Sunday, January 03, 2010

Political update for the year 2010

Just in case you needed to know what you should be thinking politically . . .

The presidency

2010 is not starting the way 2009 did.

Then, the Obama love-fest was in full swing, with even many conservatives taking note of the fact that America had elected a black man as president was an historically important development. Yes, even Rush Limbaugh described it as "wonderful" and "great" (but that he "got over it" real fast). Couldn't agree more. It means something, but is no reason to support him politically or vote for him because of his skin color.

Now, Obama is brought back to earth. His approval numbers are a little worse than Reagan's and Clinton's back when they were in the same place, and they were both pummeled worse by their adversaries than he has been. But, for Obama, that has been a tremendous fall from Grace. I think there is good reason. The rhetoric he employed that won him the Nobel Prize hasn't matched up with anything he seems to be trying to do too, certainly for the right, but also for the left.

Sad to say, I do not blame Obama for the outright lies about what he was going to do when president (my favorite being the one about doing away with capital gains for small businesses, a promise which has no real basis in reality and would be unworkable if it made sense, but always got a lot of cheers). It's sad, because I'd like to blame him for that, but the nature of politics has almost guaranteed that everyone who runs for president, or wants to be confirmed as a supreme court judge, or any other important appointment, has to lie these days if he wants to be elected or appointed. We can respect those few who tell the truth, but they generally won't get what they seek.

Anyone who thought that a partisan president in conjunction with with very partisan house and senate leaders of the same persusion, wasn't going to try and put their extreme ideas into effect hasn't been paying attention for the last couple of hundred years. The lesson, of course, is what I was emphasizing over and over again during the last campaign - even if you didn't like McCain because he was too conservative or too liberal or too moderate, depending on your perspective, it is always better to have the president a different party than at least one of the houses, if not both. It pretty much rules out the posibility of ideological extremes controllng the debate. And a paralyzed legislature is not necessarily a bad one. My complaints against Obama have been pretty much covered by the right wing press so I don't need to go into them too much, but here's the snapshot:

- Continuation and ramping up of the Bush administration's policy of trying to defeat the economic woes by massive spending, way beyond anything that has been done before except during the two World Wars. For any of you who actually believe this is all going to mean balanced budgets in the future, let me say, feh! Do you still actually believe what the government tells you?

- The continued salvation of big businesses like AIG (and I hope that is over) while small businesses and individuals go under one after another.

- Substantial attempts to nationalizing parts of the economy. Whether Obama himself sees this as a substantial move towards a quasi-socialism, I can't say. But, it is a move in that direction. Temporary moves in bureaucracies always tend to become permanent and guard must be taken against that.

- The criminalization of warfare. The decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a federal court, allowing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up an airplane a week or so ago rather than have him become a prisoner of war, the apparent "Mirandizing" of enemy fighters in warfare, all show a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the uncoventional decentralized warfare we continue to fight. Just as Bush overdid some aspects of fighting the war (except, the actual fighting part), Obama seems to want to tamp it down, as if it is all just a distraction he will get out of when it is politically expedient. If only Al Qaeda would cooperate, great plan.

Politically, the Democrats will not survive a major terrorist attack without severe loss of seats in congress. I'm not so certain that it would mean the loss of the presidency because there are too many factors (expecially, who will the Republicans put up). With the Republicans so botching the wars during Bush's terms, the Democrats have a chance to at least diminish the perception that they are the weaker of the two parties when it comes to national security. But, they are squandering their opportunity already, the same way the Republicans squandered the perception that they were superior in spending discipline. When will it be generally acknowledged that the tendency is to general incompetence?

Having mentioned the recently failed terrorist attack, I'll throw in that the shouting from the right at that Janet Napolitano must go because she said one stupid thing after the thwarted attack ("the system worked") is just nonsense, and, of course, smacks of the silliness of partisanship as it comes from those who supported Bush and Rumsfeld through every bungling move on Iraq and Afghanistan. Napolitano will make her mistakes, as will Obama, and all those he appointed, but mistakes should be substantial and repeated before we insist that they move on. That does not mean we have to agree with their policies, of course, and I have no issue with people arguing with that as much as they like. Speaking of which . . .

- Foreign policy. Humility is one thing. I'm all for humility, and I too am often embarrassed by claims of American exceptionalism in cases where it is undeserved. But, this practice of deeply bowing to the royalty of other countries, of tiptoeing around the bad acts of Iran or other American enemies, has to stop. We have known for a long time that being a "nice guy" doesn't work in foreign policy. Foreign aid to other countries doesn't get you support in the United Nations. Giving terrorists "criminal" trials doesn't stop Al Qaeda from trying again. Handing Russia or China's leaders what they want doesn't mean they will support us. In fact, the world knows that it merely has to say that - there goes that agressive America again - and Obama will have an instinct to back down. He must resist this.

