The Uh-Ohs: A Decade of Conservative Failure by Terrance Heath

Campaign For America’s Future, January 8, 2010

 Excerpt

…I hereby dub the past ten years “The Uh-Ohs: A Decade of Conservative Failure.”
…the debacle of the last ten years didn’t just happen. And, yes, plenty of people did see it coming. Their warnings were ignored. What followed, then, didn’t “just happen,” but was the consequence of conscious choice…it is important to discuss and determine the causes of the various messes we find ourselves in. (Even if we find along the way the fingerprints of some Democrats Who Should Have Known Better™.)
It was a decade during which conservatives controlled both Congress and the While House, and could thus enact much of their agenda.

…Conservatives turned a budget surplus we had then into the deficit we have now…. It was the predicted outcome of conservative policy decisions.
Conservatives shrunk the economy. Despite what Glenn Beck [9] and the rest of the conservative noise machine say, what happened to the economy didn’t just happen in the past year. And it didn’t just happen. It was the predictable outcome of conservative politicy decisions…

Full Text

“Stuff happens.” — Donald Rumsfeld on the looting of Iraq following the U.S invasion.
Forget about “the Aughts.” Never mind “the Naughts.” The decade just passed — and which promises to leave a lingering, bitter aftertaste — deserves a far better, more descriptive name. So for what it’s worth, I hereby dub the past ten years “The Uh-Ohs: A Decade of Conservative Failure.”
It’s as good as any of the others I’ve heard. Perhaps better. Here’s why.
Because despite the wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld, “stuff” doesn’t just happen. Despite what Joel Achenbach [1] seems to think, the debacle of the last ten years didn’t just happen. And, yes, plenty of people did see it coming. Their warnings were ignored. What followed, then, didn’t “just happen,” but was the consequence of conscious choice. And, despite what Matt Yglesias [2] seems to think, it is important to discuss and determine the causes of the various messes we find ourselves in. (Even if we find along the way the fingerprints of some Democrats Who Should Have Known Better™.)
There were plenty of messes. And, like the clean-up crew after a wild, drunken party, we’re still uncovering messes, some of which we can smell before we actually see them.
It was a decade during which conservatives controlled both Congress and the While House, and could thus enact much of their agenda. Thus, it was a decade of “uh-ohs” [3]
Uh-oh is an ubiquitous interjection or expression of dismay in the English language, usually said in anticipation of something bad about to happen, with the sly admittance of guilt that one may have caused something bad to happen, or perceiving that something bad has already happened.
From the economy to energy to security, the “Uh-Ohs” abounded.

Uh-Oh! Conservatives turned a budget surplus we had then into the deficit we have now. It’s true. Even the Wall Street Journal [4] had to acknowledge that the perhaps the biggest legacy of the Bush years is the huge deficit.
In other words, the deficit didn’t just happen, and it didn’t have to happen. It was the predicted outcome of conservative policy decisions.
Basically:
• Bush and congressional conservatives came into office with a $236 billion surplus [5] projected to last years into the future. They turned it into a $412 billion deficit, in just four years [6].
• Bush used the existing surplus (and the $5.6 trillion surplus projected over the next ten years) as justification for huge tax cuts for the wealthy [7].
• Even as the costs of the was in Iraq and Afghanistan spiraled skyward, Bush refused to pay the costs of waging two wars with tax increases [7] or other budgetary offsets.
• As a result, the government ran a deficit, and paid for some of its biggest expenditures with borrowed money.
• Ever “reality-based,” in 2007 the Bush administration predicted a $61 billion surplus by 2012 [8], but presented a 2008 budget that added $251 billion to the deficit [5].
Uh-Oh! Conservatives shrunk the economy. Despite what Glenn Beck [9] and the rest of the conservative noise machine say, what happened to the economy didn’t just happen in the past year. And it didn’t just happen. It was the predictable outcome of conservative politics and policies during their decade of “uh-ohs.”
• Bush and congressional conservatives who supported him, presided over the weakest economy in decades [10]. The number of jobs increased by only about 2% during the Bush years, and the gross domestic product grew at just a 2.1% annual rate.
• It was the worst decade for the stock market, which was down 26% from where it started in 2000 [11].
Uh-oh! It was the worst decade for jobs. Some 7 million jobs were lost (perhaps permanently), 14.5 million were left unemployed, and 6 million out-of-work adults became discouraged and stopped looking for works and are thus not even counted among the unemployed.
• Manufacturing fell to its lowest level in 26 years [12].
• By the end of the decade, the jobless rate reached a 26-year-high [13].
• There were 6.5 job seekers per job opening [14], by the end of the decade.
• ”One in five Americans are unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work.” [15]
• Bush finished his term with the worst track record ever on jobs [16] since the government began keeping records in 1939.
• In fact, there’s been zero net job creation since December 1999 [17].
• The 10% unemployment rate isn’t expected to change in 2010 [18], and probably won’t return to pre-recession levels of less than 5% in the next six years.
This is just a beginning; a brief foray into a decade that was — but certainly didn’t have to be — filled with more items like those above. Such a decade, after all, deserves far more than one blog post.
Besides, we haven’t yet covered Iraq, Katrina, economic inequality, e. coli… With ten years of conservative failure to cover, there are definitely more “Uh-Ohs” to come.
Summary:
Forget about “the Aughts.” Never mind “the Naughts.” The decade just passed — and which promises to leave a lingering, bitter aftertaste — deserves a far better, more descriptive name. So for what it’s worth, I hereby dub the past ten years “The Uh-Ohs: A Decade of Conservative Failure.”
http://www.ourfuture.org/trackback/43689
• The Big Con
• An Economy for All
• The Uh-Ohs
Links:
[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/26/AR2009122601822.html
[2] http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/01/causes-of-the-financial-crisis.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed: matthewyglesias (Matthew Yglesias)&utm_content=Google Reader
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uh-oh_(expression)
[4] http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB120183030007834031-_ODGkYMWSHHx1q_0YZJ5HF6ojK0_20090131.html
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/washington/05budget.html
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gc6yFPoc0JU
[7] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2001/02/24/national/main274334.shtml
[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/04/AR2007020401174.html
[9] http://airamerica.com/really/01-05-2010/beck-obama-intentionally-collapsing-our-economy/
[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/11/AR2009011102301_pf.html
[11] http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1942834,00.html
[12] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7706905.stm
[13] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8238358.stm
[14] http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/jolts_20091208/
[15] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-warren/america-without-a-middle_b_377829.html
[16] http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2009/01/09/bush-on-jobs-the-worst-track-record-on-record/
[17] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/01/AR2010010101196.html?wprss=rss_business
[18] http://money.cnn.com/2010/01/07/news/economy/jobs_outlook/index.htm
http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2010010108/uh-ohs-decade-conservative-failure

 

Reflections on Iraq tragedy

The Neoconservatives

The Bush Doctrine – ABM, Kyoto, and the New American Unilateralism by Charles Krauthammer, The Weekly Standard, June 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36

