Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Political Dust, Spring Winds

The healthcare battle in Congress was temporarily concluded with the passage of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legislation, and it was a major dust-up. The president and his allies have been doing a “victory dance” for several days, and claiming that the momentum, which had been leaking from their political machine in recent months, was now “fixed,” and now they are poised to accomplish more of the same.

Perhaps, but public opinion and corporate reaction to the the so-called healthcare reform does not so far support this contention.

Although the Obama administration and its minions would apparently like to restrict the market place from “doing its thing,” that is, evaluating the new legislation and taking rational and logical steps to adjust to it, the United States is still a capitalist democracy, and initial reactions are that individuals, especially middle class Americans, are increasingly realizing that their healthcare choices are being restricted, their health insurance rates are going up, and that government intervention into the healthcare industry has taken an ominous step forward. Larger corporations, which are now forced to adopt new rules for providing insurance for their employees, are taking prudent write-offs against future and current profits (which will at least temporarily reduce earnings per share) to cover their costs of the new mandates. This, in turn, will be reported in approaching quarterly reports, and will tend to reduce investors’ willingness to invest in these corporations. If the market determines that the write-offs signal a more permanent restriction on profits, the consequences for the stock market in the intermediate term could be severe.

Finally, physicians, nurses, healthcare employees, hospitals and pharmaceuticalcompanies are trying to interpret the consequences of the new rules on their work and livelihoods, and so far there is widespread anxiety. Of course, millions of Americans now have more formal healthcare, replacing emergency room care, but the bureaucratic expansion and cost of government to administer this may soon be seen as prohibitive.

Conventional wisdom is now widespread that, having passed the legislation, the nation simply had better get used to it. Repeal of the most egregious parts of the legislation, owlish pundits assure us, is unthinkable. Look at social security, look at medicare, we are advised. A few savvy voices, however, are pointing out the key differences between that legislation of the past and this new legislation, and they shatter the conventional wisdom that what was passed by so narrow a margin cannot be undone.

Nontheless, the president and his party have stirred the political dust on domestic policy much more than usual, and they now seem determined to transform their “victory’ into remaking the U.S. economy even more along European social models.

Their problem is the oldest obstacle to radical change, that is, the facts. I have argued that the Obama “reform” in American healthcare is not change at all, but simply applying the devices of the past (long-term deficits) to the problem, thus only aggravating it. (I have to add, in fairness, that some parts of the new legislation were acceptable to all sides, and do not need to be rescinded.)

So there is a lot of political dust in the air. It is choking the civility out of political discourse. Bipartisanship has evaporated. Voters in the American political center, many of whom vote independently, are not quite ready to move on. Mr. Obama has successfully nationalized the 2010 midterm elections, and somehow I don’t think this is what he and his advisors had in mind.

On the other hand, the outcome in 2010 and 2012 is far from an accomplished matter. Republicans and independents face a determined band of Democrats who wish indeed to change the American way of life. These Democrats, who now hold so much power in Washington, DC, are not going to suddenly throw up a white flag and go away.

In the spring winds now sweeping the nation, the dust has not settled and the path ahead is not yet clear. Wishful thinking, slogans and indignation will accomplish little this year, and in the next two years.

Campaign discipline, the facts, leaders with clarity, and hard work are ahead for those who would prevent the current dust storm from becoming a national political dust bowl leading to the further and lamentable decline of a great nation.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

No More New Housing in Alexandria, Arlington and McLean!

Recent demands of the U.S. administration on the State of Israel in regard to new housing construction in that nation’s capital could logically produce the following fallout in our own capital of Washington, DC.

Unreconstructed sympathizers to the cause of the late secession of the Confederate states of America (1861-65) could at last regroup now, and rally around a new cause: autonomy of the states. Secession, of course, is no longer a viable issue, nor is slavery. In fact, many supporters of autonomy might be black Americans who, like many white Americans, no longer feel that the federal government is serving the interests of most citizens. Autonomy, it should be noted, has been successfully done in Europe (in Scotland and Catalunya, for example) so it should be as easy to establish in the U.S. as free and universal healthcare has recently been.

The initial project of the Autonomous State of Virginia (ASV) could be the demand that there be no new federally-sponsored or encouraged housing in Alexandria, Arlington and McLean in Virginia since such housing would almost entirely be built for employees and consultants for the federal government. Since the Confederacy had its capital in Virginia, and since it almost conquered Washington early in the Civil War (it was theirs for the taking, some argue, after the Battle of Bull Run), it is logical that the capital of the Autonomous State of Virginia be located right across the Potomac River, and that the demand to stop new housing is legitimate.

It is a little known fact that a series of condominiums in Fairlington, Virginia (sandwiched between Alexandria and Arlington) were originally constructed as housing for officers and their families during World War II. Underneath the basements of this complex, a vast series of connecting tunnels were constructed as air raid shelters as a precaution against Nazi air attacks. Now sealed (and probably unknown to current residents), this complex could serve as a virtually ready-made government compound for the new Autonomous State, safe from any attacks that might be launched from the nearby Pentagon.

