Friday, December 31, 2010


It’s that time again, boys and girls. Time to look back at the last year and give credit where credit is due, or blame where blame is due. It’s awards time.

So without further ado, let’s give out some cyberspace hardware.


It wasn’t the greatest of years, was it? So it seems fitting to give out some awards to the people who made it what it was … a bust!

Let’s start with the man who gave us Republican solidarity in the Senate and the ability to turn 40 or 41 seats into absolute parity. Give him and his minions credit for all but annulling the election results of 2008, though frankly, he had plenty of help from the Democrats.

For years, I’ve underestimated this man, thinking about him solely in terms of his penchant for pork. But now, he has pivoted away from pork and toward an embrace of the Tea Party’s pro-fiscal conservatism policy. Of course, if you were lucky enough to find yourself in a smoke-filled room with the guy, he’d probably tell you that fiscal conservatism, 21st century style, does have a caveat: we’re fiscally conservative only insofar as spending is concerned. On the revenue side, we believe that less (for the Government) is more. And thanks to Mitch and his minions, we now start the next year with a mind-boggling deficit. But hey. At least all the folks on Wall Street and in the polo clubs will be getting huge tax cuts!

So let’s hear it for the New Fiscal Conservatism. Let’s hear it for Mitch McConnell, co-President for another two years.


Remember that scene in Scarface when Al Pacino orders the killing of his boss, claims his boss’ girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) for himself, and then looks up, with that sleazy smile on his face, to see a Pan-Am blimp with the words “The World is Yours”? That was fiction. But in reality, you’d have to forgive Sarah Palin if she thought that slogan applied to her and her alone.

One minute, she’s a lackluster student transferring from one college to another and to another, and the next thing she knows, she’s elected mayor of her town. One minute, she’s running a little town, and the next thing she knows, she’s the Governor of a State. One minute, she’s known only in cities like Juneau, Anchorage and Nome, and the next thing she knows, she’s nominated by the GOP for Vice President of the U.S., and she has almost singlehandedly catapulted her ticket into the lead. One minute, she’s back in Alaska, bored silly at the thought of running her State for another two years, and the next thing she knows, she’s quitting her job – only to find people everywhere willing to throw millions of dollars in her direction just to hear her speak or read her prose. One minute she’s trying to identify every possible Mini-Me who is wiling to run for elected office, and next thing she knows, she’s helping these people capture Republican nominations – and either win general elections or at least scare the crap out of the old-line Republicans who are not very enamored with Sarah’s brand of populism.

Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, used to say that the one thing about his boss that bothered him was that he was “soft.” He lacked “balls.” Well, if that’s what Montana respected, then Sarah Palin would have been his type of politician. She may be thoroughly ignorant about the issues, not terribly intelligent, and willing to say whatever her far right-wing base wants to hear, but damned if she doesn’t have balls. In fact, right now, she seems to be contemplating a run for the Presidency in 2012. Imagine her and Obama, mano-a-mano. He would try to speak polysyllabically about economic and foreign policy. She would challenge the guy to a cage fight. If he had his way, the election would turn on which candidate was better able to enunciate a path for fighting unemployment, reaching a Middle East Peace deal, or achieving energy independence. If she had her way, the election would turn on whether, in their cage match, the candidates would be confined to the Marquis de Queensberry rules, or would be permitted to bite, scratch, and kick in the nads.

That’s our Sarah. She’s scaring me less these days, because now even the mainstream Republicans seem to be tiring of her act. But hey, for sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat her. And let’s face it, she might not be as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer, but she’s a hell of a lot prettier than Tony Montana.


Please don’t tell me you’ve never heard of this guy. He was born in Italy 56 years ago and moved to Pennsylvania when he was seven. He has been the head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team since 1985. Since then, he was won seven national championships and nearly 750 games, including a streak of 90 in a row. That streak finally came to an end last night, but not until it became the largest winning streak in the history of men’s or women’s college basketball.

I won’t lie to you and call myself the world’s biggest fan of women’s basketball. But I happened to watch the game because Stanford was the opponent, and if the Stanford tiddly-winks team was on TV, I’d probably watch it. More interesting than the game was the post-game interviews, in which the interviewer kept wanting to talk about the team with the historic streak (U Conn) and the interviewees kept wanting to talk about the team that won the game. But before Auriemma graciously sang Stanford’s praises, he pointed out what had to be said: that a 90-game winning streak can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve seen it broken and you realize just how easy it is for a team of college kids to lose a game on any given night, when the opponent might be on their game.

Stanford was one of the best teams in the country and was playing at home. So why shouldn’t it have a good chance to win? But Auriemma’s implicit point was that during the previous 90 games, U Conn played a number of top teams, and frequently played them on the other team’s turf … or at least on a neutral surface. It’s an accomplishment to win 50 percent of those games. Or 60 percent. Or 70 percent. But this team won them all, including more than 30 games in a row against nationally ranked opponents. That’s just insane.

I have no idea how Auriemma would stack up as a basketball mind against the top men’s coaches, like Phil Jackson and Mike Krzyzewski. But I suspect he’d hold his own. In any event, now that his team has finally lost, it’s time to give the guy and his players the credit they deserve.

Oh, by the way, go Stanford! Not only did they win last night, but they were the last team to beat Connecticut before the streak started, and my hope is that they’ll be the next team to beat Connecticut – at the end of this year’s NCAA tournament.


