Friday, January 29, 2010

Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell

We are now about two days removed from the State of the Union speech.

As many have observed, the administration's emphasis has shifted from health–care reform to job creation. As one of the long–term unemployed, that is a priority change that I welcome. I feel it is long overdue.

I have said this many times before, but there is no reason not to say it again at this time. Health care reform is important. It needs to be done. But we have to put people back to work first.

Now, I understand that the government can't create jobs. But it can do things to encourage the creation of jobs.

As the major component of his strategy, Barack Obama has resurrected a promise from the campaign trail. About 15 months ago, when Obama entered the final three weeks of the campaign, he pledged to an audience in Ohio that he would give tax credits to businesses that hired Americans in 2009 and 2010.

But, apparently, the idea was abandoned when it failed to get adequate traction in Washington. I'm not an economist, but I felt, at the time, it was the only really promising proposal for dealing immediately with joblessness that I had heard from Obama. And I was disappointed when it was not included in the stimulus package.

Why wasn't it? I don't know the details. The credit that Obama promised was $3,000. Apparently, that amount was not sufficient. "If you have a company and you're selling fewer shingles, $3,000 isn't going to get you to hire somebody when your sales are shrinking," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said more than a year ago.

Well, that sounds logical. And that logic seems to have been bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans apparently objected to the tax credit proposal.

I don't know if Obama and his advisers dug in their heels to any extent when the subject was being discussed. I don't know how hard they fought for it. But the fact that it wasn't included in the stimulus qualified it as a "broken promise," according to PolitiFact.com.

Did they raise the ante before giving in — even with a proposal of a superficial increase so they could save face and still preserve their political capital for their health care reform battle? Or were they more committed to the idea than that? Did they say, "Well, if the amount of the credit isn't enough, how much would be?"

If they didn't, perhaps that is their strategy now.

I can only assume that this tax credit proposal is an idea in which Obama has some faith because he brought it up again last month in a speech at the Brookings Institution. But, at the time, I heard nothing about the amount of the tax credits.

Well, the inadequacy of $3,000 tax credits once again appears to have been an issue. So now, Obama is proposing a $5,000 tax credit per employee hired. But small business owners again say it isn't enough.

So let me ask you something:
  • If health care reform has been put on the back burner, which apparently it has,

  • and if the focus now is on job creation, which apparently it is,

  • and if Obama is serious when he says that he wants to encourage small businesses to hire the unemployed and he believes in this proposal, which apparently he does, even though it was shot down a year ago,

  • and if this tax credit idea is the most significant weapon he has in his arsenal, which it appears to be,

  • and if small businesses are saying the amount of the tax credit that is being proposed is not sufficient, which apparently they are,

  • why not raise the amount of the tax credit to an amount that will make it worth a small business' time and expense to bring on new hires, even hires who have little or no relevant experience?
Even if it is an amount that, under normal circumstances, would be considered extreme, wouldn't that be preferable to another stimulus package that is loaded with pork?

That's the problem, isn't it? These aren't normal circumstances. I didn't major in economics, but my best guess is that a textbook recession would be one that lasts a few months, unemployment takes a short and modest hit and everything follows a clear and recognizable pattern.

This recession is 2 years old, millions of jobs have been lost and there doesn't seem to be anything remotely recognizable about the pattern that may or may not be leading us into a recovery phase. Contrary to what many economists have said, most Americans say they believe a recovery will not begin for at least another two years.

In other words, we're in uncharted waters here.

To be sure, another stimulus package may yet be necessary. Americans have been through many recessions, and economists may tell you that they follow certain patterns, but each is different, it seems to me, each is one of a kind. It may be mild, it may not. Anyway, this is, by almost every account I've read or heard (never mind my own), the most severe economic downturn that nearly all adults living today have experienced. It may require a unique and extensive combination of measures before it is finally tamed.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the most urgent challenge to encourage job creation? And, apparently, the point behind this particular proposal is to encourage job creation by offering a financial incentive for businesses. But if the incentive isn't large enough, what good is it?

Of course, the greater the tax credit is, the more checkpoints may be required. Every effort should be made to prevent businesses from taking advantage of these credits — and the people they are designed to help.

I believe we should do whatever must be done, spend whatever amount must be spent to put the unemployed back to work. It surely will add to the debt in the short term, but won't that be made up for rather quickly by the increase in working Americans who buy the goods and pay the taxes and are able to be full–fledged contributors to the economy once again?

Won't these job credits help make them better citizens — which, in turn, makes a better America?

Isn't that the ultimate goal?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

That's hardly a new phrase.

I'm not sure where it originated. I remember reading in school that Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne wrote, "Saying is one thing and doing is another." That isn't exactly the same thing, although it's kinda sorta in the same ballpark.

But I do know that "actions speak louder than words" is something my mother frequently told my brother and me when, as children, we promised her that we would do something we hadn't been doing.

Perhaps it is the lingering presence of that memory that made that phrase reverberate through my brain during last night's State of the Union speech.

I don't know anyone — either supporter or opponent — who will say that Barack Obama is not a gifted speaker. Clearly, he is.

Maybe that is because people compare him, in their minds, to his predecessors — and, when compared to the linguistically challenged George W. Bush, just about anyone who can express a single, grammatically correct sentence is bound to come out ahead.

But, in an effort to get some confirmation of my feelings, I turned, as I often do, to Facebook, where I reviewed the comments of others.

"Nice enough speech," an old friend of mine wrote. "Hard to get too excited, but after the previous eight years, that's a pretty big improvement right there."

Well, that's a semantic improvement. Substance is another matter altogether.

It's easy for an orator to talk about things. It's quite another to make the tough choices.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad he finally spoke about joblessness. But I can't help wondering why he didn't even mention it on the day when it would have been most appropriate — Labor Day. That day, though, he was busy campaigning for health care reform and preparing to make his speech to the schoolchildren of America.

Obama has been talking the talk. Now let's see if this year he can walk the walk.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The McNugget President

When I was fresh out of college and working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in central Arkansas, I found myself in the press entourage that covered then–former Gov. Bill Clinton and his opponent in the gubernatorial runoff for the Democratic nomination.

Typically, the reporters who were assigned to cover the candidates followed in a separate plane as the candidates bounced around the state, hopping from one small airstrip to the next. At each stop, the reporters would pile into vehicles that were provided by the local campaign workers for whichever candidate the reporters were following that day, and they would be taken to the rally where the candidate would speak.

The candidates usually gave the same speech repeatedly all day — the "speech of the day," as some reporters jokingly referred to it — so, by the third or fourth stop, there really wasn't much point in pulling out your notebook until after the speech was over because that was when newsworthy developments were likely to happen — if they happened at all. And sometimes they didn't.

On one such late spring/early summer afternoon, I recall sitting in the backseat of a campaign staffer's car and being driven to the candidate's local campaign headquarters, where a rally was scheduled. The staffers in the front seat apparently were local businessmen, and one was discussing a new product that he thought was worthy of investment. Those who invested in this product, he assured his companions, would be rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The product was McDonald's Chicken McNuggets — which, as I recall, actually had been introduced in the larger markets, like New York and Los Angeles, a few years earlier, but, as usual, the product didn't make it to Arkansas until its public appeal had been verified elsewhere.

Anyway, I remember this businessman gushing about this product, how simple it was and how it could taste like anything you wanted it to taste like, depending upon which sauce you ordered. No one else in the car had tasted the chicken nuggets before, and we were all enthralled by the idea that one product could be so many things to different people.

