Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Time to Have Some Real Foreign Policy Debates


            Unless you’re a baseball fan from San Francisco or St. Louis, I’m betting you spent last Monday evening watching Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off on the subject of foreign policy.   And unless you’re a political junkie who truly needs meds for your addiction, I’m betting you’ve forgotten virtually everything that was said that evening.  Strike that – you might remember some comment about “horses and bayonets,” but aside from those three words, it’s as if that so-called “debate” never happened.

            You can blame that problem on Mitt Romney, if you want.  After all, he’s the one who decided to agree with virtually everything President Obama said.  But Romney wasn’t solely responsible for the snooze fest, or even primarily responsible.   The real culprits are the American public and what passes in our society for journalists.  Collectively, they have created a climate of near total apathy when it comes to foreign policy.  

Think about it.  Can you name a single hot-button foreign policy issue that has captivated the public’s attention during recent years?  I can’t.  Without any pressing controversies that needed to be addressed, the candidates felt free to respond to every question with generalities and platitudes.  And the moderator couldn’t possibly have felt compelled to probe further as to any of their answers.  In fact, if he had probed, the public might not have cared much about the response.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”   Those words still ring in my ears.  The men and women of the Clinton War Room made that expression the theme of their 1992 campaign.  Because they won, those words have come to represent a shrewd political insight about modern America.  To me, though, they just demonstrate a fundamental hypocrisy in our national mindset. 

On the one hand, we have by far the strongest military in the world and we reserve the right to use this military in order to: (a) invade, bomb, and ultimately seize power over countries across the globe who have attacked neither us nor our closest allies, (b) use unmanned drones to kill people in far-away countries with whom we don’t even claim to be at war (including not only terrorism suspects but also those who happen to be near them when the suspects are tracked), and (c) maintain a massive security presence even in parts of the world that have been peaceful for decades.  On the other hand, when the time comes for us to elect the leaders who get to determine how to use our military and otherwise interact with the outside world, we tend to think very little about these matters. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Am I the only one who thinks there’s something wrong here?  If we’re going to serve as the world’s policeman, and if our police force reserves the right to behave more like Dirty Harry Callahan than Sergeant Friday, are the rest of us obliged to ensure that we are taking such police work into account when it comes time to select a President, a Senate and a House of Representatives?  Aren’t we obliged to become emotionally as well as intellectually involved in the issues of when and how it is appropriate to wield American power militarily?  And how and when it is appropriate to wield American power diplomatically?

As readers of this blog know, my own foreign-policy obsession is what America can do to help facilitate a just and secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.  As an American, that doesn’t so much involve our Department of Defense as it does our Department of State.   From the President, to the Secretary of State, on down the hierarchy, American diplomats face crucial choices in every Administration.  How much time and effort should they devote to the Middle East Peace process?   How many resources should they devote to developing the Palestinian infrastructure so that people can be more amenable to a peaceful solution to the conflict?  To what extent should the Administration go public in announcing its policy preferences?  And what should those preferences be? How important is it for the Administration to behave in an even-handed manner, as opposed to emphasizing America’s special relationship with Israel, our closest ally in the region?   Does the Administration dare publicly criticize the leadership of either the Israelis or the Palestinians?  And how frequently should it call for summits on American soil in which those leaders are asked to participate?

The list goes on.  Suffice it to say, none of those issues was addressed during Monday night’s debate.  We didn’t even discuss Mitt Romney’s audio-taped statement during the campaign trail that all we can do is “kick the can down the road” when it comes to Middle East peace.   Do you remember that comment?  Mitt said it during the same fund-raiser when he made his infamous “47 percent” comments.  That one got all the headlines.  The can-kicking idea was generally ignored.  Yet it would have been well worth discussing on Monday night, because it raises a fundamental question:  Should we working hard to facilitate a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians in the near term?  Or should we instead devote all our energies to fostering the economic and civil society changes that are needed in the Holy Land before a stable peace is possible?  Serious arguments can be made on both sides of that debate.  The shame is that if the issue had been raised on Monday night, most Americans would have found it snooze worthy.  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  

I suppose I should take a step back and say that the glass is half full.  After all, even though Americans notoriously forget about foreign policy when it comes time to vote, the fact remains that the candidates did agree to devote a full debate to that domain.   What that tells me is that in our minds, we all recognize how important it is, and the smaller the world gets, the more important it seems.  In our hearts, though, foreign policy issues just don’t seem to hit home with most Americans.  They tend to involve what happens in Europe, Africa or Asia, and we’re more concerned about what’s going on here in North America, where we live.

