Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Delusion of the Masses?

Last Wednesday, Robert Samuelson, who writes a column for The Washington Post, published a piece titled, "The Obama Delusion," in which he reached the following conclusion: "He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's problems when, so far, he isn't." On the previous day, in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote that he had encountered something he labeled OCS, short for "Obama Comedown Syndrome." Those who suffered from this affliction, he wrote, "began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. For example, his Hopeness tells rallies that we are the change we have been waiting for, but if we are the change we have been waiting for, then why have we been waiting since we've been here all along?"

The tone of both pieces reminded me of what Walter Lippmann wrote of Franklin Roosevelt six months before Roosevelt was declared his party's standard bearer in 1932: "He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."

And, if one is looking for reasons to explain Obama's rise, it seems to me that what happened in 1932 is instructive. George W. Bush likes to think of himself as another Harry Truman -- a common man of strong convictions who was reviled when he left office, but who history has vindicated. However, Mr. Bush may be more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman. Hoover was a dedicated public servant, whose solutions to the economic crisis of his time were classic economic orthodoxy. He never understood that what he faced required a new set of solutions -- what Roosevelt called "The New Deal."

In reaction to Hoover's inability to perceive how much the world had changed, the public rose in revolt and put a man in office who some people referred to as "a feather duster," and who spent a good deal of his time in a wheelchair.

But Roosevelt -- like Obama -- was a quick study, who attracted a brain trust of superb advisers and who thought outside the box. The results were remarkable: Roosevelt abandoned the textbooks and experimented: the benchmark for success was, "Does it work?" Not everything worked; and when that happened, Roosevelt did not make the mistake of confusing policy with dogma. He simply tried something else.

If anything, Mr. Bush has been the opposite of Roosevelt. His mantra has been, "stay the course." The members of the Bush administration are right when they proclaim that the world changed after September 11th. Unfortunately, they have not had Roosevelt's flexibility of mind. And those who Bush has chosen as his Brain Trust have suffered from what the American historian Barbara Tuchman called "woodenheadedness." (See my post of April 9, 2007) The cure for woodenheadness, wrote Tuchman, is moral courage. Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of moral courage being equated with steadfastness. Often, she declared, the true measure of moral courage was the courage to change course. The man in the wheelchair had learned something about moral courage long before he became president.

What Obama is advocating is a change of course. Like Roosevelt, he is saying that the change will only be effective if it comes from the bottom up. And, like Roosevelt, the forces of fear are aligned against him. But he understands that -- in these extraordinary times -- our most potent enemy is "fear itself."

Sometimes the people have an instinctive knowledge that the man who can meet the challenges of their time is in their midst. My guess is that Obama will be elected President. If I'm right, the Walter Lippmanns of our own day will either be proven right or history will force them -- like Lippmann -- to reassess the man.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Adios, Fidel

Fidel Castro resigned his office today. The man who haunted my adolescence has left, not with a bang (a consummation for which many have wished) but with a whimper. I remember the day in October, 1962, when I went off to school, not knowing when I got home -- and I viewed my arrival there as problematic -- if the world would be engulfed in a nuclear war. As a student who had recently entered high school, I sat riveted when, over the intercom, our principal piped in a radio report, updating us on the confrontation between American and Russian ships off the coast of Cuba.

I breathed a sigh of relief when it appeared that the Russians had blinked. It was only years later that I discovered the Kennedy brothers and Nikita Khrushchev had quietly brokered a back channel deal by which Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba if President Kennedy removed American missiles from Turkey. Amid the hysteria of the Cold War, reason -- something which appeared to be in short supply -- prevailed. It is worth remembering that Kennedy's military advisers and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson were advocating an invasion of Cuba.

Even though rational and pragmatic men avoided Armageddon, the Kennedys remained obsessed with Castro. They renewed their single-minded attempts to eliminate him. The most Machiavellian of their efforts -- and the lowest point in the Kennedy administration -- was their plot to enlist the mob's help in Castro's assassination. As the recent release of C.I.A. files confirms, Robert Kennedy arranged a hit on Castro, orchestrated by Johnny Rozelli and Sam Giancana, Al Capone's successor in the Chicago mob. It was no profile in courage -- either for the Attorney General, who had declared war on organized crime, or for the president, who was sleeping with Giancana's mistress.

Castro was no innocent victim. He wielded power ruthlessly and tolerated no dissent. He would not allow opponents to write, as he did in 1952 -- in his effort to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, "But my voice will not be stifled -- it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it."

And, not content to liberate Cuba from Batista's tyranny, Castro sought -- through his alliance with Che Gueverra -- to export his revolution to Central America, South America and Africa. But, on the positive side of the ledger, he provided all his citizens with universal education -- from kindergarten through university -- and universal health care. Those who seek to understand Castro's longevity should begin with those two policies.

In the final analysis, however, what Castro cared most about was the acquisition and maintenance of power. And it has been that overarching quest that has tainted whatever good he has done. There are those who think that, with Castro's departure, the road to democracy is inevitable. George W. Bush greeted Castro's resignation by declaring, "Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections -- and I mean free and fair -- not those kind of staged elections which the Castro brothers foist off as true democracy."

