Sunday, November 28, 2010

Still the Best Congress Money Can Buy

Frank Rich
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
November 28, 2010

SO America’s latest crisis — until it wasn’t — was airport screeners touching our junk. As this long year lurches toward its end, we all agree that something has gone wrong in America, and we’re desperately casting about for a coherent explanation for our discontent, if not a scapegoat. Alas, the national consensus that the T.S.A. and full-body scans might be the source of all evil fizzled in less than a week. Most everyone got to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving without genital distress.

The previous transient scapegoat was the Democrats. They were punished in yet another “wave” election — our third in a row — where voters threw Washington’s bums out. But most of the public remains bummed out nonetheless. In late October, the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 31 percent of respondents believed that America was on the right track. When the survey asked the same question after the shellacking, the percent of optimists jumped to ... 32. Regardless of party or politics, there’s a sense a broken country can’t be fixed. Few have faith that even “wave” elections are game-changers anymore.
The larger explanations for this dysfunction are well-worn by now, from the impotence of the filibuster-bound United States Senate to the intractable polarization of an electorate divided more or less 50-50 since Bush v. Gore. Such is the bipartisanship of the funk that Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck each succeeded in bringing off well attended rallies in Washington to commiserate over the country’s political and governmental stagnation — with each rally offering its competing diagnosis.
For Stewart, the hyperpartisanship of the modern news media remains the nation’s curse. “The country’s 24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-onator did not cause our problems,” he told the throngs at his rally to “restore sanity,” but it “makes solving them that much harder.” At Beck’s rally to “restore honor,” the message seemed to be that America’s principal failing is a refusal to recognize that God “is our king.” If Stewart’s antidote was more civility, Beck’s was more prayer.
Stewart’s point is indisputable as far as it goes. Beck’s, not so much: If prayer hasn’t cured this highly prayerful nation by now, it may be because our body politic has long since developed an immunity to it. But both rallies, for all the commotion they generated, have already faded to the status of quirky historical footnotes. The reason is that neither addressed the elephant in the room — or the donkey. That would be big money — the big money that dominates our political system, regardless of who’s in power. Two years after the economic meltdown, most Americans now recognize that that money has inexorably institutionalized a caste system where everyone remains (at best) mired in economic stasis except the very wealthiest sliver.
The Great Depression ended the last comparable Gilded Age, of the 1920s, and brought about major reforms in American government and business. Not so the Great Recession. Last week, as the Fed’s new growth projections downsized hope for significant decline in the unemployment rate, the Commerce Department reported that corporate profits hit a record high. Those profits aren’t trickling down into new jobs or into higher salaries for those not in the executive suites. And the prospect of serious regulation of those at the top of the top — the financial sector — is even more of a fantasy in the new Congress than it was in its predecessor.
Wall Street is already celebrating the approach of bonus season by partying like it’s 2007. In The Times’s account of this return to conspicuous consumption, we learned of a Morgan Stanley trader, since fired for unspecified reasons, who went to costly ends to try to hire a dwarf for a Miami bachelor party prank that would require the dwarf to be handcuffed to the bachelor. If this were a metaphor — if only! — Wall Street would be the bachelor, and America the dwarf, involuntarily chained to its master’s hedonistic revels and fiscal recklessness with no prospect for escape.
As John Cassidy underscored in a definitive article titled “Who Needs Wall Street?” in The New Yorker last week, the financial sector has paid little for bringing the world to near-collapse or for receiving the taxpayers’ bailout that was denied to most small-enough-to-fail Americans. The sector still rakes in more than a fourth of American business profits, up from a seventh 25 years ago. And what is its contribution to America in exchange for this quarter-century of ever-more over-the-top rewards? “During a period in which American companies have created iPhones, Home Depot and Lipitor,” Cassidy writes, the industry reaping the highest profits and compensation is one that “doesn’t design, build or sell a tangible thing.”
