POLITICAL ODDS AND ENDS: Suggestions, Corrections and Observations

First, ISIS revealed tonight on TV:  If you have been wondering what the draw of ISIS in Syria is for thousands of budding jihadists, and what life is like in ISIS controlled territories watch:  Blind Sided:  How ISIS Shook the World on CNN tonight at 9 EDT and PDT (other time zones must fend for yourselves).   Fareed Zakaria interviews former jihadists and reporters, such as a German news man who was allowed to visit ISIS held territories and lived to tell about it.

Second, a correction:  I Indicated in my immediately previous post that hundreds of migrants have died in sinking boats while aimed Italy (mostly Sicily I think) in recent weeks.  I had called them Libyans since they departed from Libya, but assumed way too much.  Actually, they come from many countries in Africa, like Eritrea, and the Mid-East, like Syria.   Libya has become the primary point of departure because political chaos there has allowed smugglers to operate easily.

Also, this immigrant wave, along with drownings, has been going on for years.  More immigrants tried the trip during the same period last year (25,000) than this (20,000), but it has garnered more attention because the number who have died trying has increased nine fold.  Don’t ask me why.

Third: Hail to the Comedian-in-Chief:  You probably have seen high lights of the White House Correspondence Dinner Monday night, such as when the President said that despite not having that much time left in the White House he doesn’t have a bucket list, but he does have a list that rhymes with bucket.   That got a good laugh as did some of his other jokes.  He was a  tough act for SNL’s Cecily Strong to follow.

I think this was his best W.H.C.D. performance, though he deserves the most credit for the one back in 2011, when he performed well while an operation to get Bin Laden was taking place at the same time.   I think it the most amazing moment of his presidency.  Can you imagine how his constant critics would have crucified him if the operation had gone badly?  They gave him little credit for its success.  And with so much on the line there he was out there getting laughs.

I often ponder what it must be like to make decisions every day that may well prompt the death of others, either from the interventions you make (like Libya) or the ones you resist making (Syria, until relatively recently).  And trying to pay attention to your family amidst constant criticism in this 24/7 age.  I’d fall apart in a day.  As disgusted as I get with our presidential election process, I think it provides a necessary test of the stamina, resilience and overall self-integration being president requires.

Fourth, an observation about our politics:  We often hear pundits and pollsters talk about how Americans are tired of the gridlock in Washington and want the parties to get something done, but the important point usually ignored is that while most of us our frustrated by our national government and want change, our visions of the changes to make are not only polarized but often contradictory.  One example is pointed out in a recent column by E. J. Dionne in which he discusses the fracturing of western democracies in general:

“In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.”

Helping to explain that divergence is our belief that government primarily serves special interest groups and that big government is in its nature wasteful and inefficient.  Some of us are more willing to put up with those shortcomings than others, another aspect of the polarization, so while we might want government to play a bigger role, not this government, not as it works now.

So, the overall temper of the nation is that we might be able to come together on the idea that government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but only if it is not the inefficient pay-to-play government that we have now.

A much better government that we are not likely to ever have.

Fifth:   I suggest you watch VEEP on HBO (or checked out from the library for cheap people like me:   It provides booster shots of humor to make thinking about Washington more tolerable.  I’ve only begun to watch the first, but this is the fourth season of a zany portrait of Washington politics focusing upon a vice-president played to gut busting perfection by Julia Louis-Drefus with funny-fine performances by the rest of the cast.   Some Washington folks say it captures the gist of political life there better than other shows, which is a scary thought, especially as the VEEP becomes the Prez this year.   Not for children unless the F-bomb is common in your house.

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A HAPPY NEW YEAR? I HAVE NO IDEA…..

Twas the day before New Year’s and despite wracking my mind, no upbeat year’s end message can I find.   However, I do have a  web site I want to share with you, The Fiscal Times brought to my attention by a reader who sent me a link while saying:   “It is this crap that drives me crazy, and adds further evidence that there really isn’t any difference between the parties after the rhetoric dies.”

He is referring to the 1600 page budget bill Congress passed before heading home for the holidays, which included many late-addition “surprises” hardly anyone noticed before the bill was passed.  The article linked here points out five of them that are head shakers for honest folk whether on the left or right.

The article isn’t long, so rather than me summarize the points I’d rather add a couple of points of my own.  First, despite the outrageous way this bill was passed, I am glad they passed it.  The alternative was to go into next year without a budget and a Republican controlled Congress, including libertarians who seem quite willing to continue to treat the “full faith and credit of the United States” as if it were a pin ball game.

They are so focused upon smaller government they seem not to have noticed the Chinese economy just surpassed ours in size this year and that China has taken various steps to develop currency exchanges that do not hinge upon the American dollar.  Nothing the Chinese would like more than for us to offer further evidence to the world that we have an increasingly unworkable order.

So, I’m glad that budget was passed despite it’s ugly underbelly.

Here is my other point.   While I have run across The Fiscal Times before, I never took a good look at it.  Since I liked that article I began exploring other pieces on the The Fiscal Times web site and found them interesting and not obviously partisan like so many other sites.  In their Statement of Purpose, they claim to be non-partisan, and so far I believe them.

If you do check it out, let me know what you think by replying using the comment link at the end of  all that stuff below.  If you like the site, think of it as a late Christmas (holiday) present.

If not, you can think of me as the Grinch.

The Syrian Dilemma: Congress Debates the Best Worst Option

As indicated in my previous post, I expected American missiles to have smashed parts of Syria by now,  but the President wisely back peddled and drew Congress into the mix.   The idea light might have popped on when the British Parliament voted against British involvement.  Given their traditional staunchest ally role, if we can’t even get them to back us……?

English: Middle East

English: Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hmm…..?

Or perhaps it was the poll suggesting only  28% of us or so think his proposed action seems a good idea.

Or maybe Obama recalled his rhetoric before his first election which was spiced with talk of government transparency, which hasn’t been the case, and of opening debate in Congress to our use of force in the world, which has not been the case, either.

Our nation has carried on an essentially hidden war using drones against terrorists in lightly populated, primitive areas around the world,  so it gets little attention.   It seems to be working and most of us are happy to watch so-called reality TV than focus on unpleasant realities like drones killing mostly bad guys with some unfortunate not guilty ones collateralized,  just happy to hope the government is doing it in the right way, an usual trusting of our government.

Anyway, if you think about this, it is nice to see a President come to Congress and actually ask their permission to attack someone.   Congress are the ones supposedly in the position to declare war, but administrations since WW II have worked around them by claiming presidential power for military engagements deemed necessary to national defense.

The skeptics will all criticize Obama for not being clear enough about our objectives,   Allow me to help.  Our general objective is to somehow remove Assad without having forces even more dangerous to us and the region take control of the government.  So, we will use this “red line” as an excuse to degrade his forces, but not topple him too quickly.   We fear chaos more than him.  Instead, we will continue to try to slowly weaken him and bolster elements of the rebels that seem less dangerous than he is and the other rebels vying for control.

As to exactly how this will play out, nobody has a clue.

From what I have heard so far, Congressional leaders seem united in backing some form of retaliation, so the question is whether enough “followers” will fall into line.  My guess is they will.  American prestige is on the line.  Obama has put it there with statements about the “red line” and that Assad must go.  I am an Obama fan, but I agree with conservative columnist George Will when he writes:

If a fourth military intervention (in the Muslim world) is coming, it will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.

But I would defend the president in this way.   Unlike Russia, America has a set of democratic values that come into play in our foreign policy.   I would say they have usually taken a back seat to our desire for regional stability, especially in the oil rich Middle East, but the tension exists and has become accentuated since the launching of what was called the Arab spring, but now seems more like a burgeoning Muslim chaos.

The point is the era of despots has been collapsing in the Middle East and democracy isn’t a cure all for poverty and lack of  justice, especially when democracy is more a vision than something that has been practiced before the revolution, practiced for years as was the case with us.   In short, there is no quick and easy transition from despotism to democracy, but don’t expect the needed patience from people throughout the Middle East who, having discarded despots, conceive of freedom as suddenly promoting a better life.

We are all still getting accustomed to an Arab spring that has given way to more chaos than democracy and there are no simple answers to this dilemma.

Obama’s Charm Offensive: Hope Springs Eternal

I don’t know about you, but my previous post depressed me.   When it comes to figuring out a way for congress to actually come to grips with our federal fiscal problems, what comes to mind is the phrase:  You can’t get there from here.

However, I do recall the advice of someone who said:  “Look for the good in everything,”  words that come to mind during situations like this.  So, trying to buck myself up this morning, I’m looking for the positive wherever I can find it.

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

In terms of the president working with Congress, he has publicly reached out to members of both parties through meetings and dinners.   A common criticism of him from both sides of the aisle during his previous administration was that he made few outreach efforts to congress.

Having Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff didn’t help in terms of Republicans those first two years, as his attitude was:  “We have the votes, so F…. them.”   Sure, I know the Republicans didn’t exactly have their hands stretched out, either, and “no” soon became the only word they did no (ah, know).    But these days, I am holding out hope that  “no” may be maybe.

Despite skepticism continuing to abound, the two sides are talking nice, or somewhat nice for the moment.   Also, for once under Obama, both the House and the Senate are pulling together budgets, which is called “regular order”, because it used to be done regularly.  If both come up with budget proposals, at least it provides a place for negotiations to begin  (*1).   The Obama team tried to skirt this process and negotiate directly with House Speaker Boehner in 2011, but those talks broke down which led to the sequester which led to those forced meat clever budget cuts  recently because the two sides could not agree on a reasonable alternative to prevent them from going into effect.

The two new budgets outlined thus far are about as far apart as the edges of the Grand Canyon, with Representative Paul Ryan (R) including the elimination of Obamacare as part of his calculations and Senator Patty Murray (D) outlining a trillion dollars in raised revenue over the next ten years.   Both ideas are non-starters for the opposition.  Those who remain optimistic hope those are just bargaining positions which include hidden flexibility.   Pessimists see those as true positions with little wiggle room and continued stalemate.

As for me, I am hoping for some kind of miracle, but miracles happen some time don’t they?   One group that has a whole list of them is the Catholic church, whose members just happen to be celebrating the election of a new pope, which is what brought the possibility of miracles to mind.

I’m willing to suspend judgement for the time being, and instead ponder the idea of Paula Abul at a Papal Conclave.   Don’t ask me what she’s doing there.  The sight just made me smile.

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(*1)   One reason the Senate has not come up with a budget proposal like the House has been doing each year is that anything the  Democrats would want to pass would be  filibustered by the Republicans, so why bother.   Yes, there were 60 Senate Democrats for about the first 18 months of Obama’s first term, but they could barely muster enough votes in the Senate to prevent a filibuster and pass the stimulus plan in 2009 and Obamacare in 2010.    In terms of the stimulus, of the 61 votes in favor, three came from Republicans and two from independents.

A pet peeve of mine is having to listen to someone say the Democrats “controlled” both houses in Obama’s first two years.   They “controlled” the House, but only “managed” the Senate, in the way one tries to manage a stampede.

SOTU: SOme Time U need to believe it to see it

I thought I had had enough of the State of the Union (SOTU) address, but reader Stormy Malone’s response merits general consideration.   My position has been I’ll believe it (Obama’s agenda) when I see it working its way through Congressional gridlock.   

However, I do believe that often one needs to first believe in something in order to actually see it happen.  Malone is a liberal activist who believes in President Obama’s vision and in the importance of stating it, as she argues below.  Since she makes her points well and avoids insulting me in the process, I want to give her center stage today.

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2013 SotU 50

2013 SotU 50 (Photo credit: Editor B)

For those of us who  are interested in active citizenship and taking the longview, I think vision in the SOTU matters as much as what can happen “tomorrow,” or even this year or this decade. To a progressive, the SOTU is not a piece of entertainment, but a roadmap of cause. We are the ones who canvass, volunteer, tweet, fund raise and blog to move a progressive agenda forward.

It’s why we finally have the ACA and why we will have Climate Change legislation before long, why immigration reform will happen very soon and why gun legislation will stay alive. We activists will not make the same mistake we made in 2010. We will stay on the do-nothing congress until it is extinct as a legislative majority and we will support of candidates in 2014 who can win and best fulfill the SOTU vision PBO laid out. We will be turning out folks to the polls.

Granted there are many like you who are impatient with the march of progress. That’s fine and your voices are as important as the activists’ voices. I can’t blame anyone for being indifferent, or for being frustrated because the President can’t “make it so.” But a legislative body in a democracy is not a sports “team” with a coach or a “crew” on a starship with a captain. There are no absolute voices in a Democracy.

Democracy is designed to be sloooooooow. It is Democracy’s great vulnerability because horrible injustices can happen as elected officials “debate.” At least now we have digital technology that allows the process to speed up, to reach critical mass on issues that have simmered for decades.

Within 4 short years this country flipped completely on gay rights, not because people changed but because a President, for the first time, spoke up. On a variety of gun issues, for the first time in decades, the president will force politicians to go on the record with a vote.

In short, I totally understand why you preferred to have others sum up the SOTU for you, but to an activist, a person who loves politics and cheers for the agenda of PBO, it is about as persuasive an argument as me arguing that catching the highlights of the Super Bowl is the same as watching in real time as the Ravens beat the 49ers.

And how many times have I seen Wisconsin play in the Rose Bowl? Why on earth watch again?

A Little Bit More on the State of the Union Address

George Washington's First State of the Union A...

George Washington’s First State of the Union Address (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend chided me for commenting on the State of the Union (SOTU) address without watching it, and I want to speak to that.  A week after the address, I still feel no qualms about not watching.  For one thing I read several reactions to it and saw a number of clips.  Since I am not very interested in what the President says these days, but in what he and the Congress can get done, that seems plenty.

Also, I have found no argument against the most powerful segment being his passionate urging that proposals to reduce  gun violence be voted on in Congress, as I wrote about in my previous post.

One thing I do want to add, though, is the dreary thought that all of this emotion was garnered to simply push our Congress to vote on gun-related proposals, NOT TO ACTUALLY PASS ANYTHING.

That seems the most significant point of all.   Our Congress is so gridlocked that simply getting a vote on a proposal rates as an achievement.   How twisted is that?  Of course, Obama undoubtedly thinks that if votes are taken something will pass, but it still underscores  how the engines of our ship of state are barely working.

It is this gridlock that devalues everything said by the President and members of the Congress.  What matters is what gets done, not what is said.  So, I have been much less interested in SOTU than in the upcoming  “sequester”  deadline March 2 (across the board budget cuts on about 0ne-third of the budget).

Nobody seems confident in predicting what Congress will do about that and if no one can even predict that, most things the president proposed mean nothing to me yet, except again the matter of gun-related proposals, some of which seem to have momentum.

That’s all I have to say.   Those who want to think more about SOTU should find the divergent takes of Ezra Klein and Matt Miller interesting.   Both center-left types whose opinions I respect, they reacted to the address very differently.  Klein saw it as “shockingly bold” – unlike the “nothing new here” reaction of most commentators.  Miller, on the other hand, called it “hollow”, even more disappointing than being old hat.

To sum up his disappointment:  “Even if Obama’s agenda becomes law, after eight years of the most progressive president in memory, America will still be a country in which work is less well-rewarded, college is far costlier, and poor children’s life chances more limited by accident of birth than in virtually every other wealthy nation. American exceptionalism indeed.”

Klein’s video can be found here, while Miller’s column can be found here.  The video begins with the usual short ad, then some intro-clips, so you need to be a little patient.

By the way, though calling the President’s agenda bold, Klein admits he has no idea if any of it will be passed.   Which is why I don’t care about the words, even if they were “bold.”

Why My State of the Union Message is Better

It is much shorter.

My Fellow Citizens,

The state of our union is so disunited that I am going to say little about it.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

(Photo credit: David Holt London)

I like and respect our president, the latter largely colored by my sense that he has an impossible job, so I judge him less harshly than most.   When hearing him criticized I recall how President Lincoln was widely looked upon as an incompetent fool during most of his presidency.   Even his own cabinet took quite awhile to realize he had a lot more ability than “a well meaning baboon.”

Having said that, I am tired of hearing speeches by our current president.  I don’t have much audacity of hope left and need to see things happening rather than hear them talked about.  Tonight I can’t imagine him saying anything  momentous, and if I’m pleasantly surprised I’ll find out about it tomorrow.

For me it all boils down to what will happen in Congress over the next few months and whatever the President says tonight won’t affect that much one way or another.   According to Bloomberg News:    “The president will offer proposals for spending on infrastructure, clean energy and education, according to a senior official briefed on the speech. ….  He will also stress the agenda laid out in his inauguration address, pushing Congress for action on immigration, gun control, and climate change.”

It  all sounds good to me, but I want to see how it plays out, not hear more about it.   As indicated in my previous post, the across-the-board budget cuts (called the sequester) interests me more because they play out by March 2 (*1).  At least the next act of this ongoing tragicomedy does.   I am interested to see how that will be dealt with because sharp cuts in government spending can slow our economy as shown in the last quarter (*2).

Obama has said he would like the deadline to be pushed back again to the summer, so the two parties could work out a more comprehensive approach.  However, this strikes me as a ploy, for the Tea Party rump of Republicans seem willing to let the sequester go into effect and see what happens.  If it does, Obama will be seen as more reasonable and if the cuts do really make a negative impact on our economy, he can blame the Republicans.   For this reason I wouldn’t be surprised if John Boehner cooperates with the Democrats again and goes along with kicking the can down the road.  But if he does that, I wonder whether it will split the Republicans apart, or more apart than they already are.

That is what I want to see and believe it will be necessary for much of anything to get done in congress.   As long as the Tea Party folks have enough power to veto what they don’t like, which is anything that includes compromise, not a whole lot is going to be accomplished.

With that in mind, I cannot imagine that the President will say anything this evening to make me glad I tuned in, so I think I will watch college basketball instead in preparation for filling out brackets for one of my favorite sporting multi-events:  March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament for the sports-challenged).  There will be plenty of analysis tomorrow in case I miss something noteworthy.

If I learn something interesting, I’ll write about it later this week.

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(*1)   When talking about across the board cuts in spending, we’re really talking about cuts to about one-third of the overall spending, the discretionary part as opposed to entitlement programs and interest on our debt itself, which automatically go into effect each year.   That’s why we often hear someone arguing that to really deal with our debt we must deal with entitlements.

(*2)   In that last quarter, a sharp drop off in military spending was the primary cut back and under the sequester it would be the primary one again because about 24% of our entire budget is spent on the military.  Or think of it as about two-thirds of that one third of the entire budget that is spent on discretionary spending.   Linked here is a pie chart of federal spending.