Saturday, October 17, 2015

Political Cannibals


Political Cannibals

With very sharp teeth and a sharper knife
Who can be found in political theater
Slashing and scalding and taking life
At times attacking some tribal group
Or meeting with ardent drummers
To target a meal or perhaps some soup
Outside the circle of comers
But inside the Capitol loop
Add some tea bags as the meal begins
And the lines for family erase
As they find that the closer the kin
The more compelling the taste
There is no hiding the fact that the GOP is not what it used to be.  The GOP was once united through Nixon’s “southern strategy” that linked fiscal conservatives with social conservatives and the “religious right.”  They are now clearly eating their own.  Gone is the time when Reagan demanded the 11th Commandment that Republicans not speak ill of another Republican.  Reagan perhaps employed the most skilled public relations crew in our national history.  That is not true today despite FOX News providing media support.   Unfortunately, as the GOP is embroiled in this internecine insurgency, they are also destroying the fabric of commonwealth that once held us together despite our party differences.  It is largely those differences, exaggerated by the partisan energy of the Tea Party and its sub-groups, that resulted in John Boehner resigning as Speaker.  More recently, Kevin McCarthy surrendered his quest for the speakership due to the Freedom Party Caucus within the GOP.  Additionally, McCarthy blurted out the truth about one of about a dozen investigations about the Benghazi attack.  Four Americans were killed in an attack that McCarthy used as opportunity to tarnish presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  More recently and still internally, the Tea Party has attacked a conservative member of the investigation, Major Bradley Prodliska, for openly saying it was a partisan investigation.  This would not have happened under Reagan as we will show through 1983 Beirut.   In 1983 Beirut, Reagan suffered two disastrous bomb attacks on Americans within 6 months and yet was not questioned about his intentions or his skills.  The political climate protected leaders with the concept that political division ended at the water’s edge.  Today, it never ends.  I call this political cannibalism and there are two major varieties; intra-tribal and extra tribal.

McCarthy’s extra-tribal attempt at cannibalism of a Democrat made even a few Republicans squeamish, at least because he actually unveiled the nefarious intentions for his investigation.  As a direct result, McCarthy was quickly consumed by his fellow Republicans who also commented that McCarthy was not conservative enough.  In this essay, you will find a case study of two vastly different periods in American political discourse separated by only 30 years or so.  Some of you may cringe at the facts, but we need to look at recent history to absorb some powerful lessons in our own political climate.  In recent years, during the State of the Union Address, Republican Representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, yelled “You lie!” at President Obama during the speech.  It was unexpected, lacked decorum and was grossly rude and even factually questionable.  This is simply an example of the new way of doing business or more often, hurting business that requires restraint and compromise.  Unwritten rules that provided a veneer of polite discourse have been replaced by insults and epithets in open theater.  This new approach has only worsened political gridlock.  It is difficult to find common ground over the shouts and recriminations of a political adversary.  Dialogue is poisoned with invective.

It is ironic that we are approaching the anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Americans on 23 October 1983 after President Reagan ordered troops into Beirut barracks despite pleas not to by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.  We had earlier suffered an April 1983 attack on the US embassy in Beirut where 17 Americans were killed among 61 slaughtered by a car bomb.  While both Benghazi and Beirut were tragedies, the scale of the Reagan incident in the Beirut barracks was 60 times greater and more directly due to Reagan’s failure to heed the Secretary of Defense than Secretary Clinton’s oversight of foreign affairs.  In my memory nobody of either party attempted to politically exploit the deaths of 241 Americans (and 57 French paratroopers) in that single incident in Beirut, but political cannibalism was not trendy in 1983 and we were at odds with Iran.  In fact, the Reagan Administration armed Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons, including nerve agent, all through 1983.  These weapons of mass destruction were used in the Iran-Iraq war.  (Years later, this sale gave rise to the charge that Saddam had WMD).  Reagan appointed a military commission headed by Admiral L.J. Long, but there was no congressional investigation led by Democrats or the GOP.  George Shultz as Secretary of State never acknowledged the loss or attributed it to Reagan.  Much later, Shultz blamed the attack on Hezbollah (not formed until 1985).  Reagan retaliated by naval bombardment of Beirut and environs with the unfortunate loss of hundreds of civilians unconnected with the truck bomb.  Surely, some lies and history revision happened in 1983, but there was enough good will to avoid witch-hunts and political cannibalism. Two days after the horrendous losses of our military in Beirut (the worst in one day since Iwo Jima of 1945 and Tet of 1968), we invaded Granada.  Perhaps this was a well-timed distraction?  A huge loss was whitewashed by “success” in Granada as we quietly retreated from Lebanon in the weeks following the truck bomb despite assurances by Reagan that we would stay.  The events in Lebanon did not become a political feeding frenzy at home.  In fact, Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan worked many compromises including a tax hike during their joint tenure.  Compromise was good for the whole nation and political cannibals were scarce.

