Panetta Wants to See More “Leadership”

Leon PanettaI’m not sure how I’m supposed to take today’s column by Ruth Marcus, Panetta Rebukes Obama’s Handling of Shutdown. My experience is that when I read something so intellectually oafish that it must be satire, it turns out to not be satire. It is a thing to behold. Now that Leon Panetta is not in the government, he has entered the fray to explain to the world that there is “enough blame to go around.”

The whole article is about how Panetta thinks that if only Obama had shown “leadership” then we wouldn’t be in this mess. Ah yes! The vaunted “leadership.” That fairy dust that Obama is supposed to sprinkle into the eyes of John Boehner and make everything better. This kind of Chris Matthews’ thinking is complete nonsense. As Ezra Klein reported earlier this year in The New Yorker, when presidents get associated with specific policies, it makes it harder to push those policies, not easier.

Just look at Obamacare. Does any serious person think that the Republicans are against the new healthcare law on its merits? If John McCain had been elected in 2008, we would have more or less Obamacare and the Republicans would be thrilled about it. The Republicans hate it today because it is Obama’s healthcare law. It’s as simple as that.

So the idea that Panetta (along with, it seems, Marcus) thinks that Obama could have avoided a government shutdown if he had just been more involved is pure fantasy. A reporter asked him how Clinton would have dealt with the situation. Panetta responded, “Some of us were nervous that Bill Clinton was bending over backwards to try to see if he could get a deal.” So Clinton really worked hard to get a deal. He bent over backwards. And how did that end? Oh, I remember: it ended with a 21 day government shutdown. So Clinton’s great leadership skills accomplished absolutely nothing. Too bad Obama didn’t follow in his footsteps. If he had, we might only be in the middle of a government shutdown.

Panetta said that if Obama couldn’t manage the shutdown, he should find someone who could. Marcus sounded like a schoolgirl when she gushed:

I’ve got a stellar candidate in mind. His name is Leon Panetta. He seems awfully happy back home in Monterey, Calif. But he also remembers the way to Andrews—and what it takes to get things done once you arrive.

See what I was saying about satire? That’s just embarrassing. So we have an old politician who is talking nonsense and a reporter who thinks he is just the bee’s knees. Someone please make this stop.

Family Guy Does the Tea Party

Tea PeterI just watched the “Tea Peter” episode of Family Guy from the tenth season. In general, I’m not that happy with the series when it does politics. Like most shows, it tries to have things both ways. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever fully forgiven the producers for allowing Rush Limbaugh to whitewash his career. This episode was certainly better.

In the episode, Peter is running an illegal business out of his home that police shut down. This makes him angry, so he joins the local Tea Party group. It turns out that it is run by Lois’ billionaire father, just as Brian had predicted. They manage to get the mayor to shut down the government and then everything goes to hell. At the end, Peter gives a speech in which he replaces the government with something even better:

Now that we’ve freed ourselves from the terrible shackles of government, it’s time to replace it with something better. The first thing we need is a system of rules that everyone must live by. And since we can’t spend all our time making rules I think that we should elect some people to represent us, and they should make rules and choices on our behalf. Now this may be kind of expensive, so I’ve got a plan. Everyone should have to give some money from their salaries each year. Poor people will give a little bit of money. And rich people will give a larger amount of money. And our representatives will use all that money to hire some people who will then provide us with social order and basic services.

It’s pleasing, because I’m afraid that most Americans (not just conservatives) tend to forget what government actually is. But when it comes to conservatives, they have the market cornered in the business of discontent. They don’t like the way government works (Who does?!) but they want revolution rather than reform. This comes from the fact that they know that their ideas are unpopular. They can’t really work toward changes because “the people” will never agree with them.

My problem with the episode comes in its treatment of the Tea Party members. In general, they do not want to get rid of the government. And sadly, it is a whitewash to suggest that they do. What they want is to keep the government just the way it is and eliminate the programs that help “those people.” I’ve never met a Tea Party member who wanted to cut military, Medicare, or Social Security. Well, that and the national debt make up about 70% of the budget. And they are in favor of most of the remaining 30% too. So all their ranting about budgets is really just vindictiveness against groups that they don’t like.

