Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Uniting the Democrats

With the political wind in its sails, the Democratic Party seems quite united. If the election next week brings major success to the Democrats, they need to recognize how they got here and plan effectively how and where to go forward as a party. The last Sense post mentioned the Democrats looking ahead may need to subdivide, but it would have been more correct to say they need to perfect their new union.

George Lakoff in "The Political Mind" argues for abandoning the concept of a left to right political spectrum, with moderates in the middle. He points out that conservatives and progressives do not have different values, but they do have different modes of thought. Progressives think of government as a nurturing entity which protects and empowers people and fosters community responsibility. Conservatives think of government as an authoritarian entity which emphasizes force and power and unregulated economic privatization and clebrates individual responsibility.

Lakoff maintains that we all possess the capability for both modes of political thought, and that some of us use one mode of thought on some issues and the other mode of thought on the remaining ones. He cites as examples Joe Lieberman, who is conservative on Iraq and school vouchers, but progressive otherwise, and Chuck Hagel, who is progressive on Iraq but otherwise conservative. To Lakoff, a so-called "moderate" is not someone with moderate views on all subjects, but rather someone with conservative views on some and progressive views on others.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party was seen as the party of northern big business which had defeated the South and abolished slavery. White Southerners embraced the Democratic party during Reconstruction and continued through the Jim Crow decades, forming a strange bedfellows alliance with northern progressives and labor groups. The Republicans kept the big business interests and blended it with an appeal to the rugged individualism of the western states. The uneasy Democratic marriage finally dissolved as civil rights laws were passed, and the south changed to Republican. Republicans used white backlash in the north to peel off labor votes, while at the same time undermining unionism itself. The Vietnam War had also turned many young people away from the Democrats.

Democrats tried to adjust to changing times by opening the party up and encouraging conspicuous inclusiveness. This played right into the Republican appeal to backlash and the Democrats hit a low point in the 1972 Nixon re-election. Nixon turned the public against him by expanding the Vietnam War and undermining the Constitution with Watergate, lacking only a ruining of the economy to have beaten George W. to the terrible trifecta. In reaction, voters elected Carter and gave him a Democratic Congress. But analogous to the George W. fiasco in Iraq, Democrats won the 1976 election War but lost the occupation of the government by not having a unified plan of how to proceed.

As Reagan took over the Republican Party, the Democrats were pushed out of power and have been floundering ever since. Bill Clinton came along at the right time for Bill Clinton. Bush I was a weak candidate facing an economy weakened by the bogus Reagonomics of trickle down. The populist third party appeal of Perot split the vote and Clinton was a supposed new Democrat centralist. Clinton was more of a conservative on economic issues, favoring free trade instead of working for fair trade, having no policy to support American workers in general and working single mothers and workers who lost jobs to globalization in particular. As we can see now, the Clinton years of prosperity were built on their own bubble and house of cards. The same lack of a Democratic master plan led to the loss of Congress after two years of Clinton. Monicagate played into Republican mythology, but also affected the attitudes of many progressives who are somewhat conservative on personal sexual morality. Al Gore was no better campaigner than Bush I, and Joe Lieberman did not inspire any progressives, many of whom sensed his conservative views on religion and war.

By 2004, the public mood was starting to go against Republicans, but the Democrats were not quite ready to seize the opportunity. The fresh appeal of Howard Dean brought activism back to the party, but Dean did not have the gravitas to run for President. John Kerry had the gravitas but seemed to be from the same school of campaigning as Bush I and Gore. Running mate Edwards had charm and labor appeal but not enough gravitas to make it on his own and not enough chemistry with Kerry. They came close, but the Republican vote suppression program that stole Florida in 2000 did the same in Ohio in 2004.

After the close loss in 2004, the Democrats finally started to get their act together, deciding they should be the party of all America, viable in every state of the Union. For 2006, they recruited appealing candidates in some fairly conservative states, people who had a mix of progressive and conservative views, but whose conservative views were traditional ones rather than of the culture wars variety, and all of whom agreed the occupation of Iraq should be ended as soon as possible. Democrats even rejected Joe Lieberman, though his new designation as Independent still got him back into the Senate and he now parades around in support of McCain.

Barack Obama had been a sensation at the 2004 Democratic Convention, most importantly to party insiders who recognized his unique set of talents. But Hillary Clinton seemed the heir apparent. As a testimony to the sincerity of Democratic inclusiveness, in a year that the right white male could have walked away with the election, the Democrats fought it out for 2008 between a white woman and a black man. The other white contenders, and the one Hispanic, over the long primary season enabled Clinton and Obama to rise above the pack and demonstrate their excellent abilities. Clinton fought hard and fairly dirty, which enabled Obama to show he could handle it and seasoned him for the general campaign.

Coming out of the primaries, the Democrats were actually quite unified on the issues. Some unhappy Hillaryites are still bitter that Obama won, but there have been no Democratic defections to McCain. McCain can only cite Lieberman as a Democratic supporter, conveniently ignoring the fact Lieberman has been an Independent since 2006. Almost daily, Republicans have been coming out in support of Obama, some citing various lacks in McCain, most notably his lack of judgment in choosing Palin, and all of them pointing to the obvious and unique ability of Obama to lead the country at this time.

The Democrats seem to be on the verge of a new era for the party and for our country. The two headed donkey is not pulling against itself, but is actually seeing both legitimate points of view, the need to protect and empower all Americans, while at the same time staying true to real economic and individual values. In that sense, it is reflective of the majority of Americans, who are overwhelmingly rejecting the Republican elephant which has been wearing blinders as it has stampeded us into War and trampled our Constitution and our economy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

State of the Republican Party

[WARNING: If you are superstitious, do not read this, as it might be considered pre-hatch chicken counting].

With the election less than two weeks away and with it appearing that the Democrats will take the Presidency back and win big in Congressional races, this final stage of the campaign is a good time to look at the state of our two major political parties, beginning with a brief history of how we got here and then offering thoughts today on the what is happening to the Republican Party.

The Republican Party was debilitated by the Depression and buried by the success of the FDR New Deal. Ike was a moderate and the Dems controlled Congress during his time, so not much Republican policy got adopted. LBJ continued what JFK started, with the Great Society bringing civil rights and medicare, but being pushed out by the Vietnam War. Nixon devised the wedge issue strategy, playing to those who objected to war protestors and who were scared that civil rights threatened white privilege. He lied about having a plan to end the war, and escalated it instead. Paranoia drove him to Constitutional violations which led to his downfall.

Carter was a fluke, the outside breath of fresh air after the stench of Watergate. He had no inside help in facing an inflationary economy and a high profile terrorist kidnaping. He had no particular Democratic policies, just a hodge podge of well-meaning but uncoordinated proposals.

Reagan took the Nixon wedge issue approach to new levels, expanding them from just racial and crime related to include religion, nationalistic imperialism, rural versus urban, elites versus the majority, entrepreneurs versus entitlement takers, strict constructionists versus legislating judges, and many others, all rolled into a frame of quintessentially American conservatives versus un-American liberals.

Bush I was not enough of a people person to carry on the Reagan mess more than one term. And in fairness to Bush, he recognized that Reaganomics had failed to the point where some taxes had to be reinstated to bring balance. His heresy made Bush a victim of what Reagan had sown, and the Perot third party effort made Clinton President. After two years of Republican Congressional stonewalling, Newt Gingrich led the fraudulent Contract with America takeover of Congress. But the Greenspan bubble was starting to grow, enabled by Clinton's soft core Republican economic policies and a willing Congress on both sides of the aisle taking contributions from corporate fat cats.

Clinton's libido, Gore's flatness, Lieberman's fizzle, and Republican thievery let Bush steal the White House in 2000. The Compassionate Conservatism scam was dropped even before Bush took over. History will put a name on the Bush-Cheney administration, and my nomination is The Terrible Trifecta. Bush should get his place in history as the worst President because he has done the three worst things a President can do: ruin our international reputation with incompetent imperialistic war; allow our economy to completely destruct; and undermine our Constitutional framework of separation of powers.

History will say the Republicans never had a chance in 2008. They let McCain run because they knew they were going to lose. All the McCain rivals were inherent losers too - a fear mongering prosecutor, a fundamentalist preacher, a Mormon financial manipulator and another second rate actor. McCain made it close for a while, because the Democrats concentrated on two very capable people who had political handicaps, one was a woman married to Bill Clinton and the other was a young black man. The extent of Republican desperation and devastation was shown by the Palin pick. McCain had enough sense to know Palin was a wrong choice, but he did not have the courage and integrity to reject her, and by now the majority of voters recognize that.

Those who vote primarily on religious grounds, homophobia, racial prejudice and gun rights should not be pandered to by a major party, but since Nixon and Reagan started that process, Republicans have no choice if they want to win. They have to appeal to these fringe groups in order to overcome the greater appeal of the Democratic Party position on the issues that really matter to mainstream Americans. True fiscal conservatives and those who prefer more state control and less Federal involvement have now been revealed as falling into two camps, one legitimately focused on these issues and believing they can be the basis for a viable Republican Party, and one willing to keep pandering to the fringe groups because they do not believe they can elect Republicans without them. How self-identified conservatives react to the Palin pick is the way to tell to which camp they belong.

This informative article from the New Yorker tells the story of how Palin charmed two contingents of conservative supposed intelligentsia into getting her the VP slot. They figured she would appeal to the fringes and also pay lip service to fiscal and states rights issues. And, all of them being males, and apparently without any good looking women in their lives, they also thought she was "hot" in her heels. (There seems little doubt Palin would have had a political career had she been homely.) These men, and all those who agree with them, fall into the one camp.

The second camp, those who do not embrace Palin, has been growing as more has become known about her astounding lack of qualifications, manifest hypocrisy, shameless demagoguery and fundamental shallowness. Particularly as the public has wisely dismissed her and as the Republican prospects have waned, more conservative intelligentsia have joined this camp, which includes many more females than the first group.

Pundits are now asking who will be the new leaders of the Republican Party. McCain is going out in defeat, disarray and dishonor for the way he conducted his campaign. Palin is a puff that will continue to self-destruct. Joe the Plumber is a fraudulent fantasy. The camp one Republicans are obvious fools. Camp two is peopled by legitimate people who do not want to be associated with the fringe groups.

It would be best for America if the fringe groups formed third parties and the true conservatives of the second camp led the Republican party into becoming a loyal opposition, reminding us to watch our finances and respect state and individual rights. Real political power belongs in the Democratic camp, which needs to lead us forward and may need to subdivide, a subject for a further Sense article.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Presidential Debate Number Three

Our long national ordeal is coming to an end with tonight's final Presidential debate. But it is these last debates, between two candidates, one of whom will be the next President, that really matter. This year, the head to head match ups have turned on imagery, which candidate looks like the President we want next - the old, white man with the awkward mannerisms, or the skinny black kid with the funny name. In the first TV debates in 1960, Nixon, the sitting VP, looked greasy and uncomfortable, while JFK, his challenger with the previously non-Presidential Catholicism, looked handsome and poised. Victorious JFK carried that winning debate image into his Presidency and it was well received, only to be tragically ended. In 1968, Nixon wriggled his way into the White House, though he still looked wrong, only to end up resigning in disgrace.

Bob Schieffer will moderate this sit down discussion. McCain is losing and flailing erratically in both tactics and strategy, a point that does not help him appear Presidential. His attacks on Obama over past associations have backfired, but he may still take a direct shot at them tonight. Repeating the same mistakes and hoping for a different result is a sign of mental illness, so McCain proceeds at his peril. When Obama says Ayers did some very terrible things "when I was eight years old", that quite simply shows the stupidity of the McCain attack. The fact Ayers has reformed and redeemed himself and become a productive member of society, seems irrelevent to the evangelical hypocrites McCain is wooing.

Domestic matters and the economy are the subject tonight. McCain, who has admitted to not being big on economics, keeps pulling ad hoc remedies out of a hat, adding to his image as a crap-shooting, flip-flopping maverick. The fact his remedies all bear the brand of Republican trickle down, confirms he would just be four more years of the same.

The previous two debates have answered the rhetorical McCain question of who Barack Obama is. America has seen that he is intelligent, knowledgeable, poised, calm, respectful and forceful when need be, just what we need in our President. Put side by side with McCain, the contrast has been stark and quite advantageous to Obama.

The backgrounds, biographies and personalities of these two men are quite different. By now, most attentive voters know the back stories of these two men. But I just learned something new about the McCain legacy two days ago. His paternal line of Admirals came out of a Mississippi slave plantation, with 2000 acres and 52 slaves on the last slave census. His grandfather was born on the plantation, which remained in the family until 1952. While his father was in the Navy during WWII, John McCain lived on the plantation. Senator McCain wrote in a memoir that his family never owned slaves. When questioned about this in the 2000 campaign, McCain said he was not aware of the slave ownership and had never really thought about it. To me a slave history researcher, this lack of interest is a window into McCain's soul, perhaps related to his "that one" comment in the last debate.

John McCain's political career has been all about John McCain. His tactics and strategy have always been to do what is best for McCain. He is the kind of sailor who just goes where the wind blows, hoping that somehow it will take him to the White House. He likes the high life he was born to and into which he married up, the second time. Belief in conservative trickle down benefits to those higher up and conservative social prejudices come natural to him, though some of his prejudices are not strong enough for social arch conservatives. If he loses this election, he will probably just stay in the Senate and act up for the fun of it. If he wins, he is very likely to crash us on a rocky shore.

Barack Obama's political career has been about all Americans. His very soul and being are rooted in inclusiveness. He understands inherently we are all in this together and that trickle down is unfair, unjust and unsuccessful. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, when to decide himself and when to seek advice. His tactics and strategy are all about making America the fair and just country it was founded to be and the shining example of those values for the rest of the world. Obama is a pragmatic idealist. He has faith in the judgment of the American people in this election, and believes they will elect the President they deserve. If he loses this election, he will probably not run again. He will likely stay in the Senate and rise in the leadership. He also would make an excellent Supreme Court Justice. If Obama is elected President, America will have the best opportunity we are likely to have in our lifetimes to progress toward realizing fairness and justice for all, here at home and throughout the world.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Presidential Town Hall

Tuesday night is the Presidential Town Hall style debate, moderated by Tom Brokaw. Questions will come from the audience, both in person and pre-submitted via e-mail. Brokaw will select the mail queries he wants to submit.

This is the format John McCain prefers, supposedly because he does best in dealing with voters face to face. But I don't know how long it has been since McCain was asked a good question by someone not pre-screened by his campaign. He has been a little testy lately, as his campaign is stalling like the two Navy planes he crashed stateside [see this interesting McCain fantasy popper from Rolling Stone, link sent by Chris in Bangkok]. I sure would like to see an audience member, perhaps a soft spoken middle age woman, ask McCain a legitimate question that gets his goat and stirs his sarcasm, leading to him blowing a fuse. I suppose it is wishful thinking, like maybe that Palin would do a Couric flop at her debate, but then Palin got a lot more debate prep than McCain has been getting.

McCain has nothing positive to offer. He can only do like Palin, offering trite slogans and attacks on Obama. Attacking the voting record of an opponent, or criticizing his policies is one thing, but the McCain campaign has now sunk to the low level of the smear. Maybe a critical question about his smear tactics, implying hypocrisy, will be what launches a tirade. He is overdue for a temper tantrum.

Obama has a simpler job, just to be himself. He will have to avoid getting too professorial, which he seems to be much better at now. If he gets a touchy question, like on a hot button issue such as abortion, he needs to give it a quick, political answer and move it along. Voters have come to recognize Obama as a very intelligent and well informed candidate, with a positive vision of the changes he would like to help bring about. He has always seemed calm, almost to a fault, but the contrast between his demeanor and McCain's, at the first debate and during the Congressional consideration of the financial bailout, has been stark. McCain, like his campaign, is an erratic impulsive. Obama is under control and sensible. McCain is a high stakes casino crap shooter. He gets a thrill out of betting a bundle on the roll of the dice - think Palin and "canceling the debate". Obama took up poker playing with members of both parties in the Illinois State Legislature, at the recommendation of an old pol, to be sociable and strengthen friendships and to learn how to play the hand that is dealt.

McCain the gambler may decide to do something dramatic, hoping to shake Obama. At the first debate McCain tried to appear superior by not even looking at Obama. That only made McCain look discourteous and odd. McCain doesn't have many dramatic options left. He has tried attacking Obama's experience, judgment, knowledge, patriotism and religion, all without success. About all he has left is the race card - maybe disguised as an attack on Obama's "difference" and how Obama "has a hidden agenda to work for people who are different from most Americans, like when he worked to force lenders to make loans to unqualified people, people who are different [especially their color]from the rest of us, the kind of people who were given the sub-prime loans that caused our financial system to crash".

Whether or not McCain attempts a gamble, I expect Obama will come across as the steady winner.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Vice Presidential Debate

Thursday night's Vice Presidential Debate may break the audience record of 80 million for the Carter-Reagan debate in 1980. The first McCain-Obama debate only attracted 52 million. Sarah Palin is the reason why the record might fall.

The Palin choice was quite a surprise. Many Republicans treated it like a breath of fresh air in a fart factory. Many women wanted to embrace her gender. Many men just wanted to embrace her [McCain quickly abandoned the Mondale Ferraro "no touching" rule, to allow hugs]. Many Democrats were dumbfounded. The media was ecstatic - a Gubernatorial beauty queen in glasses and an updo who dukes it out with the good ole boys and can field dress a moose [city slicker that I am, I confess I did not even know moose (plural Meese?) wore clothes].

