Thursday, January 30, 2014

One Year of Watergate Was Not Enough

"I would like to add a personal word with regard to an issue that has been of great concern to all Americans over the past year. I refer, of course, to the investigations of the so–called Watergate affair. As you know, I have provided to the special prosecutor voluntarily a great deal of material. I believe that I have provided all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations and to proceed to prosecute the guilty and to clear the innocent.

"I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough."

Richard Nixon
Jan. 30, 1974

Earlier this week, as Barack Obama was about to deliver his State of the Union address, George Condon wondered in the National Journal if the State of the Union ever really changes anything.

After writing of the successful State of the Union speeches — the ones that managed to set the congressional agenda — Condon observed that "the biggest failure to set the congressional agenda was Nixon's in his 1974 speech."

Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon delivered what turned out to be his final State of the Union address. It is not remembered for Nixon's assessment of the state of the union or his ideas for improving it — although those were offered on that night in 1974. History remembers that speech as the one in which Nixon urged an end to the Watergate investigations. "One year of Watergate is enough," he memorably said.

That is what the State of the Union speech was about in 1974. The agenda was Nixon's survival. Nixon had tried everything else to divert attention from Watergate. He wanted to shift attention to anything, but he couldn't do it.

One year of Watergate wasn't enough for the people who sat in that joint session of Congress 40 years ago tonight — and that was Nixon's fault. If he had been honest with the American people from the beginning, if he had confessed his involvement, admitted it had been a huge mistake and asked for forgiveness, I believe he would have been forgiven. The American people are a forgiving bunch.

But he insisted on concealing his involvement until he had been proven to be a liar — and that made his guilt even more difficult for his defenders to bear.

In that audience 40 years ago tonight were lawmakers who had participated in the Watergate hearings the year before and who would participate in the impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee that summer. Their questions had not been answered satisfactorily. The evidence they sought had not been provided to them. There was more work to be done.

Back at the White House, Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had been exploring endgame strategies, including the possibility of Nixon receiving a presidential pardon — even the possibility of Nixon granting one to himself.

Nixon must have known the stakes when he went to Capitol Hill to deliver his address 40 years ago tonight.

And I'm reasonably sure he knew, as he rode back to the White House later that night, that he had not made the sale.

Oh, he had a trick or two left up his sleeve, but Nixon's days were numbered.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Early Look at the 2014 Midterms

States in blue are represented by Democrats in the Senate. States in red are represented by Republicans.
States in gray do not have U.S. Senate races on their ballots in 2014.

History has shown time and time again that midterm elections are not usually kind to a president's party, especially the second midterms of a presidency.

Heading into 2014, both parties expressed optimism that they could flip the congressional chamber that is held by the other. For a number of reasons, though — including the trends of history — the Republicans currently appear to be in a better position to do that.

Assuming that either is successful.

The Republicans' goal in the 2014 midterms is to hold on to majority status in the House (where they outnumber Democrats by 33 seats) while capturing the Senate (where they are outnumbered by 10, including the two independent members who usually side with the Democrats). For the Democrats, obviously, the objective is reversed — hold the Senate and flip the House.

The Democrats face more of an uphill assignment. To win even a minimal House majority, they must retain all the seats they currently hold and win 17 seats that are currently held by Republicans.

It is hard to flip House seats because districts usually are drawn to favor one party or the other, depending upon who did the redistricting after the latest Census. State lines aren't redrawn every 10 years so Senate races are governed by different dynamics.

Incumbents tend to be harder to beat in district races than statewide races, and they become harder to beat the longer they hold office.

Political observers are watching Florida's 13th District on the state's western coast, which is holding a special election March 11 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Rep. Bill Young, a Republican who held that seat since 1971.

On the surface, that might lead the casual observer to conclude that a Republican is a lock to replace Young, but the district is not that predictable.

It is true that Young was unopposed roughly one–third of the time during his career, and that enabled him to consolidate a reliable base that produced solid victories whenever he was opposed.

His most recent victories were not as impressive as his earlier ones, but they were substantial. In 2012, when the 81–year–old Young ran against a 38–year–old Democrat who tried to make an issue of his age, 58% of the district's voters still voted for him.

It is also true, however, that Young was more moderate than many of his Republican colleagues, especially on economic issues. He supported raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits. During what turned out to be his final House race, he supported withdrawing from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, earning praise from Democrats like MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

The district has been trending Democrat nationally. It voted (narrowly) for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and Democrats are hoping to make a dent in their House deficit by winning this election.

