Syria, Spookhousing, And A Scary Stroll Through The Neoconservative Mind

It was inevitable, of course. No, I’m not talking about the Obama-Kerry agreement with the Russians on what to do with Syria’s chemical weapons. I’m talking about the subsequent criticism and hysteria coming from the shoot-first-negotiate-later crowd.

No matter how things turned out, no matter what decision the President made, no matter whether we dropped bombs or didn’t drop bombs, shot missiles or didn’t shoot missiles, we could have expected this headline:

John McCain, Lindsey Graham Criticize Syria Deal: ‘An Act Of Provocative Weakness’

You have to admit that is a clever phrase: “Provocative weakness.” But what does it mean? McCain and Graham try to explain:

What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement: They see it as an act of provocative weakness on America’s part, We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.

Let me see here. If seeking and perhaps finding a non-bomb way out of an international dispute, while keeping the threat of bombs on the table, represents a weakness that will provoke our enemies, then it is not hard to fathom what is the right thing to do for McCain and Graham and others today criticizing the President’s attempt to find a peaceful way out of a crisis: bomb the hell out of your enemies even if your enemies are willing to give you what you want! Because, apparently, getting what you want without dropping bombs is not a sign of strength and success but a sign of weakness and failure.

Even though it is sometimes necessary, I don’t like spending much time rummaging around in the spook-filled heads of people who think like that, who refuse to take yes for an answer while there are still plenty of cruise missiles to launch. Trying to figure out what makes people like McCain and Graham tick, what makes them long for and lead cheers for warfare even when, at least right now, it isn’t necessary to accomplish our stated limited goal, is not likely to bear much fruit.

But one thing is very clear: McCain’s and Graham’s goal in Syria is not limited. It is much more ambitious than stopping a dictator from using chemical weapons that the world long ago agreed were too horrendous to countenance. Obviously, these two and others on the right are eager to jump into every fire in the Middle East, no matter how many times we get burned, because, well, otherwise we look weak. It is much, much better to get burned to a crisp, or burn others to a crisp, than to appear weak to some warmongering conservatives. Never mind that we have spent a decade at war in at least two countries in the region and we don’t appear all that strong. In fact, a good case can be made that protracted warfare has genuinely weakened us in the eyes of the world.

As I say, I don’t want to spend much time spookhousing, trying to figure out what makes people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham think and act the way they do. Suffice it to say that today we should all give thanks that the band doesn’t play “Hail To The Chief” when John McCain walks into a room, and that the weight of his opinions on our international dos and don’ts is felt mainly on television talk shows, on which he appears almost daily and on which he is rarely if ever aggressively challenged.

Don Knotts searches for spooks in Ghost ProtocolIn any case, speaking of strange thinking, speaking of spookhouse-minds to explore, perhaps this is a good time to mention one of the craziest things I have read in a major publication in a long time. It comes via the Wall Street Journal and an article authored by Norman Podhoretz, an old neoconservative who is widely respected—and I mean widely respected: George W. Bush handed him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 for being “at the forefront of American intellectual thought for the last half-century.” Keep that in mind as we go on: “intellectual thought.”

There are at least three more things you need to know about Norman Podhoretz before we get to his article:

♦ He suggested in 1980 we might lose the Cold War with the Soviets and even believed Ronald Reagan wasn’t tough enough on the commies, saying in 1984 that the Gipper was “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than a strategy aimed at encouraging the breakup of that empire from within.” A mere five years later the Soviet Union began to dissolve. Yikes, Norman!

♦ Not only was he a cheerleader for the 2003 Iraq War, he was a cheerleader for attacking Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the 1990s. Yikes again, Norman!

♦ In 2007—in 2007!— he called for and prayed for George W. Bush to bomb the hell out of Iran because time was running out. He answered critics of his scheme, who warned of the dangerous repercussions involved, by citing, who else, John McCain:

Nevertheless, there is a good response to them, and it is the one given by John McCain. The only thing worse than bombing Iran, McCain has declared, is allowing Iran to get the bomb.

Yikes once more, Norm! That’s three yikes! and Podhoretz should be out, but nope, he’s still in the game. His latest article, weirdly but strategically titled, “Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,” is perhaps this old right-winger’s finest moment in right-wing intellectual nuttery.

