Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Wimp Factor

I'm not really sure when "wimp" was introduced into presidential politics.

I suppose the concept has been around for a long time. The word "wimp" brings to mind a cowardly person, a poor leader, and that is something that I am sure has always been a concern for the voters — but there must have been other words for it.

"Wimp" is a term from the late 20th century, and it seems to conjure up images of appeasement — British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement in the 1930s, for instance, but I don't think "wimp" was a synonym for coward in those days.

(There was, at the time, a character in the Popeye cartoons named "Wimpy" who was always trying to borrow money to buy a hamburger — but I doubt that he had much to do with the terminology in political campaigns.)

Today, the word "wimpy" tends to be associated with Democratic politicians.

I bring this up because the word "wimp" came to mind today when I was reading a Gallup report that said Americans were less likely to see Barack Obama as a strong leader now than they were when he took office.

This "stands in contrast to the stability in the trend for two other personal dimensions," says Gallup. Those two dimensions are concerned with his ability to empathize with his fellow Americans and whether he shares the values of his constituents.

In truth, Obama's standing in all three categories has declined since he took office, but the decline has been much more pronounced in his perception as a strong, decisive leader — and Democrats seem to have chosen to "accentuate the positive," as the old song says.

There has been less movement in the public's perception of Obama as being able to empathize with their problems or whether he shares their values. Hence, those ratings appear relatively stable.

And much of the emphasis that I have heard from Democrats who have been promoting the re–election of the president has centered on those two things — he understands what you're up against and he believes the same things you do.

At first glance, that might seem like a logical approach. But I believe it is the wrong approach to take. The poll numbers suggest that there has not been much movement in either of those categories. Those attitudes are set, and there is little to be gained. Those who disagree that Obama understands what they face every day or that he shares their values are in the minority, but they have felt that way all along.

There has been a lot of movement, however, on the question of whether Obama is a strong leader. People may think that you empathize with their problems and that you share their values, but if they think you aren't a strong leader, you might as well start packing your things.

The situation should be even more alarming for Obama because he has fallen from such heights. When he became president, Gallup reports, nearly three–quarters of Americans saw him as a strong leader. A year later, that rating was down to 60% and, today, it is down to 52%.

The growing crisis in the Middle East, along with the higher gas prices it has spawned, may force Obama to do things he doesn't want to do. It may alienate him from some on the far left. It might even lead to a challenge within Obama's party.

But the alternative is to risk being labeled a "wimp," and that has not been a good thing for Democrats in the past.

When I was a child, many Democrats in Congress were considered "hawks" because they supported Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. That was a tough image, especially when compared with the equivalent term that was used for opponents of the Vietnam policy — "doves."

More and more, Democrats in general got a reputation for being doves, for being weak, indecisive, easily pushed around. I don't think it started in the 1960s.

I was pretty young during the 1968 campaign, and the Democratic nominee that year, Hubert Humphrey, had been LBJ's vice president. He was held accountable for Johnson's unpopular Vietnam policy, which could hardly be described as "wimpy."

It might have gotten its start when George McGovern was the party's nominee in 1972. But it wasn't mentioned much (if at all) in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was nominated for the first time. His opponent, President Ford, had his own problems trying to convince the voters that he hadn't made a deal with the man he succeeded and later pardoned, Richard Nixon.

But, when Carter sought re–election in 1980, the word "wimp" was being used to describe Democrats on a fairly regular basis — and the next couple of standard bearers, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, resorted to ridiculous measures to try to refute a negative.

Then, I guess, Republicans experienced something of a wimp backlash.

Ironically, it didn't really come in the field of foreign policy. In 1992, George H.W. Bush was on pretty solid ground following Operation Desert Storm.

No, the backlash came over the economy. Bush had gone back on his pledge not to raise taxes, and the economy was in a recession. It was nothing like what Americans have experienced in recent years, but, in the context of recent history, it was unsettling enough.

I have always felt it played more of a role in Bush's defeat that year than Ross Perot's presence on the ballot — no matter how much Republicans wanted to blame Perot.

Thus, I suppose, it can be said that Bush was seen as something of a wimp when it came to domestic issues. The idea was that he was weak and indecisive on economic issues. At the very least, it could be said that he was out of touch.

In the last 20 years, Democrats have appeared increasingly eager to take positions that are in contrast to their unfavorable image. During the Clinton years, the White House often found itself involved in conflicts abroad — and it was not always clear whether American involvement was legitimate.

There were those who contended Clinton was simply using situations to manipulate public opinion. Perhaps he did, at times, but, if he did, he wasn't the first — and no one ever satisfactorily demonstrated that he was guilty of that kind of manipulation, anyway.

Democrats were sensitive to the charge, though. In 1998, when much of the talk about Clinton centered on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, American plans to strike where Osama bin Laden was believed to be staying were ultimately abandoned for a couple of reasons — in public, the administration said children's toys had been seen in surveillance footage and there were concerns that civilians and their children might be hurt or killed, but, in private, the administration was concerned about public relations and the perception that the actions were intended to divert attention from the president's relationship with an intern.

A few years later, bin Laden put the wimp factor right back on the political map with the September 11 attacks. In 2004, Democrats were so concerned about the need to look strong and decisive that they nominated a Vietnam veteran to run for president — even though, upon his return from southeast Asia, John Kerry made a name for himself speaking out against the war.

In the early 1970s, that was a courageous position for Kerry to take, but, 30 years later, in the aftermath of a coordinated and unprovoked attack on both civilian and military targets in early 21st century America, it was seen as weak, appeasing, compromising.

If it hadn't been for the economic collapse in September 2008, Obama might have had to defend himself against charges of being a wimp as well. His campaign began before the recession did, and, at that time, it was widely expected that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would dominate the 2008 race.

But, instead, the economy dominated, and Obama won, in large part because he was the anti–Bush.

Fast forward about 2½ years. The economy is still struggling, but the Democrats apparently have settled on the updated version of their strategy from 2008. They plan to remind people that it is George W. Bush's fault — unless there is a sudden and, at this point, completely unexpected drop in unemployment, in which case (in keeping with an old American tradition) the administration will take full credit for it.

Perhaps, if you are running for re–election and your economic policies have not improved the situation, that is your only option, your only excuse — especially when your party also enjoyed majorities in Congress that made just about any legislative initiatives possible for roughly six months.

But the Democrats didn't seize their opportunity. That was their fault.

I think it is a mistake to continue to point fingers. It comes across as whining. Part of being a strong leader is being willing to take responsibility when things don't go well.

Americans liked it when John F. Kennedy said, after the Bay of Pigs disaster, "Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan" and told them he would take responsibility for the setback, even though the plan had been put in motion during his predecessor's presidency — and he had been president for only a few months.

They liked it, too, when Harry Truman put a sign on his desk that said "The Buck Stops Here." They don't like it when presidents pass the buck. And they don't like would–be presidents who seem likely to pass the buck.

They like it when you "feel their pain," as Clinton put it. That was part of George H.W. Bush's problem in 1992. Too many Americans thought he had no clue what life was like for most Americans. And they like it when you share their values.

But they'll trade both of those things for a president who isn't a wimp, who will stand up for America.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Day Reagan Was Shot

On this day in 1981, the president of the United States was shot by a would–be assassin — a (thankfully) rare occurrence as it is, but this time was unique in American history.

This president lived to tell the tale.

That president, Ronald Reagan, wasn't the first to be the target of an assassination attempt, but he became the first president to survive being shot.

There were many reasons why that probably should not have been so, but it was.

