Edward Snowden, Public Servant?

David Brooks recently wrote a very insightful column, entitled “The Solitary Leaker,” about Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen systems administrator who released to a blogger for The Guardian thousands of classified documents relating to two top secret NSA programs. Brooks portrays Snowden as “thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs,” but also as someone who “appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living in the fizzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.” Brooks characterizes Snowden as having a libertarian bent, suspicious of authority and assuming that “individual preference should be supreme.”

Brooks acknowledges that the procedures Snowden unveiled could “lend themselves to abuse in the future,” but argues that “Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is…the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to…look out for the common good.” Brooks’s conclusion: “By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed…the foundation of all cooperative activity,” as well as his friends, his employers, “the privacy of us all,” not to mention the Constitution.

It’s an interesting and challenging analysis, but it is also contains a damaging flaw. Brooks asserts that Snowden had a moral dilemma: “On the one hand, he had information he thought was truly menacing. On the other hand, he made certain commitments as a public servant….” The italics are in the original text and would seem somewhat curiously misplaced. One might think that, given the context, if Brooks were going to emphasize any word in that sentence, it would be “public”—to underscore the significance of Snowden’s commitment as a public servant. But that is exactly what Snowden was not.

He was an employee of a private company, Booz Allen Hamilton, which had hired him, a 29 year-old high school and community college drop-out, and agreed to pay him $122,000 a year to be a systems analyst with access to top secret government documents. When Booz Allen ultimately fired him, it was not for violating the law, it was for “violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.” (Aside: The Huffington Post story that quoted Booz Allen’s official statement was headlined: “Edward Snowden Fired by Booz Allen; Whistleblower Made Only $122,000.” Only $122,00? Did Ariana Huffington write this headline herself?)

Firm code. Firm policy. $122,000. Snowden was fired not for violating a public trust but for not being a company man. Snowden was anything but a public servant. He was a private employee, being paid a very good salary by an employer whose goal is to make a profit. For Booz Allen, government security isn’t a mission; it’s a business. The confidentiality of the documents being processed by Booz Allen is to be preserved for the same reason that a food company tries to preserve the wholesomeness of its product. Doing anything else is bad for business, but if you can cut a corner here and there to increase profits, why not? Indeed, as a profit-making enterprise, you should.

But once you start treating secret documents as inventory, the nature of your relationship to the secrets changes. They become a commodity—something to be processed, rather than something to be preserved. This has got to affect any employee’s feeling about the work he is doing, but, in Snowden’s case, the effect was particularly pernicious because—and this, I admit, is largely speculation—Snowden had a predisposition to view the government with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

Why do I say this? Although we don’t know much about him, he is reported (by The Washington Post and The Guardian) to have said things like: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions” and U.S. Intelligence Agencies “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information” and “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things [surveillance on its citizens]… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

These are the statements of a man who truly believes he is under siege by Big Brother. And then there’s this: it appears that Snowden made political contributions (at least $250) to the presidential campaign of Ron Paul. While $250 doesn’t put Snowden in the company of Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, following the principle that animated the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United—that money is speech, we should assume that Snowden’s campaign contributions to Ron Paul tell us that Snowden has more than a little sympathy for the views of the man whose greatest hits (drawn from “Ron Paul Quotes” on RunRonPaul.com, now called The Liberty Crier or from RonPaul.com ) include pronouncements like these:

• “When one gets in bed with government, one must expect the diseases it spreads.”
• “Our country’s founders cherished liberty, not democracy.”
• “In a free society, the government’s job is simply to protect liberty and let the people do the rest.”
• “We need to take away the government’s money power.”
• “In the American political lexicon, ‘change’ always means more of the same: more government, more looting of Americans, more inflation, more police-state measures, more unnecessary war, and more centralization of power.”

These are the views of a man who sees himself in direct opposition to the government, who views the government as an entity separate and apart from the people—in a way, as the enemy of the people, and it is hard not to believe that, given Snowden’s donations to Ron Paul’s campaigns, these are views for which Snowden has more than a little sympathy.

When you entrust state secrets to someone with this kind of oppositional mindset, you have a very dangerous situation. Snowden merely sees himself as a good soldier in the war against Big Brother, fighting back with the weapons at his disposal—the inventory of classified information he figuratively took off the shelves at Booz Allen. We, however, are not obliged to agree with his self-assessment because, contrary to what some, possibly including Snowden, may believe, this is still a free country.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Palling Around with Terrorists

In his new film, “The Company You Keep,” director Robert Redford tells a contemporary story about what happened to a small group of Sixties radicals. Identified as former members of the Weathermen, aka the Weather Underground (an actual far-left organization that was active in the early 1970s), Redford’s characters are the ones that got away, evading arrest for a bank robbery that ended in the death of a security guard. They are now settled, under assumed names, into lives as ordinary citizens in small rural towns.

The plot is set in motion when one of the leaders of the group, Sharon Solarz (played by Susan Sarandon), is arrested by the FBI while she is on her way to voluntarily turn herself in after “thirty years” in hiding. (As has been widely noted, since the radical activities of the Weathermen took place in the early 1970s and the contemporary events are apparently taking place today, the math here doesn’t work. The timing is off by at least a decade.) The melodrama of the arrest—a huge team of FBI agents descends on Solarz with sirens blaring—is a blatant ploy by Redford and his screenwriters, Lem Dobbs and Neil Gordon, to earn sympathy for Solarz, who at this point in her life appears to be no more dangerous than your average soccer mom.

Another bit of melodrama, designed to earn sympathy for the characters, is the fact that the local lawyer who is asked, and declines, to represent Solarz, is a good-guy, first amendment type who just happens to be living in the small town in upstate New York where the arrest takes place. The lawyer, played by Redford, we eventually find out, is, in fact, another member of the Weathermen who has gone into hiding under an assumed identity.