In short, the district that Young represented is not necessarily representative of other Republican–held districts across the country so what happens there in two months probably will have little bearing on other House races in 2014. House races have unique personalities. They're usually driven by issues that directly concern the voters in particular districts. The same issues may not be as important in other districts within the same state or region.

(For awhile, I worked for a newspaper in a county that was heavily dependent on the aluminum industry. There were two aluminum plants in that county, and they were the county's two largest employers. Issues affecting the aluminum industry were of great interest to the voters there — but not to voters who lived in neighboring counties.)

Those voters may always be motivated by local issues in every federal–level election, but their influence is diminished in statewide races. Individual districts are more concentrated.

For a few reasons, it is easy to conclude that the Democrats just might win this seat from the Republicans. The Democrat in the race is Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the Democratic nominee for governor four years ago (she lost a squeaker to Rick Scott). The Republican candidate, David Jolly, is a former lobbyist who was also Young's aide.

Thanks to her gubernatorial campaign, Sink has far greater name recognition, which has helped her in the polls. And the district is precisely the kind of district Democrats need to seize from Republicans if they hope to take control of the House. (The problem for Democrats is, I don't see enough districts across the country that meet that description.)

Currently, it seems as if this race is the Democrat's to lose — but there is a potential fly in the ointment. Sink doesn't seem to be a very strong campaigner. That might be a problem, considering the issues that directly affect voters in the 13th.

The 65–year–old Sink seems to be trying to counter that image with a family oriented commercial featuring her father. That probably can't hurt in a district that is older than most (27% of the voters are over 65).

Recent poll results show Jolly with a four–point lead, suggesting that Obamacare may be sinking Sink. Adam C. Smith of the Tampa Bay Times writes that Sink would be wise not to underestimate her opponent.

"This is not just another congressional election," writes Smith. "Congressional District 13 is the ultimate swing district, and both national parties will cast it as a national barometer of the nation's political mood."

Many things could affect that mood. The economic climate could change, and the nature of such a change might favor either candidate. If the next two jobs reports are as poor as the most recent one, it would be likely to help Jolly. If the reports are better in February and March, it might help Sink.

Another wild card in the race will be developments in the implementation of Obamacare, which is likely to be an issue in districts from coast to coast — and, in older districts like Florida's 13th, changes in Social Security benefits will always draw attention.

Then there is the general tenor of the campaign. Coming as early in the election cycle as it does, this special election will receive a lot of national attention. The campaign's tone will say a lot — and shrill, divisive campaigning may well backfire, given the fact that the winner will succeed a man who was seen as bipartisan by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Negative campaigning may not work as well in 2014 as it has in campaigns past (but may still work in other campaigns in other places this year).

Smith is right. Whoever wins, the victorious party likely will be doing a lot of strutting the day after votes are counted. Right now, I am inclined to think the Democrats will be doing the strutting, but, even if they are, they should remember that special elections are notoriously bad indicators of what to expect in the fall. Nearly eight months will pass between the time the Florida 13th voters go to the polls and the rest of America does. The landscape is likely to look different in November.

If Sink wins, it will simply mean Democrats need to capture 16 Republican–held House seats instead of 17 — and I believe that is highly unlikely. Historically, only Theodore Roosevelt's Republicans (in 1902) and Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats (in 1934) have come close to seizing that many House seats in an election in which the president was not on the ballot.

Realistically, it has never been done on the scale that Democrats need this year.

Currently, most observers think only one other Republican–held seat (besides the one that is the subject of the special election in Florida) is likely to flip. That may change in the months to come, but it shows the enormity of the task facing Democrats this year.

The task is less daunting for the Republicans, who need to win six seats to control the agenda in the Senate. If they win five seats, the chamber will be split 50–50, but Vice President Joe Biden casts the deciding vote in case of a tie so, technically, Democrats will retain the majority if they lose five seats.

Observers agree that Republicans are closer to achieving their goal than Democrats are to achieving theirs. Three Democrat–held Senate seats in states Mitt Romney carried in 2012 — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — appear likely to flip. Two other Democrat–held seats, in Arkansas and Alaska, are rated too close to call.

I'll add to that that I see three other incumbent Democrats (from Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina) who could be in trouble this fall. In short, Republicans seem likely to win at least three and possibly as many as eight Democrat–held seats, nearly all in states that voted against Obama in 2012.

