Little could seem so remote from one another than the 9-9-9 tax reform plan of Herman Cain and the chants of the "other 99 percent" as they occupy Wall Street. One is the politically motivated brain-child of a millionaire businessman while the other is a product of the barely contained anger of young people frustrated by the corruption and inequity inherent in the global politics and business today. Yet these two movements are actually linked together in more ways than you might think, nine to be exact:
1.) Both are products of the politics of alienation. Vast majorities on the right and left feel that the system is no long the means by which we fix our problems -- it is the problem. They feel that politicians and Wall Street and big business are self-dealing and leaving the vast majority of Americans
2.) Both are fueled by a belief that the American dream is broken. The self-dealing has essentially gutted the promise of a better future for all those willing to work for it. The essentials of that dream -- a home, the value one can build in that home, rising wages, a better tomorrow for our kids -- they're all gone or compromised for most Americans. For those who didn't go to college there was once an opportunity to join the middle class and have a life of dignity -- also gone. The idea of retiring seems also destined to soon become an exhibit in the Smithsonian as few Americans indeed will be able to afford it.
3.) Both turn on a common theme -- driven by an intense indignation at inequity. It's not just that they system is broken, as Nick Kristof writes compellingly in yesterday's New York Times, it is that it has been gamed. A tiny few benefit and the rest of us of the country -- the 99 percent, the residents of Main Street -- are falling hopelessly, helplessly behind.
4.) Both a reactions against "the establishment" -- although different halves of the establishment. The Tea Partiers think government is the problem. The Occupy Wall Street crowd think it's the financial community or big corporations. The reality is that it is the collaboration between the two for decades (centuries actually) to change the rules of the system to give monied interests the upper hand, a free ride, bailouts when they need it (even when average home owners get nothing), etc.
5.) Both have "good hooks" -- they are easily digested, communicated, understood. The reason that 59 point plans and 1000 page pieces of legislation get no traction is that they are difficult to communicate, understand, debate effectively. Condemn Cain or the protestors all you want, they are connecting because they are dealing at a visceral level with a problem that actually lives in people's guts.
6.) Neither is truly radical. One is the defense of the status quo dressed up in the garb of "change" (where have we seen that before?). The other is unfocused anger. Radical would require an effort to really, truly and deeply challenge and change the system -- to get money out of politics through federally financed elections, to limit the size of banks, to demand transparency and tighter regulation of derivative products, to effectively challenge corporate compensation systems, to toss out the current tax code and start over with something simpler...and, sorry Herman, fairer. We are at a time that demands real, constructive radicalism, a willingness to question everything, to embrace "dangerous' ideas, to ask why we have markets, why we have the system of government we have, what our collective goals are, what our core political philosophies are and to be willing to remake and rebuild those institutions and systems and processes that don't conform to our vision and our ideals
7.) Both are preludes to real change -- but neither in its current form is the ultimate vehicle for that change. Because there is no "ask" for the Occupy Wall Street people, because 9-9-9 doesn't add up and would be deeply unfair to poor and middle income Americans, the movements are more noteworthy for what fuels them than where they are going. The frustration will either lead to a real constructive change agenda...or it won't, problems will deepen...and the real call for change will come more emphatically later.
8.) Each is being misinterpreted by the other. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not, as accused by the right, "anti-American." At their core what they are doing is as fundamentally American as can be. The Tea Partiers may not be my cup of...well, they may be hard for me to swallow...but they do have a legitimate beef that the government needs to operate in their interests and within its budget. That's not to say one side will agree with the other...it's to say that both should listen carefully for what is the same in their arguments. (So too should politicians on both sides who are too quick to view all this as politics as usual...and to play it as such.)
9.) Both should be welcomed by everyone -- they are a sign of long-overdue activism. Now the job is to translate that activism into meaningful change...which I think may require a very different set of political leaders and parties than we have today.
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I'm feeling curiously optimistic this morning which has me thinking it may be time for a CAT scan.
But I can actually see a way that things don't turn out so bad for the world.
First, to deal with the wolf closest to the sled, the Europeans will have to get their act in order. While they have thus far resisted this tooth and nail, I've heard some modestly encouraging rumblings from folks in the center of the negotiations. I want to point out the people with whom I have been speaking are not terribly optimistic themselves. But they have offered a few crumbs of optimism for those of us who starved for it to scarf up.
First, in the words of one participant, European leaders have begun to work themselves through "the stages of grief associated with the crisis. First, even just a few weeks ago, they were purely in denial. Then, they entered a phase of denial in which it was clear they didn't even believe their own denials. Finally, last week we entered what might be called the ‘silly ideas' phase. And I am hopeful that means now we can get down to serious ideas."
What kind of ideas? Coming up with a program that takes a big chunk, perhaps $250 billion, of ESFS money and uses it as "equity" in funding a "firewall" that might then include a trillion or so capital available to the ECB in the event a big economy -- Italy or Spain -- stumbles. The plan would also need other elements such as Europe dealing with the structural issues associated with achieving something like monetary union and a recognition that no firewall can protect against all threats, especially those that could be associated with a fixation on austerity. Governments in Europe need to focus on getting growth restarted in places like Spain or Italy or bigger problems are inevitable. A final element of an effective plan would then include a significant recapitalization of the IMF which currently is not funded properly to deal with the new forms of risk and contagion which confront global markets.
At some point, banks will need to pay for the insurance policies they are expecting their governments to provide for them and whether that is done by a Tobin tax or some levy on non-deposit liabilities, grappling with that issue will be key to winning political support for further government involvement. And while countries and the IMF are at it, they ought to start to tally what sovereign exposures are to those "implied liabilities", their unwritten but real "obligation" to bail out the too big to fail institutions that are the nuclear charges set at the fault lines of the global economy.
That might in turn trigger a recognition that we will not be well and truly out of the woods of this crisis until we demand more transparency from these banks in terms of their liabilities (including counter-party risks in all manner of derivative transactions), regulations that enforce responsible provisions for dealing with those risks, and perhaps even globally agreed upon limits on the size and activities of such institutions.
But one step at a time. While the insiders with whom I spoke were only cautiously optimistic that progress might be made on putting together an interim solution-firewall for Europe -- or to be more accurate, while they did not outright dismiss the possibility -- they did emphasize that there was a long way to go, the Germans and the French were not playing nicely with each other, and there were deep cultural barriers to even having an intellectually honest conversation among the players about what ails them.
Still, since the focus is optimism, another encouraging sign were the glowing reports I have been hearing of the work that both new IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner having been doing trying to hammer some sense into Europe's fiscal policy pygmies. No, not pygmies ... lemmings. Well, blundering action-phobic bureaucrats. (The problem, according to a friend, is "lots of leaders, not enough leadership.") By one account, about a third of the progress made during the last few weeks is due to circumstance, the growing direness of the situation, and the rest is due to the compelling arguments and forceful interventions of Lagarde and Geithner.
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A voice of reason and leadership has emerged in recent days among those addressing the economic crisis in Europe, currently the most urgent and dire challenge facing the international community.
Unlike in the past, that voice is not however, the president of the United States, who has remained strangely quiet on this subject despite its direct implications for virtually all of the core U.S. economic issues that are his stated top priorities. Nor is it that of his secretary of the treasury who, though more visible on this issue recently, has not instilled confidence with statements that have, for example, asserting that under no circumstances would European leaders let their institutions fail, even though that has been precisely what they have been doing for years now.
Instead, the new voice comes from rather unlikely roots -- a scandal-rocked organization whose future value to the international community had, in the not-so-distant past, been questioned and a prior post that can only be seen as a potential drag on her credibility.
That voice however, belongs to IMF chief Christine Lagarde, and it has been so direct and crystal clear, so unafraid and so thoughtful, that within mere weeks of assuming office she has quickly gained recognition as one of the most important of the world's leaders.
Take her most recent remarks on the euro crisis and its international implications. In the first instance, she has crisply and accurately warned that a "vicious circle is gaining momentum" that could not only upset european efforts at bailing out its weakest economies but that also poses a threat to the world's financial system and to many of its so-called strongest economies, such as those that are the engines of european growth and that of the United States. At the center of that vicious circle she placed "political dysfunction" that had produced what has amounted to policy paralysis and may have us on the verge of a "dangerous new phase" of this on-going economic calamity.