Earlier this year, Jeff Bridges won his first academy award for his role in the film Crazy Heart. Now he’s on the screen again and is receiving critical acclaim. Bridges will surely be in the hunt for a second Oscar in a row for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, the only role that won the statue for John Wayne.

How cool would that be to see the Motion Picture Academy permanently link two figures as disparate as Jeff Bridges and John Wayne? One evokes whiskey, the other weed. One evokes the power of guns, the other the power of flowers. One rides, the other abides.

To me, Jeff Bridges has become so associated with one character that it’s difficult to see him in another role. We see this phenomenon particularly clearly in our TV stars -- William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy will always be Spock, and Carol O’Connor will be Archie Bunker. We also see this play out with movie stars. Malcolm McDowell will always be the ultra-violent Little Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Linda Blair will always be the possessed Regan from The Exorcist, and Louise Fletcher will always be the soulless Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even an actor as accomplished and decorated as Anthony Hopkins has trouble moving beyond a certain role, and I suspect he will be forever associated with Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.

I point that out because it’s difficult to imagine too many better movie characters than Bridges’ “Dude” from The Big Lebowski. That has to be one of the top 10 or 20 movie comedies of all time, and he was clearly the star of the show. In light of that, I can’t wait to see if Bridges’ own little hot streak last year and this year can catapult him into truly rarified Hollywood air: actors who have played truly iconic parts … multiple times. I already mentioned Pacino. He wasn’t just Tony Montana, he was Michael Corleone. Jack Nicholson was Randall McMurphy and Jack Torrance. Dustin Hoffman was the Rain Man and the Graduate. I probably could go on, but it’s not that long a list.

And don’t bother to check the names who’ve won the Oscars. Those awards are given out every year, but in most cases, nobody in their right mind would call the winning characters “iconic.” Just look at the career of Sean Penn. He’s won the top Oscar for playing Jimmy Markum in Mystic River and more recently for playing Harvey Milk in Milk. He’s also been nominated for playing Sam Dawson in I am Sam, Emmett Ray in Sweet and Lowdown, and Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. He truly has had a decorated career. But for me, and I suspect the Dude would wholeheartedly agree, he’ll always be Jeff Spicoli.

So, from the Empathic Rationalist, have a happy New Year, and please – whether you tend toward weed, like the Dude and Spicoli, or prefer alcohol, like the original Rooster Cogburn -- stay safe.

Friday, December 24, 2010


First of all, I sincerely want to wish everyone out there in cyberspace a Merry Christmas tomorrow. I realize that the word “Christmas” has fallen out of favor in our society and is now treated publicly as but one of the days in this “holiday season.” But let’s face it, out of all the red letter days this time of year, Christmas is truly the “high holiday.” Chanukah is merely a minor festival that has taken on a greater significance because Jewish people felt the need for some sort of meaningful analogue to Christmas. As for Kwanzaa, let’s not forget that 45 years ago, it didn’t even exist. In fact, Kwanzaa, as a festival, is only 31 years older than Festivus. Since I celebrate Chanukah, one poor-man’s Christmas, I have no standing to disparage Kwanzaa, Festivus, the Winter Solstice festival, or any other holiday that marks the beginning of winter. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have forgotten the holiday that has become one of the two holiest days of the Christian year. If I want Christians to treat Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover with particular respect, I have to extend the same courtesy to Christmas and Easter.

So, tomorrow, let’s all take the time to remember the figure of Jesus of Nazareth and all that he preached in the name of love, peace, tolerance, and reverence. And whenever you see a Christian – please don’t wish him or her “Happy Holidays.” Not tomorrow. For that matter, not today either. The words are “Merry Christmas.” And the holiday is religious, not merely secular. There are plenty of secular days in a year. Let’s not obliterate the few days that one community or another has set aside to honor what is most holy.

The obliteration of “Christmas” in the American consciousness is but the first of my pet peeves this week. In fact, while I may have begun my blog post today with a tribute to Christmas, I plan to continue this post with a series of additional kvetches that is hardly consistent with the upbeat spirit of the holiday. But that’s fine – after all, it’s not like I’m a Christian. I can kvetch as much as I want. So here goes.

Next Pet Peeve – The Combatants in the Holy Land

While we’re on the subject of holiness, let’s take a little time to reflect on the goings-on in the Holy Land. “The Holy Land” is actually a Christian term, not a Jewish one. But since it’s Christmas time, the term seems strangely appropriate. Or is it? If you’ve been paying any attention to the region, you’ve noticed that Israel has turned up the spigot on settlements in the West Bank. I’m talking settlements that go far into pre-67 Palestine, well east of any possible border in a viable two-state arrangement.

Interestingly, folks on both sides of the Great Divide are acknowledging that the settlements are being built in places that increasingly threaten the idea of Palestinian control over a contiguous West Bank. The settlers are trumpeting this fact. They make no bones about supporting what most of us view as a “one-state solution” west of the Jordan River. In that sense, their view is similar to that of roughly half of the Palestinians. The only difference is that the one state would be controlled primarily by the Jews, in the settlers’ vision, and by the Arabs, in the vision of the Palestinians.

To be sure, the shrewd settlers and Palestinians claim to be two-staters and not one-staters. To the settlers, the “Palestinian State” already exists. Its name is Jordan. Presumably, these settlers would march the West Bank Arabs across the Jordan River and they would never be heard from again. Of course, in the real world, there are two chances that will happen: slim and none.

