Saturday, December 24, 2011


“All they do is give out awards in Los Angeles. Greatest Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler.”

Woody Allen, from Annie Hall

Hollywood loves to give out awards. The Empathic Rationalist? Not so much. That’s why I only give them out once a year, and even then, I don’t give them much thought.

With that in mind, feel free to read on and reflect a bit about the best – and worst – of 2011. This will be the last post of the year. So let me wish you a Happy Holiday – or if you are a Republican, a “Merry Christmas” – and a Happy New Year.

Person of the Year

Who shot J.R.? Nobody -- it was only a dream.

Who shot Osama? Somebody – but we won’t find out who any time soon.
That man (or is it a woman?) is my person of the year. Anonymous. Uncelebrated. Not particularly well paid. But heroic as hell.

Give Obama credit for authorizing the mission to go well into Pakistan and risk pissing off the Pakistani Government in order to get the madman who murders thousands of innocents for sport. But give our “Person of the Year” even more credit for risking his (or her) life to get that same madman, and actually getting it done. Someday, we’ll find out this person’s name and gender. For now, we’ll just have to say “Thanks, hero!” and leave it at that.

Laughing Stock of the Year

The Empathic Rationalist tends not to give out this award because it would not be very “empathic” to turn someone into a complete object of ridicule. But this year, let us make an exception.

The laughing stock is each and every one of us political junkies who religiously watch the Republican Debates. Why do we do it? For the comedy? Because we’ve discovered a form a self abuse that doesn’t make us go blind or sprain our wrists? You’d think after two or three of these debates, we’d find something else to do with our time. But no – the prospect of hearing grown men (and a Stepford Wife) pander to the most extreme and ignorant elements of our society is apparently irresistible to us. And so we turn on the next debate. And the next. And the next. … And this will probably continue until it’s May, and Mitt Romney is alone on the stage with Rick Perry who forgot that he was only getting 1% of the vote.

So, my fellow political junkies, congratulations – you are all deserving of this award. Maybe if we’re lucky, someone will come up with political methadone this summer, so we won’t have to watch all the Romney-Obama debates. There, the pandering to Neanderthals will be replaced with vapid BS that has nothing to do with how either one intends to govern. As it stands now, however, I expect to watch all of those events as well.

Entertainer of the Year

Jon Stewart. He hosts the only show I can watch without getting bored – other than the news and sports. OK, OK – perhaps his show could be called news. But I prefer to think of it as “comedy,” not news. It just so happens that it is more informative about the news than virtually anything on MSNBC or Fox News (which are essentially mirror images of each other).

I considered giving this award to “Adele” because she’s so freaking talented. Then again, to be totally candid, her sound isn’t really my cup of tea. And besides, I didn’t even know who she was a week ago. So if you really want an informed view of who the Entertainer of the Year is, you should probably consult a forum written by someone who actually enjoys what comes out of Hollywood or Nashville these days. Sadly, when it comes to the entertainment industry, the Empathic Rationalist is still stuck in the 60s and 70s (note, for example, the quote at the top of this blog post).

Athlete of the Year

This is really painful. REALLY painful. But if Empathic Rationalism stands for anything, it’s the unwillingness to lie to oneself. This is why I never became a defense attorney – I was never willing to convince myself that it just so happens that my clients almost never break the law.

So here goes: the athlete of the year is Aaron Rodgers. He once quarterbacked U.C. Berkeley, the arch rival of my beloved Stanford Cardinal. And now, he quarterbacks the Green Bay Packers, the arch rival of my beloved Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers started the year winning one playoff game after another until he finally captured the Super Bowl. Then, after a tumultuous off-season that almost resulted in a football strike, he continued to win games – 13, to be exact, until finally losing last Sunday. It’s pretty darn good in any sport to lose your first game of the year in mid-December.

Rodgers already has an unparalleled touchdown/interception ratio for his career. And he still figures to have several more years left in his prime. The best QB ever? Maybe not. But more and more people are making that claim, and nobody is laughing when they do. Certainly I’m not. I’m crying.