I’ve been having a discussion about my video on Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express. For years, she has been making speeches and going on television talking about the budget deficit. But after all that time, it seems she has learned nothing of the federal budget. Most especially she doesn’t seem to have noted how it has decreased ever since we got a Democrat in the White House. If she really wanted what she claims, she would be a Democrat. But she isn’t. Because she doesn’t want what she claims. She, like almost all of her peers, wants to take money away from “those people.” And there isn’t a lot of question about exactly who those people are.

The Family Guy episode was inaccurate in another way. It aired on 13 May 2012. But it showed big crowds at a Tea Party rally. In 2012?! By that time, it would have been 8 protesters and 30 people from various news organizations.

Afterword

I just found this great clip of Amy Kremer on CNN last year. She doesn’t know what’s she’s talking about. And the funny thing is that the question she gets about the $5 trillion Romney tax cut is one that I’ve seen her struggle with a few times. She just can’t admit that supporting Romney goes against what she claims to be for. And that’s because she isn’t for Romney because he would be better on the debt. She is for him because she knows that he is for the right kind of people and against the wrong kind of people. That’s it. This is what passes for a conservative activist:

Birth of Lillian Gish

Lillian GishOn this day in 1644, the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn was born. He was well known for his humility. Oh, I’m kidding! He was a great man. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the biggest and most prosperous city in America. And why? Because Penn was a champion of democracy and tolerance. And that is always the way it is. If you want a great economy, tolerate your neighbors. Diversity is good for the economy and everything else that makes life worth living. I have to tip my hat a bit toward the libertarians, because they understand this. (Unfortunately, they define liberty so bizarrely that they ruin it.) The big problem in America is the large part of the country who are religious fundamentalists. They would be better to learn from William Penn. Live and let live. The best things in America today owe a great debt to the great man. Of course, it wasn’t genetics. After William’s son Thomas took over the colony, he tried to stop Catholics from practicing in the colonies. Oh well. Freedom is fleeting. (Also: just another name for nothing left to lose.)

The great poet E. E. Cummings was born in 1894. Look, I know I’ve said some very nasty things about him. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t admire him. Mostly, I just don’t think he is as good as a number of poets who are less known. But I still enjoy reading him, pretentious as he sometimes is.

Magician Harry Anderson is 61 today. I’m not that fond of him, but he is a good example of what I think makes magic work. It is just an excuse for telling stories. The magic doesn’t much matter. At its best, it adds something special. But mostly, it just gives the performer a focus—a reason to be telling the story, even though most magicians aren’t aware of that. Here he is performing something akin to magic, although I’m not quite certain it is magic:

And musician Thomas Dolby is 55. I don’t know that much about him, but I thought it would be nice to listen to his big hit done live, which is kind of like hearing it on album. But before we listen to it, I have a question, “Why are all techno-music stars bald?”

Other birthdays: Dwight Eisenhower (1890); Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (1913); actor Roger Moore (86); and probably my favorite person in the Nixon White House, John Dean (75).

The day, however, belongs to one of my favorite actors, Lillian Gish who was born on this day in 1893 and only died 20 years ago at the age of 99. She was key to the popular success of D. W. Griffith’s films. But, of course, with Griffith there is always the fact that he created that great but racist film Birth of a Nation (which starred Gish). It is just easier to appreciate the great films by focusing on her than on Griffith, even though there is no doubt that he was the greatest filmmaker ever. But what I especially like is Gish when she is older, working in sound film. I think you can see this clearly on display in this scene from The Night of the Hunter:

Happy birthday Lillian Gish!

The GOP Problem Is Not Messaging

David CornDavid Corn wrote an article that sounded like it was going to be great fun, In Shutdown and Debt Ceiling Showdown, GOPers Ignore Their Party’s Own Advice. But it wasn’t really fun, because I think he has misjudged what the Republican Party has been doing. It is about the Republicans’ Growth and Opportunity Project report—the so called “autopsy.” It was the result of losing the 2012 election so badly. The idea was that the Republicans could fix all their problems if they just improved their “messaging.”

Corn lists five things in the report and then notes how things in the party are even worse now. Well, that’s to be expected, right? As I said when the report came out, the fundamental problem with the Republican Party is not messaging. It is certainly true that their messaging is terrible. But even with the best messaging in the world, their message is repellent.

I think that Corn is looking at the situation all wrong. The truth is that Republican messaging probably is better than it was last year. With the government shutdown, I really expected to hear some vile stuff. You know, stuff like, “I’m glad the government is shutdown; now maybe those lazy bums will get out and look for a job!” And such comments could be peppered with colorful racial epithets. But instead, we’ve seen a surprisingly disciplined caucus repeating the same talking points again and again.

The truth is that the Republican messaging might well have won the day. They were pretty much all saying the same thing and what they were saying sounded pretty reasonable. I agree with Ron Paul and Mitch McConnell that the “no negotiation” line from the administration sounds bad. The Republicans are losing this fight because the people of this country have memories.

I keep going back to that great moment at last year’s vice-presidential debate. After Ryan claimed that it was Obama who had cut Medicare, Joe Biden said, “Folks: use your common sense! Who do you trust on this?!” I have lots of problems with Biden, but I don’t think there is anyone who is better at retail politics. And he really does still connect to regular people. One of the ways that he does this is by not talking down to them. They aren’t stupid. The situation now is clear. Given: the government is shutdown; given: the Republicans hate the government; conclusion: the Republicans shut the government down. It ain’t hard. The people just used their common sense!

What we are seeing, 7 months after the great Republican autopsy, is that messaging is not going to save the Republicans. They need to find some policies that people actually like. But I can’t imagine the Republicans publishing a report about that any time soon. When it comes to policy, the Republican Party is all together—in extremism.

A Little Bit About My Journey to Atheism

No ReligionAtheism has been on my mind a lot lately. Partly because it keeps popping up in SPAN (stuff-passing-as-news) and in some part because it’s an interesting distraction from aspects of life that have me at a standstill. In brief, here’s how I came to be an atheist.

My mother occasionally raised my brother and I in the non-Southern Baptist church and my dad didn’t care as long as he wasn’t expected to participate. I have a few early memories, like being dunked — blessed — in the Truckee River at the age of seven because, apparently, I had agreed to give my life to Jesus and was ready to be Born Again. I remember getting a little New Testament of my very own as a reward for memorizing Bible verses and thinking that Jesus was just about the most handsome man ever.

As I got older and my still forming brain began to develop the ability to reason, some things didn’t seem quite right, but since my mom was driving, I was still going to Sunday School. Throughout Junior and Senior High my mother and I would go through spurts of church attendance, my brother having joined the If Dad Doesn’t Have To Go camp. My belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Heaven and Hell, the existence of demons and angels was quite sincere. My feelings that other church members were benign tumors to full-blown human cancers were also firmly in place.

It was in high school that I encountered the power of prayer. It has none. As I hoped and prayed for the need of a bra, I endured severe bouts of depression with vaguely suicidal musings. (Something that many people may not realize, is that the combination of religion, low self-esteem and OCD is not a cure for teen angst. Or elder angst for that matter.) I graduated high school, with ease if not excellence, and that day was literally the best of my life up to that point. I was out of prison with nothing but the gaping maw of the future ahead of me. College had never been presented to me as an option, just as my getting a job at J.C. Penney’s wasn’t up for discussion, my mother just dropped me off and told me to fill out an application.

So at 18 I was still going to church, still living at home, and still feeling acutely inadequate. I did enjoy making my own money and had discovered the joy of eating lunch by myself, but my life was headed down a pretty bleak path. Then the Evangelism Corps came to our church and talked to the youth group. Here were some independent young people who had real purpose, traveling around the country, leaving the Good News in their wake. I was very impressed. So when I got a call from the Director himself, asking if I would like to join them for their next year, I felt special and chosen. My life finally had a positive direction; I would get out of the house and do good work to prove my good faith because everyone knows that faith without works is dead.

I went to my parents and explained that while I would need a little spending money, the Corps would take care of my food, lodging and travel expenses. One of my father’s dearest wishes had come true that day: one of his kids was actually leaving home at 18 and no longer be his problem. I don’t recall my mother trying to talk me out of going either.

Our group of 12 or so (I don’t remember) was merely a traveling microcosm of my high school: boys I liked who didn’t like me, boys I didn’t like who did like me, and girls who were more attractive and fun than I would ever be and probably didn’t like me either. From California to Idaho to Oregon to Washington and British Colubmia we sang (pretty badly), did puppet shows (the most fun), and performed humorous Christ-approved skits for the amusement of the church members. We were broken up into teams and stayed with church families. Some extremely sincere and kind, some a little weird, but all welcoming.

Before I go any further, I need to tell you about the personality tests that we had to take at the beginning of the year. It gave the director and his wife (or as they liked to be called, Mom and Dad) some idea about our individual strengths and weaknesses. Turns out I was an introvert.

Our job was to canvas neighborhoods, going door-to-door peddling our version of redemption. It was a horrible experience and I won’t bore you with the uncomfortable details. Let me just say however, that The Job showed me what true Christianity is all about. I have been bedridden with the flu only three times in my life. Once when I was seven and camping, once while I was in Seattle with the EC, and once just before I got pregnant with my son. The first flu taught me that camping is terrible. The third one proved that some guys really do like skeletal women. But it was the second bout with the flu that taught me that Christianity in action is not a thing.

We girls were staying with an elderly woman who was also sponsoring(?) a Latino man who didn’t have a strong grasp of English. I became horribly ill and probably could have used a doctor, but I had the next best thing: people who cared about me remembering me in their prayers. My roommate didn’t want to get sick, so she moved into another room where she could more easily write letters to the young man with whom, against all odds, she was in love. Everyday, the girls dutifully got dressed and walked to the church to get their neighborhood map of the day. The ONLY person to offer me any comfort was the other houseguest, a man whose name I didn’t even know. He peeked his head in and asked me if I needed anything. None of my teammates had bothered to ask.

Anyway, over the course of the year I went from an enthusiastic, albeit introverted believer, to a very depressed and, according to a second test possibly suicidal believer. I had not developed self-confidence, but I certainly built character. The experience did help me to find, eventually, the courage to accept the unknowable, to turn away from church-endorsed misogyny, and to an understanding that kindness is more important than belief.

Political Theater and the Debt Ceiling

Ross BarnettThis is delicious! Ed Kilgore over at Washington Monthly went looking for a way to provide the Republicans with an out for the terrible situation they have put themselves and the country in, Template For Dem Aid to Republican Leaders. And he found it in a perfectly reasonable (and hilarious) place: the integration wars of the early 1960s.

In 1962, Ole Miss was being forced to integrate by allowing James Meredith to attend. The people of Mississippi were very much against this. This put Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in a bad situation. It wasn’t that Barnett was for civil rights; he was actually a staunch supporter of segregation. But he didn’t want a fight with the Federal government—at least not one where he might be embarrassed. So he made a secret agreement with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Federal agents would escort Meredith into the school, Barnett and his supporters would try to stop them, but the lead agent would pull his gun. This, and the fact that all of the other agents had their hands on their guns would give Barnett the ability to give in.

The story gets even funnier. Barnett felt that the single gun was not enough. According to the transcripts, he said, ” I was under the impression that they were all going to pull their guns. This could be very embarrassing. We got a big crowd here and if one pulls his gun and we all turn it would be very embarrassing. Isn’t it possible to have them all pull their guns?” I love that! You can just hear how eager he is for this ruse to work. Kennedy doesn’t want to do it, but Barnett eventually persuades him. In the end it wasn’t done, because it was deemed to be too dangerous as a mob had shown up at Ole Miss in anticipation of Meredith’s arrival. Kennedy and Barnett decided their bit of street theater might cause a riot. Remember, these are people who were too often willing to kill for segregation.

In the end, there was no ruse and things went really badly—people died in the rioting. But what is clear from reading through all of the transcripts is that Barnett doesn’t take the whole thing seriously. Even late into the negotiations, he tried to finesse the Kennedy brothers. But they had a trump card. Eventually, Robert just flat out threatened him. He said that the president was going to go on television and expose the secret negotiations with Barnett. That would have been the end of his political life. (It turned out it was anyway.)

In those negotiations, Robert Kennedy said something that directly applies to the situation today:

I think it is silly going through this whole facade of your standing there; our people drawing guns; your stepping aside; to me it is dangerous and I think this has gone beyond the stage of politics, and you have a responsibility to the people of that state and to the people of the United States. This is a real disservice.

Barnett responded that he wasn’t interested in politics, just like Sarah Palin did yesterday at the silly protest when she said, “Our veterans should be above politics.” The problem is just the opposite. For these people, it is all politics. Most of Barnett’s power in politics came from his inflammatory rhetoric about segregation. So in 1962, Ross Barnett was a conservative demagogue; today, Ted Cruz is a conservative demagogue. And the kicker is that time will put Ted Cruz in the trashcan with all historical figures who stood for repugnant policies no one ever supports in polite society. But Cruz will be replaced by a new demagogue with a new cause. All this harm is done for nothing.

The real question before us now is why we should help the Republicans out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. My resolve got stronger over the weekend. I now thing that even allowing the Republicans to save face is a mistake. I’d like to think that we can crush this kind of behavior once and for all. But even if not, we can look back on this in ten years and get all the dirt. I mean, we know the Republicans are privately panicking and looking for a way out. But the details have got to be delicious.

Does GOP Even Care About Wall Street?

Dow Jones

I guess we will need to watch the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) for the next couple of days. The first thing this morning, it dropped about 70 points and has pretty much stayed there for until now. In a fundamental sense, the DJIA doesn’t mean much. But in this case, it is a gauge of how nervous the bankers are. Clearly, they aren’t freaking out. Yet. But the federal government will hit the Debt Ceiling on Thursday, and I fully expect if we don’t hear some hopeful news as the day progresses, tomorrow we will see some very bad numbers. And Wednesday would be even worse.

Right now, I suspect the relative calm will last for a bit. The bankers are doing what we are all doing: waiting and watching. All of us are cautiously optimistic. After all, the Congress has always managed to raise the Debt Ceiling before. And especially with the last two Congresses, we’ve gotten used to last minute deals. But I can’t help but believe that overall the government shutdown and especially the Debt Ceiling crises are depressing market enthusiasm—not that it is a bad thing.

On Friday, the DJIA was way up as it looked like a deal was near. The initial drop this morning was probably the result of dashed hopes over the weekend. Regardless of what happens, once these crises are resolved, the market will rebound, just as we saw on Friday. These people are looking for any reason to be optimistic.

But think about what the Republicans currently want: government spending cuts. These would be bad for the economy and although they wouldn’t have the kind of effect that a Debt Ceiling breach will have, they would hurt the market. But what the Democrats want is an end to the Sequester—in other words, government spending increases. These would be good for the economy and thus the market.

The real question is why the Republican brand is as the party of business. This is nonsense. What it is really is the party of the wealthy, many of whom own businesses. So what’s good for business is generally the Democratic policy. But most business owners are not rich. They are just getting by like everyone else. And like the rest of the non-wealthy citizens, their voices are hardly heard in Washington—especially by the Republican Party. This is why it will be interesting to watch Wall Street the next couple of days. If the Republicans won’t listen to them, I’m not sure what the party is anymore.

Afterword

Currently, the market is rallying a bit—down by about 30 points. Waiting and watching.

Update (14 October 2013 11:13 am)

Now the DJIA is up 50. So maybe they don’t care. But I am sure this will change if the crisis continues for two more days.

Update (14 October 2013 2:48 pm)

The DJIA finished up 65.15 points. Of course, the news in the Senate negotiations has been good throughout the day.