Saturday, August 20, 2011


Despite the three-ring circus—House, Senate, White house—in Washington and its cast of crazies, incompetents, and craven souls, the debt ceiling crisis was significantly a consequence of Obama’s cumulative failings as a leader, partly understandable as they may be in the circumstances.

He is not to blame for the challenges to him and his presidency by a Republican Party, even before its invasion and infection by the Tea Party, which not only has long believed that the Democratic Party is illegitimate, but also regards him, a man of mixed-race, as anathema, to be opposed at every opportunity. Mitch McConnell has been forthright in declaring his first priority to be Obama’s defeat in 2012. So I share the widely held belief that this leader in the Republican Party represents its priorities: political power over—even at the expense of—economic recovery.

So Obama is not to blame that, in most instances, he chooses to “lead from the rear,” to work behind the scenes so that Republicans do not oppose worthy ideas reactively because they are his. However, on major issues which cannot be advanced behind the scenes, he is to blame that he has tried appeasement to avoid conflict and to appear reasonable; made concessions, whether reasonable or not, in advance of negotiations; and failed to achieve better, but attainable, results. We saw his preferred strategic approach in the case of health care reform: let the House and Senate squabble, then cobble together something inadequate but better than the current program.

He is to blame for using the same strategy when it is totally unsuited to the issue and allows his implacable opponents to treat him differently from other presidents because he acts differently from, but not better than, other presidents. His repeated attempts to overcome them by appeals to bipartisanship in defiance of repeated failures reflects a foolish consistency, the hobgoblin of his mind. The most recent instance was a simple issue which his back-and-forthing converted into a national crisis: raising the debt ceiling to pay debts incurred and due. Until now, raising the debt ceiling has been a standard ritual which results in a one-page piece of legislation specifying a new dollar amount and a new deadline. But Obama let it to become a complex and contentious one.

Obama did not say or do what any other president, I believe, would have said and done: he would sign such another bill and no other. He should have said that, in the absence of such a bill, he would authorize an increase in the debt ceiling on the basis of the Constitution’s authorization of debt, the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision which puts the validity of that debt beyond question, and, as a reminder, his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

At the same time, he should have advised that existing laws governing expenses and revenues authorize additional debt between the signing of the debt ceiling law and its deadline. He should have said that, to avoid a significant repetition, fiscal reform must begin at once to avoid another debt ceiling debacle. He should have announced his intention to develop a specific, comprehensive proposal for the necessary reforms in all major legislation affecting expenses and revenues, and set a deadline nine months hence, in time for the 2012 election. He should also have indicated that, as a step in that direction, he would offer a specific, jobs-creating, economy-building set of proposals for enactment on the return of Congress after Labor Day (just recently promised).

Instead, by standing back, he allowed issues irrelevant to raising the debt ceiling to encumber a traditionally routine process and precipitate a crisis. Then he succumbed to his strategy of seeking bipartisanship by endorsing what would and has become a partisan committee which will reach no agreement on deficit reduction within a few months, a set of penalties presumably automatically triggered by its failure but which Congress will disarm first, and thus a return to the status quo ante. He is not to blame for having created the crisis; he is to blame for having aided and abetted it.

So too much cannot be said of Obama’s flawed leadership and his flawed legacy. I admired Obama's character and scorned McCain's (lack of) character; Obama, unlike McCain, possessed qualities desirable in a leader, but not the qualities of a leader. I soon detected and deplored his conflict-averse nature, which makes it impossible for him to lead when he faces opposition. He was decisive in deciding to attack Osama bin Laden’s compound, a decision not without difficulty but without domestic opposition. But in situations in which he faces domestic opposition, he is decisive in deciding not to lead.

Two cases in point. At the start of his administration, Obama chose to avoid controversy about an array of civil rights or human rights abuses by our government in violation of national and international law. He has prevented not only the prosecution, but also the investigation, of any of the alleged violations or their alleged perpetrators. In the case of torture, he has violated his oath of office and the laws of the land.

At about the same time, he chose to avoid controversy about the financial institutions and their leaders largely responsible for causing this country’s worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Again, he has discouraged not only their prosecution, but also their investigation. He helped their recovery without exacting any reforms as conditions of acceptance of assistance, in the naïve belief that they would not resist the modest reforms along the lines of previous but since abandoned regulations. And he did nothing about jobs or homes in depressed business and housing markets. So he did not show that he cared any more than Wall Street about Main Street because he did not demand that Wall Street do something about Main Street.

In other words, Obama does not judge, not that he be not judged, but that he be not judgmental and controversial by holding anyone accountable and taking any corrective action. As a result, he has set precedents for future presidents to invoke as justification of the inevitable repetitions of similar and other abuses in future administrations. Rule of law—what rule of law? HIs lack of leadership is thus inseparable from his legacy of legal and moral abdication, the more notable in a lawyer/teacher expert in the Constitution.