Tragedy of the Year

Earthquake. Tsunami. Nuclear meltdown. That is not a Trifecta anyone ever wants to hear about. And yet it happened this year in Japan, thanks to a quake that measured 8.9 on the Richter scale.

Most of us cannot even imagine how awful such a quake could be. We had one in Washington, DC this year that measured less than a 6.0, and it shook our buildings for several seconds. 8.9? That is truly a nightmare.

Let us be thankful for all the noble souls in Japan who worked long and hard to make sure that the damage to the nuclear reactors was kept to a minimum. At times like that, you can see human beings at our very best … and nature, at her very worst. These events are also a reminder that much of what is written in our Scriptures is not to be taken literally. God, I dare say, doesn’t bury people alive on purpose.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


In discussing the horse race known as the contest for the Republican nomination, I have dealt only superficially with the candidates’ positions. What do you say we delve a bit into a recent debate about an extremely important issue. The discussion was sparked by – who else? – Newt Gingrich. Say what you want about that windbag, but at least he is willing to throw out ideas before they have been poll tested. I like that about him. I just don’t happen to like his ideas.

So let’s go back to a bit more than a week ago when Newt first decided to let her rip on the topic of the Middle East. In an interview aired by the Jewish Channel, Newt once again showed off his vast command of all things historical. Referring to the situation in the Middle East in the early part of the previous century, Newt said: “I believe that the commitments that were made at the time – remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.”
Then, last Saturday night at the nationally televised debate, Newt decided to have a little more fun at the expense of the Palestinians. “The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story,” he said. " 'Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977. This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage and we refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies.”

Newt received a ton of applause for his comments. And to do so he touched on some of the ultimate Republican talking points. To begin, he played the ever-popular terrorism card: “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools.” But even more importantly, he placed himself in the mold of the Republican’s greatest political hero, the Gipper: “I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth. Just as it was when [Ronald] Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.”

You’ve got to give the guy an A+ for rhetoric. Unfortunately, Newt is also claiming to be a historian and a public policy maven. In those regards, he failed miserably.
Before I explain precisely what is noxious about what Newt said, let’s look at the reaction by his fellow candidates. Frankly, they came across as equally tone deaf to Palestinian history.

First, we have Romney: “I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said, except by going out and saying the Palestinians are an invented people. That, I think, was a mistake on the speaker’s part. … Ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to have to agree on how they’re going to settle their differences between them. And the United States of America should not jump ahead of Bibi Netanyahu and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job.”
Santorum’s comments were similar: “I think you have to speak the truth, but you have to do so with prudence. …This isn’t an academic exercise. We have an ally, and the policy of this country should be to stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally.”
And here are the comments from Perry: “Let me just say that I think this is a minor issue that the media is blowing way out of proportion. ...This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said.”

Clearly, none of these mainstream Republican politicians were willing to praise Newt for proclaiming that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” Then again, none were willing to take up the Palestinian cause as to why they have a right to call themselves a “people” and demand their own state. Perry seems to suggest that this is all just a tempest in a teapot. Romney went so far as to suggest that Newt spoke the truth about the Palestinian’s lack of history as a people, but just shouldn’t have done so publicly. And both Romney and Santorum suggested that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, American statesmen are obliged to stand behind our one ally (Israel), and Newt’s mistake was that he made statements of which Israel itself may not approve.

It all sounds like a debate you could expect to hear at an AIPAC meeting, doesn’t it?

Let me begin my response to Newt by pointing out that what Israel needs most from America is not just another “ally” but a powerful broker for a just and secure peace. Obama tried to serve in this capacity, and I applaud him for that attempt. The only problem is that he didn’t have a friggen clue what he was doing. (As I’ve pointed out on different occasions, his crucial mistake was to skew his concrete, controversial demands so heavily against Israel that it allowed the Palestinians to stand firm on virtually all of their positions and put Israel on the defensive about their own. Brilliant!)