Further, even as Central Banks agreed to pump in more money to prop up faltering banks, she suggested more might be needed. "Balance sheet uncertainty" was the immediate culprit, she observed, noting it existed at the government, bank and household levels. She accurately cited this as the core risk we face but then, with wisdom greater than most European and American political leaders, noted that debt solutions should not be so severe that they undermine the equally crucial issue of growth in Western economies.
She specifically and directly assailed "fiscal austerity that chips away at social protections; perceptions of unfairness in Wall Street being given priority over Main Street; and legacies of growth in many countries that predominantly benefited the top echelons of society." One can only hope her remarks resonated with all her new neighbors in Washington.
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This week's reports that 20 percent of the U.S. Congress will be visiting Israel this month are stunning. Eighty-one members of Congress -- two thirds of them Republicans, 47 of them freshmen -- apparently think it is more important to be visiting Israel than it is to be at home dealing with the worst economic crisis in modern memory. America's economy is in flames and these guys are taking lobbyist-funded trips to what, watch Israelis take to the streets to protest the high-cost of living in that country?
This Jewish, Israel-supporting, foreign policy specialist says, "It's time to come home, ladies and gentlemen." While such visits are important and there is certainly a place for them in the lives of American legislators, now is not the time.
Indeed, I continue to be stupefied that in the midst of market turmoil that is directly associated with political dysfunction in Washington that no one who works in a leadership role in this city has the conscience or the awareness to recognize that this is not an August in which a recess should be taken. These folks should be back at their desks and hard at work. The president ought to take to his podium and demand they return. He ought to say he is going to provide one big new idea a day for helping to get the economy back on its feet until the Congress finally starts to take yes for an answer.
The political objectives behind these Israel trips are clear and they reveal the opportunity costs to the American people associated with campaign season. Every moment spent jumping through a hoop for a potential group of supporters is a moment spent failing to address one of the many urgent issues confronting the United States.
When will these pretenders grow up or make way for serious, committed adults who have the appetite and the spine to grapple with our current challenges? When will American voters demand better, or at least start paying attention?
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Earlier today I received the following email from an admirer:
You are a disgusting pig. I pray to God that you get brain cancer."
This was noteworthy on several levels. First, I don't even know the person who sent this. Typically, I need to know someone for a while before they reach that kind of conclusion. Second, the recent economic shocks have not, as one might have hoped, sent a message to America that we are all in this together and it is time for a new civility in public discourse. Third, for sure I will never use my cell phone again without a hands free device.
My fan was responding to a quotation attributed to me that appeared in the New York Times. The article, by the dependably insightful Helene Cooper, was entitled "A Test for Obama's View of a One-Term Presidency." It was an otherwise excellent piece which addressed Obama's stated desire to be a good one-term president rather than a mediocre two-term president. Its point was that the current challenges faced by the United States may force him to choose between these two options because of the fearsome demands running for re-election is likely to make on his time and thus his ability to effectively lead the country through and out of the current, enduring, complex economic crisis.
Personally, as I have stated before, even the president's most ardent supporters have to acknowledge the realities of a modern presidential campaign: He must work tirelessly to raise perhaps $1 billion and then spend essentially a year fending off attacks and implementing a complex, demanding strategy likely to be so taxing that it will be very, very difficult for him. Oh yeah and he also needs to give the rescue of the U.S. economy the attention it warrants. I'm a supporter of the president and I think he is a considerably better choice to hold the office than anyone who is a declared Republican candidate for president or who has been mentioned as a potential such candidate. In some extreme cases, the Republican candidates would have me shopping for real estate in New Zealand.
That said, the Times article due to the limits of space involved truncated one of my views in a way that I believe triggered the brain cancer greeting I received this morning. The story said:
Mr. Obama, Mr. Rothkopf argues, has to focus in the next 18 months on getting the economy back on track for the long haul, even if that means pushing for politically unpalatable budget cuts, including real - but hugely unpopular - reductions in Social Security, other entitlement programs and the military."
While everything in this statement is true with respect to my views, it is distorted because it refers to only part of what I said when I was interviewed. The question posed to me was, to paraphrase, "How does the president get a meaningful deal done and what would the deal look like?"
My response was that in order to address our twin crises--- unemployment and the deficit -- he would have to seek to produce significant, job-creating stimulus and in exchange for that, which will be resisted by the Republicans, do a serious budget deal. That serious deal in turn would have to involve painful concessions on entitlements by the president and the Democrats in order to win Republican concessions on increasing revenues and producing meaningful defense cuts. While such an approach sounds implausible, it is also the only way for America to get back on our feet.
Reasonable observers -- and even angry, frustrated, hurlers of invective at strangers -- will have to admit that regarding all the elements of such a grand bargain there are ways to approach the problem that could appeal to both sides, to reason and stay within the rules of arithmetic (the real kind you learned in elementary school, not the Washington variety). So, for example, you could produce a stimulus that made sense to fiscal conservatives by embracing and building up ideas like an infrastructure bank that would use limited federal funds leveraged up by major private investment to provide the urgently need renovation America's transportation and IT networks require. It's an idea that is supported by both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and by Sens. John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison. You could also move investment spending onto a capital budget thus forcing the Congress to treat money that is likely to bring a return differently from that which is going straight out the window … as companies already do.
On the budget deal, any superficial consideration of our debt problems has to acknowledge that the current structure of our entitlement programs is unsustainable. Further, proposals like raising the retirement age or reducing benefits for rich people who don't need them or creating more competition and fairer pricing, make sense in any case. Personally, just so you know where I am coming from, I believe the only way we will get there is some kind of new, national single-payer plan that encourages competition … see, for example, how they handle this in Switzerland. But since that's not going to happen soon, we should consider some of these other basic steps. And one reason we need to is in order to pry loose more revenue. We're going to have to accept a value-added tax (VAT) and/or a carbon tax very soon. We can trade some of those revenues for tax reform that the Republicans want, especially for a corporate tax code simplification that will help attract needed foreign investment to the United States. Should the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire? Of course. Urgently. It was a mistake to extend them. It was a mistake to implement them in the first place. And America needs to get over the idea that we need to spend more than every other country in the world on defense added up in order to be secure. Want a place to start there? Let's get the heck out of Afghanistan and Iraq ASAP.
The point is, my quote in the Times offered only a shard of my views, and one that might understandably offend when taken out of context. That said, when put into context, I am sure there is something in my views to offend everyone. Going forward we need to look for that. If everyone is howling, then we are probably doing something right.
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Think regulatory oversight of credit rating agencies is going to increase in the months ahead? Think Washington is going to put Standard and Poor's through the ringer as a consequence of its downgrade decision? It is as certain as the fact that in lieu of vision, courage, and action, the political swamp rats of D.C. will play the blame game while trying desperately to change the subject from the current crisis.
Think the decision of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to stay on through the election will fill the markets with confidence? Geithner is earnest, incredibly hardworking, and intelligent, but he has been snake-bitten from the start and the president is misreading the mood of the markets and voting public if he thinks that what this situation calls for is "staying the course." That's a mistake that's been made before … and it would be a stark irony if in his efforts to avoid being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter, President Obama instead became one like George H.W. Bush.
Think the intervention of the European Central Bank to prop up the debt of Italy and Spain is going to restore investor confidence in the eurozone, or is its action more like that of a drowsy emergency room doctor in the middle of a long shift waking just long enough to place a few Band-Aids on the gunshot wounds of several recently admitted critical-care patients?
Think the fact that the U.S. Congress being in recess at a time of great risk to the nation is a big story … or is it a bigger story that most Americans think that is a net positive, given how unlikely it is that the petulant children of the U.S. Congress would be likely to get anything positive done were they actually in their offices working?
Think that with the great economies of the world circling the drain that profound security and humanitarian concerns will fester and worsen -- from famine in East Africa to Iran's nuclear program to the mess in Afghanistan that took such a tragic toll this weekend (undoubtedly thanks to the support the Taliban receives from elements in the government of Pakistan)?