None of the Republican–held Senate seats that will be on the 2014 ballot seems to be in danger of flipping.

I'll probably have more to say about other Senate races later this year, but, right now, I am looking at the Democrat–held seat in my native state of Arkansas, and I have concluded that it is likely to fall to the Republicans.

When I was growing up there, incumbent Democrats faced their only serious opposition in the party primary. They didn't always face Republican opponents, and, if they did, the Republicans were little more than place fillers on the ballot.

Both of the state's U.S. senators and three of the four members of its House delegation were Democrats. It stayed that way in Arkansas long after I left the state, too, but the Republican Party has made considerable gains in recent years. Today all four of the House members are Republicans, as is one of the senators.

The lone remaining Democrat in Arkansas' congressional delegation, Mark Pryor, happens to be the son of a former senator, David Pryor, who represented southern Arkansas in the House before becoming governor and then senator.

Being in Arkansas during one of his campaigns must be like a blast from the past for many Arkansans. Mark Pryor looks a good deal like his father (not unlike the way George W. Bush resembles his father). He even uses the same design that his father used for campaign paraphernalia. I couldn't begin to guess how many bumper stickers, yard signs and lapel buttons I have seen with that red–white–and–blue background on a map of the state with Pryor emblazoned in the middle.

(The absence of any mention of a particular office meant the design could be recycled in every election. I didn't live in Pryor's congressional district, but I saw that design in his gubernatorial and Senate campaigns. Sometimes the stickers were so faded that you couldn't tell from which campaign they came.)

Pryor's father was a pretty popular fellow. He won nearly all of his campaigns and was elected to the Senate three times before he retired. I'm sure the residual good will helped his son in his first two Senate elections.

Both of Pryor's previous victories came before Barack Obama took office, though, and Obama and his agenda have proven to be very unpopular in Arkansas. Well, Obama never really was popular in Arkansas. More than 58% of Arkansans voted for John McCain in 2008, and more than 60% voted for Mitt Romney.

Mark Pryor has been a faithful supporter of Obama's agenda, voting for the $787 billion stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, neither of which is popular in Arkansas.

But Pryor has proven to be more conservative than his father, and he has been known to reach across the aisle for Republican input during legislative standoffs. That might help him in this year's campaign.

His Republican opponent is Tom Cotton, who was elected in 2012 to represent the district that Pryor's father represented in the House decades ago.

Thanks to new boundaries the district acquired after the last Census, it is a more conservative district than it used to be, and Cotton is more conservative than anyone who has represented it in the past. A friend of mine who still lives in Arkansas describes him as being like Texas' Ted Cruz.

That seems to play well in Arkansas. Recent polls suggest a close race between Pryor and Cotton.

I think it will be worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I Am An Independent

From "Inherit the Wind:"

Matthew Harrison Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you've moved so far away from me?

Henry Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it's you who've moved away by standing still.

Gallup reports that more than two–fifths of Americans self–identify as independents.

That is the highest it has been since Gallup started asking that question a quarter of a century ago, and it indicates that a large portion of the American electorate is up for grabs.

Gallup reported this finding last week, and I have been trying to figure out what it means. The talking heads of all political stripes appear to believe they understand why so many Americans say they belong to neither party, but I think the answer is a lot more complicated than they like to believe.

I have my own thoughts on that, but, ultimately, I can only speak for myself. I, too, consider myself an independent, but I'm sure the path I took is unique to me in most respects.

The fact that so many Americans consider themselves independents suggests several things to me:

For one, I believe winning this voting bloc is going to be a tall order for either party. Both parties will give you ample reasons why the independents should vote for them — indeed, why so many people are leaving the established parties — but I think one of the reasons why so many Americans do identify as independent is because the shrillness of the extreme wings of both parties (and both parties have extremists) turns them off. To win them over, the parties will have to be less accusatory and more placatory.

I repeat, I can only speak for myself. Until a few years ago, I considered myself a Democrat, but I have been bothered by the fact that both parties presume too much about each other — and assume too much about anyone who disagrees with them. Initially, I saw it as the embodiment of George W. Bush's assertion that, essentially, if you ain't with us, you're against us.

(That, in turn, reminds me of some graffiti I read about in my studies of history, graffiti that appeared in Massachusetts in the late 18th century — "Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't stay up all night damning John Jay!" I always thought that was a pretty good example of why George Washington warned against the formation of political parties.)