The chance isn’t much better that we’ll see the realization of the vision of many Palestinian “two-staters,” who hope that the Palestinians will soon be given their state in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the remaining land called “Israel” an Arab minority will grow and grow until it eventually seizes control over that democracy as well. I’ve called that the two-STAGE solution, and the result is the same as the one-state solution advocated by Palestinian militants. Either way, we’re not talking about peace.

This Christmas season, my plea is for the Christians among us – including President Obama – to take an active role in the Middle East peace process. Demand of the Israelis that they renounce the aggressive building out of settlements. And demand of the Palestinians that they support a permanent majority-Jewish state in pre-67 Israel. Christians must become Zionists and Palestinian Nationalists. Either one without the other is a formula for perpetual war.

Next Pet Peeve: The State of the American Main-Stream Media

So, did you get the memo yet? Obama has been re-elected! It’s another landslide! Well, OK, I’m not supposed to be putting it quite so bluntly just yet. I guess we all have to go through the motions in a couple of years to hold primaries, conventions, debates, and even a general election. But to those of us in the know, all of that will just be a formality. Clearly, the President has demonstrated in the past two weeks that he can take the lemon of the Midterm election and use it to make lemonade in record time. Why, if he had been the captain of the Titanic, he could have turned that boat around on a dime. “Iceberg?” Captain Obama might have chuckled. “Oh you mean that little thing in our rear view mirror? Not a problem. I just channeled Jeff Spicoli, and told that block of ice, ‘Here’s the deal, dude. You avoid my ship, and I’ll admire you as a cool work of nature.’ That and a twist of the steering wheel, and voila, we’re all safe and sound.”

The media used to tell us that Reagan had Teflon. Now, we’re all but told that Obama comes equipped with a cape. Faster than a speeding bullet, he (and his minions) can pass bills to support 9/11 responders, enhance nutrition for schoolchildren, promote food safety, limit nuclear weapons in Russia, restore benefits for the unemployed, block excessively loud TV ads, maintain pay for doctors to treat Medicare patients, keep the Government open until March, allow gays to serve in the military, and, finally, provide “a sweeping tax package that will spare millions of Americans from tax hikes set to take effect in the new year.” Those words in quotes come from yesterday’s edition of the Express, a sister publication of the Washington Post. That’s their take on Obama’s tax bill. It went on to further trumpet the tax-cut deal without saying anything about the bill’s effects on the national debt or the rising inequalities of wealth in America.

I do want to be fair: Obama and the liberals and moderates in Congress deserve plenty of credit for passing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That is truly a landmark bill. Plus, I doubt it would have been passed with a Republican in the White House. The last point might also be said about the new child nutrition and food safety legislation, but that’s as far as I’ll go. With respect to most of the other bills, it’s likely that the main reason the Republican leadership opposed them is to make Obama look impotent and irrelevant. Seriously, who wants the Russians to have tons of nukes?

So yes, I heartily praise Obama – and the election of 2008 -- for getting some favorable legislation through the Lame Duck Congress, and especially for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal. But let’s not fool ourselves that Obama is ushering in a new era of progressive changes. And please, let’s not fool ourselves that the tax bill is a compromise. It was a right-wing rout.

Notwithstanding the realities, the main-stream media can’t say enough these days to kiss the President’s feet. It’s as if all the “deals” that have been made in the past month represent the death-knell to partisanship and the beginning of unity Government. And in each case, we’re told, the Government is only doing what the people want. (For example, even though the polls indicated popular support for letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, we keep getting regaled by polls indicating that the people supported the tax deal. Frankly, however, polls tell you whatever you want to hear. It all depends on how you ask the question.) What can be better than serving the will of the people, right?

I’ll tell you what – providing leadership in the form of enunciating a vision and fighting to implement it. In this case, the vision I have in mind is one that would address our environmental crisis, the scourge of our ever-expanding national debt, the insanity of our distribution of wealth, and the absurdity of serving as the world’s policeman. It appears that the main-stream media has little to say about these concerns. They’re too busy fawning to do any real investigative journalism or provide any truly hard-hitting analysis.

One of the more salient signs of the media’s decline involves their track record on one of the bills mentioned above: the legislation to provide aid to the 9/11 First Responders, who are dying at alarming numbers from heart disease and cancer. From what I can tell, this no-brainer of a cause received virtually no attention whatsoever in the media, with one exception: comedian Jon Stewart seized upon it like a dog with a bone. Eventually, the politicians listened, and a deal was struck. But as to why ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the big macha syndicated columnists were AWOL … that I just can’t explain. Something tells me that the best and the brightest aren’t going into journalism these days.

Next Pet Peeve – Abandoning Old School Football

Have you seen what has become of the National Football League lately? Have you actually tried watching a game? I’ve been watching a lot of them. Then again, I’m an addict – and if things don’t change, I may well be in the market for methadone.

OK, Mr. Commissioner, you can relax. I’m not going anywhere. The NFL Sunday Ticket will be a Spiro-family staple in 2011 and beyond. But that doesn’t make me a happy camper. I want your league to return to the football of my youth.

Remember when big bruising fullbacks used to terrorize defenses? Remember when it was difficult to complete a 15 or 20 yard pass, and it wasn’t exactly a gimme to complete a 5 to 10 yard pass? Remember “three yards and a cloud of dust”? That was football.

This being an age of instant gratification, the league apparently doesn’t believe that Americans can handle hard-nosed running, tough defense, or – perish the thought – punting the ball. We need big play after big play. We need to look into the quarterback’s eyes and see the confidence that he can score at will. We need passing, passing, passing, and more passing. And we even changed the rules to make it happen.