Moments like this will get you thinking. Unfortunately, most of the thoughts that are likely to cross your mind are unsettling ones. In many ways this moment is more complex and daunting than the crisis in 2008 and 2009. Because back then there was a pervasive sense that we would and should do anything in our power to avoid a global economic meltdown. Not that we actually did do what should have been done. But at least we felt like everyone was pulling in the same direction.
Now, not only is Europe as riven with political divisions as is the United States, but there is a widespread belief that certain types of actions are off the table either because we tried them and they didn't seem to work the last time around or because they seem to be politically not viable. I would argue, however, that while this may be the conventional wisdom, we all need to work to undo it at the earliest possible moment.
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For the first time since records have been kept, Washington's heat index today rose above its bullshit index. Which is saying something given the levels of swirling crap that have that have been emitted during the debt-ceiling debate. It's piling up like snow banks on the street corners. And none of it is made any easier to bear by a heat index that is supposed to hit 116 degrees today. In a city full of gas bags and hot heads, that's just plain dangerous.
Both the heat and the headlines have the same effect on average citizens. They make us cranky. Personally, I feel the strong urge to punch someone right in the snout right now. I'd prefer it were one of the goons who has seen fit to criticize President Obama and Speaker Boehner for actually trying to break the irrational debt debate impasse and get something done. But frankly, it could be anyone. I'd pop the slender loris featured on the Washington Post's iPad app yesterday if it crawled over to me right now … and frankly, I have a kind of soft spot in my heart for lorises, slender and otherwise.
So, instead, I will vent my blogger's spleen. I will do this by answering for each of you the following question: Who were the world's biggest assholes this week? Surely this will prove a healthy distraction from the muffled sounds of passersby being swallowed up by the bubbling pavement beneath my window.
Such a big world, so many choices, where to begin? Well, let's start with a definition. Asshole may be an intemperate term but it is not an imprecise one (and if it is one that offends you I strongly suggest that you stop reading three sentences ago … and please don't bother to write that FP should not use such language. I agree. The editors agree. But it's hot. So go jump in a lake. And I'm perfectly happy to spend my whole evening deleting your prissy criticisms from the comments below.) Anyway, the point is that the word refers not to purely evil people but to jerks, irritating people who combine their bad behavior with a certain offensive ridiculousness.
So who are the world's top ten this week? (And please note we are not including lifetime achievers who already have had their jerseys retired such as Hamid Karzai, Eric Cantor, or those wonderful folks at Focus on the Family.)
10. Prince Andrew
Blue bloods always have an edge in competitions like this, pampered, in-bred fossils of obsolescent and offensive social systems that they are. And few royal families have produced so many memorable jerks as the House of Windsor, including first-ballot member of the first class of the Asshole Hall of Fame, Prince Philip. But the upper-class twit never falls far from the royal family tree and Andrew wins mention this week for having to resign his post as ambassador for British trade because of his long string of bad judgments, questionable actions and bone-headed misdeeds including, notably and unsurprisingly, his befriending of convicted sex offender.
9. Chris Brown
Beating up women was not enough for this narcissistic so-called musician. This week, reliable sources like TMZ reported that Brown was that special kind of over-achiever who is able to irritate and infuriate on many levels at once. He did so by revealing himself to his neighbors in LA as That Guy in the apartment building who reportedly has blaringly loud parties at all hours, carves his initials in the elevator, runs his racing dogs up and down the hallways and leaves his ridiculous male-enhancement-mobiles in handicapped parking spaces. And then, after the stories broke, he complained he was being picked on. Poor Chris. Guy may pack a punch (on a date) but can't stand being the punch line he has become. Being bitch-slapped by karma's no fun, is it?
8. Tim Pawlenty
Bland, nice guy Tim would seem like the last fellow to end up on a list like this but when he was the first to take the bait and question whether Michele Bachmann's migraines would make her unfit for the presidency, he jumped way up toward the front of the line. Sexist much? Seriously, whoever leaked the story to the right-wing rag that first ran it deserves the spot even more than Pawlenty, but frankly, the former Minnesota governor needs the break. This is the highest he has placed on any list or poll in months.
7. Employees of the Korean Central News Agency
After threatening that North Korea would launch a "merciless retaliatory sacred war" against the United States, the spin doctors of the hermit kingdom continued their tradition of hyperbolic overstatement that has made depictions of the country like that in Team America: World Police seem like a Frontline documentary. In its priceless article "Reading Between North Korea's Lines," the New York Times details how the robot-trolls of this small apparatus of Kim Jong-Il's state machine regularly pump out the greatest howlers of the world's almost always howling diplomatic communiqués. From attacks on their neighbors to the south as "half-baked, extra-large Philistines" to referring to Hillary Clinton as "the little schoolgirl" these folks at least deserve credit for making propaganda laughable again.
6. Allen West
Speaking of half-baked name-callers, Florida Republican Congressman Allen West rocketed into the news this week the only way he could: By lashing out against fellow Congressperson and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a slimy viciousness that set a new low even for the United States Congress. Calling her "the most vile, unprofessional and despicable member" of the House, West not only won a few more seconds of fame than his otherwise completely undistinguished career warranted but no doubt shall also receive sanctions from the Congress for his behavior. Way to go after a colleague, Allen. Who's your campaign manager, Chris Brown?
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Last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in reference to Friday's launch of the last of 135 space shuttle missions,
Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight. As a former astronaut and the current NASA Administrator, I want to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success -- and here at NASA failure is not an option.
No, Charlie, at today's NASA, failure is not an option. It's an inevitability.
It's inevitable not because the quality of the men and women of NASA has declined. They remain among the best the United States has to offer. However, they have been drawn to a fabled program more because of what it has done in the past than what it is likely to do in the future. And that fact reveals the root cause of NASA's crisis -- and make no mistake, the program is more deeply in crisis than even during the dark hours around tragedies from the Apollo launch pad fire to the Challenger explosion to the disintegration of the Columbia on re-entry in 2003.
NASA is on a course to cede more than half a century of leadership in manned spaceflight not because of what has happened in Houston or at Kennedy Space Center in Florida or because of something that happened in space. No, NASA was undone by a loss of vision among America's political elites.
Simply put, they have forgotten how to lead and as a consequence, they have sacrificed our ability to lead as a nation. The national dialogue is devoid of a compelling vision of tomorrow, of the kind of lift that is essential if we are to head in any direction but down.
When I talk about such a dialogue, I'm not talking about the kind of reflexive, simplistic and misleading debate about whether we can afford a manned space program when the country is broke. No, I'm talking about the debate that real leaders, clear-eyed men and women who aspire to a better future, should continuously be having about how we ensure the country has the resources it needs to do those things it cannot afford to do without…including the exploration of new frontiers, the development of new technologies, and the inspiration of future generations.
You see, brain-dead political posturing of the sort that marks the current childish and irresponsible budget bickering in Washington has been going on for years. And as a consequence, the national patrimony has been given away in the form of tax breaks for rich individuals and companies that do not need them, deserve them or, in many cases, even want them. Whether George W. Bush offered up tax cuts and went into wars of choice because of deep seated ideological beliefs or for political gain, in so doing he didn't just obliterate America's surplus, he helped doom us to the period we are now entering: a period of austerity-induced withdrawal and decline.
When Republicans make the specious and childish arguments (see both David Brooks and David Leonhardt in the New York Times -- Leonhardt's piece is especially good) about not "raising taxes" at a time when we need to do everything to balance the budget, they are not just risking disaster and seeking to sacrifice the poor to pay for indulgences for the wealthy, they are effectively inviting China, Europe, India, and others to lead in the century ahead.
Manned spaceflight will continue…and Russians, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese, and others will step up to fill the void left by the fat, feckless Americans. We will be left with grainy images of John Kennedy setting the bold goal to reach the moon within a decade and wonder why such things could be achieved by greater generations that came before. How is it that once political leaders inspired by setting great goals and today our goals seem to be so defensive, so retrograde?
"We choose to go to the moon," said Kennedy in the late summer of 1962, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…."
