Old Wine for a New Wineskin?

cover-150x150In his 1941 State of the Union address President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to lift Congress and the American people to a new level of social vision and responsibility. Roosevelt’s words remain as powerful and appropriate today as they were when he spoke them more than seven decades ago.

The following is an excerpt of what became know as the “Four Freedoms Speech.” The entire address can be found here.

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

“Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

“These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

“Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples: We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

“I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today.

“No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

“If the Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

“The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

“The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called ‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

 

2014 Election: A “Fie on Both of You” Mandate

IMG_0127The 2014 midterm elections produced a mandate, but not for the victorious Republicans or for a particular policy agenda. The mandate (by a 64% majority) was an electoral repudiation of American politics. The women and men elected to the 114th Congress received a slim majority of a minority of eligible voters, and that does not constitute a governing coalition.

Americans are generally disgusted with both parties: President Barack Obama’s approval rating is around 40%; the Congress sits at 14%; the Republican Party has a 42% approval and the Democrats are at an all time low of 36%. It is clearly an opprobrious “fie on both of you” mandate.

The 2014 Republican candidates promised a simple agenda: repeal anything supported by Obama, cut corporate taxes, abolish what they term “job killing” environmental and safety regulations, repeal laws that regulate business, and rip apart the safety net. The Democrats, on the other hand, did not offer an agenda.

No Vision, No Courage

As a liberal Democrat I am disgusted with my party’s lack of vision and courage. Our candidates gave the non-voting 64% nothing to be excited about and they ran away from the accomplishments of the last six years. They allowed their opponents to define the election as the trial of a “failed president.”

Failed president? Since Obama took office the economy has reversed course. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has sored from 7,949 to an all-time high of over 17,000; unemployment has decreased from 7.8% to less than 5.8%; GDP growth has climbed from a minus 5.4% to a plus 3.5%; the deficit as a percent of GDP has decreased from 9.8% when Obama took office to 2.8% today; and consumer confidence has risen from under 40% to above 90%.

The United States is adding 200,000 new jobs a month, inflation and interest rates are low, and America is fast becoming energy self-sufficient. Health care is now a realistic opportunity for millions of Americans, laws are in place to protect the nation from another financial meltdown, and the looming threats of climate change are getting serious executive attention.

According to The Economist, “American firms dominate rankings of the world’s most valuable companies for the first time in a decade and a half…Profits are at their highest level relative to national income since the 1960s…The pay of an S&P 500 chief is up 43% since 2009 and non-financial firms made $885 billion of profits

Unbalanced Progress

America is making progress–––making progress despite brutal headwinds blowing from the right side of the political spectrum. But the progress is lopsided: while those at the top of the pyramid are prospering, the stagnation of wages and the decline of good jobs for many middleclass Americans persists. According to the Federal Reserve, the earnings of the bottom 90% of Americans actually fell between 2010 and 2013 when adjusted for inflation.

Republicans beat back every attempt to address growing income disparity in America by ignoring the issue and chanting the mantra “class warfare” every time it was raised. Democrats seemed afraid of the issue, and during the campaign they avoided anything that could be associated with Obama, such as raising the federal minimum wage.

That makes no sense to me. I don’t believe President Obama is perfect. He hasn’t done a good job of defining his agenda in a way that relates to the American people. He hasn’t cultivated trusting relationships with Washington’s social and political elite. I applaud his deliberate process for making decisions about committing American forces abroad, but I do not agree with some of his conclusions.

I dismiss the argument that he should work harder to massage the egos of congressional leaders. No matter what he does or says, he is not going to move the Republicans toward his position. They have a single-minded agenda: Make sure the presidency of Barack Obama is perceived as a failure. Block anything–––no matter the benefit to the American people–––that might give him some credit.

Playing Prevent Defense

Republicans do not see him not as a president who commanded decisive majorities in two elections, but as an imposter who is a threat to their ideology. Obama did a poor job of defending himself against their attacks, often appearing aloof and above the fray.