- Don't ask/Don't tell. Although not of the greatest consequence, Obama had an opportunity to get rid of this ridiculous requirement. Instead, he merely said that he will urge congress to it. How is that going to work? Clinton instituted Don't ask/Don't tell by an executive order, as the military is under the president's command. Obama could do the same. The excuse that it will be more permanent if congress does it is a joke, as why not do it in the meantime if you believe it is wrong.

Having now bashed him, there are three areas for which his administration gets credit. At the very beginning of his administration there was a fear that the drug wars in Mexico would quickly explode onto American soil. There may, in fact, be a slow bleed into our country, which is an immigration problem we can lay at all of congress's doorsteps, but the crisis was dealt with and abated.

The other is his somewhat slow decision to increase the troops in Afghanistan. There is no reason for us to be undermanned. In fact, another 30,000 troops from our allies would please me greatly. If the new "humbler" America can't coax that from their friends, then what good is being humble? But, it won't. I'll be surprised if there are 5,000 new troops from all of our allies put together. In fact, a reduction wouldn't surprise me either. This becomes more and more America's war.

The decision to stop having the FBI raid medical marijuana establishments that are legal according to California law. I am no fan of drug use, but believe that possession should not be illegal, and if so, at least not punishable with incarceration. But, the federal government shouldn't be telling California what is acceptable in an area that has traditionally been for the state governments to control.

The 2010 elections

How quickly has died the boast of my liberal friends that the Republican party is over (quite similar to the opposite contention by conservatives only two years before Obama was elected). A loss of congressional seats for the ruling party is common in the first election after a new president is sworn in. Right now, most political commentators expect no less this time around. However, with elections about ten months away, it is hard to say how it will play out. Deaths, a change in the economy up or down, a terrorist attack, might all shuffle the cards. It is nothing to make a prediction that this will occur as it is so common. A prediction in the opposite direction would take much more courage. But, I will be a little more specific and make these two predictions so far in advance, I can only claim to do it because it's fun, and with no certainty. Chris Dodd in Connecticut will be out, but Harry Reid shall survive in Nevada, boosted, if for no other reason, by the best name recognition he has ever had.

I do not believe that the swing in the senate, which is most important for the Republicans, will be great. However, the Republicans need only one or two (in case a Republican or so votes with the Dems) to secure the power of the filibuster, and prevent legislation from going forward.

One might ask if the whole tea party movement will mean anything. I doubt it. Despite the popularity of it, it is a conservative movement and they vote Republican. Eventually, it will either co-exist with the Republican candidates, or ensure that they both lose to Democrats. I'm sure that isn't what they have in mind.

Health Care

One thing the health care legislation should tell us, at least those who do not already know. We are not guided by wise men and women, who carefully craft and read legislation, to then vote upon it according to their conscience. We are guided by party hacks who vote blindly, according to what they are told by their leaders, or what they can get for their states to ensure their re-election. Watching the endless debates, day after day, you realize the worthlessness of even them after the first day, when all has been discussed, usually to mostly empty seats, only to be repeated again and again to more empty seats. If more than a handful of people watched C-Span, that would make it all worthwhile. But, they don't.

I solved the main health care problem (money) last year in these pages by suggesting that the power of charitable contributions augmented by a tax credit rather than a deduction be used to fund those who cannot afford premiums. I have been politely ignored by the 300 million who do not read my words and dismissed by the handful who do. However, there are other problems.

Whether the American health care system is better or worse than others (very debatable) it is not acceptable for us to not have universal health care, at least for those who want it, when so many other countries do. However, that doesn't mean the public option is a good idea either, as in those other countries, they do not have a massive defense budget necessary for the defense of them and us, and they have done away with their free market health care system. It is preposterous to suggest that the free market system would exist in conjunction with the public option. If so, why don't they co-exist in these other countries.

I expect that the house will cave to the senate bill and send a substantially identical one back to them. Whatever quibbles there are - the Stupak amendment, the public option, the senate's give aways to a few states who needed to be bought, will all be ironed out. Without some great event changing things - or even perhaps something so simple (if not sad) as the death of Robert Byrd or his inability to vote - the bill will be sent back in acceptable form and passed. The Democrats in the house have too much invested in the passage of the bill to allow it to falter.

I will not, however, be sad to see an end to problem of not being able to get insurance or being excluded when you have a pre-existing condition or the issue of cancellation of a policy because someone is sick. I note that this does not seem to worry the insurance companies very much, and I have no doubt they have calculated the cost to them and find the benefits of the legislation to them (of which, no doubt, there are many) will more than offset it.

