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

June 30, 2014


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.

‘For on his brow I see that written which is Doom’

December 24, 2013


Today’s reading is from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”


XmasCarol“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

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.

Andy Barr votes to take food from poor, then serves up baloney

September 19, 2013

Today’s George Orwell Award goes to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, for the press release reproduced below. For a different view of the situation, read this guest column in today’s Herald-Leader by the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.




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.

Want to fix Congress? Start by removing big money

January 1, 2012

New Year’s is a day for hope and optimism — two words rarely associated with the United States Congress.

Americans’ disenchantment with their elected representatives is nothing new. “There is no distinctly native American criminal class, except Congress,” Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago.

A Gallup poll in December showed that only 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance — the lowest rating since the venerable research organization started asking that question in 1974.

It is no wonder. Partisan gridlock keeps Congress from getting almost any important work done. Worst of all, Republicans and Democrats have become captive to special interests whose big money funds their campaigns, often makes them rich and fuels a poisonous political climate.

How do we change things? Two recent bipartisan efforts offer some good ideas.

One is a movement called No Labels, which claims to include more than 180,000 Republicans, Democrats and independents. (Find more information at

No Labels argues that the system is broken, but members of Congress could change their internal rules to fix many of the problems — if public pressure forced them to. Among No Labels’ proposals:

 Require Congress to approve a budget on time. If members don’t, they don’t get paid until the job is done.

 Give the Senate 90 days to vote up or down on presidential appointments. If it doesn’t, nominees would be confirmed by default.

 Curb filibuster abuse by requiring senators who want to stall legislation to actually take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate. Also, end the practice of filibustering “motions to proceed.” That would allow the Senate to openly debate and vote on more legislation.

 Allow representatives to anonymously sign discharge petitions on proposed legislation. Signers’ names would become public if a majority of House members signed. That would prevent party leaders and committee chairs from killing popular legislation for political reasons without allowing a vote. Enact similar reforms in the Senate.

 Prohibit members of Congress from taking pledges other than their official oath of office and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That would stop special interests from controlling lawmakers through pledges such as those against raising taxes or cutting Social Security benefits. No Labels says a combined 80 percent of current lawmakers have signed those pledges, making it almost impossible for Congress to govern in a fiscally responsible manner.

 Require the president to appear before Congress for monthly televised question-and-answer sessions, such as the British prime minister does with Parliament.

 Encourage cooperation across party lines by ending partisan seating arrangements, initiating monthly off-the-record gatherings of lawmakers and creating a bipartisan leadership committee to work through issues. As No Labels rightly points out, how can people with different viewpoints work well together if they don’t know one another and never talk honestly with one another?

Another good idea is a constitutional amendment proposed Dec. 20 by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican. (To read the amendment, click here.)

The proposed amendment would get special-interest money and its corrupting influence out of politics by overruling key provisions of Citizens United, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that made a bad situation dramatically worse.

The amendment would specify that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment. It also would enable Congress to create a public-financing system to be the sole source of funding for federal elections.

Imagine an election without endless attack ads and robo-calls funded by millions of dollars from often-anonymous special interests. Not to mention a Congress and White House beholden to the American people rather than the highest bidders.

Reform like this will never happen without significant pressure from average citizens. It will be opposed by many political leaders, not to mention partisans who cynically throw around words such as freedom and liberty as a smokescreen to protect the powerful people, corporations and organizations whose bidding they do.

Some people will resist change because the status quo works just fine for them. But if, like me, you are among the 89 percent of Americans who think Congress is failing us, this is a good day to resolve to do something about it.

‘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.

Unless economy improves, GOP’s wave will ebb

November 8, 2010

This “wave” election was all about the economy. Republicans would be wise not to make the same mistake Democrats did two years ago and think it was about them and their ideology.

An increasingly frustrated electorate doesn’t really want conservatives or liberals to “take back” America. It just wants them to fix the economy. Now.

That will be hard, and not just because our complex economic problems were long in the making. Republicans and Democrats are too concerned about their own political power to work together, make tough choices and tell voters the truth.

Neither party has the political courage to say we must cut wasteful spending, invest in physical and social infrastructure, and, yes, raise taxes if we want a strong, sustainable economy unencumbered by debt.

A recent McClatchy-Marist Poll of registered voters found that, by a 77 percent to 22 percent margin, most want Republicans to work with President Barack Obama to solve problems rather than stand firm to the point of gridlock.

Don’t hold your breath. Many of the Democrats and Republicans swept out of office this year were moderates. Hard-liners on both sides have now been joined by a handful of Tea Party conservatives, who will make compromise even more difficult. Besides, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said his top priority is making Obama a one-term president.

“I’m afraid we’re in for a period of deadlock over the next couple of years,” said Charles Haywood, retired dean of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, who has helped shape economic policy in this state for decades.