If you look at the top 20 quarterbacks in history in terms of “passer rating,” only one (Otto Graham) played before 1979. In fact, plenty of lousy quarterbacks today have significantly higher passer ratings than hall of fame quarterbacks from the 70s, 60s and 50s. Progress? Hardly. It has merely turned football into a track meet.

If you’d like to see more running, more defense, and more close games, here’s the place to start: revoke the rule that eliminated “bump and run” coverage. Return the game to the time when fast, but strong, cornerbacks used to push and shove receivers all over the field and were permitted to do so as long as the ball was not in the air. As it stands now, a rule implemented in 1978 prohibited such contact once the receiver was five yards from the line of scrimmage. That change, combined with a rule liberalizing the way offensive lineman can pass protect, radically altered the game of football.

Now don’t get me wrong. I recognize that we need to protect quarterbacks from some of the hits that were viewed as legal decades back. I recognize that defensive players are bigger, stronger and faster than in earlier generations, and they pack a more potent punch. But if you want to protect a quarterback, the best way is to encourage more running and less passing. Frankly, you’ll also protect some of the receivers from the vicious hits they’ve been taking lately.

So why not give it a try? Bring back the bump-and-run. Give cornerbacks some more parity with wide receivers. Make football tougher and more competitive (for 16-6 games are a whole lot more competitive than 35-14 games, wouldn’t you say?). If it doesn’t work and the kids cry out for more points and more passing, you can always go back to the present rules.

Please, just consider these stats. Sonny Jurgensen’s career passing rating of 82.6 is less than Brian Griese’s. Johnny Unitas’s rating of 78.2 is less than that of Jimmy Everett. And Joe Namath’s 65.5 rating is less than that of Steve Dils. The only reason I know the name of Steve Dils is because he played for my college team. I doubt too many football fans have heard of him, and yet he was a more efficient passer than Hall of Famer and legend, Joe Namath. Clearly, what people call football today is an altogether different sport than what my friends and I fell in love with in the 60s.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Yesterday at the White House, when President Obama signed the new tax deal, he said it was an “early Christmas present” for America. Lower taxes for everybody. Unemployment insurance for those who need it. And more stimulus for our sagging economy. It’s all good, right?

If you would answer “no” to that last question and you’re reading this blog, you probably fall into a category that is coming to be known as “the left” or “the disgruntled left” according to the mainstream media. You also go by the name of “purist” – or more specifically, the “purist Democratic left.” It is said that you and your ilk comprise roughly 20% of the American people. And if the old saw is true that, no matter what question is polled, we can always find at least 20% of the American people on each side of it, you “purists” on the left must represent the fringe on one side of the political continuum. Supposedly, you are unconcerned with practicality and wish to attack war, redistribute wealth, and fight the Republicans every chance you get. And why? Because you would rather feel good about yourselves than support the compromises needed to get the trains running on time and put real food on the table for real people. In other words, politically speaking, you’re still in your adolescence; you’re not one of the so-called “adults in the room.”

So how do you plan on responding to the new realities? How enthusiastically do you plan on supporting your President? Do you see any alternatives on the horizon whom you would rather support? Do you see yourself, going forward, as a member of the Democratic Party, or rather as a member of the Greens? Or for that matter, do you wish to start a new movement, a “Coffee Klatch” to counteract the Tea Partiers on the right? And where do you plan on getting your informational sustenance, now that you’ve been marginalized by virtually everyone in the main stream media and have few real champions in the halls of power? One minute, you thought you were part of the “Democratic base” and took pride in the President you helped elect, and now, suddenly, your President is calling you “sanctimonious” and he has a whole group of new friends who appear to see eye-to-eye with him but who view you as little more than a silly, almost pathetic anachronism –someone more suited for the 1960s than the new millennium.

Oh sure, you can say “I’m a Bernie Sanders Democrat!” except that Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat; he’s a socialist who is technically identified as an “Independent.” Or perhaps you can say “I’m an Alan Grayson Democrat!” except that Alan Grayson lost his re-election bid for Congress and will soon be thrown out on the street, where he will be just another adolescent, sanctimonious purist, whose diatribes against conservatives will be analogized to spitting into the wind.

Surely, you and your ilk need a plan. But even more, you need some pride. No, I’m not talking about the pride of sanctimony – we both know that the “sanctimonious” label the President assigned to you was a classless attack that was frankly beneath him. This isn’t about sanctimony, this is about being true to your principles – the same principles on which he himself ran when he was attempting to gain the Presidency in 2008. The pride I’m talking about is all about feeling a sense of confidence that you are part of a larger movement that is as principled as it is pragmatic, and that recognizes certain principles that can never be set aside without one hell of a fight. Opposing unnecessary wars is one of those principles. And, yes, economic fairness – aka justice – is another.

With all that in mind, here are a few ideas. I’m open to changing them, but I wanted to get some thoughts out on the table now so that progressives can begin to play with some options. “Options” are key, because it is vital that we not feel fated to sit at the back of the American political bus. Progressives must never view themselves as irrelevant fringe players who are forever destined to support center-right candidates -- as opposed to the hard-right candidates -- for every important position in Government. That is not an option I’m willing to entertain.

1. Study the Tea Partiers, and rather than criticizing them, emulate them.

Give credit where credit is due. Not long ago, the Tea Party was an unorganized, grass roots movement. Now look at it. Sure these “Partiers” had their failures, but their successes have been staggering. And they became successful in part because they didn’t fear failure.

It was always assumed that the Tea Partiers would vote Republican, which they did in 2010, but the brilliance of their movement was that it was neither associated with the Republican Party nor was it associated with any other political party. It maintained maximum flexibility. Mostly, it was just a group of people who shared some common principles about which they were passionate and adamant, and it identified individuals both within and without the political process who could champion their cause. Plus, it had a built-in publicity machine known as Fox News.

So, progressives might want to consider (a) starting a movement of their own that is not associated with any political party, (b) coming up with a recognizable name for their movement, (c) ensuring that certain passionately-held principles and values are closely linked to the movement, (d) identifying leaders both inside and outside of the political process, and (e) using a television network to trumpet the movement the same way that the Tea Partiers have used Fox. As for the last point, MSNBC is an obvious choice. Maddow, Schultz and Olbermann will be happy to help. And if things are handled well enough, the network’s “adults in the room,” like Matthews and O’Donnell, might even be swept up in the fervor.

2. Reread Machiavelli.

Will Rogers famously said that he was not a member of an organized political party – he was a Democrat. That statement rings as true today as when it was coined. For some inexplicable reason, the Democratic Party has generally ignored the need to establish discipline within the ranks. The Party could get away with that at a time when Republicans came in various stripes. But now, when the Republicans are absolutely unified with respect to the critical area that separates the Parties – economics – establishing Democratic discipline is no longer a luxury. It’s an absolute must.

Progressives need to understand that. Indeed, they need to understand and implement all the basic Machiavellian lessons that are critical to wresting power from the conservatives. If that means that progressives must unite with Blue Dogs, fine. But the fight will be to unite on the progressives’ terms – just like the hard-liners on the GOP have figured out a way to push around their Party’s (former) moderates.

Just look at the way that the conservatives have used fear to establish discipline. For starters, they need only point to George H.W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes; it’s now known that if a Republican takes on GOP orthodoxy on that issue, he’ll not only lose his base, he’ll lose his next election. Consider also the plethora of conservative radio and TV personalities who are poised to jump on any Republican who shows signs of real compromise with Democrats on fundamental (i.e., economic) issues. Hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned. And believe me, that creates discipline. So, too, do the daily breakfasts led by Grover Norquist, the leader of a right-wing group known as Americans for Tax Reform. At these events, conservative powerbrokers have gathered for years to formulate a consistent message that can be used to destroy any semblance of economic equity in this country. And look at the results. Not only are the rich getting richer, but President Obama has been enlisted into action as a willing supporter – in practice if not in theory.

Progressives need to find their own Grover Norquist. And they also must locate some bright, single-minded folks who don’t mind starting their day with bagels and economic theory. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel here. The conservatives have demonstrated how the game is played. It’s time to play it.

3. Don’t over think the general elections.

One way for a progressive to get depressed is to start thinking about yourself as a jilted lover. If that were true, a vote for your lover (be it President Obama or your “sell-out” Congressman) would be tantamount to serving as an enabler. Let’s face it -- no good progressive wants to be seen as an enabler. We all pride ourselves on being like the battered wife who immediately goes to the cops and presses charges, rather than simply turning the other cheek.

But folks, voting Democrat in November 2012 is not tantamount to “enabling” a wife beater. We as citizens have the right to vote for the better of two alternatives, even if neither one is ideal. If you’re a progressive, that will almost certainly be the Democrat. So fine, vote Democratic! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel free to support any candidate we want to in a primary just because fear mongers talk about a primary challenge as tantamount to high treason. Nor does it mean we should feel obliged to fight like a banshee to get a particular politician elected if he or she doesn’t reflect our values.

So, my progressive friends, throw the bulk of your energies into those campaigns where a legitimate progressive is on the ballot. But whenever it comes time to vote, don’t feel bad about pulling the lever for the “Democrat,” even if you see him or her as simply a moderate Republican. These days, a moderate Republican is typically way, way better than the alternative.

4. Start by finding a few good men (and women).

So, where do we begin? By taking an inventory. Survey the airwaves. Survey the op-eds. Survey the halls of Capitol Hill and the State Houses. Your job is simple: put aside the opportunists and find the real progressives. No, I’m not talking about the crazies either. There are folks like Chomsky who can legitimately call themselves progressive but whose knees jerk so far to the left that they’ve pulled their brains out of joint in the process. Candidly, all that I have in mind are folks who seem to care half as much about peace and economic equity as Grover Norquist cares about jingoism and further enriching the rich. That’s a standard that most current Democratic politicians couldn’t even come close to meeting, their transparently superficial rhetoric notwithstanding.

Think back to the time that then Illinois State Senator Obama gave his speech against invading Iraq in 2002. Does anyone now think for an instant that he would have given a similar speech had he been U.S. Senator Obama? Or President Obama? Of course not. Most Democratic Party politicians are willing to check their progressivism at the door whenever their political aspirations are at stake. If war in Iraq were unpopular, do you have any doubt that Hillary Clinton would have opposed it during the fall of 2002? But it wasn’t unpopular, so she supported it – as did future Presidential candidates Dodd, Edwards and Biden. That’s the way it has worked with Democrats in Washington, D.C.; they’re always looking around to make sure that it is “safe” to be a progressive. We deserve better.