Now, I think it is far more insidious than anything Bush suggested. Bush's use of that with–us–or–against–us approach was simplistic, but, originally, it was aimed at foreign countries. Now it is aimed at our fellow citizens — from within, and that bothers me a lot.

I believe people who self–identify as independents are uncomfortable with the extremist bent in both parties. They don't care for it in the party they have called their political home, and it is probably the main reason why they have resisted switching to the other party.

Personally, I have never considered joining the Republican Party.

My ideology is more inclusive, always has been, and I concluded, after careful reflection, that my loyalty is not to a party. The way both parties operate these days, they believe a voter's first (and only) loyalty is to his/her party. I don't walk in lockstep with any party. My loyalty is to freedom.

I don't remember when I began identifying myself as a Democrat, but I know who influenced me in making that choice — my parents, especially my mother.

(My father played a role in it as well, but he was never as outspoken about his political beliefs as my mother was. They believed the same things so he seemed content to let her do the talking on politics for both of them.)

As nearly as I can recall, Mom never spoke in terms of Democrat or Republican. She spoke about the qualities of leadership that she admired, and she chose candidates for office who demonstrated those qualities. Usually (but not always), those candidates were Democrats.

She admired them because they stood for tolerance and acceptance. She truly believed in those qualities. She lived them, and it was entirely consistent that, when it was time to vote, she should gravitate to those who were tolerant and accepting.

(Mom also encouraged my faith in basic American concepts like freedom of the press and freedom of speech.)

I followed her lead because I believed in the same things — and, for most of my adult life, I voted almost exclusively for Democrats.

But times were different when I was a boy. Both parties had strong centrist factions. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Party division wasn't nearly as divisive then as it has become. There were healthy and vigorous debates on most issues in both parties. The concept of the big tent really applied to both parties.

When I was growing up, Mom really embodied the concept of tolerance and acceptance — for me, I know, but also for the people who knew her. She was active in community groups that promoted positive relationships between races, religious groups, etc. She is still remembered in my Arkansas hometown for her commitment to making it a better place for all.

Even as a child, I was proud of her for that. I'm prouder still today.

But our friends weren't exclusively Democrats. If they had been, I suppose my family's circle of friends would have been considerably smaller than it was.

My mother taught my brother and me to cast a wide net for friends, to look beyond those things that divided us, and I have tried to do that. I haven't always succeeded, but I have tried.

She never told me to shun people with whom I did not agree.

I often wonder what she would think of today's Democrats because that is exactly what they do. Most of them, anyway. Not all, but most. I speak from personal experience. There are people I have known since college (some longer than that) who have thrown me under the bus because of politics.

A conversation I had is fairly representative of others I have had. Why are you a Republican? I was asked by a Democrat whom I have known for a long time. (Well, at least, he asked me why. I have other "friends" who never bothered to ask that question before tossing me in the path of an oncoming train.)

I'm not a Republican, I replied. I'm an independent.

You're a hater and a racist.

No, I'm not.

You hate Barack Obama because he's black.

(This accusation has been made against me often but never with any supporting evidence. That doesn't surprise me because there is no such evidence. But that is irrelevant to the accusers. You see, I have learned — the hard way — that you have to be careful when you are accused of this because it is the equivalent of the old "Have you stopped beating your wife?" query. If you say that you don't hate Obama because he is black, you are implying that you do hate him for some other reason — and I don't hate him at all.)

No, I don't. I disagree with him.

(That really does express how I feel. I didn't vote for Obama in 2008, but I didn't vote for John McCain, either — I voted for Ralph Nader. After Obama was elected, I told people I was willing to give him a chance, that I would judge him on his record of encouraging job creation.

(And that is precisely what I did when he sought a second term.)
"I didn't leave the Democratic Party. It left me."

Ronald Reagan

How did it come to this? I don't know. I do know that I really started to notice a shift in Democrat attitudes about five or six years ago, and I felt increasingly uneasy.

See, one of the things that bothered me most about the Bush years was the way that his supporters accused those who disagreed with him of being unpatriotic. That flew in the face of something that I have always believed — that the very essence of freedom and patriotism is the right to criticize the government without fear of being impugned.

At the time, most Democrats seemed to agree with me. But I came to realize they were taking notes on the actions of their Republican colleagues and refining them for future use. Once they seized congressional power, they began using the same tactic — and accelerated it — after Barack Obama was elected president because they could replace unpatriotic with racist to squelch criticism.

No doubt, there are some racists among those who criticize Obama, but criticism of Obama is not proof of racism any more than criticism of past presidents by blacks or Hispanics or any other minority group was proof that those voters were racist.

I don't object to a black president (or a yellow one or a brown one, either). I do object to an incompetent one of any color.

Perhaps the thing that troubles me the most in our present political environment is the tendency to make race or gender or religion or sexual preference more important than anything else. Such things are irrelevant to me. What matters to me is whether the person in question can do the job.

In the past, I have voted for non–whites, non–males, non–heterosexuals. Voted for some in the most recent election, in fact. I voted for some Democrats. I voted for some Republicans. I didn't vote based on labels. That, it seems to me, is what being an independent is all about.

I was bemused recently by the reactions, as expressed on Facebook, of some diehard Democrats here in Texas when Charlie Strong, the coach of the Louisville football team, was named coach at the University of Texas.

Strong is black, and these two Democrats could only talk about how UT and its longtime rival, Texas A&M, both have black football coaches now. Not one word was said about Strong's qualifications as a coach and an educator. Not one word was said about his coaching style or his ability to recruit talented football players — or his record of graduating his players.

UT is very oriented to recent results. The man Strong is replacing, Mack Brown, brought Texas its first national championship in 35 years, and he coached the Longhorns in another national championship game a few years later. But the last couple of years have been very un–Texas–like.

I predict that Strong will be judged on his results, the same as any other coach at UT. If he wins his conference and, perhaps, coaches the Longhorns to the national championship game, he will keep his job. If he continues the recent trend of eight– and nine–win seasons, well, that might be good enough at other schools, but it wasn't good enough for Mack Brown or his predecessors at UT to remain in the good graces of the athletic department and its wealthy boosters.

Nevertheless, if Strong is dismissed because he doesn't make the Longhorns a Top 10 team, I further predict that there will be those, possibly many, who will say he was fired because of racism. It is the nature of the times.

As far as I am concerned, both parties rely on stereotypes to discredit the opposition. That has been part of the political game as long as I can remember, but never to today's extent. it has completely overwhelmed everything else.

And I think that explains, to a great extent, why so many Americans think of themselves as independents. The parties aren't working together, and that's what the voters want them to do. They want real solutions to real problems. They want the people who have been elected to high office to do what they were elected to do — solve problems — instead of pointing fingers at each other.

I don't know if it entirely explains my decision, but I suspect I will continue to try to explain it to people who are determined not to listen for a long time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Waging the War on Smoking

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Luther Terry's published warning about the dangers of smoking.

That brought about some immediate changes in American life — i.e., the warning labels on cigarette packages and, a few years later, the ban on tobacco advertising on television — and set in motion some longer–term changes.

Sarah Boseley of The Guardian rightly observes that the war hasn't been won. While the smoking rate has gone down, the number of smokers actually has gone up.

In a world that has long worried about the "population explosion" (people were worried about that when I was a kid, probably before that), that isn't really surprising, is it?

So I guess it's a variation on that age–old question, is the glass half empty or half full?

"The war on tobacco is far from being won," Boseley writes from the half–empty corner. "More than half of men smoke every day in several countries ... (and) [m]ore than a quarter of all women smoke."

As a reformed smoker (nearly seven years now), I feel I have an understanding for both sides. Smokers see what they do as a legal, personal choice, and they resent being treated like criminals (or lepers) for doing it. Nonsmokers believe they have a right to breathe clean air that isn't polluted by cancer–causing smoke.

Irresistible force, meet immoveable object.

I agree with Boseley that the war is not won. But tobacco has a considerable jump on things. Its use on this continent goes back some 3,000 years, and a coordinated public effort to eradicate it has been going on (at some points, dragging) for only a handful of decades.

Yet, in that time, the smoking rate has been cut in half. That is encouraging. (Welcome to the half–full corner.)

"[T]he benefits from the drop in use, accumulated across so many lives, are incalculable," writes the Washington Post.

It's like a conversation I had with a friend in the early days of the Great Recession. He said unemployment was destined to remain high because the jobs that had been lost were not coming back.

(It was like listening to Timothy McVeigh speak of "collateral damage.")

Did that mean we should not even try? I asked. Well, no, he grudgingly admitted.

Just because the war on smoking hasn't been completely won does not mean we should stop fighting it. We just need to be smarter about how we do it.

In the war against smoking, the Post recommends increasing taxes on tobacco products to discourage their use. I'm not sure how I feel about that proposal. One of the arguments against smoking is that it disproportionately affects the poor, but isn't that who will be most adversely affected by increasing the taxes? Wealthy and middle–class smokers will pay the taxes. They may complain about it, but they will pay it, and they will continue to smoke. The poor will continue to smoke, too, but the additional taxes they pay will have a financial domino effect — taking away money the poor would have used for food, clothing, shelter.

I'm more inclined to support the proposal that the FDA exercise its authority and require tobacco companies to reduce the amount of nicotine in their products. That has the potential to give heavy smokers the help they need to break their addiction and keep lighter smokers from becoming addicted.

USA Today says the war on smoking is "one of the nation's greatest public health success stories — but not for everyone."

That's one of those lines that expresses so much more than its words actually do.

America is not a one–size–fits–all nation. We celebrate diversity here, but we don't seem to have as much regard for the diversity of diversity. I'll grant you that money can be a powerful disincentive to smoke, but that assumes that the addict can control his/her addiction — and the nature of addiction is that the affected person has no control over it.

It is that very fact upon which tobacco companies have relied to make their fortunes: Get 'em on the hook, and they're yours.

Does that mean we shouldn't continue to fight the war? No. It does mean we should re–examine our tactics and never take our eyes off the ball.

"Anti–smoking forces have plenty to celebrate this week, having helped avert 8 million premature deaths in the past 50 years," writes USA Today. "But as long as 3,000 adolescents and teens take their first puff each day, the war is not won."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Reagan's Farewell Address

"I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."

Ronald Reagan
Jan. 11, 1989

Twenty–five years ago tonight, Ronald Reagan delivered his farewell address to the nation, a little more than a week before he was to hand over the presidency to his successor, Vice President George H.W. Bush.

As I have mentioned here before, I was not a Reagan fan during his presidency — or at any time in his lifetime. We rarely saw eye to eye on anything, and I never voted for him, but it is beyond historical dispute that he was popular with other voters. In the last 30 years, only Reagan has received the overwhelming endorsement of the American people in a presidential election. No other victorious nominee — in either party — has ever come close.

(In fact, few have ever exceeded the 58% of the popular vote Reagan received in 1984 — and none have matched it since he did it. Richard Nixon got nearly 61% in 1972; so, too, did FDR in 1936 and Warren Harding in 1920, and Lyndon Johnson got slightly more than 61% in 1964. Herbert Hoover nearly matched Reagan's share of the popular vote in 1928.)

Historically, presidential farewell addresses are rather rare. Typically, they are made by two–term presidents, at least in modern times — Bill Clinton gave one and so did George W. Bush. One–term presidents usually don't give farewell addresses (although Jimmy Carter did give a farewell address in 1981), nor do presidents who die in office — for at least one very obvious reason.

Unless one counts Nixon's address announcing to the nation that he would resign the next day (or his speech to the White House staff before his departure for California the next day), Reagan's farewell address was the first by a two–term American president in nearly 30 years. Nixon, after all, was elected to two terms as president; he just didn't complete his second term.

Next to a president's memoirs, I guess a farewell address is a president's best — and, officially, last — opportunity to justify his actions in office. Unfortunately, most outgoing presidents can't resist the temptation to indulge in some last–minute self–promotion.

The farewell addresses that I have found to be the most memorable are the ones in which the president focused on the nation's achievements more than his own or spoke of the challenges the nation still faced and tried to impart some wisdom.

George Washington may have delivered the finest of the presidential farewell addresses, which was appropriate, given that he set the standard for so many facets of the presidency. Washington spoke of the presidency's "arduous trust."

Dwight Eisenhower, the last two–term president to give a farewell address before Reagan, memorably warned of the influence of the "military–industrial complex" on public policy.

In his "aw, shucks" way, Reagan spoke in his farewell address of the nickname "The Great Communicator" that had been given to him.

"I wasn't a great communicator," he insisted, "but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow; they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries."

He said he was willing to accept the label "Reagan Revolution" for what had occurred on his watch, but he gave credit for his presidency's achievements to the American people.

"I've had my share of victories in the Congress," Reagan said, "but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn't win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw Reagan's regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action."

Before closing, Reagan spoke of "the men and women of the Reagan Revolution."

"My friends: We did it," Reagan said. "We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Has the War on Poverty Failed?

"We do this, first of all, because it is right that we should. We do it also because helping some will increase the prosperity of all. Our fight against poverty will be an investment in the most valuable of our resources — the skills and strength of our people. It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty."

Lyndon B. Johnson
Jan. 8, 1964

It was in Lyndon Johnson's first State of the Union address 50 years ago today that he proposed the "War on Poverty."

The War on Poverty was, as NPR observes, a personal thing for Johnson. He had been vice president under one of the wealthiest men ever to serve as president, but he had been brought up in poverty. He had known — firsthand — the "constant moments of humiliation ... and insecurity" of penury.

As Susan Page writes in USA Today, what followed was an "historic rush of legislation" — Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps.

It was a noble idea — still is, really, this idea of eliminating poverty. It was filled with good intentions, but, after half a century (or, since the Economic Opportunity Act wasn't really enacted until August 1964, nearly half a century), it is appropriate to ask a few questions about this war.

Like, what is (or was) the definition of victory?

We ask that of any conventional war that is proposed because we know a lot of money will be spent on it, but I cannot recall hearing such a definition expressed by any of the politicians who supported the legislation. Trillions of dollars have been spent in this war, but the poverty rate appears to be virtually unchanged since the legislation's passage.

At the time that Johnson proposed the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was in decline, falling from more than 22% in 1959 to around 19% in 1964. In its first year of existence, the Economic Opportunity Act may have contributed to the further decline of the poverty rate to around 15%, but it has leveled off and remained in that range ever since. At times, it has been a little lower, at other times it has been a little higher, but it has been consistent.

If the objective of the War on Poverty was to eliminate poverty, it has failed.

Victory (of a sort) probably could have been declared in 1965, but, after all these years, with the poverty rate remaining roughly the same, it would be hard to say the War on Poverty has been a success. In fact, it would be difficult to argue with Ronald Reagan's assertion that poverty won.

Bill Clinton famously declared 18 years ago that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 "end[ed] welfare as we know it."

From the perspective of 2014, it is clear that welfare "as we [knew] it" did end at that time, but the beast wasn't slain. Not really. A much larger beast emerged to take its place.

Which brings me to another question:

Did the War on Poverty succeed?

I'm inclined to say "no" because poverty has not been eliminated. Even if one was willing to accept the idea that poverty will always be with us, that the idea of eliminating it entirely was unrealistic and that partial elimination of poverty was an acceptable outcome, the War on Poverty still came up short because it created new, unexpected problems.

But, of course, victory was never defined.

It would be wise for us as a nation to ask ourselves some hard questions. I assume that most of us would like to see the ills of the world eliminated — but we need to act responsibly, honestly evaluate what has been done so we can have an idea what works and what doesn't and then focus on those areas where further progress can be made.

We can't continue to act as if there is an unending supply of money to throw at our problems, not with the economy still as shaky as it was when the current administration took over five years ago.

If any attention had been paid to encouraging job creation and putting Americans back to work, there might be more of a revenue reserve in the federal coffers, but unemployment has been permitted to languish unattended so the prudent thing to do is to recognize the economic limitations we face and make realistic, if modest, goals if we are going to entertain the idea of pursuing LBJ's dream in the 21st century.

As contradictory as it sounds, we have to remember that there was more prosperity in America when the War on Poverty was enacted than there is now. When the War on Poverty was signed into law, one income was usually enough to support a family; within a decade, most families needed two incomes just to get by, and the absence of parental supervision when the children got home from school caused new social problems.

Today, two incomes are seldom sufficient to support a family, and the pattern is perpetuated.

The experience with the War on Poverty — indeed, the entire welfare concept — showed us that, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, most things in life are not simple. Most things in life are, in fact, complex, and they deserve to be studied carefully — even exhaustively — before the government intervenes on a large scale.

The nature of unintended consequences being what it is, it simply isn't possible to avoid them entirely, but, when such a significant objective is undertaken, it is important to try to anticipate as many as possible and minimize them.

One need look no further than Obamacare's implementation to find ample cause for caution.

Stephanie Coontz writes at that the work isn't done. Coontz says the War on Poverty was "abandoned" by the politicians in the 1980s and that more could have been done.

Perhaps she is right. But, like it or not, there are limits to what can be done in the absence of an economic boom.