The Real New World Order – The American and the Islamic challenge by Charles Krauthammer, The Weekly Standard  Vol. 7, No. 09,   November 12, 2001

Open Letter to the President A letter to George W. Bush about our nation’s defense budget. The Weekly Standard, January 23, 2003 

Chalmers Johnson on the fall of the republic By Chalmers Johnson, TomDispatch.com, September 9, 2003

The Project for the New American Century By William Rivers Pitt, Information Clearing House 02/25/03

Neocons and the Iraq War: Their view then and now 10 years later By Eric Black, Minnpost.com, March 15, 2013 www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2013/03/neocons-and-iraq-war-their-view-then-and-now-10-years-later

Prince of Darkness Denies Own Existence by Dana Milbank, Washington Post, February 20, 2009 

The war

Context of ‘September 25-26, 2001: Neoconservative Commentator Kristol Advocates Regime Change in Iraq, Slams Powell’ HistoryCommons.org

It’s About A Lot More Than A “Goddamned Piece of Paper” by Steve Watson,  Capitol Hill Blue, December 12 2005

Bush Never Said “Mission Accomplished”by Reginald Dale, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 19, 2013

Mission Accomplished - Speech on YouTube  

Cost/benefit of war

War Is a Force That Pays the 1 Percent: Occupying American Foreign Policy by: J.A. Myerson, Truthout | News Analysis, November 14, 2011

Iraq War Cost U.S. More Than $2 Trillion, Could Grow to $6 Trillion, Says Watson Institute Study By Daniel Trotta, Reuters 3/14/13 on

American Militarism: Costs and Consequences By Melvin Goodman, City Lights Books | Book Excerpt, Truth-out.org, 05 March 2013

Looking back

Democrats Share the Blame for Tragedy of Iraq War, 17 March 2013 06:59 By Stephen Zunes, Truthout | Op-Ed

Minnesota senators’ ‘No’ votes on Iraq War — and other 10th anniversary thoughts By Eric Black, MinnPost.com, March 19, 2013

10 Years After Iraq Invasion: Continued Myths, Hundreds of Thousands Killed by Andrea Germanos, staff writer, Common Dreams, March 18, 2013

10 years after Iraq War: What do we have to show for it? By Eric Black, MinnPost.com, March 14, 2013

Ten Years Later, Eyes Still Wide Shut on the Iraq War by Ray McGovern, Consortium News,  February 25, 2013

How the Bush Administration Sold the War – and We Bought It by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, The Guardian, February 28, 2013

The Worst Mistake in U.S. History — America Will Never Recover from Bush’s Great Foreign Policy Disaster By Peter Van Buren, Tom Dispatch , March 7, 2013

10 Years Later: Looking Back on the Iraq War So We Can Clearly Look Forward by Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post, 03/06/2013

Tony Blair should face trial over Iraq war, says Desmond Tutu by  The Observer,   September 1, 2012   – Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for Tony Blair and George Bush to be hauled before the international criminal court in The Hague and delivered a damning critique of the physical and moral devastation caused by the Iraq war.

 

2012 or Never

By Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, Feb 26, 2012

Republicans are worried this election could be their last chance to stop history. This is fear talking. But not paranoia.

Of the various expressions of right-wing hysteria that have flowered over the past three years—goldbuggery, birtherism, death panels at home and imaginary apology tours by President Obama abroad—perhaps the strain that has taken deepest root within mainstream Republican circles is the terror that the achievements of the Obama administration may be irreversible, and that the time remaining to stop permanent nightfall is dwindling away.

“America is approaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course,” announces the dark, old-timey preamble to Paul Ryan’s “The Roadmap Plan,” a statement of fiscal principles that shaped the budget outline approved last spring by 98 percent of the House Republican caucus. Rick Santorum warns his audiences, “We are reaching a tipping point, folks, when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority.” Even such a sober figure as Mitt Romney regularly says things like “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and that this election “could be our last chance.”

The Republican Party is in the grips of many fever dreams. But this is not one of them. To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis—that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care—is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.

The GOP has reason to be scared. Obama’s election was the vindication of a prediction made several years before by journalist John Judis and political scientist Ruy Teixeira in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Despite the fact that George W. Bush then occupied the White House, Judis and Teixeira argued that demographic and political trends were converging in such a way as to form a ­natural-majority coalition for Democrats.

The Republican Party had increasingly found itself confined to white voters, especially those lacking a college degree and rural whites who, as Obama awkwardly put it in 2008, tend to “cling to guns or religion.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had ­increased their standing among whites with graduate degrees, particularly the growing share of secular whites, and remained dominant among racial minorities. As a whole, Judis and Teixeira noted, the electorate was growing both somewhat better educated and dramatically less white, making every successive election less favorable for the GOP. And the trends were even more striking in some key swing states. Judis and Teixeira highlighted Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, with skyrocketing Latino populations, and Virginia and North Carolina, with their influx of college-educated whites, as the most fertile grounds for the expanding Democratic base.

Obama’s victory carried out the blueprint. Campaign reporters cast the election as a triumph of Obama’s inspirational message and cutting-edge organization, but above all his sweeping win reflected simple demography. Every year, the nonwhite proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point—meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 percent, a huge amount in a closely divided country. One measure of how thoroughly the electorate had changed by the time of Obama’s election was that, if college-­educated whites, working-class whites, and minorities had cast the same proportion of the votes in 1988 as they did in 2008, Michael Dukakis would have, just barely, won. By 2020—just eight years away—nonwhite voters should rise from a quarter of the 2008 electorate to one third. In 30 years, nonwhites will outnumber whites.

Now, there are two points to keep in mind about the emerging Democratic majority. The first is that no coalition is permanent. One party can build a majority, but eventually the minority learns to adapt to an altered landscape, and parity returns. In 1969, Kevin Phillips, then an obscure Nixon-­administration staffer, wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, arguing that Republicans could undo FDR’s New Deal coalition by exploiting urban strife, the unpopularity of welfare, and the civil-rights struggle to pull blue-collar whites into a new conservative bloc. The result was the modern GOP. Bill Clinton appropriated some elements of this conservative coalition by rehabilitating his party’s image on welfare and crime (though he had a little help from Ross Perot, too). But it wasn’t until Obama was elected that a Democratic president could claim to be the leader of a true majority party.

The second point is that short-term shocks, like war, recession, or scandal, can exert a far more powerful influence than a long-term trend: The Watergate scandal, for instance, interrupted the Republican majority at its zenith, helping elect a huge raft of Democratic congressmen in 1974, followed two years later by Jimmy Carter.

But the dominant fact of the new Democratic majority is that it has begun to overturn the racial dynamics that have governed American politics for five decades. Whatever its abstract intellectual roots, conservatism has since at least the sixties drawn its political strength by appealing to heartland identity politics. In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.