As an honest broker, we need to envision what a just and secure peace would look like. And we need to be willing to speak out in favor of whatever is conducive to creating those conditions and against anything that prevents such conditions from flourishing. There is plenty to criticize on both sides of this debate, but there are also principles we must affirm. And none is more important than that both the Jews and the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the same land, and both can legitimately call themselves a people. Our choice is either in dividing up the land so that they each can have their own “peace of oith,” or supporting the right of one people to dominate the other. There are plenty of extremists on each side who favor a de facto one-state solution. Let us pray, in the name of justice, that they are not successful.

Before we can take exception to the views of the extremists, we must first understand their perspectives. What’s interesting is that both the anti-Israel and the anti-Palestine positions commonly depend on a similar idea: erasing the peoplehood of those who claim the right to a state that would conflict with one’s own desire to dominate the region.

On the Palestinian side, you will find plenty who effectively deny that the Jews are a “people,” at least in any relevant sense. On the surface, this would seem preposterous, given that the Jews have been around for thousands of years. But this erasure of the Jewish people is actually quite simple – just replace the emphasis on the Jewish culture/civilization/peoplehood with that of the Jewish RELIGION. This perspective is not only voiced by one-staters in the West Bank and Gaza but is also shared by many members of the American left. They equate the idea of a “Jewish State” with that of a theocracy based on Orthodox Jewish legal principles and doctrines, which would grossly discriminate against all secular-Jews and gentiles, regardless of whether they are technically viewed as citizens. According to this perspective, any religious state – whether Jewish, Islamic or otherwise – will ultimately turn out to be an opportunity for a group of clerics to impose its will on a society based on the pre-modern teachings of religious law. And indeed, they argue, Israeli society is becoming more and more segregated and the Israeli government is increasingly willing to tolerate Orthodox practices (e.g., there are now Israeli buses in which all women are expected to sit in the back). This is why, the argument concludes, if we allowed a Jewish State to take firm root in the Middle East, the result would be nothing like the Jeffersonian democracy envisioned by Israel’s original founders, most of whom were secular and hardly Orthodox. It would instead take on some of the worst characteristics of the most antiquated and oppressive Islamic regimes.

On the Israeli side, you will find many who subscribe to the perspective of Newt Gingrich. They view the gentiles with whom they currently share the Holy Land as members of a people who historically thought of themselves simply as Arabs, rather than as Palestinians. According to this perspective, it is only right and just that these Arabs be taken in by their own people, whether it is by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or wherever, and allow the Jewish people to occupy their own ancestral homeland in peace. The adherents to this position will correctly point out that prior to the 20th century, the area known today as Israel/Palestine was, as Newt suggested, part of the Ottoman empire and it was not until the Jews began settling more and more of the land towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that the Arab inhabitants of the land began seeing themselves not merely as Arabs but also as “Palestinians.” Thus, the argument concludes, the Palestinians aren’t so much a historically-rooted “people” as a social group that has coalesced relatively recently in opposition to the Jewish people, which has a prior, and therefore superior, claim to the disputed land.

The central problem with both of these perspectives is that the historical facts from which they draw are extremely selective. Let’s start with the anti-Zionistic perspective.

Those who oppose Zionism can legitimately point to certain respects in which the Orthodox Jews have gained disproportionate power and enacted discriminatory laws. But there is nothing inherent in the idea of a “Jewish State” that suggests that it will favor one group of Jews over another. Like any other democracy, Israel will see different groups battle it out for social hegemony and some will be more successful than others at different times. Here in the United States, we have seen all sorts of discriminatory legislation in the past, and we may well see more in the future. But that doesn’t mean we have lost our faith in democracy, or in the principle that even if the majority should rule, the minorities should have rights. I am confident that Israel will remain a democracy and will continue to protect minority rights. But the key is that it is up to Israel – with its Jewish majority -- to make those decisions. And the decisions will be made by all Israelis voting at the ballot box, regardless of whether they view themselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular Jews … or as Israeli-Palestinians.