Now, our goals are what? To get back to where we were a decade ago? Back to a budget surplus? Back to a fairer tax code? Back to American global leadership that was untainted by missteps from Iraq to Guantanamo to Afghanistan?
To paraphrase another Kennedy, there are those -- among today's politicians -- who look at things the way they are and ask why…and then they dream of things that never were and do everything in their power to ensure we can't achieve them. In fact, in some cases, in the case of NASA and manned spaceflight -- the real stuff of dreams and inspiration and innovation and national pride and historical accomplishments -- it appears that we are going to stop even trying. As a consequence, when the Atlantis touches down, it will not just be a remarkable reusable spacecraft coming back to earth, it will also be, in a real way, a country's dreams grounded…at least until a true leader emerges again to set goals that lift us and drive us forward.
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It was just a lie.
For all the many good and earnest efforts of the Obama administration in its two-and-a-half years in office, there is one area in which the president has not only let the country down, he has embarrassed himself and his party.
He vowed to keep the corrupting influence of money and special interests out of politics. He campaigned on the idea. When he took office, he made a great show of banning lobbyists from appointed offices. It was a silly idea. Many of the most qualified people available for government jobs had to register as lobbyists. What's more, the people that hired the lobbyists, were not precluded from the jobs even though they were actually the ones directing lobbying efforts and footing the bill for them. Further, the approach rewarded people who probably should have registered as lobbyists but didn't. Finally, lawyers who represented and advised clients and industries were not precluded or bankers that financed them were not barred although they were every bit as compromised by association with special interests as were the people performing the narrowly defined functions that fell under the lobbying rubric. Overall, the approach did not work out very well and gradually the administration has let former lobbyists start to slip through the cracks.
Worse, the president has let monied interests infect his administration in an even more insidious way. First, having raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, he played a role in actually enhancing what was already the most corrupting influence in American politics -- the dependence of office holders on the rich. While the president often spoke of the small dollar donations to his campaign, you don't raise three quarters of a billion dollars without large aggregations of bigger checks.
Those checks, by definition can only come from the affluent. What's more, because campaign finance laws limit the amount individuals or families can donate, the big amounts must come from "bundlers" who work to get clusters of givers together and can deliver money in big chunks to the campaign. Naturally, those bundlers often turn to networks of colleagues at work or individuals they meet in the course of their business lives or who live in their affluent neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, these people represent only a thin slice of America's population and often they represent heavy concentrations of people from individual companies or industries.
No candidate in American history ever raised more money from Wall Street and we have seen where that got us -- toothless financial reforms, practically no prosecutions, programs that enabled Wall Street to recover while Main Street continued to suffer and, two years after a financial crisis in which America was threatened by institutions that were too big to fail, more too big to fail institutions than ever before.
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For political junkies, the mere thought of it gets us all to tingling. It's the equivalent of the day pitchers and catchers show up at spring training or the kick off of the Hall of Fame game for football fans. (For U.S. football fans, that is. For soccer fans, it's the equivalent of handing out the first bribes of the season to a FIFA official.) It's a new beginning.
It's the first real debate of the presidential campaign season and it was scheduled to take place last night in New Hampshire. Dutifully, I settled into the dent in my couch made the night before while gleefully watching the self-destruction of LeBron James, and I waited for the fireworks to begin.
Unfortunately, I must have had the channel wrong because what I saw on CNN was something that looked like an elimination round for the Stepford version of "America's Got Talent." A combination of the vaguely deranged and the semi-robotic moving their lips but apparently speaking in sounds only Republicans can hear.
I squinted and leaned closer to the screen looking for some semblance of presidential candidates but this group look like they were roughly up to competing for the job of Deputy U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Here we have a country that is in the midst of a protracted economic calamity, precious little is going right, the current president may be the last holder of that office ever to be referred to as "the most powerful man in the world" and these seven non-entities were the best America's opposition party could come up with?
Pizza executive Herman Cain? A man who could barely string three words together and yet managed to reveal volumes about how little he knows or understands about domestic or foreign policy? Governor Tim Polenta ... a big, steaming plate of bland mush? Ron Paul? America's crazy uncle who looked like he wandered into the wrong bingo game? Mitt Romney? A man whose name is Mitt? The man most likely to become America's first animatronic president? Newt Gingrich? The unsightly piece of spinach on the big fake smile of Republican politics? Michele Bachmann? Who indicated proudly that she had had 23 foster children? 23 foster children? Was she auditioning to become the first human collector to have an episode of "Hoarders" devoted to her? And Rick Santorum? Mr. "Man on Dog?" Mr. "Intelligent Design?" The guy who tried to blame the Hurricane Katrina disaster on its victims?
Where do they stand? They're against big government ... except when it comes to women's reproductive rights in which case they feel the government should regulate what women do with their internal organs. They feel government is incompetent ... except apparently the military to whom all but Ron Paul would defer on most big issues ranging from how to handle Afghanistan to how to manage the basic civil rights of citizens who happen to be in the military. Muslims, for the most part, make them uncomfortable but they are not for deporting them immediately. Or was that immigrants? Well, basically they don't much like either group. They believe Obama has it wrong on the economy and that the way back to growth is through a lower deficit and lower taxes. The impossible math of that aside, apparently they think the main structural problem facing the U.S. economy is the structure of the U.S. government and that other competitive factors ... like, say, the comparative advantages of the rest of the world don't really figure in the equation.
Of course, I oversimplify. They had differences of views. And apparently the commentators were all very impressed that they didn't fall down like Shania Twain at the CMT Awards. But I have to admit, I came away pretty disappointed. At least when the Mavs-Heat game slowed down, I was able to switch to watch the Tony's. I mean try as these G.O.P. wannabes might to tap dance around substance, facts, or the substantial reasons why each of them would fare badly against President Obama, they really couldn't hold a candle to the amazing Norbert Leo Butz or spectacular Sutton Foster. The only thing the two telecasts had in common was that the acknowledged big winner of each was Mormon. But as you might have gathered, I'd only actually pay to see one of those. (Hint: It's the one where you actually get to see a live performance.)
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Things are so tough even the past isn't what it used to be. That is the message of Woody Allen's lovely, good-hearted new movie Midnight in Paris. While the movie's goal is to enhance our appreciation for the present by puncturing the "golden age syndrome" of those who yearn for impossibly beautiful cultural yesteryears, it inadvertently sends an important political message as well.
Starting this summer, a parade of Republican presidential wannabes will offer a message of recycled hope, promising to restore America to good old days goodness. Candidates and possible candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin already invoke Ronald Reagan so often it's hard not to conclude that he has become the reverse Voldemort of the Republican Party, "He Who Must Always Be Named." They and their Republican primary opponents will call so often for it to be "morning in America" that I wouldn't be surprised if Denny's sponsors Palin's tour bus to promote its Grand Slam breakfasts.
But of course, for those of us who actually lived through the 1980s, it was mostly bad haircuts, Iran-Contra and the music of Dexys Midnight Runners.
Similarly, there will be efforts from candidates from both parties to associate themselves with past "golden ages" of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama will certainly cite the prosperity of the Clinton years or seek to channel the charisma of John F. Kennedy or the toughness of Harry Truman or the true leader of the free world stature of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Republicans will -- as they did after the Osama raid -- seek to assert that Bush 43-era resoluteness was key to fighting terror. Or they will argue that Bush 41-era mastery of the end of the Cold War proves that the GOP knows foreign policy best, that they can stand up to evil like Reagan did to Gorbachev or even that they are the party of Nixon-Kissingerian savvy or Eisenhower's ability to epitomize everything you want in a commander-in-chief.
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Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,
We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.
We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?
We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes ... but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we've never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.
Ok, maybe that's not really the best apology ... suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.
Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.
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It says something about Gary Locke's tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered -- ambassador to China -- by far the U.S. government's most important diplomatic posting in the world. Locke is an excellent choice for the new job and will undoubtedly excel in the role. In fact, there is really only one thing the Obama administration can do to make this smart appointment even better: It can not appoint a replacement for Locke.
