Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Review - The Prize

Dale Russakoff's book The Prize starts like a spy thriller - cloistered in the back of an SUV late at night, two men are plotting a revolution. But unlike a John LeCarre novel, these men - New Jersey's Republican Governor, Chris Christie, and the Democrat running the state's largest city - Newark Mayor Cory Booker, are not engaged in Cold War scheming, but rather, a discussion about how to remake public education in a city that graduates barely half its high school students and most consistently read, write, and do math well below their grade levels.

What unfolds over the following few years is a cautionary tale of what happens when well-intentioned people try to make radical change without understanding how to do it and the arrogance to try it without including the people who would be affected by it. Woven throughout this experiment in public policy are people talking past each other, or not at all, of generations-held suspicions of outsiders, racial tension, and bald political machinations that squander much of the good will and philanthropic contributions earmarked to help the children of Newark.

Of course, things do not start out that way. Buzzing from a splashy announcement that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to improve schools in Newark (another $100 million in "matching" funds would bring the total to $200 million), all things seem possible. Wrapped in that gift are the demands of education reformers - accountability, metrics, best practices, and of course, that loaded term, "charter schools." Left unspoken, either in the public reveal on Oprah Winfrey's eponymous show or in the strategic planning that would follow, was an interest in engaging those who would be most affected by this change - the families in Newark and the teachers who served them - in its planning, coordination, or implementation.

And perhaps this is unsurprising. The Newark School District has been under state control for more than two decades, stripping locals of much say in how their children are educated while strong union protections offer little incentive for more junior teachers to thrive and allow entrenched older, poorer performing teachers to continue receiving a generous salary even as they fail to meet the needs of the students they are responsible for educating. In this way, the reforms Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker were all lobbying for were admirable. No one would question that the school system had failed the children of Newark, but, as Russakoff shows, the opportunities presented by this infusion of cash were not fully realized and much of the book reads as an after action report on where the reformers fell short. 

Zuckerberg did a very Silicon Valley thing - he "bet on people." In this case, Booker, who charmed him with his vision for Newark's future, Christie, willing to be equal parts bull in the china shop and model for bipartisan agreement, and the seductive appeal of Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle to help poor children. While Zuckerberg's philanthropy may have been well-intentioned, he was woefully naive about what it would take to make this change possible. Betting on people may make sense when it comes to the latest start-up, but when those people are also politicians, the ROI is likely to be less impressive. One thing The Prize shows is that leadership from any of these three men at various points along the way may have made a difference as the reform effort unraveled. But Zuckerberg is portrayed as largely hands-off, only intervening when timetables had already slipped significantly, Booker's focus is strong at first but wanes as obstacles accumulate and he instead turns his eye to the U.S. Senate, and Christie's national profile diverted his attention, first in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and later, after the Bridgegate scandal broke. 

To take an example, one of the signature needs for implementation of education reform is the mitigation of tenure protection for teachers. Union contracts tend to make it hard to remove poor performing teachers and also allow more senior teachers to "bump" less experienced ones if layoffs occur. The political leadership failed to deliver the type of contract that would have allowed for generous performance bonuses, additional staffing, and the removal of the worst teachers that the three men all claimed would happen. Instead, more than $90 million - or almost half of the entire philanthropic donation - went into the pockets of the same teachers the reformers claimed were failing, in the form of back pay, buy outs, and administrative fees. This failure had a tangible impact on the reform effort - while schools were shuttered, the remaining ones were able to cherry pick the best teachers, but the excess teachers could not be terminated, resulting in costs that would ultimately run into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Christie and Booker's hand picked superintendent, Cami Anderson, exacerbated the problem by approving $1,000 a day contracts for outside consultants even as support staff and janitors were being handed pink slips. 

The community does not wrap itself in glory either. Russakoff leaves largely unexamined the lack of personal responsibility of men and women having children when they have no steady source of income or at a young age or without the basic family structure that might improve their chances of success. This is brought into sharp relief when Russakoff talks about poorly attended community outreach events but also at protest rallies against educational reform where parents defend the abysmal outcomes produced by the school system they are protecting through their presence. It makes no sense, yet little time or attention is focused on it. Russakoff leaves it to the reader to find in Appendix II the fact that nearly three-quarters of households in Newark are led by a single parent and that 42% of children in Newark live below the poverty line, but the dots that connect those alarming statistics to the poor performance of the students in Newark's schools rarely lead back to blaming the parents who are raising these children in near third-world conditions. 