Fair enough.  But just remember, most of what goes on here is out of the President’s control.  Presidents may get publicly judged based on the unemployment rate, the Dow, and the changes in GNP, but at the end of the day, they don’t play the primary role in any of those numbers.  What they do control is America’s foreign policy.  In that regard, they don’t have to share the center stage with Congress, Wall Street, or Main Street.  They serve as Commander, Chief, and Spokesperson for the rest of us as we interact with the outside world.

Given the circumstances, when it comes time to vote for President on November 6th, maybe we should think just a bit more about how the candidates will do across the pond.  And the next time someone says, “It’s the economy, stupid,” tell them that that was SO 20th century.  Now in the 21st century, we can do better.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Seventeen Days -- And Only One More Debate


            Well, folks, we may not be at the finish line, but we’ve sure come to the home stretch.  “The turn,” as they say in horse racing, consisted of two debates.  No, I’m not talking about the Romney/Ryan diversion – that was purely for entertainment purposes.   I’m referring to the event a few weeks back when President Obama got off his horse and droopily waited for Mitt Romney to approach him, and then the more spirited tilt this past week, when the President leapt back on his ride, just as Romney was about to overtake him, and took out the whip.   Now that we are “headed for home,” as they say in the Sport of Kings, President Obama once again finds himself with a surmountable, yet clear, lead.   Don’t pay attention to the national polls – look at the swing state polls, and you’ll agree that Romney will need to hit the proverbial trifecta to pull this one out.

            Truth be told, this race track is a bit of a hybrid.  For the most part, it looks like the track at a Triple Crown venue, with nothing but clear skies ahead toward the finish line -- nothing, that is, except for one obstacle, and in that regard, it looks like the track of a steeplechase.   The obstacle is this coming Monday night’s debate, and the topic, of all things, is foreign policy.   If Mitt Romney is to win this election, he has to kick some serious butt in that debate.  And that requires excelling on a topic in which his inexperience is exceeded only by his apparent apathy.    Before our eyes, he had better turn into a reincarnation of John Foster Dulles – either that or you can bank on seeing a whole lot more smiling and hand waiving from Barack Obama.  Romney simply lacks any other opportunity to seize back the momentum that he lost in this past debate.

            Tuesday’s town hall was a far cry from the debacle in Denver, where there was only combatant.  Obama mailed that one in before the debate even started.  But he sure showed up in debate number two, and that put Romney in a bind.  Obama is the sitting President.  When awake, he comes across as Presidential – classy, measured, intellectual, sharp, personable … and let’s not forget, historic.  Plus, the Romney campaign has given him a whale of a narrative: that we face a choice between the leader who saved GM and killed Bin Laden, and a gaffe-prone, detached plutocrat who is beholden to troglodytes and is more of a shape shifter than that liquid- metal policeman from the Terminator 2.  On some level, I suspect, Romney understands his plight as a candidate.  And this is why, this past Tuesday night, you could sense his desperation.  He felt the need to employ high school debate tricks to back the President into the corner, alpha-male style, as if he were hoping that his rival would fall apart and pee his pants.  Sorry, but that kind of strategy rarely works in the adult world, and certainly not on a stage like this.  If anything, when one candidate watches the other look desperate, it only serves as a stimulant.  

            And that brings us to next Monday night.   What in Joseph Smith’s name can Mitt Romney do to score the needed knockout?   He has tried “Rush Limbaugh Mitt” in the primaries.   He has tried “Gordon Gecko Mitt” when talking to fundraisers.   He has tried “Schoolyard Bully Mitt” in the last debate.  None of them worked.  So is he out of options?  Not necessarily.  Maybe he should think back to what did work, if only for a moment: his first debate performance.  He was respectful, genuinely funny (remember the reference to Obama’s anniversary -- “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me”), politically moderate, and proud of his record as a unifier-not-a-divider.   In other words, this truly was “Governor” Romney – the RINO Chief Executive of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts.   That one night, for perhaps the only time since Mitt began running for president a half a decade ago, America liked what they saw from him.  

            Do you see the irony?   Barack Obama ran in 2008 as a change agent who is perfectly situated to heal the great divide.  And now, four years later, America generally, and Washington in particular, is more polarized than it has been since the Gilded Age.  Not only does Obama appreciate that sad truth but he also realizes its consequences.  If this country is to retain its place as the brightest “light unto the nations,” it will need to undertake great national projects in which all hands are on deck (meaning government, capital, labor, and civil organizations must buy in together).  Sadly, with a sharply polarized political culture, no such promise can be fulfilled.  Instead, we can look forward to mounting debt, governmental gridlock, business uncertainty, and the continued passing of the torch to leaner and hungrier economies overseas.  This is one point on which we can all agree – polarization is a fatal poison to our national interests.  The problem is that when it comes to identifying the antidote, there’s where the agreement ends.

            Pundits wonder why the President doesn’t talk more about his plans for the future.  But the answer should be obvious: the President doesn’t know how to purge ourselves of the poison that’s been destroying our society.  I’m not saying he has given up.  I’m just saying he can’t possibly be confident.   As long as the Republicans want to make him a relatively impotent President, they can do so.  They know it, and so does he.  That’s why his campaign promises are so tepid, and his rhetoric is anything but soaring.  That’s why we’re seeing him campaign almost entirely about Mitt Romney and not about Barack Obama.

            Frankly, it does present an opportunity for a challenger.  And if Romney could have only run as Governor Romney (rather than as Shape Shifter Romney), he might actually be in business right now.  But he can’t bring himself to do it, can he?  Governor Romney was successful because bi-partisanship was his only option.  If he had governed as a conservative Republican, he would have been rolled over by his state’s overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.  It’s known as a veto-proof government, and it would have made the Governor more vestigial than the appendix.  Now, unfortunately for Mitt, when he looks out at his “audience,” he doesn’t see a bunch of liberal Democrats (or moderate Independents) whom he has to meet halfway; he sees a bunch of friggen Flat Earthers.  This is a Party that has turned Michelle Bachman into a leader, and that won’t even make room for Dick Lugar, one of the great, bi-partisan statesmen of our era.   It certainly doesn’t have room for “Governor” Romney.  So … he shape shifts, talks about “etch-a-sketch” campaigns, and hopes that somehow, President Obama won’t show up for debates.  It worked once.  It won’t work again.

            If Mitt Romney wants to become President of the United States, he has but one chance: really make a play for the Independents and hope to hell that his base hates Obama enough not to desert their Party’s newly-moderate flag-bearer.  Romney would have to trump his record as a unifier, put Obama on the spot as someone who has failed in that capacity, and hope that the American public blames that failure on Obama (rather than the Republican Congress).  Honestly, if a moderate voter is seriously considering voting for Mitt Romney, his argument wouldn’t be that Obama is solely or even primarily at fault for failing to stop our toxic polarization.  The argument would be that, for whatever reason, Obama hasn’t get the job done and maybe Romney can.   It could have been a decent argument … if Romney had tried to pursue this approach over the past few months and demonstrated an ability to put together a coalition across ideological lines.  But that hasn’t really happened, now has it?  And that is why, when push comes to shove, anything Romney tries will likely be too little, too late.

             Still, though, the race isn’t over yet.   Romney does have, as they say in poker, “a chip and a chair.”  Nobody expects him to spend all of Monday night’s debate talking about foreign policy; clearly, he will work in references to economic issues early and often.  Perhaps he’ll also tie his comments together with compelling remarks about his track record as a “unifier.”  And, perhaps, Obama will make a fatal misstep of his own.   While I doubt the latter will happen, it’s certainly possible.  But what’s of paramount importance isn’t what happens on Monday night, or even on the first Tuesday of November.  It’s the need for the people of this nation to recognize that we are being poisoned by polarization and the gridlock that ensues from it, and that we truly do need to work together to find an antidote.  Whoever is best situated to provide that antidote deserves to be our next President.  And whichever gentleman is elected had better make finding the antidote one of his highest goals.  

This nation won World War II because it came together after Pearl Harbor for a common purpose.  And it came together again after 9/11.  Do we truly need to be the object of violent attacks in order to come together?  And if so, does that make us a warrior nation, rather than one that thrives on peace?   I sure hope it doesn’t.  It would be sad if we have reached the point in our history where we require death and destruction in order to prosper as a people. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


This weekend, I will be visiting my daughter at Carleton College.  While I'm very much looking forward to seeing her -- and the great state of Minnesota -- it does mean that the Empathic Rationalist will be down for the weekend.  We'll be back on the weekend of the 20th.   Talk to you then.

Saturday, October 06, 2012


            I still find it difficult to believe that Barack Obama will lose this election.  I’ve said all along that he might lose, but in my heart, I’ve always felt that won’t happen.   Nothing has changed in that regard.  But now, perhaps for the first time, I can at least envision the possibility.  You can thank the Debacle in Denver for that.

            Before turning our attention to the President, let’s look for just a moment at that other guy.  In my family, the debate itself has led to an even more robust post-debate argument about what to make of Mitt Romney’s performance.  There are those in the family who think that “Romney won on style, but lost on substance.”  (I’ve read on-line commenters say the same thing.)  They point out that “he had to resort to lies” in order to make his points, and that “lying is much worse than simply giving a lackluster effort.”  Further, I was told that “there is something wrong with our country when politicians can lie repeatedly during a debate and nobody seems to care.”  You get the idea.  They are saying the same thing about Romney that most commentators said about Paul Ryan after his Convention speech: any points he might otherwise have scored were outweighed by his willingness to lie or deceive on multiple occasions.

            I don’t see it that way.   I actually was impressed by Romney’s performance.  Was it honest?  Of course not.  Romney is not an honest politician.  Then again, honest politicians are about as rare as the Red Wolf.  Seriously, if you like your Presidential candidates to tell the truth, then write-in Walter Mondale.  He told the truth about taxes – and won precisely one state.  As Jack Nicholson would say, Americans “can’t handle the truth.”  They want hopeful spin, when it comes to rhetoric, and best-case scenarios, when it comes to projections.  It’s sad, but it’s reality.

            Truly-honest, yet successful politicians are too much to ask for.  The best we can hope for is a politician who lays out a consistent, heartfelt vision.  That’s what someone like Ronald Reagan gave us.   Or Teddy Kennedy.  That’s what has been sorely lacking from Mitt Romney.  And yes, it makes him a MUCH less attractive candidate, because nobody could possibly guess the overarching principles of his Presidency if he were lucky enough to win the election.  I sometimes wonder if even Romney knows how he would govern.  I really see him much like Robert Redford’s character in “The Candidate,” who after winning the election, famously looked at his political consultant and said “What do we do now?” Democracies deserve better candidates than that.

            But that is not to criticize Romney’s debate performance.  Yes, he lacks vision.  Yes, he makes most chameleons look inflexible by comparison.  But those were givens.  On Wednesday night, he showed up energized, articulate, gracious (and even funny at times), and he enunciated an approach that was downright centrist.  Would you have been happier if he had maintained the hard-right rhetoric that won him the primary?  Not me.  I was heartened to hear that “Governor Mitt” was back, if only for one night, because if he does win, I’d like to believe there is at least an outside chance he would govern more like George H.W. Bush, or for that matter George Romney, than Rush Friggen Limbaugh, wouldn’t you?  

            The times I was most bothered by Romney on Wednesday night weren’t when he was too moderate, but when he was too conservative – like the shot he took at Obama for spending excessive amounts on green energy projects.  I might feel differently if I were convinced that Romney was a right wing ideologue who was pretending on Wednesday night to be someone he is not.    The truth, though, is that with Romney, everyone knows that he is less of an ideologue than a professional actor.   He just wants the CEO role – whether it’s over a business or over the U.S. Government.  And when he gets that role, he wants to be “successful” – which, for him, means, in the case of the business world, making money, and in the case of the government world, producing positive economic and educational data.  In that sense, he’s not a whole lot different than “the New Democrat” and “Welfare Reformer” Bill Clinton, except that Romney happens to have the misfortune of being part of a political party that is generally controlled by cavemen and fascistic blondes.   It makes no sense to revere Clinton and loathe Romney.  One is just a whole lot luckier – and a fair amount more politically talented – than the other, but morally, I don’t see a world of difference between them.

            Barack Obama is different.  He does seem to have a clear ideological center of gravity, which is progressive.  He hates to lie or deceive.  He enjoys thinking through things, rather than giving glib responses to important questions.  And he is not interested in phony, back-slapping relationships, but would rather spend time with people whom he cares about and who care about him.   In short, perhaps even more than winning elections, he wants to live as a moral exemplar and the epitome of class.   That is why, unlike Romney or the post-Lewinsky Clinton, he has been deeply revered by a wide swath of the American population. 