It’s an industry that can buy politicians as easily as it does dwarfs, which is why government has tilted the playing field ever more in its direction for three decades. Now corporations of all kinds can buy more of Washington than before, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and to the rise of outside “nonprofit groups” that can legally front for those who prefer to donate anonymously. The money laundering at the base of Tom DeLay’s conviction by a Texas jury last week — his circumventing of the state’s post-Gilded Age law forbidding corporate campaign contributions directly to candidates — is now easily and legally doable at the national level.
There are plenty of Americans who don’t endorse Stewart’s indictment of cable news; there’s even a reasonably large group that doesn’t buy Beck’s perceived shortfall in American religiosity. But seemingly everyone is aggrieved about the hijacking of the political system by anonymous special interests. The most recent Times-CBS News poll found that an extraordinary 92 percent of Americans want full disclosure of campaign contributors — far many more than, say, believe in evolution. But they will not get their wish anytime soon. “I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle,” said David Axelrod as the Democrats prepared to play catch-up to the G.O.P.’s 2010 mastery of outside groups and clandestine corporate corporations.
The story of recent corporate political donations — which we may never learn in its entirety — is just beginning to be told. Bloomberg News reported after Election Day that the United States Chamber of Commerce’s anti-Democratic war chest included a mind-boggling $86 million contribution from the insurance lobby to fight the health care bill.The Times has identified other big chamber donors as Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs and Chevron. These are hardly the small businesses that the chamber’s G.O.P. allies claim to be championing.
Since the election, the Obama White House has sent signals that it will make nice to these interests. While the president returns to photo ops at factories, Timothy Geithner has already met with the chamber’s board out of camera range. In a reportorial coup before Election Day, the investigative news organization ProPublica wrote of the similarly behind-closed-doors activities of the New Democrat Coalition — “a group of 69 lawmakers whose close relationship with several hundred Washington lobbyists” makes them “one of the most successful political money machines” since DeLay’s K Street Project collapsed in 2007. During the Congressional battle over financial-services reform last May, coalition members repaired to a retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to frolic with lobbyists dedicated to weakening the legislation.
Such is the ethos in his own party that Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, complained this month that he “couldn’t even get a vote” for his proposal for a one-time windfall profits tax on Wall Street bonuses. Republicans “obviously weren’t going to vote for it,” he told Real Clear Politics, but Democrats also demurred, “saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fund-raising.”
Roughly two-thirds of the New Democrat Coalition’s House contingent won re-election on Nov. 2. Now they’ll have more Republican allies in both houses of Congress. Tea Party populists — already being betrayed by one Senate leader, Jon Kyl, on the supposed pledge against earmarks — may soon be as disillusioned as those Democrats who had hoped Barack Obama’s economic team wouldn’t look like Wall Street.
For all the McConnell-Boehner rhetorical pandering to Tea Partiers, the health care law will not be repealed by Congress — and certainly not any provisions that benefit the G.O.P. establishment’s friends in the health care industry. Over at FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s Tea-Party-organizing group, there’s much belligerent talk of retribution against corporations seen as too friendly to Obama policies — most notably General Electric. It’s all hot air: G.E.’s political action committees gave a total of $1.6 million to politicians in both parties in 2010, and one of its former high-powered lobbyists, Dan Coats, is the newly elected Republican senator from Indiana and a probable member of the Senate Finance Committee.
America needs a rally — or, better still, a leader or two or three — to restore not just honor or sanity to its citizens but governance that’s not auctioned off to the highest bidder. When it was reported just days before our election that Iran was protecting its political interests in Afghanistan’s presidential palace by giving bags of money to Hamid Karzai’s closest aide, Americans could hardly bring themselves to be outraged. At least with Karzai’s government, unlike our own, we could know for certain whose cash was in the bag.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Freshman GOPer: Hey, Where's My Health Care?

Josh Marshall
November 15, 2010

Maryland physician Andy Harris (R) just soundly defeated Frank Kratovil, one of the most endangered Democrats on Capitol Hill going into the November election. And he did it in large part by railing against 'Obamacare' and pledging to repeal Health Care Reform. But when he showed on Capitol Hill today for an orientation for incoming members of Congress and their staffs, he had a different question: Where's my government health care?
According to Glenn Thrush of Politico, Harriscreated a stir at the orientation meeting by demanding to know why he had to wait a month after he was sworn in in January for his government-subsidized health care to kick in. After responding in a huff, he even asked if there was some way he could buy into the government care in advance, seemingly thinking there might be a government program similar to the so-called 'public option' championed by progressive Democrats in 2009.
According to an unnamed congressional staffer quoted by Thrush, Harris stood up at the meeting "and asked the two ladies who were answering questions why it had to take so long, what he would do without 28 days of health care."
During the campaign, Harris told voters, "the answer to the ever-rising cost of insurance is not the expansion of government-run or government-mandated insurance but, instead, common-sense market based solutions that ensure decisions are made by patients and their doctors."
Here's Harris from the heat of the health care debate back in 2009 railing against making health care into a "new government entitlement."

© 2010 TPM Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

‘Blindsided’: A President’s Story

Maureen Dowd
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
November 6, 2010

W. never sweated the small stuff.
Unfortunately, he didn’t much sweat the big stuff either.
Often the thing the former president was sweating most was, well, sweating — making sure he got in quality time for his cherished workouts.
In his deftly crafted and utterly selective new memoir, W. is the president we all wished him to be: compassionate, bipartisan, funny, charming, instinctive, independent, able to admit and learn from mistakes — and a good dad, who sang his twin girls the Yale fight song as a lullaby.
Heck, after I finished reading it, I was ready to vote for the guy.
The book lacks the vindictive or vaporous tone of many political autobiographies. It’s peppered with endearing personal stories, like the time W. made a Rose Garden speech supporting a Palestinian state and his mother called afterward to ask sarcastically, “How’s the first Jewish president doing?”
But when I look at the sad eyes of President Obama, buried alive with his party beneath the heedless decisions and reckless spending and tax cuts of his predecessor, I snap out of it.
Many presidents go a little loco. Others — even those who insist they want to be transformative and not play “small ball” — fall into periods where they seem strangely disengaged during crises.
It happened to President Obama during the interminable health care battle and intemperate birth of the Tea Party, and again when the BP well gushed.
It happened to W. with Afghanistan, Iraq and Katrina. When they tragically spun out of control on his watch, President Bush was not engaged.
He sometimes treated life-and-death issues like abstractions, not imminent threats, and frequently did not grasp the consequences of his decisions. By the time he got on top of things, many lives had been lost or shattered.
He wasn’t interested in the unglamorous part of decisions, the due diligence required before you plunge into wars that can break the military and expose to our enemies the limits of our power, or the follow-through essential for policies like nation-building in Afghanistan and education reform at home.
The author of “Decision Points” prides himself as The Decider, a man with a great gut and crisp opinions — the opposite of the discursive, deliberative Obama. From the beginning, the prodigal son of the first President Bush was packaged by Karl Rove as the anti-wimp — one hardy hombre. Junior was tougher than his cosmopolitan father, as his White House chief of staff Andy Card asserted, because W. was from West Texas and “his training was dealing with problems on the streets of Laredo or Dallas or Houston or Midland or Austin.”
W. modeled himself on a Western hero and he even walked like a gunslinger, noting that a president has to be the “calcium in the backbone.” Cheney played on this, taunting W. about sacking Saddam. At their weekly lunch, W. writes, “Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’ ”
Yet for a self-proclaimed man of action, W. was often strangely passive, caught off guard again and again by shocks to America’s reputation and faith in itself.
He was “blindsided” when both his FBI director and his acting attorney general threatened to resign over the legality of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
He was shocked by the looting and violence that followed the Iraq invasion, though it was widely forecast. He asked Rummy about the light troop levels, then meekly accepted the defense secretary’s tragic insistence that all was well.
W. writes that he was “blindsided” by the “grotesque” Abu Ghraib photos, which he only saw the day they were shown on “60 Minutes II.”
Rummy and Cheney knew how to play W.; when they offered to resign, he was so impressed with their loyalty, he let them stay. Besides, W. writes, “there was no obvious replacement for Don.” How about ... anybody?
He was “shocked” that there were no W.M.D., though it should have been an obvious possibility that the proud, decimated Saddam might want to look tough in front of his neighbors. And W. was taken aback by the Iraq insurgency, though when you toss a ruthless ruling class into the street, you should expect a rumble.
When W. could have acted to try to prevent real disasters — Osama’s attack on 9/11, the fiend’s escape at Tora Bora, the financial meltdown — he was oblivious. When he jumped in pre-emptively, as in Iraq, it was because he and Cheney had conjured up fake disasters out of their own paranoia and obsession with proving their toughness.
Yet if W.’s decision-making leaves something to be desired, his story-telling is good. He writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.
Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The GOP Recipe for Keeping the Economy Down Until Election 2012