Now, personally, Chicken McNuggets have always tasted like chicken to me — no matter which sauce I consumed with them. But some folks swear that they taste different with different sauces.

Well, it occurs to me tonight, as I watch the State of the Union address, that Barack Obama is like those Chicken McNuggets. And that really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

I don't know how often I've heard him refer to himself as a walking Rorschach test, a blank screen upon which people could project anything they wished.

I guess I never really understood what he meant by that before. I should have. Even though I live in Texas, which gave McCain more than 55% of its ballots, I encountered many Obama supporters in the fall of 2008 (Dallas County, where I live, has been devoutly Republican in the past, but it was like a little blue island in a sea of red counties in the northern half of the state that year, giving Obama 57% of its votes). And each one seemed to see a different Obama, even when they watched the same event.

Some of those supporters saw an advocate for homosexuals. Others saw a champion of the elderly. Still others admired his commitment to ending American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan or his defense of the sick and the poor. Then there were those who believed in his support for (or his opposition to) all sorts of other causes — global warming, "green" products, clean energy, animal rights, you name it.

He even had supporters who were on opposite sides of the same issue — and each supported him because he "shared" their views on that issue!

Honestly, how can anyone be expected to prevail over someone who gets credit for being both for and against the same thing?

Whatever you cared about, he cared about. That was his appeal. He was less filling and tastes great, a floor wax and a dessert topping. He was all things to all people.

I don't know. Maybe his rhetoric does taste different, depending upon which sauce you swallow with it.

But, as I say, I've been watching tonight's State of the Union speech. And you know something?

It still tastes like chicken to me.

State of the Union

Barack Obama, in deference to Lost fans who had their hearts set on watching the season premiere on its scheduled date next week, is delivering his State of the Union speech tonight.

CNN.com's Ed Hornick reports that political analysts don't expect the speech to reassure the millions of Americans who are hurting.

Well, there are many issues that need to be addressed. If Obama focuses most of his attention tonight on health care reform, he's going to lose a lot of listeners on both sides of the political aisle.

Joblessness must be dealt with. Most unemployed Americans cannot afford the luxury of giving Obama another year to address a single issue with reforms that won't even go into effect for several years. They need a president who will go to the mat for them on jobs. Now.

He can't create jobs — well, he can't create enough jobs to turn things around over night. But he can propose projects that will create temporary jobs, and he can do things to encourage job creation in the private sector — through tax breaks and the like. He just hasn't.

Perhaps he can explain that tonight. Perhaps he can make it clear that he is shifting his emphasis to things that matter to Americans now, not four or five years from now.

The Miami Herald succinctly summarizes the challenge facing Obama's speech, which will be delivered to an increasingly skeptical public:

"Obama must regain public trust to move his agenda."

We'll see if he is able to do that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brave New World



It's been a week since the voters in Massachusetts chose Republican Scott Brown to replace Edward Kennedy in the Senate.

It's been a brave new world longer than that.

In the world of presidential politics, though, a week sometimes can seem like an eternity. It should be more than enough time to decide how to respond to an electoral setback — which the loss in Massachusetts certainly appears to be for Obama and the Democrats in Congress — and define yourself in the public eye before your opponents can.

But it's the out–of–power Republicans who seem to have seized the initiative — and it is the White House– and Congress–controlling Democrats, who look like they're flailing about in search of an identity.

There has been no shortage of suggestions about what is wrong and what should be done. But no one, in the White House, at least, seems to be listening to any of it. Obama is determined to continue to press for health care reform — and to continue to provide the illustration for Einstein's definition of insanity.

Maybe he's been getting some good advice he hasn't been taking. Maybe he's as egocentric as he often appears. "I'd rather be a really good one–term president than a mediocre two–term president," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer yesterday.

Well, with survey after survey showing doubts about the health care plan, continuing to fight for it without alleviating those concerns sounds to me like when Richard Nixon was justifying his actions in Vietnam because he didn't want to be the first president to lose a war.

When a president's words focus on himself instead of the people, I know who his real priority is — and it ain't me. Doesn't matter how poetic the words are.

Circular firing squad, anyone?

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who was at one time mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama, has been urging the party to move more to the center. I think that should have been done a long time ago, but the White House hasn't acted on that recommendation yet. And, based on its rhetoric, I am not encouraged that it will.

Perhaps it will when everything else implodes — the way Bill Clinton did after the 1994 midterms. But, by then, it may be too late.

Steve Benen writes, in Washington Monthly, that it's time for Democrats to attack Republicans. That's been an effective strategy — for both parties — in the past. But it doesn't really seem adequate for Americans who thought they were voting for change in 2008.

People voted for many kinds of change, but most seemed to be in favor of one in particular — a change in the tone of Washington. To his credit, Obama did try to forge bipartisan support for his policies, but the fact that he so openly courted bipartisanship is the very reason why bashing the opposition would be so unseemly for him now.

Can't you hear it now? Disillusioned voters, hearing Obama slam the Republicans, asking each other, "What's this? This doesn't sound like bipartisanship. It sounds like business as usual."

Obama has talked a good game on bipartisanship. But he's really been following an approach that has more in common with Bush's "my way or the highway" philosophy. He shouldn't be surprised that he was unable to recruit any congressional right–wingers to support a leftist agenda.

He should have been more incremental on health care, and he should have focused on crises that affect every district, like joblessness. Now, it may be too late.

Building a consensus means finding common ground. Basing political campaigns only on attacking the other guys seems hopelessly outdated.

And it certainly doesn't offer anything to voters who have tired of always voting against and would much rather go to the polls armed with reasons to vote for a candidate.

Anyway, while the Democrats seem to be stuck in neutral with their wheels spinning furiously but taking them nowhere, the Republicans are moving forward. Monica Davey reports, in the New York Times, that the GOP has turned its attention to Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, where the Senate seat he once occupied is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, Liz Sidoti writes, for RealClearPolitics, that things have become "even more troubling" for Democrats in the past week. The vice president's son opted not to run for his father's old Senate seat in Delaware, and Marion Berry, a seven–term representative from Arkansas with a moderate voting record, decided to retire.

(Chris Cillizza reports, in the Washington Post, that Senate seats that have been held by appointees are seen as vulnerable — i.e., Obama's old seat in Illinois, Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware — now that Kennedy's seat has fallen.)

Berry represents Arkansas' First District, which has been represented by Democrats nonstop for 120 years. His colleague in the Second District, Vic Snyder, announced his retirement more than a week ago. That's half of the state's representation in the House — and two–thirds of its Democrats.

If the two open House seats — along with the Senate seat currently held by Blanche Lincoln — flip to the Republicans this year, that would mean that more than half of Arkansas' congressional delegation would be Republican.

And that is something that was totally inconceivable when I was growing up there.

Well, the Republicans probably won't be that successful in Arkansas this year, but who knows? I was looking at the website for the newspaper in my hometown last night, and an online poll of readers was posted on the main page. One–third of respondents thought the state's congressional delegation will be split 50–50 next year. Another one–third thought Republicans would hold a 4–to–2 advantage.

Glenn Thrush provides a little insight into Berry's mindset in a piece he wrote for Politico.