Often in The Prize one is left wondering whether the scope of the problem is simply too great to solve. Russakoff highlights the beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts of teachers, principals and school staff who dip into their own wallets to pay for school supplies, arrange rides for students without reliable transportation, and provide ]extra tutoring sessions for the children under their charge, but too often these gains are phyrric, either because of the students' unsettled family life or the simple passage of time and transfer to other educators who do not go the extra mile to help. A case study highlighted in Russakoff's book is a 7th grader named Alif Buyah, who, when we meet him in 2012 has already been held back twice. Through patience and diligence, his teachers nurture Alif, creating a specific tutoring plan, helping him get to and from school, and through his hard work and their support, he is promoted to 9th grade by the end of the school year. But Alif's success would be short-lived. A combination of trauma (a close friend was murdered in front of him), bureaucratic decisions (his school was closed as part of the district's reorganization), and his own struggles without the aid of those who had helped him resulted in truancy, absenteeism and drug use that wiped away all the gains that had been made in that one magical year. 

If there is one grace note in The Prize it is found in the small stories of commitment as illustrated through the educators who, against all of the bureaucratic bullshit, are truly passionate about making a difference in the lives of young people. But the systemic change envisioned in Newark has not come to pass. Achieving such a result would have been hard under ideal conditions, but the unforced errors made by so many along the way ensured the reform effort's defeat. Indeed, the cruel irony of what has happened in Newark is the creation of what is akin to a 21st century separate but equal educational system where about a third of Newark students are hand picked by charter schools saturated in services and money while the rest are educated in understaffed classrooms by a hodge-podge of great, good, and not-so-good teachers - not a particularly good return on a $200 million investment. 

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015


While the pundits score last night's Republican debate, who zinged who, who looked "Presidential," who garnered the greatest applause lines, and gee whiz, weren't those moderators great?, a larger truth is unsurprisingly being obscured. In a friendly room packed with partisans and batting practice softballs, the hard right ideas that were articulated in Milwaukee - on taxes, on immigration, on foreign policy - may have played well, but arguing for the massive deportation of the undocumented, the starvation of federal tax revenue while spending mindlessly on the military, and shutting down entire federal agencies, will not play well in Peoria come general election time.

And this is a problem that any of the candidates on stage last night will struggle with. Marco Rubio can repackage his stump speech into small sound bites for a 90 second answer that go largely unchallenged by a friendly Fox Business News panelist, but he will have to answer to an ocean of advertising and pushback regarding his inexperience, his flip flop on immigration, his no-exemption stance on abortion, and his tax plan if he is nominated for President. The same is true for Ted Cruz (my pick for who will win the nomination), who wants to shut down five government agencies (though he only remembered four - must be something in the water in Texas) and whose religiosity will be a turn off for millions of Americans. 

Of course, if the primary electorate somehow toggles toward the mainstream, the relative moderation of a guy like John Kasich will cause the right wing elements within the Republican Party to blanche and the limp effort by Jeb Bush thus far suggests that but for his last name, he would have been written off long ago. Chris Christie was a rising star once upon a time, but between his middling record in New Jersey and the embarrassing "Bridgegate" scandal, he has been relegated to the "kid's table" debate and is now an also ran. The rest of the field are non-starters on the national stage. Trump is a bloviating egomaniac, Fiorina appears allergic to the truth and is a fact checker's wet dream, and Ben Carson does not appear to know more than a thimbleful of information about anything that one needs to be President. 

And this does not even take into account the "Blue Wall" of states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six Presidential elections and will hand Hillary Clinton 90 percent of the electoral votes she will need to be elected, leaving her free to contest the handful of states to get her to 270. Couple that with the extreme views being espoused during these debates - instant fodder for devastating 30 second attack ads - the demographic shifts that continue to favor the Democrats, President Obama's surging popularity and the contrasting economic success of the two most recent Democrats in the White House versus the past three Republicans, and you start to see why the Republican debates are just exercises in deciding who will lose next November.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Jeb Can't Fix It

In the wake of another horrible debate performance where his well-paid staffers did not bother preparing him with any follow-up for his limp zinger at Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush is attempting a re-boot with the odd tagline “Jeb Can Fix It.” It is probably unclear to most whether Mr. Bush is speaking about his own flaccid campaign or the larger issues facing the country. Regardless, based on past performance being an indicator of future results, I would not hold my breath on either account.

The debate debacle was just another in a long list of indignities for the former Florida Governor. The party’s presumed standard bearer when he entered the race, Bush has been pummeled by real estate mogul Donald Trump for months, looked confused and wobbly when predictable questions about his brother’s Administration were raised, and has watched as people with no political experience like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have had their moments in the sun. 

Bush is doing what any candidate with deep pockets would do – he has hired a new image consultant, tightened up his stump speech and lowered expectations while underscoring his determination to win. And these are all well and good, but a guy who started out claiming he wanted to be his own man is now leaning almost entirely on his family connections for money, staff, and support. His super PAC may have a nine figure balance in its bank account, but Super PACs cannot pay for the basic needs of office space, travel, staff salaries, and other necessities that campaigns must pay to keep their candidate afloat. Bush’s third quarter fundraising was woeful and his “burn” rate was high, meaning he has little cash on hand to do those things that a campaign needs to pay for. Another poor debate performance and the money may dry up entirely, depriving Bush of the one thing he needs to survive. 

While the pundit class is not quite ready to write Jeb off, they are also reluctant to concede three important points: 
  • The “Bush” name is mud. Whether Republicans will ever admit it or not, their failure to embrace Jeb suggests they acknowledge that the country does not want another Bush in the White House. Jeb! has tried to excise his family’s name, but it is hard to take that seriously while employing nearly twenty of your brother’s high-ranking appointees;
  • The Republican Party is deeply conservative in ways it was not prior to 2010. Tax raising, amnesty giving liberal Ronald Reagan would struggle to win in today’s GOP. The combined support of outsiders like Trump, Carson, and Cruz easily eclipses fifty percent and what “establishment” energy exists is flowing toward Rubio as Bush falters; 
  • It will be hard for Jeb to win early primaries or caucuses. There are four early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Bush is lagging badly in Iowa, New Hampshire handed his brother a 17 point defeat in 2000 and gave Pat Buchanan 37 percent support against Jeb’s dad as a sitting President, South Carolina is basically Antebellum at this point and Nevada is a hotbed of libertarian thought. Even if Bush survives to contest these primaries and caucuses, none favor whatever ideology he is selling. Going 0 for 4 is a one-way ticket to political oblivion.
Of course, when your super PAC is sitting on $100 million and your last name is “Bush,” you cannot be counted out entirely, but the reality is that Right to Rise has run ads for weeks and Bush’s numbers are dropping not rising. The candidate’s uneasiness about his brother and his awful record as President have not changed and he continues to be gaffe prone, as his recent “stuff happens” comment regarding gun violence indicates. Lastly, the GOP electorate itself, in the wake of gains made last night based on hard-right ideology, is more likely to stiffen its opposition to anyone who appears to be part of establishment politics, like the brother and son of two former Presidents.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Battle In Boulder

Last night's CNBC debate has been roundly panned. The moderators are being blamed for asking bad questions and for failing to control the stage. Candidates blithely uttered empty rhetoric without pushback from the journalists or each other and the network could not even get the debate started on time.

These are all fair criticisms. But I would argue that in this chaos an important thing happened. Like hockey's recently adopted three-on-three overtime rules, the unwieldy flow of conversation combined with some candidates' clear desperation to attract attention and have "a moment" as they say in the business these days, resulted in some very important takeaways:

  • Jeb Bush Is Done. Like a silent movie actor who did not adapt to "talkies," Bush is a politician from a prior era who has not been able to make the transition to today's campaigning. Whether it has been his tin ear for social media or penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, he has floated on "inevitability" and his family name for months while his campaign has sunk like a stone. But last night may have been the death knell. He threw a tentative jab at Marco Rubio and Rubio was ready to counter-punch, flicking aside the older man's zinger and coming over the top with a haymaker. Bush spent the rest of the debate mostly silent and when he did speak, touted his fantasy football team. One would have thought it impossible for someone to make his brother George W. look deft and intelligent, but somehow Jeb managed this trick.
  • The Rise of Generation X. I am roughly the same age as both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and while I find their politics odious, I must tip my hat to their understanding of the modern media environment. Rubio sidestepped a high and tight pitch about his shady dealings in Florida (all of which were totally within bounds to ask about and accurate to boot) and Cruz dropped the line of the night when he flashed his Princeton-honed debating skills in skewering the moderators with a real time critique of their questions. That a candidate who has skipped out on his job (and readily admitted as much) and whose rise has been lubricated with a billionaire's largesse, and another one who espouses extreme right wing views on basically every subject under the sun, came out looking like winners should tell you something.
  • Joisey Attitude. Given even small openings, Governor Chris Christie displayed some of the natural political chops that once made him a favorite among the GOP donor base. He also took a swing at the moderators and used each opportunity provided to drive home his message. It may not end up making a difference in his polling, but Christie sold his version of governing (which those of us in New Jersey know was, well, a bit exaggerated) while coming off as someone who would not shrink from a debate with Hillary.
  • A Kinder, Gentler Trump. Other than the quick strike oppo dump he did on John Kasich (whose shellshocked reaction ended whatever flow he was trying to establish), Trump's shtick was toned down compared to previous debates. I will be interested to see if this version of Trump, equal parts dorsal-fin-flashing shark and guy-now-trying-to-talk-policy works for voters. Trump himself recognized the hedged bet, using his closing statement to take a pot shot at CNBC and bragging about how he re-negotiated the terms of the debate to everyone's benefit.
  • Everyone Else. With Rubio, Cruz, Christie, and to a lesser extent, Trump, sucking up most of the oxygen, the also-rans were Rand Paul (why are you still in this race, sir?), Mike Huckabee (ditto), Ben Carson (a paper tiger if you ever saw one who is out of his depth after 15 seconds), and Carly Fiorina (slick presentations may work in the boardroom, but you've been exposed as a shitty CEO and liar on the debate stage). 

In another era, after a debate like this, one or more of the candidates circling the drain below 5% would drop out and maybe even a guy like Bush would reexamine whether he should continue, but as was shown in 2012, all a candidate needs to do is get hot at the right time and suddenly they could find themselves in the "finals" for a 50/50 crack at being the most powerful person in the world. 

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Congress Takes A Vacation

With news that the White House and Congressional leaders have worked out a deal that will raise the debt limit through March 2017, fund the federal government and wrap other important matters like the highway bill into a massive legislative burrito, the passage of any additional, meaningful legislation before the President leaves office in January 2017 has come to an end.

This is quite convenient for incoming Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He need not sully himself with the messy details of governing or horse trading with the so-called Freedom Caucus over threats to default on our debt or other silliness. He can focus on his primary interests, which appear to be convincing the country that Social Security and Medicare need to be some combination of slashed and privatized while ensuring the wealthiest Americans pay as little in taxes as humanly possible.

More generally, this gives Congress the freedom to do fuck all before Election Day 2016, which I would guess suits the 435 members of the House and 34 Senators who are up for re-election just fine. Without the need to do the basic blocking and tackling of legislating, they are free to raise money and campaign about how shitty their opponents are without fear of having to do any work. In the Senate, any notion of basic governing, like voting on Obama appointees to the federal judiciary or a random Cabinet Secretary (looking at you, soon-to-be Acting Secretary of Education John King, Jr.) are already out the window and with Republicans nursing a small majority that they desperately want to hold on to so they can either ram through a new Republican President’s agenda or get to the business of blocking anything a new Democratic President might do.

This also works nicely for the media. After all, why bother having reporters on Capitol Hill when they can be disbursed to cover the antics of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest of the crew on the Republican side or hound Hillary Clinton while she waltzes to the Democratic nomination. Campaigns are far more compelling than dreary legislative sausage making or Committee hearings (oh right, we had one of those recently and after drumming up anticipation for months, the media gave a “move along, nothing to see here” sign when Trey Gowdy deteriorated into a puddle of sweat).

I suppose we should not get too upset about this. After all, it is nice that there will be people to inspect our food, investigate criminal activity, and allow us access to national parks, but one wonders whether a bit more should be expected from people making $174,000 a year and who are provided with lifetime health benefits after serving 5 years in office. Of course, since Congress is only in session for about 135 days each year, passing a budget and ensuring that the bills get paid may be the bare minimum of what it can do – the equivalent of getting a D minus grade on an exam in a class you are taking pass/fail. Hoping that Congress would address larger societal concerns like gun safety, climate change, income inequality, or the minimum wage, or would keep the judiciary properly staffed with judges and Cabinet agencies helmed by people who receive Senate confirmation seems to be more than we should expect anymore.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review - One Man Against The World

On April 17, 1973, FBI agents arrived at a private residence in Washington, D.C. to serve a subpoena. It was the kind of thing FBI agents have done thousands of times, but on that day, the residence they drove to was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the subpoena they served was on the police officers who patrol the White House, demanding the names of visitors to the President's home on June 18, 1972. As chronicled in Tim Weiner's excellent new book, One Man Against The World, upon learning of the FBI's visit, the President had this remarkable exchange with his closest aide, H.R. Haldeman:

Nixon: I need somebody around here as counsel.
Haldeman: And Attorney General.
Nixon: I need a Director of the FBI.

Just months into his second term but well into a series of decisions that would ultimately force him from office, the Washington, D.C. that Nixon bestrode was crumbling around him. Weiner's depiction of Nixon's Presidency is a car crash in slow motion, a steady drip-drip of unwise choices, venality, and bald criminal conduct by the man who held the most powerful job on the planet and a cadre of willing staffers who engaged in everything from bribery to evidence tampering in an effort to hide their illegal activity. 

Nixon's conversation with Haldeman is of a piece with his attitude toward most of the government. He cared little about who he appointed to head Cabinet agencies, shuffling people around willy nilly. One "acting" FBI Director, William Ruckelhaus, served in that position for a whole 59 days before being appointed as Deputy Attorney General, the number two position within the Department of Justice and James Schlesinger had a cup of coffee as CIA Director (five months) before being appointed Secretary of Defense. Even those who appeared to have power, like Secretary of State William Rogers, were systematically cut out of the most sensitive and important decisions as Nixon consolidated power within the sprawling federal bureaucracy in the hands of just a few trusted aides. 

In page after page we see Nixon's internal struggle to elevate himself to greatness while lowering himself to achieve that goal. Indeed, even before he was elected, Nixon's penchant for underhanded behavior revealed itself. As Weiner argues, Nixon flirted with treason as he back channeled the South Vietnamese while still merely a candidate for President, encouraging them to walk away from negotiations and tacitly promising a better deal if he were elected. And once elected, Nixon took for himself and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger the job of ending the Vietnam War, and, more broadly, redefining our role in the world. But in doing so, Nixon usurped the traditional balancing of powers among the three branches of government and ran roughshod over elements of the federal government who could have provided valuable advice. 

Vietnam would consume all of Nixon's first term as he toggled between escalation and strategic withdrawal while pressure from anti-war activists and some members of Congress grew. And in Nixon's paranoia and obsession with secrecy, the seeds of what would become Watergate were sown. All of the things we now associate with Watergate - break-ins, secret recordings, and lying to the public, began well before that fateful evening in June 1972. Weiner mines what is now an extensive public record to lay bare the scope of Nixon's deception - falsifying flight records to cover up the bombing in Laos, forming the "Plumbers" unit to ferret out embarrassing leaks to the media, the warrantless wiretapping of National Security Council aides and reporters and on and on. In his obsession with his own place in history, Nixon never seemed to know when to drop the shovel and stop digging.

In reading Weiner's account, it is difficult to credit Nixon for grand strategic thinking whether it is in his opening with China or detente with the Soviets. Both were done in the service of trying to find an honorable end to the Vietnam War but both failed. Nixon's recognition of the People's Republic had great symbolic value, but it would be another generation before that country would fully re-enter the world stage. As Weiner notes, even as Nixon negotiated an arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, the United States was engaging in the greatest escalation of its nuclear firepower on record. In the Middle East, Nixon ignored warnings of an impending war, was caught flat footed (and half in the bag) when the Yom Kippur War started, and was unprepared for the oil embargo unleashed in its aftermath. 

The tacit parallel woven throughout the book is Nixon's strategy in Vietnam and in Watergate - continued escalation to break the will of the enemy. In Vietnam,  this strategy "succeeded" insofar as the final push to settle occurred after the Dresden-like bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong weeks after Nixon's re-election, but the ratcheting up of Watergate, from paying hush money to suborning perjury to the Saturday Night Massacre of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Special Prosecutor, had the opposite effect - it steeled the opposition and lost him the scattering of supporters who may have found the idea of removing the President from office a dangerous precedent. 

