RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014

Baker-Eblen

While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.


GOP extortionists offer no credible alternative to health care law

October 7, 2013

Any discussion of the Affordable Care Act cannot ignore the elephants in the room.

Republicans fought passage of what they call Obamacare in Congress and were outvoted. They challenged its constitutionality before the Supreme Court and lost. They made it their central issue in last year’s elections and lost again.

Having exhausted all legitimate means for getting their way, Republicans resorted to extortion. Demanding that the nation’s new health care law be “defunded,” they forced a shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, inconvenienced millions more and stopped vital services to some of America’s most vulnerable people.

The GOP insisted that President Barack Obama “negotiate” to sabotage his proudest achievement, a 3-year-old law that a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives ruled was constitutional.

If Obama doesn’t cave in, Republicans threaten to not raise the federal debt ceiling — in other words, refuse to pay bills that they already have rung up. The last time they did that, the economy suffered. If they do it this time, economists say, the results could be catastrophic.

This isn’t just another partisan dispute or Washington gridlock as usual. It is an unprecedented act of hostage-taking by a minority party that doesn’t seem to care who gets hurt.

For four years, Republicans have waged an ideological crusade against the health care reform law based on lies and distortions: death panels! Government takeover! They claim it will explode government deficits, even though nonpartisan analysts predict it will shrink deficits.

Gov. Steve Beshear wrote in The New York Times recently that Obamacare will, for the first time, make affordable insurance available to every Kentuckian. Currently, he said, 640,000 Kentuckians are uninsured.

Beshear also pointed out that a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville found that expanding Medicaid as part of the reform law would add $15.6 billion to the state’s economy during the next eight years and create almost 17,000 jobs.

The irony, of course, is that the new law is based on conservative ideas.

The philosophy behind Obamacare — requiring everyone to buy coverage from private health insurance companies — was first promoted by the far-right Heritage Foundation as an alternative to government health insurance. It combined market-based solutions with personal responsibility. But once Democrats embraced the idea, Republicans rejected it.

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney instituted just such a system. One reason Romney lost the 2012 presidential election was that he couldn’t make a logical argument for why the health insurance system that has been good for Massachusetts would be bad for everyone else.

Republicans are desperate to stop the Affordable Care Act not because they are afraid it will fail. If that were the case, they would simply let it fail and then capitalize on that in the next elections.

No, the GOP’s biggest fear is that Obamacare will succeed, just as Social Security and Medicare succeeded. Republicans opposed those programs when Democrats created them, and some factions of the GOP have been trying to undermine them ever since.

Republicans have tried to justify their extortion by claiming that Americans don’t want Obamacare. But when asked about the things the law will do, opinion polls show, most people approve of it. And a substantial majority of Americans tell pollsters they oppose the Republicans’ “defund Obamacare” crusade.

Many Democrats are dissatisfied with the new health care law because it doesn’t go far enough. They think the United States needs a single-payer insurance system, much like Medicare, to provide universal coverage. It works for the elderly; why not Medicare for everyone?

Still, Obamacare is much better than what we have had. It will provide coverage to millions more Americans than were covered before, through more-affordable private insurance and an expansion of Medicaid for the poor (except in states where Republicans refused to accept federal funding for it).

One thing you will not hear from Republicans is a credible alternative to Obamacare for getting this nation closer to universal health insurance coverage. That’s because they don’t have one.


Will Rand Paul be a work horse, or just a show horse?

April 23, 2011

Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell chat last August before the political speaking began at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. Photo by Tom Eblen

There are two kinds of people in Congress: work horses and show horses. Few show horses have pranced and preened as much as Rand Paul has during his first months as a United States senator.

The Kentucky Republican’s election last November came amid a perfect storm of voter discontent with the political establishment. Otherwise, Paul never could have defeated an accomplished secretary of state in the primary and an accomplished attorney general in the general election.

Paul has become one of the most high-profile members of the Tea Party movement in the freshman class of Congress. He owes much of his celebrity status to his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has been a gadfly presidential candidate for both the Libertarian and Republican parties.

His appeal may also have something to do with his first name, which reminds people of the late novelist Ayn Rand, whose fairy tales of libertarian utopia still enthrall some conservatives.

Paul has spent a lot of time in front of cameras and microphones this year, especially on friendly venues such as talk radio and the Fox News Channel. He has been busy promoting his new book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, and flirting with a run for the presidency, even though the Bowling Green eye doctor has no previous political experience or apparent qualifications for the job.

Much of the attention Paul has received from media not in the business of promoting right-wing politics has come because of his controversial statements. Those include a rant against water-saving toilets during a congressional hearing and last week’s complaints about government over-regulation of dairy farms that were based on information he should have known was not true.

The most significant thing Paul has done so far as a senator is to propose a budget-balancing plan that has no chance of ever happening. It would slash $4 trillion in spending by basically doing away with much of the federal government.

