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 October 2012

A Noose for America’s Middle Class


When you think about it, Citizens United is pretty neat. As most thinking people have realized by now, it lets the super-rich buy elections in secret, without even revealing who they are. They can hide behind a chain of shell corporations with names like “American Crossroads.”

But that’s not all Citizens United does. It also acts like a noose for the middle class. It kills two birds with one stone: American democracy and economic equality.

Here’s how it works to off the middle, while funding corporations and promoting the interests of the rich.

Suppose you’re a candidate who represents the interests of the middle class. Let’s say your initials are BO, which also stands for “body odor.” That’s appropriate, because the rich folks’ propaganda machine, financed by Citizens United, is going to say you stink.

Now lets say your opponents’ initials are MR. They also stand for “Mister.” That’s how he and his supporters will expect us economic surfs to address him after the rich have gobbled up all wealth and control all the good jobs that aren’t in China or the rest of the developing world. We won’t have to have our hats in our hands because we won’t have hats. We’ll have hoodies.

As MR tries to beat you in a supposedly free election, he’ll protest that he, too, is foursquare for the middle class. He’ll say he “knows what it takes” to make it prosper again. [1 and 2] But his numbers won’t add up, and he won’t offer any details. And, of course, he’ll protest too much.

The well-informed won’t buy it for a New York microsecond. They'll know whom MR is really for. How? They’ll just follow the money: the torrents of millions from plutocrats flowing into MR’s campaign coffers.

But a certain proportion of uninformed and “independent” voters will buy MR’s line, because he’s such a clever and convincing salesman. [1 and 2] After all, he cut his salesman’s teeth while still young, trying to sell the Book of Mormon to Catholics in France. If you can do that, selling “trickle-down” to gullible Americans is easy.

People dumb enough to buy trickle-down on its substantive merits are very few. MR and the super-rich will need more voters to win. That’s where the noose comes in.

You know how a noose works, right? It uses the victim’s own weight to strangle him. The more he struggles, the more it tightens. It’s diabolical genius.

Citizens United works just the same way. You can see it working right now. Here’s how.

Television and Web video are powerful media. For propagandists and demagogues, they are the best. Their images bypass our reasoning centers and go straight to the emotional centers of our brains. Unless you have a very strong rational “governor,” they can convince you with “data” that wouldn’t last a moment if analyzed rationally.

So the super-rich, who want MR to lead us, flood the airwaves and the Web with all sorts of images of disparagement and hate. (They’ve actually been doing that since you took office, but who counts?) They own the vast majority of disposable wealth in the nation, and they can out-video any opposition, let alone your hapless supporters.

But that’s not what makes Citizens United a noose. What makes it a noose is where all the money for those lying ads goes.

The only way to counter the torrent of lying ads is in kind: visceral persuasion. So your own supporters have to do the same thing. And since the middle class—those members of it who still can think—is your constituency, they have to dig deep into their own much shallower pockets to finance video ads for you.

Where does the money they donate go? The vast majority goes right into the pockets of corporate America, namely, the corporate owners of TV stations and the public-relations corporations that prepare the ads.

The plutocrats don’t mind this a bit. These owners are their own friends and cronies. Anyway, the cost of their immense donations, which seem huge to ordinary people, are pocket change to them. They are a rational investment in a friendlier future.

As for the rest of us, we dig as deep as we can, but our contributions go for two purposes. First, they enrich the media moguls, who are, by and large, members of the plutocrats’ socials class and strong supporters of MR. Second, they nurture and enrich PR folk, the professional liars who make all this possible. Isn’t that a brilliant twofer?

Now you can see how the whole thing is a noose for the middle class. The donation wars enrich MR’s supporters while impoverishing the middle class and entrenching the industry of lies that have made elections exercises in mendacity. [1, 2, 3, and 4]

Before Ronald Reagan, none of this could have happened. There was a rule called the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required media companies to give all major candidates for elective office equal time. More important, if one candidate attacked another, it required the station airing the attack to give the other candidate equal time to respond, for free.

You might have called the Fairness Doctrine an “anti-noose.” Not only did it make elections infinitely fairer. It also had the right economic incentives. Since stations had to provide free time for victims of political attacks to respond, they were reluctant to air them in the first place. The Doctrine made our private media, which largely control what we see and hear, more interested in seeing candidates tout their own plans and programs than tear their opponents down.

The Fairness Doctrine survived Supreme-Court review, in a case called Red Lion. But it met its fate in the Federal Communications Commission of Ronald Reagan, that Irish charmer with his hand so deep in our middle-class pockets. His FCC stopped enforcing it. Now Obama’s FCC has exorcised its ghost from the books.

Without much public notice at the time, Reagan’s appointees put the Fairness Doctrine on the shelf, tying the first six knots in the noose of our democracy. His GOP successors appointed justices to the Supreme Court who later would foist Citizens United upon an unsuspecting nation, tying the other seven.

Does this mean you should stop contributing? Quite the opposite: you have no choice.

This election is the last stand of American democracy. If MR wins, we will have elected the least experienced candidate in American history, if you count our general-presidents’ military experience. We will have done so on the basis of nothing more than his awesome salesmanship.

But most important, we will have done so because Citizens United allowed MR’s real supporters—the super-rich—to hypnotize us with outrageous lies, repeated endlessly over privately-owned media that we ourselves must help finance in the hope of surviving the onslaught. The lies touch every aspect of our political worldview: our views of BO and recent history, the meaning of “socialism”, how our own economy works, and and how health-insurance works.

It’s all so devilishly clever, and so ominous. But we have no choice. The gallows stand is not entirely out of our reach. If we can just get our foot on it, we might loosen the noose and elect BO.

If not, we can tell Ben Franklin’s ghost that we’ve lost our Republic. And we can prepare to live in an authoritarian nation run by unseen hands that care only for themselves and their greedy peers.

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27 October 2012

“The Messiah’s” Burden


As the life of Jesus showed, it’s not easy being The Messiah. People expect too much from you, and you expect too much of yourself. In Jesus’ case, the result was crucifixion.

The President is no Messiah, but he labors under similar burdens. From the moment of his “miraculous” ascension to the presidency, people have expected too much of him. And though it’s hard to get inside his mind, it seems he has, at times, expected too much of himself.

In many ways, his election was miraculous. Or so it seemed at the time.

When he started his quixotic campaign in 2007, few expected him even to become the Dems’ nominee. Most of the smart money was on Hillary. Under the circumstances, seasoned African-American pols might have been expected to be most realistic of all. Yet most of them backed Hillary initially, not for reasons of deep preference, but because they didn’t think Obama had a chance.

When he won not only the Democratic nomination, but also the presidency, it seemed like a double miracle. I still remember that touching picture of an African-American lady, sitting on the floor, legs akimbo, near a pew of her church, with tears streaming down her face and her child gently touching them. There is no doubt in my mind that part of the reason for her tears—and mine, too!—was the feeling that a miracle had touched us all.

But in truth, Obama’s election was no miracle. It had five practical causes, none of them divine. The first was the President’s immense talent. It amazed anyone with an open mind who knew him or saw him work. The second was the times: we were about to see the back of a president whose stupidity had caused gigantic blunders, who had started two needless wars, run up gigantic deficits, presided over a global economic collapse and couldn’t even speak English. Everyone was looking for change.

The third cause of Obama’s electoral miracles was the poor quality of his opponents. In experience and judgment, Hillary had little going for her. John McCain had even less. A hero in the Vietnam war and a straight shooter, he himself confessed he had little to offer in economics, which the election was all about.

The final two causes related to the campaigns. Having watched Karl Rove’s dirty tricks elect the stupidest president in American history, the Dems were not about to let that happen again. They and Obama assembled the strongest and deepest field of campaign professionals that Dems had ever put together and vowed to beat Rove at his own game. John McCain helped them win by running a slime-ridden, racist campaign that repelled many voters, for which he all but apologized after he lost.

But most Americans knew none of this and cared less. What they saw was an outsider with an improbable background riding in miraculously on a white horse (a seemingly no-longer-racist electorate), promising much-needed hope and change. His unusual background only strengthened the vague impression of something way out of the ordinary. At the Inauguration, the huge crowd of two million happy people heaved a collective sigh of relief when Obama took the oath of office.

Ever sensationalist, our media picked up the meme, magnified it, and rode it to profitability. Ever shrewd, devious and exploitive, GOP strategists picked it up, too. No doubt they remembered the story of Jesus and hoped for a figurative crucifixion in the next presidential election. They still do.

Rush led the way, declaring just days after the President’s inauguration that making the President fail was the GOP’s chief goal. After some initial embarrassment, the rest of the GOP took Rush’s lead, not seeming to notice what a vile oaf he was and always has been. (Thinking of him in the company of our Founders is like imagining a half-decomposed dead rat in a basket of perfect apples.)

And so we have the sad irony of our currrent campaign. The GOP and Mitt have made themselves competitive in this race essentially by playing into the “Messiah” meme. They are blaming the President for failing to cure all the many consequences of Dubya’s catastrophic stupidity. They are blaming him for a natural inability to cure, in a mere four years, the consequences of the GOP’s misguided ideology over the last thirty.

