Saturday, September 18, 2021

DEATH BY 750,000 CUTS

America is on its way towards 750,000 COVID deaths by the end of this year. Think about it, this is equivalent to 250 times the 9/11 deaths that still traumatize the nation 20 years later. These deaths are not imprinted on our collective memory by searingly graphic TV pictures but take place, one by one, in the ugly isolation of ICU rooms where the silence is broken only by the hum of ventilators and cries of despair from the nursing staff. The tragic tally stands at 670,000 as of this writing, with 270,000 of these deaths occurring during the Biden Presidency. If these casualties had been the result of two years of war, Americans would be out on the streets in numbers not seen since the days of the war in Vietnam, which claimed 58,000 American military casualties. Yet, America is seemingly taking the COVID toll in stride, stubbornly refusing to be unified in taking the few simple civil defense steps required to put an end to the epidemic.

President Biden came into office, promising a quick end to the pandemic made feasible because his predecessor had made sure that a vaccine was being made available at no cost to the whole population, first to the most vulnerable and then quickly to everyone else. Between the protection provided by the vaccine and the natural immunity provided in people who have survived the infection, the epidemic appeared to be coming under control, at least in the USA. The relief was palpable, and people initially were willing to jump through hoops to get the shot. My wife and I stood in line for four hours in frigid Cleveland weather in February to get the injection. Who would have guessed at the time that taking the two steps required to slay the dragon, vaccination and mask wearing, would become a political football? The country has a history of coming together under a serious external threat, like it did for a while after the 9/11 attacks, but this time it appears to be more divided than ever, with disastrous effect. The deaths now occurring from the virus are largely, if not completely, avoidable. Not surprisingly, they befall mostly to the unvaccinated, a group that includes not just anti-vaxxers but also children under 12 years old and people who have just been dragging their heels on getting the shot.

The President of the United States swears at inauguration to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, but the expectation is that the first line of duty for the President is the safety and security of the American people. In spite of all the good intentions and measures taken by his administration, President Biden is falling short in fulfilling this sacred duty, as the numbers painfully show. He cannot possibly be accepting of 350,000 or more COVID casualties in his first year in office. And yet, that is where we are heading with a 7 day average of almost 2,000 new COVID deaths per day. He is at risk of suffering more COVID deaths under his watch than his predecessor. 

I hear voices* saying that these casualties are part of a deliberate attempt by Republicans who see vaccine resistance and mask refusal as legitimate ways to derail the Biden Presidency. That these Republicans love to see the current administration fail in its top priority of getting the COVID epidemic under control and make this failure an issue in the 2022 midterm election and the 2024 Presidential election. Whether the GOP deviousness goes this far or not, it is indisputable that virtually all the resistance against vaccination and mask wearing is coming from the extreme wings of our politics, on the right and the left side of the great political divide. The Biden administration should be much more emphatic and unapologetic in mandating vaccination as it is the only way to stem the tide of new COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. It cannot allow to let the abundant domestic supply of vaccines go to waste. And it cannot allow the virus to continue to develop new and increasingly dangerous mutations.

While we see a spirit of resistance against federal control of COVID defense go insufficiently contested, we are witnessing a ‘holier than thou’ tendency among GOP operatives who want to outdo each other in fealty to their spiritual and ideological leader, the 45th President of the United States. Without exception, these Republican ‘leaders’ reject mandated vaccinations and mask wearing and many of them still maintain that Trump won the 2020 election and that, therefore, the Biden Presidency is illegitimate and should be brought down. These ‘leaders’ characterize the January 6 attack on the Capitol as a peaceful demonstration, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and are now calling for acquittal of the insurrectionists who ransacked the Capitol that day, threatened the assembled representatives and tried to keep Congress from certifying the outcome of the Presidential election of 2020.