Fortunately, Americans have been spared the agony of the shooting of their president for three decades now — and you just about have to be in your mid–50s (at least) to remember the last such attempt that succeeded.

I don't know why that is so. Are protection methods so much better now?

Surely, the Secret Service's methods must have evolved, but they would have to have done so quietly, wouldn't you think? I mean, I presume the changes that have been made in presidential protection have not been publicized — sort of like the policy that prevents most police departments from revealing certain details of high–profile cases.

They know that, many times, the guilty party will reveal himself because he has knowledge that only the person who committed the crime would have.

It is the same sort of thinking (in a kind of reverse fashion) that tells me that anything law enforcement knows and prepares for without the knowledge of any would–be assassins improves the chances that such an attempt will fail.

That would make sense to me. I played some poker in college. I wasn't very good at it, but I knew there was a lot of value in bluffing and keeping your opponents in the dark.

And I also know (or, at least, I think I know) that the murders — or attempted murders — of public figures were far more commonplace when I was growing up than they seem to be today. Presidential assassinations have been rather infrequent in our history, but there was a time when I was growing up when two attempts were made on the life of a president within a month of each other.

I can only conclude that presidential protection methods must have improved in the last 30 years, but it also seems to me that — with the exception of the recent shootings in Arizona — the methods for protecting most public figures have improved as well.

It may not seem like attacks have declined appreciably — maybe the preferred targets have shifted, from public figures to private (or, at least, less public) ones — but the atmosphere seems entirely different today than it was when I was growing up.

If anything, the political dialogue is more venomous, more toxic than I can recall at any other time in my life — and, for all I know, actual death threats may be more numerous than they have ever been, as well — but actual attempts on the lives of public figures are way down from what they once were.

When I was small, two of the most admired men in America, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were assassinated within a couple of months of each other. A few years later, political firebrand George Wallace was paralyzed in an assassination attempt.

In the years that followed, John Lennon was murdered, and Pope John Paul II was shot but survived.

Sometimes it seemed like the world was a shooting gallery, but even the attempts on Gerald Ford's life in 1975 didn't spark the chaos that Reagan's shooting did on this day in 1981.

On a day that was as confused and bewildering and filled with uncertain moments as any I have witnessed in my life, perhaps the most noteworthy was Secretary of State Al Haig's pronouncement that "I am in control here" in spite of the fact that the vice president, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate are ahead of the secretary of State in the constitutional line of succession.

Haig insisted that he was not speaking of presidential succession but rather of the chain of command in a crisis. But, even on that point, he was on shaky ground.

In addition to loopholes in the chain of command that were exposed by the shooting, there were problems in presidential protection that were uncovered as well.

Lead Secret Service agent Jerry Parr told Ari Shapiro of NPR that "we still took a defensive posture" on March 30, 1981.

"With this event we realized that wouldn't work anymore, and we did it in a flash. That's what came out of it."

Perhaps the four presidents who followed owe their lives to the lessons that were learned that day.

And what of the man who tried to kill Reagan 30 years ago today?

John Hinckley Jr. is "moving closer to the day his doctors may recommend he go free," CNN's James Polk reported a few days ago.

The assessment of the doctors at the mental hospital where he has been held for nearly 30 years is that he is no longer a threat to anyone.

And, because Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity — even though video and still photographs taken at the scene show beyond any doubt that he was the man who pulled the trigger — his case is handled differently. He has received privileges for which he never would have been eligible if he had been found guilty of attempting to assassinate the president — and, consequently, may one day be set free.

I remember people complaining about that very thing when the verdict was announced — it was quite controversial at the time — and the knowledge that such a thing still is possible — however improbable it may be — continues to bother some people.

One of those people is Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, who writes movingly in TIME of the damage that is still present in the lives of those who were shot — and the people around them.

"Time is a matter of perspective," Davis writes. "Sometimes 30 years isn't so long. There are times when the American legal system works brilliantly. There are times when it fails."

The presiding judge and Hinckley's defense lawyer, she suggests, have made this case one of the latter.

Davis, like Ron Reagan Jr., has a record of supporting progressive causes, but on this issue she sounds more like their father.

I'm not saying she is wrong. She is entitled to her pain and suffering, just like the other victims and their families.

But Reagan lived for nearly a quarter of a century after being shot and did not appear to suffer any lingering effects from the experience — unlike the others who were shot that day.

Or most of the nameless, faceless Americans who are shot every day in America. Many are killed, but some survive and must adapt in whatever way is made necessary by the injuries that have been sustained.

They continue to pay the price, but Davis' father turned an enormous profit.

Not quite 10 weeks into his term, suggests Jonny Dymond for BBC, Reagan was handed a priceless opportunity to connect with the voters — and he seized it. With his gentle, good humor when faced with personal peril, Reagan's presidency was "lifted ... out of the mere normal." He went on to become the first president since Eisenhower to serve two complete terms.

"Just a few weeks ago, what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday was commemorated with a slew of rosy retrospectives," writes Dymond. "But the legend that was celebrated was arguably born 30 years ago today."

Monday, March 28, 2011

What's Logic Got to Do With It?

Robert Rapier of the Washington Post deserves credit for trying.

As gas prices have continued to go up, so has the general anxiety level of American consumers.

They heard what Ben Bernanke said about how this would be short–lived, but he's been criticized for overly sunny projections in the past (remind me again, how did his projections work out during the Bush years?) — and they can see how higher gas prices are affecting their personal budgets.

Uncertainty and anxiety begat scapegoats. It always works that way — and, as I say, Rapier deserves credit for his attempts to put out the fire with his piece about prevalent myths about rising gas prices.

But history shows he's fighting a losing battle.

I guess the best place to begin is in October 1973, when the Arab oil embargo occurred. The oil producing nations were only beginning to flex their political muscles at that time, and the price of a barrel of oil in those days (around $5) seems ridiculously low.

But it represented a 70% increase in the price of oil, and, for the first time, Americans began to feel financial pressure at the pump.

The president, Richard Nixon, paid a political price. His approval ratings — which had been in the 30s since it was disclosed that summer that previously secret recordings of Oval Office conversations existed and could verify what had been said — slumped into the 20s that October, and there they stayed until Nixon resigned the following year.

Nixon's dreadful approval ratings were hardly the fault of the oil embargo alone — but it certainly didn't help him.

The same could be said for Jimmy Carter and the 1979 energy crisis.

When 1979 began, Carter's approval rating was right around 50% — but he spent most of the rest of the year struggling with an approval rating in the 30s.

That is not the way any president wants to spend the year prior to seeking re–election.

There were other things that contributed to Carter's difficulties with the voters — and he did enjoy a brief resurgence when the U.S. embassy in Iran was captured — but the energy crisis clearly worked against him.

I believed he was right when he spoke to the American people about the long–term threat posed by our dependence on foreign oil. I thought he was being very logical.

But logic had nothing to do with it.

Rapier is right when he says a president has no influence on what consumers pay for fuel, at least not in the short term. A president's policies can have a long–term effect, but the results will not be seen overnight.

That's the logical way to look at it.

But what does logic have to do with it?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just the Facts

"The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely."

Bob Herbert
New York Times

In case you haven't heard, Bob Herbert is leaving the New York Times.

His last column was published/posted on Friday. He says he plans "to write a book and expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society."

I'm sorry to see him go — but, if he can find a platform through which he can reach more people than he could as a columnist for the New York Times, all I can do is wish him godspeed.

Over the years, I have developed a great deal of respect for Herbert. I haven't always been able to read his stuff — and, with the Times apparently on the brink of returning to its unsuccessful pay–for–access policy, I probably wouldn't be able to read it in the future, either (although, I must confess, I don't know if everything will be restricted this time — or only selected content), so perhaps it is just as well that he no longer be on the staff.