Could it be that Republicans want to keep the economy struggling through Election Day, 2012?

 Robert Reich
Robert Reich's Blog
November 5, 2010

The real message from voters was “Fix this stinking economy.” But Republicans have no intention of doing so.
With Republicans in control of the House, forget spending increases or tax cuts to stimulate the economy.
Republicans don’t believe in stimulating economies. They think markets eventually clear — once the pain is sufficient. Or in the immortal words of Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”
Of course, Mellon was dead wrong. Nothing was purged. Instead, the economy sunk into deeper and deeper depression.
So how do we get out of this bog?
By default, all the responsibility is on the Federal Reserve — which announced today (Wednesday) it will pump $600 billion into the economy between now and June to reduce long-term interest rates (“quantitative easing” in Fed-speak).
The Fed thinks lower long-term rates will (1) push more businesses to expand capacity and hire workers; (2) push the dollar downward and make American exports more competitive and therefore generate more jobs; and (3) allow more Americans to refinance their homes at low rates, thereby giving them more cash to spend and thereby stimulate more jobs.
But without an expansionary fiscal policy, the Fed’s goals are pipe dreams.
Lower rates won’t spur businesses to expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.
Lower rates won’t push down the dollar and spur more exports. They’ll only spur more competitive devaluations by other nations determined not to lose export shares and jobs.
And lower rates won’t allow middle-class and working-class Americans to refinance their homes because banks won’t lend to families whose incomes have dropped, whose debts have risen, or who owe more on their homes than the homes are worth. That is, most of us.
Without an expansive fiscal policy that puts more money into the pockets of consumers and gets them out from under their huge debt load, the Fed’s billions will just fuel another stock-market bubble.
It’s already started. Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders who can’t get much of any return from their loans are shifting into stocks. Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock. And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.
In other words, with Republicans in charge of the House, the economy remains anemic. It may even succumb to another bubble that bursts.
Could it be that Republicans want to keep the economy this way through Election Day, 2012?
Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President Obama's transition advisory board. His latest book is Supercapitalism.
Copyright 2010 AlterNet

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Republican Voters Send In The Clowns. Again.

The Moderate Voice
November 4, 2010

I want to revisit a “dynamic” that I’ve addressed several times in the run-up to the mid-term elections and again in this post yesterday: For all of the fulminating and chest pounding about change, Republican voters have re-elected the very leadership that helped George Bush drive the economy into a ditch and subsequently was responsible for losing the White House and both seats of Congress.

This is a leadership bereft of ideas, whether it is how to reduce the deficit or create jobs. This is a leadership that already is promising to continue the kind of obstructionist politics that frequently paralyzed the 111th Congress, leaving the job of trying to keep the U.S. from falling into an outright depression entirely to the Obama administration while it scratched Wall Street’s tummy and ignored the cries from Main Street for relief.

As I noted yesterday, people didn’t vote for or against a broken system on Tuesday, but rather for or against candidates, most of whom depend on that system’s perpetuation for their own survival. And in the end, the GOP leadership is far more concerned about keeping their jobs than righting the ship of state.

Is there an explanation for this bewildering state of affairs?

Please don’t hand me any crap about these clowns being sent back to Washington with a big pat on the back because they’re not Democrats. Because if that is your argument then voters have not only gotten the leaders they deserve, but they are as willfully stupid as those leaders.
Have at it, but please be nice.

© 2004-2010 The Moderate Voice