And the GOP has cleverly kept Dubya hidden, silent and out of sight, so that lazy voters forget he even existed. When was the last time you saw a major party convention shun its own living ex-president, let alone the most recent one?

You would expect Dem-haters and overt racists to buy into this ploy. They will grab any convenient meme to beat someone of Obama’s background. You would expect unconscious racists to buy into it, too, because it offers them yet another reason to bury and deny their unconscious racism. They are not, as a rule, the most introspective of people.

But what you wouldn’t expect is once and future Democrats, or independents of open minds, to buy into this simplistic meme.

Yet many of them do. You don’t see that much evidence any more. But just months ago myriad comments in online media complained vociferously of disappointment in Obama’s failure to keep his alleged promises, or his general promise of hope and change. Sarah Palin precisely captured this thinking when she derided that “hopey changey thing.”

Now the GOP campaign has pivoted to more specific charges about specific real and imagined broken promises. But the Messiah’s fall-from-grace meme remains in the background and underlies voter credulity.

What’s the best antidote? I think it’s the President himself—his real character, not the chimeras that political consultants may be trying to create.

One of the many admirable things about the president is his evenness of temper. As he said during the 2008 campaign, he never gets too high or too low. He is calm, steady, realistic and reliable. That’s an important reason why he’s good as both candidate and leader. That’s why he’s also infinitely better than Mitt, whose constant changing, backing and spinning would drive both domestic and foreign leaders crazy and create chaos.

Because the President has no manic-depressive gene, he may have trouble understanding people who do, notwithstanding his off-the-scale general empathy. He may not fully realize that, for hundreds of thousands of persuadable voters, the letdown after expecting a Messiah and getting only a good and diligent president is hurting him.

So as the campaign closes, I think it should do its best to undermine the Messiah meme. It should do so by showing real clips from the President’s calm, steady leadership throughout his first term.

These clips should not be made-up ads. The President is weary from the endless campaign, and the few recent ads I’ve seen don’t show him at his best: his steadiest and most calming.

The new ads should show him as leader, using excerpts from his speeches and acts as president. Maybe one of them should be a clip from his sober announcement of bin Laden’s death.

They would make a wonderful counterpoint to negative adds showing Mitt the Weathervane rotating rapidly with every light breeze. At the same time, they would help relieve the Messiah’s burden by showing how much better is a strong, steady leader than an imaginary worker of illusory miracles, which Mitt now is bidding to become.

Footnote: To see the photo, centered in a beautiful essay explaining the feelings of many that night, click here. Be patient: the essay and photo are archived and may take time to load. But no subscription is required.

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25 October 2012

Colin Powell’s Endorsement


Today Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Some say that doesn’t matter much. But for four reasons, it does.

First, Powell is a lifelong Republican and military man. He served in our armed forces for 35 years, including four years as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He later served four years as Secretary of State. As a result, he is the most experienced figure of national prominence we have today, bar none, including our last three presidents.

So when Powell endorses Obama, he speaks from experience. His endorsement implicitly disapproved Mitt’s lies and promises on military and foreign affairs. At the same time, it tacitly affirmed Obama’s solid track record in those fields, and shared Powell’s doubts that Mitt could do any better.

Second, Colin Powell is a master of strategy, both military and diplomatic. With his modern American “blitzkreig” in Gulf I, coupled with his advice (which Bush I followed) not to invade Baghdad, he made Gulf I the shortest and most successful military conflict in our history. It was so short and so successful that we don’t even call it a “war,” just “Gulf I.” Yet it met all our objectives, including freeing Kuwait and its oil fields and containing Saddam.

As a master strategist, Powell timed his endorsement for best effect. He waited until the final campaign tumult, when undecided voters are looking for something—anything!—to believe besides TV ads. He waited until a decent interval after all the debates, giving at least the appearance of the calm and deliberate consideration for which he is justly renowned. And whom would Republican-leaning independents and military folk trust more than Colin Powell?

Third, Colin Powell’s endorsement matters because he is the once and future GOP. Reasoned, thoughtful moderates like him were once the party’s heart, and the heart of conservatism with a small “c.” They will be again, some day, if the GOP doesn’t go the way of the Whigs.

Fourth, Powell’s endorsement matters a lot to people, like me, who remember what a real democracy once looked like. If Powell had run for president in 2000, instead of Dubya, he likely would have won, and the last twelve years would have been quite different.

Like Dubya, Powell would have promised a “humbler” foreign policy without nation-building. But unlike Dubya, Powell would have meant it and followed up.

Powell might not have prevented 9/11. Maybe no one could. But he would have made sure the memo got to his own desk, and he would have taken it seriously.

And if 9/11 had come anyway, Powell would not have fallen apart and started two unnecessary foreign occupations. A superb military strategist, he would have gone after the terrorists exclusively, as we finally did under Obama.

With that problem unexaggerated and under control—and without the distraction of two needless wars—Powell might have done something about the incipient economic crash. The orgy of liars’ loans and securities backed by them would certainly have made his tidy and cautious mind uncomfortable.

And even if 9/11 and the Crash were unavoidable, Powell’s calm and thoughtful character, plus his ability to see the other side, would have prevented either catastrophe from splitting us as a nation, both among ourselves and from our allies. He would have calmed global markets just by his presence and character, and his experience as Secretary of State would have helped him do so.

No one can second-guess Powell’s personal decision not to run, which reportedly had something to do with his wife. But millions of people, including me, still regret it when they think of how different things would have been under his leadership, and how different things would be now as a result.

Powell is not only the most experienced national political figure among us. He is also one of the wisest. When such a man says he would prefer the leadership of a doer, albeit one outside his lifelong party, to that of an inexperienced salesman inside it, we had all better listen up.

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23 October 2012

The Great Salesman Strikes Again


[For my view on how to squeeze all this into a bumper sticker, click here.]

The third and final presidential debate last night was the most even of all three. Each candidate had good points. Each candidate showed aggression and moderation, toughness and reason. The President had the best jabs, but there was no knockout punch.

So the recurring question—“who won?”—is hard to answer. It depends on your perspective and what you were looking for.

On substance, the President won, as you might expect. He is, after all, the President.

The debate’s subject was ostensibly foreign policy. (Both candidates actually “pivoted” to the economy several times.) That’s something on which any president has to be the best expert in government. It’s also the only field in which he has a free reign, unencumbered by midgets in Congress.

In that field, our current President knows personally everything of importance that’s happened in the last four years. So you would expect him to know the facts better and state his case more clearly than Mitt, and he did.

Mitt had a different task, more emotional than analytical. He had to convince a skeptical public that he’s not the reckless warmonger and anti-diplomat that his primary campaign and many gaffes revealed.

Surprisingly (to me at least), he did a pretty good job at that, despite the President’s effort to tag him as “reckless.”

As PBS commentator Mark Shields noted after the debate, Mitt used the word “peace” more often than the late George McGovern. He repeatedly qualified his jingoistic primary positions with reasonable nuances, showing (belatedly) both intelligence and moderation. In fact, he often repeated and emphasized the nuances of moderation, softening his earlier strident image.

Mitt also strengthened his claim to presidential qualification by agreeing with several the President’s actions and policies. These included sanctions on Iran, the necessity of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, strong and undying support for Israel, the use of drones to kill our enemies, and pushing China to level the manufacturing playing field.

But each time, Mitt followed up his agreement by trying to one-up the President. He claimed he would have done the same thing faster and better, and he would do so again if elected. That’s a hard claim to refute. Several times, he accused the President of failing to provide stronger leadership, without saying how. And he managed to curb his earlier overuse of the first-person singular, also many times, by referring generally to the need for new leadership.

So once again Mitt proved himself a consummate salesman. He sold himself and multiple promises about who he would be and what he would do. He also proved, I think, to be a better actor than the President. On occasion, he looked reasonable, almost chummy, while the President stared dagger-eyed at him for whitewashing his own earlier extremist rhetoric yet again.

Whether Mitt’s sales job hit home depends on who you are. For people like me, who look only at his record and don’t believe a word he says, it fell flat. I wouldn’t buy a used car from him, let alone four years of governing my country. And I certainly wouldn’t vote for a man with his utter lack of experience to handle the difficult issues of foreign policy discussed in that debate.

For me, Mitt’s slick performance only made him more dangerous. So I doubt he won any Democratic votes. Nor do I think he convinced any Democrats to stay home.

The real question is his salesmanship’s effect on Republicans and independents. That’s hard for me to tell. Since he hasn’t really done anything in foreign policy, his assurances amounted to a series of bald personal promises. No doubt inadvertently, he emphasized that very point by reciting his mantra “I know what it takes . . .” in his closing statement.

But I can try to put myself in the shoes of folks who would vote for a self-salesman for the most important job in the world. If I do so, I have to acknowledge that many of them hate Obama for reasons having nothing to do with substance. The debate last night didn’t change their minds, and won’t convince them to stay home. So Mitt did no damage to his “base.”

Independents seem much the same. Those leaning toward Mitt probably saw nothing to change their minds, certainly nothing decisive. Those leaning toward Obama for reasons of Mitt’s dismal credibilty probably won’t change their minds either. Mitt’s empty promises amount to “I’m the better leader; trust me,” as they did in the second debate. And most Obama-leaning voters have probably already rejected that plea.