Questions of "vetting" [a fabricated word of unknown origin, arguably overused, but quite widely understood] were raised. Was this a political trick showing poor McCain judgment and that he places "County second"? Initial responses from the McCain campaign were so weak that people quickly turned to Palin herself for the answers. But already the campaign was hiding her from the media, thereby increasing concern. Information was sought without going through the campaign, and every day new material popped out, all of it negative and raising questions not only about the vetting process but also about Palin's qualifications.

People said Palin gave a great Convention speech and was doing well with McCain on the stump. But then they were reminded she was just reading from the Teleprompter what had been written for her and she was repeating it on the campaign trail. It started to sound too familiar - especially "I told Congress thanks but no thanks" and " I put it on e-bay", both of which turned out not to be true. They also noticed that she was not taking questions or giving interviews, and rarely attended events without McCain. Pressure was mounting for her to give an interview and answer the questions that were being raised about her.

Her first interview, with ABC, was not reassuring. Her second, with Fox [Fixed News per Keith Olbermann] was an infomercial. Her recent talk with Katie Couric was devastating. Palin appeared to be a person of very shallow knowledge, disguised by confident bravado and recitation of slogans and catch phrases in lieu of substantive information [sound Presidentially familiar?]. Her sequestration and training by the McCain campaign seemed to be backfiring, undermining her confidence and taking away her fresh naturalness. But is her fresh naturalness limited to just that - with little else to back it up? From what is known and has been seen so far, Sarah Palin appears to be almost totally unqualified to hold national office. Thursday is her opportunity to show America that the picture of her as unqualified is not really who she is.

Thursday Republicans will be watching and praying that Palin comes across better than she has in previous unscripted appearances. Women will be watching and cringing, in spite of their political views, knowing that a Palin fall will not so much be an indictment of women candidates, but rather another example of mistreatment of women at the hands of men, this time by John McCain and his male cohorts who put Palin in this spot. Men, depending on their chauvinism level, will either be checking out her bod or cringing with the women. Democrats will be hoping that Palin shows that what we have been seeing is what we would be getting. However it goes, the media will be delighted with the high interest level and the numerous possible outcomes and opportunities for Monday morning quarterbacking [in fairness to Sarah Barracuda, that should be point guarding].

Advice to Biden has been consistent - put a cork in it. Do not condescend or attack Palin. Attack McCain quickly and defend Obama as needed, then stop and let Palin talk. The more she repeats her canned comments the more spurious they will sound. Silence is her enemy; she tries to fill it, often with bad results, so Biden should give her the time. The McCain campaign is aware of this and negotiated to reduce the five minute exchange periods of the Presidential debate to two minutes. Biden needs to have Palin talk as much as possible. He should do things like graciously say that America knows what he thinks, but wants to hear more from Governor Palin, so he would like her to take more time to expound on her answers. But he has to do it in a way that does not sound like a put down. He can do it in the form of a short question to her.

Expectations for Palin are not high, so she just has to get out of the evening without damaging herself by spouting nonsense like "you can see Russia from Alaska" being a credential for foreign policy experience. She has been force fed so much information that she has to boil it down to a few sound bites for each general topic area. She is good at doing that - it is kind of like reading a Teleprompter from memory. Where she gets into trouble is with follow up questions asking her to explain further, in which case she is inclined to repeat her canned answer (which makes her sound like a robot) or to use generic double talking non-sequitors (which make her sound like a babbler).

The moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS, should be excellent. The audience can identify her with both candidates, since Gwen is an African-American woman. Like Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate, Gwen will not make herself a point of focus. She will ask fair questions and try to administer the time properly. If Biden decides to let Palin have more time, Gwen may try to come back to him for more response, but if she does, he needs to politely stick to his guns. Gwen will very likely need to request follow up from Palin, but will have to do it in a way that does not sound like she is targeting her.

This debate should be fascinating. Biden is too much of a gentleman to be rough on Palin. He could sound condescending, but he is smart enough to avoid that. He could make a small gaffe, but not of importance. But he might have trouble cutting himself off to let Palin have more time. Geraldine Ferraro held her own with Bush I in their debate, but then Sarah Palin is no Geraldine Ferraro. Palin should do OK on the Obama attacks and pat answers, but the follow ups are where all the risk is at with her. I think the real danger is that, if Palin lets herself be the real Sarah, fresh and natural and talkin' [she likes the folksiness of g dropping] straight to the American people, she will reveal herself as a stereotypical Miss Congeniality - a nice enough woman, but running for an elective office that is way over her head. Undecided voters are the key to the election, and they will be watching Thursday to see if Sarah Palin appears capable of being President if she had to. Even if Palin gets through the evening without error, I do not see how that will be persuasive to these key voters.