The differences between the Parties is especially stark when it comes to economics. Republicans fight for their laissez-faire economic principles regardless of the political winds, and this week’s tax cut “compromise” is the fruit of that resolve. By contrast, Democrats go only as far as the Gallup Poll numbers allow them to go at any given time, and apparently, there is no polling data saying that a fight for economic equity is worth waging. The result is that, in Washington D.C., true warriors for progressive principles are as rare as appearances in the World Series or NBA Finals. (If you know how lousy our sports teams are, you get my point.)

Our job is to identify and support legitimate progressives. I’m talking about people who viscerally loathed the Iraq War – and couldn’t have supported it even if it were immensely popular. I’m talking about people who take climate change seriously and know that the clock continues to be ticking against us. I’m talking about people who hate runaway deficits precisely because they are progressive – and recognize that no less than gays, minorities, and the environment, our nation’s children and grandchildren are victims of today’s political marketplace. I’m talking about articulate, unabashed supporters of a progressive tax policy. And yes, I’m talking about people who are willing to acknowledge that no society with a wealth distribution like ours could possibly call itself just. Above all, I’m talking about people who are not afraid to have the mainstream media question whether they are “socialist,” even though they know such a label would be inappropriate.

The fact is that there are alternatives to socialism, on the one hand, and unbridled capitalism, on the other. Let’s identify rising stars in the media, in the Statehouses and on Capitol Hill who are happy to identify themselves with a middle ground – a capitalism that respects universal dignity and justice. Then we can support these leaders as they struggle to give America an alternative to the Supply Siders who currently dominate the GOP – and are increasingly coming to dominate the Democratic Party as well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Thirty years have elapsed since November 1980, when the post-Watergate era officially began. It was the first Presidential election between two candidates not named “Nixon” or “Ford." (Since Gerald Ford was Tricky Dick’s hand-picked successor, Watergate still loomed large over the election of 1976.) During these past 30 years, we’ve had 16 years of Administrations that governed far to the right – eight years of Reagan and eight years of Cheney (or W, if you assume that the latter was really President). Four of the other 14 years have similarly involved a Republican President, George H.W. Bush, but you’d have to say in hindsight that H.W. was a centrist leader. In fact, it was his willingness to raise taxes that many view as responsible for his defeat in seeking a second term.

So what should we make of the other ten years -- the period of the Clinton Presidency and the first two years under Obama? Since they were elected as Democrats, the temptation is to call their Administrations “progressive” or “left-leaning.” But what’s notable is how far from the truth that is. As has been noted before in this sector of cyberspace, the top marginal tax rates under Clinton and Obama are significantly lower than they had been under past Republican Administrations, and not even close to what they were under Eisenhower or Nixon. As for social policies, those Democrats might talk a big game, but what they deliver is hardly satisfying to progressive interest groups. Just consider today’s favorite domestic “civil rights movement” – the fight for gay rights. Clinton gave us “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the privilege to remain in the closet while you bleed to death on the battlefield -- and Obama hasn’t exactly fought like a Banshee to change that policy. As for the idea that gays should be able to get married, both President Clinton and President Obama have been solidly opposed. I’m not sure I know a progressive who shares that attitude, and believe me, I know zillions of progressives.

The fact is that in the post-Watergate era, the pendulum of American leadership has swung from far-right to the center, and then back again. We’ve seen moments that have flirted with progressive ideas, but the Presidents who proposed them soon see the error of their ways and then style themselves as “moderates” or “pragmatists.” Those are not words you’d hear from the lips of a Reagan or a Cheney. As their patron saint, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the face of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

“Moderation” is a great word for peacemakers and mediators. But when it comes to Commanders in Chief, it’s a weasel word. Strong leaders have a vision, communicate that vision clearly to the country, and make it happen. They lead, and the rest of us either follow or get out of the way. It’s the way Republican Administrations tend to rule. However, at least in the recent past, whenever Democratic Administrations try the same tack, they end up like dogs who’ve attempted to grab some food from their master's table. These dogs get yelled at, perhaps even spanked, and then droopily walk away with their tail between their legs.

Such is the state of American politics today, at least on the Presidential level. We are now witnessing an era in which the country is led by two types of Republicans – conservative and moderate. The latter usually go by the name of “Democrat,” but they are Democrats in name only. The closest thing I can compare it to is the old Fox News show Hannity and Colmes. It pitted Sean Hannity, an articulate conservative, against Alan Colmes, a sheepish, semi-coherent “liberal.” They would alternate talking, but Hannity was the dominant one and Colmes the side-kick, kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Something always seemed a little off-kilter whenever Colmes spoke, because you kept waiting for him either to make a forceful point for once or just shut up and let someone else talk. Unfortunately, that has become a metaphor for the Presidents elected as Democrats.

To be fair, Clinton at least campaigned as a new kind of Democrat. He was from the South, and he appealed to the nation largely as a Blue Dog. Whether he was tacking a bit to the left, or tacking back to the center, it never seemed like a complete betrayal. But President Obama campaigned as a transformational leader who combined a unifying spirit with a solidly progressive philosophy. As many pointed out, he had one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. And as a candidate, he was the anti-Iraq War visionary, who pledged to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, close GITMO, and end the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Progressives had plenty of reasons to believe that Candidate Obama was one of them.

Obviously, things haven’t worked out that way, and when we consider the recent history of the two American Parties, that should be no surprise. Just consider the difference between the two Parties at the legislative level. That difference can best be summarized in one concept: the Republicans are unified and the Democrats are not. That makes it not even a fair fight. When the GOP representatives act in lockstep and the Democrats are all over the place, the GOP’s mathematical advantage will be prohibitive. And once you realize that 60 Senators are needed to enact laws, the prospects for true progressive legislation become virtually impossible. Now add to all that the idea that the conservatives have been presented with a new weapon: Obama’s concession that whenever the Republicans are poised to act like terrorist “hostage takers” and enact some really tragic legislative change (like taking away unemployment benefits), the Democrats are compelled to pay the ransom. What you’re left with is one Party that can pretty much dictate to, and dominate, the other every bit as much as Hannity could run roughshod over Colmes.

From what I read, Colmes eventually left the show because he got fed up playing Gilligan to Hannity’s Skipper. Somehow, I think that is now happening to a lot of Democratic voters and donors – they’ve just had it. The last straw may have been Obama’s use of the term “sanctimonious” to refer to those progressives who dared criticize him when he proposed to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, coupled with a decrease in the estate tax. It was an early Christmas present for the upper income bracket – or as they are known in Democratic circles, the “filthy rich.” At a time when the President had been talking about federal pay freezes, unacceptably high deficits and joint sacrifices, extending those tax cuts was a bitter pill for progressives. But for their leader, the man they fought to elect, to accuse them of acting holier than thou when they dared to criticize his actions, that was just too much to bear. To a progressive, it felt like a woman must feel when she walks up to her prom date who has just dumped her for another woman, only to be told: “Now listen, you sanctimonious bitch. This is for the best. People break up. That’s the process. Deal with it.”

The question is, how should progressives deal with it? David Broder and David Brooks – columnists for the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively – would have us all celebrate the situation. The Centrist Davids believe that Obama’s flip-flop on taxes was a stroke of genius that will catapult him into a second term. They view it as Obama’s Sister Souljah moment – the time when he was able to position himself right smack at the heart of the American political spectrum, and well to the right of the left-wing nuts who are obviously clueless about governance.

The problem is that when Clinton criticized Sister Souljah, he was taking on the hip-hop community, which wasn’t exactly a large fragment of his base. By contrast, when Obama took on his “sanctimonious” critics, he wasn’t just aiming at what an aide of his once called the “professional left;” he was assailing the mainstream of the progressive community. He was, indeed, telling his base “Shut up, bitch, and trust me. I’m the practical one. I’m the one who makes deals and gets things done. Your job is to raise money, volunteer your time, vote, and then let the adults handle things.”

Funny, but it’s a long way from “We are the change we have been waiting for.” Never has the first person plural evolved so drastically in meaning.

So, I return to the question: how should the progressives deal with this? To me, the answer is becoming unmistakable: by growing a pair. That means standing up to the schoolyard bully. Or if you prefer Obama’s terrorist metaphor, then fine: Don’t pay the ransom, lest you encourage more hostage taking. More tangibly, it means to watch the upcoming Congressional votes like a hawk and target the re-election aspirations of any and all politicians who either support this compromise or seem strangely quiet in their willingness to tolerate the status quo.

In other words, start to behave like the Tea Partiers, who felt compelled to take their own (Republican) Party back from those who had lost their way. It’s either do that, or start a new Party, and as the Tea Partiers showed, it’s not impossible to take over an existing institution as long as a sufficient fraction of the rank-and-file is unified, resolute and principled.

Let me say that last word again: principled. Believe it or not, it means more than the willingness to compromise on fundamental issues without a fight.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


My fellow progressives. I have but a simple message for you: just say no to Republican-bashing. Stop it right now!

Resist the temptation to lambaste McConnell or Boehner. Pay no attention to that loopy Arizona congressman who thinks that money in the hands of unemployed people doesn’t help the economy – just laugh him off. Leave Palin and Limbaugh alone too, at least for the moment. When you hear some blowhard on TV defend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, just smile and turn the channel. Don’t pay these people any mind. The long-term health of our democracy depends on it.

If you need to stop watching Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann in order to give up your addiction, then do it. Turn them off. They’re still addicts. They’ve been spending a decade insulting the Republicans night after night, blaming them for every war, every act of corruption, every drop of economic inequality, and every environmental disaster. They wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t blame the Republicans for all the problems of the universe.

I can relate, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour shaking my head at the idea that many of the most powerful people in our society are so-called Christians who have magically turned Jesus into a right-winger. Talk about vivid imaginations! But I’m telling you, at this point all of that religious hypocrisy and Gordon Gecko-like greed in the Republican Party are going to roll off my back. Frankly, the Republicans are just being Republicans. They’re the party of unbridled capitalism, jingoism, environmental apathy and social intolerance, and they’ve been that way for a long time. In fact, they reflect a side of the American spirit that has probably always been with us, and accordingly, it only makes sense that their attitude would have its champions in Government. Just as I long ago stopped getting mad at the lawyers who fight me in court, I’m not going to get mad at Republicans either – in both cases, they’re just doing their jobs. What does make me mad is that right now, the Democrats are also doing the GOP’s job. That, my friends, is the real problem.

Somehow, some way, the Democratic leadership has become unwilling to put up a fight in return. Even on issues on which most Americans support them, all the Republicans have to do is show some opposition, and the Democrats will wilt, as if on cue. More specifically, when the Republicans prepare for a game of brinksmanship, the Democrats respond by leaking that they’re ultimately going to cave, and by putting up merely token resistance (or none at all). We've seen this pattern over and over again. But this past week, it reached a crescendo. As a result, the Democratic leadership has finally been exposed to even a casual observer as virtually irrelevant.

Consider how the week began. On the issue of the federal pay freeze, the Democrats didn’t even put up their customary token resistance; they proposed a freeze upfront. If, as expected, the Republicans prevail on the debate over tax cuts for the rich, that means that the only folks who will essentially get their taxes increased (for that is what the federal pay freeze amounts to -- a tax increase) will be our civil servants. None of these individuals make even close to the $250,000 per year that the Dems originally said would be the point at which tax increases kick in. Indeed, as I have pointed out in a previous blog post, many of these individuals make but a small fraction of what their private sector analogues earn, and work comparably hard.

For me, the last straw was when my own congressman, Chris Van Hollen, went on the radio to talk about the federal pay freeze. Van Hollen is not only one of the leaders of the Democrats in the House, but he represents a district just north of Washington, D.C. with a huge percentage of federal employees. If anyone is entrusted with the job of fighting for the civil servants, it would be Chris Van Hollen, right? Apparently not. The truth is that he could hardly muster any indignation at the idea that his constituents’ pay was being frozen. He spoke in a monotone, in measured words, and his message was largely incoherent. To the extent he had any message at all, it was that federal workers have no problem getting their pay frozen as long as it is part of a package in which others sacrifice as well. He must have thought that comment played well in Peoria, but he also knew that it wasn't true. Federal employees expect their tiny pay raises every year whether the economy is going great guns or is in turmoil. That's the way the system works and has worked for decades. But being a member of the Democratic leadership, Van Hollen just didn't have it in him to put up a real fight. He and the rest of the Democratic leadership resemble boxers who’ve been punched in the head so many times that they can hardly fight back any more. It’s called punch drunk. That’s the state of one of our two major Parties -- a Party that only two years ago was given the White House and overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate (at least on paper).

As for the White House, the comments I've been hearing about President Obama lately suggest a President whose image is in free fall. Just in the past week, my friends have described him as “The Capitulater in Chief,” “A Man Who Brings Flowers to a Gun Fight,” and “Jimmy Carter without the Crazy Brother.” And that was coming from liberals. From a conservative, I’ve heard him described as “Jimmy Carter without the Integrity.” Truly, I have no idea what the President is thinking when it comes to the big issue of the moment: taxes. Supposedly, he wants to increase the taxes on the rich but is being forced by the big, bad Republicans to relent and, being a Democrat/donkey -- or should I say, a chicken -- he will be forced to do just that. Perhaps, however, Joe Scarborough is correct that there is a much deeper issue here than Obama’s courage. According to Scarborough, our President secretly wants low taxes on the rich because it would help the economy in the short run to throw money at our society and let the deficits be damned. That theory certainly would seem to be supported by the fact that his Deficit Commission – the same one that originally proposed freezing federal workers’ pay – wanted to go even further than George W. Bush in cutting taxes on the rich.

Frankly, who is to say any more what our President is thinking and why. You’d assume that if he deeply cared about the core progressive issue of tax fairness, he would have brought this topic to a vote months ago before the election when the Republicans actually had something to lose and the nation’s unemployed weren’t being held hostage. Polls indicate that most Americans want to see the taxes increased on the rich. They want it now, and they wanted it before the election. So why wasn’t this made into an election issue by the Democrats? Why are they only addressing the issue now, when everyone says that the Republican victory is a foregone conclusion? Is the answer that today’s Democrats don’t believe in fighting, at least not if it involves any risks? Or could it be that the Democratic leadership couldn’t care less about tax fairness any more than they care about federal employees? (After all, this is the Party of John Edwards, the philandering self-proclaimed anti-poverty activist who built himself a 30,000-square-foot home.)

Those are the questions that progressives need to be asking these days, rather than worrying about the Republicans. The Democratic leaders in the White House and the Congress are supposed to be OUR representatives, right? Those are the men and women we’ve been campaigning for and voting for and pinning our hopes on. Could it be that maybe, just maybe, they’ve taken us for granted? Could it be that maybe they’ve decided that, at the end of the day, we’ll be so scared of the GOP that we’ll be forced to support them, no matter how little they care to fight on the issues that matter to us?

To me, the Democratic leadership have issued a challenge to each and every person who holds core Democratic values: are we prepared to abandon our leaders in support of a new kind of politician or political party, one that is unabashedly progressive, willing to take risks, willing to unify and stand up to unified Republican opposition, willing to sacrifice some short-term pain for some longer-term progress, and willing to be candid about what we stand for? To me, the answer had better be yes. Otherwise, we can plainly see the consequences: we will have even more decades of primarily Republican rule, interrupted by the occasional ineffectual Democratic administration.

Is that the pattern that we think will take care of our middle and working classes and ensure a safe and stable environment? If not, isn’t it time to do what our leaders aren’t willing to do and take some risks? Isn’t it time to take a page from the conservatives’ books and create a lean, mean movement that actually stands for something more than “vote for us, because we’re not as bad as the other guys”?

So, my fellow Progressives, whether you want to work within the Democratic Party or help to start a new Progressive (or Green) Party, let’s agree on this much: it’s time to stop obsessing about the Republicans. The enemy isn’t them, it’s ourselves. We’ve been feckless. We’ve been unfocused. We’ve been lazy. And when it comes to our own leaders, we’ve been Pollyannaish. Before we can worry about defeating our opponents, we need to right our own ship first.

Sometimes, as painful as it can be, nothing beats looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for what you see. Everything else is a distraction.