Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel”

Unquestioning support for the policies of the government of Israel (whatever they may be) has become an article of faith on the Republican right. Last May, when the right was in a frenzy over what should have been entirely uncontroversial comments made by President Obama about the shape of a peace settlement between the Israelis, Mitt Romney said that the president had "thrown Israel under the bus."

As I wrote at the time, Romney's remarks showed his utter ignorance of the most basic concept of foreign policy: that a nation pursues its national interests, and does not subsume those interests to those of another state. Romney thinks otherwise. He said that "a first principle of American foreign policy ... is to stand firm by our friends," evidently entirely unaware that George Washington said precisely the opposite in his Farewell Address in 1796.

Now Rick Perry has (predictably) gone Romney one better.  While criticizing the president yesterday, Perry said: “As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel.”

I heard only one very brief reference to this incredible remark on the news today. When I first heard Chris Matthews say it, I thought he must have gotten it wrong and went searching for evidence to find out the facts.

But Matthews did not get it wrong. Perry actually said that. Moreover, it is not the first or only time he's said it. This was no mistake.

This comment is so remarkable in its radicalism, so completely inappropriate for someone who presumes to become president, that it ought to disqualify Perry for the office.

Perry was effectively saying that he would let his personal religious convictions dictate his foreign policy. Think about that for a moment. He offered unquestioning, unqualified support of another country, premised not on American national interests, but on his own religious beliefs.

Imagine if, in 1960, John F. Kennedy had said: "As a Catholic, I have a clear directive to support Vatican City." It rightly would have been the end of his candidacy. (In fact, JFK explicitly opposed even sending an American ambassador to the Vatican.)

What Kennedy actually said in his famous speech in Houston, was quite different:
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision ... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.
That is the one and only proper standard for a president when making policy: the national interest.

No doubt Perry would say that American national interests and support for Israel are in no way contradictory. That may be. But it is not inconceivable that a situation could arise where they would not be. It has happened before.

In the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel cooperated with Britain and France in attacking Egypt, President Dwight Eisenhower resolutely opposed Israel. At the height of the cold war, he worked with the Soviets against not just Israel, but America's two closest European allies, and used the U.N. to force them to withdraw.

The U.S. and Israel have a close relationship, one which most Americans support. But if Israeli and American interests diverge, an American president must choose American interests. Someone who honestly believes that his religion directs him to support another nation in all circumstances has no business putting himself forward as a candidate for president.

JFK also considered the question of a conflict between personal religious belief and national interest in that speech:
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
With this remark, Rick Perry has shown that he does not deserve to ever be in that position. He has already told us all we need to know.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visions of 9/11

It was like a slap in the face.

I pulled the Sunday paper out of its plastic sleeve, opened it, and was hit by a photo, taking up the entire top half of the front page, of the explosion as the second plane hit the second tower. The decision by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal to run this picture was sensationalistic and tasteless. Thrusting that awful image once again before its readers was a small gift to the twisted minds that conceived of and carried out the horror of that day.

Front page of the
New York Times, 9/11/11
The New York Times did so much better. In the same place on its front page was a beautiful photo of the new memorial in New York. In subdued tones of blue and grey, it shows the engraved names of some of those who died, with raindrops splattered across the surface like so many tears.

I turned the first photo face down, and kept the second in my field of vision as I read the papers.

I did not watch the coverage of the services. I listened. It's my instinct--I'm a morning radio person. Growing up, my parents always had the radio on (WNEW-AM, 1130 in New York) as we ate breakfast. But this was a conscious decision. I thought of turning on the TV. But Saturday night, when I put it on, it was already set to a channel showing a 9/11 retrospective, and I recoiled from the images.

As I listened, Paul Simon's beautiful and moving rendition of "The Sound of Silence" explained my reaction to me:
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
I didn't need to see any visions. So many are planted in my brain.

The first is returning to my office after teaching my first class of the day. I was in only my second week at Wofford, still learning my way around campus.

While I had been in class, the first planes had hit New York. I learned what had happened from an email from my best friend, who was in his office in Newark, NJ, across the river. I can see the desk, the computer, the wall and doorway behind them. They seemed to swirl together as disorientation set it.