Insurgency within the GOP accounts for the overall gridlock although the GOP PR machine and much of the media reporting seem to place the responsibility evenly on Democrats and Republicans.  It is really neither, but a GOP sub-caucus that is petulant and out of control.  It might be humorous except that it has delayed any prudent law making in favor of hostility and constant wrangling, bickering and wasting taxpayer dollars on conservative political differences that defy the real definition of “conservative.”  The Tea Party is more radical than conservative and the contest as to who can out-conservative whom is apparent in the presidential primary races that resemble bar fights more than political primaries.  The media often refer to the gridlock as bipartisan, but it is overwhelmingly a GOP phenomenon led by one of their minority caucuses; hence 67 votes conducted to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act rather than crafting a few meaningful improvements that could get GOP support with a smattering of Democrats voting with the GOP.  Conflict is now built into the process rather than constructive compromise.

Political cannibalism will leave long-term scars on the American landscape.  It is largely responsible for failing to invest in our crumbling infrastructure.  Our citizens challenge fate daily trekking to work and home as roads and bridges fail. Investment is essential to the future competiveness of our nation, but the idea that a small minority can prevail over the vast majority of Americans is anathema to investment when ideology trumps common sense.  Smaller government is a myth thrust on us each election season. That code “smaller government” actually translates as less money for investment in America and more money for the military along with privatizing programs that make politically loyal privateers rich.  Recently, Jeb Bush has promised to finish, if elected, what his brother George started on privatizing Social Security.  Had George succeeded, can you imagine the personal and family pain and chaos of the 2007-2008 recession?  We bailed out the big investors with the very tax income that the cannibals might have eliminated.  Extreme conservatives trumpet this ideology so that many Americans feel that we can have it all and not spend money. These plans, however would give great tax breaks to the wealthy and will reprise the “trickle down” theory that has never worked in history although it has been tried repeatedly since the late 1920s.  We now have scapegoats in Mexicans, Climate Change, and Obama.  The myth is that we can have guns and butter; lower taxes with a bigger military and a Great Wall to compete with China. That errs on the ridiculous side of politics, but does nothing where it counts in manufacturing, the recovery of the middle class and returning to investment in our people through education and infrastructure.

We need to be alert again for the rising mythology that removing taxes and regulation will create wealth for everybody.  The only stuff that trickles down is not wealth.  Removing regulation on the excesses of Wall Street only exacerbated a financial meltdown that spilled pain and poverty on the middle and lower working classes.  The mythology that surrounds Reagan gave rise to the notion that government was the problem instead of the solution.  Replacing effective policies with a vacuum filled by privatized and unregulated financial mechanisms resulted in a widening income and wealth gap that often makes the USA the laughing stock of other developed nations.  Bad government through political gridlock of the “Freedom Caucus” is merging with political cannibalism to damage our democracy.  Of course, perhaps the Freedom Caucus will succeed.  There is at least one example of an absolute minority taking charge of an entire nation through a beer hall putsch.  We know how that turned out.  Where is the Freedom Caucus beer hall?  Are the brown shirts free?  Is there a similar strong and paranoid leader in the Freedom Caucus?  Should we get ready for parades and night rallies?  We can replace progress with spectacles.  Hollywood: move over.

George Giacoppe

12 Oct 2015

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Speaker of a House Divided

Some of us can speak at length
While saying nothing of worth
And others speak with strength
On issues with astounding girth
But the speaker of a house divided
Sobs and cries forlorn with dread
And fails to do what is required
By the job or friend or foe
Then frozen in that fear
Knows not where to go
Applying Hastert Rules so dear
Wrestling with himself, the foe