"Berry's parting shot, published in the Arkansas Democrat–Gazette ... offers a warning to moderate Democrats and border state moderates — warning of a midterm bloodbath comparable to the 54–seat D–to–R swing in 1994," he writes. "But the jaw–dropper is Berry's claim that President Obama personally dismissed any comparison between Democrats now and under Bill Clinton 16 years ago — by saying his personal popularity would bail everybody out."

Well, if his popularity didn't bail out Martha Coakley in liberal Massachusetts, why should Democrats in more moderate states think affiliation with Obama will be more help to them than Clinton was in 1994?

I think Obama and his advisers are delusional. The Washington Times is more blunt, saying the president is losing his grip on reality. And it's hard to argue the point when Obama insists on claiming that Brown's victory in Massachusetts last week was powered by the same force that resulted in Obama's victory in 2008.

As the Times writes, "The glitch in that worldview is that Mr. Brown ran explicitly against the Obama agenda."

Obama's case is a tough sell for me. OK, I understand the frustration voters had with Republicans and how that led to Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008. But I have been observing American politics most of my life. And there are a few fundamental truths I think have been overlooked — if not downright ignored — by the Democrats. If they don't address them, they're going to be in a world of hurt come November.

In no particular order, they are:
  • Attention spans are short.

    Democrats have consistently reminded me that Republicans were in charge when things went sour — economically, militarily, diplomatically. The economy melted down when Bush was president. America became mired in two wars while Bush was president. Much of the world grew to hate us while Bush was president.

    These are points I can't dispute. But I'm a student of history, and I know that most people are not. Most people don't care how a bad situation began. They only care about the here and now. As they see it, the people who are in office were elected to make things better. If things aren't better now, they'll give someone else a chance.

    In a way, most Americans are like preschoolers who never grew up. Have you ever noticed that, until they learn to tell time — and even for awhile after that — children really only understand two times of day — now and not now?

    If they walk into the kitchen and ask you if dinner is ready, the only meaningful response you can give is "No." You can try to be positive, to give them a little hope by saying "It will be ready soon" or "It will be ready in half an hour," but that introduces a concept they don't understand — yet.

    And it won't help to tell children you've been in the kitchen for a few hours working on it. Voters, like children, care only about results.

    So ...

  • Are things getting better?

    That, I suppose, is a matter of opinion. When Ronald Reagan ran against President Carter in 1980, he connected with voters by asking, at the end of their one and only debate, if they were better off than they were when Carter was elected four years earlier.

    For most folks, it doesn't get much more basic than that. Obama and the Democrats can trot out all the facts and figures they want — improvements in the performance of the stock market, how X plus Y equals Z and when Z is achieved things are better, whatever — but most voters aren't economists. They don't comprehend complex formulas, but they do understand the unemployment rate. They know it was 7.1% nationally in December 2008, and it was 9.7% (adjusted) in December 2009.

    Voters may not know economic theories backwards and forwards, but they know that escalating unemployment is not something that happens when things are getting better.

    Saying it does when it doesn't simply defies logic.

    Consequently ...

  • What have you done for me lately?

    Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics is local." And so it is.

    This may be elementary, but the whole idea behind public servants is that they serve the public, not themselves. Obama has been president for a year. Democrats have been in the majority in Congress for three years. They can blame Bush and the Republicans all they want, but if they can't point to any recent, major accomplishments that improve things for the people, like putting a dent in unemployment, voters will wonder what became of that "hope" and "change" rhetoric.

    Sure, you can remind them how it felt on Election Night 2008 when Obama was the winner and hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Grant Park to hear the One speak.

    But the problem is they already bought that bill of goods. Now they want to see what they got for their investment. Some folks are concluding they didn't get what they thought they were getting.

  • Voting a certain way in an election does not equal a lifetime commitment.

    I can't tell you how many people have told me that certain states will not vote Republican because they voted for Obama in 2008. Did the voters in those states sign a loyalty oath? I'm no lawyer, but I believe it is illegal to force someone to sign a loyalty oath as a condition for voting.

    In 2008, it was shocking when states like Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina voted Democratic. That was something those states hadn't done in a long time. But the fact that they did in no way committed them to do so again.

    And I would argue that history suggests that most states follow certain trends, even if they occasionally go in a different direction. That's how Massachusetts came to be known as a liberal Democratic state.

    At least until a week ago.
In the end, Bob Herbert of the New York Times asks a question today that needs to be answered: "Who is Barack Obama?"

You may think you know because you know his personal story. A lot of people felt that way when they went to the polls in November 2008. But now, after a year of Obama, many Americans are wondering who he is, as Herbert points out.

It is unsettling to feel that you don't really know who your president is, even after he has been in office a year.

"Mr. Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted," Herbert writes. "He is creating a credibility gap for himself, and if it widens much more he won't be able to close it."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Obama's Opportunism



When Bill Clinton was president, he was often criticized — and, perhaps, deservedly so — for political opportunism.

Among those who criticized him were people who later became (and many still remain) enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama. I find that to be hypocritical because Obama strikes me as being as much of an opportunist as Clinton ever was. If not more so.

Actually, it seems to me that anyone who goes into politics and manages to succeed to any degree is an opportunist. A politician may start out as a staunch advocate for whatever cause he/she may think is critical, and he/she may ride a wave of what is at least perceived to be genuine discontent over that issue to office, but, sooner or later, that politician must bow — at least to a certain extent and often temporarily — to whatever worries his/her constituents the most. It's the law of survival.

Thus, it was with some interest that I noted Obama's visit to Ohio this week.

Now, Obama's political survival is not on the line this year, but all the signs indicate that the members of his party who must face the voters this year are hunkering down in survival mode.

And with good reason.

As you can see from the chart I have attached to this post from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in Ohio has been higher than the national rate for much of the last 20 years. Perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the fact that Ohio is in the industrial midwest, which is usually vulnerable during economic downturns.

Whatever the reason(s) may be, if unemployment is going up in Ohio, I think you can be sure that a recession is occurring in the rest of America. Ohio's unemployment rate broke the double–digit barrier last spring, months before the national rate followed suit.

And this week, following Republican Scott Brown's victory in the special election in Massachusetts — coming on the heels of Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey — Obama appears to have gotten the message that voters are (a) worried about the cost of the health care reform plan and (b) convinced that not nearly enough is being done to encourage job creation, even though, nationally, unemployment is in double digits.

Obama remains personally popular in Massachusetts and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. (Do you hear me, conspiracy theorists? They like him. They really like him.) But that popularity doesn't transfer easily to others — and it's especially hard when the historically unreliable voting blocs that showed up to elect Obama aren't motivated to turn out when he isn't on the ballot.

Now, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts is not as severe as it is in Ohio or the nation at large. But it is certainly bad enough. When Massachusetts' voters went to the polls in November 2008 and gave Obama nearly 62% of their ballots, unemployment in the Bay State was slightly higher than 6%, a little more than a full percentage point higher than it was when George W. Bush ran for re–election against John Kerry in 2004 but considerably higher than the state's 2.7% unemployment rate when Bush was elected president in 2000.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the unemployment rate in Massachusetts is 9.4%. I don't know how much attention either Brown or Martha Coakley gave it during the campaign, but I'm sure an unemployment rate that has more than tripled in the last 10 years was a factor for the voters.

The fact that the economy shed 85,000 jobs in December couldn't have helped the party in power, either.

(For that matter, New Jersey's unemployment rate was 9.7% when it elected a Republican governor in November. It cracked double digits in December. Virginia's unemployment rate is, by comparison, relatively modest — 6.9% — but it, too, has risen dramatically since the state voted for Obama in November 2008, when unemployment was below 5%.)

Obama's trip to Ohio may well have been planned months ahead of time, but the timing couldn't have been worse for a president who clearly prefers to tinker with the health care system instead of promote job creation.

Reality demanded that Obama at least give some lip service to joblessness when he visited the Cleveland suburbs of Lorain and Elyria, which he did. But I found it to be fleeting, obligatory, almost a tactic, a verbal bridge to what he really wanted to talk about — health care reform. And, to my disappointment (but, frankly, not really to my surprise), his enablers in the media have been all too willing to keep the spotlight on health care reform.

"You know," a friend of mine said to me after it was pointed out that the last president who tried to lead his party through a midterm election year that was plagued by double–digit unemployment was Ronald Reagan, "at least he's ahead of Reagan in one way. He doesn't stick his head in the sand about anything. Reagan wouldn't discuss financial assistance for AIDS research, wouldn't even say 'AIDS' in public until his old pal, Rock Hudson, died of it. And, by that time, so much time had been lost that it took years for us to catch up."

Aware as I am of the tragic and shameful treatment the federal government gave AIDS research in the early years, I have to wonder ... just what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

There's so much misdirection in political discourse these days. I haven't decided if it's a little better now — maybe it's worse? — than it was in 2004, when some people wanted to address the very issues that contributed to a major crisis while others were intent only on talking about the threat posed by gay marriage.

Obama conceded that "[t]hese are difficult and unsettling times," which couldn't have come as a surprise to any of his listeners, and he proceeded to repeat his vague and unconvincing claims that his policies had "saved" jobs. Yep, times are hard. But he insisted that "the worst of this economic storm has passed" because of the steps he and the Democrats in Washington have taken.

I would argue that the unemployment figures alone tell a different story. And the results of a recent Gallup Poll are on my side. Gallup reports that two–thirds of Americans believe an economic recovery won't start for at least another two years.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between Obama and ordinary Americans on this issue.

In truth, I find it ironic that Obama came to Ohio, where he received far more credit for addressing joblessness than he actually deserved. In October 2008, in Toledo, about 75 miles to the west–northwest of where he spoke yesterday, Obama addressed voters during his campaign against John McCain.

During that campaign stop, Obama pledged to offer tax credits to businesses that hired Americans in 2009 and 2010. The idea probably met a receptive audience in Lucas County. Unemployment was 8.8% there in October 2008 (by the following June, it had soared to 14.6%), but the plan was not part of the stimulus package that Obama and the Democrats rammed through Congress nearly a year ago.

Consequently, PolitiFact rates it a broken promise.

The rhetoric yesterday was much the same as we've heard for the last year. "So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I will not stop fighting for you," he said. "I will take my lumps. But I won't stop fighting to bring back jobs here."

Well, some people are still buying it, but the approval ratings suggest that not as many are. Anyway, as far as I can tell, the priorities haven't shifted significantly. The emphasis is still on health care. He spoke about hitting a "buzz saw" with the loss of Ted Kennedy's seat, and he made it clear that health care was still at the top of his agenda. "This is our best chance to do it," he said. "We can't keep on putting this off."

They just don't get it, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert marveled.

"How loud do the alarms have to get? There is an economic emergency in the country with millions upon millions of Americans riddled with fear and anxiety as they struggle with long–term joblessness, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and dwindling opportunities for themselves and their children," Herbert wrote.

"The door is being slammed on the American dream and the politicians, including the president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, seem not just helpless to deal with the crisis, but completely out of touch with the hardships that have fallen on so many."

You know, just when I think Herbert can't get any more on target, he writes a column like the one in today's Times. And he raises the bar another notch or two.

I hate to keep quoting him, and I certainly do recommend that you read the column for yourself, but here's an observation that is simply too good not to share.

"The Democrats still hold the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress," he writes. "The idea that they are not spending every waking hour trying to fix the broken economic system and put suffering Americans back to work is beyond pathetic. Deficit reduction is now the mantra in Washington, which means that new large–scale investments in infrastructure and other measures to ease the employment crisis and jump–start the most promising industries of the 21st century are highly unlikely.

"What we'll get instead is rhetoric. It's cheap, so we can expect a lot of it."


Amen.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Living in the Past


"Once I used to join in
Every boy and girl was my friend.
Now there's revolution, but they don't know
What they're fighting.
Let us close our eyes;
Outside their lives go on much faster.
Oh, we won't give in,
We'll keep living in the past."


Jethro Tull

From time to time, we've all done it.

We've all made mental trips back to a time when we were happiest. But, sooner or later, most of us give ourselves a mental goose and we come back to the present — as unsatisfying as it may be.

Some of us return to our childhoods to bask in the love of parents and grandparents and others who are gone.

If you used to have your own home, but have been forced out of it by the bad economy and have been living with friends or relatives or living in a shelter, who could blame you for looking back on your days of home ownership with a sense of longing?

If you've had a job most of your adult life but you lost your job in the tsunami that left millions unemployed or underemployed, it should be no wonder if you find yourself wishing you had a place to go each day, a sense of security (and identity) and a stable income.

If you are Barack Obama, apparently, you believe that this is still November 2008, you are president–elect and everyone with whom you come in contact finds it acceptable to blame the Bush administration.

He seems particularly bewildered by the apparent defection of independents, who were instrumental in his election.

"The president's aides were quick to accept some blame yesterday for the loss of the [Massachusetts] Senate seat but also offered a long list of failings by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and her team, including her decision to vacation during the campaign and a failure to vigorously pursue votes during the final weeks," writes Michael Shear in the Washington Post.

"White House aides rejected the idea that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on Obama. The Democratic candidate was leading by double digits just weeks ago, an indication, they said, that the political environment set by the president was not dragging her down.

"But they struggled to explain how a Democratic Party that found such success in 2008 has now lost three consecutive major races, including contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia last November."


In other words, this is not Obama's fault. Sounds like a familiar refrain. Well, whose fault is it? Martha Coakley's? She was, after all, being referred to as Martha "Chokely" even before the voters in Massachusetts went to the polls.

There's no doubt, as far as I'm concerned, that Coakley ran a poor campaign. After nailing down her party's nomination last month, she made a lot of mistakes, many of which appear to be the result of her assumption that being a Democrat in Massachusetts entitled her to the Senate seat that was held by Ted Kennedy for so long.

If Massachusetts had been an isolated incident, I might have been inclined to agree with the assessment that comes from the White House, that this was Coakley's defeat, not Obama's, not the Democratic Party's.

But what conclusion can one reach when Democrats also lost their grasp on the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia less than three months ago?

And what kind of a future do they see for themselves when polls are showing difficult Senate races brewing for Democratic incumbents in places like Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada? What about the challenge Democrats face in trying to hold on to seats that are being vacated by Democratic incumbents in places like North Dakota, Obama's home state of Illinois and Vice President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware?

My guess would be that most voters in those states know very little about the kind of campaign Coakley ran in Massachusetts, but they know a lot about what the president has been doing for the last year. They know unemployment is worse than it was when he took office, and they don't like it. They hear the excuses and the rationalizations. They've heard the claims that things would be much worse if the Democrats hadn't done the things they did, and they may concede that there is some truth in that. And they've heard the suggestions that X number of jobs have been "saved" by Obama's policies. They can't verify whether any jobs have been saved, but those who are unemployed can be absolutely certain that their jobs were not among those that were "saved."

What shouldn't be hard for anyone to understand is that these people are in pain. And they know they elect presidents to do something about it. So far, they have not had the sense that this president and this Congress are doing much to ease their suffering.

Charles Krauthammer writes, in the Washington Post, that Democrats missed the point. "After Coakley's defeat, Obama pretended that the real cause was a generalized anger and frustration 'not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years.' Let's get this straight: The antipathy to George W. Bush is so enduring and powerful that ... it just elected a Republican senator in Massachusetts? Why, the man is omnipotent."

Coakley appears to have lost independent voters by a wide margin, and that echoes recent findings in public opinion polls that show dispirited independents across the country abandoning the Democrats little more than a year after helping them win the White House.

"One senior Democratic strategist said that in conversations he had with party leaders, there seemed to be an unwillingness on the part of the White House to acknowledge the party's new problem with independent voters, who were key to Obama's victory," Shear writes.

"Administration officials said the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat might give upcoming races across the country a jolt, awakening state parties to the perils of fielding weak candidates and giving national Democrats justification to weigh in on problematic campaigns. If there is a silver lining, they said, it is that no Democrats are now unaware of how endangered their power — and their congressional majority — is."

Well, there is wisdom in that, I guess. Obama and the Democrats seem to be encountering the same problems the party faced when Bill Clinton was taken to the woodshed by the voters in his first midterm election. The difference is that they have been given an early warning, thanks to Kennedy's death and the special election to choose his successor.

But, if they had studied their history, they would have seen the parallels between the Obama presidency and the Clinton presidency — which almost certainly would have helped them to see the perils of the path they were taking.

Health care reform is certainly important, but, in a nation facing double–digit unemployment, the more pressing issue now is putting millions of out–of–work Americans back to work. Obama and the Democrats have come across as not particularly caring about that. Through their insistence upon repeatedly blaming others for mounting job losses, they have given voters the less than reassuring sense that they don't know what to do about unemployment so they pass the buck.

Well, if the special election in Massachusetts has opened their eyes to the reality, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe now they will focus their attention where it needs to be focused, which may save some legislative seats for the party — in both the House and Senate.

But a lifetime of observing not just politics in America in general but Democratic politics in particular tells me Democrats will not heed the lesson.

I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, "Citizen Kane," in which a corrupt politician tries unsuccessfully to blackmail Kane into dropping out of the governor's race by threatening to reveal his extramarital affair.

"If it was anybody else, I'd say what's going to happen to you would be a lesson to you," he told the arrogant Kane. "Only you're going to need more than one lesson. And you're going to get more than one lesson."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Shifting Political Tides


A timeless reminder of the wages of arrogance.


I don't know how much of a role the results of the special election in Massachusetts played in this, but The Rothenberg Political Report moved the Senate seat of incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to its "Lean Takeover" category today.

"Given the bent of Independent voters (in the recent Massachusetts special election but also in national surveys), we are increasingly doubtful that the Arkansas Democratic Senator can win another term," says the Report. It gives Lincoln some wiggle room and notes that things can change. We don't yet know the identity of Lincoln's Republican challenger, it observes, and the economy could improve.

"Still, the burden of proof has shifted in our minds, from requiring Republicans to prove that they can defeat Lincoln to requiring Lincoln to show she can win re–election."

Well, I guess that confirms something I wrote yesterday, only a few hours after Scott Brown claimed victory in the special election:

"I'm inclined to think that yesterday's election changes America's political landscape as indisputably as the use of nuclear weapons against Japan changed the world in 1945," I wrote. "Our political world today is not what it was yesterday."

I still believe that, but I don't think a consensus has been reached yet about what this really means. But The Rothenberg Political Report touches on an important part.

It doesn't mention the political world that existed a year ago, when Obama had just taken the oath of office and enjoyed, according to Gallup, a 68% approval rating. In those heady days for Democrats, the skies were blue and so was the political terrain. But things are far different today. Obama's approval rating hovers around 50%, and Democrats have lost the governorships of two states and the Senate seat that was held for nearly five decades by the liberal lion, Ted Kennedy.

The editorial writers at the New York Times, for example, insist that the Massachusetts election was not a verdict on Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, the editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune, while never mentioning the special election, seem to be making implications based on the results in their editorial today. The Tribune, it should be said, is a conservative newspaper, but it broke a 161–year–old tradition when it endorsed Obama in 2008.

And that, I suppose, frees the Tribune to opine about Obama whenever it likes. And however it likes.
"In his book 'The Audacity of Hope,' Barack Obama had the insight to explain much of his political appeal. 'I serve as a blank screen,' he wrote, 'on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.' That lack of definition proved a big asset in the presidential campaign, allowing him to attract support from liberals who saw Hillary Rodham Clinton as too hawkish, moderates who saw her as too liberal, and independents who saw John McCain as too conservative and too partisan.

"But in his first year in office, the president has had to fill in that screen. And many Americans are disillusioned with the picture that has emerged."


Chicago Tribune

Meanwhile, the San Diego Union–Tribune thinks what happened on the East Coast could well happen on the West Coast.

"Scott Brown's decisive and historic victory in the U.S. Senate race in the Bay State could be a bad sign for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's re–election chances in November," the paper says.

The Union–Tribune, like the city it serves, is politically conservative — so what it says about Boxer should be taken with a grain of salt. But, given the high unemployment and the serious budget problems facing California, it is not inappropriate to think that anti–incumbent fervor could affect Boxer's chances in the fall. Those independent voters get cranky when times are tough, and they lash out at incumbents, whoever they are.

In the past, U.S. News & World Report has had a more conservative reputation than other newsmagazines with which it has been in competition. So it's probably a good idea to keep that in mind when you read anything from that publication.

Even so, Mary Kate Cary says the election in Massachusetts should guide Democrats to the political center. I gather that she is speaking of Democrats in general, not merely the Democrats in Massachusetts. At this point, of course, no one can say whether Democrats like Lincoln or Boxer will run into trouble in November, but if last fall's elections in New Jersey and Virginia — and Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts — tell Democrats anything, it is that there is widespread dissatisfaction in America today. It is not unreasonable to think that it could stretch from sea to shining sea.

Will that lead to a Republican takeover in one or both of the houses of Congress? I don't know, but I presume Cary uses the Clinton presidency as her model for Obama to follow, as many observers are doing. Such thoughts don't necessarily concede control of Congress to the Republicans, but they do imply that Democrats are expected to be dealt a setback in November, as often happens to the party in power in midterm elections. Sometimes the setback is significant. Other times, not so much.

If that happens — and, personally, I believe the Democrats will sustain significant losses this year — Obama, like Clinton, may have to devote most of his time and energy to bolstering his case for a second term. I don't know if the Democrats will lose enough seats to lose their majority status, but I do believe they will lose seats in both houses.

And, in that case, the demands of survival mode will dictate that a more moderate approach will be necessary. It has happened before. In the historical context, fairly recently, in fact.

Think back to before the days of impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal — when the Republicans overwhelmed the Democrats in 1994 and captured control of both houses of Congress. After the election, Bill Clinton moved more to the center, which was the ideological territory he staked out for himself in the 1992 campaign. He seemed to abandon it after taking the oath of office in 1993. After losing majority status in 1994, his party didn't retake Congress for more than 10 years, but Clinton was re–elected in 1996 after repositioning himself.

Perhaps, if Obama moves more to the center now and refocuses his attention on the things people are saying that they are concerned about — like joblessness — he may be able to minimize his party's losses in November.

It's worth a try.

Mea Culpa

In August 2008, John Edwards acknowledged that the rumors that had been circulating for almost a year that he had had an affair were true.

He continued to deny that he was the father of a child who was born to his lover. But today, he admitted it.

I guess that was his mea culpa.

I don't want to dwell on this topic too much — except to say this.

Until January 2008, when Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, I was one of his supporters.

When he finally confessed to the affair in August 2008, I observed that "The voters of America can be very forgiving if a candidate is honest about these matters when they come up. But they tend to be less forgiving of liars."

Consequently, I have to believe that, if Edwards continued to believe that he might someday be a contender for his party's presidential nomination — and continued to deny that his lover's child was his in the belief that he might yet have a chance to occupy the Oval Office — this revelation has to bring any such hopes to an end.

But, even if it doesn't end his hopes of running for president again, it has ended any chance that I will support his candidacy again.

This is my mea culpa.

You see, in my life, I've been lied to by the best — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Joe Isuzu. Edwards is a rather artless liar, even worse than Nixon although he did follow Nixon's lead. He steadfastly refused to tell the truth until he was absolutely forced to do so.

I take no pleasure from saying this. A few years ago, I thought Edwards was the best choice to be president. But Edwards himself has proven that conclusion to be wrong.

One more thing.

Edwards was appropriately contrite when speaking of the daughter he refused to acknowledge for so long. "It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter," he said, "and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me."

I hope she will forgive him, too. But for her sake. Not his.

And the Password Is ...

I went online nearly 14 years ago.

Things were a lot simpler then, to say the least. In those days, you had to use the dial–up method each time you went online. High–speed connections were still off in the future. Passwords were being used, but not for everything. The internet may have been a lucrative target for technologically minded criminals, but it was probably more on a business basis. There simply weren't enough individual users, regardless of their financial value, to make it worthwhile to prey on them.

But things have changed.

Today, individuals can do so many things online that they could not do efficiently in the mid–1990s. They can go shopping without leaving their homes. They can look for a job or a new house. They can review their checking and savings account balances. They can search genealogical records for their ancestors. They can locate long–lost friends. In 2010, it almost seems as if there is nothing that cannot be done if one has a computer and an internet account.

The convenience of the internet has prompted a (pardon the pun) virtual explosion in users.

And, to gain access to almost all of their personal accounts, even free ones, for just about anything, they have to provide a user name and a password.

Humans are creatures of habit, I suppose. Some people — and I plead guilty to doing this myself on occasion — fall back on passwords they've been using for everything for more than a decade, and these passwords are usually simple. It makes it easier for the user to remember them, which seems to be a plus at a time when people have to remember so many passwords.

And, as both the New York Times and the Washington Post are reporting today, a recent analysis suggests that this practice leaves many internet users vulnerable.

Ashlee Vance of the New York Times calls it "the digital equivalent of a key under the doormat."

Last month, a still–unknown hacker gained access to a list of 32 million common passwords from a company that makes software for social networking sites. That list was posted briefly on the internet, where it could be accessed by both hackers and security researchers.

Today, the Times ran a list of the 32 most popular passwords from that list. Have you used — or do you use — any of these passwords?
  1. 123456

  2. 12345

  3. 123456789

  4. password

  5. iloveyou

  6. princess

  7. rockyou

  8. 1234567

  9. 12345678

  10. abc123

  11. nicole

  12. daniel

  13. babygirl

  14. monkey

  15. jessica

  16. lovely

  17. michael

  18. ashley

  19. 654321

  20. qwerty

  21. iloveu

  22. michelle

  23. 111111

  24. 0

  25. tigger

  26. password1

  27. sunshine

  28. chocolate

  29. anthony

  30. angel

  31. FRIENDS

  32. soccer
If you want some tips for choosing a "strong" password to protect your most sensitive information, go here.

And, for more information that may help you make your passwords harder for hackers to detect, I recommend that you read the articles in today's Times and Post. Just follow the links in this post.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Fallout From Massachusetts

I don't know what Barack Obama may have imagined in the last 12 months whenever he anticipated his first anniversary in office.

But I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that, even in his lowest moments, he didn't think the Democrats would gain — and then, within a few months, lose — their filibuster–proof status in the Senate, especially with the loss of the seat that was held for so long by Edward Kennedy, on the day before Obama's first anniversary as president.

Republicans may have fantasized about it, but only those who were completely resistant to the notion of jinxes permitted such thoughts to take root.

Democrats may have feared it, but most of them seemed to be in denial until the very last days, by which time it was probably too late to rescue Martha Coakley's foundering campaign.

Well, Republican Scott Brown claimed a victory in Tuesday's special election that probably would have been considered impossible nearly five months ago, when Kennedy was buried.

It may seem melodramatic to say this, but I'm inclined to think that yesterday's election changes America's political landscape as indisputably as the use of nuclear weapons against Japan changed the world in 1945.

Our political world today is not what it was yesterday.

Today, on the morning after the election in Massachusetts, Democrats are playing the blame game, reports the Associated Press.

Certainly, there are many ways to spin this, and people on both ends of the spectrum are spinning like tops today.
  • Rich Lowry of the New York Post says it shows that "[a] truck, a Twitter account and an unassuming guy can move the world."

    That seems a little grandiose to me. The only folks who voted were residents of Massachusetts, although their group decision could be said to have made the rest of the world sit up and take notice.

  • "There's no way for the Democrats to soft–pedal the historic thumping that Republican Scott Brown delivered to Democrat Martha Coakley," writes Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.

    He acknowledges that Coakley's defeat is a wakeup call for Obama and other Democrats, as well as an indication that the president needs to listen more. But he resists the suggestion that it means Obama and the Democrats should abandon health care reform. "Who elected Massachusetts to decide for the rest of the country whether we move forward on the bill?" he asks.

    I would have thought that Alter had been observing American politics long enough to know better. While this may come as something of a shock to those who are somewhat new to American politics and/or history, that's the way this game is played, especially during midterm years.

    Endangered Democrats who want to be re–elected in jurisdictions that are less progressive than Massachusetts are taking a different lesson from the results than Alter apparently is. And they are seeing caveats in the vote totals.

    If a solidly Democratic state like Massachusetts can elect a Republican to take Ted Kennedy's place in the Senate, what will that mean in states like Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Colorado (Michael Bennet) or Nevada (Harry Reid)? It might even have consequences in states with more moderate political reputations, like Pennsylvania (Arlen Specter) or California (Barbara Boxer). It certainly seems likely to have ramifications where Democratic seats are open, like Illinois, North Dakota and Delaware.

    If Massachusetts can fall, Democrats across the country are telling each other today, anything is possible.

  • I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year — the primary contests as well as the general election campaigns. Congressional Democrats, whether they are in the House or Senate, cannot take their renominations for granted, particularly if they represent states or districts that have been hit hard by joblessness, as most have.

    As Philip Klein observes in The American Spectator, "Obamacare [may] not [be] done for quite yet, [but] in football terms, its status went from 'probable' to 'doubtful' virtually overnight."

  • TIME's Karen Tumulty chimes in, saying Brown "pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in modern political history, potentially dealing a crippling blow to President Obama's agenda."

    Potentially is one of those words that leaves a lot of wiggle room.