Of the wisdom of the bill in its totality I have my doubts. The cost is exhorbitant. As with all of our efforts now, the money does not exist. The result will, of course, in the long run, will be greatly increased taxation. I cannot see the alternative. I cannot see how anyone cannot see that.

I almost feel as I should pass up on mentioning a sub-committee hearing I watched in December, where Alan Greenspan and David Walker (former U.S. comptroller) where both of those gentlemen, no longer tied to politics, said that our fiscal system is done - over. It cannot survive. If we do not re-do the way we do business as a country, financial failure is inevitable in an uncertain amount of years. The reason is simple. You can't just keep spending money you don't have. No business, no government, can survive this way. They weren't asked, but I would infer that both would give the same answer for the world economy.

The other stuff

I do not expect this to be a year of great change, even if health care is passed, absent some unexpected events of historical importance.

Immigration reform died during the Bush administration and that was with the president behind it. There is no will in the majority party for it and both parties are too beholden to the growing Hispanic vote to risk losing them completely. Expect nothing. It will take some unfortunate tragedy to change this.

There is nothing the Americans have been able to do with respect to the Israel/Palestine question no matter what they try. The only hope will ever be the exhaustion of both sides in fighting and the decision of the rest of the Muslim world to accept some sort of compromise too. Don't expect it soon. I have little faith in Hamas to give up its hostility or in Israel to stop its unfair practices in building more settlements and refusing to tear down those it has in lands it cannot claim as its own. One thing I believe for certain. Israel's days are numbered if it cannot find a political solution. The day will come when missile attacks in the thousands will be so easy for their enemies, that a country that small simply cannot defend itself, no matter how militarily superior it might believe itself to be. I am not sure if these enemies will be detered by a nuclear threat.

International efforts at climate change legislationmay be dead. Copenhagen was a disaster for its supporters. There is only so long that it can be delayed before people start saying, wait a minute, why isn't the expected climate change happening the way they said it would? Besides, with countries looking to their own fragile or broken economies, stuff like this just will not fly.

If Obama is to show anything to us in the handling of foreign affairs, it will have to be with Iran. I cannot say whether Iran is making a bomb as so many intelligence agencies believe or are simply determined to have atomic energy according to the international treaties they have signed onto. But, having promised new powerful sanctions if Iran does not cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency by the end of this year, he will have to take strong criticism if nothing comes of it. Indeed, earlier this past year when he gave into Russia on missile defense, it was supposedly because he wanted their cooperation on Iran. If Russia blocks sanctions in the U.N., that will look as weak and foolish as many thought at the time. In fact, it might call into question his whole foreign policy.

Not much stands to change this year in the Supreme Court. As long as Kennedy mans the center and is the swing vote, great changes in the law are not likely. Although definitively a conservative, he has his limits. One issue that may see some development is the 2d amendment as cases head towards the court which might allow them to find that the individual right to bear arms found last year will apply to the states. In order to do this, the court must find that the right is "fundamental". Don't put to much weight in the theory though, as it has always been just terminology which allows the court to apply whichever of the bill of rights they'd like to see applied against the states. Ironically, of course, one thing is certain. Conservatives who have so often decried the finding of fundamental rights, will be pulling for it, and liberals, who have always liked the use of this doctrine, will be against it, once more proving that partisanship makes everyone a little crazy, not to mention, breath-takingly hypocritical. Now there's a shocker.

The decision is not so clear, although, with Kennedy joining in the holding in the last case that the federal government may not prohibit the right to bear arms, certainly those supporting the right have the advantage. However, when Scalia wrote the opinion for the court in that case, and found the 2d amendment right to belong not to the state, but individuals, his reasoning was criticized by some of the most influential conservative judges and legal commentators. It cannot be said what influence that might have on Kennedy and whether he might want to go along with changing the long accepted right of the state (as opposed to the federal government) to prohibit gun ownership. It would not be difficult to conceive that he might find that the right is "fundamental" to our system of government in the way freedom of speech or some criminal defendant rights are.

Of course, leaving aside my rantings here, Reagan and Clinton both started out with ferocious attacks from their political enemies. Despite his troubles at the outset, the economy rebounded and Reagan was easily re-elected despite obvious physical and/or mental difficulties, suffered under a great modern scandal, and then, after he was gone, became almost legendary, mostly from the right, but respected on the left. Clinton was savagely attacked from the first day in office, but was re-elected and finished up having to constantly defend himself politically, but with the most popular presidency since Eisenhower. So, what is in store for Obama in the future cannot be as easy to decipher as I make it out.

And besides all that, Happy New Year and we will see what we will see.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .