The morning after: Where does America go from here?

November 7, 2012

No matter which presidential candidate you voted for, you should take a few minutes today to watch the classy speeches both men gave to their supporters in the wee hours of this morning.

There are some common themes in these speeches that conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, must embrace if America is to remain a great and prosperous nation.

Election campaigns necessarily focus on our differences and competing ideas. But governing an almost evenly divided nation requires building consensus around shared goals and values. If there is one lesson we can draw from the past four years, this is it: When governing becomes nothing more than a constant political campaign, the result is gridlock.

This is the question Americans face the morning after this election: Do we want to keep fighting, or work together to solve our problems?


We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.

 


Musings, ‘malarkey’ and other stuff from the Veep debate

October 14, 2012

The vice presidential candidates came to Kentucky for one of the most substantive debates in years — a clear, energetic argument over policy differences that left their bosses’ recent performance in the dust.

Here are some observations from Thursday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Memorable malarkey

Political pundits love memorable debate lines, and they figured these two Irish Catholic candidates would not disappoint. Only minutes into the debate, Biden delivered the first of many colorful rebuttals to Ryan’s sometimes inaccurate characterizations of the Obama administration’s record.

“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using an old-fashioned Irish term for nonsense. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he continued, puzzling moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked what he meant.

“Well it means it’s simply inaccurate,” Biden explained.

“It’s Irish,” Ryan added.

“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden continued.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

Biden seemed determined not to repeat Obama’s mistake of not aggressively challenging Romney’s characterizations of the nation’s problems, how they came about and how the administration has tried to address them.

When Ryan criticized the more than $800 billion in federal “stimulus” spending the Obama administration used early in its term to try to keep the Great Recession it inherited from becoming a depression, Biden made a spirited defense.

Republicans have claimed “stimulus” spending as a waste of money that created no jobs, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

Biden then tried to make Ryan look like a hypocrite by noting that he had twice sought “stimulus” money for Wisconsin companies.

No pushover

Ryan, who at age 42 is 27 years younger than Biden, was poised and articulate. He calmly held his own for most of the debate.

Ryan was a much more convincing advocate for conservative economic policies than Romney, who in his first debate suddenly morphed from an arch-conservative trying to shore up his base to a moderate trying to win over undecided voters.

Ryan and Biden’s point-counterpoint arguments about Social Security, Medicare, tax policy and approaches to deficit reduction underscored the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues. It was as good a discussion by party standard-bearers as voters are likely to hear this fall.

Ryan had done his homework and spoke knowledgeably about foreign policy. But while he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding Libya, Iran and Syria, he was unable to say specifically what a Romney administration would do differently.

That gave Biden an opening to portray Ryan and Romney’s criticisms as “bluster” and “loose talk”. He implied that their attitudes could be as dangerous as the Bush administration swagger that got America mired in long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.

No ‘civility’ pledge

For the record, both campaigns declined a request from Centre’s student government leaders to sign a new “civility pledge.” The pledge was a voluntary but popular student initiative last year intended to govern their own conduct.

The pledge says: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

“They thought it was a good idea, but I think they were averse to setting a precedent,” said Patrick Cho, Centre’s student government president. “It was disappointing, but I understand why.”

Debate demeanor

Televised debates are as much about theatrical performance as substance. How a candidate presents himself is often more important than what he has to say. Most voters seem to want confident, empathetic leaders, not policy wonks.

Aggressiveness tends to be seen as a sign of strength, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Passivity is viewed a sign of weakness. But the line is thin and subjective.

Republicans complained after the debate that Biden was rude and condescending toward Ryan. But Democrats said the same thing about Romney’s demeanor toward Obama during their Oct. 3 debate in Denver. What do most undecided voters think? We will find out on election day.

 


Can Biden’s Danville performance give Obama campaign a rebound?

October 7, 2012

Who could have guessed that President Barack Obama would suddenly be depending on Vice President Joe Biden’s communications skills to get his re-election campaign back on track? That’s right, the same Joe Biden who has an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that’s the way it is as Centre College in Danville plays host Thursday to Campaign 2012′s next big event: the only vice presidential debate between Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Centre was already feeling good about having been chosen to host the veep debate for the second time in a dozen years. Now, thanks to Obama’s feeble performance last Wednesday in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even more attention will be focused on Danville.

“The interest and the contacts have really picked up in the past few days,” said Centre spokesman Michael Strysick.

More than 3,200 media credentials have been issued for the debate, including 600 to international journalists and broadcast technicians from 40 countries.

Credentialing closed a couple of weeks ago, but interest was already strong because of Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket. It raised hopes that this would be more than the usual vice presidential debate — a sparring match between two people whose election is of no real consequence unless something happens to the president.

When Biden faced off four years ago in St. Louis against Sarah Palin, much of the anticipation focused on whether she would be able to convey a coherent thought.

But Ryan is the anti-Palin: smart and articulate, with a strong command of policy and data. He is one of conservatism’s rising intellectuals. Among many GOP faithful, especially Tea Party types, Ryan is more popular and respected than Romney.

During 14 years in the House, Ryan has become a leader in developing and proposing conservative fiscal policies. He is most famous for his draconian budget plan that would cut $5 trillion in government spending over a decade.

While Biden is an experienced legislator who campaigns with a man-of-the-people folksiness, he has never been considered a thought leader. House Speaker John Boehner predicted this summer that the Ryan-Biden debate could be “the greatest show on the planet.”

“With these two on the same stage,” Village Voice political blogger John Surico wrote last week, “we have a situation that is akin to a Thanksgiving Dinner where the dorky cousin is trying to outsmart the drunken uncle.”

But if Biden can avoid his gift of gaffe, he has a chance do well on Centre’s stage. That is because televised debates are more about performance than policy. They favor showmen over wonks, which is a big reason that Romney came off looking so much better than Obama did last Wednesday night.

Obama didn’t make mistakes; he just missed opportunities. He rambled while Romney was crisp. He was passive while Romney was assertive. Romney’s sudden shift from right-wing rhetoric to moderate reason seemed to throw Obama off balance. Romney looked straight into the camera when he spoke; Obama’s eyes were too often focused elsewhere.

The single vice presidential debate is particularly well-suited for sharp elbows. The debaters often can get away with saying meaner things than the top guys on the ticket. Both Ryan and Biden are likely to spend more time going after the presidential candidate who isn’t there than the guy across the stage.

Debates tend to favor challengers, because incumbents have a record to defend. But, in this case, Biden has an opportunity to make hay by attacking Ryan’s radical proposals for reshaping the federal budget and Medicare.

Ryan is coming to Danville to attack the Obama administration’s record, but also to try to sell his and Romney’s ideas.

Biden’s challenge will be to defend the administration’s record and explain why Romney and Ryan are wrong. He must show more passion and energy than Obama did last week. But here’s the question: Can Biden go on the offensive without being offensive?

Kentucky’s moment in the campaign spotlight should be a good show.

 


Many questions remain after Democratic, Republican conventions

September 8, 2012

Presidential nominating conventions make for interesting political theater, even if you do come away from watching them as confused as ever about what either candidate would actually do if elected.

For the most part, the Democratic and Republican conventions were giant pep rallies for the converted. There was a lot of inspiring rhetoric and many tales of personal struggle, both real and imagined. Leaders of each party distorted the records and plans of the other, while glossing over and obfuscating their own.

President Obama’s acceptance speech had too few specifics; challenger Mitt Romney’s had almost none. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, kept fact-checkers busy with his disregard for the truth. Vice President Joe Biden was himself.

Clint Eastwood, speaking to Republicans, had a stammering conversation with an empty chair. Comedians loved it. Have you heard the new pickup line? “Is this seat taken, or are you talking with President Obama?”

In one of the best speeches of his career, former President Bill Clinton took advantage of Republicans’ vagueness to put his own spin on their plans. Clinton summarized the GOP argument for replacing Obama this way: “We left him a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Kentucky Democrat who is in a tight race to keep his 6th District seat, was too chicken to attend his party’s convention. His challenger, Andy Barr, got a speaking slot at the Republican convention, but he used his moment in the spotlight to push his campaign contributors’ phony “war on coal” agenda.

One of the most honest comments in a speech at either convention came from Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican. You may have missed it, because it was mixed in with a lot of libertarian sound bites and distortions of Obama’s comment about government’s role in creating infrastructure that contributes to individual success.

“Republicans and Democrats alike, though, must slay their sacred cows,” Paul said. “Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent. Democrats must admit that domestic welfare and entitlements must be reformed.”

As we hunker down for eight more weeks of slimy attack ads, funded by millions of dollars in anonymous special-interest cash, there are some questions voters should ask before election day:

What are each party’s specific plans for job-creation and economic revival? What can Obama do that he hasn’t already done — or failed to do in the face of solid Republican opposition?

What specific things would Romney and a Republican-controlled Congress do to create jobs and boost the economy? More tax cuts and deregulation won’t do it; they never have before.

Tax rates, especially for the wealthy, are already at their lowest point in decades. Do Americans really want dirtier air and water and more gambling on Wall Street? Financial deregulation, which began under Clinton, was a big cause of the 2008 crisis that tanked the economy. Bush-era tax cuts, plus two wars waged on credit, are the biggest causes of our exploding national debt.

If Obamacare is repealed, what would Republicans replace it with? So far, they haven’t offered credible proposals for either expanding insurance coverage or curbing health care costs.

While Obama’s health-care reform law has been easy to demagogue as a package, many of its individual elements are very popular, such as letting parents insure young-adult children and banning lifetime benefit caps and exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Do voters really want those reforms to go away?

If Obamacare survives, how will both parties find ways to lower health care costs? That is the reform law’s biggest shortcoming. Improving on it will require Republican as well as Democratic solutions, many tough choices and less demagoguery. Is either party up to the challenge?

More than anything, voters should ask candidates running for the White House and Congress how they will work with those in the other party to solve the nation’s problems. The past four years have clearly shown that ideological rigidity and partisan gridlock just make things worse, no matter who is in charge.