            John Boehner is arguably the least effective Speaker of the House in US history.  It has nothing directly to do with his party affiliation, although the divisions in the GOP, especially with the acid agitation of the Tea Baggers, made the job more difficult than it needed to be.  Let us start with the opening of the 112th Congress when Boehner announced that every House bill to be considered had to cite the constitutional source permitting it.  The House soon forgot the “Constitution rule” and failed to abide by it.  Perhaps it was to be expected because they began the charade by leaving out official amendments and other “undesirable” elements.  It would appear from their oral reading that we never had slaves in our history.  According to that approach we therefore did not need to eliminate slavery by amendment.  So we began the 112th Congress with an amazing fairy tale that conveniently omitted reality, but it was reality that seized the institution and Boehner as time passed.
            Just what practical knowledge and skills must the Speaker have, anyway?  First, he/she must know the makeup of the chamber.  That knowledge is more than how many of each party are there.  The Speaker needs to know the makeup of each sub-caucus and needs to have the voting records at hand.  When Boehner decided and announced that he would follow the Hastert Rule, he virtually eliminated any chance to pass meaningful legislation.  The Hastert Rule demands that no vote be taken unless it can be passed by the GOP Caucus with no Democratic votes.  It has nothing to do with the recently disclosed shameful and illegal behavior related to Dennis Hastert as a wrestling coach.  On the issues of repeal, defunding and otherwise crippling the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Speaker allowed 67 votes.  None of these measures became law, of course, because there is a sizable Democratic Caucus as well as a Senate and a President who have roles in legislation.  That was a colossal waste of valuable House time. Had he not announced his Hastert process, perhaps some two or three attempts may have sufficed as a token of opposition to mollify supporters.  More attempts than than that speaks to the definition of insanity that suggests that a person is insane who repeats the same actions under the same conditions and expects a different result.  The Hastert Rule also guarantees that a confrontational and poisonous process will spoil any chance to get the people’s business done.  The Hastert Rule raises partisan goals above goals for the commonwealth; the common good.  It is the basis for much of the cry that Washington cannot get anything done.  Of course, if the GOP is truly anti-government, then perhaps it is unlikely that they will do things to make government work. Some of them may focus on eliminating government, even at the peril of the nation, but, historically, some of the GOP like Eisenhower built up the nation with wide and bipartisan support.
There were times when Boehner had to pull a bill from consideration because he had failed to count committed votes before calling for a vote for record by the House.  This is a fundamental skill and the House has a Whip and other positions to ensure that a count happens.  That failure was inexcusable.  When Boehner began his tenure as Speaker, he appointed several Tea Party members to responsible positions thus undermining the process of preliminary vote counting.  It is not good management to place your avowed enemies in positions where they can block your goals or filter your information.  Likewise, the very personality of John Boehner may encourage annoyance or even anger by Republicans and Democrats alike.  He sobs constantly and, in the minds of many, his tears roll without sufficient cause.  If somebody is moved to tears by a powerful condition or event, we all empathize, but if the tears flow for trivial events, it seems that the Speaker has no disposition for leadership or strength of character.  A little goes a long way, and anything beyond that makes him a target for his Tea Party enemies and GOP friends alike.  It personally angers me to see the third most powerful person in the presidential succession slobber and twist his face in pain and tears while conducting business.   His temperament was unfit for any position where conflict and serious consideration and logic are the thrust of the effort.  Can you imagine what the pundits would have said if Speaker Pelosi had use tears as a regular feature?  She would have been ridiculed for unprofessional feminine behavior.  Pundits have been strangely silent on Boehner and his tear factory.  Perhaps there is a double standard that protected Boehner, or perhaps most of us were so disappointed that we said nothing hoping that the tears would stop and that he would consider duty above his fears.
The most telling objective measurement of Boehner’s failing, however, is in the record of the 112th Congress itself that has achieved the least of any Congress in our history.  Opportunities presented themselves to the Congress and, instead, they created fiascos of their own design.  Ostensibly, the GOP favors fiscal responsibility, but spending $24 Billion for shutting down the government only demonstrated their most irresponsible behavior.  Further, it inconvenienced millions of citizens including government workers who had to borrow money to pay rent and feed their families while the House and fellow traveler “legislators” in the Senate agreed to the pain and disruption.  Fiscal insanity and partisanship overcame their duty to “We the people” that the GOP proclaimed at the start of the 112th Congress.  It was a scandalous drama without a plot and it had no redeeming virtue.  That is essentially a definition of pornography, and it was conducted at the highest levels of government, “led” by Boehner.  Some pundits have decried Obama “leading from behind” despite his staking out the policies that led to recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.  He also eliminated Osama bin Laden without much fanfare and introduced the first meaningful health legislation since Medicare.  Boehner was unable to use logic or leadership to prevent fiscal irresponsibility by the House.  Boehner was captive to a vocal minority of his GOP Caucus, the Tea Party.  He followed, not led, from way behind.  In short, Boehner lacked the courage to demand that his caucus stop wasting the people’s time.  Perhaps he feared being voted out of leadership, but, just as death, his loss of the Speakership was inevitable, and we might argue that it had, in practice, already happened through his weakness anyway.  He had not effected meaningful decisions and he allowed blunders such as shutting down our government.  Effectiveness is independent of political party and, although I favor more progressive policies that invest in America, I would grudgingly proclaim a conservative approach as effective, even if damaging to our commonwealth, if it were so.  Boehner failed the final test of effectiveness.  His successor will probably be sympathetic to the Tea Party and that bodes ill for policy, but it may not impair the effectiveness of the legislative approach of the next speaker if he does his homework and has the skills to lead.  At this juncture, I congratulate Mr. Boehner on seeing the obvious and hope that his golf and tan improve with the additional time he will have to pursue his dreams of par.  I hope he gives up smoking.
Perhaps Pope Francis helped him see his position more clearly through meditation or prayer or perhaps by example.  We may never know but can only hope that Mr. Boehner does not follow the long line of former politicians trading elected office for lobbying; the final reason why politicians fail to help the commonwealth.  Personal greed over the common good seems to be a bipartisan weakness.

George Giacoppe

1 Oct 2015