Mitt may have gained a tiny bit of ground among voters who were genuinely undecided before last night. They may have included some women. To the extent that foreign policy matters to them, Mitt’s convincing denial that he would “press the button” his first year in office may have won them over.

Another group may possibly cancel these independents out: voters who resent Mitt for seeking moderation and for having thrown the Tea Party under the bus. These voters certainly won’t vote for the President, but they might stay home in disgust. The problem is that many of them are not high on the intelligence scale. They may not have sensed Mitt’s new moderation. They may not even have watched the debates.

With no track record to prove it, Mitt has assured us many times that he would be a better leader than the President. That’s mostly what he did last night.

He looked and sounded sincere. You had to know something about his history and the world beyond the latest Tweet to disbelieve him. He now seems a better salesman than Ronald Reagan, and he has more analytical intelligence. Surprisingly (and terrifyingly) to me, he now looks and sounds enough like a president to win this election.

So the outcome, in my view, now turns on how well the Democrats’ campaign ads can destroy his credibility with undecided voters. If they buy the used car, we are done, and so is our democracy. An utterly unqualified man “from the middle of nowhere,” backed by a party of extremists that nearly destroyed our country only four years ago, will have won a mandate to govern again by blaming it all on the current President.

Suppose a man promises you the Moon. You might think it easy to point out that the Moon is big and far away.

That’s what the President tried to do—in all three debates—by showing how Mitt’s tax numbers don’t add up. Even there, you might have trouble if history’s most effective propaganda machine had convinced voters that the Moon is small, made of green cheese, and in Mitt’s refrigerator.

But what do you do when a man promises you that he has changed, for the nth time, and will be even better in the future? You either believe him or you don’t.

Here Mitt’s past flip-flops may actually help him. Undecided voters, who are not the brightest bulbs in the marquee, may think he can transplant his whole character at will. Or they might see his most recent character transplant as the real thing.

To win now, the Dems must do two things. First, they must destroy Mitt’s general credibility by showing his flip-flops again and again, ad nauseum. The airwaves must become a cavalcade of flips and flops. Second, Dems must ape Karl Rove and saturate every Tea-Partier precinct with ads showing how Mitt’s latest character transplant betrayed them. The goal is to keep them home.

I don’t like negative campaigning, and I detest Karl Rove, for the best of reasons. But there are times in war and politics when you have to do things that your enemy does so well and that, in an ideal world, you would never consider.

So if you think you’ve seen the worst of this campaign, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Combined with the Great Salesman’s shape-shifting, the GOP’s Big Lies have reduced this race to a near tie. The same folks that nearly destroyed us less than half a decade ago are threatening to take over again. They leave the Dems no alternative but to attack relentlessly until November 6.

“DOER, NOT SALESMAN”

For months, I’ve been thinking about how to squeeze the difference between the President and Mitt into a bumper sticker. Last night, Mitt gave me the answer.

We still have our old house in Ohio, in a solid, middle-class, well-integrated neighborhood. There are lots of yard signs for judges and other local candidates, but few for either presidential ticket.

Obama-Biden signs predominate over Romney-Ryan signs by about three to one, as you might expect in a neighborhood like ours in a university town. The President’s yard signs have small and understated lettering, superbly in character. The Romney signs have larger and more flashy lettering, on a white background, also in character.

The Dems local campaign HQ here has moved since 2008, and we’ve been procrastinating getting our yard signs. But I had an old one in the garage, left over from the 2008 primary campaign.

It doesn’t have Biden’s name on it, but he’s not my choice for President. It has “Obama” in large type, bigger than Romney’s and Ryan’s. The only problem with the old sign is that it had a line saying “Vote March 4,” the date of the 2008 Dem primary.

So I sat at my computer and printed out a cover for that line. Where it used to be, in black on white, the sign now reads, “DOER, NOT SALESMAN.”

I can’t think of any three words that better encapsulate the difference between the candidates and the source of most, if not all, of our current troubles. If you look at my old 2008 table on presidents’ experience, you’ll notice something strange. Ever since Nixon and Ford, our presidents’ resumes in office have been getting shorter and shorter.

The odd man out was Dubya’s father, who had been Vice President and CIA chief before becoming president. For a Republican, he wasn’t bad. He raised taxes after promising not to, and he took Colin Powell’s sage advice not to invade Baghdad.

Barack Obama was in the less-experienced league when he took office as president. He had more total years in elected office than Carter, Reagan, or Dubya, but most were at the state level, and he had no experience as governor.

Now he’s the grizzled veteran of killing OBL, winding down two wars, removing Qaddafi, and passing health-insurance and finance reform—among a bunch of other things. All his domestic feats he accomplished over the figurative dead bodies of the most ornery and recalcitrant Congress in memory.

So is he a doer? You bet! Is he experienced now, whatever his deficit may have been when he took office? You bet!

And how does Mitt compare? Well, his Mormon Mission in France—two years trying to sell his religion to Catholics—made him a great salesman. It sure shows. But what else has he done? Nada that we, the people, should care about, except make himself rich and reform health insurance in Massachusetts. He disclaims the latter feat, so he’s left with getting rich.

From Ross Perot in Bill’s day to Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, the people have always had the good sense to reject rich folk with little or no political experience who are bored and want to run something new. I fervently hope they’ll do the same this time. I’m voting for the doer.

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20 October 2012

Mitt’s War Risk


[For a brief comment on Libya, click here.]

In my short lifetime of 67 years, we Yanks have thrice made needless war.

We lost over 50,000 Americans in and around Vietnam. We indelibly tarnished our national reputation. We also lost the war. The infamous photo of would-be refugees hoping to get aboard our last helicopter fleeing Saigon will follow us through the ages as an icon of humiliation.

Worse yet, we accomplished little or nothing. We thought we were saving Vietnam and Southeast Asia from becoming a fallen “domino” to Chinese and Russian expansionism. Our leaders didn’t know—but our historians did—that Vietnam had always been fiercely independent of foreign powers, including China. Our needless war actually made Vietnam more dependent on China, because it needed China’s help to repel us.

Who pushed the infamous “domino theory” that got us stuck in the mire of Vietnam? Who horribly mismanaged the war, lied to the American people, and with an obsession for falsified “body counts” led us to defeat? Then Secdef Robert S. McNamara, a cocksure “numbers guy” from the business world, just like Mitt.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are still coping with the consequences of our other two needless wars. We started both on false pretenses. We thought Iraq’s tyrant, Saddam, had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t.

We thought we had to occupy all of Afghanistan, change its culture and rebuild it, just to defeat a few hundred terrorists hiding there. We didn’t. Our President has killed bin Laden and degraded Al Qaeda Central to the point of global irrelevance with smarter targeting, ninjas and drones.

To recite these facts is not to deny that these two hard, long wars might eventually have done some good abroad. Saddam is dead. Iraq may yet become a stable, prosperous self-governing country. Afghanistan might yet remain democratic, throw off the Taliban’s rule, educate its girls, and emerge from medieval darkness into the twenty-first century.

But these goals are still elusive after nearly a decade, and they were not why we started the wars. They are after-the-fact justifications for getting into wars without good reason.

And although these wars may eventually have done some good abroad, they have coarsened our domestic life immeasurably. We are now a nation for which native mercenaries fight abroad—and endure all the horrors and suffering of war—while the rest of us party and shop at home. We have oppressed and abused the 1% of us who protect us in combat, while another 1% take from the 99% the lion’s share of the economic benefits of what our warriors protect.

My point here is not to bewail our hasty and inappropriate war making, or our spiraling economic inequity. My point is to note a seldom appreciated fact: every one of these wars sprang from the fevered brow of a president inexperienced in foreign affairs and motivated largely by national pride and arrogance, made worse by ignorance.

Lyndon Johnson escalated an advisory role in a Southeast-Asian civil war into a full-blown international conflict with us as chief combatant. At home, he was one of our greatest presidents. He got Congress to pass our civil-rights laws with strong support from the South, making African-Americans, for the first time ever, free in law, if not yet in fact. With a stroke of the pen, he ended Jim Crow and legal discrimination.

But Johnson knew next to nothing about foreign policy, and nothing about Asia. He escalated our involvement in Vietnam to a full-blown war for no good reason. He thought he could pressure North Vietnam’s great leader like a segregationist pol from the South. Before he declined to seek a second term, Johnson admitted (in private) that we had been losing the war and had escalated our involvement for no reason except national pride.

So we lost the most face we had ever lost in order to save it, just as we had destroyed villages in Vietnam in order to save them. We also lost tens of thousands more of our own.

Johnson had served twenty-five years in Congress. He had been one of our most successful Senate majority leaders ever. But he became president unexpectedly when they shot JFK. In foreign affairs he was a tyro. And he had the same “Texas machismo” toward the globe as the only other president from Texas we’ve ever had: George “Dubya” Bush.

Dubya was a tyro in both domestic and foreign affairs. His entire experience in elective office before becoming president was six years as governor of Texas. He learned all he knew about the world outside our borders in a “crash course” by Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Bandar during his 2000 election campaign. He had no experience whatsoever in diplomacy or military command.