Obama’s election dramatized the degree to which this long-standing political dynamic had been flipped on its head. In the aftermath of George McGovern’s 1972 defeat, neoconservative intellectual Jeane Kirk­patrick disdainfully identified his voters as “intellectuals enamored with righteousness and possibility, college students, for whom perfectionism is an occupational hazard; portions of the upper classes freed from concern with economic self-interest,” and so on, curiously neglecting to include racial minorities. All of them were, in essence, people who heard a term like “real American” and understood that in some way it did not apply to them. Today, cosmopolitan liberals may still feel like an embattled sect—they certainly describe their political fights in those terms—but time has transformed their rump minority into a collective majority. As conservative strategists will tell you, there are now more of “them” than “us.” What’s more, the disparity will continue to grow indefinitely. Obama actually lost the over-45-year-old vote in 2008, gaining his entire victory margin from younger voters—more racially diverse, better educated, less religious, and more socially and economically liberal.

Portents of this future were surely rendered all the more vivid by the startling reality that the man presiding over the new majority just happened to be, himself, young, urban, hip, and black. When jubilant supporters of Obama gathered in Grant Park on Election Night in 2008, Republicans saw a glimpse of their own political mortality. And a galvanizing picture of just what their new rulers would look like.

In the cold calculus of game theory, the expected response to this state of affairs would be to accommodate yourself to the growing strength of the opposing coalition—to persuade pockets of voters on the Democratic margins they might be better served by Republicans. Yet the psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. This was the thought process of the antebellum southern states, sizing up the growing population and industrial might of the North. It was the thinking of the leaders of Austria-Hungary, watching their empire deteriorate and deciding they needed a decisive war with Serbia to save themselves.

At varying levels of conscious and subconscious thought, this is also the reasoning that has driven Republicans in the Obama era. Surveying the landscape, they have concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost.

Arthur Brooks, the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a high-profile presence on the Republican intellectual scene, wrote a 2010 book titled The Battle, urging conservatives to treat the struggle for economic libertarianism as a “culture war” between capitalism and socialism, in which compromise was impossible. Time was running short, Brooks pleaded in apocalyptic tones. The “real core” of what he called Obama’s socialistic supporters was voters under 30. “It is the future of our country,” he wrote. “And this group has exhibited a frightening openness to statism in the age of Obama.”

The same panic courses through a new tome by James DeMint, who has made himself probably the most influential member of the Senate by relentlessly pushing his colleagues to the right and organizing primary challenges to snuff out any hint of moderation among his co-partisans. ­DeMint’s book, titled Now or Never, paints a haunting picture: “Republican supporters will continue to decrease every year as more Americans become dependent on the government. Dependent voters will naturally elect even big-government progressives who will continue to smother economic growth and spend America deeper into debt. The 2012 election may be the last opportunity for Republicans.”

That apocalyptic rhetoric is just as common among voters as among conservative eggheads and party elites. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist, conducted a detailed study of tea-party activists and discovered that they saw themselves beset by parasitic Democrats. “Along with illegal immigrants,” she wrote, “low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services.”

It’s easy for liberals to ­dismiss these fears as simple racism—and surely racism, to some degree, sways the tea party. But it is not just conservative white people who react fearfully when they ­see themselves ­outnumbered by an influx of people unlike themselves. Minorities do it. White hipsters do it. Recall the embarrassing spectacle of liberal panic, in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s reelection, when Kerry voters believed their country had been taken over by gay-bashing Evangelical Christians.

That the struggles over the economic policies of the last few years have taken on the style of a culture war should come as no surprise, since conservatives believe Obama has pulled together an ascendant coalition of voters intent on expropriating their money. Paul Ryan, the House Republican budget chairman, has, like many Republicans, cast the fight as pitting “makers” against “takers,” with the latter in danger of irrevocably gaining the upper hand. “The tipping point represents two dangers,” he announced in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “first, long-term economic decline as the number of makers diminishes [and] the number of takers grows … Second, gradual moral-political decline as dependency and passivity weaken the nation’s character.”

Of course, both parties make use of end-times rhetoric, especially in election season. What’s novel about the current spate of Republican millennialism is that it’s not a mere rhetorical device to rally the faithful, nor even simply an expression of free-­floating terror, but the premise of an electoral strategy.

In that light, the most surprising response to the election of 2008 is what did not happen. Following Obama’s win, all sorts of loose talk concerning the Republican predicament filled the air. How would the party recast itself? Where would it move left, how would it find common ground with Obama, what new constituencies would it court?

The most widely agreed-upon component of any such undertaking was a concerted effort to win back the Hispanic vote. It seemed like a pure political no-brainer, a vital outreach to an exploding electoral segment that could conceivably be weaned from its Democratic leanings, as had previous generations of Irish and Italian immigrants, without altering the party’s general right-wing thrust on other issues. George W. Bush had tried to cobble together a comprehensive immigration-reform policy only to see it collapse underneath a conservative grassroots revolt, and John McCain, who had initially co-sponsored a bill in the Senate, had to withdraw his support for it in his pursuit of the 2008 nomination.

In the wake of his defeat, strategists like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy urged the GOP to abandon its stubborn opposition to reform. Instead, incredibly, the party adopted a more hawkish position, with Republicans in Congress rejecting even quarter-loaf compromises like the Dream Act and state-level officials like Jan Brewer launching new restrictionist crusades. This was, as Thomas Edsall writes in The Age of Austerity, “a major gamble that the GOP can continue to win as a white party despite the growing strength of the minority vote.”

None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible. The bulk of the campaign has taken the form of throwing up an endless series of tedious bureaucratic impediments to voting in many states—ending same-day voter registration, imposing onerous requirements upon voter-registration drives, and upon voters themselves. “Voting liberal, that’s what kids do,” overshared William O’Brien, the New Hampshire House speaker, who had supported a bill to prohibit college students from voting from their school addresses. What can these desperate, rearguard tactics accomplish? They can make the electorate a bit older, whiter, and less poor. They can, perhaps, buy the Republicans some time.

And to what end? The Republicans’ most audacious choice is the hyperaggressive position they’ve adopted against Obama to sabotage his chances for a second term. Frustrated liberals, assessing the methods of the Republicans in Congress, see a devious brilliance at work in the GOP strategy of legislative obstruction. And indeed, Republicans very skillfully ground the legislative gears to a halt for months on end, weakening or killing large chunks of Obama’s agenda, and nurturing public discontent with Washington that they rode to a sweeping victory in 2010. At the same time, their inability to waver from desperate, all-or-nothing opposition often meant conservatives willingly suffered policy defeats for perceived political gain, and failed to minimize the scale of those defeats.