            There was a time when I was buying the Kool-Aid.  And I don’t apologize for that either.  Obama has a ton of assets, and we progressives were right to be desperate for a leader in the White House who shares our own vision.  But, the key word in that last sentence is “leader.”  And Obama showed us on Wednesday night, yet again, that when it comes to leadership, he often falls short.

            Here’s the problem.   If Barack wanted to run a mediation agency, perhaps he would have been the man for the job.  But he wanted to be President of the United States.  And that’s a much tougher gig.  To be effective, you must bring each of the following to the job:  

You’ve got to be willing to back-slap leaders of both parties – and you’ve got to make them think you enjoy it!  

You’ve got to be able to think on your feet, because you will be running one meeting after another during which you will be called upon to make decisions on the spot.  

You need to be at least as gutsy as you are smart.  

You’ve got to be willing to street-fight – which means getting your hands dirty in the process.

You’ve got to be a bit Machiavellian.  It doesn’t matter so much if they love you, but they had better fear you.  

And most importantly, you’ve got to act like your country is more important to you than your self-image or your happiness.  (See the point about street fighting.)

Yeah it’s nearly an impossible job.  Why do you think just about no sane person wants it?   But it can be done, even in the modern era.  Clinton, for all his moral failings, was pretty good at it.  So was Reagan.  Barack?  He’s had his moments – nailing Bin Laden, for example, was quite a feather in the cap.  But Wednesday night?   That was Barack at his worst.  Risk-averse to the nth degree, unwilling to get his hands dirty, incapable of making quick decisions or even marshaling thoughts quickly, and acting like someone who was personally inconvenienced by the task at hand.

They used to call Governor Al Smith “The Happy Warrior.”  Well Barack, on Wednesday night, was “The Aggrieved Professor.”  That’s the last image you’d want a Presidential candidate to have.

On Thursday, he was back in his comfort zone – on the political stump in front of his trusted teleprompter.  He had more hop in his step.  His voice was lifted.  His words were pointed.   He was back!  Or was he?  You see, Thursday’s performance rang hollow, because he was saying exactly what he needed to say … only he was saying it a day late.  And you didn’t have to be a Republican to cry foul.

My friends, we have debates so that candidates can’t hide behind teleprompters (which permit them to voice other people’s words) and shallow rhetoric, but actually must face their opponent, look them in the eyes, and logically refute their opponents’ statements.   Barack was too arrogant to look his opponent in the eyes.  And for whatever reason (maybe cowardice, maybe lack of preparation, maybe both), he couldn’t squarely refute many of his opponent’s sharpest attacks.  Sadly, Barack had to wait until after his opponent no longer had the chance to respond to him before he was willing to fight back.   

Sorry, my fellow progressives.  Score one for Romney.  Full stop.

For the most part I am proud of my fellow progressives in fessing up to the massacre on Wednesday night.  Chris Matthews was particularly strident in taking Obama to task.  Good for Matthews.  The truth is that much of the hell we’ve experienced these past four years was inevitable, as Clinton said in Charlotte, because the Republicans gave Obama a rotten hand.  But Obama has brought a lot of it on himself, and it is time that Democrats stop making excuses for him and blaming all of our problems on the Republicans.   The idea that Wednesday night wasn’t Obama’s fault – he just wasn’t expecting Romney to lie so much – is maddeningly stupid.  The idea that Wednesday night wasn’t Obama’s fault – in a racist society, black men can’t afford to fight back – is offensive.    A more talented politician, black or white, would have cleaned Romney’s clock on Wednesday night.  All he had to do was point out Romney for the chameleon that he is … and do so with gusto.  Why is that so difficult?

Yes, I expect Obama to wake up and do better in the next debate.  Yes, I expect the American voter to realize the fundamental truth about this campaign – that Mitt is a political chameleon, and the problem with such animals is that when we vote for them, we can’t possibly have any confidence in what we’re voting for.  Yes, I expect that Barack will win because he has figured out a way to make most people like him.

But there was something lost Wednesday night – the chance for an out-an-out landslide.  And the great thing about such a landslide is that it would have provided Barack perhaps his only chance left to bring the GOP oppositions to the table after the election.  Of course, he would still need to learn a little Machiavelli.  Had Machiavelli watched Wednesday night’s performance, he would have been rolling over in his nasty little grave.