So after 9/11 came, he started two unnecessary wars in a spastic overreaction. Then he put an utterly incompetent bureaucratic bully named Rumsfeld in charge of both. By the time Secdef Bob Gates came aboard, we had almost lost both wars, plus thousands of Americans and over a trillion dollars.

War-making by tyros is not a partisan issue. Johnson was a Democrat, Dubya a Republican. Both were from Texas. Both had vast ignorance and a sloppy arrogance of mind that believes we Yanks are better and stronger than others and have some sort of divine mandate, plus corresponding ability, to shape the world in our image. Such men are dangerous.

Combined with Yankee arrogance, inexperience can make even better men dangerous. JFK, a Democrat, was one of the most intelligent and able men ever to sit in the Oval Office. Yet he had little experience in foreign and military affairs. He was also the youngest man to become president. So when his military brass recommended that we support an invasion of Castro’s Cuba by disgruntled refugees, he agreed.

The result was the Bay of Pigs disaster, in which brave but foolish Cuban refugees got slaughtered or captured by a much larger and more disciplined force of Cuban natives. The failed attempt to invade fixed Castro’s view of us permanently in hate and fear. It led directly to Cuba installing Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I have written a whole post on that Crisis, which every young person should study in depth. Although its most critical phase lasted only thirteen days, it was one of the most important moments in human history. If JFK had not dropped his easy machismo, become a real leader, overruled his entire Cabinet (except for his brother Bobby), and made a deal with Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, most of you reading this post would not be here to do so. You or your parents would long have been dead. Or you would be a maimed and suffering denizen of a devastated global civilization working its radioactive way back from the Stone Age.

When the chips of species survival were down, JFK somehow switched from easy American machismo to sober and mature judgment. He did the right thing, and we all avoided Nuclear Armageddon. Our species muddled on. But it was his inexperience and thoughtless earlier arrogance, at the Bay of Pigs, that had brought on the Crisis in the first place.

Mitt is no JFK. With his only experience in elected office being four years as governor of Massachusetts, he would be the least experienced president in our history. He has no political experience abroad, unless you count two years as a youthful Mormon missionary trying to convince French Catholics to become Mormons.

Mitt has no experience or knowledge whatsoever of the Middle East or Asia, which is where the next global disasters are likely to occur. And his instincts are all wrong. He has the same easy machismo about foreign affairs that Johnson and Dubya had. He believes in his bones that we Yanks are better and stronger than others, and that they had better listen to us or else. And he has precisely the same cockiness and background as Robert S. McNamara, the principal architect of our debacle in Vietnam.

At least that’s how Mitt acts on the campaign trail. And unlike his stances on social issues and economic affairs, this side of him has remained dismally constant throughout his primary and general campaigns.

That’s why Mitt would label China a currency manipulator on day one. That’s why he is far more eager to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or to see Israel do so, than even our own military brass. That’s why he would likely exploit the growing tension between Japan and China for our own selfish benefit, bringing a trade war or even a real war between the world’s second- and third-largest economies closer. That’s why he doesn’t have the faintest idea how catastrophic such a conflict would be not only for the global economy, but for our species’ future in general.

Don’t just listen to me. Listen to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.

Like Mitt, Cameron is a conservative. So he should be Mitt’s natural political ally. And Brits are among the most diplomatic people on the planet, except when they see something jarring.

After Mitt made his gaffe in London, Cameron referred to him as a man “from the middle of nowhere.” Cameron didn’t mean that literally. Massachusetts is not nowhere, even to a Brit. (Utah, Mitt’s spiritual home, might well be.)

What Cameron meant was that, on the world stage, Mitt was and is an unknown nobody. He is a tyro who, in any proper world, would need another decade or two of real international seasoning before presuming to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation on Earth. At least he would have to get to know some of the principals. Cameron was also hinting that such gaffes as Mitt made (on his very first trip abroad as presumptive GOP nominee) could have real consequences if made by such a Commander.

So the real differences between the candidates have nothing to do with employment or the economy. Both want desperately to improve them, but neither will get any bold new plan through Congress. The important differences are all in the field of foreign policy. There any president is practically a dictator, with near-absolute power over war or peace. (Remember Dubya!)

In that field, Mitt is a man with no relevant experience. He has virtually no native diplomatic skill, as his many gaffes have amply shown. He’s already hinted at readiness to make trade war with China and real war with Iran. He is thoughtless and trigger happy.

His opponent, our President, is a thoughtful, cautious and prudent man with immense diplomatic skill. When only a state senator—and when he had everything to lose politically by opposing our nation’s headlong rush to war—Obama spoke out against invading Iraq for all the right reasons. He is ending our misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is doing so after killing bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda, while putting immense pressure on the few remaining, scattered terrorists. At the same time, he is reforming our bloated military-industrial complex, which looks backward to the Cold War, into a leaner, cheaper and more effective fighting force for the twenty-first century.

If Mitt wins, I put the probability of a war with Iran, with all the global economic risk of a Hormuz Straits closure, at about 50%. I put the risk of a trade war between us and China, or between Japan and China, at 40%, and the risk of real war between Japan and China, in which our Navy and Air Force would inevitably become involved, at about 25%. (I doubt that any president, even Mitt, would be stupid enough to send our ground troops to the Asian mainland.) If Obama wins, I see those risks as much lower: 25%, 20% and 10%, respectively.

No American president can control independent sovereign nations like Israel, China or Japan, let alone Iran. But a good one can influence them strongly. A better one can form international alliances and pressure them greatly. That’s what’s happening right now in Iran, where Obama’s economic sanctions are hurting so much that merchants have been protesting in the streets.

What scares me now is not what will happen to jobs or the economy. All the signs point to slow but steady improvement. What scares me is that people in developed nations worldwide have forgotten how awful war can be, and how easily and unexpectedly it can catch us unawares.

You can see this trend in Europe, when ignorant folks castigate and deride the EU for its economic difficulties. They forget that the EU has helped keep the peace in Europe for half a century, after more than a century of devastating wars. They forget that Germany and France once fought three increasingly horrible wars in a mere seven decades (the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II).

And with our Greatest Generation dying off, we forget how miserable was our own experience in the worst of all wars, even though our territory and our civilian population emerged nearly intact. (Ask your grandparents about scarcity, rationing, blackouts and air-raid drills. Then ask the warriors among them what combat in Europe or the Pacific was like.)

Mitt is just the kind of guy whose entire persona and outlook trend toward war. At his best, he’s no JFK, and JFK nearly blundered into Nuclear Armageddon. At his worst, he’s another Johnson, Dubya or Robert S. McNamara.

If a massive war breaks out in Asia, between the world’s second- and third- largest economic powers, it will be worse than World War II. We will no more escape suffering than we did in the most horrible war so far.

A win by Mitt would bring such a war much closer, not to mention war in Iran. That’s why my choice as voter would be easy, even if I thought that Mitt had the better plan to revive our economy, which I do not.

If you want to sleep soundly during the next four years, there is only one rational choice. Vote for the President because: (a) he is not a warmonger and (b) he has tested and proven skill in diplomacy and foreign affairs. That’s where presidents have their greatest unilateral power, and that’s where the real dangers are now.

Footnote: Here I count the military command experienced of our general-presidents—including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower—as equivalent to experience in elected office.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post confused Gordon Brown, a former prime minister, with Britain’s current leader, David Cameron, who made the remarks about Mitt’s gaffes. I regret the error.

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18 October 2012

Foreign Affairs: They Matter Much More Than You Think


[For a brief comment on Libya, click here.]

The deciding factors in this race are not jobs or the economy. At least they shouldn’t be. At home, will get the same thing—more gridlock!—no matter whom we elect. Abroad, the next president will influence, if not determine, how we and the globe respond to a whole set of economic, social and military challenges.

Mitt says he can make bipartisan miracles in Congress because he “knows what it takes.” But knowing isn’t the problem. Congress is.

All the polls and projections say Congress won’t change. Voters hate Congress but love their own representatives, no matter how inflexible or extreme. So gridlock will continue, no matter who wins.

Remember Obama’s pitch in 2008? It was all about “hope.” We all hoped that his mildness and eagerness to compromise would end “Washington as usual” and restore bipartisanship. Many of us read his second book, The Audacity of Hope, which is a blueprint for bipartisanship.

But what happened? More gridlock.

GOP propagandists now want you to think it was all Obama’s fault, a result of his “polarizing quality.” But that’s utter nonsense. Congress and the electorate are deeply polarized, not the Executive. The Executive can be and is flexible. It has a whole phalanx of career servants, plus eager political appointees, whose job is to get things done.

Obama’s Executive is no exception. He made a $ 4 trillion debt deal with Speaker Boehner, only to have the House’s Tea Partiers rip it up. He put forward the American Jobs Act, which would encourage job creation by lowering taxes. That’s been the GOP’s economic prescription for as long as anyone can remember. But the House killed that bill because partisan discord is just too hot.

Mitt will find it even harder to make deals because of the way he’s run his own campaign. He pandered to the Tea Party and the GOP’s worst economic and social extremists for the entire primary campaign. Now he’s thrown them under the bus to win the general election. So the Tea Partiers are fuming and in no mood to deal.

Most or all of them will still sit in the House come January. Their electoral success will continue to terrorize otherwise more moderate Republicans, moving the party ever rightward. The tiny, vanishing breed of GOP moderates will remember what happened to Dick Lugar, the late Arlen Specter, and Olympia Snowe. So even if Mitt governs as moderately as he now promises, he won’t have many allies in his own party.

For different reasons, the Democrats are fuming, too. Mitt and the GOP have blamed them for all the blunders of Dubya, whose national reputation is so bad that he didn’t even show at the GOP’s convention in Florida. If that blame sticks and the Democrats lose, they’ll be in no mood to make nice or make deals in January. And they will have enough votes in the Senate to jam up the works with filibusters, just as the GOP has done. They might even still have a Senate majority.

So whoever wins the White House, we will see the same old thing: nothing out of Congress. Mitt’s grand legislative plans, about which he’s told us no details, will be dead on arrival.

Mitt himself knows this. He’s a smart guy and a good businessman. Good business people always have good business plans, complete with spreadsheets and numbers that add up. But Mitt has none.

Why? Because he knows that all his plans are going nowhere. Why bother? Good business people also follow the 80/20 rule: spend 80 percent of your time working on the 20 percent of tasks that will get the most done.

Like Obama before him, Mitt is no fool. He’s not wasting his time preparing detailed proposals that will go nowhere because he knows presidents don’t control domestic policy. That’s Civics 101.

None of this analysis applies to foreign policy, war or peace. In those fields, a US president today is as close to a dictator as any leader in any major power worldwide.

Our Constitution and our laws give any president plenary and unreviewable authority over foreign and military affairs. In theory, the House can influence the course of a war by tightening the purse strings. But it’s only done that once, during the War in Vietnam. And Congress has not used its equally theoretical power to declare war effectively since Korea.

These facts make our country unique in the world today. In China, a nine-person top ruling body must agree to go to war. Even in Russia, two men, Putin and Medvedyev, probably must agree. Here, it’s all a one-man show. Remember Iraq?

Not only that. We can’t easily see the back of a “supreme leader” who starts needless wars and then prosecutes them badly. Remember Dubya?

In parliamentary systems a prime minister is always just one “no confidence” vote away from retirement. A simple majority can see his back, just because they think he’s doing a bad job. That’s true, for example, in Britain, France, Germany and India. Here, the House has to find “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” to indict, and the Senate has to prove them, beyond a reasonable doubt, with a two-thirds vote.

So when you think about the two candidates, think about the risks of war today. Think about Iran. Think about China and Japan—the worlds’s number two and number-three economies—duking it out over uninhabited islands and marine resources. Think about what might happen if Syria’s civil war spills over into the region, if the Arab Spring turns sour, or if Kim decides to get even more warlike and less reasonable.

All of these things could affect your life—including your job prospects—far more intensely than the differences in policy and vision between two men whose domestic agendas are going nowhere. Any one could make huge, global economic waves, even trigger a global depression. Some of them are already making economic waves.

If war breaks out in Iran, or between China and Japan, it could tank the global economy instantly. Just think how the markets would react. And unlike job-growth plans that go nowhere, foreign affairs could put you or someone you love right into harm’s way, physically. In the worst case, they could cause massive civilian casualties, like 9/11.

My next essay will analyze in detail which candidate can keep us safer from war and global instability and moderate or win conflicts with the fewest false starts and the least suffering.

For a brief foretaste of that analysis, consider the following:

Coda: Heroism in Libya


Our big problem in Libya is information. We have no military presence. We have virtually no civilian presence. We’ve had none for decades. So we have no idea what is going on there.

Before we commit our people, strategy and treasure to a very dangerous place, we have to know more. That’s why we sent an ambassador and support staff there. And that’s why we sent them to Benghazi, the rebels’ origin and stronghold, not Tripoli. The staff undoubtedly included seasoned intelligence professionals.

But you don’t learn much about people in a rapidly changing environment by staying inside a fortress. And you won’t learn much more by walking the streets surrounded by beefy guys in kevlar armor holding automatic weapons and speaking into microphones. The locals now know that those microphones are even more deadly than the automatic weapons; they can call in airstrikes or drone strikes.

When you walk outside surrounded by such a phalanx, people lie to you. Enemies give you disinformation. Friends and neutrals tell you what they think you want to hear. Everyone you meet just wants the menacing armed presence to go away. (Wouldn’t you, in the same situation, confronted by an intimidating force of foreign warriors on your own city streets?)

That’s what caused the tragedy in Libya. It wasn’t negligence or lack of funds.

Everyone knows the caliber of our Marines and their reputation. They could have done the job of protecting the ambassador and his staff. But that wasn’t the mission. The mission was securing vital intelligence for future strategy and action, and gaining locals’ trust. What killed our diplomats was not an error of judgment, but the inescapable hazard of a delicate balance between protecting them and accomplishing their mission.

No risk, no gain. Every soldier knows and respects that tradeoff. Our fallen diplomats were civilian soldiers obeying orders, and they died for their country just like any grunt. They were heroes sacrificing themselves for what they came to get: information and trust.

They died so that armed warriors wouldn’t have to. The massive and rapid changes sweeping the Middle East, our globalizing economy, and the changing nature of war itself foretell that we will need many more like them. And there will be more such casualties in our diplomatic corps, especially in Syria.

A diplomat who does her job well can save a thousand soldiers’ lives and ten thousand families’ agony. That’s always been true. But the changing nature of warfare and globalization makes it even more true today. In failing to recognize these vital truths, and in failing to see that our fallen diplomats are soldier-heroes of a different breed, Mitt and the GOP reveal their inability to understand and cope with foreign affairs in a changing world.

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17 October 2012

Yes, He Can!


A week ago, I asked, “Can Obama fight”? I’m pleased—and immensely relieved—to report now, “Yes, he can!”

He’s endured relentless, senseless bashing for four years. Last night, the President finally stood up for himself, for us, and for what he’s tried so hard to do for us over unprecedented, lockstep opposition. David Brooks, the conservative PBS commentator who remains the most honest of his breed, said the President won.

That’s about all you need to know about last night. Biden stopped the bloodletting, and the President finally drew some blood of his own.

It looks now as if Obama will retain his office. He can continue his exhausting and incremental work, over the adamant opposition of crazed extremists in the House, whom Republicans promoted and elected to make voters forget the absolutely catastrophic record of their last president.

For me, the climactic moment last night came in the inevitable “character” question at the end. (Apparently it has become routine to insert a character question late in the debate. It’s a good tradition.) A townhall undecided voter asked both candidates to identify and rebut what they saw as the biggest misconception about them.

Mitt began by trying to disclaim his well-publicized 47%-don’t-matter gaffe. His effort fell flat. He was getting tired, and his eager master-salesman mask was slipping off. When he protested how much he cared about the little people, he just wasn’t persuasive, at least to me.

But more telling was what Mitt did immediately after trying to fake sincere charity for the nth time. He complained about the President attacking him and his record of flip-flops and lies. Then he forgot about character entirely. He launched into an extended bashing of the President’s record, repeating all the attacking points he had made earlier in the debate.

I don’t know how many viewers noticed the contradiction. But it was a red flag for me. Here was a man who had spent his entire electoral campaign, including all the primaries, relentlessly bashing the President. He leads a party that publicly declared making the President fail its main goal just days after his inauguration.

For four years, the GOP has opposed the President’s every initiative (except the first stimulus), no matter how many of its own ideas were in it. For four years, it has done its best to ape Goebbels and associate the word “failure” with the President by mind-numbing repetition.

And here was Mitt, complaining in a tired and beaten voice that the President had had the temerity to repeat something that Mitt himself had said, in his inner sanctum, among his strongest supporters, when presumably he would be the most sincere.

Mitt sounded like a beaten whiner, the bully who cries when his victim finally hits back. Then, just like a bully, he replied with a volley of punches of his own. How in character!

The President was having none of it. In his final statement, he repeated Mitt’s 47% gaffe. He noted the strong circumstantial evidence of its sincerity: a closed meeting with strong supporters. He pointed out that the “takers” Mitt disparaged were a near-majority of the middle class he claims to care about.

For once the President didn’t balk at delivering a knockout punch. The debate was over, and it was all his.

Many viewers may have missed a short jab of the President’s earlier in the debate. The President had accused Mitt of having investments in Chinese job-stealers. Mitt protested that his money was in a blind trust. Like a schoolboy challenging a rival, he asked whether the President knew what was in his own pension portfolio.

The President replied with a smile, "no, but yours is bigger than mine.” There was scattered laughter. In just a few words—and with the only humor of the evening—the President made crystal clear who is the plutocrat and who (though president) is upper middle class. The President also showed his complete lack of concern with his investment portfolio, which is likely at the very bottom of his list of personal priorities.

No doubt fearing loss of funding for PBS if Mitt wins, the commentators bent over backwards to be “balanced.” Marks Shields, the Dems’ pundit, said he heard the President overuse the first-person pronoun “I.”