Locke is a soft-spoken, detail-oriented, thoughtful, lawyerly fellow, which is not surprising given that in addition to being the former governor of Washington, he is also a lawyer. As a Chinese-speaking, trade-smart Chinese-American from a state with important export ties to China and having the stature that comes of cabinet and state governor posts, he's an ideal choice for the Beijing job.
His tenure as commerce secretary was muted because his particular skill set was not particularly suited to being a cheerleader for U.S. industry. He has no bombast in him, and for a politician he is singularly devoid of the hail-fellow-well-met gene. But beyond his personal traits, one of the reasons he struggled as commerce secretary was that the Commerce Department itself is such a mishmash of agencies with competing missions that the reality is that the vast majority of people who have led the agency have disappeared without a trace into its bowels.
Frankly, it should be considered a destination of choice by the folks over at the federal witness protection program.
President Obama and those closest to him -- including one of the few people who have ever successfully led the Commerce Department and then gone on to bigger and better things, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley -- recognize this and have very wisely and none too soon undertaken a review of whether or not to restructure the agency along with the other white elephants, redundancies, and lost causes of the federal bureaucracy. The effort is being led by former business exec Jeff Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as a former management consultant, CEO, and very successful entrepreneur, an ideal choice for the mission.
While it is reported that Locke himself only heard of the president's intention to announce the initiative to rationalize the structure of departments including his own a few minutes before the announcement was made, the idea is a sound one that should be well-received by both parties in the current atmosphere of frugality -- or at least expressed frugality -- in Washington.
What Obama should do is appoint an acting commerce secretary to serve as a place holder. (Perhaps appointing Zients into a kind of caretaker role to oversee the change would be a good step. An analogy is the role Elizabeth Warren is currently playing re: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.) Putting someone new and "permanent" in the existing commerce job would a.) Immediately create an opponent to any meaningful restructuring and b.) Be quite tough if they knew there was a serious effort to dismantle the agency afoot. Then, the president and his team should take the steps that have been obviously called for by many of us who have worked at the Commerce Department and on the economic side of the U.S. government for years. They would include:
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When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian people in the wake of days of rioting was a masterpiece of insensitivity. With his citizens in the street expressing their needs, he addressed his own. He spoke of poverty and concern for his people, but his message was something far darker. He was making a stand for the status quo.
Watching him, ghostly in the stark podium lighting designed to hide what hints of his age his hairdresser and doctors could not, it was clear that this was an old man comfortable in the old ways of the Middle East. As such he was as much a remnant of Egypt's past leadership as any mummy in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, just as brittle, frail, and ready to turn to dust.
His sacrifice of his cabinet also evoked ancient practices, as well as the last ditch measures of autocrats throughout history. His ministers -- many of whom were not objects of the people's anger -- were used as cannon fodder, a way to test whether the old president's position would hold. The hours and days ahead will determine whether it was enough: whether there are real reforms he might actually entrust his new government with or whether he is betting that his lifelong ties to the military will protect him in ways that his political savvy no longer can.
He is a man out of touch with his people and his times. Like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, he is a symptom of the greatest problem the region has faced over the past several decades: its self-absorbed, corrupt leadership. From Algiers to Kabul, an arc of autocracy extends across nearly all of the greater Middle East, denying citizens the right of self-determination, buying international favor with oil or political deals, ignoring educational needs, the rights of women, and the investments needed to compete in the global economy.
But with each starkly out-of-touch pronouncement like that from Mubarak today, the arc trembles a bit. Certainly, the fall of Ben Ali started it quivering. In Yemen and in Jordan, demonstrators tested the waters to see if progress might be made there. We have already seen the potency of the Green Revolution in Iran and recognize that even when the autocrats seem to win the day, they only postpone the inevitable. You can't keep the cell phones and the Internet and Twitter accounts off indefinitely and compete in the modern world. You can't deny a future to populations dominated by the young and expect enduring stability.
In Israel, leaders are deeply ambivalent, fearful of instability in a country that has been vitally important to the region's stability -- and even more fearful that what they perceive as an even weaker, minority regime in Jordan might totter. At the same time, on some level they cannot help but note that not only do these uprisings underscore their nearly unique role as a democracy in the region (we will see what reform in Iraq brings) but even more importantly, they illustrate clearly that Israel is far from the biggest problem the region faces.
It is tempting for "realists" everywhere to cling to stability over the questions that opening these countries to self-determination might raise. But we should all have long since passed that point of hesitation. Either we are for the principle or we are not. Either all people deserve these freedoms or they do not. Someday historians may draw a direct connection between President Barack Obama's call for reforms and a new relationship between the United States and the people of the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and the events of this winter. We can only hope that it is connection marked by U.S. actions that are consistent with the high ideals espoused by the president.
In the words of Secretary Clinton today, we have hope that will be the case. In the "Made in the U.S.A." marking on the tear gas canisters being used against the Egyptian protestors we see the potential ugliness that can come from that old-fashioned form of flawed pragmatism that is a hallmark of US foreign policy -- the form in which we make a deal for today's stability that puts us on the wrong side of tomorrow's revolution.
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We are two years into the Obama administration and judging by the president's progress to date, assessments being made on this the second anniversary of his time in office are likely to be viewed not as midterm grades but as his first quarter report card. With an increasingly confident, experienced president at the helm of a country that seems to be gradually creeping toward economic recovery and with a divided opposition in search of a leader, Obama's re-election prospects are looking better and better.
Still, the reality is that any assessment of the president's progress to date must be taken with several large pillars of salt. First, as I have noted before, the first two years of any presidency are learning curve years and seldom contain either the highlights of a presidency or even a very clear signal as to its ultimate character. Second, almost inevitably political and policy types overstate the influence of the president on the great issues of the day or even on those factors that weigh in his or her re-election. As is the case with most presidents, Obama's future will most likely be dictated by exogenous developments over which he has only fairly limited influence -- global economic trends, unanticipated actions of third parties at home and abroad, public moods that impact how presidential actions are interpreted and credit and blame allocated, etc.
Nonetheless, given that today is the second anniversary of the president's inauguration, it is a natural time to take stock and offer some quick evaluations of how he and his team are doing on foreign policy issues.
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Timelines are for high school textbooks. History itself is all indirection and angles, actions and events caroming off one another, one unintended consequence glancing into the next.
That is what makes forecasting the future so difficult. Our rational minds look for the timeline, the natural next step, even though we know the bolt from the blue or the nudge from nowhere is that much more likely.
A week ago, anyone looking at American politics would have said that the driving forces would surely be the economy or possibly great events in the world, the wars we are fighting or the actions of the enemies we fear. Many would have predicted that the Tea Party movement and the extreme right, led by the likes of Sarah Palin, would play a major role in the 2012 presidential cycle, riding the momentum of their midterm election victories.
Surely as China's President Hu or France's President Sarkozy were being briefed for their visits to Washington, their intelligence services did not tell them the political landscape in America might shift dramatically as a consequence of the actions of a lunatic in front of a Safeway supermarket in a Tucson strip mall.
Indeed, even immediately after the tragic attack on Congresswoman Giffords, it was by no means certain that the event would have anything like lasting consequences. Nor was it certain what whatever consequences occurred might be. Nor is it certain now.
But some of the laws that govern the physics of history and politics suggest that once again the irrational, the unexpected, and the unintended are likely to dictate what impact Jared Lee Loughner's 31 shots might ultimately have. Among those laws are a few that are well known even to casual observers:
For all these reasons, it now seems likely the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics and by extension global affairs. For example, although Loughner seems to have been your garden-variety deranged lone gunman -- dim, smirking, and profoundly ill -- he was a spark that set aflame the already smoldering debate about how ugly America's political discourse had become.
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This week, President Obama dug deep into the pool of 100 people who are considered for every senior Democratic position in Washington and came up with a couple of very good choices for top White House jobs. While those of you who follow these things might wonder if, in a country of 300 million people, there might be a few fresh names who could produce a little fresher thinking, keep it to yourself.
That's not the way things work here in Washington -- the only city in the world in which someone like George W. Bush could have been described as an outsider upon assuming an office his father had held 8 years earlier.
In the rest of the world familiarity breeds contempt. In Washington, like in some towns in the Ozarks, familiarity just breeds.
That said, there's something to be said for hiring people in top jobs who actually know what they are doing. Bill Daley, the new White House chief of staff, understands how Washington works as well as anyone. What's more, as Washington insiders go, he has a pretty rare skill set: he is actually able to speak several important languages. He is fluent in politics, business, and media and he is conversant in both D.C. and local dialects.
He has demonstrated over the past two decades great organizational skills and real perseverance. He was the quarterback who made the NAFTA war room whirr and produced one of Clinton's most important early victories. He was a Commerce secretary who did not produce a lot of headlines but who did generate trust and good will from the business community. He was one of the people Al Gore came out of his 2000 campaign feeling best about, an absolutely essential player who performed the toughest tasks while generating real loyalty among those close to him. And he was a successful business person who the moment he entered the White House increased the administration's understanding of the part of the economy that actually creates jobs many times over. While some liberal groups may decry his ties to Wall Street or his life in corporate suites, they are missing the point. There can be no successful progressive agenda that doesn't figure out how to collaborate successfully with the people actually driving U.S. growth.
There has been some minor lefty hubbub over the fact that Gene Sperling, the incoming head of the National Economic Council, once did some work for Goldman Sachs. It is revealing that those who seek to complain about this are overlooking that it was work on a project to help promote educational empowerment for some of the world's neediest. And, of course, in a job like the one Sperling is assuming, having a few contacts outside the world of inside-the-beltway wonks is actually a very good thing.
Gene has been one of the best of those wonks for a long time. He is exceptionally intelligent, extraordinarily hard-working, politically gifted and he has a truly good heart. Both he and Daley are among the "good guys", the folks in that tiny D.C. talent pool who you want to see at the top because not only do they know how to use power but they are likely to use it well.
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We're on the brink of a fascinating experiment. One of the most sweeping changes of top White House personnel in history is about to take place. Within just a couple of weeks from now, the president will have replaced his chief of staff (twice), two deputy chiefs of staff, his national security advisor, his top economic advisor, his top political advisor, and his spokesperson.
This would be extraordinary in any organization. But the Obama White House has been famous since its cast and crew were first assembled for being driven by a core team around the president. Characterized variously as a bubble around the president, an inner circle, and a cabal, one of the most common complaints heard from those inside the administration is that the team around the president has been impenetrable .
They have in the eyes of cabinet secretaries and senior departmental officials co-opted traditional cabinet prerogatives. Even to some working at high levels in the White House, they have been less the gatekeepers all presidents demand and more like the trolls living under the bridge by which the Oval Office was accessed -- difficult to deal with and hard to pass by.
And now, of the innermost circle, three members are gone or going -- Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs. Rumor has it that possible incoming chief of staff may seek to alter the role of the last remaining member of the Four Horsemen of the Obamalypse, Valerie Jarrett.
So, given the role these folks have played and the sweeping changes that are taking place, one might expect a massive change in the way the administration operates. Unless…
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While President Obama may have ignored my personnel advice, he may have made excellent decisions anyway. If, as the rumor mill has it, Bill Daley, the former Commerce Secretary is to be the new chief of staff at the White House and Gene Sperling is to replace Larry Summers at the National Economic Council, Obama will have picked two pros who can both provide needed continuity and needed change. Daley knows how to get things done and is well-liked by business people. Sperling has done the job, is exceptionally smart and will run a much more open, inclusive shop than Summers … and empowering the economic cabinet is a key must-do for the Obama team.
David Brooks's op-ed in the New York Times on the uselessness of the pro and con debate about "big government" is half right and half wrong. He's right it does not matter how big or small government is but whether it works effectively and in support of a nation with the will and resources to succeed. But it is half wrong in that within the debate is a question about the appropriate role of government. Here Republicans argue that government should stay out of people's affairs and market's business wherever possible and Democrats are willing to accept a more expansive role. The reality, of course, is that no country can tackle the problems we face as a country without a major role for government. Whether the issue is infrastructure, energy policy, education, fixing what is broken fiscally, ensuring honest and fair markets, protecting the environment or preserving the peace, America's biggest challenges require the government be there and be effective. Right now though the debate sounds like two dating services that are suggesting the choice in the dating market is between Mother Theresa and Snooki. It is not even the right discussion to be having.
While it may not have been very politic for a U.S. battlefield commander in Afghanistan to liken the situation on the ground to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it offers yet another insight into the futility of the conflict there. Richard Cohen in the Washington Post gets it exactly right when he calls this an unnecessary war and likens our tolerance of it and the public's lack of urgent interest in it to factors which could fuel our national decline, akin to what happened during the fall of the Roman and British empires. He is not overstating it. We're going bankrupt and wasting lives trying to do the impossible for a cause that's un-winnable. Every day we continue to fight in Afghanistan U.S. leaders are abusing the public's trust, killing our young and stealing from their orphaned children to pay for it.
Speaking of bankruptcy, I have a sense that Obama's "air traffic controller moment" will come when a big public pension fund goes belly up and the federal government is asked to step in to bail it out… with a long-line of similar cases on deck. He will face a dangerously slippery slope and public opinion will be heavily for giving the public workers a haircut on their benefits. Obama will face huge pressure from SEIU, one of the most important unions backing him. And he will define whether he is serious or not about pulling the United States out of this mess and getting us back on our feet by whether or not he gives in to that pressure. The right answer is to start negotiating deals downward now, walk the crisis back before it happens, reduce the benefits packages and give the states and municipalities the breathing room they need… or huge lay-offs and deteriorating public conditions are certain to result. Not to mention a big financial crisis.
I have all the respect in the world for Zbigniew Brzezinski. But his op-ed in the Times, in which he calls Chinese Premiere Hu's visit one of the most important in 30 years, while thoughtfully argued, is misleading on that core point. No doubt, the visit is more important than the last because China is more important than the last time the leaders met. However, by the same logic, the next visit will probably be more important. Further, with a leadership change in the offing, the first meetings with the next generation of leaders are almost certain to be more important still. The key issues for the two countries to resolve are longer term in nature and go to the core question of shaping a successful working relationship between two strategic rivals that are also vital partners. Right now, too much of the power in the relationship seems to have swung to the Chinese. The United States must -- through a better understanding of its own national interests and competitive advantages, through marshalling diplomatic support worldwide for its initiatives, and through regaining economic momentum and avoiding international distractions --resume a stronger stance in the relationship. It must resist the temptation to mesmerized by China hype and it must build an international coalition to counterbalance Chinese influence and ensure that before China assumes a greater role on the international stage, it is clear the country is willing to play a constructive role helping to address global challenges from combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to maintaining stable financial markets to fighting global warming.
The most important story in the world as 2011 begins: the continuing political unrest in Pakistan, marked by the weakening of the government's coalition over the weekend and the assassination of the prominent governor of Punjab, a Zardari supporter. A political meltdown in Pakistan is the one event that will have great powers worldwide holding their breaths (although further economic meltdown in the Eurozone and in U.S. states and localities is a close second on this watch list.)
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So, let's take a look at the papers and see how all that foreign policy is going for us, shall we?
Mike Barnicle, who is to "Morning Joe" what Uncle Joe was to "Petticoat Junction," today asserted that President Obama's recent tax deal signified a shift to the center. Since Barnicle also spent considerable time touting his love of the Boston Red Sox, we probably should not be surprised that he is confused about other matters as well. But I couldn't help but wonder when I heard the statement about Obama whether the time had actually come that we needed to start drawing people diagrams to help them find the center.
Perhaps it is due to the way Washington twists and distorts everything. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that in the perverse world of U.S. politics, there is not just one center. There are, at least, three.
There is the expedient center. This is the one Barnicle was talking about and the one that makes partisan purists spit. (For more on this, see Keith Olbermann. Lord knows, I can't bear to watch his histrionics any more. But you might find it illuminating or weirdly fascinating, anyway.) The way you find this center is you take the extremes and you split the difference between them. This is the center about which Descartes might say, "I compromise therefore I am."
Then, there is the money center (also known as the rich dark chocolaty center or the creamy nougat center or just as the delicious candy center). This is the center where big time donors live. Watch closely and you'll see plenty of behavior, including likely upcoming White House appointments, that show they are acutely aware they may have alienated this group during the past couple years and they want them back. The money center is, of course, Wall Street and shifting to this center means adopting policies that are calculated to open their wallets come campaign time. These policies tend not to be made on a left-right spectrum but rather on a top-to-bottom scale and they always benefit the top. (Or in the case of the estate tax provisions in the current deal, the tippy tippy top.)
Both of these groups are odious to wingnuts. But neither is truly dangerous to them because from time to time, their interests overlap. However, there is one center they really fear: That's the principled center.
It's also known as the independent center. It is not found halfway between left and right but rather off that scale altogether. It is a place where decisions are made free of partisan distortions and special interest emoluments. It is a place where right is what you try to be and not a reflexive, dogma-driven political orientation.
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WikiLeaks provides few revelations but many resonant reminders. The reminders put into language stark enough to reawaken the senses information that we long ago knew but had repressed. For example, take today's multiple reminders that so-called "friendly" governments in the Persian Gulf remain cash machines for the worst people on earth, terrorist groups dedicated to the slaughter of innocents.
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," declared a document that went out a year ago under Hillary Clinton's signature, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."
Other cables describe how the group responsible for the Mumbai bombings, Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise cash through Saudi front businesses, and how the Taliban and their allies work through networks in the United Arab Emirates. They report fitful progress in reducing these cash flows, the use of religious pilgrimages as cover for illicit cash transfers from the Gulf to militants and the quiet if pointed methods the United States uses to press our so-called friends for assistance.
Here we are coming up on a decade since 9/11, two years since Mumbai, bogged down in horrifyingly costly conflicts against these terrorists and the stark, perverse reality remains that the countries of the Gulf are getting rich selling us oil and then passing part of the proceeds on to bands of murderers who have sworn to attack us and our allies. They are worse than drug dealers who kill only through the deadly addiction they promote. These terror bankers and their fat, arrogant, callous royal protectors have for years placed us in double jeopardy by both promoting a different kind of dangerous addiction and then using the proceeds from that to fund efforts to kill us.
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Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress' "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party's most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so bold and courageous in his calls for the United States to pull back its support for the corrupt and abusive regime of Ferdinand Marcos that Corazon Aquino dubbed him "the Lafayette of the Philippines." He played an instrumental role in leading support for the first Gulf War. He attacked human rights abuses and worked to broker the end to brutal conflicts. He chaired both the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Subcommittee on Africa.
With such a record, it was no surprise that he was considered for years to be a likely future secretary of State. He studied foreign affairs avidly, immersed himself in his travels, worked tirelessly and did not suffer fools lightly. I know this because when I began working for him shortly after I left graduate school, I surely qualified as a fool -- if not by disposition then by virtue of my utter ignorance. But he generously not only gave me my first professional opportunity, but for the following 30 years he patiently shared his insights, his wisdom, and his humor, and offered an example I will remember and treasure the rest of my life.
As Steve used to joke, he "represented a district that would have elected Mussolini if he were a Democrat." It was the Brooklyn of Coney Island and Midwood, of Ocean Parkway and Avenue U, a district "with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv" and thus one that not only tolerated his interest in the rest of the world but encouraged it. Having a congressman who knew and quoted Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin was a plus even in a country where some mind-boggling percentage of members of the House didn't (and don't) even have passports. Of course, as his press secretary I spent hours squirreled away in his offices in the district, writing press releases about new subway escalators and the thrilling periodic visits to DC where we would work on issues closer to my heart and his, from East Timor to arms control, from the Middle East to the latest diplomatic crisis.
I remember vividly the time he took me on my first visit to the White House during which he invited me in to a meeting with then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Just the three of us. Me, perhaps 22 at the time. Brzezinski at his intimidating best. Solarz, not forty yet, holding his own, advancing his points with grace and eloquence.
Eloquence mattered to him. There was a school of politics back then in which rhetorical command was still highly valued, something more than today's soundbites or cable news sniping. Solarz, like the Kennedy brothers or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Eban, the ultimate master, spoke in perfectly formed paragraphs, always seeking the right balance of dignity and substance, humor and sharp points where needed.
His intensity could be off-putting. Truth be told, he was not -- despite his nine electoral victories -- a natural politician. He alienated enemies and, sometimes, friends. In Washington, an old maxim is that you need both a great inside game and a great outside game. He ruffled enough feathers with his lack of attention to the inside game that when he hit turbulence toward the end of his time in Congress, potential allies stepped away from him. Opponents in Albany carved up his district in a way that forced him to choose between running against his friends and running in a district with which he had precious little connection. He chose the unfamiliar district, was a political fish out of water, and lost in the Democratic primary in 1992. It might have been a moment of opportunity. He was only 52. Two months later, a Democrat would be elected president and perhaps he could begin his long foretold ascent to the job he was best suited for, the one in the big office in Foggy Bottom.
His name came up to be ambassador to India, a post he would have filled exceptionally well. But an old enemy from the State Department raised the issue of a questionable contact he had made in Hong Kong and once again, potential allies retreated into the shadows and did not point out that the assertions made about him were absurd reasons to block the career of a man who had devoted his life to exceptional public service. It was an episode of gutless Washington at its worst and the American people were the ultimate losers.
Solarz went on to a distinguished post-congressional career, continuing to immerse himself in foreign policy, to lead the search for lasting solutions to the most complex international problems and to provide warm, wise advice to his friends and love to his dear family.
And then he got sick. And then he died. And now the memories come flooding back and it is clear that we are sorely in need of everything he was -- a dedicated student of foreign policy, a believer in the old school doctrine that national interests always trumped partisanship, a man who placed principle before reflexive loyalty and even self-interest, a guy with a sense of humor and a good heart … a mensch-statesman.
When he lost in 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the reactions to his loss. Solarz himself was quoted as saying that one of his few regrets was leaving office before Saddam Hussein did. Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, another of the very best Congress has produced in the past several decades, is reported to have sent Steve a note saying: "Few events of the last several months have saddened me more than the realization that you may be leaving."
I can't help but feel the same way right now. But I was cheered by one of the valedictory lines Steve himself offered -- because of its characteristic humor and the way it evokes Steve as well as by its message. "I take comfort in Abba Eban's observation," he said, "That politics is the only profession where there's life after death." That is, of course, especially true of men whose public contributions were of genuinely historic magnitude and whose private kindnesses have touched thousands.
Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mainstream, rock-ribbed, you-can't-make-me-flinch Republicans are. One former leader of the party I spoke with the other night said, "We've never seen anything like them. The Gingrich 'Contract with America' revolution was mild by comparison." Representative Bob Inglis, attacking the play to the lowest-common I.Q. of the base, said, "We're getting what we deserve."
America's first know-nothings were a mid-19th century collection of nativists who dreaded "foreign" influences on the American way of life. Reactionary as they were, we may someday see them as a collection of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize Winners compared to their lineal political descendents who make up the current crew of Republican extremists now flexing their recently pumped up muscles in the Congress. Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
The roots for the current movement could be found in the arguments of creationists against teaching the science of evolution in the schools. But today we have a new generation of fundamentalists ... climate creationists, foreign policy creationists, deficit creationists ... for whom arithmetic and history are simply the tools of the devil. They invoke the founders but sound more like their contemporaries in England who argued that the reason that British hikers were finding fish fossils in the mountains of England had nothing to do with where seas once might have been millions of years before and instead was a consequence of God putting the fossils there to trick people into doubting the literal word of the Bible.
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
Some Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Tea Party isn't really a party and had no real hierarchic organization or unified platform in the last election. They see it more as an emotional spasm, the Perot Party Version 2010, and that it will pass. But the 110 newly elected representatives on Capitol Hill who were elected with some Tea Party affiliation are now starting to coalesce into a driving force. If they can effectively form and maintain the discipline of a caucus then they have a chance at further institutionalizing and preserving their movement.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy -- ignorance -- and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
It now falls to the mainstream Republican leadership, especially to presumptive Speaker John Boehner, to control this group and limit its worst traits. And all spirited Americans who can read and write ought to be pulling for him. Because if he fails, America will face the threat of the spread of a strain of reckless demagoguery unprecedented in our history, a Snookidemic that threatens to effectively lobotomize the body politic.
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In the story of the dilemma of Buridan's Ass, the poor tormented beast, placed between two equidistant and equally appetizing haystacks, starves to death. In a twist on this ancient paradox, American voters, placed between two equally unappetizing political alternatives, have over the past few election cycles scurried from one to the other in a constant state of revulsion and perpetual buyer's remorse.
There is a paradox within this second paradox. It is a play on the old observation of my former boss Henry Kissinger that the reason academic infighting is so fierce is because the stakes are so low: The reason political infighting is so fierce now is because the difference between the opposing haystacks, er, parties is so small.
Think about it: Bill Clinton's big twist that made "new Democrats" different from the old version was that he tacked right, embracing many of the free-market, anti-crime, stronger defense policies of Reagan-Bush Republicans. It is hard to remember but George W. Bush, all those many years ago, ran saying he had a track record of working across the aisle and the main contrast he offered from Clinton was less about policy than that he would restore the honor of the office. Oh sure, the rhetoric is shaped and twisted to appeal to the base in each party, but the mainstream policies of both parties shared many similarities. And then came Barack Obama and the promise of change. From their approach to dealing with the economic crisis to most foreign policy decisions (including, I would argue, Iraq, where Bush would probably be doing much of what Obama is), the new administration has turned out to be much more like the old than many might have expected. Indeed, many in the world hoping for a big change have been shocked to discover, once again, that for the most part U.S. presidents act alike.
There are subtle differences, of course. For example, in recent years, a branch of the Democratic Party has been anti-trade. Of course, so has a branch of the Republican Party. (Far left and far right meet on the far side…) But in a twist appropriate to the preceding assertions, despite the fact that unions -- key parts of the Democratic base -- oppose free trade deals, Obama's rhetoric and behavior in India is an indication that he is stepping right in where Clinton left off -- becoming a good old-fashioned mainstream U.S. mercantilist. He now believes, as we used to say back in the Clinton administration, exports equal jobs. Since jobs are the metric by which voters will determine his score and fate as president, he is becoming a trade promoter.
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I am moderating a conference today here in Chicago for a group of large institutional investors. Needless to say, I will report back on what I learn unless it is really valuable information, in which case I will keep the information to myself, move my chips to the right number on the roulette table and cash out.
That said, I wanted to leave you with the answer to a burning question on your minds: Who emerged from Tuesday's elections as the most important political voice in the United States?
No, it's clearly not President Shellacking. He may re-emerge, but that will take new ideas. Speaker-to-be John Boehner (R-OH)? Nope, same reason. First of all, he is a workhorse and not a show horse. That's not a bad thing. But he's no limelight-hogging Newt, nor is he a creativity engine. Mama Grizzly? Ha -- although she will probably remain an energizing force for a large cross-section of Republican voters…
Might it be Mitt Romney, who just by happenstance had an op-ed in the Washington Post Wednesday almost as if to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines…"? Could be -- Republicans tend to pick the runner-up from the last election cycle, and he has many attributes that could make him a front runner in the current environment. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI)? One could only hope. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg? I light a candle every night.
No, the most important political voice in U.S. politics today is … British Prime Minister David Cameron. Listen to the new Republican agenda or at least the new Republican rhetoric -- cut entitlements, be courageous, battle the deficit, and make the hard choices. While this language has been batted around before by the party of big deficits that the GOP became as far back as the Reagan era, you see a glint in the eyes of the new leadership when they speak these words (viz. Tim Pawlenty today on "Morning Joe"… in a pretty impressive performance).
Why the glint? They have seen the blueprint and they have seen it can work. At least that's the sense that's in the air. Cameron … and to some extent French President Nicolas Sarkozy … are the new heroes of courage, and of speaking truth to special interests. This is not to deny their flaws … it is to recognize their accomplishments to date and the resonance they have.
Having said that, I must acknowledge again, misreading Cameron ranks high atop the long list of blown calls I have made here in this space … and who knows, I could be wrong about him twice. I underestimated him. And every day I must live with that -- most recently watching with admiration the one-two punch of his bravely cutting defense budgets and then, just as bravely, compensating for it in a historic way through diplomacy with an ancient enemy via the recent and innovative defense cooperation agreement with France. But it would also be a serious mistake for Democrats in the United States to underestimate the power or appeal his budget-cutting, fiscally responsible, courageous approaches might have here in this country.
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I've been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I've seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I've seen governments tackling tough fiscal problems with real political courage (not the United States, the British and the French). I've seen protests in the streets of people outraged at having to cope with a new economic reality (not the United States, the French, but America's day is coming). I've seen a capital city obsessed with its own jobs lose touch with a country worried about theirs. (That would be the United States.)
I was in Cleveland when President Barack Obama spoke to a half empty arena (and where he was overshadowed by Ohio's number one narcissist, LeBron James, playing his first game in a Miami Heat uniform). I was in countless board rooms and conferences in which the amount of anger directed at the White House makes last night's election results look obvious and inevitable.
In fact, one of the few unifying factors through all the stops on this trip, regardless of local politics, was the level of disappointment in Obama. Sometimes it was laced with anger. Sometimes it was expressed with simple regret for hopes that people now worried had been misplaced. But almost everywhere it was stoked by a sense that the president at this point in time didn't get it.
It is conventional wisdom that U.S. elections seldom turn on foreign-policy issues. Armies travel on their stomachs and so do American voters. It's all about the pocketbook. But every so often the pocketbook has a foreign-policy component, which is the case this year -- and it has led to a rather extraordinary shift.
This is the first election in U.S. history in which the most important foreign-policy issue is China. It won't be the last.
Two years ago we had one of those rare elections in which foreign policy mattered. But back then, even in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the foreign-policy focus was on the Iraq War, which served as a referendum on the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror. In 2004 and 2006, the war on terror was the dominant foreign-policy issue. In 2000 foreign policy was not central, but to the extent it played a role, it was it was all about the vision for U.S. leadership in the post-Cold War era. The 1996 vote had a similar theme, plus some focus on the ongoing small wars, notably the upsets in the former Yugoslavia. The 1992 election was influenced by the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. During the Reagan Era Cold War issues drove the agenda. Jimmy Carter was bounced from office largely due to his impotence in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. Prior to that Vietnam and the Cold War were central from 1964-1972.
But during this election cycle the subject of the United States' two wars hardly came up. It is in fact, a tribute to the Obama administration's handling of those wars that, despite their potential to create the formation of political fault lines, they have not. On the contrary, they are one of the few areas in which there is a seeming confluence of views between the parties.
But if you look at campaign ads and listen to campaign rhetoric, China repeatedly arose. China was cited as our top economic rival and as an unfair competitor because of its currency policy, its potential to overtake the U.S. as a global economic leader, and especially its impact on U.S. workers. The giant sucking sound is coming from across the Pacific these days. But unlike that sound in the days of wacky Ross Perot, this time the giant sucking sound is accompanied by the ominous rumblings of a rising superpower -- that many politicians running this year had no problem framing as the United States' natural enemy in the 21st Century.
Much of it was demagoguery. But there was no other foreign policy issue that competed with it for prominence … with the exception of immigration in the border states; a coincidence that reflects a broader theme of turning inward, protectionism and isolationism that threatens to alter the fundamental nature of U.S. international engagement in the long run.
Call it what you will, but this election won't be the last in which China plays such a central role. This administration is also the first, as has been noted here in the past, for which the relationship with China was paramount among all those the United States has worldwide. It was also the first during which China played a central role in an issue outside its region -- as in the case of its important role in the Iranian nuclear issue. It was also the first during which Chinese views began to play a central role driving important international discussions -- from climate, to currency, to coordinating the global economic recovery.
It looks like President Obama's first major visitor of the new year will be Chinese President Hu Jintao. That is no coincidence either.
There are big shifts afoot this election day. And despite what you may read in tomorrow's papers, they have precious little to do with how many House seats the Republicans pick up in these midterm elections.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.