Still, an election looms most ominously. And once again, Americans will have a choice of the lesser of two evils. I refreshen the cliché by asking a simple question: would any of these current contenders and any of the possible late entrants be taken seriously by any of the Founding Fathers? The question answers itself.

Even so, I would prefer a choice between something like a Democrat and something like a Republican. But given his propensity to deal with Republicans and adopt their positions, I think the choice will be between Obama the moderate Republican who could find no political future in the GOP and either a panderer to the Tea Party or one from its stark, radical reactionaries. Given this choice, I shall vote for Obama instead of a deficient and dangerous candidate.

Two brief digressions. On the stump, Obama’s shows his infection by the Right, with his confusion about the role of government; one moment, it can do great good and only politics keeps it from doing that great good; next moment, Obama speaks of solutions emerging from, say, the cornfields of Iowa, from the fields of his dreams. Then, Perry’s candidacy raises several questions. Out of gallows humor, I ask three: Can the other 49 states secede from Texas? Would doing so make them “traitorous”? Would Texas treat them “ugly”? In seriousness, I ask two: How does Perry reconcile his impulse to secession with an impulse to preside over the country from which he would secede? How does he explain his aversion to the government and his desire to dismember much of it with the Constitutional and legal obligations of the office?

If given the option, increasingly unlikely, of a Republican candidate not beholden to the economic and political extremists, and religious fundamentalists (labeled and self-described as Christians) on the Right—if they have enough sense left to nominate such a candidate—I may vote for Romney, though he has begun to dabble in pitch and to defile himself, or Huntsman, who has yet to live up to his reputation.

In that event, I shall cast my second vote in my lifetime for a Republican presidential candidate, and I shall regard the second Democratic presidential candidate for whom I did not vote with the same scorn with which I regard the first one. Against a GOP candidate who can demonstrate leadership by defanging or defeating the rabid crazies and the frothy craziness on the Right, Obama will lose and deserves to lose. Indeed, I have lost most of my respect for the man who, despite his published introspections, never saw the truth about himself or never had the integrity to admit it to himself: that he may be a good man, he may be the better man for the job in these times, but he is not a man good enough for the job.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Every once in a while a piece comes along which is simply too rich in falsehoods, nonsense, and contradiction to pass up. Jim Harbison's latest effort, which appears in "The Bulletin" (29 July, A7 or is one such. Harbison strings together assertions unsupported by anything other than what the author regards as self-evident truths. Some are nonsense, some are false, some contradict his principles—so what? What matters to him is denigrating anything which he dislikes with a nasty-sounding term.

Harbison defines communitarianism as a doctrine making the state dominant in and controlling of the lives of individuals—a kind of totalitarianism. But it does little more than elaborate Aristotle’s remark 2500 years ago: “man is a social animal.” So it tries to establish boundaries between the individual’s responsibilities to society and society’s responsibilities to the individual—without infringing on an individual’s responsibilities to himself and others.

Harbison asserts that federal and state governments operate according to this doctrine –an assertion devoid of sense or support. The term denoting this doctrine is not part of ordinary political parlance. Wikipedia’s discussion of its “Influence in the United States,” states that “Reflecting the dominance of liberal and conservative politics in the United States, no major party and few elected officials advocate communitarianism.”

Under the pretense of criticizing an academic doctrine and its non-existent practices, Harbison unleashes a reactionary attack on anything not to his liking. “To create their utopian society more activities are identified as unacceptable or criminal such as diabetes, smoking, name calling, heavy energy consumption, neglect (in their view), driving when you could ride your bike or take public transportation. Other examples include areas of public health versus individual privacy, prayer in school, advocate taking your child away because of obesity, or codes enforcement that criminalize behaviors such as failure to cut your weeds or recycle your trash.”

Let us look at his first list:

Diabetes: let’s approve of it and stop paying for its treatment.
Smoking: let’s allow it everywhere and disregard that secondary smoke adversely affects others. (Harbison believes that smokers have rights to smoke when and where they please but affected non-smokers do not have rights to enjoy those times and places without risks or adverse effects. He believes that some people are more entitled to individual rights and personal freedoms than others are.)
Name-calling: let’s act as if name-calling is not abusive and harmful. (His logic would approve calling his wife—what?—and allowing libel, slander, and privacy-violating materials spread on the Internet.)
Heavy energy consumption: let’s continue reliance on unstable regimes and risks of economic losses and disruptions.
Neglect (in their view): let’s imagine what neglect is A-OK.
Driving [instead of bike or bus riding]: let’s identify those who define driving as “unacceptable or criminal.”