Egged on by the right-wing media, these people are the real culprits. They are trespassing against their oath of office and have blood on their hands. They are directly responsible for the avoidable COVID deaths we continue to endure. Unfortunately, their ranks are swelling since more and more conventional Republicans are either giving up on the GOP or are being forced out by local extremist factions in their States or Districts. Latest case in point for the extremist trend in the GOP is the decision by Anthony Gonzalez, the Ohio representative for the 16th District, which includes some of the Cleveland suburbs, not to run for office in 2022. Gonzalez, a Cuban American who starred as an Ohio State wide receiver and earned an M.B.A. at Stanford, was one of 10 Republican representatives voting to impeach Donald Trump after the January 6 Capitol insurrection. He called the former President ‘a cancer for the country’ and spoke of a ‘toxic environment’ within the Republican Party. He once was regarded, at 37 years of age, a rising star at the Republican firmament.

Maybe, just maybe, this is happening for a good reason. Maybe, just maybe, the GOP is killing itself from within by marginalizing or expelling the few remaining conventional Republicans. If this trend continues and the GOP offers the voting public a slate of Trumpists for the 2022 midterms, it may just snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the GOP puts up candidates like it did with Larry Elder in the gubernatorial recall contest in California, it may in effect throw the Biden administration a lifeline and allow the Democrats to keep their tenuous grip on Congress. I refuse to believe that Independents and conventional Republicans will allow the Trump movement to take control of the Congress. If the Republican primaries favor the Trump loyalists, they may earn themselves a Pyrrhus victory that will turn into defeat in the general election.

In the meantime, the Biden administration does not help its cause by ineptly handling the exit from Afghanistan, finished with a horrible, misguided drone attack on 10 innocent Afghans, including 7 children, and the lack of organization and control exhibited at handling the influx of illegal immigrants on our Southern border.

At a time that it needs to show mastery in governing competence in order to steer its ambitious platform of voting protection, infrastructure upgrade, and inequality reduction through an uncooperative Congress, it is at risk of getting waylaid by serious failings in its operative management.   It has one year left to get the COVID epidemic under control, prevent further avoidable deaths, retake control of its borders and avoid anymore operational blunders. And then, it will need help from the GOP shooting itself in the foot by presenting an unelectable slate of representatives for the midterm election if it wants to have any chance of keeping control of Congress so that it gets two more years to change public governance in a more progressive, future oriented, direction. As it stands, there is every chance that the Biden administration will suffer the fate of the nation: Death by 750,000 cuts.

* Notably Susan B. Glasser in a September 16 article in The New Yorker.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

AMERICAN CULTURE

Every distinct culture is rich in untouchable topics, features, belief systems and the like, but few are richer in stringent ‘a-priori rules’ than the American norm system. I find it counterintuitive that, in a society that prides itself in championing personal freedom and individual responsibility, there are so many places ‘you just don’t go’.

You don’t show up at a friend’s or a neighbor’s house, uninvited.

You don’t talk about money, religion, or politics at social gatherings.

You don’t let your grass grow beyond a few inches and you certainly don’t allow it to be overtaken by dandelions.

You don’t kneel when the national anthem is played.

You don’t disrespect the flag (but you are allowed to wear it as a bathing suit, covering your bottom).

Note that none of these norms contribute in any way to a better understanding between people, to a more compassionate ambiance, or to better respect for diversity of opinion and heritage. How much better off would we have been if we had embraced an entirely different set of norms? Norms that would support more solidarity between people of different creed, provenance, race, sexual orientation, education level, and societal status. And norms that would provide a corner stone for a common purpose and collective ambition.

The American culture has developed from rebellion against authority (the British rule) and the frontier spirit. But the British rule was vanquished, and the frontier has been pushed back into the Pacific Ocean. Yet, it seems, we have never adjusted to the new reality. Or, at least, a vocal minority of us has refused to adjust to the new reality and has organized politically to preserve the outdated norms. And, because of peculiarities in the American system of public governance, they may very well be in control for the foreseeable future.