Take the fight over health-care reform. Yes, Republicans played the politics about as well as possible. But it was their hard line on compromise allowed the bill to pass: The Democrats only managed to cobble together 60 votes to pass it in the Senate because conservatives drove Arlen Specter out of the GOP, forcing him to switch to the Democratic Party. Without him, Democrats never could have broken a filibuster. When Scott Brown surprisingly won the 2010 race to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Democrats were utterly despondent, and many proposed abandoning comprehensive health-care reform to cut a deal for some meager expansion of children’s health insurance. But Republicans refused to offer even an olive branch. Presented with a choice between passing the comprehensive bill they had spent a year cobbling together or collapsing in total ignominious defeat, the Democrats passed the bill.

Last summer, Obama was again desperate to reach compromise, this time on legislation to reduce the budget deficit, which had come to dominate the political agenda and symbolize, in the eyes of Establishment opinion, Obama’s failure to fulfill his campaign goal of winning bipartisan cooperation. In extended closed-door negotiations, Obama offered Republicans hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts and a permanent extension of Bush-era tax rates in return for just $800 billion in higher revenue over a decade. This was less than half the new revenue proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission. Republicans spurned this deal, too.

Instead the party has bet everything on 2012, preferring a Hail Mary strategy to the slow march of legislative progress. That is the basis of the House Republicans’ otherwise inexplicable choice to vote last spring for a sweeping budget plan that would lock in low taxes, slash spending, and transform Medicare into ­private vouchers—none of which was popular with voters. Majority parties are known to hold unpopular votes occasionally, but holding an ­unpopular vote that Republicans knew full well stood zero chance of enactment (with Obama casting a certain veto) broke new ground in the realm of foolhardiness.

The way to make sense of that foolhardiness is that the party has decided to bet everything on its one “last chance.” Not the last chance for the Republican Party to win power—there will be many of those, and over time it will surely learn to compete for nonwhite voters—but its last chance to exercise power in its current form, as a party of anti-government fundamentalism powered by sublimated white Christian identity politics. (And the last chance to stop the policy steamroller of the new Democratic majority.) And whatever rhetorical concessions to moderates and independents the eventual Republican nominee may be tempted to make in the fall, he’ll find himself fairly boxed in by everything he’s already done this winter to please that base.

Will the gamble work? Grim though the long-term demography may be, it became apparent to Republicans almost immediately after Obama took office that political fate had handed them an impossibly lucky opportunity. Democrats had come to power almost concurrently with the deepest economic crisis in 80 years, and Republicans quickly seized the tactical advantage, in an effort to leverage the crisis to rewrite their own political fortunes. The Lesser Depression could be an economic Watergate, the Republicans understood, an exogenous political shock that would, at least temporarily, overwhelm any deeper trend, and possibly afford the party a chance to permanently associate the Democrats with the painful aftermath of the crisis.

During the last midterm elections, the strategy succeeded brilliantly. Republicans moved further right and won a gigantic victory. In the 2010 electorate, the proportion of voters under 30 fell by roughly a third, while the proportion of voters over 65 years old rose by a similar amount—the white share, too. In the long run, though, the GOP has done nothing at all to rehabilitate its deep unpopularity with the public as a whole, and has only further poisoned its standing with Hispanics. But by forswearing compromise, it opened the door to a single shot. The Republicans have gained the House and stand poised to win control of the Senate. If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.

On the other hand, if they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all. And over the last several months, it has appeared increasingly likely that the party’s great all-or-nothing bet may land, ultimately, on nothing. In which case, the Republicans will have turned an unfavorable outlook into a truly bleak one in a fit of panic. The deepest effect of Obama’s election upon the Republicans’ psyche has been to make them truly fear, for the first time since before Ronald Reagan, that the future is against them.

http://nymag.com/news/features/gop-primary-chait-2012-3/

President Barack Obama, Editorial

New York Times, January 21, 2013

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation… explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage…President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women….Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort…With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

Full text

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation of freedom depend on collective action. In the coming days, there will be no let up of political combat over the debt ceiling, gun control, national security and tax policies that can either reduce income inequality or allow such inequality to stifle economic growth and opportunity for all but the very wealthiest in this society.

But, on Monday, the president stepped back from those immediate battles to explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage.

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we,” he said, “that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

In every sphere of life — improving education, building roads, caring for the poor and elderly, training workers, recovering from natural disasters, providing for our defense — progress requires that Americans do these things together, Mr. Obama said.

That applies, he said, to “the commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other. The choice is not “between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said.   “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women. Disappointingly, the need for stricter gun controls was noted solely in a reference to the safety of children in places like Newtown, Conn.

On foreign policy, President Obama expressed with fervor a view of the role of the United States in a world that is threatened by terrorism on many continents. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” he said. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Mr. Obama is smart enough to know that what he wants to achieve in his second term must be done in the next two years — perhaps even in the first 18 months. Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort.

Time is not on his side. It is pointless to wait for signs of conciliation from the extreme right, whose central ideology is to render government ineffective. He has gotten off to a good start by putting forward a comprehensive plan to tighten gun laws, despite outrageous propaganda against sensible controls from the gun lobby.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that there is much left to be done to shore up the economic recovery and invest in education and opportunities for the next generation. And, above all, he stressed the importance of the middle class to America’s economic survival. “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said.

It’s natural for a second-term president to be thinking about his place in history. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama has the ambition and intellect to place himself in the first rank of presidents. With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/president-obamas-second-inauguration.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130122&_r=0

In four short years, how the world changed

By Ken Smith, Washington Post, January 14, 2013

…We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day. In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

3. Occupy Wall Street

4. Gay Marriage

5. Natural Disasters

6. Affordable Care Act

7. Arab Spring

8. Automotive Bailout

9. Apple’s iPad

10. Gun Violence

Full text

In four years, presidents age a decade, sometimes two. They turn gray, their faces sag, their voices grow huskier. Whatever mandate they’ve been elected to fulfill, whatever sense of control they felt on that first January morning when the crowd’s hopes carried them down Pennsylvania Avenue, quickly runs up against a cold fact:

The world stops for no president.

We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day.

In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis:

The collapse hurt everyone, then things got weird. In the first months after Obama took office, it seemed that the entire nation had been dealt a body blow: Stocks plummeted, foreclosures mounted, factories shuttered, jobs evaporated. But in the following years, even as corporate profits rebounded nicely and stocks proved resilient, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The yawning inequality between the rich and the rest expressed itself in a realigned economy, with most Americans facing suddenly and unhappily lowered expectations. Basements filled with 20-somethings who had neither careers nor clear trajectories, the nation’s birthrate dropped to a record low, Europe’s woes provided a warning about the deeper pain that austerity could bring, and meanwhile, the rich were doing better than they had pre-collapse. Thus do fairness and populism poke their way back into the nation’s politics.

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

It never even had a name; it was just the war in Iraq. For the war’s entire nine-year history, debate raged over what would constitute a win. The president who started it said this was part of a war that might never end, a war not against a country, but against an idea, an -ism. Obama ran for office promising to end that war and win the one in Afghanistan, another war with no name. When we finally declared the end to the fighting in Iraq, we had neither ended terrorism nor created a vibrant democracy. But had we planted the roots of the Arab Spring? And when the president doubled down on Afghanistan, just as we had in Vietnam, did he do so knowing there would be no victory, just a never-ending rearguard action against something worse? We couldn’t claim to have made life much better for Afghanis, we lost thousands of our own men and women, we spent ourselves into unfathomable debt, and the best we could say is that we maintained a grim status quo.