Now let us look at his second list:

Public health versus individual privacy: suppose we try to figure out which is “unacceptable or criminal.” Both seem like good ideas to me.
Prayer in school: let’s determine whether he refers to individuals praying by themselves, or classes or assemblies praying as a majority differently from the faiths of a minority. Let’s ask whatever happened to “personal freedoms” in his advocacy of majoritarian prayer in the schools.
Advocate taking your child away because of obesity: Let’s identify who is urging this action. Let’s wonder at his paranoid imagination.
Codes enforcement that criminalize behaviors such as failure to cut your weeds or recycle your trash: Let’s allow neighborhoods to run down so that depressed housing values can decline even more. Let’s find an instance of someone penalized for not recycling trash.

Forget Harbison’s rant about communitarianism. Ask the question: what kind of world does Harbison want us to live in? Answer it: a smoky, weedy, trashy one with lots of abusive, neglectful, obese, diabetic, and cancer-prone people praying to God in gratitude as they drive their gas-guzzlers through stop signs and red lights, and just enjoy the heck out of their personal freedoms.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


This column has been removed as duplicated by the "Jim Harbison's Communitarian Nonsense," which is essentially the same column. I hold this space only because of the two comments.

Monday, August 1, 2011


The day after the 1960 election, my American philosophy professor, a man who paced back and forth during his lectures, entered the classroom and sat down. Stunned by this unprecedented act, we fell silent in wonder at what it meant. Lifting his head from his hands, which had covered his face, he explained that he had been up all night, with every radio in the house on, so that he could follow the returns of the very close race between Kennedy and Nixon (the result would not be known for a few hours). Before he resumed his lecture with his customary pacing—I think that man had to walk in order to talk—he made a remark which has haunted me since. He said that, though it mattered who won the election, the job of future American presidents would be to manage a country in decline.

Fifty years later, we are there now. We have avoided the inevitability of America’s declining strength—of its economy, of its place in the world, even of its place in the hearts of some. We indulged our good fortune after World War II; imagined that victory and the vitality of recovery guaranteed us perpetual supremacy (or required us to try to maintain it); ignored the likelihood that recovery in other countries would create economic and political, if not also military, changes and challenges to that supremacy; squandered moral, political, and military assets in unwise wars unwisely fought, showed ourselves to be poor stewards of our human and natural resources; and borrowed recklessly to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle.

America is downsizing, and the failure of American presidents and other elected leaders to prepare for this eventuality—indeed, their success in pretending that it could not happen here and in persuading us that it could not happen here—is magnifying the strains which now jeopardize American democracy. The country’s weakening political commitment to its principles and procedures in these difficult economic times suggests that its allegiance was always contingent and superficial. Patriotism was lip-service for pay-off. What has democracy done for us lately?

Ironically, Obama is a man fit for these times; he deserves credit for being conflict-averse, easily cowed into caving on everything for which he says he stands. His weakness makes him a hollow man, filled with vain hope, emptied of vigorous audacity. He has failed to exert the leadership necessary to lead America to adjust to the reality of the modern world by managing and thereby mitigating America’s decline. He has failed to adjust Democratic principles and policies to this reality. By “leading from the rear,” he has defaulted on leadership.

So he is getting out of the way of the future and turning it over to Republicans. For, although their distributional principles are unfair and, in the long run, will inflict even greater harm on the country’s economy and democracy, Republicans, including Tea Partiers, will unwittingly lead the downsizing of the country. Their policies, if implemented, will be self-inflicted wounds on their interests and the country’s. Unrestrained capitalism has always undermined itself. As the saying goes, nothing fails like success. So they vehemently inveigh against government generally, and debts, deficits, and taxes specifically. They are determinedly deluded in thinking that the implementation of their ideology to shrink government and unleash capitalism will return America to an imagined Golden Age and thereby restore its economic, political, and moral/religious health. For what has failed in the past, is not working in the present, and cannot succeed in the future will, willy-nilly, bring American down, and down to earth.

The dream is over; the nightmare begins.

Unless. Unless it is too late, Democrats need to do the equivalent of what staunch anti-communist Nixon did in visiting communist China. They need to be the ones to accept that to achieve national and popular objectives, they can no longer be grandiose, but must be pragmatic, as guardians of the public weal. Michael Dukakis might have been America’s most hapless presidential candidate of a major party in recent history, but he might also have been its only candidate running before his time, with his emphasis on competence in government. The idea of the president as Manager-in-Chief ensuring competent government does not produce vapors of inspiration, but I think that Americans today realize that stewardship is absolutely necessary if the country is to recover the sense and the strength to adjust to the reality of declining expectations—the second American Revolution.