To borrow a football analogy, Democrats played “prevent defense” in 2014 instead of aggressive offense and it cost the party and the country dearly. Those who will run again in 2016 ought to check out the playbook of one Democratic senator who took the opposite tack, Al Franken.

Senator Franken was elected in 2008, winning by 312 votes. This year he didn’t join the herd of Democrats who were running away from Obama and away from a progressive agenda; rather, he embraced them and ran on the firm foundation of six years of progress— and he won by 10 percentage points. There is a lesson here that Democrats running in 2016 ought to heed, or they will begin to lose loyalists like me.

 

Farfetched Ideas and Wondering Mind

A Suggested Deal Between Israel and Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled Iran as an “existential threat to Israel” and declared that any nuclear capability in Iran is unacceptable. I suspect that Iran’s leaders see Israel’s nuclear arsenal as an “existential threat” to their nation.

So, I wonder, what about this deal: Israel gives up all of its nuclear weapons, dismantles its capability to build more, and agrees to submit to on-site international monitoring; in return, Iran abandons its uranium enrichment programs, dismantles any capacity it now has to do anything nuclear other than civilian power production, and submits to on-site international monitoring?

Can the Tone of Political Advertising be Changed?

During the recent midterm election campaigns Americans were saturated with political advertising through every conceivable medium: radio, television, mail, telephone, door hangers and knockers. By my unscientific estimate, 99% of these assaults proclaimed the incompetence of an opponent, the dysfunction of Washington, and/or ridiculed President Barack Obama.

I wonder what would happen if candidates ran on a platform that highlighted their own experience, and explained how they would enhance government competence rather than pledging to destroy it?

The increasingly toxic “I will castrate government” mode of campaigning has become the staple of political campaigns and is supported in large part by secret corporate sponsors through contributions of “dark” money. While it might stimulate the radical base of both parties, it alienates a vast majority of voters. It is no wonder that so many people stayed away from the polls.

I can only imagine the reactions of corporate leaders if an applicant for an executive position in their company said this in an interview, “I will gut this business and do combat with the professionals who have led it in the past. I will not propose anything substantive, and I will not lead or innovate. But I will be tough and ruthless in slicing and dicing this corporation.”

What does Senator McConnell Mean by “Regular Order”?

Soon to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to restore “regular order” to the work of the United States Senate. If he means adhering to an open process through which a bill is introduced, expeditiously sent to a committee for markup and then to the floor for debate and an up or down vote, that  is a good thing.

But, I think he means something else: continuing the old order of rules, procedures and customs that cement in place existing power structures, and holding fast to the principle that seniority and adherence to a rigid ideology trumps competence. The ideology will change from Democrat to Republican, but I predict the process will continue to be ineffectual. It is time for a new generation of leaders in both parties and in both houses.

 Who is Poking Whom in the Eye?

Senator Lamar Alexander, R-TN, is a man I have long respected despite differences in our political philosophies. I first met him when he was governor of Tennessee and worked on education issues with my boss, Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. He seemed to me to be an honest politician who followed a Republican path while seeking common ground with his Democratic colleagues.

But, come on Lamar: To suggest that President Obama is out of bounds to use executive action to implement policies favored by a majority of Americans is disingenuous. Alexander stated that Obama should not act because “You don’t make a deal with someone by poking them in the eye.”

My golly, Senator! Your party has been poking the president in both eyes since 2009. Republicans have been slugging Obama in the gut and slicing away at his back for six years by blocking legislation that had majority support, delaying and often scuttling confirmation of his appointments, and putting up roadblocks to implementation of an agenda that he ran and won on in two elections. And, after obstructing him at every turn, you accused him of not fulfilling his promises to the American people.

Obama said it well last August: “There has been a cynical genius to what some of these folks have done in Washington. What they realized is, if we don’t get anything done, then people are going to get cynical about government and its possibilities of doing good for everyone. And–––since they don’t believe in government–––that is a pretty good thing (for them). And, the more cynical the people get the less they vote. And if turnout is low and people don’t vote that pretty much benefits those who benefit from the status quo.”

A prescient statement? Turnout in the 2014 midterm was 36%— nearly two-thirds of the eligible voters stayed home.