I didn’t. Obama is, after all, President of the United States. He can hardly refer to himself by his title, in the third person.

What I heard was Mitt say, at least three times “I know what it takes . . .” to improve things. Toward the end, a fourth time, he varied it somewhat: “I understand what it takes . . .”

These remarks all came at crucial moments in the debate over substance, about jobs, energy and gasoline prices, equality for women, foreign policy, and how to handle China. Sometimes there were a few specifics. Sometimes there were vague plans, five bullet points with no details at all.

For me, it all added up to a master salesman’s “trust me” plea. He hadn’t closed the deal with any persuasive details of policy. The President had demolished his tax plan, showing beyond refute that Mitt’s numbers couldn’t possibly add up. The President had exposed the hollowness of Mitt’s vague five points and the contradictions with his earlier positions.

So Mitt retreated to the scoundrel salesman’s last refuge, after the still-confused would-be customer has refuted all his talking points:
“Trust me. Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I handsome? Don’t you like my smile?”

“I’ve made myself rich, and I’m a super competent guy. Haven’t I told you so, again and again?”

“I can’t reveal the details until you put me in office. Then I’ll make everything right. Just trust me.”
Mitt claims to be a smart businessman. But any business that hired an employee based on that sort of pitch would have to be run by an idiot, especially when the job is the most important in the world.

And so the President pointed out, in somewhat different words. They stung.

Surprisingly, Mitt managed to survive the evening without major gaffes. But he did make one telling “gaffette.” In recounting what had amounted to his own affirmative action plan as governor of Massachusetts, he recalled how he had asked for and received “binders full of women” to consider for his cabinet.

Out of the mouths of babes . . . A Freudian slip, maybe?

Or maybe it was a real insight into the psyche of a corporate downsizer. For business-school “products” like Mitt, employees—especially women—are mere entries in a register, not people to be treasured and nurtured. They are ciphers in profit-and-loss statements, entries in “binders” that let people like Mitt do what’s really important to them: make themselves rich.

In my four years practicing law in California’s Silicon Valley, I worked with many business people from firms large and small. Some were admirable, and some were scoundrels. But I never heard any of them refer to employees as entries in a binder. Only a man who cares about abstractions (and money) more than people could do that.

I could review the debate’s substance in more detail, but what good would it do? Voters who decide on policy have decided long ago. Many have already voted. From here on out, it’s the music that matters, far more than the words.

The President got the music right this time. Politely but firmly, he contradicted every lie and highlighted every flip-flop. His bearing and gaze followed his words.

He let Mitt get away with nothing. He attracted all the necessary demographic groups—women, poorer people, and Latinos—by pointing out Mitt’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Act, his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood and his eagerness to get undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”

In the end, the President skillfully revealed Mitt for what he is: an overconfident lover of abstract theory, who thinks he has the answers to everything, but knows and cares little about real people and their struggles. That was the very same face that Mitt’s running mate, Paul Ryan, had showed the week before. In fact, it’s the same face the GOP has showed the nation for thirty years.

Forcing real people in a complex, diverse society into a mold of abstract theory didn’t work so well for Soviet Russia. It hasn’t worked so well for us. It doesn’t seem to matter what the abstract and simplistic theory is, whether the Soviets’ Communism or the GOP’s strange brand of profit-and-loss corporatism.

People are not ciphers, to be folded up in binders and tied up in neat bundles of abstract economic theory. Maybe with this election, we’ll see the beginning of the end of our own “Soviet period” and get back to our national birthright: a mature and enlightened pragmatism that leaves no one behind.

Commentators panned the iciness of the relationship between the two debaters, and one said he worried that someone might actually throw a punch.

But what would you expect from campaign that has been relentlessly negative on both sides?

What would you expect when the GOP’s negativity began but days after Obama’s taking office, and has lasted now for almost four years? What would you expect when Mitt—having no national record or experience of his own, and understandably refusing to run on his party’s record or Dubya’s—for two years has been relentlessly bashing the President for his inability to make miracles over entrenched opposition?

Nobody smiles when the victim finally hits the playground bully back and the bully begins to cry. But discomfort at open conflict soon yields to a sense of sober satisfaction that justice has been done.

So it was last night. And so it will be when the GOP’s high-risk “chutzpah” campaign crashes and burns, and that party, old but no longer grand, begins to think about how to reform itself, abandon its extremism, and meet the nation’s and the people’s real needs.

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15 October 2012

Worst-Case Mitt


[For my recent post on the GOP’s “chutzpah” campaign and how to beat it, click here.]

As the election gets ever closer, Mitt Romney will “pivot” ever further, trying to seem ever more moderate, and making as if to throw the Tea Party under the bus. In so doing he will try to validate a “narrative” (how I hate that word!) that clever GOP faithful have been telling for several months.

According to this “narrative,” Mitt is not nearly as extreme as he’s had to portray himself in order to win the GOP nomination. He’s really a smart and pragmatic man, who will do whatever is necessary to make our country “win,” just as he “won” personally in making himself very rich.

He’s a football coach whose recent history of extremism is best forgotten. But just like convicted child-abuser Jerry Sandusky, he knows how to win. His personal politics are not really all that different from the President’s; he just puts a bit more emphasis on private industry and fossil fuels.

And as for the Tea Party, don’t worry about them. They’re just pawns—Lenin’s “useful idiots,” but on the right. Once the GOP has won the big prize, the people who really control it, and who created the Tea Party out of nothing, will let it rot because they have the money and power and the Tea Party pawns don’t.

That’s not a pretty picture, and it certainly doesn’t much resemble the democracy our high-school civics courses used to teach us. But as Pablo Picasso once said about being 90 years old, it’s a lot better than the alternatives.

That’s best-case Mitt.

No rational person, however, decides by looking at just the best case. That would be one-sided. What about the worst case?

Here’s what I think could realistically happen if Romney takes over next January and does what he promised or implied he would do. This “narrative” of my own requires only a few plausible assumptions, all of which are realistic. They are, in fact, much more probable, based on current events, than were the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, 9/11 and our two needless wars in 1999 (when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was foremost in our minds), and the Crash of 2008 in innocent, partying 2005.

January 2013. Romney takes office as president. In his first week, he declares China a currency manipulator and begins to apply trade sanctions.

In response the Chinese do three things. First they redouble their efforts, already under way, to strengthen trade ties with Europe, India, Russia and the rest of the developing world. Chinese leaders issue secret orders to their giant state enterprises and private trade associations to de-emphasize trade with the US and build up other ties.

Second, the Chinese redouble efforts to encourage domestic consumption in China, which have been a key part of China’s most recent five-year plan and will undoubtedly be an even more important part of the next two. As a result, Chinese exports decrease, but so do Chinese imports from the US. Brazil, Britain, France and Germany start to see their trade balance improve; ours takes a dive.

Internally, Chinese leaders point out that we Yanks have less than 5% of the world’s population, and that lots of other people are eager to buy cheap Chinese products, whose quality is improving as rapidly as Japan’s quality did a few decades before.

Third, the Chinese begin to unwind their huge position in US treasuries. They do so slowly and as discreetly as possible, so as not to startle anyone or cause a panic.

Chinese leaders speak obliquely about “diversification” of China’s huge foreign reserves. The ultimate result is to weaken our currency against China’s—thus realizing in part our goal of making our currency cheaper. But China’s move also boosts interests rates here, making it harder to pay off our debt and sparking inflation.

February 2013. With Congress still in massive gridlock, our nation has already jumped off the “fiscal cliff.” But President Romney promises a parachute. He assures a nervous nation, and even more nervous global bond markets, that he has a plan to limit the damage.

His plan goes nowhere. The Tea Partiers in the House, who also haven’t gone anywhere, haven’t forgotten the sting of being thrown under the GOP bus and ignored in January. The Democrats, still smarting from the outrageous lies and blame that cost them the election, have a majority in the Senate, or at worst a sure-thing filibuster. They are in no mood to compromise or deal. They are even less inclined to start walking down a road toward privatizing Medicare and Social Security, a path that Romney demands as a condition for a solution.

With all his trademark self-confidence, and still in his first flush of triumph from the election, Romney assures a frightened nation that he’s a smart, bipartisan guy who will cut a deal, which will (among other things) make Medicare and Social Security solvent as he sees it.

Somehow, with Congress ever more rancorous, weeks turn into months and no deal appears.

Is that kind of gridlock so hard to imagine?

If Mitt behaves as described—an outcome consistent with both best-case and worst-case Mitt—the Tea Party and Democrats will both hate him, or at least will have little incentive for reasoned compromise. Then he will have to rely on a vanishing breed of Republican moderates like his alleged self to pass laws. Good luck!

April 2013. No fiscal-cliff remedy is yet in sight. The nation is tipping into recession, and the ground is coming up rapidly.

On April 15, our tax day, two of the three private rating agencies, under pressure from global financial leaders (including the IMF and World Bank that we started), downgrade America’s bonds and Treasury bills. Overnight, interest rates start to rise. Businesses raise prices to take up the slack of increased cost of capital, and unions (what’s left of them) gird themselves for hard bargaining over wages. The nation’s recession steepens, and inflation beckons. “Stagflation” is just months away.