3. Occupy Wall Street:

American history offers this constant: When times get tough, the frustrated turn back to the principles that got us started. Suddenly, people who had never had much interest in politics were carrying copies of the Constitution, allying themselves with the Founders, revving up their inner Tom Paines. As unemployment soared and foreclosures flourished, the tea party flared, fed by cynicism about Washington and anger aimed at corporate powers. Then came Occupy Wall Street, similarly cynical. Despite their ideological differences, both movements were wonderfully American and almost irrationally optimistic, attracting people who truly believed they could change the system just by making themselves known and clear. Not long after they flared, both began to drift into history. Coming together in frustration is one thing; governing is harder.

4. Gay Marriage:

It was the biggest shift in social attitudes since the civil rights movement, but this change happened without lunch counter sit-ins or shameful images of men in uniforms wielding fire hoses against people asserting their humanity. By the time the president announced what most people had long assumed, that he supported the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, there was no shock. This social revolution occurred not in the public square, but at home, in kitchens and living rooms where family and friends learned that their loved ones loved people of their own sex. It was a revolution of private persuasion, helped along by popular culture, and by the new shape of the American family — single parents, childless couples, people in ever more complex stepfamilies. By the time laws and votes and presidential pronouncements started piling up, the change was pretty much done.

5. Natural Disasters:

The heavens raged. Storms with the names of sirens, Sandy and Irene, altered the coastlines. Quakes ravaged Japan and jostled Washington. Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis — for years, experts on both sides of the global warming debate warned us that weather does not equal climate: Stuff happens, and it’s only the long, long run that makes the case. But although a few big weather events don’t prove that the planet is warming, climate change in the form of warmer sea temperatures is contributing to the strength of the recent megastorms. For now, the insurance industry and government, like 3-year-olds after they’ve knocked down their blocks, gamely pick up the pieces. But like any reasonable toddler, the taxpayer will eventually tire of repeated cleanups. And then?

6. Affordable Care Act:

The history of economic security, from feudalism (bless you for feeding me, lord!) to fraternal organizations (the Masons and Elks take care of their own) to the modern nation-state (poorhouses to pensions), is a story of slow expansion of the minimum we think people need to get by. There have been times when thousands marched on Washington to demand more security. That kind of uprising — and the crushing, nearly universal pain of the Great Depression — brought us Social Security. Three decades later, Lyndon Johnson expanded the definition of security to include health care for the elderly and poor, with Medicare and Medicaid. Half a century after that, Barack Obama — for once able to set his own agenda — asked Americans to see health care as a basic right for all. Like Social Security and Medicare before it, Obamacare — the wholesale acceptance of the term is the best evidence that the program will stick — aroused horrified visions of American socialism. But its provisions proved immediately popular (covering preexisting conditions, keeping young adults on their parents’ policies). As ever with expansions of security, the new minimum is quickly accepted, even if the price continues to sting.

7. Arab Spring:

In a part of the world where long-gone colonial powers drew artificial borders and a few men wielded awesome and autocratic authority, revolution came not with guns or fires, but through videos posted on YouTube and messages sent via Facebook. Dictators fell across North Africa and in the heart of the Arab world: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya. Ordinary people, newly able to see what they were missing out on in other lands, used the newfangled — social media — to facilitate the old-fashioned — people power in public squares. Tyrants were also toppled through traditional means: American power and ingenuity finally got Osama bin Laden, and natural causes claimed Kim Jong Il, but the Arab Spring demonstrated that cellphones trump truncheons and tanks. What next? Technology is a superb disrupter, but taking apart is always a lot easier than building anew.

8. Automotive Bailout:

Almost two years passed between a big bailout that rubbed millions of Americans the wrong way and two moments that provided a patriotic pick-me-up. Wall Street and the banks had received all manner of federal support in their time of need, so when GM and Chrysler — makers of the product most associated with the American Dream — started into the death spiral in 2009, the president saw himself with little choice but to lavish them with billions. Many disagreed, of course, seeing the bailout as a symbol of a society grown soft, a country where failure no longer had consequences. But then, after the automakers’ near-death experience, Chrysler recruited Eminem and Clint Eastwood for 2011 and 2012 Super Bowl ads that would prove far more powerful than any Obama reelection spot. From “a town that’s been to hell and back,” Chrysler made a gut-wrenching, emboldening case for American cars, American jobs and American spirit. “We’re certainly no one’s Emerald City,” the voice of Detroit said. Eminem pointed at us and said: “This is the Motor City — and this is what we do.” A year later, Eastwood captured our anxiety: “We’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.” But “all that matters now is what’s ahead. … The world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America, and our second half is about to begin.”

9. Apple’s iPad:

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, it seemed to be the culmination of his 1983 dream to “put an in­cred­ibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.” But the tablet computer and advances in smartphone technology offered far more than simplicity and convenience. Ordinary people could now manipulate systems previously controlled by experts. The latest burst of innovation smashed borders and hierarchies, allowing Wikileaks, Anonymous and other hackers to gain power previously reserved to nations and corporations, presidents and CEOs. The new gadgets brought people together digitally but also atomized our lives, making it ever harder for a president to rally the country to his agenda. “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine,” said Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, reacting to his teammate Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide. “But … it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.”

10. Gun Violence:

Mass shootings are powerfully effective at making parents hug their children tighter. What they don’t do is change the rules on guns. A Batman-batty gunman killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater in Colorado; a schizophrenic college dropout killed six and injured 13, including his congresswoman, at an Arizona shopping center; a psychiatrist who fancied himself a terrorist is charged with killing 13 and injuring 32 on an Army base in Texas — and the political calculus across the ideological spectrum was that the best course of action is to change the subject. There was a time when mass crimes and assassinations and attempts — King, RFK, Reagan — prompted debate about who gets to buy which weapons. But of late, gun control advocates were unable to find traction; gun control opponents could relax. Last month brought Newtown and the murder of 20 first-graders and their teachers. Would politicians merely express sorrow, attend a funeral and wait for the next big story to distract the nation, or would a moral imperative kick in as a president shaped his final term?

Marc Fisher is a Washington Post senior editor. Comment at washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to marcfisher@washpost.com.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/01/14/in-four-short-years-how-the-world-changed/?wpisrc=nl_headlines

The Obama Majority

By Harold Meyerson, Washington Post, January 22, 2013

Excerpt

There is an Obama majority in American politics…whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come. That majority…would not exist but for Americans’ struggles to expand our foundational belief in the equality of all men. The drive to expand equality, [President Obama] said in his speech’s most historically resonant line, “is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”

Our history, Obama argued, is one of adapting our ideals to a changing world. His speech…reclaimed U.S. history from the misrepresentations of both constitutional originalists and libertarian fantasists…the moral and practical arc of U.S. history bends toward equality..The president closed his speech by asking his supporters to join him to help “shape the debates of our time.”

..The Obama Majority — its existence and mobilization — is what enabled the president to deliver so ideological an address. No such inaugural speech has been delivered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, demanding the curtailment of government programs and secure in the knowledge that much of the white working class had shifted its allegiance away from the Democrats and supported his attack on the public sector and minority rights. On Monday, Obama, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s minorities had joined with other liberal constituencies to form a new governing coalition, voiced their demands to ensure equality and to preserve and expand the government’s efforts to meet the nation’s challenges

Full text

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek,” candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. At the time, his comments came in for criticism: They were narcissistic; they were tautological; they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But in the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 reelection and his second inaugural address, his 2008 remarks seem less a statement of self-absorption than one of prophecy. There is an Obama majority in American politics, symbolized by Monday’s throng on the Mall, whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come.

That majority, as the president made clear in his remarks, would not exist but for Americans’ struggles to expand our foundational belief in the equality of all men. The drive to expand equality, he said in his speech’s most historically resonant line, “is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”

Our history, Obama argued, is one of adapting our ideals to a changing world. His speech (like recent books by Michael Lind and my Post colleague E.J. Dionne Jr.) reclaimed U.S. history from the misrepresentations of both constitutional originalists and libertarian fantasists. “Fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges,” the president said. “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”

Having established that the moral and practical arc of U.S. history bends toward equality, Obama vowed to push his demands for equality still further — to ending the systemic underpayment of female workers; the voter suppression that compels some Americans, usually minorities, to wait hours to cast their votes; the deportations of immigrants who would otherwise help build the economy; and the laws that forbid gay Americans to marry.

As the president acknowledged, however, social equality is rising even as the relative economic equality that once defined American life has sharply and broadly receded. “Our country cannot succeed,” he said, “when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” For this, Obama prescribed revamping our taxes and reforming our schools, but these are by no means sufficient to transform our nation into one that, as the president put it, “rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” The waning of the middle class is, with climate change, the most vexing item on the president’s agenda and requires far-reaching solutions beyond any he laid out. U.S. workers must regain the power they once had to bargain for their wages, but that only begins the list of economic reforms that are as difficult to achieve as they are necessary to re-create an financially vibrant nation.

The president closed his speech by asking his supporters to join him to help “shape the debates of our time.” The biggest mistake Obama made when he took office was to effectively disband the organization of the millions of Americans who had worked for his election — for fear, in part, that it might upset members of Congress whose votes he would need for his policies. He wants no such unilateral political disarmament now; his operatives hope to keep his 2012 campaign’s volunteer army in the field for the legislative battles ahead. Obama’s legions have proven that they can win elections, and this matters a great deal more, the president has learned, than whatever trace elements of goodwill he may win by deferring to Congress.

The Obama Majority — its existence and mobilization — is what enabled the president to deliver so ideological an address. No such inaugural speech has been delivered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, demanding the curtailment of government programs and secure in the knowledge that much of the white working class had shifted its allegiance away from the Democrats and supported his attack on the public sector and minority rights. On Monday, Obama, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s minorities had joined with other liberal constituencies to form a new governing coalition, voiced their demands to ensure equality and to preserve and expand the government’s efforts to meet the nation’s challenges. As he left the stage, he stopped and turned to marvel at the crowd, at the new American majority they represented. They were the ones he, and we, were waiting for.

Read more from Harold Meyerson’s archive or follow him on Twitter.

Read more on this from Opinions: E.J. Dionne: Obama’s unapologetic inaugural address David Ignatius: A flat, partisan and pedestrian speech Michael Gerson: Obama shoves idealism into its grave Eugene Robinson: The black president no longer Marc Thiessen: An inaugural gift from the GOP

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/harold-meyerson-obama-forges-a-new-majority/2013/01/22/c66489a6-64a7-11e2-9e1b-07db1d2ccd5b_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

In Ignorance We Trust

By TIMOTHY EGAN, New York Times, December 13, 2012,

… history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives…we are raising a generation of Americans who are historically illiterate….And today, in part by design, there’s a lot of know-nothingness throughout the land…This is but one byproduct of the rage among educators to use math and science like a stick against history, literature, art or philosophy…But in the great void between readable histories and snooze-fest treatises have stepped demagogues with agendas, from Glenn Beck and his paranoid writings on the perils of progressivism, to Oliver Stone and his highly selective retelling of the 20th century….Faulkner’s immortal line – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – but also understood what it meant.

Full text

A packet of letters arrived the other day from the honors English class at St. Lawrence School in Brasher Falls, N.Y. Snail mail, from high school sophomores? Yes, and honest, witty and insightful snail mail at that. They had been forced to read a book of mine.

“Personally, I don’t like reading about history or learning about it,” wrote one student, setting the tone for the rest of the class.

“The Dust Bowl? Really?” So began another missive. “When we heard we were reading your book…heads dropped. Let me rephrase that, heads fell to the floor and rolled down the hallway.”

You get the drift: history is a brain freeze. And, writers of history, well, there’s a special place with the already-chewed gum in nerd camp for them. But as I read through the letters I was cheered. Some of the last survivors of the American Dust Bowl were high school sophomores when they were hit with the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster. In that 1930s story of gritty resilience, the Brasher Falls kids of 2012 found a fresh way to look at their own lives and this planet.

History is always utilitarian, and often entertaining. It stirs the blood of any lover of the past to see Steven Spielberg’s majestic “Lincoln” – at its core, a drama about politicians with ZZ Top beards writing legislation – crush the usual soulless, computer-generated distractions at the box office.

But history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

David McCullough, the snowy-headed author and occasional national scold, says we are raising a generation of Americans who are historically illiterate. He cites Harry Truman’s line that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. And today, in part by design, there’s a lot of know-nothingness throughout the land. Only 12 percent of high school seniors are “at or above proficient” in American history, which, of course, doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

For knuckleheaded refinement look to the state of Florida, a breeder of bad ideas from its dangerous gun laws to its deliberate attempts to make it hard for citizens to vote. Gov. Rick Scott’s task force on higher education is now suggesting that college students with business-friendly majors pay less tuition than those in traditional liberal arts fields.

“You know, we don’t need a lot of anthropologists in this state,” the governor said in October. “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on.”

Notice he said “all.” If the governor, who’s been trying to run Florida like a corporation, had applied the skills of the liberal arts, his approval rating might be higher than 38 percent. Any anthropologist could tell Scott how he misread human behavior in the Sunshine State.

It’s fine to encourage society to crank out more engineers, computer technicians and health care specialists. We need them. But do we really want to discourage people from trying to understand where they came from? The Florida proposals would enshrine the unexamined life.

This is but one byproduct of the rage among educators to use math and science like a stick against history, literature, art or philosophy.

And yet, as McCullough has said, the keepers of academic gates in these fields are their own worst enemies. Too many history books are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense. There are certainly exceptions among the authors – the witty Patricia Limerick at the University of Colorado, for example, or the prolific Douglas Brinkley at Rice. And I defy anyone to read Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” (enlightened German teenager takes over Russia) or Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (Nazis, oozing evil in diplomatic circles) and not come away moved.

But in the great void between readable histories and snooze-fest treatises have stepped demagogues with agendas, from Glenn Beck and his paranoid writings on the perils of progressivism, to Oliver Stone and his highly selective retelling of the 20th century.

One of my best friends in college ripped through chemistry, engineering and advanced calculus courses. And then, degree in hand, he felt strangely uncompleted. On his own, and for a full year, he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald and Civil War histories. He spent the next 30 years at Boeing. No doubt, he was one of the few mechanical engineers who not only was aware of Faulkner’s immortal line – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – but also understood what it meant.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/egan-in-ignorance-we-trust/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20121214

Reclaiming America’s Soul

 by Paul Krugman, New York Times, April 24, 2009

Mini-excerpt

We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals….

Excerpt

We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals….the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how [the crimes of the Bush administration] happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsiblethe ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away…they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way…what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

Full text

“Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” So declared President Obama, after his commendable decision to release the legal memos that his predecessor used to justify torture. Some people in the political and media establishments have echoed his position. We need to look forward, not backward, they say. No prosecutions, please; no investigations; we’re just too busy.

And there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.
But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who weren’t allied with the torturers but would nonetheless rather not revisit what happened in the Bush years.

Some of them probably just don’t want an ugly scene; my guess is that the president, who clearly prefers visions of uplift to confrontation, is in that group. But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/opinion/24krugman.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

The decade we didn’t see coming

Joel Achenbach on the 2000s:

By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, December 27, 2009

The decade began so swimmingly. No Y2K bug, no terrorism, nothing but lots of fireworks as the planet turned and, time zone by time zone, all the zeroes replaced the nines.

America was at peace. Prosperity reigned. The popular president soon announced a budget surplus of $230 billion. The dilemma for Washington lawmakers was what to do with all the extra money.

People watched the values of their houses soar. The Dow had jumped 25 percent in just a year. Imagine how $1,000 might mushroom if invested in stocks for the next decade!

The future had arrived bearing nifty technological gifts. An entire music catalogue could fit in the palm of a hand. People nurtured their avatars in Internet role-playing games. Technology offered a virtual escape from the real world.

Except the real world wouldn’t leave us alone.

Throughout the decade, the real world pursued, hectored, harassed. Ignorance was punished. Hubris found its comeuppance. The optimists were routed, the pessimists validated. The fabulous economy turned out to be something of a hoax. A war predicted to be a “cakewalk” turned into a dismal slog.

This was a decade when things you didn’t know about could really hurt you.

So it was that Americans were shocked by 9/11. That’s when the decade really began, regardless of what the calendar might say. There had been earlier terrorist events, and abundant warnings, but the rantings of jihadists did not fully penetrate the consciousness of peacetime America. That September morning, observing the carnage in New York and Washington and in a field in rural Pennsylvania, we asked: What do these people want from us?

Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 hijackers, holing up in cheap motels, moving in groups, warily clinging to their luggage, had acted — we could say in hindsight — pretty much like terrorists plotting something or other. But they were invisible in a nation still blissfully unaware of the intensity with which it was hated. Go back to Jan. 1, 2000: The peace of that first night wasn’t quite so real after all. A would-be terrorist, trained in Afghanistan, had planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. The plot unraveled a couple of weeks before the New Year, and investigators learned the full details only months later.

“History’s always catching America off guard,” says Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University’s History News Network. “We have to relearn that lesson over and over and over again, that we cannot escape history.”

The attacks shaped the entire decade. They led to two wars overseas and a new security regime at home that requires grandmothers to take off their shoes and get wanded before they board a flight. Not knowing about 9/11 would be, in this decade, like walking into a whodunit movie 15 minutes late and never understanding what the characters are talking about and why they’re so exercised.

The Iraq war, launched by the Bush administration in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not actually exist, will be litigated by pundits and historians until the end of time. The decade closes with that war winding down and tens of thousands of troops surging into Afghanistan to intensify the battle with those who attacked us at the decade’s start. And just in case we might have begun to let down our guard at home, a man tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit on the final Christmas of the decade.

Disaster and debt

Some disasters were natural. For years, people warned that a big hurricane could devastate New Orleans. The worst came to pass, in the form of a storm named Katrina. About 1,500 people died on the Gulf Coast.

This has not been a good decade for anyone overly sensitive to bad news. We’ve had two recessions, the first caused by the bursting of the tech bubble (wasn’t Pets.com supposed to dominate the dog food market?), the second by the even more dramatic popping of the housing bubble (oops, maybe buying that $1.5 million McMansion was rash). The economic recovery has been trembling at best. The titans of industry can’t bring themselves to do anything more risky than hire a few temps.

Oh, and that $1,000 investment in the stock market? It turned into about $900 if invested in Dow blue-chips, and even less if you adjust for inflation. For this decade, the mattress would have been a better place to put your money.

Some would call that a disaster. The more technically accurate term among market-watchers is a “correction.” The Correction Decade was not much fun.

The U.S. budgetary surplus of 2000 lasted about as long as the cherry blossoms by the Tidal Basin. Debt proved to be the grease by which ideologically polarized parties pushed legislation through Congress. The decade ends with the government running annual deficits that have to be expressed in scientific notation (i.e., 1.5 x 10 to the 12th dollars).

Ordinary people misapprehended their station in life, and overspent, and overborrowed, and suffered the consequences when the whole house of cards fell apart. Financiers made a bad situation utterly catastrophic. The Wall Street wizards had bundled and diced and rearranged our mortgage debt into ever more exotic financial instruments that they wheeled and dealed in the global marketplace. Not even the experts knew what any of that stuff was really worth. They’d securitized the inscrutable. The entire economy had been inflated by the belief that what goes up can’t possibly go down.

We now stand corrected.

Jack Abramoff, the Washington influence peddler, had his own encounter with the Department of Corrections, as did the Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, not to mention highfliers at places like Enron and WorldCom.

Calamity in this era has been very much a group activity. Many institutions were not, in fact, too big to fail — just ask the people who used to run the venerable Wall Street firm of Lehman Brothers. Being large and established proved to be a handicap in an era that favored the small and nimble. The Internet destabilized everything from newspapers to the music industry to global security. Jihadists recruit with YouTube.