I don't know if the "efforts" of which he speaks will include observations from a blog or a web site that I can access freely — but I hope they will because, if they do not, I will miss his insights.

He is one of the few writers out there who does not get carried away with emotion and still depends on facts to support his statements. I don't always agree with him, but at least he appeals to your head as well as your heart.

How times have changed. When I was in journalism school, it was presumed that, whether you were a newsgathering reporter or a columnist, you could support anything you wrote with facts.

If you could not, you simply weren't doing your job.

Speaking of journalism school, I recall having a professor during my undergraduate days who encouraged us to take the "Joe Friday approach" to writing about the news.

In my mind's eye, I can see him in the front of the classroom, reminding us of the catchphrase from the old Dragnet TV show and Sgt. Friday's gentle prodding to witnesses who got sidetracked: "Just the facts, ma'am."

I hope Herbert continues to give us the facts, whatever his platform may be.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


I didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008, but I understood what many of his young supporters were feeling.

I understood it quite well. It was the enthusiastic fervor that comes with being on the same side as a trailblazer, a pioneer, and that is a feeling that, I truly believe, every generation in America should experience at least once — because it is really the essence of what it means to be an American.

America has always been about pioneers — the pioneers who braved the ocean and the unknown to come to this continent centuries ago, the pioneers who explored and charted it, the pioneers who took their search for answers into space.

Obama was a pioneer, the first black to be nominated by a major party for president or vice president. Whatever history ultimately says about the successes or failures of his presidency, he will always be the first black nominee, the one who made it possible for others to follow.

In 1984, then–Rep. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated for a spot on a major party's national ticket, and I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Democratic ticket that year.

Ferraro's death today at the age of 75 has brought back a lot of memories of that time for me.

I guess my experience in 1984 more closely mirrored the experience of Republicans in 2008, though, because, as you undoubtedly recall, the Republicans nominated then–Gov. Sarah Palin to be their first female vice presidential candidate.

(In fact, I observed in 2009 that the parties' first female vice presidential nominees had lived parallel lives since their historic campaigns.)

Like the Democrats in 1984, the Republicans went down to defeat in 2008 — so that year I did not have the experience of supporting a barrier–breaking nominee who was successful in the general election.

Well, that may not be entirely true. I wasn't old enough to vote in 1976, but I supported Jimmy Carter, who was — I was told at the time — the first president elected from the Deep South in more than 100 years.

Carter was kind of a pioneer in that sense — although, frankly, I always had my misgivings about that. Lyndon Johnson was from Texas, which I always considered a Southern state (if not a Deep Southern state), and Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas, although he grew up in Kansas. Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, but he spent his adult life in New Jersey.

As a product of the South, I felt a great deal of pride in seeing a fellow Southerner elected president — even though he wasn't the first.

Then, in 1984, I really did get to support a political trailblazer, and, when I think of that time, I have to conclude that I was more carried away with the symbolic nature of Ferraro's nomination than her relevant experience.

It was, frankly, comparable to the experience levels that Obama and Palin brought to their tickets in 2008. Far from impressive.

I don't remember giving much thought to Ferraro's experience level at the time. I was influenced by other things, and one certainly was the historic symbolism of her candidacy.

I never really thought the ticket had a chance to win — and I was living in Arkansas, where the numbers were running pretty heavily against the Democrats (on the national level, anyway). It was hard for someone supporting the Democratic ticket there to get much of a sense that victory was really possible.

A few weeks before the election, Ferraro came to speak in Little Rock. I'm still not sure why she came to Arkansas, what she hoped to gain, but I went to hear her speak with some friends of mine, Mike and Jane, anyway.

About five or six months later, the three of us went to Dallas to see Eric Clapton in concert. The atmospheres at both events were just about the same.

In 1984, a Geraldine Ferraro event was like a rock concert without the music, just the star on stage. She would stand up there and wave, and folks would shriek and holler like they did at the Beatles shows 20 years earlier.

I clearly remember that day. It was a kind of drizzly October morning. I was working nights at the time. Can't recall if the event was on a day that I had off anyway or if it was just an ordinary weekday morning, but it really doesn't matter, I suppose. In those days, I was always off duty in the morning.

Nor does it really matter why Mike and Jane also were able to attend that event on a weekday. The fact remains, the three of us went to see "Gerry" — as her supporters tended to call her affectionately — and my memory is that the place was packed.

And everyone cheered wildly at anything she said. She could have been reading to us from the classified ads in the morning paper, and it wouldn't have mattered.

Personally, with my lifelong interest in history, I was just pleased to experience this brush with history. I have no specific memory of anything she said.

(It was doubly historic, in fact, as I recall. Then–Gov. Bill Clinton attended that rally. He was always a vocal supporter of the Mondale–Ferraro ticket, even though the voters in Arkansas were not as enthusiastic about the ticket as he was.)

I'm sure she spoke critically of Ronald Reagan and his record in the White House. That's one of the main jobs of a vice presidential candidate. But even when she was critical in that campaign, Ferraro was dignified and respectful. She was often subjected to indignities by the opposition, but she never repaid them in kind.

1984 was groundbreaking in another way. It is the first campaign that I can remember that utilized popular music from the politically charged 1960s in its advertising.

That reminds me of the closing days of that campaign. It was truly a memorable time for me.

Even though it was early November, my memory is that it was unseasonably mild, and my friend Sheila and I decided to do our own form of "campaigning" for Mondale–Ferraro.

The evening before the election, we decided to just go out driving in Little Rock. I had some Mondale stickers on the back of my car, and we thought — naively — that we might drum up some support for Mondale by just cruising around and letting the other cars see the stickers.

What the heck? Gas wasn't too expensive in those days — at least not compared to what we pay today — and my car got good mileage. But there was simply no way that I was going to sway enough voters to my side to change anything in Pulaski County, let alone the state of Arkansas, through mere exposure to the bumper stickers on the back of my car.

I don't think either Sheila or I had any realistic expectation that we could influence the outcome that night — and it didn't matter, I guess. We were experiencing the "Yes we can" moment of our generation.

It turned out that we couldn't — but, in a way, we did.

Because of Gerry Ferraro, women could dream of something of which only little boys were encouraged to dream before. Blacks can do more than dream today — and, I suppose, someday in the future, Hispanics and Asians and gays will join them, if they haven't already.

I had heard little of Ferraro before Mondale chose her to be his running mate, and I heard relatively little from her after that campaign — except for 2008, when she was part of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

For the most part, she played her role on the national stage in 1984, then stepped back to let others take the spotlight.

Gerry Ferraro blazed the trail. She played her role in American history.

She fought the good fight.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Going Rogue

My background is in print journalism — not show business.

And I can only conclude that show business is what people like Sarah Palin really mean when they complain about a "liberal press."

That must be what she means. Her latest remarks were in response to comments made by Bill Maher. He's a comedian (like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), not a journalist (like Walter Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein).

Yes, Maher is bright and articulate, and he does engage in political commentary — but anyone can do that, especially today. If you have a computer and an internet account, you can write a blog on anything.

You don't have to have a college degree. You don't have to invest any money (beyond the cost of the computer and the internet account).

You don't really have to know what you're talking about. You don't even have to be able to spell, which, frankly, appalls me. I mean, you don't need to be able to spell if people are only going to hear your views, but if they are going to read them, I think you'd better be able to spell — yet far too few bloggers seem to be capable of that.