America is still the most prosperous and powerful country on earth, but it can’t build consensus on how to put that prosperity and power to good use. It lacks the collective will and strategic plan to apply its wealth and power to a process of improving the life of humankind, in America first, but, closely behind, all over the world.

Just in the past twenty years, America has squandered trillions of dollars on unnecessary and ill-fated wars. Think about the tremendous good that kind of money could have done, had it been applied to causes that would have improved the lot of humanity. Like redoubling efforts to cure as yet incurable diseases; or taking effective steps in minimizing human contributions to climate change and building defenses against the impacts of global warming; or simply reducing the inequalities (in income, access to healthcare and education, safety and security, and wellness), not resulting from personal shortcomings but merely and directly from where you were born and who your parents are.

The Biden administration is making a serious effort to redirect public spending in that direction and increase it measurably. But it is hampered by a razor thin margin of support in Congress, by a impatient and rebellious left wing of the Democratic party, and by archaic parliamentary rules of the Senate. If, in the year it has left before the next election, it fails in getting its ambitious agenda of physical and human infrastructure improvement, and voting reform past Congress and signed into law, it is unlikely to get a second chance.

No one can, in good conscience, argue that America does not have the financial strength to implement the policy initiatives of the Biden administration. It may have to be more reticent about getting entangled in unnecessary wars that it cannot win, and it may have to rethink its tax structure and tax collection system, but it certainly has the wealth generating power, the wherewithal, to address the triple threat of incurable disease, global warming, and extreme inequality. The real question is if America can muster the political will to shift away from the frontier mentality of individual responsibility to a more cosmopolitan, contemporary, mentality of collective responsibility for the wellness of society at large and all the individuals comprised within.

The 2022 and 2024 elections will show us if that political will exists. The deck is stacked against Joe Biden and the Democrats. The popular will, that largely seems to support the Biden initiatives, does not account for much in the current system of government. The gerrymandering of voting districts, limiting the House of Representatives to 435 members (a number that was reached in 1913), the disappearing political center, and the filibuster rule in the Senate have seen to that. Midterm elections are notoriously unaccommodating to incoming administrations and Joe Biden’s botching of the exit from Afghanistan is sure to take away from any residual goodwill he may had retained with Republican voters and lawmakers.

Unfortunately, changing the American culture and national priorities has become a purely partisan matter. We have managed to turn even sound public health policy on vaccination and mask wearing into expressions of partisan creed. It should not be that way. Societal strengthening never was and should not be a Democratic prerogative. America will have a hard time being seen by the rest of the world as the legitimate world leader, the example to emulate, if it fails to create a better, more just and sustainable, society at home.

Monday, July 5, 2021

5th of July

Today is the day America observes Independence Day to make sure we all have a day off to celebrate. The question is: “what is there to celebrate this year?” It should be unbridled, unrestrained. We have nearly beaten the virus; we are opening up our ballparks; we are gathering at our parades, fireworks displays, and backyard barbecues; and yet, it doesn’t feel all that celebratory. We have not come out of the pandemic unscathed. Not only have we lost more than 600,000 of our fellow countrymen, we appear to have also lost every sense of unity. We have managed to color every human action in political, partisan, terms: Wearing a mask, flying a flag, getting vaccinated (or not). The schism has occurred along different fault lines, mostly in search of the better argument on who the flag and the nation belong to and how the nation should be governed.

The schism is brought to the surface, in broad daylight, when the former President in a public appearance proclaims that his “successor is destroying our country, and it all started with a fake election”. Until Trump, it was unthinkable that a former President would personally criticize his successor in such terms, much less malign the security and reliability of the American electoral process. With the terrible tragedy in Surfside, Florida, we have just been painfully reminded that when cracks develop in a structure the collapse can come at any time. Did not our most celebrated President warn us that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”?