As for Newt’s perspective, it completely ignores the importance of what happened in the last century. The dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine didn’t begin in 1948. It had been growing for decades before that, as Jews were clearly demonstrating their desire to re-settle en masse in the area. Yes, the area had been controlled by the Ottoman Turks prior to World War I, but it was the ancestors of those who today call themselves “Palestinians” who lived and worked on the land. They were, in short, rooted in such cities and town as Beersheba, Haifa, Jerusalem and Hebron. And that sense of rootedness only grew when they were told by non-Arab peoples that they would have to be displaced by the Jews.

Imagine yourselves as an Arab booted out of your own home, together with several hundred thousand other Arabs. Imagine the depth to which you would have felt ties to that home, not to mention your neighborhood, your city, and indeed, the entire area known to you then as “Palestine” -- which was being cleansed to make room for a totally different people. The Jews have strong and multifarious claims to that same land, to be sure. But the rationale that was most often voiced was surely that the United Nations was giving them this land – your land, your people’s land – because of the unspeakable way the Jews were treated by the Germans in Europe. And imagine just how unjust that would sound: that just because one group of Europeans mistreated another, the victimized people would be given YOUR land.
If that didn’t give rise to a sense of peoplehood on the part of the Palestinians, I don’t know what would.

Of all of Newt’s comments, the one that truly made my jaw drop is when he said that the word “‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.” Really? I was 17 in 1977, and I remember that term being commonly used for years. You can say what you want about the Palestinian claim to peoplehood prior to the 1940s, but once the better part of a million of them had to flee from their homes in the so-called “Nakba” (translated as “disaster” or “catastrophe”) of 1948, you can better believe that they referred to and saw themselves as Palestinians … and so did everyone else who had at least an ounce of compassion for their plight.

Folks, I am a staunch Zionist. I am committed to the continuation of the Jewish State. And I refuse to join the blame-Israel-first organizations that have the chutzpah to call themselves Zionist but are afraid to call out the Palestinians for their anti-Zionist practices. But that doesn’t make me anti-Palestinian. The only path to peace is for us to be both pro-Zionist AND pro-Palestinian.

As for Newt, I don’t know what kind of history lessons he gave to the folks at Freddie Mac, but I’m assuming they had nothing to do with the Middle East. The next time he wants to delve into Middle East history, my suggestion is to do so as a student, and not as a teacher.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


In the past few weeks, I’ve posted on different occasions about the Occupy movement and how my fellow liberals need to support it, in spite of its obvious and inevitable growing pains. Today, though, allow me to talk about the OTHER grass roots movement -- the one on the right. This movement is broader than the “tea party,” though the tea party did catalyze it. The movement encompasses every Republican who is nearly as sick of their Party’s establishment as of the so-called “liberal elites.” The members of this movement see the leaders of the GOP as complicit in an ever-expanding federal role over their lives. And it is because of that federal role that they are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” I suspect that even if the GOP wins back the White House, as long as our federal government stays huge, this movement will stick around. And as long as there is a Democrat in the White House, the representatives of this movement will remain the dominant group of Republican primary voters.

I am writing about this movement because, unless you understand it, it is impossible to fathom what has happened with the Republican Presidential campaign to date. I know that some of you are completely incredulous about this campaign. You’ve been wondering why the Republicans are so loathe to embrace the one and only candidate who is intellectually, experientially and temperamentally qualified to be President – not to mention electable. By contrast, the candidates they have romanced seem better suited for a David Lynch movie than for Pennsylvania Avenue. And in this latest romance – the one involving Newt “Sorry, Honey, but I’ve found a blonde I like better” Gingrich – you’ve convinced yourself that there’s a whole Party of people who are borderline certifiable. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a little. But from listening to the talking heads on MSNBC, who probably speak pretty well for Blue America, I’m probably not exaggerating by much. Democrats all over the country are truly puzzled by what the Republican voters are thinking. And the questions are always the same: Why not Mitt? And why, of all people, the Newtster? Let me explain what’s going on.