July 2013. All this time, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has been waiting patiently for President Romney to make good on his implicit campaign promises. There is now ambiguous evidence of Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium past 20%, all that’s needed for power plants. The Israeli and American right wings are calling for Iranian blood. Bibi comes to the UN and goes on global TV, declaring that Iran has crossed the “red line.”

After two weeks in crisis mode, the Israelis and Americans launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities on July 16, 2013. The American part in the raid is top secret and vehemently denied by the White House and Pentagon.

But American participation is planned and thorough. Israeli bombers carry our biggest bunker-busting bombs, which Israel doesn’t have. All of our “stealth” aircraft except vital reserves participate in the raid, flying from and returning to American bases in secret. Our carriers and submarines offshore launch conventional (non-nuclear) cruise missiles in quantity, and American aerial refueling and AWACs planes provide logistical and strategic support for both American and Israeli forces.

Of course joint Israeli and American intelligence leaders fix the targets and decide precisely where to drop the bombs. Our leaders’ denials fool no one.

The raids take place in a single twenty-four hour period. American and Israeli officials describe them cautiously as effective. They display video clips from planes, satellites and drones, showing big holes in the ground and things blowing up.

The next day, Hezbollah (from Lebanon) and Hamas (from Gaza) launch massive rocket and missile attacks on Israel. As Iranian missiles and bombs fall on Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Iran announces to a shocked world that the Straits of Hormuz have already been mined, with remotely activated devices surreptitiously installed earlier.

American and Israeli officials downplay the threat. But soon TV images around the globe show blazing and sinking oil supertankers, and burning crews fleeing. In addition to previously installed and remotely activated mines, small, fast Iranian craft, somewhat like PT boats, are making shipping in the Straits hazardous.

August 2013. Joint NATO, Israeli and “coalition of the willing” naval forces make short work of Iran’s navy, at least what parts of it can be found. But small, fast boats camouflaged in tunnels, coves and inlets continue to harass oil traffic in the Straits. Often they act like Al Qaeda suicide bombers, or Japanese “kamizake” pilots from days of yore. Their crews’ dying eyes see huge conflagrations of oil, and they go to their watery graves believing they will see Paradise as “martyrs.”

As a military exercise the year before suggested, NATO and allied forces are effective in clearing only about half the Iranian mines. Oil cargoes continue to go up in spectacular flames, as broadcast nightly on global TV.

The insurance markets panic. Fearing bankruptcy, Lloyds of London announces a moratorium on insurance for shippers through the Straits.

In mid-August, with 10% of global oil flow disrupted (half the Straits’ pre-conflict capacity) the price of oil reaches $200 a barrel. The global economy teeters on the brink of a second Great Depression, which will surely come if things don’t get fixed soon.

Iran’s patron Russia announces that it will permit foreign naval convoys in international waters but will henceforth help defend Iran against any direct attacks on its territory. It hints vaguely about its nuclear deterrent, and it sends nuclear submarines into the Gulf, armed with conventional ballistic, cruise missiles and ground-to-air missiles.

The day after this announcement, Iran launches devastating conventional air, missile and drone attacks on Israel, with assistance from Hamas and Hezbollah. Israeli civilian casualties are in the tens of thousands.

Israel is left with the choice of licking its wounds or risking, at best, a limited war with Russia. The US and NATO face the same choice. The fate of the Middle East, the global economy, and perhaps humanity rests in Bibi Netanyahu’s hands and the hands of a US President who, until the last seven months, never had any direct foreign-policy or military experience at all.

* * *


I’ll stop here for now. I won’t mention the very real possibility of this kind of scenario spiraling into the global nuclear holocaust that cooler heads in the US and Soviet Union avoided in October 1962.

That disaster, of course, now seems remote. But it would seem a lot less remote if a much more plausible scenario like this played out.

Our realistic scenario illustrates two basic truths that every American who lived through the last twelve years should know. First, the best laid plans of mice and men—especially military plans—“gang aft aglee.” Second, unless your enemy is a basket case like Qaddafi, wars are much easier to get into than out of.

So before you pull the lever for Mitt, think of this chain of events—one of several possible worst cases—along with the more pleasant possibility of Mitt turning out to be Jon Huntsman, Jr., in disguise. (And recall that Huntsman himself had seven years of real foreign-policy experience, plus six years of international business experience.)

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12 October 2012

The “Chutzpah” Campaign and How to Beat It


[For my assessment of the vice-presidential debate, click here. This post is more important; it shows how Obama can win.]

The “chutzpah” strategy
Its four (now five!) pillars
Its consequences
How to beat it
Conclusion

The chutzpah strategy

“Chutzpah”—pronounced with the “ch” as a guttural “h”—is a Yiddish word meaning “brass” or “unmitigated gall.”

A joking definition goes something like this: A young kid kills both his parents in cold blood. Convicted of double murder and parricide, he takes a bold step in his sentencing hearing. He throws himself on the court’s mercy because he’s now an orphan.

That’s chutzpah.

For most of the last four years, the Republicans have been running a chutzpah campaign. They’ve been blaming the President and the Democrats for all the calamities they themselves have caused.

They hope to make these false claims stick for four reasons. First, after starting two needless wars, putting them on our credit card, running up huge deficits, and tanking the global economy, they don’t have much of a record to run on. The chutzpah strategy is all they’ve got.

Second, they know that our current Twitter culture gives us the memory and attention span of gnats. They think voters won’t remember or care about things that happened as recently as four years ago. So they hope they can make the chutzpah strategy work for them.

Third, the strategy dovetails nicely with another key GOP meme: that the President, because of his unusual name, background and personal history, is “not one of us.”

GOP strategists know that many people are uncomfortable with the President for various reasons. Some are overt racists. Many are unconscious racists. Some are uncomfortable with the President’s so-called “elitism”—meaning his superb education and high intelligence. Others can’t understand a man who never raises his voice and whose strongest epithet is “inaccurate.”

Based on psychological and market research, GOP strategists think they can turn this free-floating discomfort into distaste for the President and his policies. Then they can mold it into a belief that he, not they, is responsible for all the disasters they caused.

Finally, the GOP has Fox, the most effective and loudest propaganda machine in human history. Republicans think that, if they and Fox’ verbal bullies keep shouting lies long and often enough, people will begin to believe them. It’s the same strategy that Goebbels used for Hitler, and you know how that turned out.

The most important issue in this election is whether they are right. If they can get away with this, democracy is all but dead, not just for us, but maybe for everyone. George Orwell’s 1984 will finally be much closer than we think, with Big Brother not an overt bully, but a convincing liar, a super salesman.

Its four (now five!) pillars

The GOP and Mitt have used this chutzpah strategy in not just one, but four ways. They’ve done so for nearly all the time the President has been in office. It won’t take long to list them.

First, they blame the President for the deficit they caused. They put two needless wars on our credit card and then tanked the global economy. Before the President ever set foot in the White House, they established the precedents of “too big to fail” and bailing out big banks. They spent or committed 6.6 trillion dollars, leaving the President with no choice but to follow or risk a second Great Depression. Now they blame him for the deficits and our high national debt.

Because of those two needless wars and the tanked global economy, the GOP had no record on which to run in 2008. It’s recent record had been an unmitigated disaster.

So what did it do? It concocted its second prong of the chutzpah strategy. It ran the ugliest, most overtly racist presidential campaign in American history, accusing the President of being a Marxist, Kenyan agent, black extremist and terrorist who isn’t even an American citizen.

That campaign didn’t stop with the President’s election. It continues to the present day. Leading GOP elected officials leaped gleefully into the slime, refusing to disavow the most obvious and extreme lies on the Internet, like the President being an alien. Then, whenever he opened his mouth to defend himself, they accused him of being a racist and “playing the race card.” How’s that for chutzpah?

The third big pillar of the GOP’s chutzpah campaign was failure. For thirty years the GOP’s policies of deregulation, lowering taxes (especially on the rich) and downsizing government had dug our country into a deep hole. That hole got much deeper much quicker under Dubya, with his two expensive, needless wars, his rogue bankers making mayhem on our global economy, and his bailing them out as “too big to fail.”

A dismal record of failure on which to run, right? No problem. Blame it all on President Obama as his failure. And that’s what they’ve done since he got into office in January 2009.

Recall Mitt claiming (in the first debate) that Dodd-Frank made “too big to fail” permanent, but never saying how or why? That lie was part of this strategy.

The fourth pillar of the chutzpah strategy is closely related to the third. Just days after the President’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh declared a new strategy: making the President fail. A bit reluctant at first (because this part is essentially treason), the GOP House and Senate leaders—Boehner and McConnell, respectively—eventually picked it up and endorsed it. They did so because, having had such a dismal record of failure—and at the presidential level, no less!—they had no other strategy that remotely made sense.

They gave bipartisan support to the big stimulus in early 2009, but only because their own experts told them we would have a second Great Depression without it. More to the point, their own experts told them they would get blamed.

After that, Republicans created a stone wall against the President’s every initiative. While Democrats still had control of the House, they used the filibuster in the Senate. Once they took control of the House in 2010, they used the crazy Tea Party (which they had created out of nothing) to block every Obama initiative there.

To get an idea of just how much and how often the GOP obstructed the President’s program, you need just consider a single statistic, which you can verify from the Senate’s own careful records. From 2006, when the Democrats took nominal control of Congress to 2010, when the GOP took control of the House, the rate of filibusters leaped to 142 times the rate during the entire period 1917 to 1972.

That long period was hardly one of peace and tranquility. It included four major wars (the Korean War, World War II, and parts of the Vietnam War and World War I), the civil-rights movement, women’s liberation, the beginnings of the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam-war protests that drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Yet somehow, during that entire turbulent 55-year period, the Senate managed to get along with using the filibuster 142 times less often. Not under the GOP of McConnell, Boehner, Limbaugh, Rove and now Mitt!

I referred above to the Democrats’ “nominal” control of Congress because they never had any real control. From 2006 to 2010, they never had a real filibuster-proof majority, despite Republican claims to the contrary. Senators like Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska were renegades, voting Republican on crucial issues like health-insurance and tax reform. (I wrote an angry post about them at the time.)

Even with them, the Dems never had more than 59 votes; you need 60 to overcome a filibuster. And there were serious policy disputes among other Democrats as well. The Democrats could never rely upon lockstep agreement among themselves like that among Tea Partiers in Boehner’s House.

After the first stimulus package, no significant legislative initiative of the President ever got more than a handful of Republican votes in either House of Congress.

This GOP strategy of complete, lockstep, intransigent obstruction dovetailed perfectly with last pillar of the Republicans’ chutzpah strategy: blaming the President for GOP failures. If Republicans had worked with him to clean up the messes they had made, the results would soon have become obvious, and voters would soon have noticed improvement in their lives. The President would have gotten the credit. That, GOP leaders thought, we surely can’t have. So they did their level best to keep the President from improving the economy or anything else: the two needless wars, the huge deficits, or the bailouts, which Europe is continuing.

Now Republicans are doubling down on this strategy. It’s seemed to work so well so far, and they have so little else, that they are starting to blame the President for their own extreme partisan obstructionism.

How do I know? Because they’ve done it already. Halfway through, the hatchet-job on the President that PBS’ “Frontline” aired this week spent minutes discussing the President’s supposed “polarizing quality.” The rest of the program reviewed the President’s legislative “failures” without ever mentioning the GOP’s many filibusters in the Senate and lockstep opposition in the House.

That was a test run for the GOP’s fifth, latest and most outrageous pillar of its chutzpah strategy: blaming the President for its own obstructionism.

Apparently GOP political consultants liked what they saw on the Twitter-sphere and in their focus groups. So they tried it again last night. Paul Ryan used the same ploy in his closing statement, calling the President partisan and polarizing and blaming him for the gridlock. He could get away without rebuttal because a coin toss had let him speak last, and Joe Biden couldn’t reply. (The GOP is nothing if not clever in exploiting every unfair advantage, from suppressing votes to telling new lies when they can’t be reubutted.)

Its consequences

If this lying scoundrel’s strategy puts Mitt in the White House, its practical consequences will soon be obvious. The Dems will have no choice but to do the same thing.

Democrats will still have the filibuster. There’s no chance whatsoever that Republicans will have 60 or more senate seats next January. In fact, they’re likely to lose a few senate seats. So partisan bitterness and gridlock will continue.

Can you imagine how savvy Democrats, including me, will feel if this outrageous strategy succeeds? If you think you’ve seen bitter partisanship so far, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Congress will begin to mimic its behavior around the Civil War, when members took weapons into its chambers and actually shot at each other. Today no weapons are allowed, but I predict we will see fisticuffs on the House and Senate floor. There are limits to human patience and even pompous pols’ decorum.

How to beat it

There may be a way out yet. Blaming the President for all the wrong the Republicans have caused is not just a chutzpah strategy. It’s also a precarious “emperor’s new clothes” strategy. Once enough voters see that the emperor is naked, the game is up. For the GOP, it’s a high, high risk strategy and always has been.

The President lost the first debate because he had no good strategy of his own. He tried to predict what Mitt would say in his and the GOP’s defense. That turned out to be a fool’s errand, which no one could run.

We now know now that Mitt is a totally unscrupulous master salesman. We now know that he, Ryan and their party of extremists will say whatever they think they need to say to win. No matter how patent a lie and no matter how outrageous, they will say it with an utterly straight face, as if to imply, “doesn’t everybody know that?”

They will say different things to different audiences. They will abandon and deny positions they took last week. They will lie through their teeth about facts and numbers because they know that remaining undecided voters don’t remember or credit facts and can’t do arithmetic.

The President could stay up all night for the few remaining days until the next debate and never prepare himself fully for what “creative” things Mitt might say next. Mitt has not just “pivoted.” He’s whirled like a Dervish, often seeming to face in all directions at once.

The only constant in the whole GOP campaign has been its chutzpah strategy. All else is smoke and mirrors. The GOP’s five pillars of false blame are the fundaments of its Temple of Lies.

When you think about it, the chutzpah strategy is all they have. And it’s not just constant; it’s their weakest link, the one on which all others depend. Once you realize that all the things that went wrong are actually GOP products, you become a Democrat instantly. So the only hope the GOP has for winning again so soon was—and is—to blame it all on Obama.

So that’s where the President needs to put his focus in the remaining debates. Mitt can’t change the strategy now because his party has run it for four years.

And it’s all he’s got. His entire campaign has been to accuse the President of failing. (Some Democratic researcher should count how many times he’s used the words “fail,” “failure” and their cognates in referring to the President and his policies; I’m sure it’s astronomical.)

Persuade enough undecided voters that the GOP, not the President, is responsible, and the whole strategy collapses. The President wins.

Here’s how the President might break one pillar of the chutzpah strategy—the latest and most outrageous one:
“They say I’m partisan and divisive. Really??!? Remember the guy whom nobody ever heard of, who got some headway in 2004 with a speech saying, ‘There is no red or blue America; there is only a United States of America?’ Remember the guy who came to Washington promising to end partisan gridlock? I was, and still am, that guy. I even wrote a book about bipartisanship. It’s called ‘The Audacity of Hope.’”

“Remember the guy who negotiated a bipartisan $ 4 trillion deficit-reduction package with Speaker Boehner, who then couldn’t get the House and its Tea-Party members to pass it? That was me.”

“Remember the guy who said, just days’ after my inauguration, that the GOP’s goal was to make me fail? His name is Rush Limbaugh. Remember how that statement at first embarrassed Mr. Boener and Mr. McConnell, the GOP leaders in the House and Senate, but then they quickly adopted it?”

“I’ll tell you a little well-kept secret: everything they’ve done since then has been right from that playbook. Since the Democrats won the House in 2006, they have used the filibuster in the Senate at a rate 142 times higher than both parties used it during the period 1917 to 1972. Except for my early-2009 economic stimulus package, I’ve never gotten more than a handful of Republican votes for any of my major legislative initiatives. Often I’ve not gotten a single GOP vote.

“My American Jobs Act would have provided many jobs by lowering taxes—precisely the GOP’s prescription for the last thirty years. But the GOP’s lockstep obstruction continued, and that bill died in Speaker Boehner’s House.”

“Except for the stimulus, the Republicans have worked in lockstep against me since the day I took office. Now they want you to believe I’m responsible for failing to cooperate to get things done. Americans are just not that stupid.”

“If this strategy lets them win, you know exactly what will happen next. I’ll be out of the picture. But the Democrats will use the filibuster to do the same thing to a president Romney. No president, Republican or Democrat, will get anything significant done until we drop this strategy of obstruction and blame. If you reward it, you are voting for gridlock to continue indefinitely.”
Why start with this particular pillar of the Temple of Lies? Because it’s the latest and the weakest. The record of GOP obstructionism—from the Tea Party’s last-minute murder of the debt deal to the premature demise of the American Jobs Act, which contained so many Republican ideas—is still fresh in voters’ minds. Polls blame Republicans, not Democrats, for gridlock in Congress.

Rove’s minions must be getting desperate to try to build this weak new pillar now, right at the end of a long campaign. But what else have they got? Hatchet jobs like the “Frontline” show take time to produce; they must have started it long before Mitt unexpectedly did so well in the first debate. Now Ryan’s closing statement has committed them.

Now they’re stuck with a highly risky strategy. And the President, like a blind Samson seeking to pull down the Temple of Lies, had best go for its weakest pillar.

Conclusion

The President must call out this outrageous chutzpah strategy out for what it is: treachery to our country and our Founders’ legacy.

If Mitt can win with it, the Democrats will have no choice but to continue the cycle of obstruction and blame against Mitt. Their only alternative would be to abandon their principles and the very notions of representative democracy and loyal opposition. And they will have the means and every motivation to make things just as tough for Mitt as the GOP has done for Obama.

Another cycle or two of this kind of chutzpah, and we Yanks will have been dead in the water for a decade or more. Worse yet, we will have lost our Republic and any pretense of reasoned democracy. We will be set on a path of decline to make the Roman Empire’s fall seem slow and mild.

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