The next is being gathered in a classroom with other faculty and students, watching a TV sitting atop a rolling cart, as the first tower crumbled. For several moments, I simply refused to believe what my senses were telling me. This is not happening. This is NOT HAPPENING.

The college gave professors the personal option of canceling or holding classes the rest of the day. I decided to meet my one o'clock class, not to talk about the scheduled topic of the Renaissance, but to discuss what had happened.

That choice was reinforced by the third vision of the day. I was with some colleagues having lunch in the college cafeteria, eyes glued to the TV in the corner of the room. By that time, all of the horrors of the day had already occurred: the towers had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit, Flight 93 had crashed, the towers had fallen. But we did not know at that point if that was all. We were waiting for the next hit.

Yet it seemed to me, looking at the students around me, that they had not grasped fully what had happened. For many of them, I thought, it seemed like just another day. At least with the students in my class, I could try to help them understand it.

So I went to class, and did my best to explain what Al Qaeda was, what was known, what was unknown.

The last vision of the day is a student's face. Her name was Karen, she was a first-year student. Bright, serious, engaged, sitting up front, as such students tend to do. Her eyes wide, her countenance exuding concern, she asked me: "Are we going to war?"

Yes, I think so, I told her. I can't imagine this would not provoke a military reaction. And I saw the fear in her eyes.

I could not foresee that day that ten years later, we would still be at war. That on the morning of the tenth anniversary, I would hear the news that 77 American soldiers in Afghanistan were wounded by a truck bomb.

How we got here is a topic for another day. Today is for those names, for that new vision of the memorial, now planted in my brain.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Third Party Bid for Palin?

Observing what he calls "Palin's Populist Twist," Andrew Sullivan writes:
I wonder if she's contemplating a populist third party campaign. Or if this anti-establishment message is what she will bring to the GOP contest. Or whether she is just trying to recast her celebrity image a little. Well, we'll soon find out.
I had the same third party thought when she gave a speech that seemed meant to hit Obama, Romney, and Perry all at once. But if she does intend to do a third party challenge, we may well not soon find out.

I can see her saying she’s not in the GOP race, and then dangling the tease about a possible third party bid if the nomination contest results in a candidate who doesn’t offer a real choice. Since she has made it clear that she does not intend to not run according to traditional rules, she can take a long time to decide on that—maybe until there is an actual Republican nominee.

She may be so narcissistically deranged that she thinks her base would be enough to get her an electoral college win. Or maybe she is as shrewd as Sullivan says and realizes that, with her high negatives, the only way she could win is in a three-way race.

There is precedent for a candidate reviled by a large section of the public being elected president: Abraham Lincoln. He was despised in the South, but was elected president with less than 40% of the popular vote because he won heavily populated Northern states in an election with three or four major candidates (based on your definition of "major").

In 1912, in the midst of an era of Republican domination of the presidency, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with 41.8%, because the Republicans divided between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt.

These two examples, however, show the problem Palin would face if she did launch an independent bid for the presidency.

Lincoln's advantage was that his vote was concentrated exclusively in the populous Northern states with lots of electoral votes. His inability to garner any votes in the South did not hurt him. Wilson's advantage was that he was running against two Republicans (though TR rebranded himself as the "Progressive" Party candidate that year). Wilson could rely on a loyal and united Democratic base.

Palin would have neither of these advantages. Her supporters are geographically scattered, and even if she portrayed herself as an independent or "Tea Party" candidate, she would be remembered by voters as the Republican vice-presidential candidate from 2008. Her vote would be drawn from those Republican and "change" votes that would otherwise go to the Republican nominee.

In other words, she'd be more likely to be the 2012 equivalent of Ross Perot, who got nearly 19% in 1992 and  8.4% in 1996.

But if Palin really burns to be president (as opposed to merely using the possibility of a run to rake in cash), a third-party bid is probably her only chance.  In a poll that asked not favorable/unfavorable but gauged enthusiasm for and against candidates, an abysmal 58% said they'd never vote for Palin.

However, she also scored 15% on the question of who would vote for "enthusiastically." That doesn't sound great either, until you notice that the only other Republican who scored as well was Mitt Romney, also with 15%. Another 24% said they'd "consider" voting for Palin.

With those numbers, there is simply no way Palin could win a two-way race. However, in a hypothetical Obama-Romney race, Palin may well believe she could enter as a self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate, mobilize the Tea Party base, get votes from those not enthused about Romney, and squeak out a narrow victory.

I think that scenario is extremely unlikely, even delusional. But I also think neither of those things would matter much to Palin. And it is the only way she could win a presidential election.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Obama Should "Welcome Their Hatred"

It's Labor Day, and on Thursday President Obama is scheduled to speak to a joint session of Congress  about the ongoing jobs crisis. Many on the left are urging the president to "go big" and push Congress for a New Deal-style jobs program.

The attraction of the FDR model is obvious. The economy created no net jobs last month (due to continuing government layoffs that totally offset private sector hiring), making it clear that the very weak recovery that was underway has now stalled.

But as I argued over a year and half ago, the circumstances of Obama's administration are significantly different. FDR took over at the absolute depths of the depression in early 1933, while Obama's administration began in the equivalent of 1931 and helped prevent the recession from becoming another Great Depression.

Moreover, Obama's political circumstances are radically different. FDR brought in huge Democratic majorities with him in the 1932 election, and the remaining Republicans were pliant and did not represent meaningful opposition to his policies. The 1934 election enlarged the Democratic majority in the Senate to 69-25 and in the House to 322-103. With those numbers, FDR could largely get Congress to pass whatever economic recovery measures he proposed.

Obama, by contrast, has from day one faced an obstructionist minority in the Senate that has effectively created a minority veto over all legislation by abusing the rules of the Senate, and now faces a Republican majority in the House.

There is, however, one aspect of FDR's early presidency that is often overlooked by his supporters: its failure to bring about quick improvement in the economy, and FDR's political response to that failure. And here, Obama may find some instructive lessons.

The signature policy of what is often called the "first New Deal" was the National Recovery Administration, the NRA. It was a decidedly pro-big business idea, whose premise was that the main problem in the economy was over-supply of goods. The NRA suspended the anti-trust laws and created what were, for all intents and purposes, government-sanctioned cartels in major industries to limit production.

It was an abysmal failure. It combined the worst aspects of government bureaucracy with the complacency of monopolistic business. By the time the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 1935, FDR was glad to see it go.

Politically, by 1935, FDR was under increasing pressure from the left to do more, and especially to give up trying to work with big business. Dr. Francis Townsend proposed giving the elderly $200 a month, and the popularity of his plan helped push the adoption of Social Security that same year.

Louisiana Senator Huey Long proposed the "Share Our Wealth" plan, which would have capped personal fortunes at $50 million and yearly income at $1 million. Long would then have redistributed the income among the poor. FDR feared the populist appeal of Long's plan might lead the Senator to challenge him for the presidency.

FDR believed people wanted jobs, not relief or redistribution, and in response proposed to Congress the largest single peacetime appropriation to that date: the Works Progress Administration, the WPA.

Its initial appropriation was $1.4 billion, the equivalent of about $1 trillion today. It eventually employed 8 million Americans. It never solved the unemployment problem, but it did significantly improve it.

It is the WPA people have in mind when they tell Obama to "go big."

The problem, of course, is Congress. Republicans would block any such proposal by Obama, and, given his pragmatic bent, he seems unlikely to propose something he knows will fail.

In trying to get anything at all through Congress, Obama faces roadblocks FDR simply did not have. But politically, the advantages of following FDR's approach are clear.

By 1936, the depression had not ended. Unemployment was still perhaps as high as 16-17%. But it was down from the 25% of early 1933. FDR's resounding re-election in 1936 was not because happy days were here again--it was because things were getting better, and, most importantly because people who still had not benefitted from the recovery knew Roosevelt stood for them.

In a powerful speech on the eve of the election, FDR drew the contrast with his opponents clearly:
Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.... We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
FDR spent the first two years of his administration trying to placate business interests. In return, he got nothing but their enmity. By 1935, he gave up trying to win them over, and began trying to defeat them.

That is what Obama needs to do.

What FDR said in 1936 is as true today (maybe more true than) it was then.

Obama cannot make Republicans bent on his political destruction pass policies that will put people to work. He won't get from Congress what he asks for Thursday. So he might as well tell the people of this country what should be done. When Republicans say "no," as we all know they will do, he can make sure the public knows who wanted to help, and which party believes "Government is best which is most indifferent."