Democrats generally make the mistake of thinking that the right wing voters who now dominate the GOP are focusing primarily on which Presidential candidate they love the most. Wrong. They focus on the one Presidential candidate they hate the most. His name is Barack Obama.

In 2000, the GOP electorate wasn’t focusing on their love for George W. Bush. They were concentrating on their hatred for “Algore the robot.” Nor was the GOP electorate focusing on their affection for President W in 2004. They were consumed instead with John Kerry, a man viewed not as an innocuous professional politician and former war hero but rather as a wind-surfing, flip-flopping, hypocritical limousine-liberal. In 2008, they tried to focus on their hatred on Barack Obama, but the problem is that their distaste for the erstwhile liberal, John McCain, was pretty robust as well. Now, though, John McCain has mercilessly left the public stage, and they are left with Barack Hussein Obama. To the grass roots of the GOP, Obama is truly an enemy, and any politician who can rip him a new one is their kind of guy (or gal).

I know it might sound partisan of me to categorize the modern GOP voter as so hate-based, but keep in mind that I am not saying they are hateful of all ideas and principles. They love capitalism. They love the market. They love economic freedom. They love America. And they love a strong, American military. What they hate is big government and the politicians responsible for propping it up. This is why it is difficult for them to embrace a would-be President who hasn’t proven his mettle as someone willing to take an ax to the bureaucracy.

GOP voters have seen enough Republicans act like the Bushes, who claimed to be “small government conservatives” but are afraid to do what’s necessary to tear apart Club Fed. If you are such a voter, it is difficult to get excited when some slick guy in a business suit boasts about his conservative bona fides. GOP voters know all too well that in office, this politician will be tempted to forsake his campaign promises and concentrate instead on getting along with the Harry Reeds, the Nancy Pelosis and the K-Street lobbyists. As a result, no matter how much he may theoretically hate government, once elected, he’ll keep the tax code complex, the welfare state bloated, and the tort lawyers wealthy. That’s the only way he can assure himself that he’ll continue to be the darling of the beautiful people and the “best and the brightest” who love to suck up to Presidents.

From talking to some hard-right GOP friends, I’m convinced that there is nothing more nauseating to them than images from galas in which the Obamas are having the time of their life while being surrounded by adoring celebrities. Whether these celebrities come from the world of politics or from Hollywood hardly matters. To the rank-and-file GOP voter, they represent the cheerleaders of big government, and their adoration is seen as the reward that is offered to any politician who keeps feeding the meter. GOP voters are desperate to find someone who will take on such politicians – to speak “truth” to power, as we liberals like to say. GOP voters want to go on the attack. And they seek a pit bull of a candidate who will launch himself onto the Obamas’ legs and bite to the point where the President is forced to say uncle.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour of the Republican campaign to date. Perhaps the first figure to be embraced was Donald Trump. To the malcontents who comprise so much of the Party, it made sense to look at Trump as a political outsider who is secure enough in his millions (or is it billions?) to rip into Washington and unmask it as a silly, self-important hamlet -- which is precisely how it is viewed on the right.

It soon became clear that Trump was more of a clown than a candidate, so the GOP voters next took a long look at Michelle Bachmann. She seemed to be the closest thing available to the last candidate that the GOP truly embraced, Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, the photogenic Palin was brought down when she opened her mouth on the issues, and Bachmann was brought down when she opened her eyes on a magazine cover – and looked like she belonged in a horror movie. So it was time to search for another candidate.

For a time, Rick Perry fit the bill quite nicely. And why not? If Bachmann looked like a Stepford wife, Perry looked like a star of Westerns. Nice hair, nice pecs … what’s not to like, right? The problem is that he turned out to be a barrel-chested version of the Scarecrow. And sadly for Perry, the Republican debates weren’t musicals. (He could dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if he only had a brain. Sigh.)