You really just need to have an opinion — and everybody's got one. At least one.

If you take a good, honest look at the blogs that are being written these days, you'll find that there's a good mix of opinions being represented out there. It may seem sometimes that things are tilted more one way than another, but, for the most part, I think it is pretty balanced.

It tends to get shrill at times — but I often think that is precisely because people who are accustomed to pushing emotional buttons (like, for example, comedians) are mistaken for people who prefer to deal with facts (like, for example, journalists).

In other words, any resemblance between Bill Maher and Edward R. Murrow is purely coincidental.

Perhaps Palin harbors resentment over the fact that more newspapers endorsed the Democratic ticket than the Republican ticket in 2008. But that was an historical anomaly. In nearly all of the presidential campaigns in the last half century, Republicans have received more endorsements than Democrats.

It may be a simple matter of semantics. When she says "press," Palin may mean anyone in the media.

But that is misleading because the word media is only part of the story.

The more appropriate terminology would be mass media (or mass communication) — media is far too generic.

Even so, mass media covers a wide spectrum of things. It covers all media technologies — both established and emerging.

It covers traditional publications, like newspapers, magazines and books, and it also covers newer technology, like television, radio, audio recordings, movies and the internet, as well as the related fields of advertising and public relations.

Mass media covers a whole range of specialized professions within those more general occupations. For example, newspapers have editors, and so do audio and visual production companies, but they don't edit the same things, and their skills wouldn't be particularly transferable to the other field.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in the 18th century, press meant newspapers. But, today, it covers a lot of things — and, since people seem to be less inclined to get their news from newspapers these days and more inclined to get it from broadcast outlets — many of which, like the Fox News to which Palin contributes, clearly have an agenda — they tar all members of the media with the same broad, brush strokes, whether or not they apply.

It's easier to do that than think, I guess.

I can live with that misconception, though, easier than I can live with the insistence on labeling anyone who disagrees with Palin a "liberal." She isn't the first political conservative to do that, just the most prominent current one.

When did liberal become a dirty word? As nearly as I can tell, it goes back at least to the 1960s. The liberals of that time were primarily liberal on social issues but more conservative on foreign ones. Hence, when Lyndon Johnson and the established liberals of his day got the country into a war in Vietnam that couldn't be resolved quickly, it sparked resistance from what was called the "New Left."

As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote in "Why Americans Hate Politics" in 1991, "If liberal ideology began to crumble intellectually in the 1960s it did so in part because the New Left represented a highly articulate and able wrecking crew."

Conservatives were trying before the 1960s to portray liberals as soft and squishy — on communism, on crime, just weak in general — but it really seems to have caught on in the 1980s.

I admit, I leaned more to the left when I was younger. That was at a time when there was more mutual respect in our political discourse, and liberal wasn't treated with the same contempt as pedophile.

I'm much more of a centrist today, but not because of popular (if erroneous) definitions that are misapplied to ideological terms. I try to be respectful of everyone's opinion — and, if you read the things I have written about her in the 2½ years since Palin was chosen to be on the Republicans' national ticket, I think you will agree that I have often come to Palin's defense when I felt she was the victim of — as she correctly calls it — a double standard in American politics.

I don't agree with most of the things Palin says, but I have defended her when I felt she was treated unfairly.

She doesn't make it easy, though. She rejected support she received from the National Organization for Women (NOW) in this skirmish with Maher, presumably because it is a liberal group.

Philosophically, you would think that Maher and Palin would be natural allies, wouldn't you? I mean, Maher is a libertarian, not a liberal. If you know anything about American politics, you should know that the only things those two words really have in common are their first five letters — although there are such things as left libertarians and right libertarians.

The latter are usually considered the best–known form of libertarians, but the things all libertarians seem to have in common are their desires to see the influence of the government diminished and the freedom of the individual increased.

Libertarians tend to reject the labels of left or right, though. I guess if you press a libertarian for more details, he/she will say his/her label probably should be independent. Maher did openly support Barack Obama in 2008, which may be the real reason for his feud with Palin, but he also has not hesitated to criticize Obama since he took office.

As I say, liberal and libertarian sound similar so maybe that is what tugs at Palin's chain (although the apparently sexist slur that Maher used against Palin certainly deserves some credit).

Maybe she just doesn't know the difference between the two.

I guess that wouldn't surprise me.

After all, when you read the dictionary, you really have no choice but to conclude that rogue really doesn't mean what Palin seems to think it means — any more than liberal means what she apparently thinks it means.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2012 Is Only Nine Months Away

I guess I've always been something of an election junkie.

As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated by political campaigns.

I was always interested in history. I guess I was drawn to the exciting stories about the birth of this nation and the decisions that shaped it along the way, but you could rightfully say that just about everything that has happened in America since the Revolutionary War has come to be because of the always–evolving democratic process.

In short, history is about America's leaders and how they carried out the will of the people. It is through a free and democratic election that the will of the people is imposed; thus, elections are the points of origin.

Much of the attention these days is on the Republican prospects for 2012 — who will win the nomination? But, at this point, I think that is still more of a popularity contest, a measure of name recognition, than anything else.

No votes have been cast, other than public opinion polls, which can be useful but have no real affect on the nominating process. No delegates, after all, are committed through the results of opinion polls — other than the polls that count, the ones on Election Day.

Until Iowa holds its caucuses and New Hampshire holds its primaries, no one is leading in either party, not even the incumbent — who, in large part because of foreign policy, may yet draw opposition from within his own party, as Jimmy Carter did in 1980.

It is only natural, I suppose, to speculate about the identities of the nominees, even if one assumes that Obama will be renominated, perhaps unchallenged.

But, at this point in the nominating process, I think it is more instructive to think about what is likely to dominate the political dialogue next year and how it might play with the voters.

I expect the economy to take center stage next year, but I don't expect much to be done about it this year. Anything that is done can only benefit Barack Obama — and Republicans clearly do not want to do anything that will strengthen Obama's hand.

They were cautious at first, unsure of how he would fare as president but conscious of the fact that his initial approval ratings were astronomical; thus, they were hesitant. As those ratings fell, Republicans were emboldened and more inclined to resist White House initiatives.

That wasn't necessarily a problem for Democrats early on. They enjoyed legislative advantages that made it possible for them to enact virtually anything they wished — but, given their disinclination for organization, they were reluctant to seize the moment during the six or seven months in 2009 when all things truly were possible.

They seemed less interested in actually governing and more interested in rationalizing and refining their excuses for why they couldn't do things instead of insisting that they would achieve them — even if it seemed impossible.

That is not leadership. That isn't vision.

It sure isn't "Yes we can." It's more like "Well, we could, but we won't." Or, perhaps, "Turns out we can't."

Democrats can argue, of course, that things are a lot more difficult once you're on the inside than they are when you're still on the outside. But that argument has a limited shelf life. It usually expires in a matter of months, not years.

The time for the Democrats to do something about the economy was between June 2009, when Al Franken's victory was certified in Minnesota, and January 2010, when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts. But Obama dithered and so did the Democrats in Congress, and they squandered their window of opportunity.

Since Democrats no longer have the majority in the House and no longer enjoy a "filibuster–proof" majority in the Senate, any initiative that they present in 2011 is all but certain to go down in flames. Ditto anything the Republicans may propose because Obama and the Democrats will not be inclined to hand them any legislative victories, either.

Today, jobs aren't being lost at the rate they were when Obama first became president, but they aren't being created in large numbers, either. That is a stalemate that seems certain to continue — which probably suits Republicans just fine.