There is no question that, as a filmmaker, Redford’s sympathies are with his band of outsiders, but his efforts at creating audience sympathy for them pretty much end with the overheated hokum of this setup. For the most part, Redford simply takes our sympathies for granted, and for a certain segment of the audience (specifically, Baby Boomers) this will undoubtedly work.

Those of us who lived through the sixties, who remember the Vietnam War, who remember Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, who remember Eldridge Cleaver and Cesar Chavez, who remember the 1968 Democratic convention, who remember Redford and his co-stars (not just Sarandon, but Nick Nolte, and especially Julie Christie) in their golden youths, are immediately swept back into Redford’s characters’ frame of reference.

Redford and his screenwriters make a perfunctory attempt to offer a justification for the Weathermen’s radical activities by giving Sarandon a speech about the frustration of the Sixties’ left at seeing the war in Vietnam drag on despite protests in the street and at the ballot box. “Our government was murdering millions!” she explains. What younger viewers will make of Redford’s characters, I have no idea. It seems doubtful that twenty- or thirty-somethings will be moved, much less persuaded, by Sarandon’s pronouncements. But those of us who lived through the Sixties don’t need an explanation; for us, Sarandon’s speech is both heart-wrenching and superfluous.

Baby Boomers don’t need to be won over. We reflexively identify with these characters—now college professors and businessmen and lawyers. We don’t want to see them behind bars. When they are on the run, we want to see them get away. These are, after all, the people we have become or, at least, would like to be.

How can we not root for a cast that includes (in addition to the afore-mentioned Redford, Sarandon, Nolte and Christie) Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci and Brendon Gleeson? A 76-year-old Robert Redford and a 71-year-old Julie Christie are still Robert Redford and Julie Christie—still, in their way, beautiful and iconic. They wear their wrinkles glamorously. With Redford in the lead, this movie isn’t just about the way we were; it’s about the way we are.

So when I saw the movie with my wife and with friends who were in school with me in Berkeley in the era of the Weathermen, we came out of the movie and all agreed that we found it engrossing.

And then a few days later came the bombing at the Boston marathon, and my feelings about this move started to shift. Suddenly I remembered that the people in this film weren’t just characters played by very famous actors; they were terrorists played by very famous actors. This is a detail that the movie glosses over.

Redford, while willing to appropriate the moniker of the real-historical Weathermen, is too skittish to own up to their actual tactics. The movie simply ignores the violent nature of the Weather Underground’s actions and their politics. In real life, the Weathermen were a revolutionary organization whose goal, however unrealistic, was to overthrow the U.S. government; in the movie, the characters’ goals seem limited to ending the Vietnam War or, more elusively, to undermining the “System.” In real life, the Weathermen are remembered for a series of bombings of government buildings; in the movie, the characters are involved in a bank robbery gone wrong—they didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt. Redford and his screenwriters have created an organization of accidental terrorists.

Even at this remove from historical reality, however, Redford seems uncomfortable with the implications of his plot, and, perhaps inevitably, he separates his own character from the others in the group. No Spoiler Alert is required to disclose here that Redford’s character turns out not to have been involved in the fatal bank robbery and is actually innocent. The trailer for the film pretty much tells us that: a reporter, played by Shia Leboeuf, explains to his editor, played by Stanley Tucci, that Redford’s character is on the run not because he’s guilty but because he’s trying to prove that he isn’t.

We did not, however, need this explanation or, for that matter, the fore-knowledge that Redford’s character was not involved in terrorist activities. Of course he wasn’t—he’s Redford. He has to be a good guy. (There is a famous anecdote told by the screenwriter William Goldman about his working on a screenplay for a Redford film—I think it was “The Great Waldo Pepper.” Redford insisted that one of his lines be changed, and when Goldman argued that the line was exactly what Redford’s character would say, Redford replied with something like: “Yes, but Robert Redford doesn’t say that.”) Redford not only backs away from the terrorist activities of the Weathermen; he even backs away from their left-wing politics.

Ultimately, “The Company You Keep” is apolitical. The title is a giveaway, as is the fact that the emotional high point of Sarandon’s big speech isn’t her denunciation of the government, it’s her declaration that “we never betrayed each other—over all these years.” What keeps this radical movement together, albeit underground, over three decades, is, it turns out, personal loyalty, not politics. In the end, Redford’s film seems to tells us, what matters most is the company you keep, not the cause.

Posted in Films | Leave a comment

Two Movies that Deserved Better than They Got from the Critics

The national critics have been, at best, reluctant to praise “42,” writer-director Brian Helgeland’s biopic about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in major league sports.

Richard Roper, Chicago Sun Times: “a competent but mostly unexceptional film.”

Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor: “TV-movie-of-the-week dull.”

Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal: “ponderously reverential.”

A. O. Scott, The New York Times: “Biographies of great athletes can be roughly sorted into three categories. There are hero-worshiping fables suitable for fourth-grade classrooms, scandalous feet-of-clay exposés and, rarest of all, narratives that link sports with significant, nonathletic historical events and social issues….But while ‘42,’ Brian Helgeland’s new film about Robinson, gestures toward the complicated and painful history in which its subject was embroiled, it belongs, like most sports biopics, in the first category. It is blunt, simple and sentimental, using time-tested methods to teach a clear and rousing lesson.”

Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times: “You almost can’t blame writer-director Brian Helgeland for taking an old-fashioned, earnest-to-a-fault approach to the genuinely heroic narrative of the Brooklyn Dodger who in 1947 — in a move masterminded by team General Manager Branch Rickey — broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and won rookie of the year honors.”

Since we almost can’t blame him, I guess that means we can blame him. But what exactly are we blaming Helgeland for? These critics are right about one thing: “42” is told in a straightforward, old-fashioned, Hollywood biopic style, but that appears to have been an intentional artistic choice made by the writer-director, and a slyly subversive choice. “The film is so on-the-nose, it practically could have been made in 1947” (when the main events take place), Turan complained. But Helgeland has laced his very conventional-looking movie with some scenes depicting the racism of Robinson’s time in detail that would never have made it into a movie made in 1947, and it is the startling juxtaposition of style and content that makes these scenes so effective.

In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott pondered what Robinson’s story might have looked like in “other hands—Spike Lee’s, let’s say, or even Clint Eastwood’s” (One wonders whether Scott saw Eastwood’s recent baseball story, “Trouble with the Curve”), but, if the film had been made in a less conventional, more contemporary manner, these scenes—a scene in which a barrage of racial epithets hurled at Robinson by the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies comes especially to mind—would not have seemed nearly so striking. In a Spike Lee “Joint,” they would have come across as a revisionist take on history, almost a contrarian’s take, certainly a twenty-first century take on twentieth century history.

In the context of Helgeland’s square dramaturgy, however, they are part of the telling of a classic story in a classic manner and, therefore, come to feel, ultimately, more true—as more a part of the story than as a retrospective reflection on it. Rather than seeming like a movie released in 1947, “42” is like the director’s cut of a movie made in 1947 with all the rough parts that were cut out of the picture in 1947, the parts of the story nobody wanted to see back then, restored.

Instead of blaming (or “almost not blaming”) Helgeland for the seeming conventionality of his choices—the carefully-paced editing, the “shamelessly cornball, scenery-chewing old-coot performance” (Peter Rainer is right about that) of Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey (the Dodger general manager who hired Robinson), Mark Isham’s soundtrack for the film, which may be politely described as having been heavily inspired by Randy Newman’s score for “The Natural,” we should recognize Helgeland’s accomplishment for what it is: pop art of the highest order.

***

While we are the subject of movies that deserved better treatment from the national critics, I’d like to say a few words about “Admission.”

The film stars Tina Fey, as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer, and Paul Rudd, as John Pressman, an old acquaintance of Portia’s. Portia is unmarried and has been recently dumped by an insufferable college professor, played by Michael Sheen, who has taken up with an equally insufferable “Virginia Woolf scholar,” sometimes referred to as “that Woolf woman.” John, also unmarried, has a son, who is black and adopted and with whom he has travelled the world spending time here and there on missions of good works. John, who is now running an experimental boarding school in New England, has come to believe that Portia is actually the birth mother of his most promising student, an autodidact named Jeremiah, and he uses this to help get Jeremiah, a very long-shot candidate, into Princeton.

Superficially a romantic comedy (much of the film involves a budding romance between Portia and John), and even more superficially a satire about the college admissions process in which Portia is employed, the film is more than anything a wry commentary about the breakdown of the traditional family in twenty-first century America. There is hardly a mother-father-child nuclear family to be found anywhere in this picture; perhaps the only one is Jeremiah’s adoptive family. Portia and her mother (played by Lily Tomlin), a hardcore, radical sixties-feminist type who sports a tattoo picturing Bella Abzug, have a very difficult relationship, the foundation of which is a family legend that Portia’s mother never even knew her father. (He was just a suitable sperm-provider Mom met once on a train.) John has an equally fraught relationship with his son, who dutifully tags along with his dad on his world travels but who obviously (well, it’s obvious to anyone but John) craves the stability of a home and friends and family.

The director, Paul Weitz, has assayed some of this territory before in the film version of Nick Hornby’s novel, “About a Boy,” which dealt with the budding quasi-parental relationship between a single man and a socially awkward teenager. This is rocky terrain in which it’s easy to set a wrong foot, but Weitz, a successful and frequently skillful director of commercial comedies (his oeuvre also includes “Little Fockers” and “American Pie”), manages to make it all feel truthful (especially, and exceptionally, the relationships involving adoption) and all look painlessly smooth.

It is, perhaps, this very smoothness (some might call it slickness) that has thrown the critics off. Just as the square form of “42” serves as a cover for its most subversive content, the commercial superficiality of “Admission” helps to disguise the fact that, in this seemingly traditional family comedy, there are no traditional families.

Bottom line: Fey is droll; Rudd is charming; Tomlin is delicious; and Weitz makes the non-traditional family look as American as, well, pie. What’s not to like? I guess you’d have to ask the critics.

Posted in Films | Leave a comment

Slope-y Thinking

The current topography of the American political landscape seems to be made up entirely of hazards of one kind or another. We may have avoided going over the “fiscal cliff,” but, it appears, no matter which way we turn, we can’t avoid sliding down a “slippery slope.” Name a social or political issue, and there’s somebody out there warning that there is nothing to be done about it without sliding down a slippery slope.

On gun control

Consider Larry Bell, a Forbes contributor, in a post entitled “The Slippery Slope Of Gun Control: Time To Stand On Firm Ground”: “The choice for those who truly care, is either to stand passively by on the edge of a very slippery slope and watch legitimate rights continually eroded by floods of activists claiming moral superiority and ever-expanding executive privilege, or to stand defiantly, and aggressively defend them on sound legal grounds. Beware that while “reasonable compromises” proffered by gun control proponents may sound disarmingly well-intentioned, many of these are certain to establish precedents for private gun ownership restrictions which are literally disarming.”

Anthony Martin on Examiner.com, a division of Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media, makes the case, in a post entitled “Mental health angle in gun control leads to slippery slope”: “[T]he manner in which President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and other gun ban proponents approach the issue of mental health leads to a slippery slope that could result in millions of law-abiding, healthy citizens being prohibited from owning a firearm….Many conservatives have insisted that any plan of action to address this problem must begin with getting the severely mentally ill, as well as the criminals, off of the streets and into either treatment facilities or prison. But progressives take that simple premise and run with it to the point of the absurd. Using the broadest dragnet possible, progressives would pronounce anyone who has been treated for simple depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, or obsessive compulsive behavior as mentally ill and thus prohibit them from owning a gun.”

On abortion rights

Whether you are “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” there’s a slippery slope that the other side is trying to push you down.

In a post entitled “Abortion’s Slippery Slope: When People Aren’t ‘Persons,’” Rebecca Hagelin argues that a fetus must be afforded the same rights as any child whose mother has given birth or else “[t]his is our future: an infant’s claim on life will be no greater than that of a pre-born child—non-existent.”

On the pro-choice side, by comparison, in a Daily Kos post entitled “The Slippery Slope of Informed Consent Abortion Laws,” Jessica Mason Pieklo argued that “informed consent laws” not only lead inevitably to transvaginal ultra-sounds and other abortion restrictions but ultimately to the end of women’s rights generally: “If women are unable to make fundamental decisions about their health and future without substantial ‘assistance’ from the state, can they make decisions about transferring property? Or electing representatives? It is not hyperbole to suggest a slide away from true agency in the context of informed consent for abortion leads to a slide away from true agency in other areas of the law where consent is required.”

Ms. Hagelin apparently thinks that, if we allow the distribution of morning-after pills, we must allow “‘after-birth abortion’—i.e., the parents can kill a child who is inconvenient, disabled, the ‘wrong’ gender, or simply unwanted.” Ms. Pieklo apparently thinks that, if we allow conservatives to impose any regulation of abortion rights, “there is no reason to think they will simply stop at curtailing reproductive rights.” Not hyperbole? Really?

On immigration

This is another area in where there are slippery slopes on both sides of the ideological divide.

Typical of the anti-immigration argument is this comment posted to a forum on the issue “Should illegal immigrants in the United States be allowed to obtain drivers licenses?”: “[I]f we allow illegal immigrants to obtain a legal license, why stop there? Next, we should give them the right to vote. And then allow them to get a bank account. That’s a slippery slope. An illegal immigrant will become so integrated into our society that deportation will become increasingly difficult. Second, by giving illegal immigrants a drivers license we are not only ignoring but AIDING the commission of a crime. That becomes an equally slippery slope.”

On the pro-immigration side, however, merely using the phrase “illegal immigrant” can send you down a slippery slope. In a post entitled “The Associated Press’ Developing, Conflicted Policy on the I-Word,” Monica Novoa writes: “Describing people as ‘illegal immigrants’ is a slippery slope to saying ‘illegals’ and in the end, people experience all of these related terms as dehumanizing and racially charged. It does not make a huge difference to stop using ‘illegal’ as a noun if the AP’s policy is to use ‘illegal’ as an adjective that describes the ‘noun.’ We are talking about human beings, not a set of actions.”

On marriage equality

Remember Rick Santorum and his argument that, if you let two people of the same gender marry, then you’d have to let three people marry? (“Reason says that if you think it’s ok for two, you have to differentiate with me why it’s not OK for three.”)

And Santorum’s position is not even the most extreme being advanced by right-wing politicians. Even the sanctioning of civil unions (forget same-sex marriage) is surely going to lead to the legalization of bestiality. A Rockford, Illinois politician explained that he was “dead set” against civil unions because they could open the door to “other things.” “Does this now say that somebody can get married to their dog?” he asked.

This argument is so popular on the right that it is being advanced by conservative lawmakers all over the world—and the slippery slope doesn’t just end with bestiality. One Columbian legislator argued that same sex marriage would inevitably lead to legalization of necrophilia and pedophilia. “Today in the world there are many countries where bestiality is practically a sexual preference for some, or necrophilia, or pedophilia,” he said.

On governmental power

Thomas Sowell, an economist who serves as the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, not long ago went viral with a post for Investors.com entitled “Is The U.S. Now on a Slippery Slope to Tyranny?” What outrageous act prompted Mr. Sowell to ask this provocative question? The fact that the government had somehow gotten BP to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the BP oil spill!

“Just where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that a president has the authority to extract vast sums of money from a private enterprise and distribute it as he sees fit to whomever he deems worthy of compensation?” Mr. Sowell asked, and then answered his own question: “Nowhere….[T]he Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without ‘due process of law.’” Then he added, in the written equivalent of a sotto voce aside: “Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.”

The fact that BP had agreed to the deal in order to make potentially devastating legal and public relations problems go away is also, I guess, a mere technicality. From Mr. Sowell’s perspective, the establishment of the BP fund was just another step, not the first (his fulminations take in governmental actions going back as least as far as Franklin Roosevelt’s administration), on the road to “unconstitutional” tyranny.

Mr. Sowell, it is worth noting, both begins and ends his column with references to Adolph Hitler. As Mr. Sowell demonstrates, this kind of argument can be applied to any almost any issue, no matter how tenuous the connection between point A at the top of the slope and point Z at the bottom. Today, the BP compensation fund, tomorrow the Reichstag. Hey, it’s a slippery slope.

The prevalence of the slippery slope argument is either one cause of the current paralysis in our political culture or a symptom of it, but, whichever it is, it isn’t helping. We need to stop resorting to this line of reasoning whenever we want to oppose a policy we don’t like. The fact is we have the ability to make distinctions that will prevent our slide down the slippery slope in almost every situation in which the argument has been invoked.

We can say we are going to regulate the private ownership of military assault weapons without applying the same regulations to ownership of handguns.

We can say we are going to allow abortions of fetuses without saying we are going to allow parents to take the lives of their children.

We can say we are going to have rules for certain undocumented immigrants that don’t apply to others. (Curiously, many of the people who refuse to make a distinction between a fetus and a child are more than willing to draw distinctions between, say, foreign engineers and doctors, on the one hand, and less educated immigrants on the other.)

We can say—and this one is almost too easy—we are going to allow marriage between two people without saying we are going to allow marriage among three people or between a man and a dog or between the dead and the undead (although legalizing the last would seem to be a boon to a lot of novelists and screenwriters).

We can allow the government to extract monetary damages from corporations that cause environmental disasters without allowing the government to simply expropriate private property whenever it wants to.

We have the ability to discriminate. We do not live in an all or nothing world, a world where, for example, no one should be allowed to have a drink simply because it might lead to alcoholism. Remember the commercial that taunts: bet you can’t eat just one. Well, they’d lose the bet because we can stop if we want to.