Do I have to remind everyone who came next? The Herminator. That was the comedic apex of this campaign. The GOP loved him because he had the private-sector experience they seem to respect so much and because he inoculated them to charges of racial bigotry. Yet gradually he started losing his luster. First, it became clear that when it comes to foreign affairs knowledge, he made Sarah Palin look like Averell Harriman by comparison. Then, he felt compelled to answer every domestic affairs question in the same manner: first by saying “9-9-9” and then by saying “I didn’t proposition her, honest I didn’t.” It became an embarrassment.

So then there were four: (1)Ron Paul – who wants the government to be so small that even the GOP voters thinks he’s nuts. (2) Rick Santorum – whose name, if you google it, is defined as “a frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” (That was the result of an orchestrated, and apparently effective, campaign to destroy him after he bashed gay people one time too many.) (3) Mitt Romney. And (4) Newt Gingrich. The pundits are going CRAZY that the GOP voters are starting to turn to Newt instead of Mitt.

But I ask you, folks: if you really, really hated Obama and thought he was a narcissistic phony more motivated by adulation than principle … if you resented him for being viewed as brilliant simply because he is glib and went to some fancy schools … if you longed for the day when we had a leader who actually showed a little gumption and passion instead of pretending that he was too cool for school … then why in God’s name would you fight for Mitt Romney? Isn’t Mitt Romney just Obama-lite?

Just consider Romney’s two most hyped ads so far in this campaign. In his first, he mocks Obama by quoting him as saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In fact, though, what Obama really said was “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Is this Romney’s best shot? Really?

Now, Romney is taking out an ad talking about how he has been with the same wife for 42 years. Yet to the Republican voter, I can just imagine the reaction: “Obama’s been with the same wife all his adult life too. So what? We care less about flip-flopping on wives than we care about flip-flopping on the issues.”

Barack Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Mitt Romney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Barack Obama smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice and Mitt Romney smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice. Also, according to conventional GOP wisdom, Barack Obama is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle and Mitt Romney is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle; both are candidates who choose their views opportunistically. But even the GOP electorate would have to recognize that unlike Mitt Romney, Barack Obama at least has a winning personality. So if the two went head to head, wouldn’t it be a sleep fest in which Obama would have the advantage? That logic sure makes sense to me.

And then there was one.

Conventional wisdom says that Newt can’t win. Indeed, conventional wisdom says that Newt doesn’t have much of a chance at the nomination, let alone the Presidency. We keep hearing from the men who served with him in the Congress about what a pompous, out-of-control ass he has been. Plus, we keep hearing about what a colossal hypocrite he is for criticizing Clinton as a philanderer and for criticizing the power of K Street. If that’s not enough, we also hear about how he has no campaign infrastructure to speak of, reflecting the fact that he didn’t join this campaign to win so much as to sell books. And for every talking head who points out that he is soaring in the polls, there are five more who are willing to snicker about how that lead will last about as long as one of Newt’s marriages.

Well, folks, don’t look now but Newt’s marriages tend to last more than a year, and that’s about as long as his lead would have to last for him to win the next election. Am I predicting that? No. His “negatives” really do go through the roof, and yes, he is capable of crashing and burning at any minute. But can you truly blame the GOP voters for seeing him as the best of a woeful lot? I personally predicted his ascendency several weeks ago when I heard him suggest that he wants to engage in a series of Lincoln/Douglas-style debates with Obama. At that point, he was nowhere in the polls. And yet his idea didn’t seem like an absurd one, for Gingrich has always been the one person in this field who would seem truly to delight in going toe-to-toe with Obama on wonkish policy ideas. The GOP rank-and-file would desperately like to see someone argue with Obama about the issues and reveal the intellectual bankruptcy of Obama’s thoughts. That would be so much more satisfying than seeing Mitt Romney fight Obama by blatantly and shamelessly taking his words out of context in staged advertisements.

It is chic in Blue America to condescend to the Republican rank-and-file these days. Democrats might as well call them “retards,” because that’s about how much respect the Republican voters are being shown. But I ask you: isn’t Gingrich’s recent surge a sign that the Republicans want to engage Obama in the realm of ideas? Isn’t Gingrich’s appeal that he, unlike Romney (or Obama), is a gutsy man who doesn’t mind a good fight? Can we in the Blue States not appreciate why voters would be sick and tired of business as usual, and isn’t Romney the epitome of business as usual – a slick politician who nobody trusts to say what he really means? Can the Republicans really be looked at as crazy in not embracing such a standard holder?

Maybe Gingrich is morally reprehensible. And maybe he does make more than his share of irresponsible and even offensive statements about public policy. But when you truly are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more,” maybe you just don’t care about all that. Remember: the Republican voter is not focused on the Newtster, they are focused on Obama. And anyone who reminds them of Obama – whether he is black, Mormon, or Southern Baptist – is going to have one hell of a time winning the nomination.

Say what you want about Newt, but he at least has spine. In this year’s Republican race, that goes a long, long way.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Even in this quadrant of cyberspace, there has been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%. Honestly, though, you don’t have to be in the top 1% to be filthy rich. In fact, if you find yourself anywhere in the top 10%, you’re probably doing pretty well. It’s everyone else who I’m concerned about. There is something fascinating about the fact that our nation’s bottom 90% owns less than the top 1%. Indeed, it says a lot about this country that when you’re talking about wealth, it’s most meaningful to talk about the top .1, 1 or 10%, and to simply lump everyone else together into some sort of small, miscellaneous category. The myth of a thriving middle class still survives, but it is inexorably working its way out of our vocabularies. Soon enough, we will reach the point where we’re either ultra-rich or part of the “bottom X%”-- and that X will be a two digit number beginning with a 9. Who knew that 519 years after Columbus found America while looking for India, we would find India while looking for America?

Today, though, I’d like to leave aside the above numbers and focus instead on two different ones. Let’s talk about the 9% and the 43%.

The 9% are a truly bizarre bunch. These are the Americans who answer in the affirmative when they are asked whether they approve of the job the U.S. Congress is doing. When that figure is reported in the media, the point is always to indicate how low it is. But to me, the question is, “Why so high?” Who in their right mind would approve of the way Congress is doing its job?

You might think that’s a rhetorical question, and perhaps it was when I first framed it. Gradually, though, I’ve begun to realize that the 9% might not be nearly as stupid or crazy as they appear. Just assume hypothetically that you were a true American conservative – a person who believes that if you live in the “greatest country in the world,” it’s more likely than not that if you try to make substantial reforms, you’ll only make things worse. Personally, that’s not my attitude, but I wouldn’t call it crazy. And if it were my attitude, I’d like this Congress just fine.

Right now, the Congress is perfectly situated to make as little mischief as possible. No, they won’t accomplish anything either, but like they say in the NFL, “more games are lost than they are won,” and this Congress won’t fumble, throw interceptions or commit 10 or 15 yard penalties. They’ll just raise money, go home to visit their constituents, and commit the occasional act of public lewdness. (That’s the equivalent of a 5 yard penalty; no big deal.)

Consider that the House is controlled by the Republicans, who are themselves divided between the far right and the hard right (they’re the ones who think that the merely “far righters” are wimpy compromisers). As for the Senate, it is controlled by Democrats, at least in theory. In practice, though, it takes 60 Senators to pass a bill, there are nowhere near 60 Democratic Senators, and even when there were 60, a few were DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) who would demand to water down any truly progressive piece of legislation. The result is even more gridlock than you’ll see on the DC Beltway during rush hour.

In short, if your favorite principle of public policy is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” then maybe the U.S. Congress, as pathetic as it appears on the surface, is better than all the alternatives.

So that’s the 9%. Now, let’s turn to a much more plentiful, and supposedly sane, group, the 43%. These are the people who answer in the affirmative when they are asked if they approve of the job done by President Barack Obama.

Who are these 43%? They include virtually no Republicans. As for Independents, less than 1/3 of that category now finds itself in the 43%. Pitiful numbers, to be sure. But indirectly, what those numbers also indicate is that the clear majority of Democrats DO find themselves in the 43%. They like the job President Obama is doing. Imagine that.

How can the 43% watch a President essentially disappear like a magician’s prop, and yet still sing his praises? Is it just because they like the man’s style? Perhaps that has a lot to do with it. Unless my eyes and ears are deceiving me, I still see him as almost the personification of class. He is extremely affable. He has both low-brow and high-brow interests. He is equally adept at talking and listening. He comes across as open minded and open hearted. And you rarely see him sweat, let alone show any pique. What a cool guy, right?

That combination of stylistic virtues certainly goes a long way to explain why we’re talking about 43% and not 4.3%. And then let’s not forget the principle that the enemy of our enemy is my friend. So the more that Fox News anchors, Talk Radio blowhards, and their bought-and-sold politicians rip into Obama, the more the Democrats embrace him. The 43% sees Obama primarily as a victim. According to their mindset, when a pollster comes up to you and asks what you think of his job performance, why blame the victim?

And that leads me to perhaps the most important reason why the Democrats still continue to back Obama. Given how dysfunctional Congress has become, Democrats no longer expect their Presidents to actually accomplish things. As long as we have this Congress, the argument goes, the President is powerless to enact reforms, and his job is simply to ensure that things don’t get worse. It’s almost like watching a chess game that has been stalemated, and then praising your favorite player for not making a move that would lose the game. Absurd, right? But this is the story of today’s Democratic Party.

So, according to the conventional Democratic narrative, our nation is lucky to have a nice, intelligent, thoughtful, and flat-out cool President, who has the misfortune of presiding over a government that is essentially being shut down by a do-nothing Republican-dominated Congress that is propped up by a group of loathsome right-wing troglodytes. And we have a choice of blaming the perpetrator or the victim. Why blame both?

That’s the narrative that emerges from MSNBC. It is the narrative that you hear from Democratic leaders. And that’s the reason why, even though this President’s approval rating is less at this juncture of his first term then any other President in decades, he is still quite popular within his Party.

Forgive me for throwing a little wet blanket on top of this lovely fire, but I was just wondering if the 43% ever stopped to think about one set of simple facts. Do the Republicans control the Department of Treasury? The Department of Agriculture? Commerce? Labor? State? Transportation? Defense? Homeland Security? HUD? Energy? Do they control the SEC? FTC? CFTC? CPSC? I could keep going on and on. But hopefully, you get my point. A Democratic President has an enormous scope of power over a wide range of cabinet-level Departments and other agencies, and a do-nothing Congress lacks the ability to stop him from enacting all sorts of progressive reforms. So if we want to evaluate the President’s performance, why do we need to resort to viewing him as a powerless victim? Why don’t we evaluate the job he is doing in the areas in which he has complete control? Why don’t we demand that he shake things up in those domains? Perhaps the answer is that MSNBC, the New York Times, and the other sources of news for the 43% don’t report much on those areas, at least not with a coherent narrative. They would rather concentrate on throwing out red meat about how awful the Republicans are, even when the Republicans are not the ones primarily in power.

Folks, here is the sad truth. The 9% and the 43% seem like natural adversaries. The former is likely composed of self-styled “conservatives” and the latter of self-styled “liberals.” But whether they recognize it or not, they’re both working for the same objectives. The 9% is happy with their Congress, even though they believe it has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. As for the 43%, they are happy with the President, even though they believe he has little ability to accomplish significant reforms. These two groups differ in that the former embraces gridlock, whereas the latter purports not to. But the effect of their preferences is the same: both groups seem willing to live with gridlock. Both groups seem willing to live with a government that is no more activist than, say, Calvin Coolidge would be if he were in charge.

Perhaps, then, instead of talking about the 9% and the 43%, we should be talking about the 52%. I would guess that there are virtually no common members of the first two groups, but when they are properly viewed as working together to maintain the status quo … look what we have here? A majority!

And you wonder why we who care deeply about economic redistribution keep talking about the 1% and the 99%. Don’t expect the government to help solve that problem. A majority sure won’t.