    Clearly, we'll have to see how the rest of this election year plays out, but unless the Democrats can find a way to take a seat from the Republicans — or somehow avoid additional losses in 2010 and then capture a Republican–held seat in another special election in a different state before 2012 — Brown's victory seems all but certain to deprive the Democrats of a filibuster–proof Senate for the remainder of Obama's term in office.

    And that will affect the legislative agenda. It's rather elementary, isn't it?

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Lanny Davis insists that it wasn't Coakley's poorly run campaign that led to this setback for the Democrats. "This was a defeat not of the messenger, but of the message," writes Davis, "and the sooner progressive Democrats face up to that fact, the better."

  • While many Democrats are, no doubt, feeling glum today, Jeff Jacoby states, in the Boston Globe, that they have been given a "blessing in disguise" by Massachusetts' voters "if only they are wise enough to recognize it."

    The voters, Jacoby says, "have provided the president a priceless second chance to adjust his political course, move toward the center, and deliver at least some of the bipartisan cooperation that was at the heart of his once–enormous appeal."
But, when all is said and done, I'm inclined to agree with John Judis, who writes, in The New Republic, that Obama's problem isn't in Massachusetts, where polls show he is still personally popular, but in the nation as a whole.

And, as Jacoby observes in the Globe, Obama has been given a chance to adjust the course of the ship of state before it strikes a reef. The real question is whether he and the Democrats will act upon their knowledge.

"Bill Clinton didn't know he was in big trouble until the very eve of the November 1994 election," Judis points out. "Barack Obama knows now, barely a year into his presidency."

It's almost like suggesting that the captain of the Titanic could have been warned about the icebergs he would encounter in April 1912 nearly a year before embarking on his voyage.

So I wonder: If Captain Smith had been told, in June 1911, that there were likely to be icebergs in his path, would he have adjusted his course? Or would he have clung to the misguided belief that his ship was unsinkable?

What will Obama do?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Era of Kennedy Is Over

I guess it officially happened last August, when Edward Kennedy lost his battle with brain cancer.

But, if there was any lingering doubt, Scott Brown's apparent victory over Martha Coakley in today's special election in Massachusetts to pick Kennedy's successor puts an exclamation point on it.

With the death of Ted Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers, the Kennedy political dynasty, such as it was, was over. I remember hearing, when I was a small child, some of the adults in my world warning that Bobby Kennedy, and then Ted Kennedy, each would be elected to two terms as president, creating a "royal family" in American politics. As it turned out, of course, Bobby was killed when he sought the Democratic nomination, and Teddy's chances of being elected were forever dashed when Mary Jo Kopechne died at Chappaquiddick the following year.

Ted Kennedy Jr. could have sought his father's seat, even though he lives in another state. Apparently, because he owns property in Massachusetts, he would be eligible to serve as its senator, based on existing state law. His cousin, Bobby's son Joe, could have run for the seat but chose not to. Ted Kennedy's widow could have been a candidate but ruled it out.

But just the name by itself would not have been satisfactory. The real magic of the Kennedy name came from the brothers. None of the next generation of Kennedys — with the possible exception of the long dead John F. Kennedy Jr. — possessed the public appeal that might have been capable of capturing that lightning–in–a–bottle feeling that permeated Camelot.

Brown's victory may well be a perfect political storm. When the seat comes up for a full six–year term in 2012, Massachusetts voters may return to their roots. It is reasonable to expect that Barack Obama will be at the top of the ballot, seeking re–election, and if he remains personally popular, it is equally reasonable to expect that he will attract many of the same sporadic voters who gave him his huge margin in Massachusetts but may well have been unmotivated to participate in the special election, as some voting groups are apt to be in these midterm races.

But even if a Democrat unseats Brown in 2012 — and even if that Democrat is named Kennedy — it will never be the same. The next generation of the Kennedys is now in middle age, and the only one who ever showed the voter appeal of the previous generation was JFK Jr.

Unless one of his cousins emerges to pick up the dropped torch, the era of the Kennedys is over.

The Patriotism of Robert E. Lee



He has been called the greatest general ever produced in America, even though he was on the losing side in the greatest military conflict of his life.

Today is the 203rd birthday of Robert E. Lee. And, while history does remember him as the commander of the losing side in the Civil War, he easily could have led the winning forces. He was approached about being the general of the Union troops, but he would not fight against Virginia, his home state, after it seceded.

So he commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. But did you know that he never wore the insignia of a Confederate general? He only wore the three stars worn by a Confederate colonel, which was equal to the last rank he had achieved in the U.S. Army.

Lee was a patriot, and, like Abraham Lincoln, he wished to keep the Union intact. "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," he wrote in a letter to his son.

Yes, Lee was a patriot. But he was somewhat soft–spoken by today's standards. Much of what he said was expressed in letters, like one he wrote to one of his generals several months after Lee surrendered. "True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same."

Lee's desire to do right led him to say, "We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them."

When the war was over, a woman spoke to him of her hatred of the North. He replied, "Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans."

And, on one occasion several years after the war, Lee responded, after hearing Ulysses S. Grant insulted by a faculty member at what is now Washington & Lee University, "Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university."

There are people who believe his love for and devotion to his home state trumped his instincts about slavery. Some attempt to apply 20th and 21st century standards to a 19th century man.

It is true that, before the war began, Lee had freed the slaves his wife had inherited. But a letter he wrote to his wife five years before the outbreak of the war can be interpreted in several ways:
"In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise merciful Providence."

Journalist Douglas Freeman wrote, in 1934, that Southerners of faith in the 19th century, like Lee, "believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill–effects of Negro slavery on both races."

Nevertheless, it is true that, after the war, Lee spoke of his "willingness that blacks should be educated." It would, he said, "be better for the blacks and for the whites," but it was nearly a century before Southern schools were integrated.

It is beyond dispute, as far as I can see, that Lee believed in education. "The education of a man is never completed," he said, "until he dies."

It would hardly be fair to expect anyone from the 19th century to live up to the standards that prevailed a century or two later. Even so, some have applied those standards to Lee's contemporaries, like Abraham Lincoln, as I observed nearly a year ago on the eve of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.

Presumably, through the application of similar logic, some people who have never lived in the South have harbored a prejudice against all white Southerners — because of slavery, because of the Civil War, because of the Ku Klux Klan, because of racist politicians, because of racism in general.

But not all white Alabamians were George Wallace, not all white Arkansans were Orval Faubus, not all white Georgians were Lester Maddox. The Wallaces, Faubuses and Maddoxes made it harder for progressive Southerners to be visible, but they were there. I know because I saw them.

It is important to remember — the day after Martin Luther King Day, the day of Massachusetts' special election to choose Ted Kennedy's Senate successor — that no region of this country has a monopoly on racism. School busing, as a means to achieve school desegregation, is maybe the best example.

When I was growing up, my hometown in Arkansas was much smaller than it is today. In those days, it was a rural community with many families, including mine, living outside the city limits. The likelihood of any family living outside the city limits had little to do with race. It was more of an economic thing, in both a positive and negative sense. There were places where lower–income families lived, and there were areas where middle– and higher–income families, in which the parents were better educated and had better jobs, bought land and built homes.

School segregation existed in my hometown before I enrolled in first grade, but integration was in effect by the time I did so I have no first–hand memory of segregated schools. There was never a time when there were no blacks in school with me. And there was never a time — at least that I can recall — when anyone, white or black, resisted school integration in my hometown.

But I do have a first–hand memory of riding school buses. As far–flung as the families were in my hometown, everyone except those who lived a short distance from school rode the bus. It was a normal, everyday experience for me.

It was, therefore, stunning for me — and, I presume, others my age, although I don't remember speaking at length with any of my friends about it — when places like Boston erupted in race riots over school busing. I couldn't really comprehend the issues that were involved. All I could see was adults getting into fights over something that I saw as a fact of life.

Well, it's tough enough to do the right thing in your own time. Never mind what the folks 100 or 150 years from now will think.

Lee himself seemed to comprehend that simple fact.

"After it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see that mistakes were made," he said. "I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Keeping It Brief

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of a really important event.

On Jan. 19, 1935, a company called Coopers Inc. sold the world's first briefs in downtown Chicago. They were given the name "Jockey" because, previously, the only thing that gave men the same kind of support was the jockstrap.

The undergarments were wildly popular, and Coopers, which had been founded in 1876 by a fellow named Samuel Cooper, was renamed Jockey International.

And that's how the choice between boxers and briefs was born.

It's Complicated

There's a movie called "It's Complicated" that is currently getting a lot of Oscar ink.

It's a comedy, but the title sounds like it would be good for a subject that isn't a comedy — like, say, for example, the U.S. economy.

I've been reading Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times. His subject is the second–year second–guessing of the Barack Obama administration, specifically the suggestion that Obama tried to do too much by taking on health care reform in his first year instead of focusing on the economy.

Krugman takes exception. "The Obama administration's troubles are the result not of excessive ambition, but of policy and political misjudgments," he writes. "The stimulus was too small; policy toward the banks wasn't tough enough; and Mr. Obama didn't do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations."

As Krugman explains, the stimulus has helped, but it wasn't big enough. Likewise, not taking a harder line on the banks "further entrenched the power of the very institutions that caused the crisis, even as it failed to revive lending."

That brings us to the Reagan example. Reagan, like Obama, inherited a bad economy, but unemployment, as Krugman puts it, "soared" when the 1981 tax cuts were enacted. "Reagan, however, had a ready answer for critics," Krugman writes, "everything going wrong was the result of the failed policies of the past. In effect, Reagan spent his first few years in office continuing to run against Jimmy Carter."

Well, Obama may not have been personally blaming Bush every time he opened his mouth in the last 12 months, but many of his supporters have permitted few opportunities to blame the previous administration get away. Most of the time, they can't wait to indulge in some finger pointing.

Why hasn't Obama been more vocal in his criticism of the Bush administration? "Maybe he still dreams of bridging the partisan divide," Krugman suggests, "maybe he fears the ire of pundits who consider blaming your predecessor for current problems uncouth — if you're a Democrat. (It's O.K. if you're a Republican.)"

Seems to me that last bit about Democrats and Republicans very conveniently ignores the fact that, depending on which party was in power, both Democrats and Republicans have played that game, and both have been criticized for it. It's like the argument some Democrats (and some publications, too, like the New York Times) have been making about how anti–democratic the filibuster is. They were both singing a different song when Democrats were in the minority.

To use a line that the adults seemed to be fond of repeating when I was growing up, it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

Well, the argument over whether it was wise to devote so much time and energy to health care reform may be moot in another 36 hours, when we know who Massachusetts' voters have elected as Ted Kennedy's successor in the Senate. Currently, the momentum appears to be with the Republican candidate, and, if he wins, the Democrats will no longer have 60 votes to block Republican filibusters.

That would leave Obama without the signature legislation he sought — and with an unemployment rate that could remain in double digits indefinitely. It would seem to be much better for Obama and the Democrats — from a purely political perspective — if they could enact health care legislation before a Republican can take Kennedy's seat — if the Republican is going to win. That, of course, remains hypothetical until such time as it becomes a reality.

"Passing such a bill won't be [Democrats'] political salvation," says Krugman, "but not passing a bill would surely be their political doom."

If the Democrat wins in Massachusetts tomorrow, that may buy some time for Obama and the Democrats. But they still need to act quickly if that legislation is going to be of any benefit to embattled Democrats seeking re–election. Most observers agree that Democrats will lose seats in Congress this year, and the loss of only one Senate seat will mean they can no longer block Republican filibusters.

If that is ultimately going to be the Democrats' fate, obviously they would prefer to wait until the end of the year before facing it instead of having to do so right now. But they may not have that luxury.

It's complicated.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

You're No Jack Kennedy



I could hardly blame either Massachusetts' Democrats or Massachusetts' Republicans for saying that about the other party's candidate in the race for what was once the Senate seat of John F. Kennedy.

I can't help wondering about which one Lloyd Bentsen would say it. He might have said it about both.

Democrat Martha Coakley was thought to be a shoo–in — but she has probably run the worst campaign a Democrat can run in what is perhaps the bluest of blue states. If Democrats lose this seat, the one that was occupied by JFK's youngest brother, Teddy, for nearly half a century — when they, arguably, need it the most, to secure a filibuster–busting 60th vote in the debate over the health care reform bill &mdash it will shake the political establishment.

In an attempt to prevent that, Barack Obama came to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley. And, from what I have gathered, the voters in Massachusetts are like voters elsewhere — they're concerned about the cost of the health care reform legislation, they're worried about the economy, and they're antsy about one–party rule. There isn't much Obama can say about any of those things that will reassure nervous voters.

Well, it's possible I missed something, being here in Texas, but it seems to me that being a roadblock to health care reform is about all that Republican Scott Brown has offered to the voters, although I assume he supports most, if not all, of his party's platform. Surely, it would make Ted Kennedy roll over in his grave if he thought someone who took so many positions that were the opposite of his own might be elected to take his place.

It might happen, though. Howie Carr writes in the Boston Herald that Coakley is clueless, and her recent comments suggest that she just might be.

But, in all honesty, I think Brown made a good point when he said the seat isn't "the Kennedy seat" and it isn't "the Democrats' seat." It is, he said, "the people's seat." If these people do not hand the seat to Coakley, it may not be because of a permanent seismic shift in the political terrain. It may be a warning that Democrats in other states should heed if they want to survive 2010.

Brian Mooney of the Boston Globe points out that independents hold the key in Massachusetts, as they do elsewhere. Partisans in both parties strongly support their nominees, but independents, as Mooney observes, are "an unpredictable breed and downright ornery when times are bad."

Polls are showing independents being drawn to Brown's campaign in large numbers. Undoubtedly, it would be ironic if health care reform got derailed because a Republican was elected to replace Ted Kennedy.

That seems to be at least part of the dynamic at work here. Joan Vennochi writes in the Boston Globe that Brown is "tapping into that special brand of anger that helps Republicans beat Democrats in otherwise solidly blue Massachusetts. When the party in power gets too arrogant — as often, it does — the people get mad."

James Taranto speculates in the Wall Street Journal that some Democrats who must face the voters this year may be hoping that Brown will win, permitting them to avoid casting what could be a career–threatening vote at a time when there are already several items on Democrats' records that work against them.

"Things still look difficult for the Dems come November," writes Taranto, "but they'll have a much easier time of it if ObamaCare is a mistake they averted rather than one the American people will have to live with for years."

Well, whichever candidate wins on Tuesday, Massachusetts voters won't have to live with that decision long if they decide they made a mistake. If the winner wants a full six–year term, he/she will face the voters again in 2012.