The subtext to Weiner's book is "The Tragedy of Richard Nixon," but I find that conclusion a bit facile. While he surely saw a larger diplomatic picture when it came to opening relations with China, his entreaties to the Soviet Union were of limited success and ultimately, neither country did the one thing that Nixon craved - helping end the war in Vietnam. Further, the scope of Nixon's mendacity was so deep and unremitting that it is impossible to think of his fall as anything but well deserved. Over and over, as Weiner highlights, Nixon had the opportunity to come clean on Watergate and instead doubled down on falsehoods and lies.  

In the balance, Nixon's "great man" theory of governing that placed him at the center of a constellation of competing interests and powers was delusional at best and criminal at worst. He believed in total warfare against all his enemies, which is fine so long as you are swinging the biggest stick, but when fear is the only tool at your disposal, your power is utterly diminished once the opposition decides to fight back. His behavior was abhorrent to the rule of law, he cavalierly used the gears of government in the service of destroying his political opponents, and sullied the highest office in the land. That behavior is many things, but tragedy is not one of them. 

But for all the sturm und drang that Watergate created, the real tragedy is how little it impacted the body politic. The President and his men got off relatively easily. Sure, Nixon had to resign his office, but as an unnamed co-conspirator, he was in real legal jeopardy until President Ford issued a blanket pardon. His aides got off with the legal equivalent of slaps on the wrist - Haldeman and Ehrlichman each served eighteen months in prison, while John Dean served just four. Other key figures also served mere months in prison, in the case of two, Egil Krogh and Herb Kalmbach, they had their licenses to practice law restored when it was all over, and most of the people who actually carried out the burglary at the Watergate went to prison for less than two years (the exceptions being E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, though the latter made out quite well for himself in a second act as a conservative radio talk show host). 

Indeed, it is arguable that the modest punishment these men received encouraged subsequent administrations to thumb their nose at the law. The Reagan Administration illegally sold arms to the Iranians and diverted those funds to pay rebels in Nicaragua, but the President skirted justice and those involved in that illegal conduct received Presidential pardons or had their convictions tossed on technicalities. George W. Bush's Administration flagrantly violated laws on torture, manufactured a casus belli for war in Iraq and flouted the Fourth Amendment by authorizing warrantless wiretapping, but no one was ever called to account for that conduct. Instead of prosecuting the men and women involved in these activities, they have basically been shrugged off as policy discrepancies. While there was much hand wringing as Watergate unfolded that failing to prosecute those who perpetrated that crime would subvert the rule of law, the actions of succeeding administrations did just that.

Ironically, Nixon has received a bit of a revisionist gloss thanks to loyal aides like Pat Buchanan and others who focus on Nixon's foreign policy achievements and sage (but discreet) counsel to his successors as evidence of his greatness; that Watergate, like Johnson's escalation in Vietnam, should be viewed as a flaw in his record, not a condemnation of it (or of the man himself). "Nixon Goes to China" is now shorthand for a counter-intuitive, but bold move by a politician, and Watergate itself is now viewed as mere skullduggery and not part of a pattern of illegal conduct that began well before the break-in. That is tragic. 

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bush, Blame, and 9/11

The other day, and unprompted, Jeb Bush whipped out a talking point he first used back in September at a Republican debate in Simi Valley, California. He mentioned that his brother, George W., had “kept us safe” during his Presidency. Unsurprisingly, this large piece of chum in the water was too irresistible for Donald Trump to pass up. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Trump observed that the 9/11 terrorist attack had occurred while Bush was President (a statement with the added benefit of being true). When his interviewer affirmatively stated that Bush should not be blamed (a topic for another conversation – like, why are reporters editorializing?), Trump said blame or don’t blame, the guy was President. Again, true. Somehow, this devolved into another Twitter slap fight (I’ll spare you the details, suffice to say, they are readily accessible for those who want to find the back and forth tweets), raised questions of how we view that day in our country’s history and whether it is appropriate that the accepted conventional wisdom inside Washington that no one should be faulted (other than the terrorists themselves) for that awful attack is appropriate.

It is hard not to see in Jeb’s eagerness to defend his brother a large measure of defensiveness and overcompensation. Indeed, he has now clarified his comments to say that after 9/11 we were safe for something like 2,600 days. True enough, if you ignore the anthrax attacks, the fact that we voluntarily sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the Middle East where they became targets for extremists and our decade-long wars there helped train a new generation of terrorists bent on attacking us, but even if you gave Jeb the greatest benefit of the doubt, his statement is akin to asking Mary Todd Lincoln how she liked that play at Ford’s Theater other than the whole assassination thing.