It doesn't let the Democrats off the hook because they haven't been making very many attempts to find some common ground. It's one thing to talk about bipartisanship when you really don't need it to accomplish your goals; it's another to sing its praises when it is the only way to achieve something.

What I'm saying is simple: I really don't expect either side to put any arrows in its quiver this year. Therefore, the records on which they will campaign are set. That campaign is under way.

It is a contentious, polarized time in American politics, a time when — I believe — voters are more likely than ever to return to their historical tendencies.

And I am very interested in Chris Cillizza's recent observations in the Washington Post. He is absolutely right when he points out that the battle for the Senate and the battle for the presidency may be decided by which party wins the same group of states.

Next year, Democrats will have to defend about two–thirds of the Senate seats that are up for election, in addition to trying to defend the White House.

What will it take to win? Which states are most likely to "flip," as the saying goes, in either battle?

Cillizza writes that there are nine states that are likely to play key roles next year.

Some are familiar battlegrounds — Ohio, Florida, Michigan. Others are less so, perhaps because they are smaller (but still potentially significant in a close race) — Missouri, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico.

And there is one — Virginia — that voted for Obama in 2008, but that was only the second time in the last 15 national elections that the "Mother of Presidents" voted for a Democrat. Polls suggest Virginia is gravitating back to the Republican column.

The importance of those nine states in the battles for both the presidency and the Senate cannot be overstated.

"Of the nine states," Cillizza writes, "Obama carried seven in 2008 — losing only Arizona and Missouri — but Republicans had considerable success in several of them in 2010."

And, unless the trend is reversed, they may continue to enjoy success in them — at more than one level.

Last month, Gallup reported that Obama's approval in all nine was below 50%.

That doesn't mean Obama cannot win those states, but the states' voting histories indicate that it may be an uphill battle to win a majority of them.

And if it is a struggle for the president, it is likely to be even tougher for the members of his party who are farther down on the ballot.

Because electoral politics is frequently a "trickle down" contest, how Obama fares in these key states can influence the fortunes of the Democrats who are seeking another term or attempting to hold seats for their party — and that's going to be very important.

Democrats hold seven of the Senate seats that will be on the ballots in those states next year — Bill Nelson (Florida), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Herb Kohl (Wisconsin) and Jim Webb (Virginia).

Webb has already announced that he will not seek another term, and Kohl may choose not to run, either. Republican senators in Arizona and Nevada have announced they won't run in 2012.

The dynamics are different in Senate races, but they can be influenced by the president's performance.

Don't believe it? Just look at the results from November 1980, when nine Democratic senators were defeated and three open seats that were held by Democrats swung to the Republicans.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where Is The Outrage?

"More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

"... [N]o jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job–creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

"So one–sixth of America's workers — all those who can't find any job or are stuck with part–time work when they want a full–time job — have, in effect, been abandoned."

Paul Krugman
New York Times

If you read that excerpt in an opinion piece and had no idea what the identity of the author might be, you'd probably think it came from one of his diehard critics.

Well, perhaps not. But you probably wouldn't think the criticism came from someone who considers himself a liberal.

It did.

Paul Krugman is a widely respected economist. In fact, he is the 13th–most cited economist in the world, according to Research Papers in Economics (RePEc), and he is a self–professed liberal.

Now, I was raised by progressive parents, and, for many years as an adult, I voted accordingly. My politics have shifted more to the center as I have gotten older, but I feel qualified to make the kind of assessment I am about to make ...

... which is ...

I believe there are essentially two kinds of liberals in America today, and you will find them in all walks of life. Some are economists. Some are journalists. Some are economic journalists. Krugman happens to be an economist who is also a journalist.

One kind of liberal cares more about the success of the Obama presidency than the results of his policies — because of (I can only presume) what Barack Obama represents. The logic behind this (and, again, this is my presumption) is that the first black president must be seen as a success because there will not be a second black president if he is not.

For that kind of liberal, perception is more important than reality. When the reality does not support the perception, it is because of racism — or something else that is beyond Obama's control.

To suggest otherwise undermines Obama's presidency.

The other kind of liberal is more realistic. To those liberals, Obama is a president who happens to be black. When he was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, it wasn't about black vs. female to those liberals. It was about who could get the job done.

Once the Democrats had settled on their nominee, those liberals backed him enthusiastically, even if they had not done so in the primaries. And now, when they see policies that are not succeeding, they do not hesitate to point that out.

A recent example that comes to mind is Ruth Marcus' column in the Washington Post about seven weeks ago, in which she worried about an absence of leadership in the aftermath of the State of the Union address.

That places policy above all other factors — personality, race, gender, everything — which is how it should be.

I think Krugman is caught somewhere in between. He has not hesitated to criticize policy. In fact, when Congress was voting on the stimulus package in the early days of the Obama presidency, Krugman often criticized it for not being enough — and, with hundreds of thousands of Americans slipping through the cracks two years later, one can only conclude that he was right about that.

But, in spite of the fact that he was so skeptical about the chances of the package's success when he believed that so much more money would be needed to repair the economy, he went along with it — often because (it seemed) that he was willing to give more than the usual amount of time for Obama to become comfortable in the job.

Today, however, Krugman seems to have reached his tolerance limit, and he tells readers, in today's New York Times, that "Washington has lost interest in the unemployed."

He seems genuinely baffled by this since, as he points out, "polls indicate that voters still care much more about jobs than they do about the budget deficit." Thus, he finds it "quite remarkable" that "it's just the opposite" in Washington.

He delves into some economic principles that are probably over the heads of most people, but then he gets back to the point that really ought to outrage the people who voted for Obama expecting him to be the champion and the defender of the average guy, the oppressed, the down–trodden.

"[T]he obsession with spending cuts flourishes all the same," he writes, "unchallenged, it must be said, by the White House."

He now asserts that Obama "surrendered very early" in the "war of ideas" and that it is understandable why most Americans see little difference between what Obama says about spending cuts and what Republicans say. Many Americans who are still employed no longer feel threatened by layoffs because that wave appears to have crested.

But, like the tsunamis that followed the earthquakes in Japan and Indonesia, they have left a great deal of human wreckage in their wake.

The price for this "unfortunate bipartisanship" in Washington, Krugman writes, will be paid by "[t]he increasingly hopeless unemployed."

"[Y]ou have to wonder," Krugman writes, "what it will take to get politicians caring again about America's forgotten millions."

Perhaps it's time for a bumper sticker that says "I'm unemployed and I vote."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Missing the Point

I've been studying presidential elections most of my life, and it seems to me that Barack Obama and his campaign staff are missing a fundamental fact about presidential politics.

Let me explain.

There are, essentially, two kinds of presidential elections: One in which the incumbent is a candidate, and one in which the incumbent is not a candidate.

The last election was an example of the latter. There have been only a handful of those in my lifetime, but, typically, the party that has been out of power wins, as it did in 2008.

The issues are different in an open race than they are in a re–election contest.

In an open race, the emphasis is all on the future for there is no record to discuss, other than, perhaps, a candidate's legislative or gubernatorial record, which may be seen as a microcosm of what he would do as president.

(It isn't infallible, though. Most presidents seem to learn that governing a single state is an entirely different matter from governing a diverse nation that spreads over several time zones.)

Sometimes the nominee of the party in power is held accountable for the incumbent's record in what amounts to a case of transference. John McCain, for example, was often blamed for George W. Bush's shortcomings.

In a re–election campaign, however, the emphasis is almost solely on the president and his record. Obama might have had some familiarity with that if he had ever been re–elected to anything more significant than the Illinois state senate.

Obama and his advisers act as if they can win in 2012 the way they won in 2008, but they can't. As the outsider, he could criticize Bush and score points. He can't do that in 2012 unless his policies are clearly making things better. We don't know yet if that will be the case.

What we do know is what his approval ratings have been. Lately, they have been inconclusive. They suggest a president who has a lot of work yet to do — and not a lot of time to do it — to persuade the voters that he deserves four more years.

That is why it really doesn't matter who is nominated to run against Obama. It could be a centrist or an extremist. As I observed last month, Gallup reports that Obama and a generic foe are deadlocked.

Obama and his campaign staff are deceiving themselves if they think they can make this campaign about their opponent, whoever he or she may be. This is going to be about Obama and his policies.

If people don't like Obama's policies, they will not vote to re–elect him. If they do like his policies, they will. It's really just that simple.

In the next 20 months, if you want to know how Obama is doing in regard to winning a second term, seek out the poll results on job approval. They've been measuring presidential job approval since FDR was president and they can tell you a great deal — so let's see what those figures can tell us about the men who have been president in the last 70 years:
  • At this point in his first term, George W. Bush had just launched the invasion of Iraq. Polls by CBS, Gallup and Newsweek all showed his approval in the 50s range — and that approval soared above 60% as American forces overwhelmed the Iraqis.

    It even climbed above 70% in some surveys — a rare occurrence once the shock of the 9/11 attacks wore off.

    Bush's popularity remained above 50% long enough for him to win a second term, but those who disapproved of his performance outnumbered those who approved for most of that term, starting with the response to the Terri Schiavo matter.
  • In mid–March of 1995, Bill Clinton's approval rating tended to be mired in the mid–40s, but it climbed above 50% after the Oklahoma City bombing and Clinton's speech at the memorial to the victims the following month.

    The following year, Clinton was re–elected. It was the Democrats' second straight victory, but it was the fifth straight election in which the Democratic nominee failed to receive a majority of the popular vote.
  • George H.W. Bush was the last sitting president who was denied a second term. Like Obama, he was elected in an open election, largely because he was the vice president under the remarkably popular Reagan, who was barred by law from seeking a third term in 1988.

    In mid–March of 1991, the elder Bush was still riding the enormous wave of popularity he enjoyed during the Persian Gulf War, and many of his potential challengers were concluding that he could not be beaten the following year. But things began to erode quickly for Bush as a recession (decidedly mild by today's standards) took its toll, and his popularity was below 50% by the start of 1992. He went on to lose to Clinton that November.
  • As Ronald Reagan entered the spring of 1983, his approval ratings were beginning to emerge from the 30s range as the country finally began to recover from the recession. He saw his approval ratings begin to exceed 50% for the first time in more than a year after terrorists bombed the Marine barracks in Lebanon that fall and Reagan pledged a continued U.S. military presence there.

    By November 1984, Reagan's approval rating was way over 50%, and he won 49 of 50 states in his bid for re–election.
  • In mid–March of 1979, Jimmy Carter had not yet given his so–called "malaise" speech, but his approval ratings had been experiencing a malaise, lingering in the 30s in the early part of 1979.

    It would get worse — his approval ratings would drop into the Nixonesque 20s range in the weeks prior to that speech. He enjoyed a bounce from the rally–'round–the–flag effect following the embassy takeover in Iran that November, but his approval settled in the high 30s and low 40s for much of 1980.

    He was defeated, of course, by Reagan.
  • Gerald Ford is a unique case. He was appointed vice president in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew, who had resigned. The next year, he succeeded President Nixon, who also resigned.

    So, when Ford ran for a full term in 1976, he was an unelected incumbent.

    The view from about 1½ years prior to that election has to be seen differently because Ford had only been president for about six months. Compared with the sullen, secretive Nixon, Ford was a breath of fresh air and enjoyed initial approval ratings in the 60s and 70s, but he pardoned Nixon a month later and never really got over the political fallout.

    About 20 months before the '76 election, Ford had a job approval in the 30s. His approval rebounded slightly, but he never really got into the 50s range again.
  • Richard Nixon's approval ratings were in a decline in the spring of 1971. He was around 50% approval in mid–March and remained within a point of two of that for the rest of the year, but his job approval began to rise in 1972, in part, presumably, because of the activities that came to be part of the Watergate scandal.

    Nixon won by a landslide in November 1972.
  • Like Ford, Lyndon Johnson took office under unusual circumstances. He was sworn in less than a year before the election, and Gallup consistently reported approval ratings in the 70s until after he had won a full term in 1964.

    Because he had not served half or more of his predecessor's term, Johnson could have sought re–election in 1968, but, by mid–March of 1967, after reports that the military was conducting germ warfare experiments and polls that indicated growing opposition to the war, his approval was in the 40s. Johnson decided to drop out of the 1968 race a year later.
  • Who knows what might have happened if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated? He had encountered some opposition to his policies, as every president does, but, in mid–March of 1963, two–thirds of Americans expressed their approval of the job he had been doing.

    He is the only president since Americans have been surveyed about presidential job performance who remained above 50% (well above, in fact) throughout his presidency. He was at his lowest level in the months before his assassination, but any president would have loved to have his approval rating (58%) less than a year before asking the voters for another term.
  • Dwight Eisenhower was always popular during his presidency. There were some occasions when his popularity dropped below 60%, even a few when his popularity dropped below 50%, but those who said they approved always outnumbered those who said they didn't.

    In March 1955, Ike's approval was in the upper 60s and lower 70s, which had been typical of the first two years of his presidency — and, as it turned out, was typical of most of his tenure. He had a serious heart attack in September of 1955 and spent several weeks in the hospital, but it didn't prevent him from seeking and winning a second term in 1956.
  • Harry Truman had the unenviable task of succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt when he died in 1945.

    In mid–March 1947, Truman's approval rating was in the 60s following the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine to oppose the spread of communism. Truman's approval rating fluctuated, sometimes wildly, in the next year and a half, dipping into the 30s after he signed the Marshall Plan (which authorized billions in aid to more than a dozen countries) but rebounding enough for him to defeat Tom Dewey in the general election.

    Truman, having been the incumbent when term limits were imposed on presidents, was eligible to run again in 1952, but he chose not to. Perhaps he was influenced by his March 1951 approval ratings, which were in the 20s.
  • Like Kennedy and Eisenhower, more people always approved than disapproved of the job performance of Franklin D. Roosevelt — at least since pollsters began asking that question early in his second term. Gallup only reported an approval rating below 50% once (it was actually 48%, but disapproval was at 43%) — a week before the Nazis invaded Poland.