“My expectation for the next two years is that it’s just going to be a campaign for the presidency,” Haywood said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

For one thing, the economy is unlikely to see new stimulus spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that federal stimulus spending increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million and lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

But Republicans campaigned against stimulus spending, citing deficit fears. Now they control the House of Representatives, where spending bills originate. That new political reality led the Federal Reserve last week to launch a stimulus of its own, essentially pumping $600 billion into the banking system.

Liberal economists such as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman have argued that the stimulus wasn’t more effective because it wasn’t big enough. Haywood thinks a problem was that federal bureaucracy kept stimulus money from being spent quickly or efficiently enough.

“The anti-government political movement may be right for the wrong reason,” he said. “It’s not that government programs are bad. It’s the failure to get them implemented efficiently.”

Tea partiers’ calls for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution are foolish, Haywood said. Deficit spending is a vital tool for reviving a weak economy; the problem comes when it persists in good times.

Rather than being worried about the federal deficit now, Haywood said, politicians should focus on bringing down the nation’s international trade deficit. That will be hard to do politically, because Americans have become hooked on cheap foreign imports.

Reducing the trade deficit would likely mean allowing the dollar to fall in value, Haywood said. It also would mean changing tax rules to encourage companies to keep manufacturing jobs here — strengthening the middle class and average people’s ability to fuel the economy with consumer spending — rather than shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, where cheap labor boosts corporate profits.

American history shows that neither the political right nor the left have all the answers to creating long-term prosperity. Both Republicans and Democrats must figure out how to temper their ideologies and political ambitions and work together for the good of the country.

If the economy hasn’t improved substantially two years from now, we could see another “wave” election. Republicans and Democrats should both know this by now: the thing about waves is that they go out just as surely as they come in.

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.

Channeling Henry Clay on today’s political mess

February 7, 2010

I don’t usually go out to the Lexington Cemetery this time of year; it’s much nicer in the spring or fall.

But I thought Henry might want to talk.

Henry Clay is remembered as one of America’s greatest statesmen. During the first half of the 19th century, he was a powerful speaker of the House, a senator of great influence, secretary of state and a frequent candidate for president.

As leader of what became the Republican party, he could be as partisan as anybody. But time after time, when the nation was in a jam, he put ideology and partisanship aside and convinced other politicians to do what was best for the country.

Clay became a model for diplomacy, conciliation and conflict resolution. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, which he helped start, and brokered compromises over taxes and slavery that delayed the Civil War three times.

Clay died in 1852. His tomb is at the Lexington Cemetery, and a marble statue of him stands atop a 120-foot column overlooking the city.

Whenever I drive by, I wonder what Clay would think of the institution he once led — a Congress that seems gridlocked by partisanship and perverted by special-interest money.

So I decided to stop and ask him.

“I have a pretty good view from up here,” Clay said when I asked if he follows current affairs. “And I catch wind of a lot of things.”

He didn’t want to discuss individuals, such as his successor, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “After all,” Clay said, “he’s the leader of my party, and he has sat at my old desk in the Senate chamber.”

Clay blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the sorry state of American governance. He also complained about ideologues who pressure the reasonable people on both sides, making it almost impossible for them to find middle ground.

“There are few principles so important that there can be no compromise,” Clay said. “For example, preservation of the Union.”

What about slavery?

“OK, you got me on that one,” he said. “In hindsight, I should have had the courage of cousin Cassius. Alas, every man is a product of his time.

“But my point is this,” he said, quickly changing the subject, “I always said we should govern with the spirit of brothers. Brothers will disagree, even fight. But when the family is threatened, they band together.

“I was right about a lot of things, such as trade protection to strengthen American industry and federal spending to build roads,” he said. “But I wasn’t right about everything. Nobody is. Leadership isn’t about always winning; it’s about figuring out what’s best for the nation. If the nation isn’t strong, none of the rest matters.”

That may be good leadership, but is it good politics?

“Of course not,” Clay said. “I famously said that I would rather be right than president. Well, I ran for president five times and was never elected. I’ll tell you this, though: I’m more highly regarded now than some of the men who defeated me.”

I asked Clay what he thought of McConnell’s strategy of filibustering almost everything Democrats try to do in the Senate, and of House Democrats’ strategy of pushing through major legislation without even consulting Republicans.

“I told you I don’t want to discuss individuals,” he said. “But it’s no wonder that public opinion of both parties in Congress could hardly be lower. From a purely political standpoint, what will happen when the shoe is on the other foot? What will happen when the other party is in power? Or in the minority? Will revenge and pettiness never end?”

I asked Clay about all of the millions of dollars that corporations and other special interests spend on campaign contributions, attack ads and lobbying Congress. Does he think it perverts government?

“What do you think?” he replied. “Campaigns weren’t so expensive in my day. There was no television or talk radio. We just had newspapers, and they were vile enough.

“But it seems obvious,” he continued. “If wealthy and powerful interests are spending millions of dollars to make you wealthy and powerful, are you going to do what’s best for their interests or what’s best for the public interest? In my day we called it bribery.”

So you don’t think money is simply free speech?

“I told you,” Clay replied with a cold, marble stare, “I don’t want to discuss individuals.”