Like a somewhat less-radical plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, it is based on the same tax-cutting, anti-regulation philosophies that caused the economic crisis and ballooned the federal deficit in the first place. Both of their schemes would be good for corporations and wealthy people and bad for everyone else.

Paul also has endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. That sounds good in theory, but most economists think it could be disastrous. That is because it would prevent the government from acting to minimize damage from an economic crisis.

Public opinion polls show little support for radical spending cuts, just as they show declining support for the Tea Party movement. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last month found that 47 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party movement, an increase of 21 points since January 2010.

Both the political left and right like to claim a mandate from the “American people,” but the truth is that the nation is pretty evenly divided. What most people want is for both sides to work together to solve problems, not battle over ideology.

If Paul has any desire to become an influential member of Congress — and not just a show horse — he should take some lessons from the Senate’s Republican leader and his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell.

Even those who don’t agree with McConnell’s politics or admire his values acknowledge that he is a master politician. He can aggressively push his agenda but still find ways to achieve beneficial compromise. McConnell knows how to work with opponents and get things done. So far, Paul has shown little interest in or talent for that.

The media will eventually find another show horse to ride, especially if the public continues growing weary of the zealots of the Tea Party movement. Unless Paul can find ways to serve his constituents and actually accomplish something in the Senate over the next six years, I suspect Kentucky voters will be quick to put him out to pasture.


‘Watson’ lawmakers might pull us out of jeopardy

February 19, 2011

Since the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people, why can’t computers be politicians?

Watson for president! Better yet, let’s make clones of Watson – the computer IBM engineers built to clobber two human Jeopardy! champions last week – and put them to work in Congress and state legislatures.

Machines programmed to make decisions based on facts and logic would be an improvement over many of the human robots controlled by special interests who now run our government.

Big-money influence has always been a problem in politics. But the floodgates were opened last year when an activist Supreme Court majority expanded the legal idea that corporations are people. They overturned decades of campaign finance law and allowed corporations and unions to spend huge amounts of often-anonymous money to influence elections.

Computer politicians could help solve this problem, because they lack human greed. All computers really need is a cool room for their servers and a little maintenance. As long as they have a steady supply of electricity, they aren’t hungry for power.

Engineers could design computer politicians much the way they did Watson. They could fill their electronic brains with rich databases of facts and experience. Then they could write decision-making algorithms based on human logic and American ideals. You know, ideals that human politicians laud in speeches but often ignore in practice – fairness, justice, public good.

Consider how a computer politician could help with deficit-reduction. IBM named its Jeopardy! computer after the company’s founder, Thomas Watson. Let’s call our computer politician Webster, after that great 19th century statesman, Daniel Webster.

Webster could begin by analyzing how we got into this mess. His database would tell him that federal surpluses turned to huge deficits between 2000 and 2008 primarily because of massive tax cuts and more than $1 trillion borrowed to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Public debt was compounded by a deep recession caused largely by a housing bubble and irresponsible Wall Street speculation. With Wall Street now back to record profits, Watson might suggest a transactions tax on financial speculation to bring in billions to help balance the budget.

Many members of Congress act as if budgets can be balanced and debt eliminated by simply cutting discretionary, non-military spending. Free from human ideology, Webster would use facts and logic to conclude that any serious attempt to solve our financial problems will require ending the wars, curbing health care costs and raising taxes.

Webster’s database would show him that today’s income tax rates are the lowest in decades – lower than during the boom years of the 1990s, and far lower than during the economic boom that followed World War II. His electronic brain would dismiss the “taxed enough already” crowd, because facts show they are taxed less than in the past.

That is especially true of the wealthiest Americans. Because data show that assets held by the richest 5 percent of Americans have grown from $8 trillion to $40 trillion since 1985, Webster would logically conclude that they can afford to pay more in taxes. And that it would be in the best interest of the nation that created the environment that allowed them to prosper.

Webster’s database would show plenty of wasteful government spending to trim – much of it in the huge military budgets that some human members of Congress don’t want to touch.

I suspect Webster’s electronic brain would recognize the folly of slashing low-cost, high-value government programs such as public broadcasting, Teach for America and AmeriCorps.  He would conclude that cutting education is no way to build a more competitive economy. The logic of maintaining oil and coal subsidies while cutting investment in developing the energy technologies that must eventually replace fossil fuels just wouldn’t compute.

Decision-making algorithms based on American ideals would never allow essential aid to the poor, sick and elderly to be slashed, while preserving billions in wasteful military spending and subsidies for industries that don’t need them.

I’m sure some people will argue that machines can never replace human politicians, because even the best computers lack essential human traits, such as empathy. They have no heart.

I don’t see that as a big problem. Many of our current politicians don’t seem to have hearts, either.