Podhoretz believes that not only is the President’s leadership leading to national decline and an “erosion of American power,” it is not happening because Obama is “incompetent,” “bungling,” “feckless,” “amateurish,” and “in over his head.” No, no, no. The President is none of those things, says this respected neocon. You see, Obama means to lead the United States into decline. Obama wants to undermine American strength, but he has to hide his motives:

His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish. The accomplishment would not have been possible if the intention had been too obvious. The skill lies in how effectively he has used rhetorical tricks to disguise it.

Referencing Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and Saul Alinsky—the unholy trinity in the liturgy that informs right-wing conspiracists in the First Church of Obama-Haters—Podhoretz says Obama is a “left-wing radical” who believes “that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs” and, thus, the President wants to fundamentally transform the United States by reducing “the country’s power and influence.”

Obama is so crafty in pursuing this diabolical goal, that all this apparent incompetence, fecklessness and amateurism is just a cover. And the President, Podhoretz tells us, doesn’t really care that people see him that way:

For this fulfillment of his dearest political wishes, Mr. Obama is evidently willing to pay the price of a sullied reputation. In that sense, he is by his own lights sacrificing himself for what he imagines is the good of the nation of which he is the president, and also to the benefit of the world, of which he loves proclaiming himself a citizen.

You see? President Obama is willing to sacrifice his own reputation in order to weaken the country so that we will all live happily ever after as world citizens. Got it? Spooky, ain’t it?

Journeying through the ghoulish mind of Norman Podhoretz—again, a man well-respected as an “intellectual” on the right—makes one long for a respite in the little-less-scary and the lot-less-intellectual noggin of John McCain. Why? Because for all his militaristic bravado and chronic interventionism, I think John McCain really does believe President Obama is merely incompetent, amateurish, and in over his head, as opposed to believing that our Commander-in-Chief is skillfully misleading us all as he purposely engineers the decline of America.

No matter what, though, the neoconservative mind, represented either by John McCain or Norman Podhoretz, should send shivers down your spine.

Government Jobs Are People Too

I know I posted a segment from The Rachel Maddow Show earlier today, but I just have to post the segment below because it is the best 8 1/2 minutes you will spend, in terms of hearing a rebuttal to what right-wingers claim both about the nature of government employment and the alleged radical nature of President Obama and his administration.

Before you watch the segment, here is a graphic St. Rachel uses to make the point that what was standard practice in fighting recessions in the past has been turned on its head during the Obama presidency. The graph plots the change in government employment during the 1981 recession when Reagan was president, the 1990 recession when George H.W. Bush was president, the 2001 recession when George W. Bush was president, and the Great Recession when the Scary Negro socialist/communist was president:

government employment and recession

As you can clearly see, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II did not seek to shrink government, and government employment, when the economy slowed down. That would have been stupid. And neither did President Obama initially seek to eliminate government jobs. Part of his stimulus plan put in place early in 2009 was designed to help states keep teachers, cops, firemen, and other government workers on the job. But that stimulus, much maligned by Republicans as a “failure,” is long gone. And nothing like it is coming back.

Here is the St. Rachel segment, which you should commit to memory, especially those of you who have hard-headed conservatives in your midst:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A Creed, A Little Girl, And A Call To Action

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer isn’t right very often, but he did understand at least part of the significance of Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech:

In 1981, in his inaugural address within two minutes, Reagan had declared that government is not the solution, government is the problem. Today’s inaugural address was a rebuke to that entire idea.

The truth is that “that entire idea” of government being the problem not the solution was never actually a very powerful idea in practice, since under Reagan, and the two Republican presidents after him, government, and government debt, grew exponentially.

But the idea that government is the problem has lived on in the heads of conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and others who cherish the myth that America is a “center-right” country just waiting for another Reagan to baptize it anew in a bath of regressive radicalism.

The election last November, however, showed that Americans, at least a majority of them, have found—rediscovered really—another religion, and from America’s national pulpit Barack Obama offered them a liturgy that better reflects where we are as a country, as a people.obama swearing in

Strategically, he launched the central theme of his speech from a Reaganesque “skepticism of central authority,” saying that we have not “succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.” Upon the solid rock of historical American attributes, he rebuilt the idea that gave us the New Deal:

Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character. 

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Collective action. That phrase must still be ringing in the ears of the right this morning, especially those who thought candidate Obama’s assertion that “you didn’t build that” was a revealing slip-of-the-tongue that would be his downfall.

But a reelected President Obama refused to back down from the idea that collective action is required if we mean to keep the individual freedoms we have:

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.  No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.  

We are made for this moment, and we will seize it,” the President said, “so long as we seize it together.” And to demonstrate how this call to collective action—a call that is really as old as this republic—is a requirement to preserve individual freedom, he said,

We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.  

little girlThat little girl would know nothing of genuine individual liberty if she remained gripped by “the bleakest poverty.” Hope is a liberator. Hope that hard work will bring some degree of prosperity is a chain-breaking force. The calls for “smaller government,” of a shrinking vision of America, would almost guarantee that little girl a long night of un-American dreams, a life of despair.

We need “a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American,” said the President, which “will give real meaning to our creed.” And on that notion he reassures those who hear the voices of conservatives eager to balance our budget by cutting social insurance:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. 

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.  

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are “commitments we make to each other.” They are part of the social contract that paradoxically makes this a free society, collective obligations that liberate individuals to enjoy at least a “basic measure of security and dignity.”

Invoking “the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal” and referencing “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” President Obama, again from his secular pulpit, called us to action:

That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

The values we—liberals and conservatives—celebrate are diminished, they are far less noble, if they are not real to that “little girl born into the bleakest poverty.” And our task, the President said, is to make them real to her and not argue over the abstract:

Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.  

For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.  We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall. 

Seen that way, seen as an ongoing and imperfect task to make our founding creed of human equality real to all, rather than an epic ideological war, our work seems less daunting, the future less foreboding.  I can’t think of a better use for an inaugural address, here in our times, than that.

And if President Obama’s speech was also a devastating “rebuke” of Ronald Reagan’s mistaken idea that government is our problem, then all the better.

second inaugural

Remember Bin Laden And Dance, Dance, Dance

All weekend, and again today, the talk is about tomorrow’s one-year anniversary of the demise of Obama bin Laden.

But Republicans are incensed that last Friday the Obama campaign released a web video—a web video, mind you—featuring President Clinton saying—surprise, surprise—nice things about Obama’s decision to send the terrorist bastard to the bottom of the sea.

The ball-buster was at the end when this question is posed:

Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?

That is a question worth asking because of Mittens’ remarks in 2007 that it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”  John McCain found it in his politically duplicitous heart to criticize Romney at the time, but that was then and this is now. These days McCain is bad-mouthing Obama, claiming he is “doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get elected.

Well, after years of watching Republicans slander Democrats as being weak abroad, it is about time we danced and spiked the ball after our guy sent bin Laden snorkeling without a snorkel.

But more important, the Obama web video also featured a quote from a Reuter’s article from 2007:

Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for vowing to strike al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary.

Whoops! Mittens shouldn’t have done that. Makes him look weak. And it is certainly fair game for the Obama team to point out that Romney couldn’t have been more wrong.

And that, of course, is what has Republicans, and their cable “news” channel friends, so theatrically indignant.

The truth of the matter is that it is more than okay for Democrats to point out their successes, even if it pisses off the entire Obama-hating world. And the reason it is okay is because the other side would be quick to point out Democratic failures. Just imagine what kind of campaign commercials we would be seeing from Romney, should the mission to get bin Laden have failed.

Some of us still remember Operation Eagle Claw.

That was the name given to the failed attempt in April of 1980 to rescue the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran by a mob of revolutionaries who had stormed our embassy in Teheran.  That failed mission, and the fact the hostages would not be coming home before Election Day, figured greatly in President Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan.

Anyone think that the Reagan campaign in 1980 simply ignored the botched mission? Anyone think that Republicans simply refused to go there? Refused to be divisive about a national failure? Or criticize Jimmy Carter for failed leadership?

Of course not. The campaign time and again emphasized Carter’s alleged foreign policy and leadership weaknesses.

Here’s the text of an ad that aired in 1980:

Do you really think Iranian terrorists would have taken Americans hostage, if Ronald Reagan were president?