Politically the 2000s were not exactly the Era of Good Feeling. The bitterness was inevitable after Al Gore beat George W. Bush by more than 500,000 votes nationally, and yet, through a series of complex and improbable events — including thousands of likely Gore voters in Palm Beach County punching a ballot for Pat Buchanan — was denied the presidency. The signature image of the election was an official in South Florida examining a paper ballot to see if a “chad” was attached by one, two or three corners. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

History is neither linear nor deterministic, which is why, perhaps, Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, and Tom “The Hammer” DeLay wound up as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”

An African American won the nation’s highest office. Barack Obama’s triumph proved a dream come true for millions of Americans who wondered whether they’d live long enough to see a black president. One shocker: The campaign wasn’t in any significant way about race.

Clinton had an excellent decade. So did her husband.

The Red Sox won the World Series!

Historian Gil Troy, in a recent essay for the History News Network, pointed out that most people had a pretty good time the past 10 years:

“When they look back on this cascade of catastrophes, Americans in the future will assume our lives were miserable, practically unlivable. Yet, for most of us, life has continued. We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news. In fact, these have been relatively good years. America remains the world’s playground, the most prolific, most excessive platform for shopping and fun in human history.”

Gizmos and Humvees

Computers, software, all those 1s and 0s, flourished in the 2000s. This may have been the first decade in history that was better for machines than human beings.

Largely overlooked in the 1990s Internet boom was the power of a computer application known as “search.” Google, embryonic at the start of the decade, ends it looking as big and powerful as Ma Bell back in the day. “Content creation” had a bad decade, and “aggregation” a very good one. Today, marketers and headline writers have to craft something that will make sense to the Google spiders and Yahoo crawlers. Algorithms roam the Earth, terrorizing peasants who’ve yet to have their Search Engine Optimization training.

We all Googled our symptoms; invariably we discovered our sniffle or twitch to be the sign of a hideous disease. Cyberchondria is just a growing pain of the Internet as machine intelligence improves, says Microsoft Research principal researcher Eric Horvitz, “On the way to perfection, these algorithms won’t be perfect.”

The hassock-sized desktop computer is vanishing. The laptop survives, and has turned every coffee shop into a warren of workstations. Thanks to BlackBerrys and smartphones, people never have to experience life offline. The magic is powerful, and a little scary. How would we explain to an earlier generation our struggle to cut down on texting-and-driving?

It was the hottest decade on record. Glaciers are in full retreat. Everyone could calculate his or her carbon footprint. Even oil companies claimed to be green. The one thing that didn’t change was the increase in the emission of carbon.

Stewart Brand, the technology sage, says that in 50 years the symbol of this decade might be the Humvee. This decade will be seen as “the last blast of extravagant wastefulness of energy and material, and lovely wretched excess, and probably will be viewed with a certain amount of nostalgia.”

If the 20th century was the “American Century,” as Henry Luce called it, then the 21st century remains — with 10 percent of it gone — very much up for grabs. China may be the most fascinating country on Earth, but it has demographic and environmental burdens. India has a billion people and a lot of jobs once performed by Americans. Europe is integrating portentously. But the United States remains the world’s sole superpower.

America has a new leader who, back in 2000, was an obscure state legislator in Illinois. The next decade could be Obama’s to shape. But governing is harder than campaigning. And Obama has already discovered that “Change” is something many people want in the abstract more than in real life.

Human civilization evolves paradoxically. A world where you can donate money with the click of a button to save a life in Africa is also one where men strap bombs to themselves to blow up innocent strangers.

As history marches on, this decade will be known for its stumbles and reversals. The scolds and doubters reminded us that hope is not a plan. But neither is despair a winning strategy. The smart move is to look back at the 2000s glancingly, and then turn, with optimism, to the decade ahead.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/26/AR2009122601822.html?wp

The conservative learning curve

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: December 5

Over the long run, the most important impact of an election is not on the winning party but on the loser. Winners feel confirmed in staying the course they’re on. Losing parties — or, at least, the ones intent on winning again someday — are moved to figure out what they did wrong and how they must change.

After losing throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Republicans finally came to terms with the New Deal and elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Democrats lost three elections in the 1980s and did a lot of rethinking inspired by Bill Clinton, who won the White House in 1992. In Britain, the Labor Party learned a great deal during its exile from power in the Margaret Thatcher years. The same thing happened to the Conservatives during Tony Blair’s long run.

The American conservative movement and the Republican Party it controls were stunned by President Obama’s victory last month. The depth of their astonishment was itself a sign of how much they misunderstood the country they proposed to lead. Yet the shock has pushed many conservatives to think at least mildly heretical thoughts.

In particular, some are realizing that the tea party surge of 2010 was akin to an amphetamine rush — it produced instant gratification but left the conservative brand tarnished by extremism on both social and economic issues. Within two years, the tea party high gave way to a crash.

It’s true that the early signs of conservative evolution are superficial and largely rhetorical. The right wing’s supporters are already threatening primaries against House and Senate Republicans who offer even a hint of apostasy when it comes to raising taxes in any budget deal. Many Republicans still fear challenges from their right far more than defeat in an election by a Democrat.

Nonetheless, rhetorical shifts often presage substantive changes because they are the first and easiest steps along the revisionist path. And on Tuesday, three prominent Republicans took the plunge.

At a dinner in honor of the late Jack Kemp — a big tax-cutter who also had a big heart — Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio both worked hard to back the party away from the damage done by Mitt Romney’s comments on the supposedly dependent 47 percent and the broader hostility shown toward government by a conservatism transfigured by tea-party thinking.

Ryan spoke gracious words about Romney, the man who made him his running mate on the GOP ticket. But the implicit criticism of Romney’s theory was unmistakable. Kemp, Ryan said, “hated the idea that any part of America could be written off.” Republicans, Ryan said, must “carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea — the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty.” He also said: “Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”

Rubio dubbed his speech a discourse on “middle-class opportunity” and distanced himself from the GOP’s obsession with giving succor to the very wealthy.

“Every country in the world has rich people,” Rubio said. “But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the great American middle class.”

Rubio also walked a new and more careful line on government. “Government has a role to play,” he said, “and we must make sure that it does its part.” Then, making sure he stayed inside the conservative tent, Rubio added: “But it’s a supporting role, to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy.”

For good measure, former president George W. Bush tried to push his party back toward moderation on immigration, using a speech in Texas to urge that the issue be approached with “a benevolent spirit” mindful of “the contribution of immigrants.”

There’s ample reason to remain skeptical about how far conservatives will go in challenging themselves. Substantively, neither Ryan nor Rubio threw much conservative orthodoxy overboard.

And actions matter more than words. It’s not encouraging that a large group of Republican senators blocked ratification of the international treaty on the rights of the disabled. Then there’s the budget. If Republicans can’t accept even a modest increase in tax rates on the best-off Americans, it’s hard to take their proclamations of a new day seriously.

Still, elections are 2-by-4s, and many conservatives seem to realize the need to understand what just hit them.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-jr-conservatives-start-talking-about-a-change/2012/12/05/ad3dbcaa-3f12-11e2-ae43-cf491b837f7b_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines