arabs and Muslims down. It’s a global open sore that desperately needs healing.

So when Mitt the Frat Boy goes to Israel for the very first time, what does he do? He takes sides and inflames discord.

Not only does he take sides, but he does so in the very worst possible way. He insults the Palestinians’ culture, comparing it unfavorably to the Israelis’. He also proposes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, notwithstanding the fact that Jersusalem’s status is supposed to be part of the “final status negotiations” between the warring parties themselves.

That policy—negotiation over Jerusalem—has been our consistent, bipartisan policy for several decades. Yet in mere minutes, Mitt the Frat Boy gives the Palestinians the indelible impression that the US will be no “honest broker” if he wins. He thus ties our hands and renders future diplomacy useless unless and until he loses.

Not only that. His disparaging remarks implied that ineffective culture gives others a “right” of occupation, if not oppression, over the weaker party. Isn’t that just what the Nazis argued—that their German intelligence, efficiency and organization justified displacing and eventually slaughtering weaker “races”? And isn’t that notion what the entire world spent 50 million lives in the last century to disprove?

Of all people, Jews in Israel and elsewhere should know better. Six million of us perished from a “might makes right” ideology, and the homeless remnants of that Holocaust founded Israel to secure a safe place to live.

Now Romney, in a few moments of thoughtless rambling, resurrects that ideology in a different context and emasculates several decades of consistent US pursuit of an “evenhanded” policy. He does all this in a probably vain attempt to entice a few domestic Jewish votes, when 70% of Jews vote Democratic anyway.

It’s hard to see whether this move of Romney’s was dumber analytically or emotionally. Likely, it was a tie. On both counts, his performance in Israel echoed the catastrophic stupidity that we came to expect from Dubya.

* * *

Politics is indeed a learned profession. They don’t teach it in college; you have to learn it in real life. But it’s a learned profession nevertheless, with real skills that take decades to acquire.

Maybe that’s why Romney’s skills are so weak. His sum total of four years in elective office would make him the least experienced president in American history. (Here I count the military leadership experience of our few general-presidents, from Washington to Eisenhower.)

Politics is not entertainment. Its reduction to bumber-stickers, one-liners, and the sort of frat-boy chops that Dubya and Romney have made famous does no one any good. It we Yanks can’t learn that simple point, our own culture will continue to decline with increasing rapidity.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, how many gaffes does a man have to make before they call him unqualified?

Why I Topped Up My Contribution to the President Today (8/31/12)

Today, the last day of August, is the last business day before Labor Day, when the real presidential campaign begins. It’s also the day after Mitt Romney became the GOP nominee. On this day, I topped up my contribution to the President to the maximum amount allowed individuals, $2,500.

I’m comfortable in retirement, but I live on a fixed income. I don’t expect my very conservative investments to produce much gain until the global financial crisis—now entering its fifth year!—gets resolved. So why did I stretch my resources, when I fully expect voters to see the light and re-elect the President in November? I just can’t take the chance that they won’t. My confidence that Mitt will fix what ails us is the same percentage of African-Americans who support him: zero.

I don’t think Mitt is evil. Neither was Dubya. Yet Dubya brought us two unnecessary wars and converted Bill Clinton’s surpluses into a massive deficit. He also presided over the mortgage meltdown that caused the financial crisis. Then he approved Hank Paulson’s unprecedented bailout of errant bankers, rather than their innocent victims. So I think Dubya proved absolutely that good intentions are no proof against disastrous policy.

As I made my contribution, I thought of some big themes. For thirty years (ever since Reagan), Mitt’s party has declared government the problem, not the solution, to virtually everything. Let’s leave aside the fact that this canard belies reality and common experience for most consumers, including me. Let’s just ask a simple question: why are Mitt and his party working so hard to lead what they see as the problem? Might there be ulterior motives of a selfish variety? I wish more undecided voters would ask themselves that question.

Who benefits from lower taxes on the rich, less regulation, more pollution, an emphasis on fossil fuels, and more foreign military adventures? Is it all Americans or just the rich, business owners, the oil and coal barons, and owners of the military-industrial complex?

In 23 years of teaching law, I always strove to maintain absolute anonymity in grading written exams. I learned to evaluate students based on what they say and do, not who or what they are. So apart from some pride at our slow national progress in diversity, the President’s race doesn’t affect me. Nor does Mitt’s Mormonism. But their character may, and their policies surely will.

It’s hard not to discern a massive strain of hypocrisy in Mitt. Mormons tithe at least ten percent of their income to their church. That donation is an obligation, not a matter of largesse. A large part of it goes to support less fortunate members of the Mormon community. Yet Mitt and his party call recipients of similar government aid, including unemployment insurance, “freeloaders.”

Isn’t there a small inconsistency there? Does the same aid to the poor become illegitimate “income redistribution” when delivered by government rather than a church? Might tax deductions for Mitt’s tithes, which were probably massive during his peak earning years, be one reason why Mitt refuses to release all his tax returns?

Mitt’s most nagging bit of hypocrisy is his push to repeal so-called “Obamacare.” The health-insurance solution he put in place as governor of Massachusetts is virtually indistinguishable from “Obamacare,” down to a “mandate” for health-insurance refuseniks. Mitt fought for this plan as governor, and it appears to be working well. But now he disclaims it, just to bash the President and win an election. Honest? Honorable? Consistent? I think not.

Mitt’s primary trait as campaigner is his overweening ego. With a mere four years in elective office under his belt, he’s absolutely certain he can do a better job than the President, at everything. That frightens me. It also reminds me of Dubya, who took childish pleasure at being the “decider” but seemed to make every crucial decision wrong.

Mitt’s biggest push is for “job, jobs, jobs.” Yet when he looks at our weak employment, he sees everything but the elephant in the room.

He wants us to believe that taxes, regulation and an “anti-business” environment are keeping us from adding jobs. Has he forgotten the Crash of 2008 so soon?

We Yanks had nearly full employment before the financial crisis began in 2008. Europe had no problem with unemployment before the crisis hit home there, where it now cuts deeply.

All our current job troubles began in late 2008, with the mortgage meltdown, which bankers caused. So it seems to me that Mitt and his party are trying to distract attention from the real cause of our woes. Could that be because their cronies and social class are getting obscenely rich by keeping the global economy balanced on a precipice?

Mitt made his money by being an investment banker, of the private-equity subspecies. In theory, that experience might make him capable of seeing a solution to the banker-caused crisis. In theory, he might be like Nixon the Commie-basher visiting “Red” China to jump-start what is now the globe’s most important bilateral relationship.

But Mitt’s working so hard to distract our attention from the real cause of our troubles doesn’t support that theory. In practice, Mitt’s “solution” to the crisis is more of the same policies that the GOP has supported since 1981.

Has the GOP been that clairvoyant, to see the solution to a financial meltdown 27 years before it began? I think not. I think Mitt and his party are using the crisis as an excuse to sell us defective used goods.

Mitt wants to make this election a referendum on the President’s leadership, which his party fought more unreasonably and intransigently than I have ever seen in my 67 years. But it’s not and never will be a referendum. It’s an election.

One of two men—Mitt Romney or the President—will become President of the United States in January 2013. So it’s a choice, a choice between two men. No amount of demagoguery can change that simple fact.

I have absolutely no doubt who is the better man—far better. I have a firm conviction whose policies are more likely to restore the honest, intelligent, forward-looking nation that I was born into 67 years ago, and that I hardly recognize today. This election is a continuation of the election of 2008: a choice between a thirty-year-old failed vision and a clever, empathetic administration that responds to changed circumstances, facts and evidence.

If we make the right choice, we can arrest our national decline. If we make the wrong one, I expect our nation and my own personal circumstances to be much diminished before I pass away. I’ve tried to do my part, even though it hurt. Have you?

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