Do you really think the Russians would have invaded Afghanistan, if Ronald Reagan were president?

Do you really think third-rate military dictators would laugh at America and burn our flag in contempt, if Ronald Reagan were president?

Isn’t it about time we had the strong new leadership Ronald Reagan would provide as president. Isn’t it about time America had a president whose judgment we can trust?

Nothing subtle about that.

In an ad aired just before election day, and “paid for and authorized by the Reagan Bush Committee,” a somber narrator read the following text:

In a copyrighted story in the New York Times on October 27th, William Safire wrote: “The smoothest of Iran’s diplomatic criminals was shown on American television this weekend, warning American voters that they had better not elect Ronald Reagan. Ayatollah Khomeini and his men prefer a weak and manageable U.S. president, and have decided to do everything in their power to determine our election result.”

Here’s another ad that aired that campaign season:

MALE NARRATOR: Very slowly, a step at a time, the hope for world peace erodes. Slowly, we once slid into Korea, slowly, into Vietnam. And now, the Persian Gulf beckons.

Jimmy Carter’s weak, indecisive leadership has vacillated before events in Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter still doesn’t know that it takes strong leadership to keep the peace. Weak leadership will lose it.

REAGAN: Of all the objectives we seek, first and foremost is the establishment of lasting world peace. We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong. It is when they are weak that tyrants are tempted…

Jimmy Carter’s weak, indecisive leadership…” Hmm.

The Republicans in 1980 even used Ted Kennedy in an ad against Carter. Kennedy ran against him in the Democratic primary and hurt him by saying things like this:

EDWARD KENNEDY: I say it’s time to say: No more American hostages. No more high interest rates. No more high inflation, and no more Jimmy Carter.

MALE NARRATOR: The time is now for strong leadership. Reagan for President.

“Strong leadership” is always worth emphasizing. It’s just that Republicans aren’t used to our guys emphasizing it. And it is just too damned bad that Republicans are upset that Obama’s team is showing American voters that this election year Democrats aren’t going to sit back and let Republicans smear them once again as foreign policy and military weaklings.

If Obama Is A Big-Government Socialist, What’s That Make Ronald Reagan?

I saw this interesting graphic on MSNBC (adapted from a Talking Points Memo piece), which should, but won’t, shut up all the talk about the socialist in the White’s House.

In terms of net change in government spending, Obama isn’t in the same league with either Bush or Ronaldus Magnus:

Obama: “If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so.”

If you didn’t see it, I recommend watching President Obama’s amazing press conference on Tuesday or reading the transcript. What he said about Iran and Syria and the GOP pretenders pretending their policies—often couched in hyper-militaristic rhetoric—will solve all the world’s problems was remarkably forthright.

I confess that I have been nervous about Mr. Obama’s rejection of any kind of containment strategy, should Iran get nukes.  I worry that he has backed himself into a corner that could end up with the United States in another Middle East war.

Obama prefaced his position on this:

What we’ve been able to do over the last three years is mobilize unprecedented, crippling sanctions on Iran.  Iran is feeling the bite of these sanctions in a substantial way.  The world is unified; Iran is politically isolated.

Then he reiterated his policy and the reasons for it:

And what I have said is, is that we will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.  My policy is not containment; my policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon — because if they get a nuclear weapon that could trigger an arms race in the region, it would undermine our non-proliferation goals, it could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists.  And we’ve been in close consultation with all our allies, including Israel, in moving this strategy forward.

But Obama is cautious as ever:

At this stage, it is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.  That’s not just my view.  That’s the view of our top intelligence officials; it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.  And, as a consequence, we are going to continue to apply the pressure even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they could rejoin the community of nations by giving assurances to the international community that they’re meeting their obligations and they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Now, whatever one thinks of this strategy, it is sober and well thought out, and articulated by a man in control of his emotions.  He will not be bullied into a war with Iran, or, as some people who were not elected president would have it, a war with Syria.  I know I felt better after hearing his remarks.

And he had some words for his challengers, particularly Mitt Romney:

Now, what’s said on the campaign trail — those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities.  They’re not Commander-in-Chief.  And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.  I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy.

This is not a game.  There’s nothing casual about it.  And when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.

Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war.  If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so.  And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be.  Everything else is just talk.