Since the claims of these heirs to the Confederate States have clear historical substance, their first campaign for public attention could be a massive protest against any new housing in Alexandria, Arlington and McLean. The putative leader of this group would naturally be Pat Buchanan, formerly a candidate for president of the U.S.A., and now a logical choice to be president of Virginia. Mr. Buchanan has long led efforts to interfere with construction of housing in the capitals of sovereign nations in other parts of the world, and is the right man for the job.

Watch for the bumper stickers: “No More New Housing Along the Potomac!”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lambs for Slaughter

The suggestion reportedly made by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, chair of the House rules committee, that the Democrats employ an arcane rule that is little more than a legislative trick to pass the stalled Obama healthcare bill would be ludicrously funny if it did not display so baldly the desperation of the majority party in Congress to enact a law so clearly opposed by most Americans.

This legislation, which would transform the nation's private healthcare system to a government-run bureaucracy while at the same time stunningly increase the nation's deficit, is simply not in the American grain. It is a failed system imported from Europe and Canada where health care availability is supposedly free (but of course paid for heavily by everyone's taxes), and is often unavailable in a timely or reasonable manner.

There is no question that healthcare costs in the United States are growing too fast, and that the medical insurance system is inefficient. Everyone seems agreed about this. But while President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership propose changes that employ all the techniques from the past which got us into the mess we're in now, there are sensible conservative alternatives which accomplish the same goals with better healthcare and at lower cost. This became apparent at the recent healthcare summit, called by President Obama, at which Republicans articulated many of these proposals and ideas.

Every 48 hours or so, Speaker Pelosi declares she has the votes to pass the Obama bill, but so far she does not have them. There is a good reason for this. No matter how much arm-twisting, threats and legal "bribes" she offers members who are not yet absolutely decided, the bill is both undecipherable and very unpopular with most Americans. Over many months, this has not changed. In fact, the bill's support continues to get weaker.

The Democrats have now formally notified the Republicans that they intend to use the "reconciliation" technique to force the bill through. Most neutral observers (as well as opponents) think this is inappropriate for such far-reaching legislation, but let us assume, it is attempted nevertheless.

If the Obama-Pelosi-Reid effort fails, it will be humiliating for the leadership. If it succeeds, it will be devastating to many incumbent Democrats in November, possibly costing them control of one or both the House and the Senate. The "Slaughter" maneuver is so over-the-top it is unlikely to be considered further, but the fact that Democratic leaders are even floating these kinds of strategies only further publicizes their desperation and out-of-touch-with-the-public thinking.

At some point, significant Democrats in the Congress are going to say "Enough!" A few have already spoken up, and say they will not vote for this legislation. As we approach election day, it will become more and more obvious that its passage would lead to an electoral debacle far beyond what is even now being predicted.

I will not say that Obama-Pelosi-Reid can't pass their healthcare bill, but if they somehow bamboozle their own members and send it to the president's desk, Washington, DC will be filled in January, 2011 with former congresspersons and senators packing their bags to go home.

They will have been political lambs led to slaughter.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hillary Blows Off the British

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been doing some curious things lately. The most recent was, during her visit to Argentina, when she called for the British to meet with the Argentine government to settle their dispute over the Falkland Islands, geographically located near the South American state, but under British jurisdiction since 1833.

This might seem reasonable on its surface, but was in fact diplomatically bizarre. The most recent dispute over the Falklands was decisively settled in 1982 when British troops repelled an Argentine military invasion. Great Britain is perhaps the United States’ most important ally in the world today, a friendship reinforced by our participation together in two world wars, the Cold War, the Iraq War, and by the powerful ties of common heritage, law and language. The population of the Falkland Islands is 70% of British origin and have voted overwhelmingly want to remain part of the British Commonwealth. They speak English. They are self-governing. They regard Argentina as an invader.

Moreover, Argentina today is an unstable nation, seemingly in perpetual economic and political crisis. Although currently democratic, it has endured dictatorship and military coups during much of the 20th century.

It was not always this way. At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Argentina boasted the leading economy in South America and the 7th largest economy in the world. With its large European-immigrated population, it was a center of industry and culture. Argentina had contributed, for example, the tango to world dance and music. It provided leading writers to Hispanic and world literature. Its capital, Buenos Aires, was then one of the great cities of the world.

Peronism, or demogogic populism, preceded by a series of military juntas, swept Argentina out of the world’s economic and political center over the middle decades of the 20th century. General Juan Peron formally took over the government in 1946, and through cronyism and corruption, destroyed what remained of the national economy. His charismatic but unstable wife Eva stood at his side until her death. Peron was removed by a military coup in 1955, but he came back in 1973. His second wife briefly replaced him before she herself was removed by a military coup. Only in 1982 did Argentina resume being a democratic state again. In 2003, Nestor Kirschner was elected president, and following his term, was replaced by his wife Cristina, the current president. But few of Argentina’s many economic problems have been solved in the Kirschner years.

Some observers have suggested that Mrs. Clinton, who was given a very warm welcome to Argentina by the Kirschners, was overcome by the parallel circumstances of the Clintons and the Kirschners, i.e., the two men being elected president, and then being followed by their wives. Of course, in Mrs. Clinton’s case, she only came close.