Of course, if the conventional wisdom somehow shifted to the idea that perhaps there is some blame to be leveled at George W. Bush, it would simply add to the already heaving weight of failure (Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession) most Americans associate with him. Indeed, I always found the argument that “no one could have foreseen 9/11” a bit odd. I mean sure, there was no one email or recorded phone message that said, “Al Qaeda is sending 20 people to America and  teaching them how to fly planes which they will hijack and use to destroy the World Trade Center” but if there was, there would be no need for agencies like the FBI, CIA, or NSA.

The truth is that there were warnings ahead of time, but they were largely ignored. The outgoing Clinton team attempted to warn the incoming Bush team about the rise of non-state terrorist actors, Richard Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton Administration, attempted to focus attention on Al-Qaeda and was largely rebuffed, there had been an attack by Al-Qaeda on the USS Cole in October 2000 – during the Presidential race – that would have suggested the need to take Bin Laden more seriously, and of course, the famous daily briefing George W. received on August 6, 2001 that included the not-so-subtle bullet point “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In The U.S.” (the Bushies fought really hard to keep this PDB private) and his equally famous response to his briefer that he (the briefer) had “covered his ass.”

This is all a matter of record and when Republicans now toss out equivalency in Pearl Harbor (FDR’s fault!) or the Bay of Pigs (JFK’s fault!) the response should be two-fold: First, that yes, you can argue that these too were failures, but neither FDR nor JFK then had people claiming that they had “kept us safe” (much less run a re-election campaign with ominous wolves in forests suggesting the other side would make us vulnerable to attack); Second, that those attacks be put in context – FDR mobilized our military and helped win the Second World War and JFK learned from his mistake and got the Soviets to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Putting 9/11 in that same context simply acts to dredge up all the awful decisions that flowed from that day. Had Bush swept into Afghanistan, neutralized Al-Qaeda, captured or killed Bin Laden, and helped install a pro-Western government there, I suspect history would treat him much differently.

But he did not. He never committed the ground troops to Afghanistan to flush out Al-Qaeda, never invested the resources to help redevelop that nation and then diverted much of the armed forces in combat to fight a war in Iraq that became the biggest military boondoggle since Vietnam. These are inconvenient truths that do not get discussed at Georgetown cocktail parties or the green rooms of Sunday talk shows but are incredibly important for the American people to consider when deciding whether Jeb Bush, who has recruited nearly two dozen of his brother’s advisors to come work for him, should be elected President.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Photographic Study - God Bless America

Seward Johnson's art is best described as a mash-up of Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons. He takes familiar cultural icons and re-imagines them in larger-than-life proportions. Here in New Jersey, the Grounds For Sculpture is dedicated largely to his work but his output is so prolific that it has bled out into the areas surrounding that wonderful space. Across from the Hamilton Train Station, Johnson's "God Bless America," an homage to Grant Wood's iconic 1930 painting "American Gothic," towers over the quirky intersection of Sloan Avenue and Klockner Road. Yesterday, we had good cloud cover and I was able to spend some time capturing this work of art from a couple of different perspectives and in both color and black and white. Enjoy!

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Deficit

Buried on page A21 of Friday's New York Times was news that our budget deficit for the fiscal year that ended on September 30th was $439 billion - $44 billion less than the prior year, almost $1 trillion less than its peak during the Great Recession, and a mere 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

That you may not be aware of this fact is unsurprising. If the "paper of record" deems this story inconsequential, do not hold your breath that the nightly news, the Sunday chat shows, or anyone else in the media will do anything other than make passing reference to this fact. And that too says something. It was not so long ago that the media was obsessed with the budget deficit, egged on by Republicans who pulled out Talking Points 101 from their playbook about the need to slash Social Security and Medicare or fear becoming a beggar nation like Greece. There was breathless coverage of the tick-tock of "grand bargain" negotiations between the President and John Boehner and one of DC's favorite creations, the blue ribbon commission, was formed to provide a blueprint for long-term deficit reduction.

But a funny thing happened on the way to no one remembering Simpson-Bowles and opting against trimming earned benefits like Social Security or Medicare. The budget deficit is no longer a problem. Indeed, not only is the total amount less than what it was before the Great Recession, but because our economy is larger, it is also even less as a share of our GDP. Indeed, at 2.5% of GDP, our current deficit is less than the modern historical average and a half-percent below what economists think appropriate for sound fiscal policy. 

Of course, we have seen this movie before. When Bill Clinton inherited a massive budget deficit after 12 years of runaway deficit spending by Reagan and Bush, he passed a tax increase on the wealthy, reined in government spending, and the economic boom resulted in a flood of tax receipts that left a $236 billion surplus when he left office. Barack Obama and the Democrats passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, invested in research and development, saw unemployment plummet, and passed a teensy-weensy tax hike on the top 1%. The reductions in health care spending, the increase in tax receipts from an improving economy (and stock market), and marginal cuts to federal spending have all helped drop the deficit by almost 75 percent from its 2009 high. 

Why the Beltway media continues to fall for the Republican trope that they are the fiscally prudent party while the Democrats are shameless spendthrifts is beyond me. We now have 35 years and five Presidents of proof that Republican Presidents spend like teenagers with their parents' credit card and leave it to Democratic Presidents to pay the bill. 

But the ho-hum, Obama-cut-one-trillion-from-the-deficit shoulder shrug emoji from the Beltway media is really disappointing.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Bern Feels It (And Not In A Good Way)

Somewhere between Hillary’s evisceration of his gun control position and her slam that we are “not Denmark,” Bernie Sanders was probably wondering where it all went wrong. How a self-described democratic socialist who had received fawning news coverage of his large campaign rallies and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine was being gutted like a fish.

Things did not go so well for the Vermont Senator on Tuesday night. The after action reporting criticized his lack of preparation and seeming unseriousness on any issue other than his signature refrain about the evils of income inequality. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was lauded for her razor sharp responses and ability to incorporate the populist anger Sanders channels, while underscoring her capacity for getting things done. The other three candidates on the stage barely rated a mention, but the consensus was that Sanders had exposed himself as not-ready-for-prime-time, a relic of old lefty politics that the Democrats had dropped in the dustbin of history after McGovern was blown out by more than 20 points in 1972 and Reagan crushed Mondale in 1984.

To be sure, there is something to be said for Sanders’s earnestness. When he told Chuck Todd he does not consider himself a capitalist, I do not doubt his sincerity. When he said we should look to Scandinavian countries and how they provide social welfare to their citizens, I know Bernie Sanders truly believes that. The only problem is that verbalizing those ideas to an audience of 15 million people and more than 700 reporters covering the Presidential race is a complete non-starter for anyone actually interested in becoming President.

It is one thing to preach to a choir of 300, 3,000 or even 30,000 supporters, as Sanders has done on the campaign trail. But the United States of America is not just a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin or Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. What candidates say is not just heard here in our country but around the world and whether you are grasping for depth on foreign policy or suggesting that banks be broken up, those words echo in ways they do not when you are merely one of 100 Senators in Washington, D.C.

You see, for all of the superficial similarities the media wants to point out between the Republican and Democratic outsiders running for President, there is one key difference – Republican primary voters clearly enjoy the clown car aspect of their nominating process. They are okay with “truthiness” on a wide range of topics and are not punishing candidates for saying stupid things. If anything, they are rewarding one offs like Ben Carson’s comment that he would not support a Muslim becoming President, Carly Fiorina’s easily debunked lies about Planned Parenthood or basically anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

But Democrats have become far more sophisticated in their nominating process. The Bill Bradleys and Howard Deans of the world have had their moments in recent nominating contests and there will always be a portion of the party that embraces Medicare-for-all and massive tax hikes on the wealthy (this writer included!), but at the end of the day, Democrats have embraced the idea of “electability” because we understand that inhabiting the White House is far more important than any ideological purity test.

My suspicion is that Sanders is collecting some portion of the primary electorate that would have backed Elizabeth Warren had she run, but there is a ceiling for that support. Indeed, the idea that Hillary is unacceptable to the liberal base has always been a canard, but what Tuesday night also showed was how commanding a presence she is when the discussion turns to policy and, like it or not, how that conversation occurs in our modern media age. It is easy to buy into your own hype when the coverage is good, but unlike Sanders, who, but for a brief moment in the sun a few years ago when he filibustered the extension of Bush-era tax cuts, has strictly been a gadfly and cable TV presence, Clinton has decades on the national stage and understands its rhythms far better than her erstwhile opponent. That, far more than a clever hashtag or cheeky merchandise, is what helps win elections.

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