Contrast all that to Mitt Romney’s bluster and relative recklessness, as exhibited in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Tuesday. After lying about Obama’s “naive outreach to Iran” and his “current policy of procrastination,” Romney said:

I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits if it becomes nuclear. I will engage Iran’s neighbors. I will station multiple carriers and warships at Iran’s door. I will stand with the Syrian people who are being mercilessly slaughtered. I know that the fall of Assad would not only be an important victory for liberty, but also a strategic blow to Tehran.

Blah, blah, blah. But most appallingly, Romney raised up Ronald Reagan from the dead for some self-serving love:

I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called “peace through strength.” There is a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn into office. As President, I will offer that kind of clarity, strength, and resolve.

The bottom line: Elect Mitt Romney as president and the ayatollahs’ resolve will melt in his presence; their theocratic minds will bend to the Mormon’s determination. It is just that easy, isn’t it?

Except there is a profound contradiction in Romney’s strategy. He previously said,

There are some in this administration who argue that Iran’s leaders are “rational,” and that we can do business with them. The President speaks of common interests. Let me be clear: we do not have common interests with a terrorist regime. Their interest is in the destruction of Israel and the domination of the Middle East. It is profoundly irrational to suggest that the ayatollahs think the way we do or share our values. They do not.

Let me see. The ayatollahs are not rational but rationally recognized that Ronald Reagan meant business and they let go of the hostages out of fear. And these same irrational ayatollahs will somehow rationally conclude that President Mittens will blow them home to Allah, should they not see the light.

How does that work? How do irrational folks we can’t do business with and with whom we have no common interests respond rationally and do business with us out of a common interest not to get blown up?

A Parable

Most of us today know that the speech that propelled Barack Obama into the national spotlight was his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.

But not many of us remember or learned that Ronald Reagan, the real father of what we know as the Tea Party (even though he’d have a hard time getting a tea bag to wear on his cap today) gave a similarly empowering speech in 1964—a speech that helped make him first governor of California and then president.

Many people refer to this televised address in support of Barry Goldwater simply as “The Speech,” but I call it the “Thousand Years of Darkness” speech because of the warning Reagan presented regarding the 1964 presidential election:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.

We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

Message: Elect Lyndon Johnson and expect ten centuries of pitch-black socialism. Yes, he really suggested that. Sort of makes Newt Gingrich sound reasonable, doesn’t it?

Here is another famous passage from that speech, which demonstrates how seriously the extremists in the Republican Party in those days took poverty in America:

Each year the need grows greater; the program grows greater. We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.

Now you know where Rush Limbaugh gets it.

In any case, Reagan’s reference, of course, was to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which was introduced that year and which helped reduce American abjection, but was attacked by right-wingers in those days the same way the welfare state is attacked by right-wingers these days.

But the passage in Reagan’s speech I want to focus on is this one:

Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.

It wasn’t until the 1976 presidential campaign, when Reagan was a GOP primary candidate, that the term “welfare queen” became a code word on the fanatical right. He said of this strange being, as reported by The New York Times (quoted on Wikipedia):

She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.

Anyone, Democrat or Republican, would obviously get outraged over that example, which may have been based on a real case in Chicago. But other than pointing out that some folks are criminals, what does it really mean? For the right-wing, it was intended to convince the voting public that a goodly number of folks on welfare were and still are undeserving of help, and are abusing the system because the system itself breeds such abuse.

Well, a health care company once paid a $1.7 billion fine for committing Medicare and Medicaid fraud—and the guy who ran the company while the fraud was going on was fired and received millions of dollars in severance and over $300 million worth of stock. And to put political icing on his cake, the guy, teapartier and Republican Rick Scott, is now the governor of Florida. That $1.7 billion worth of fraud could purchase over 11,333 of Reagan’s welfare queens, but Republicans have yet to invent a code word for corporations that defraud the government.

In thinking about all this, a parable came into my mind:

A boat capsized near a small town and most of the people swam to shore, saving themselves. But several people remained in the water, huddled together, holding on to whatever they could find to stay afloat, a short and swimmable distance from shore. Presumably, these folks either couldn’t swim or could not swim well enough to let go and give it a try.

Now, in the community nearby where the boat capsized, it happened that a raging debate had been going on involving the town’s rescue budget. For years the town had funded rescue crews and purchased equipment due to the large number of boating accidents just off its shore. Many people had been saved because of the town’s diligence.

But new folks had moved into the community, rugged individualists who were responsible for themselves and expected everyone else to take care of themselves, too.  These folks stirred up anger at the high tax rates used to fund the rescue efforts and began running for and winning political office. They advocated for slashing the rescue budget, insisting that a lot of the folks rescued in the past were careless boaters, many of them merely out on the water partying and having a good time.

Why should we encourage their recklessness,” these good Americans would say. “Many of the people we have saved were on party boats!” some would shout at town hall meetings, “And if they know we will always be here to save them they will just take advantage of us.”

Some of the people at the meetings reminded the townsfolk that surely not all the people needing help were reckless or were taking advantage of the town’s unselfishness, and they argued that it is not easy to discern during a rescue mission just how deserving the folks in the water are.  And besides that, they would argue, “Are we just going to stand on shore and watch these people drown? Is that what kind of community we want to be?

Whether this election year will be “a rendezvous with destiny,” as Ronald Reagan said so long ago, is, I suppose, up to each voter. But certainly either way we choose to go will not be “to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” That silly rhetoric represents a rather diminished view of America’s ongoing potential.

But this election will be a snapshot of what kind of national community we are and what kind of obligations we believe we have to those folks clinging to their capsized boat or what is left of it.  Is there a majority among us who will walk away and leave them to sink or swim?

The Shade Tree

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

—Genesis 2:8,9

 

At the end of ABC’s This Week last Sunday, which was a “Great American Debate” with the resolution that “There’s Too Much Government In My Life,” George Will summed up his case in favor of the resolution: 

…I think big government harms prosperity. It harms prosperity by allocating resources not in terms of efficiency, but in terms of political power that directs the allocation. I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper. And most of all, big government today harms equality. It harms equality because, by concentrating power in Washington, in big government, it makes itself susceptible to the rent-seeking by big, muscular interest groups. The only people who can come to Washington and bend the government to private purposes.

Get the government out of our lives more and more, and you’ll find that freedom and the market allocations of wealth and opportunity prevails.

Jefferson understood—Jefferson understood that you can have a government with minimal attention to the absolute essentials we have talked about. Of course, we want government to build roads, we want government to defend the shores, we want the government to deliver the mail. But after it does the essentials, understand what Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan said we’re going to have less government—under Reagan, respect for government, something we all want, respect for government rose as government’s role declined.

Now, there are several things wrong with what Will said (especially that erroneous claim about Ronald Reagan), even as he expressed very well the traditional, mainstream conservative arguments against big government, which contradict some of the extremists in the Tea Party and elsewherethat don’t necessarily even want the government to build roads or deliver the mail. 

But I want to focus on what appears to be the heart of his argument, as expressed by his shade tree metaphor, which does echo much of what teapartiers say today about Barack Obama and his mythical attack on our liberties: 

I think big government harms freedom, because it is an enormous tree in the shade of which the smaller institutions of civil society cannot prosper. 

Let’s look at that metaphor a little more closely because it illustrates the difference between conservatives and liberals quite well. 

I write this in the middle of the Arizona desert, where the sun in all its glory can be quite harmful, not to mention deadly. In the summertime, without shade, it is relentlessly efficient in its ability to scorch skin and earth. And there is a relentless efficiency in the laissez-faire approach that, much like the desert sun, would harm its potential beneficiaries, if there is no relief, no shade tree to thwart that sometimes destructive efficiency.

And that is what government does, or at least should do: Provide some shade from a relentless and necessary power source, a source without which we can’t live but with which we must take precautions to keep it from wilting us, or worse, from searing our civilization. So, there are those of us who welcome such a large shade tree, and we know there are species—”smaller institutions of civil society“— that can thrive—indeed, can only thrive—under its beneficence. 

Obviously, there are activities that can only be done in the sun, out from under the blessings of government’s penumbra. But in order to fully enjoy and benefit from those activities, we need to know that the tree of government—of “we the people”—is there when we, the people, need some civilization-saving relief from a withering sun. 

And that is, thanks to George Wills’ metaphor, a good accounting of the difference between those of us who call ourselves liberals, who see the value in a big shade tree, and those who call themselves conservatives, who do not. 

How Far Have We Come?

It was altogether fitting that the first pitch of last night’s CNN Republican debate was thrown by an old Reagan crony, Edwin Meese III.

It was fitting because in the news is police overreaction to the Occupy Wall Street protesters all around the country, particularly in California, in Oakland and at the University of California-Davis and UC-Berkeley campuses.

As a former conservative, I remember Ed Meese’s tenure as Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, but most of us are too young to remember Meese’s role in the People’s Park protest in May of 1969, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan turned the University of California-Berkeley into a police state. Here’s the lede from a New York Times article at the time:

LOS ANGELES — A group of professors from the University of California at Berkeley met with Gov. Ronald Reagan last Wednesday to protest the use of National Guardsmen against student demonstrators. Clearly agitated, the professors charged that Governor Reagan’s hard-line tactics had precipitated the violence at Berkeley, which grew out of student attempts to build a “People’s Park” on university-owned land.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus, and he had received enormous popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what was perceived as the generally lax attitude at California’s public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, and he found in it an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise.

And as for Ed Meese’s role:

As Reagan’s chief of staff, Meese was instrumental in the decision to crack down on student protesters at People’s Park in Berkeley, California, on May 15, 1969. Meese was widely criticized for escalating official response to the People’s Park protest, during which law enforcement officers killed one protestor and seriously injured hundreds of others, many of whom were bystanders. Meese advised Reagan to declare a state of emergency in Berkeley, contrary to the recommendation of the Berkeley City Council, which led to a two-week occupation of the city by National Guard troops.

Wow. Those were the days.

And so are these. We all have seen repeatedly the horrific images of the UC-Davis police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, mostly students upset with the outrageously high cost of their California-system education (partly thanks to Ronald Reagan); we’ve heard about city officials all over the country dislodging protesters from parks and streets.

Naomi Wolf wrote recently of the disruptive protests around the country, saying,

an absolute “right to be free of disruption” from First Amendment activity does not exist in a free republic. But the right to engage in peaceable disruption does exist… the First Amendment means that it actually is not up to the mayor or the police of any municipality, or to the Parks Department, or to any local municipality to prohibit public assembly if the assembly is peaceful but disruptive in many ways.

Peaceful, lawful protest—if it is effective— IS innately disruptive of “business as usual.” That is WHY it is effective.

Wolf mentioned the famous Bonus Marches, with “thousands of unemployed and desperate former veterans who had been promised and denied their bonus checks in the Depression” and the fact that “they won, eventually, because of the disruption”:

Some of the power of real protest, which is peaceful and patient and civil but disruptive, comes from the emotional power of the human face-to-face: all those Congresspeople had to look those hungry men in the eyes on their way to legislate the decision about the bonus.

Look at the image below and ask yourself just what are the reactionary forces in our society afraid of:

This image, my friends, represents fear. It represents the dark forces of conservatism, forces that were unleashed in our time by the father of the contemporary conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, and his bullying sidekick, Ed Meese.  

And when I saw Mr. Meese last night, a formerly-friendly face from my days as a conservative, I thought about how far we have come from the student-led protests of the 1960s.

And how far we haven’t.

I’m glad someone pulled Edwin Meese out of mothballs to ask the first debate question. It reminded me why I’m an erstwhile conservative.

“Where’s The [Expletive Deleted] Growth”?

And I thought it was my little secret:

The most important paragraph in the whole wonderful piece was this one:

The GOP campaign to aid the wealthy has left America unable to raise the money needed to pay its bills. “The Republican Party went on a tax-cutting rampage and a spending spree,” says Rhode Island governor and former GOP senator Lincoln Chafee, pointing to two deficit-financed wars and an unpaid-for prescription-drug entitlement. “It tanked the economy.” Tax receipts as a percent of the total economy have fallen to levels not seen since before the Korean War – nearly 20 percent below the historical average. “Taxes are ridiculously low!” says Bruce Bartlett, an architect of Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. “And yet the mantra of the Republican Party is ‘Tax cuts raise growth.’ So – where’s the [bleeping] growth?

And Americans may put those guys back in charge?

Yep.

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