And the same applies to virtually every alleged slippery slope. It’s time to call for a moratorium on invocation of the slippery slope. This kind of thinking has got to stop because, if it doesn’t, who knows where it could lead?

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

The Worst Thing About a Potential Romney Victory

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: “If Romney gets to the Situation Room, will we see Cipher Mitt, the vessel of the neocons? Or will we see Moderate Mitt, chastising the hawks…with a variation of the line about Al Qaeda at the debate: ‘We can’t kill our way out of this mess’?”

Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post: “Ever since the Denver debate, where the ‘severely conservative’ Mitt became moderate Mitt right before our very eyes, the Obama reelection effort has shifted gears from portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a right-wing radical to betraying him once again as a flip-flopper.”

The idea that there are two Mitt Romneys — Severely Conservative Mitt and Moderate Mitt, or, at least two sides to Mitt Romney’s personality, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — is now baked into our political culture, but, in fact, there is only one Romney, and he is neither conservative nor moderate, not even by turns. He is at all times just a guy who wants to cut a deal and will say anything to get you to an agreement.

He isn’t even trying to hide from us what he is. He tells us in every speech that he’s a businessman, and that’s exactly right. He is a pure product of American business, like the motivational pitchman Blake in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, who advises his audience of real estate agents to remember their ABCs: “Always be closing.”

Mitt isn’t a neocon vessel; he’s an empty vessel. Portraying him as two-faced misses the point. He’s the man without a face, which is why he had such a hard time setting his features into appropriate repose in the presidential debates.

Still the pundits and the campaign strategists debate whether the Obama campaign should attack Romney as too conservative or too malleable. Capehart advises that Obama do both. Maybe he can; maybe it will work; maybe Obama will pull out a victory in the end. But if he doesn’t, we are all in big trouble because we will not only have elected as our president a man who has no principles, we will have laid the path of our own political destruction by instructing future candidates that, to get elected, you can say anything.

“Say anything” is different from conventional political wisdom, which advises candidates to say nothing or, at least, as little as possible: don’t let them pin you down; don’t get lost in the details; keep your flexibility; be firm but vague so you never have to contradict yourself.

Romney’s approach is far more pernicious: tell them what they want to hear; contradict yourself if you have to; it doesn’t matter—as long as it works. Tell them on Monday night that sanctions against Iran aren’t working; tell them on Tuesday that you support the sanctions, that military action is of course only a last resort. Did it work? Great. Always be closing.

Admittedly, salesmanship is not a quality that has been lacking in our presidents and presidential candidates. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were spectacularly good salesman, but they were selling something — Reagan, a conservative agenda, Clinton a moderately liberal one. If you bought what they were selling, you pretty much knew what you were going to get, and what you weren’t.

With Romney, who knows? His goal is to be president, not to do anything in particular as president. Dowd, in her column, asks whether, on foreign policy, we will get neocon Mitt or realist Mitt. Does anybody know? Does Romney know?

But the same question could be asked of his domestic policies. Will he really repeal Obamacare on “Day One”? Well, no. Romney, the super-salesman, has already made it clear that he will keep the parts everybody likes—coverage of pre—existing conditions, young adults’ staying on their parents’ health plans, but what will he do to the replace the hated “mandate,” which is the glue that holds the program together? Will he really cut taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the poor at the same time? Will he really — as he responded he would to a show-of-hands question in the primary debates — refuse to raise taxes even one dollar in exchange for ten dollars in budget cuts?

If he achieves his goal and he is the president, who will be the target audience for his sales pitch? Republicans in Congress? The GOP base? 100% of the American people? Will Romney’s first term be anything more than an extended ad campaign for his reelection?

As frightening as the prospect of a Romney presidency is, it is the precedent of a Romney victory that is truly scary. If Romney can get elected on a say-anything platform, how can we ever hope to know what policies we are actually voting for?

In the final presidential debate, President Obama, in what had to be a planned riposte, zinged: “Governor Romney, the 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back.” This was clever, perhaps too clever, but, at the same time, both too limited and too general. With Romney pulling off contradictory statements that bring to mind slogans like “War is Peace” and “Ignorance is Strength,” the 1980s are indeed calling, but it’s not just their foreign policy they want back, and it’s not all of the 1980s that are calling. It is, to be precise, 1984.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Republicans Blame the Messenger

Chris Christie announced on Sunday’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that Mitt Romney was going to win Wednesday night’s debate so decisively that we will all wake up Thursday morning “saying, ‘Wow, we have a barn-burner now for the next 33 days.’ ” The general reaction of the press was that Christie had gone wildly off-message. The party line was supposed to be that poor Mitt was playing the role of David to Barak Obama’s mighty debate-Goliath.

As Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan put it to the ever-credulous Fox News, “President Obama is a very gifted speaker. The man’s been on the national stage for many years. This is Mitt’s first time on this kind of a stage.” (Apparently, for this purpose, we are supposed to disregard Romney’s previous appearances in something like 30 primary debates during his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids, as well as his debates against, among others, Ted Kennedy, during Romney’s runs for statewide office in Massachusetts).

The media were quick to pronounce that Governor Christie had gone rogue for suggesting that Romney would prevail in the first presidential debate. “Apparently, Chris Christie didn’t get the memo,” CNN’s Candy Crowley blogged, adding: “Note to Gov. Christie: No, no, no, no, no. Standard operating procedure for pre-debate chatter is to lower expectations for your guy by raising expectations for the other guy.”

NPR’s Steve Inskeep was also taken aback. “Republicans over the weekend were arguing that the upcoming presidential debates could change everything. You ever heard anything like this?” he asked NPR political commentator Cokie Roberts. But Roberts, who knows a thing or two about how politics works—both of her parents served in the House of representatives—put her finger on what is really going on here.

“No,” she told Inskeep. “It was really remarkable. They were just raising the stakes for Romney in all kinds of ways. Basically what these Republicans are saying, OK, it’s up to you now, Mitt Romney; we, the Republican Party, all believe that this – they are saying – all believe this a slam dunk election given the economic situation, and the fact that Romney is behind in the polls, particularly the battleground states, is in their minds, his fault, not the party’s fault.” In a way, the GOP is basically saying to Mitt Romney what it is saying to the rest of the country: you are on your own.

Christie, it seems, is setting Romney up, implicitly telling us that, if things don’t work out, it’s not the message that’s the problem; it’s the messenger. And so, if Romney fails, as now seems likely, the failure is his, personally; if he succeeds, the party can still take credit and claim a mandate for “conservative” policies. It’s clever positioning, but, unfortunately, although Romney does seem to be a hapless candidate, it’s really not the messenger that’s the problem.

Admittedly, this election isn’t over, and given the amount of money Republican billionaires are pouring into Super-PACs and the still unpredictable effects of the Republican voter suppression statutes passed in 33 states and the always distorting effects of the electoral college, Romney may still pull it out. But even the most hapful candidate, one with the combined political skills of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, would have a hard time selling current Republican orthodoxy as embodied in the GOP platform and the Ryan budget: tax cuts for the wealthy coupled with cuts to social programs, repeal of the entire Affordable Care Act, including the parts that everybody likes, abolition of abortion rights even in cases of rape or incest, voucherizing of Medicare, rigid opposition to any relief for illegal immigrants, and so forth. The Republican Party is simply on the wrong side of history, its agenda designed to undermine the interests of virtually every ascendant voting bloc—women, Hispanics and Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, most notably.

If Romney loses the election, Republicans will be lining up behind Christie (and, Lord knows, plenty of them will fit in the space) to reassure us that the only reason Barak Obama got re-elected was because of Mitt Romney’s failings as a candidate. If only Christie himself had been the candidate, or Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or Bobby Jindal, or Nicky Haley, or…fill in the name of your dream candidate of choice. Anybody would have been better than Romney. (Really? Michele Bachmann? Newt Gingrich? One of the Ricks? Well, almost anybody.)

The point is, win or lose, the Republican Party is going to emerge from this presidential season having learned the wrong lesson, still prepared to double-down on Bush-era trickle-down economic, and neo-con foreign, policies, and quite possibly still prepared to block meaningful compromise on issues of national and international importance. In the long run, they are going to pay a steep price for their wrong-headedness and intransigence, but, at least in the short run, so will we all.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Clinton versus Bush 2012

2016 seemed to be shaping up as the year of a Clinton-Bush rematch. “The Daily Show,” by way of example, took to calling its nightly coverage of the recent Republican convention “RNC 2012—The Road to Jeb Bush 2016,” and, based on reports in Politico.com, it appears that every major Democratic politician, including former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, is talking up Hillary for 2016. But now 2012 seems to be shaping up as Clinton v. Bush by proxy.

With Bill Clinton featured in a commercial clearly linking the Obama presidency to Clinton’s (Clinton: “President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education, and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That’s what happened when I was President. We need to keep going with his plan.” Followed immediately by the current President: “I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.”), and Clinton’s giving arguably the most effective (and certainly the longest) defense of Obama’s record at the recent Democratic convention, after which the two presidents literally embraced each other on national television, there is no question that the Democrats’ rather unsubtle but unspoken message to American voters is: “If you’d rather go back to the boom years of the second Clinton administration, rather than the failed policies of the George W. Bush administration, re-elect President Obama.”

Unfortunately for Obama, tradition prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from making a political appearance at the Democratic National Convention; otherwise, Obama could have exploited even more directly his most obvious link to the Clinton legacy. Ironically, however, events entirely outside Obama’s control—the attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East and the killing of four Americans, including our ambassador, in Libya—have only served to underline the Obama-Clinton connection, as the President and the Secretary of State made appearances together to denounce the attacks and to, literally, present a united front to the American people and the world.

At the same time that the Democrats are trying to tie the Obama campaign to the Clintons, the Republicans are doing their best to avoid any mention of the Bush administration. As the Los Angeles Times reported: George W. Bush was “a ghostly presence at the Republican National Convention, He Who Shall Not Be Named,” adding that he “had no place of honor at his party’s 2012 convention. In fact, other than a videotaped message delivered Wednesday night, neither he nor his father, former President George H.W. Bush, has had any place at all.”

If the GOP is tying to create a state of collective national amnesia, the Obama campaign is doing its best to make sure that doesn’t happen. For months, Obama and his surrogates made a big point of trying to blame the weak points in Obama’s record on the messy state of domestic and foreign affairs left by his predecessor, and for this Obama has been, perhaps not entirely without justification, excoriated by conservatives. Recently, the direct attacks have stopped, but the Obama campaign keeps bringing it up indirectly, as it does in the ad featuring President Clinton saying: “The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper income people and go back to deregulation. That’s what got us in trouble in the first place.” However much Republicans may complain about this—see, for example, Paul Ryan’s convention speech, it is unlikely that the Democrats are going to give up on this line because, at some level, it seems to work.

But the Democrats aren’t the only ones who are keeping the Romney-as-Bush image before the American people. Romney and his campaign are doing a pretty good job of it on their own. The fact that the centerpiece of Romney’s economic plan seems to be an extension of the Bush tax cuts—both in terms of time (let’s make them permanent!) and amount (let’s make them bigger!)—certainly helps sustain Romney’s connection to the administration of George W. Bush. Recently, however, even events abroad—the same ones that gave rise to so many joint Barack-and-Hillary appearances—have conspired to throw the Romney-Bush connection into stark relief.

The Romney campaign’s clumsy attempt to politicize the events in the Middle East—attacking Obama for “apologizing” to, and “sympathizing” with, the attackers—not only backfired by making Romney look unprincipled and unpresidential in a time of national crisis, but it gave the press an opportunity to focus on the fact that Romney’s foreign policy is being crafted by those wonderful folks who gave us the Iraq war. The hardest line neo-conservative advisors to George W. Bush are back and in a big, public way. In The Nation, back in May, Ari Berman described Romney’s foreign policy advisors as a “Neocon War Cabinet,” noting that, of Romney’s 40 identified foreign policy advisors, 70% worked for George W. Bush. And, in a recent column entitled “Neocons Slither Back,” Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote of a speech delivered by Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan to the Values Voter Summit, “Ryan was moving his mouth, but the voice was the neocon puppet master Dan Senor.”

So the choice between Obama and Romney is being reframed for us as a choice between Clinton and Bush. Either way, it’s Back to the Future; the only question is the date we want to fix on the dial of the Delorean time machine: 1999 or 2008.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Make Believe

Mitt Romney accepted his party’s nomination for president last week standing in front of a huge electronic banner reading “We Believe in America.”

What exactly does that mean? Forget “exactly.” What does that mean generally? In any sense?

We believe in America.

A cynic might suggest that it doesn’t mean anything except that it implies that they—and in particular, President Obama—do not believe in America.

A cynic might alternatively suggest that the Republican Party adopted the slogan because it works. It sounds right, and it invokes a solid patriotic feeling in the recipient of the message, even if it is technically devoid of substance.

Somewhat less cynically, one might argue that it is part of the Republican Party’s determination to adopt faith-based policies. People run for president, like Michele Bachmann, or advocate personhood amendments, like Todd Aiken, because they believe it is God’s will.

We “believe” in America the same way we “believe” in God. Positions do not have to be proved or even tested; they are accepted on faith. This explains Paul Ryan’s adherence to the economic theories of Ludwig von Mises and the individualist credo of Ayn Rand. The words of these prophets are simply accepted as true—regardless of any empirical evidence to the contrary. And, in this sense, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith may be relevant as well.

The one great number in the otherwise over-hyped musical “The Book of Mormon” involves the crisis of faith of the show’s hero, Elder Price. In the number, “I Believe,” Elder Price affirms his belief in all the tenets of his religion. He sings:

You cannot just believe part way,
You have to believe it all.
My problem was doubting the Lord’s will,
Instead of standing tall.

And so he affirms, among other things, that “the Lord, God, created the universe,” that “He sent His only son to die for my sins,” that “God lives on a planet called Kolub,” that “Jesus has his own planet as well,” and that “the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.” Elder Price concludes:

If you believe, the Lord will reveal it.
And you’ll know it’s true. You’ll just feel it.
You’ll be a Mormon.
And by gosh,
A Mormon just believes!

Now, admittedly it’s not entirely fair to compare Romney to a caricature sketched by the creators of “South Park,” nor is it entirely fair to tag Mormons with a criticism that applies just as easily to any other major religion, but, I’m sorry, if you’re running for president and you choose to accept your party’s nomination standing under a video monitor emblazoned with the words “We Believe in America,” you are asking for it—especially if one of your pollsters just recently told a reporter: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

In America, Mr. Romney just believes! By gosh.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

We Can Do Better

Did I really see on TV this morning workers at the Republican Convention unrolling a huge banner reading “We Can Do Better”?

I mean, come on. Can there possibly be a better set up for the Democrats to revive Obama’s 2008 slogan—“Yes We Can”—in reply?

Did no one at Republican headquarters have any sense of just how ambiguous a slogan “We Can Do Better” is?

Obviously, the GOP meant to suggest that we can do better as a country than we are doing under what Republican politicians and Fox newscasters repeatedly refer to as the “failed policies” of the Obama administration. But “we can do better” is also the polite way of admitting your own failures—as when a coach, whose team is way behind at the end of the seventh inning, might say to a struggling Little League team, or an editor, rejecting an article, might say to a rookie staff writer, or a senior partner, returning the draft of a brief, might say to an associate in his or her law firm, “You know, we can do better.”

Lord knows, the Republicans can do better.

They don’t have to be the party that promotes what George H.W. Bush once called “Voodoo economics” – the supply-side fantasy that government can increase its revenues by cutting taxes and that thereby budget deficits can be eliminated.

It isn’t just liberal economists, like Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman, who criticize the GOP’s position here; even Ronald Reagan’s own budget director, David Stockman, has denounced the Republican obsession with cutting taxes as a means of balancing the budget. Republicans could get serious and start talking about balancing the budget by balancing our economic strategies (spending cuts and tax increases), as suggested by the Bowles-Simpson Commission, but they won’t.

Instead, they have given us Paul Ryan and his magic budget, which taxes rich people less, poor people more, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes social safety net programs (including Medicaid, which would be cut by one-third)—but still doesn’t manage to “balance” the budget for three decades. What else should we have expected from a party all of whose presidential contenders said, in a debate last year, that they would never agree to a budget deal that required a meager $1 increase in tax revenues for every $10 cut from spending on government programs? Mitt Romney recently reaffirmed on “Face the Nation” that he still wouldn’t take the deal. These people are not serious about any kind of budgetary reform.

They don’t have to be the anti-science party.

Congressman Todd Aiken’s recent remarks about women’s bodies rejecting rapists’ sperm (which, he claimed, was based on information he had received from “doctors”) should not have come as a surprise, even though Aiken is a member of the House Science Committee, considering other positions taken by other leaders in the Republican Party.
The full range of Republican lunacy on issues of science (evolution, climate change, vaccinations, as well as reproduction) has been well-documented in recent New York Times pieces by Paul Krugman and Timothy Egan and need not be repeated here. We need only remind ourselves that it was Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman who famously said that the GOP was at risk of becoming the anti-science party and who tweeted: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

They don’t have to be the anti-woman party.

Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, has denied charges that the Republicans have declared a “war on women.” It’s as fictional, he declared, as a Republican “War on Caterpillars.” Really, Reince?

As U.S. News and World Report wrote: “Those who argue that the war is real cite examples like the strong Republican opposition to Obama’s proposed contraception reform and the extreme pro-life stances of people like Rick Santorum—who has said that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape and incest—as instances of lawmakers wading too far into women’s issues. Republican efforts to redefine rape to reduce access to abortions, cut funding for Planned Parenthood, hold a hearing on contraception without any female panel members, and (in South Dakota, at least) make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions have not helped their case with some women, either.”

This litany doesn’t even mention such offenses as the bills introduced by a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures to require transvaginal ultrasound tests as a condition to an abortion, and we can now, of course, add to the list of Republicans who oppose the right to choose an abortion even in the case of rape or incest the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Maybe the Republicans haven’t declared a war on women, but then the U.S. never officially declared war on Vietnam or Iraq, either.

They don’t have to be the anti-immigrant party.

The Republican Party in California, once so dominant under governors like Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian, and Pete Wilson, more or less imploded after Wilson pushed through a statewide proposition, the infamous Prop. 187,which was widely viewed, especially by Hispanic voters, as anti-immigrant. Thinking perhaps that California was a special case, and presumably a lost cause, Republicans elsewhere have taken positions on illegal immigration that are at least as strident as those they have taken on women’s reproductive rights.

In all likelihood the Republican platform this year will again include calls for the building of a border fence, to deny in-state tuition to any “illegal alien” (even if they were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents and raised in the U.S.), and to require employers to use an internet database that makes it harder for undocumented workers to get jobs.

Mitt Romney may claim that the Republican platform on the abortion issue is more restrictive than his own policies would be, but, on immigration issues, Romney has run pretty hard-right throughout his latest presidential campaign. During the primaries, when Romney bashed Rick Perry for not being tough enough on immigration issues, there might have been some thought Romney was just playing to the base and might swing closer to the positions (still pretty tough) being espoused by Perry, who after all, as a border-state governor knows a thing or two about immigration issues.

But the fact that Romney’s people are giving a speaking role at the GOP convention to the infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of the most strident voices in the country on immigration issues (and a prominent birther, to boot), tells us all we need to know about where the Romney-Ryan ticket stands on immigration.

They don’t have to be the party that rejects compromise at all costs.

There was a time when senators and representatives took pride in their ability to “work across the aisle” and to make deals that would “get things done,” but no longer. Today’s Tea Party-dominated GOP views compromise as surrender.

Compromise has become a dirty world, like traitor, or else it has been redefined, as it was by Ohio Republican senate candidate Richard Mourdock, to mean that the other side (that is, the Democrats) agrees to adopt the Republicans’ position. “The fact is you never compromise on principles,” Mourdock told CNN, in explaining his concept of bipartisanship, a position that has been echoed by, among others, Texas Republican senate candidate Ted Cruz. This is not the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan or even of George W. Bush. This is the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater.

We can do better.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Are Liberals Losing the Abortion Debate?

Ever since Congressman Todd Aiken made his unfortunate comments about “legitimate rape” and women’s bodies rejecting rapists’ sperm, liberal commentators have been carrying on like football players dancing in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. For a week now, it seems like MSNBC’s primetime lineup can talk about nothing else, parsing endlessly the differences between “legitimate” rape and “forcible” and, well, “rape,” the differences, if any, between Aiken’s position and Paul Ryan’s, the differences between Ryan’s position and Mitt Romey’s. The commentariat is treating the Aiken flap as a great victory for liberals, Democrats and pro-choice advocates, but is it?

In at least two ways, the Aiken controversy is, in fact, bad for the pro-choice cause. For one thing, this has reframed that national debate. We as a nation have now spent more than a week talking about whether rape and saving the life of the “mother” should be exceptions to an otherwise all-encompassing ban on abortion. Aside from the fact that this implicitly endorses the notion that a woman becomes a “mother” as soon as she becomes pregnant (which, in turn, implicitly endorses the notion that a fetus is her “child”), the constant emphasis on exceptions to anti-abortion restrictions shifts the debate away from pro-choice versus “pro-life” arguments.

Ever since Congressman Aiken entered the national consciousness, we have been playing on his ball field, and, although the anti-abortion forces may be losing the game, it is, let’s face it, their game, being played by their rules. Whatever the short-term advantages may be for Democrats like President Obama and Senator Claire McCaskill, Aiken’s embattled opponent, in the long-term, the pro-choice forces lose ground the longer the debate over anti-abortion exceptions goes on. It starts, for example, to make Mitt Romney’s anti-abortion position look moderate simply because it allows for a rape exception.

Paul Ryan’s position, as has been widely reported, is as extreme—indeed, is essentially the same—as Aiken’s. When Ryan was asked to reconcile his absolutist position with Romney’s, Ryan explained that Romney’s position, as that of the presidential candidate, trumped his own but that he could live with Romney’s because, from Ryan’s strict anti-abortion perspective, an anti-abortion law with a rape exception was a “step in the right direction.”

Ryan is, of course, correct. If Romney’s position begins to seem reasonable or even just socially acceptable, the battle is lost, which is why the pro-choice left has to stop doing its happy dance in the “pro-life” end zone and return to pressing the case for the right to choose.

I do not use the commonly-used phrase “women’s right to choose” here because, I think, that would underscore the second unfortunate side effect of the recent emphasis on exceptions to anti-abortion laws. In this debate, restrictions on choice have repeatedly been described as a women’s issue. Certainly, this is an issue that women should care about, deeply, but it should not just be an issue for women. It is an issue we should all care about; however, the constant description of this as a women’s issue and as part of a Republican “war on women” gives half the electorate an excuse to ignore it.

It is easy to understand why liberals, and Democratic politicians especially, have seized on the Aiken-Ryan-legitimate-rape issue. It’s terribly embarrassing for Republicans in this election season, but, if the long-term effect is to refocus the abortion debate, will it really have been worth it?

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment