Henry Clay Center hopes to expand its reach, encouraging civil debate and beneficial compromise

January 25, 2011

The tone of American political discourse has been a little less nasty since a federal judge and five other people were shot and killed earlier this month during an assassination attempt on an Arizona congresswoman.

In a symbolic gesture of bipartisanship, some Democrats and Republicans in Congress planned to sit together during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, rather than scowl and hiss across the aisle.

This new civility might not last long. Still, the people behind the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship think it is an opportune time to promote the ideals Clay modeled nearly two centuries ago: diplomacy, civil debate and beneficial compromise.

“The time is right — long overdue, really — to have a more conciliatory dialogue,” said Robert Clay, the center’s co-chairman and owner of Three Chimneys Farm.

Clay also is a distant relative of the U.S. senator, House speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who was one of America’s most influential leaders in the first half of the 19th century. Henry Clay was known as “the great compromiser,” and his diplomacy helped to delay the Civil War for four decades.

The non-partisan Henry Clay Center was founded four years ago with a big-name board and an advisory committee that includes retired U.S. Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The center’s main accomplishment has been sponsoring three sessions of the Henry Clay Center Student Congress, a weeklong seminar in Lexington each June for 51 rising college seniors chosen from each state and the District of Columbia.

Bigger initiatives are planned, and the center’s board has hired a new executive director: Shaye Rabold, who spent four years as former Mayor Jim Newberry’s chief of staff after managing his campaign. Rabold, a Democrat, succeeds Carol Barr, whose husband, Andy, was U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler’s Republican challenger last November. The Barrs are expecting their first child.

“This mission is something I strongly believe in,” said Rabold, 32, a Bowling Green native with degrees in political science from Birmingham Southern College and public administration from the University of Kentucky.

“I think there is an opportunity for the Henry Clay Center to grow and expand its impact because these ideals can and should be translated into many aspects of life,” Rabold said. “People can look to Henry Clay as a model for leadership in politics, business and communities.”

Rabold’s first few months on the job will focus on organizing the annual Student Congress. The seminar is taught by nationally known speakers and professors at UK and Transylvania University under the direction of Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador who now heads UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Clay and Rabold said the center hopes to expand its reach beyond the Student Congress by developing a high school curriculum and by partnering with like-minded foundations around the country. Long-range possibilities include hosting conferences in Lexington that bring together national leaders to constructively debate controversial public-policy issues.

Those ambitions will require a lot of work — and money. Fund-raising will be an important part of Rabold’s job, but she thinks people are ready to buy into the center’s mission.

“It’s about getting people to realize that we’re all more or less trying to get to the same place, even though we often disagree about how to get there,” she said. “A lot of people are in public service for the right reasons. It’s not just about ‘gotcha’ politics.”

Rabold said she still is recovering from a bruising re-election campaign, which saw Newberry turned out of office by the former vice mayor, Jim Gray. But she said she remains committed to public service and “making a difference, as cliché as that sounds.”

Rabold now works from the tiny brick cottage on North Mill Street that was Henry Clay’s law office from 1803 to 1810. The more she studies Clay, she said, the more she realizes how much people can learn from his career and his ideals.

She is reading David and Jeanne Heidler’s excellent new biography, Henry Clay: The Essential American. She said Gray gave it to her when they met recently to talk over coffee. “It was almost in the spirit of Henry Clay,” she said of the gift.

Amid irresponsibility, plenty of anger to go around

May 23, 2010

I understand why so many Americans are angry. I am angry, too.

The nation is mired in two costly wars. The economy tanked because of greedy bankers, investors, lenders and borrowers. Schools and other vital institutions are in crisis. Things our society used to take for granted — from affordable health care to jobs that can fund a middle-class lifestyle — are hard for many people to find.

The angry people getting most of the attention lately are the Tea Party screamers — mostly older, white, more affluent folks who preach a gospel of selfishness. They see the problem as “big government.”

But I encounter a larger, quieter, though still angry group of people every day. They don’t wave flags, wax nonsensically about the Constitution or seek to live in some idealized past.

These people, both Democrats and Republicans, think the Tea Partiers’ diagnosis of what is wrong with America is missing a couple of words and most of the point. They see the problem as “big business” and “irresponsible government”.

Free enterprise is what makes America great — the ability of individuals to work hard and succeed, to be both “free” and responsible members of society. But for that to work, it takes responsible government to provide infrastructure, keep the system honest and protect the vulnerable. Government is not “them,” it is “us”.

Responsible government has been hard to find lately. One reason is both Democrats and Republicans have been lavishly funded by big business, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority recently opened the floodgates for even more corporate influence.

Another problem is both Republicans and Democrats want to spend too much and tax too little. The nation’s social safety net and economic security are threatened by rising debt, but money keeps flowing to corporate giveaways, pork-barrel projects and unrealistic entitlement programs. Not to mention ill-conceived wars.

At the same time, irresponsible politicians have repeatedly cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. What the “taxed enough already” crowd will not acknowledge is federal taxes for almost everyone are their lowest in decades.

Republicans like to complain about health care reform being a “government takeover.” In reality, it is nothing like the government-run health care that works pretty well in most other western democracies. This reform was basically a sop to the health care industrial complex. While it expands coverage to more people, it does little to control costs and lacks a public option to private insurance.

“Socialist” President Barack Obama is the focus of much right-wing anger. But liberals — not to mention the nation’s few actual socialists — note that most of his policies would have made him a solid Republican only a few decades ago.

Tea Partiers love to rant against government regulation, as if markets were the product of magic rather than human nature. Anyone can find examples here and there of regulation that overreaches or is silly. But many of today’s biggest problems were caused by too little regulation, not too much.

The economic crisis was largely the result of deregulation and a lack of oversight of the financial industry under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The biggest problem with federal environmental laws has been that, until recently, they were barely enforced, despite what the “drill baby, drill” and “dig baby, dig” crowds like to claim.

As BP’s broken well gushes crude oil, destroying the environment and the livelihoods of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast, some Tea Party candidates want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Excuse me?

One of the most absurd examples of political theory trumping common sense occurred last week. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul, fresh from winning Kentucky’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, indicated he thought the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an example of government over-reaching.

Echoing comments he made last month to the Courier-Journal editorial board, Paul suggested restaurants, for example, shouldn’t be required by law to serve black or gay people if they didn’t want to. Only later, amid outrage even from within his own party, did Paul finally take a stand in favor of a half-century of settled civil rights law.

“I hope he can separate the theoretical and the interesting and the hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast based on real legislation here,” Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, told The New York Times.

Something tells me it is going to be a long six months until November.

How to balance business and government?

December 9, 2008

It looks as if Detroit may get its bailout after all.

If a reluctant Congress approves, the Big Three automakers could get $15 billion in short-term loans, following in the footsteps of banks and brokerages that are receiving $700 billion in public assistance.

Like many taxpayers, I’m angry at having to come to the rescue of greedy and incompetent corporate executives, but they seem to have us over a barrel.

Without the Wall Street bailout, the credit squeeze might have cost even more Kentuckians their jobs and savings and left the state with an even bigger budget deficit. A Detroit meltdown could wash away thousands more Kentucky jobs, from the Corvette plant in Bowling Green to the Ford plants in Louisville and dozens of parts suppliers across the state.

How did we get into this mess? Corporate greed and incompetence, for sure, as well as some irresponsible consumers. But I keep thinking that we could have avoided this crisis if government had been doing its job for the past eight years — if not the past quarter-century.

While we’re fixing the economy, it would be useful to have some sober discussions about the proper relationship between business and government. For decades, some politicians and big-money special interests have reduced that discussion to simplistic sound-bites: Business good. Big business better. Government bad. Government regulation very bad.

Government doesn’t create wealth, business does. Capitalism is the world’s best economic system because of human creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, enlightened self-interest and the nimbleness of business people to respond to the market’s needs.

But for capitalism to succeed over the long haul, it needs a fair and healthy marketplace where government sets some boundaries and enforces rules. Business people are the first to say that their job is to make a profit for their owners, not watch out for society’s best interests. That’s government’s job.

The Wall Street meltdown can be traced to greed and abuse made possible by deregulation and lack of government oversight. And if government had pushed harder for tough fuel economy standards — or helped fund innovation the way Japan has done with its automakers — the Big Three and the rest of us would be in a lot better shape now.

Honestly, I’m almost as concerned about government “oversight” of the auto industry as I am about government’s apparent lack of oversight of the financial services industry, which is getting nearly 50 times more money with few strings attached.

Government isn’t suited to running a business; it’s too bureaucratic and political. Of course, some would say the same about big corporations, especially public corporations more focused on short-term gain than long-term sustainability. Anyone who has ever worked for a big corporation knows why the comic strip Dilbert is so popular.

Some government regulation is essential; otherwise, our air and water would look like China’s and investors would have even less confidence in the safety of our financial system than they do now. But examples of overregulation are easy to find. Just ask any health care professional who deals with the well-meaning but nightmarish federal privacy law known as HIPAA.

As the nation feels its way toward a new relationship between government and business, a good subject to consider is health care.

Unlike in most industrialized nations, our health care system is left largely in private hands. Health care costs have traditionally been borne by business, although, as those costs have risen dramatically, companies have shifted more of them to workers.

The United States spends 16.5 percent of gross domestic product on health care — much more than any other nation — and that figure rises every year. Yet we have an inefficient system where an estimated 47 million people are uninsured and many families are just one serious illness away from financial ruin.

Why should businesses bear that burden? If government took more responsibility for managing health care with private providers, many people think both quality and coverage could be improved. Freed from those benefits burdens, companies could be more competitive globally. Plus, think of the entrepreneurial potential that could be unleashed if so many workers weren’t tied to jobs they hate by fear of losing health care benefits.

Of course, any attempt at change will be vigorously opposed by the health care industrial complex, which profits from the current system’s inefficiency. It will raise fears about “socialized medicine,” even though public-private systems such as Medicare, while hardly perfect, have worked well for decades.

Like many Americans, I’m uncomfortable with government trying to manage big business. But if government would use this opportunity to learn how to do a better job of governing, we might be spared more corporate bailouts in the future.