Monday, March 1, 2010

November 2010 and 2012 Are Only the Beginning

There are several ways to look at the next presidential election in 2012, especially since the current and new president, Barack Obama, appears unuusually vulnerable to being limited to one term.

This early vulnerability, after only about one year in office, could, following the 2010 mid-term elections this year, provoke an intraparty challenge to the president, as happened in 1980 when then-Senator Ted Kennedy took on incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy ultimately failed in that effort, but a politically wounded Carter went on to defeat by Ronald Reagan in the November election that followed.

Although it would take a huge wave reversal this year in the congressional elections, the Republicans might take control of one or both houses of Congress as early as this year.

All of this remains speculative, at this point, since so many events and conditions can intervene in an eight-month and thirty-two month interval. Political fortunes rarely go very long in a straight line either up or down.

But if all this predictive caution isn’t enough, I suggest that an even much longer period of time may be in order for political and policy planning for candidates and their political parties if they are not only to win the next political cycles, but govern successfully as well.

Barack Obama has been a political phenomenon. In 2008, the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination was Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York.

But it was the novice US.senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama, who survived a long, closely fought battle up to the Democratic convention, and then went on to defeat Republican nominee John McCain in November. Although the latter was in the end a decisive victory for the first black U.S. president, it should not be forgotten that following their own convention and just before the mortgage banking crisis, the McCain-Palin ticket had pulled ahead in the race. The financial meltdown effectively ended the presidential race, but without it, it is not dispositively clear who wins.

In any event, Barack Obama did win, and did have a reasonably good idea for some time before election day that he would become the next president. While there is some evidence that Mr. Obama and his advisers, and certainly Democratic congressional leaders, had some idea of “what” they wanted to do if they won, there is now little evidence that any of them, especially in the executive branch, had thought out “how” they would accomplish their goals.

The “what” of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid political team has turned out to be a radical series of public policies which are mostly quite unpopular with U.S. voters. Even with huge majorities in both houses of Congress, they have been unable to pass very much legislation. In an historically brief time, in fact, they have squandered their decisive 2006 and 2008 victories, and appear headed for major losses in the national elections eight months away.

But if those losses do indeed materialize, if they reach such proportions that control of one or both houses of Congress are lost, then what?

What would be the “what” of a re-empowered Republican party in the Congress, and then if Mr. Obama would subsequently be replaced in 2012, what would be the “what” of a new Republican president?

Recent major off-year and special elections, all of which have so far gone to the Republicans, combined with the so-called Tea Party conservative movement and pronouncements of various other Republican leaders and groups, indicate a strong economically conservative trend for many if not most new Republican candidates this year and in 2012. But no major nationalpolitical party, especially a successful one, is monolithic. As the recent elections in New Jersey and Massachusetts demonstrated, only moderately conservative Republicans can win in the northeast region of the country, Even in Virginia, a traditionally southern state, the new conservative governor campaigned in thepolitical center in order to win. Perhaps more conservative candidates can win in the deep south, the far west and some midwestern states, but if the GOP truly wants to win control of the Congress and the presidency, too, it will have to accept some range of conservativepolitical attitudes among its candidates and officeholders (although it has every right to expect general agreement on basic principles).

It can be argued, I think, that a pure conservative wave might be all that is needed to win many elections in 2010 because of the negative reaction to Obama-Pelosi-Reid policies which are so radical and unpopular. But I suspect that if candidates and party leaders don’t accompany the “what “ of their policies with a “how” they will enact their program and maintain popular support over the next decade (the minimal period, in my opinion, in which their efforts will be required to bring about meaningful reform and change in the nation, and to restore sustained free market economic growth), their moments of control and power will be as brief as that enjoyed by the Democrats they replace.

Obviously, this has direct and immediate bearing on the mid-term elections of 2010, but in some ways, these considerations are more important for the presidential election of 2012. Most speculation about this election so far is personality-oriented. There is already a nominal frontrunner (Mitt Romney), a number of dark horses (Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, John Thune, Jeb Bush, et al), at least two major figures from 2008 who may or may not run (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee) and probably one important gray eminence who may or may not run (Newt Gingrich).

I have every reason to believe that Mr. Gingrich, the Republican Party’s most significant fount of new ideas and politicl strategies, is thinking along these long-term lines. But, short of an even greater crisis than we have now, he may not be able to be nominated for president by hisparty in 2012. Is Mr Romney thinking about the “how” as well as the “what” of a new GOP administration? How about Governor Pawlenty, a very attractive dark horse? Or Governor Mitch Daniels (who has the most impressive resume of all). Or Jeb Bush (in spite of his surname)?

It may be too early to make meaningful predictions about the presidential election of 2012, especially on the Republican side. And it may not be clear (until after the 2010 elections) to formulate the precise “what” of future public policies.

But I do suggest and contend that it is not too early for those with ambitions for the highest office in the nation, a country which still holds the leadership of the free world, to think about and plan for the “how” to govern should they also, incidentally, figure out the “how” to be elected.