    In both March 1939 and March 1943, the years prior to his campaigns for re–election in 1940 and 1944, distinct majorities approved of the job he was doing, and he was re–elected both times.
If you think the Republicans could shoot themselves in the foot by nominating an extremist like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich, remember that Reagan himself was widely regarded as an extremist when he sought the presidency in 1980. In those days, many Democrats believed he would be the easiest Republican to beat, another Barry Goldwater. I recall hearing Democrats worry more during the primaries about other Republicans in the field, the centrists like Howard Baker and George H.W. Bush. Or maybe Ford would be persuaded to run again. Everyone remembered how close he came to defeating Carter four years earlier. Most Democrats didn't think Reagan could be nominated. And if he was, he couldn't win. Reagan, they said, was too old, too conservative, too much of a loose cannon with his off–the–cuff remarks about things like trees causing most of the pollution. I even remember many Democrats acting relieved that a "dunce" like Reagan had won the nomination that summer. They had no idea that a Republican wave was coming their way. But it turned out that the voters weren't happy with Carter, and Reagan won in a landslide. The Democrats of today are making a similar misjudgment. They look at polls that show high numbers of Americans who like Obama personally, and they see polls that show high negatives for Palin and Gingrich and midrange numbers for the other prominent Republicans on the list — and they conclude that Obama will win because people like him. But that really isn't the issue with an incumbent. Sure, it is important to be liked. But most voters won't be making their decision based on that. There is still time — not a lot, but some — to turn things around, but the fact remains that much of the record would not be kind to Obama if the voters were going to the polls today. Smart Republican operatives would have been running 30–year–old clips of Reagan asking voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier — and linking Obama's policies with Carter's. Say what you will about the direction the economy may (or may not) be taking. The fact remains that unemployment is around 9% right now. It was around 6.5% when Obama was elected. And that was bad. No one is disputing that. But this is worse. For millions of unemployed or under–employed Americans, the answer is likely to be "No!" if they are asked Reagan's question. That is what Obama must change before the voters start casting their ballots next year if he hopes to remain in the White House past January 2013.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Here We Go Again

"I've been told ... that we should look at Obama's interest in the tournament as evidence that he is a 'regular guy.' ...

"I believe a president is not a regular guy. He is responsible for the well being of a country of more than 300 million people. That puts him in a special category.

"I am reminded of a scene from The West Wing, in which Toby, the speechwriter, and Charlie, the president's personal aide, are talking about the president's marital problems. Toby observes that he has been married and can sympathize. 'It's a typical marriage,' Toby says. 'I've been there.'

"Charlie replies, 'Well, I haven't, but he's the president of the United States, so my guess is no, it's probably not a typical marriage.' "

Freedom Writing
March 19, 2009

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote that Barack Obama had more important things to be doing than filling out his NCAA brackets.

But his approval rating was in the 60s, even though he hadn't been in office for two months, and unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was at 9%. His supporters were in no mood to hear any criticism.

It's a sign that he's a regular guy, his supporters protested. He has a stressful job.

So I backed off.

Last March, unemployment was around 10.2%, and Obama's approval rating had been at or below 50% for months. Yet he still filled out his brackets, and much was made of that fact.

But I didn't mention it. I wrote about job creation and domestic hiring incentives, but I never mentioned the president's bracket picks — even though, personally, I doubted the wisdom of it and thought his party was certain to be hammered in the fall.

He had more important — and more urgent — things to be doing.

Well, here we go again.

Tim Gardner writes in USA Today that Obama has picked all four No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four — the equivalent of betting on all the favorites at the race track — and ESPN has posted each of Obama's picks.

Sure, unemployment is down — but not so much that Obama can relax.

Unless he wants to join the ranks of the unemployed. Then he'll have plenty of time to go over the brackets.

The Nuclear Debate

Sometimes I have been accused of being overly negative.

I don't believe that is true. I think I am a realist — and a political centrist. I am not strongly committed to either the right or the left — which tends to annoy some people because they are so devoted to either side — but I feel it is a rational position to take. I try to find the merits in both arguments and, when possible, bring the two sides together.

Many times, that is a tall order.

But there are times when I am hopeful that it can be achieved — maybe because the stakes are so high that a compromise is the only way to break the stalemate.

And, perhaps implausibly, I am feeling hopeful about the complex issue of energy in the 21st century — while we wait to see if the situation with the nuclear reactors in Japan will be the greatest nuclear catastrophe in this planet's history.

Once and for all, let's have a discussion about energy that is calm and reasonable and supported by documented evidence. Let's avoid calling each other names. Let's rise above smears, emotional appeals and other unseemly tactics.

Let's work together.

It is true, as Real Clear Science editor Alex Berezow writes, that there has never been, is not now and will never be an ideal energy source.

Berezow, who (according to Real Clear Science) holds a Ph.D. in microbiology, emphatically underlines his point about every other form of energy currently known to man with that conclusion: "All sources of energy pose some sort of risk or cost. Risk–free, cost–free energy is a complete myth and simply does not, and will not, exist."

Granted. But that isn't really the issue.

He also says that those who fail to "propose realistic solutions" cannot be taken seriously.

Also granted — to a degree — along with his assessment that this is "the most serious of problems."

It is precisely because it is so serious that a truly serious dialogue must begin, and both sides must listen to each other.

The anti–nuclear faction isn't going to sway the pro–nuclear faction, even if Japan starts to glow in the dark, and the pro–nukes aren't going to win over the anti–nukes under just about any circumstances.

The only way to break this impasse is to find some common ground.

Right now, Berezow is right when he argues that there are no "realistic solutions" being proposed. The anti–nukes are frightened by what they have been seeing in Japan. It is a legitimate fear.

When it subsides a bit, that side may be able to make some rational suggestions. Then, perhaps, a discussion about alternative energy sources can begin.

But, for now, the pro–nukes must resist the urge to belittle the other side.

They must be understanding when Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post writes that nuclear power looks like a "bargain with the devil."

That's certainly the way it's looking to some people today. Perhaps events that are still to come will change their minds. Perhaps not.

Let's see what happens.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Anniversary

It was four years ago today that I smoked what is — so far, at least — my last cigarette.

As the anniversaries — and semi–anniversaries — have rolled around, I have written about smoking and giving it up. I have refused — and I still refuse — to call myself an "ex"–smoker. I prefer to call myself a "recovering" smoker — even today.

I know some people who used to smoke but don't anymore — and most of them tend to look down on smokers. I don't know why. Of all people, former smokers should know how hard it is to give up smoking. It is not a character defect or a lack of will power that keeps many from succeeding yet many former smokers act as if it is.

Many former smokers pass judgment on current smokers. I do not.

Granted, the smell of tobacco smoke is irritating for someone who has given it up. I don't really know why that is. Perhaps it is because the enhanced nicotine in today's cigarettes appeals to us in subliminal ways, trying to sneak in under our personal radars and seduce us.

I believe a former smoker must be ever vigilant to remain one, but I have assured my friends who still smoke that I will never tell them what I think they should do — unless they ask for my opinion.

If you want to read what I have written about smoking in the past, you can find the posts on this blog without too much difficulty.

I still believe that it is good that I am what I call a "recovering smoker" — and not an active smoker. I respect tobacco and nicotine and the power they wield.

I am glad I do not hand over my money to the cigarette companies anymore. I don't cough first thing in the morning anymore. My hair, my clothes, my home and my vehicle don't reek of tobacco smoke anymore. I'm not constantly emptying ash trays or wondering when I will need to replenish my cigarette supply.

I remember, when I first saw "Cast Away" and marveled, like everyone else, at his survival skills, my very first thought was a sense of panic at the thought of being deprived of cigarettes indefinitely, perhaps forever.

Because I knew that, once I was plunged into the water, any cigarettes I had on me would be useless — and a smokeless existence would be imposed on me immediately. How would I cope? How would I be able to do it?

It's been awhile since I've seen that movie, but it seems to me that Tom Hanks' character survived for four years on that deserted island before he was rescued. I don't think his character was a smoker before being stranded, but he had many obstacles to overcome.

Well, now, I have survived for four years since my last puff. I haven't had to do it in such a primitive setting, but it's been a long, hard and lonely battle. There have been many obstacles that I have had to overcome, too.

Nevertheless, I suppose I'm free. Free at last, free at last ...

Well ...

I've spent about two–thirds of the last four years looking for full–time work.

That fact alone ought to be worth something. I mean, when I worked for newspapers, it was considered a plus to be dedicated and patient because a complete story rarely, if ever, fell into your lap — and, if it did, it seldom made deadline.