Mr. Bush, whose attempt to export democracy to the Middle East has been about as successful as Castro's attempt to export Communism to Central America, would be wise to let the Cubans work out their own political destiny. It would be a new twist on the Monroe Doctrine. For, as today proves, if you are patient enough to wait out your opponents, you may wind up in a much better place than where war and assassination leaves you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Fat is in the Fire

All minority governments eventually engineer their own downfall. Stephen Harper has indicated that, within the next two months, the House of Commons will be presented with three no confidence motions. The budget, by definition, is one such motion. But why bring the Afghanistan mission to a vote, and why now? Likewise, does the Senate's attempt to revise the government's crime legislation merit the no confidence threshold?

Mr. Harper will claim, of course, that all three pieces of legislation are matters of principle. But the truth is that the clock has been ticking on the Harper government for a long time. Moreover, this government has lasted longer than the average eighteen month tenure for minority governments in Canada. The simple fact is, as James Travers pointed out in The Toronto Star on Saturday, the tide is turning against Harper. The economic downturn in the United States is about to hit us -- in Ontario and Quebec's manufacturing plants it already has -- and the political tide, which long ago went out on George W. Bush, is now turning left. Mr. Harper will find it harder to deal with the next American president and Congress.

And, besides, the political war room which the Conservatives established a year ago has been given precious little to do -- except to produce attack ads against Stephane Dion. Those ads are going to be the chief weapon in Mr. Harper's arsenal. And, truth be told, the awkward Mr. Dion is a ripe target for parody.

Even if France provides enough troops to meet the reinforcement threshold recommended in the Manley Report, those troops will still not be enough to turn around the situation in Afghanistan. And there will not be a significant shift in NATO troop deployments until after the American election. The decision to extend the mission does not have to be made now. If an extension is needed immediately after the American election, that extension can be for six months, not two years. The British and the Russians knew something about invading Afghanistan -- but Mr. Bush and his enablers disregarded their experience, then left NATO holding the bag. Mr. Harper seems to feel that there is something heroic -- like Horatio at the bridge -- in holding that bag.

The crime bill, which echoes American sentencing guidelines -- and has led to one of the highest rates of citizen incarceration in the world -- is also a flawed piece of legislation. And the budget, as many economists have pointed out, makes paltry investments in human capital and infrastructure. Instead of investing the surpluses of the last several years, Mr. Harper and Company have reduced taxes in an across the board fashion, rather than targeting areas which require government support to secure the nation's future. Government investment in the Conservative lexicon is an oxymoron. The textbook says that investment is the job of private entrepreneurs.

For the Prime Minister, a true believer in Milton's Friedman's Revolution, holds fast to the economic dogma of the last thirty years, even as the evidence of its failure mounts. All he can offer in its defense is a set of personal attacks, which he has used most recently against Linda Keen -- and which he will use against his political opponents. His confidence belies a deeper sense of desperation. What he wants is a majority government before he is declared irrelevant. The next few months will determine whether or not he gets his wish.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mr. Edwards Takes His Leave

Today Americans head to the polls to decide who the nominees for both the Republican and Democratic parties should be. The betting is that John McCain, like Lazarus, will enjoy a political resurrection. On the Democratic side, the outcome is not so clear. The only thing Democrats know for sure is that John Edwards has left the building.

In many ways, Edwards was the most appealing of the three candidates. Here I must acknowledge that Edwards went to law school at the University of North Carolina, from which I graduated almost thirty five years ago; and he lives outside Chapel Hill. I loved going to school there; and, to me, the town always seemed an oasis of wisdom and tolerance in a state which at times -- particularly when Jesse Helms served as its senior senator -- lacked of both.

There are those who were unimpressed with Edwards' angry populism. And some -- noting that Edwards could afford four hundred dollar haircuts and that he lived in a palatial home -- accused him of hypocrisy. But, so far as I know, discovering and using one's talents for good, even if those talents lead to the accumulation of some wealth, is not a sign of moral turpitude. Another way of thinking about Edwards is that he simply didn't forget where he came from. And where he came from is a small South Carolina mill town, the working class of which used to be referred to -- pejoratively -- as "lint heads."

These are the folks, Robert Reich wrote, whose incomes have stagnated for thirty years. Until recently, they have adopted three strategies to cope with this situation. First, working women entered the work force. In 1970, 38% of American women worked outside the home. Today that number is 70%. When that was not enough to keep them from slipping into poverty, working class Americans simply worked more hours. "The typical American," wrote Reich, "now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago." And, in a final desperate attempt to avoid being caught in an economic undertow, they went into debt -- lots of it. Now, as the sub-prime mortgage crisis threatens to take the entire financial system down, they have run out of options. Edwards has reason to be angry.

But anger is not Edwards chief legacy to this year's campaign. Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times last week that Edwards has left those who have survived -- Mr. Obama and Mrs Clinton -- a storehouse of good, workable ideas. "He made a habit of introducing bold policy proposals," wrote Krugman, "and they were met with such enthusiasm among Democrats that his rivals were more or less forced to follow suit."

Sometimes, however, the man with the ideas has to watch as others implement them. "Unfortunately for Mr. Edwards," wrote Krugman, "the willingness of his rivals to emulate his policy proposals made it hard for him to differentiate himself as a candidate; meanwhile those rivals had far larger financial resources and received vastly more media attention." Still, Edwards extracted from both Obama and Clinton a pledge to make poverty -- which he calls "the cause of my life" -- a centerpiece of Democratic policy. And good trial lawyer that he is, one can be sure he will hold both Obama and Clinton to that pledge.

I wrote a month ago that my money was on Obama. It still is. But regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, neither he nor she will has got there without the policies and the passion of John Edwards. He and his wife, Elizabeth, now move on to other more important battles. God speed.