 

 

Politics-by-Dysfunction is Failing our Grandchildren

P1000465Early this summer my grandson Smith and I took a three-week campervan trip to ballparks in San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Reno, Denver and St. Louis. Along the way we ran a 5-K in Coronado and visited the USS Midway in San Diego; took a ferryboat ride across the San Francisco Bay; visited the Great Salt Lake and Temple Square in Utah; and explored the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

As we drove between destinations we alternately talked and listened to the radio: ESPN for Smith and (when he was napping) POTUS–––SiriusXM’s non-partisan political channel––– for me.

POTUS broadcasts political speeches, clips from congressional hearings, some of the daily White House press briefings, and interviews with journalists and advocates from across the political spectrum.

After several days of driving and listening I reached an understanding about our increasingly dysfunctional national government: There is not a common vision of America’s future that unites our political leaders, nor is there a commitment among members of congress to come together in search of solutions to the nation’s problems.

Rather, they quibble and quarrel and let problems fester, thus ensuring plenty of hot-button issues to rant about in their next campaign. A strict adherence to right or left wing purity trumps a quest for sound public policies.

As a case in point, when we were midway between the Rockies and St Louis, Smith was dozing while I listened to a congressional hearing about health programs for veterans. The bombastic rhetoric, absence of civility and dearth of substantive discussion by committee members was awful.

Instead of seeking information about possible solutions for some very serious problems, Republican members attacked newly-confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald with sarcasm, insults and hostility. They were more focused on making points with well-rehearsed sound bites than on improving access to healthcare for veterans.

I glanced at my sleeping grandson and wondered if this is the way our leaders will continue to approach the growing and increasingly complex issues facing America and the world. Such nonsense will not lead to building the kind of country I want him and his three siblings to inherit from my generation.

When I returned home I shared my frustration with an old political friend. “You” he said, “are being naïve if you think members of congress care about solutions to national problems. Their entire focus is on feathering their own nest. That’s just politics in today’s America. Relax and accept it.” Well, if it is, it shouldn’t be­­­–––and, no, I will not relax and I will not accept it.

Politics should be about the art of governing, about reaching a consensus on what constitutes the common good, and seeking the compromises needed to reach that result. It should be about dealing with today’s problems with the goal of forming a better and more peaceful world for our grandchildren.

And so, as we approach the 2014 midterm election, I ask myself: What do I seek in a candidate for public office? I look for a person who has a passion for serving, a person who sees power as a tool for improving the lives of her constituents rather than as a lever for personal gain.

I want people in office who have an understanding of the increasingly complex and interdependent local, national and worldwide community within which we live; people for whom peace, equality of opportunity and a sustainable environment are at the center of their work.

The candidates I vote for should have the courage to: address hard issues directly, even when doing so could cause them political damage; take bold action when needed, even in the face of fierce opposition; build coalitions across ideological divides; and maintain the integrity to do all of this openly and honestly.

Common good rather than ideological purity–––substantive policy rather than pithy sound bites–––should be the goal of those elected to serve us. And their view of the future should stretch beyond the next election, at least as far out as my grandchildren’s grandchildren. They might consider adopting the Iroquois’ standard that all decisions be evaluated in terms of how people–––and the earth–––seven generations from now will be affected.

Naïve? Perhaps, but if people of my generation truly care about the world our grandchildren will inherit it is time we put aside blind allegiances to single issues and rigid ideology. Today’s world has moved far beyond the world we grew up in, and a new kind of politics is needed to lead it.

We should seek out and support political candidates who have the vision, courage and integrity to guide our nation into the future–––a future that enhances opportunities for Smith and his counterparts across the globe to live in peace and security.

Our elected leaders will quit talking and acting like fools only when we quit listening to and tolerating their foolishness. It is up to us.

How do we do it? We come together as a generation of grandparents–––both here and abroad­­­––– ally ourselves with the millennial generation and form the largest, broadest and most powerful political coalition in history. Difficult? Yes. Naïve? Perhaps. Possible? It is a long shot, but one worth taking as our clock winds down.