You had to be committed to the long haul.

I've endured the stress without turning to tobacco for the soothing calm it always provided. It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been damn hard. But I've done it.

Aren't those qualities that an employer should want in an employee?

I can learn to do the things I do not know how to do if someone will show me.

But it won't mean much if I do not have a long–term commitment.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's Tough to be President

"It's good to be king and have your own world
It helps to make friends, it's good to meet girls
A sweet little queen who can't run away
It's good to be king, whatever it pays."

Tom Petty

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the fantasy of the presidency that fueled the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 has matched the reality.

I think Obama and the millions who believed in the simplicity of the "Yes, we can" slogan really and truly believed that a president is a kinglike figure whose word is law.

If something is not so, their reasoning went, it is because the king has not willed it to be so. Not for any other reason.

Well, it has taken more than half of Obama's term, but it seems to be dawning on some people that it's a lot more complicated than that. Many of those who supported him in 2008 are not so eager to support him today, at least not on the premise that he is going to be some kind of transformational leader.

They have seen that there are clear limits to what a president can do. It has nothing to do with race or gender or religion.

Rather, it seems to have a lot to do with the fact that man simply cannot control things to the extent that he likes to believe he can.

That's a lesson we never seem to learn. We thought we had conquered nature a century ago with the unsinkable Titanic, and few things seemed to have changed by the age of the space shuttle.

Obama's campaign began with an emphasis on ending the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has taken baby steps in that direction. Mostly they have been responsible steps and seem likely to keep things relatively stable, but things are boiling over in other Middle East countries now, and that is affecting gas prices here in the United States ...

... which, in turn, affects the nascent economic recovery upon which the very lives of millions of Americans depend.

Obama isn't an economist. I'm sure he imagined addressing all sorts of things as president — injustice, racial and gender inequality, educational deficiencies, health care, energy self–sufficiency, etc. Fiscal policy, belt tightening, that sort of thing wasn't high on his agenda.

I'm sure the last thing he wanted to do as president was promote job creation. But that is what destiny demands of the individual who is president at this time.

All the things Obama wanted to achieve depended on things remaining about where they were when he entered the presidential campaign in 2007. But the economy officially began its decline later that year, and job losses began to mount after Obama had claimed the nomination.

That changed things dramatically.

Obama used to be a community organizer. Like anyone else whose work requires them to promote a special interest, his only concern was getting his share (or more) of the pie. And it was from this perspective that he ran for president.

But now he is president, and, although he occasionally reverts to form, he slowly seems to be realizing that being president isn't what he — or his supporters — imagined it to be.

And, with fewer people working — and with many of those who are still working taking home a paycheck with less buying power — there is considerably less flexibility in either the presidential agenda or the federal budget.

Obama tried to have it his way. He devoted his energy to everything but job creation through the first half of his presidency — and tried to let nature take its course. But he has seen that nature doesn't always cooperate.

There was the three–month distraction of that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but that was in our hemisphere. Now there is the triple threat of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on the other side of the planet in Japan.

As well as the spreading unrest in the Middle East.

Even with all that is happening in the world today — and whatever may happen in the world in the months to come — now Obama has no choice but to devote all of his efforts to seeking dramatic — and less likely with each passing day — improvements.

Dubya once joked (well, I assumed he was joking) that everything would be easier if the U.S. was a dictatorship.

I was reminded of that when I read in the New York Times — in a piece that was published the day before the earthquake in Japan — that Obama "has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China."

You have to put it into the correct context, I think, because of the proximity of China to Japan. It was mentioned in connection with the instability in the Middle East.

I really doubt that, upon reflection, Obama would say that being president of a country with a population roughly four times that of the United States would be any kind of bargain — especially with all that is going on in that part of the world now.

Yet Michael Goodwin of the rival New York Post seized on that and wrote that there were two ways to interpret: "One is that Obama resents the burden of global leadership that comes with the American presidency. The other is that he longs for an authoritarian system, where he need tolerate no dissent.

"Under either or both interpretations, his confession ... means Obama has hit a wall."


I'm inclined to think that things look a lot different from the inside than they did from the outside — where, on the night of his election, Obama reminded his fellow Americans that "we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers."

It's tough to be president.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Japan Syndrome

Years ago, I went with my mother to see a movie called "The China Syndrome."

The movie — which starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas — was about the perils of nuclear power. The title came from the popular misconception that, if someone in America drilled through the earth, he/she would come out in China. The movie's premise was that, if a nuclear reactor melted down, its core would do something similar.

It was a frightening premise that was made even more frightening by an actual nuclear accident at Three–Mile Island in Pennsylvania not long after the movie made its theatrical premiere.

That event gave the movie a lot of unexpected publicity, resulting in higher–than–expected ticket sales and a lot of anxiety on the part of the public.

We know more about nuclear power now than we did when that movie came out — but not, perhaps, as much as we may have thought — or, perhaps, would like to have thought.

In my adult lifetime, Americans have always seemed eager to embrace the simple solution to a complex problem, and many seem to be taking that approach to the nuclear situation in Japan.

"How bad could it get?" asks Josh Dzieza at The Daily Beast. And that's a fair question to ask — flippant though it may seem.

Barry Brook writes at Brave New Climate about the "misinformation and hyperbole flying around the internet and media" and asserts that "[t]he plant is safe now and will stay safe."

Well, time will tell.

Maybe it is the same mindset that always seems to assure Americans that higher gas prices are only temporary. In the past, yes, gas prices have declined after enormous spikes — but rarely, if ever, to the levels that existed before.

I'm not inclined to think that gas prices will fall to anything resembling what they were just a couple of months ago — especially now because the most vocal proponents of that particular pie–in–the–sky theory (that gas prices will decline almost exclusively on the basis of consumer behavior) also have been advocates of nuclear energy as the solution to the cost of heating and cooling our homes.

Those are the same people who scoffed at President Carter when "The China Syndrome" was at the theaters — because he warned that America's dependence on foreign oil was setting this nation up for disaster.

The recent events in Japan are sure to be mentioned now whenever someone promotes nuclear energy in this country. The issues that have been raised are far too complex to be addressed by a simple solution.

The truth is that, for all that 21st century humans know about nuclear power, there is still much they do not know — even in Japan, which, if anything, has been overly cautious about safety in just about every aspect of its existence when compared to virtually any other place on earth.

That is why you could watch video footage of the area nearest to the ground zero of the earthquake — and see large buildings that were still standing, even though a 9.0–magnitude earthquake struck the area 2½ days ago, and powerful aftershocks continue to strike.

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes. As a result, it has done a remarkable job of preparing its buildings for the possibility that one will strike, but this is the strongest ever to hit that country — and only the third earthquake globally to register 9.0 or higher in the last 50 years. One was the 9.2 earthquake that struck Prince William Sound in Alaska 47 years ago this month, and the other was the 9.1 that struck Indonesia the day after Christmas in 2004.

And this earthquake, along with the tsunamis it has produced, has been causing a number of unforeseen problems. Japan, as I say, always appears to prepare for the worst–case scenario — but its engineers didn't actually anticipate the worst case, only a worse case.

And that could have tragic consequences.

When you are dealing with something like nuclear energy, you must think way outside the box. I don't fault Japanese officials for not preparing for the size earthquake that almost never happens, but the fact remains that attempts to restart the cooling system at one of the damaged reactors have failed.

Safety standards have to be revisited — and, until we know more than we do about nuclear power, we have to treat it with the respect it deserves and prepare ourselves for a disaster that is much greater than anything we've seen — or may be likely to see.