The schism has crept into our personal lives, by pitching neighbor against neighbor, co-worker against co-worker, friend against former friend, and even family member against family member. And what is the dispute all about? It is about the kind of republic we want to live in. We may have thought that the battle had been decided when on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But we now realize that even then, we never really meant what we proudly professed; that we only accepted that all white men (not women) were created equal and endowed with the lofty unalienable rights. The “Big Lie”, that so much dominates our discourse and dispute today, was with us from the inception of the Republic. And it has remained with us ever since.

America is taking its eyes off the ball. At a time that our principles and our economic and political world leadership are being tested like never before, we stoop down in internal squabbles and partisan strife. Our politicians refuse to build a consensus on anything, and we accuse each other of selling out the peoples’ interest for control of the government. Adam Kinzinger, one of the few remaining principled GOP House Representatives, puts it frighteningly accurate in his July 2 interview with David Marchese of the New York Times Magazine: “And since we are in this political environment, I would say internal division is actually the thing that I fear the most right now. I jokingly say — but I’m not really joking — if China nuked California, a lot of Republicans would be like, “Good, we can win.” And if they nuked Texas, there might be a lot on the left saying, “Good, we can win.” I say that facetiously, but that’s how it feels at moments, and that’s a big concern.”

When will we turn back from our wayward ways, and will it be timely enough to avoid defeat and humiliation? On this 5th of July I find it hard to be optimistic about the prospects for a miraculous recovery. The elections of 2022 and 2024 are already looming large, the sharks are smelling blood in the water, and winning, gaining control of Congress and the White House, is all that matters. Dealing with suffocating inequality, with rampant acceleration of global warming, and with the Chinese threat, can wait (will have to wait, because ‘the other party’ cannot be trusted to come up with the right solutions, so they need to be defeated first.)

This is the American version of a classical Greek tragedy. At a time of unprecedented national prosperity, economic and technological strength, America is facing existential threats, but seemingly unconcerned with a national mobilization against these threats. If there ever was a good time to mobilize all of our strengths and unite in an effort to fend off the triple threat we are facing, it is now. But, unfortunately we appear to be otherwise engaged.

What is needed in the worst way is a national strategy that spells out the threats America is facing and crafts a plan to counteract, overcome and defeat these threats. America needs a strategy that transcends administrations, because taking the edge off the scope and depth of inequality; managing the human contributions to climate change and protecting people and property from the effects of global warming; and winning, peacefully, a contest with China for world leadership, is a long-term project that can only be completed with allocation of full resources of time, funding, and – crucially important – political unity. America will not finish this century in the lead if it cannot muster all these resources. We know what the enemy is, and it is not ‘the other party’. Inequality, climate change, and China are, without doubt, the challenges to meet. There should be no dispute between Republicans and Democrats about that. They may differ of opinion on how to counter these threats, but reconciling differences is what the democratic political process is all about. Will America once more prove to be equal to the task? That is not a given and it will depend on our willingness and ability to set our petty differences and partisan interests aside, recommit us to the best of the democratic process, and put the interest of the People and the nation above all other considerations.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

THE LOYAL OPPOSITION

Whatever happened to the notion of ‘the loyal opposition’? In our system of government, the loyal opposition is the opposition party in the legislature. The word loyal indicates that the non-governing party may oppose the proposals and actions of the President and his cabinet while remaining loyal to the national interest and the formal source(s) of the government's power, such as the republican form of government and the constitution.

If it were not for the fact that the next national election is only 17 months away, and that we will have another Presidential election in 2024, there is little doubt that creating and funding an independent commission to investigate the events of January 6, 2021 would have been a routine, non-controversial, matter for Congress to decide, as long as the commission would be bi-partisan and consisting of people with established authority and integrity. But there will be elections in November of 2022 and November of 2024 and the maneuvering, jockeying for position, for these elections is already in full swing. So, this commission is unlikely to ever see the light of day, at least until after the next set of elections is behind us.

The Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has made no bones about it when he stated earlier this month: “One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration” and “It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress.” Little surprise for someone who had earlier, in 2012, declared to move heaven and earth to make sure that Barack Obama would be a one-term President. This is no longer a loyal opposition.

The Republican party has seen that the existing rules of the game have not allowed them to alter the outcome of the 2021 election in the heavily contested races in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that went against them, and the party is working hard to bend the rules in its favor. The instruments at its disposal are the gerrymandering of voting districts, the tightening of voting rules and voting access, and the freedom of State legislations to appoint members of the Electoral College in deviation of the outcome of the popular vote in States with a Republican majority. And the party leaders are hell-bent on using all these instruments to secure a more favorable outcome in the next set of elections.

They know that, typically, midterm elections favor the party that missed out on the White House, but they are not about to take any chances, so they block Congressional action on the change of any rule they like, e.g. the filibuster rule, the number of members of the House of Representatives, and the denial of Statehood to the citizens of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other American Territories, while, at the same time, using their dominance in the majority of State legislatures to change the rules they don’t like.

This is no longer loyal opposition. Purely partisan interest is taking precedence over the national interest and the most basic principles of democracy are being flaunted in the process. All the Republican positioning and action is directed towards denying the Biden administration to implement its, admittedly ambitious, leftist agenda in the hope that a failed administration will hand them control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.  

This is no longer a tug of war between two ideologies, both firmly rooted in fundamental democracy, one left of center and the other one right of center, both fighting for the favor of a larger share of the voting public. The party at the right has been hijacked by people who are in the game only to protect their own perceived interest and are no longer encumbered by the guardrails of democracy. For today’s Republican party, the end justifies the means, and the end is to stay in power even if it represents only a minority of the population. It follows the abhorrent path charted by the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party, which grabbed power from a minority position based on lies, conspiracy theories, and racism, enforced by terror and intimidation. Here at home, an estimated 14% of Americans believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and is still the legitimate President of the United States. But their reach is much longer than the number suggests, because of fear and intimidation. The fear of being 'primaried' if stepping out of line with the Trumpian gospel; the fear of not winning the next election and, maybe, never winning an election again; and the intimidation of being censured, ridiculed, and threatened by hordes of delusional fanatics like on January 6, 2021.

The principled, democracy loving, traditional Republicans who refuse to bend to this populist pressure have a hard choice to make. Will they put principle above power, the people above party and deny the disloyal opposition the power grab it is after? Will they go as far as creating a third party that is solidly positioned right of center and faithful to true conservatism and long-established democratic principles and rules? A tough choice to make, because it would most likely condemn both the Republican party and the third-party spin-off to minority status in Congress for a long time, even though they could viably contend for the White House with a strong and popular candidate. But a loyal opposition party could possibly find ways to reign in and contain the leftist impulses of the Democratic Party and cooperate on a bi-partisan agenda of all steps the nation so desperately needs: reduced inequality, voting right protection, social justice, economic stability, fiscal responsibility, and infrastructure enhancement.

Friday, April 30, 2021

OVER THEIR HEADS

The 46th President of the United States has a problem, in fact several problems. He got his job, arguably the hardest job in the world, while he is 78 years old, an age at which most Americans are comfortably retired, trying to make the most out of their ‘golden years’ or what is left of those. The only reason why he took the job, in fact pursued it, is out of a sense of urgency, an urgency created by decades of benign neglect of the plight of the ordinary American citizens and the dereliction of duty by his predecessor, compounded by the worst pandemic inflicted on the nation in over a hundred years. The problem is that he is under extreme time pressure and that democracy denies him the tools to simply impose his will and agenda on a divided nation. The time pressure stems less from his advanced age than from the fact that he is at serious risk of losing his majority in Congress in the midterm elections of November next year.

President Biden has concluded that he needs to avoid losing control of Congress if he wants to have a full four years to make good on his campaign promises and he has chosen to make this happen by using the full force of the government to come to the aid of hard-pressed lower income Americans who have been disproportionally hit by decades of governmental neglect and by the devastating effects of the corona pandemic. He made his pitch Wednesday night, at the eve of his first 100 days in office, at a joint session of Congress, but really over the heads of the 200 legislators permitted in the chambers. He bets heavily on the premise that, ultimately, his Republican opposition cannot keep swimming against the tide of public opinion that heavily favors the main components of his agenda. In this he has a distinct advantage in the fact that the Republican party, under Trump, has decided to go without a platform and agenda, other than to oppose anything the Democrats want to get done.

At the heart of his pitch on Wednesday night was this appeal to his audience: “Look, we can’t be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st century.” Biden is keenly aware that the world, friend and foe alike, is watching to see if America can demonstrate that democracy is still the governing principle that can deliver for the people. And, in the prototypically Democratic style of FDR and Lyndon Johnson before him, he is unapologetically moving to use government as an instrument of social and economic transformation. His Republican critics are right in arguing that Covid relief and infrastructure improvements do not have to cost as much as the roughly $6 trillion that the Biden package amounts to. Calling a spade a spade, the Biden package is an ill disguised initiative to disperse the inequality cloud hanging over American society, by using the full force of the government to transform what our market economy and polarized partisan politics have not been able to correct. The economy seems to be recovering nicely with the stimulus put in place by Congress in five increments, starting under the Trump presidency, and does not require the proposed level of further spending, but restoring social equilibrium and peace does, at least in the judgment of President Biden.

He bets on the premise that if he cannot get sixty votes, sixty percent of the Senate, to agree with him on policy, he can still prevail by getting sixty percent or more of the voting public on his side. As it stands, the Monmouth University Poll indicates that with respect to his main initiatives, particularly his proposals for infrastructure investment, expanded healthcare and childcare, paid leave, and college tuition support, he garners more than 60% support from his constituents. The same poll suggests that a large majority also supports paying for these plans by raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals making more than $400,000/year.

The question is if this support will last and carry over into the only polls that really matter, the midterm elections of 2022. That, in turn, is likely to depend on how much of the plan can be implemented and provide tangible relief to the people who need it, before the people are called to the polls again.

Herein lies the Gordian knot that President Biden will have to unwind. I think he is right in arguing that America cannot win the competition with China, and democracy cannot win the competition with autocracy, if we continue to compete with ourselves. I also think that America cannot regain its status as the beacon of guidance to the world if it cannot demonstrate that it can overcome its own inequities, specifically its racial issues, its xenophobia, and, most of all, its rising inequality. As President Biden likes to say: “Our greatest strength is not the example of our power, but the power of our example.” He is right when he warns us that the autocrats of this day and age, and no one more that China’s president Xi, think that democracy cannot compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long, or proves impossible, to get consensus. We can only prove them wrong if we stop quarreling among ourselves and either vote to give one of our parties a popular mandate to govern or agree on a compromise agenda that can pass in an evenly divided congress, regardless who carries the majority.

Claiming, as President Biden does, that ‘America is back’ does not convince anyone unless we can demonstrate that we have regained control of a democratic (lower case) agenda. Otherwise, we will wonder, as world leaders do today, ‘yes, America is back, but for how long?’ Will the next election blow us off course again?

What the Biden proposals bring to the surface is that a chasm has developed between the political preferences of the members of Congress and the population at large. Not only, but mostly, on the Republican side of the aisle. This chasm is the result of primary driven moves towards the extreme wings of our two parties. The polls covering the Biden proposals bear out that the population at large is much less ideologically driven, much more practical, than its representatives in Congress would suggest. That is what Joe Biden is banking on and that is why, in his speech outlining and promoting his plan, he went over the heads of the parliamentarians, directly to the people, the people deciding who get to represent them in the legislative and executive branches of government. Will we listen? We will see the answer to that question the day after the November 2022 election.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

WILL THE REAL AMERICA PLEASE STAND UP

I am old enough and have lived long enough in the USA to remember the TV show ‘To tell the truth’ and, almost 100 hundred days into the Biden administration, I keep asking myself the question that concluded every episode of the show: ‘Will the real America please stand up’?

The electoral process has put Joe Biden in the White House as the 46th President, but the 45th still claims that he won the election and many Americans, a large majority of Republicans, side with him. We knew that the nation was polarized, but to such extent? The President may be the titular head of the nation, but it cannot be said that the occupant of the White House is representative of the nation and what it stands for. Otherwise, how to explain the contrast in character between #45 and #46?

What will we see when the real America stands up? Will it look like a Trumpian America, an Obama-like America, a traditional establishment America, or still something else? The world, Americans included, is thoroughly confused about the true American identity.  And when the real America stands up, when will it be, and will we like what we see?

What we hope to see is a determined, tenacious America willing to assert its world leadership in every respect, economically, militarily, scientifically, democratically, and morally. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, in a 2013 National Affairs article, reminded us that “Great powers are rarely brought down by outside adversaries; they destroy themselves from within. Very often, they do it by falling victim to economic imbalances and the decay of once-vibrant governing institutions that prove unable to adapt to changing circumstances.”

America, today, is at risk of internal strife, paralysis, and decay that its adversaries and competitors, China most of all, will only be too glad to take advantage of. America finds itself in this situation because it has been lacking, for decades now, a clear national strategy and competent administrations to execute. America has put itself deep in debt, without gaining anything, without addressing and solving any of the major challenges that put its hegemony in jeopardy. Its Congress has debased itself to becoming a platform for grandstanding, and a showcase for partisanship. It has proven to be incapable of legislating in a bi-partisan manner as demonstrated by the fact that all major legislative measures of the past three administrations, the Affordable Care Act, the Trump Tax Cuts, and Biden’s American Rescue Plan, have passed with only single party support. Congress has yet to demonstrate that it can pass meaningful, substantive, legislation unless the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives are all controlled by the same party. 

The onus is now on the Biden administration. It has until November of next year, only 17 months, to show that an effective, problem solving, administration can make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans and fend off the traditional curse of a losing mid-term election after its first two years in office.

In the 21st century, only George W. Bush has pulled this off, arguably only because of the afterglow of his handling of 9/11 and only in his first term.

All the political chatter today is about the Republican push to tighten voting access laws and gerrymandering voting districts as a means to enhance their electoral chances in November of 2022. The Democrats plan on countering these moves by trying to bring the HR-1 Voting Law, that has passed the House of Representatives in 2020, up for a vote in the Senate, while it still has control of the Senate and the White House. Both parties understand how crucial the outcome of the 2022 mid-term election is in determining their political fortunes and it is revealing for their current stance that they are pushing in opposite directions, for and against the widest possible access to the voting booth. The resulting stand-off cannot be resolved without congressional action, and that fact places the filibuster question front and center of the equation.

The Republicans are all too aware that the proposed changes in the voting rights laws, particularly as they relate to voting access, gerrymandering, mail-in voting, automatic voter registration, and campaign financing, will make it harder for them to compete for the White House and majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives. After all, according to the latest Gallup poll, Republicans represent only 25% of the population, versus 32% for Democrats and 41% for Independents.

This is not lost on President Biden, who has come up with a novel definition of bi-partisanship when he claims that his overly broad and expensive proposal for infrastructure is bi-partisan, because it seemingly has the support of a large majority of the population, including Republicans. This stance hints at a strategy to pursue between now and November of next year. The strategy seeks to drive a wedge between the Republican Congressional delegation and the Republican voters, claiming in effect that the Republican Congressional stance is not representatives of the preferences of Republican constituency at large. It might work if Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which he has dubbed the ‘American Jobs Plan’, can be carried through Congress under the reconciliation rule that does not require a 3/5th majority vote in the Senate. It would still require negotiation and arm twisting to keep all Democrats, including Joe Manchin, in line. But that is a good thing, because there is little doubt that the proposal on the table is too rich and too broad to be effectively passed and implemented. If Biden manages to steer a sanitized American Jobs Plan through congress, and if it will be perceived to improve American lives, Republicans will have a hard time explaining to their constituencies why they voted against it. 

Passing a comprehensive voting rights bill is another matter. Here, Biden may have no choice but to negotiate with Joe Manchin cum suis for an exception from the filibuster rule, because this type of legislation certainly cannot pass under the reconciliation rule and there is no chance for him to pick up 10 Republican votes for the legislation on the table.

The best effort Biden can make for a win in November of 2022 is to convince the voters that the government has a role to play in improving their personal circumstances. He has done that by signing the American Rescue Plan that deals with the negative impact of the Covid19 pandemic, and he proposes to do (much) more of the same by his infrastructure proposal, dubbed the American Jobs Plan.

A Democrat loss in November of 2022 is not inevitable, if Biden manages to get the American public on his side by taking for most Americans the sting out of the Covid recession, by reducing the inequities in pay, taxation, housing, education, healthcare, and the criminal justice system, by revamping infrastructure in an environmentally conscious way, and by addressing family needs with respect to childcare and eldercare. That is a formidable task to be accomplished in very short order after decades of inaction. It will still require for the Democrats to put up strong candidates in the congressional races, candidates who wholeheartedly support the Biden agenda and appeal to the public at large. And it will require legislative discipline of not trying to do too much at once and avoiding ‘third rail’ issues like killing the filibuster rule and court packing. They may get help from the Republican party if, in their primaries, they give the upper hand to Trump fanatics. Ultimately, turn-out in response to recognition of what is at stake will be the deciding factor, much like it was in 2020. Which is why the battle about voting rights rages.

A wild card in this strategizing of domestic policy and tactics is what happens beyond our borders. Any plan can be derailed by foreign threats like China moving on Taiwan, Russia moving on Ukraine, a Middle East conflict, or a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. All bets are off when the USA gets embroiled in yet another foreign conflict. God help us if that happens.

The truth is that America is in desperate need of domestic problem resolution. It has lost tremendous respect in the world by seriously flawed and inconsistent leadership and by failure to acknowledge and correct its societal shortcomings. One may, or may not agree, with all aspects of the Biden agenda, but denying the Biden administration a governable majority in Congress will only be a recipe for further stalemate and inaction. I hold out hope that, by the process of deliberate, targeted, government action and public response, we will see the real America stand up and reveal itself by the end of 2022. May it be an America that we can all believe in, be proud of, and stand behind.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

RANDOM THOUGHTS

The midterm elections of 2022 are only 20 months away and already show up to be equally pivotal as the 2020 elections purported and proved to be. The reason is that the presidential election of 2020 produced only one determinative outcome, in that it removed a dangerously incompetent pretender and seriously flawed person from the White House. But it created, at the Congressional level, a state of parity between two internally conflicted parties that have their eyes already set on the next election in the hope that they can prevail at that time. Notwithstanding the fact that Donald Trump is now a member of a rather exclusive club of one-term Presidents, his tenure and his words, tweets, actions, and omissions, have had an outsize effect on both domestic and foreign policy for our nation. Jonathan Kirshner, professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston University, in an article in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, has focused on the foreign relations aspect of this new reality and warns us that “By producing a Trump presidency and calling attention to the underlying domestic dysfunction that allowed a previously inconceivable development to occur, the United States is now looked at far differently than it once was.” And he concludes: “A second Trump administration would have done irretrievable damage to the United States as an actor in world politics. But even with Trump’s defeat, the rest of the world cannot ignore the country’s deep and disfiguring scars. They will not soon heal.” (The March/April edition of Foreign Policy is headlined: “Decline and Fall. Can America Ever Lead Again?”)

Domestically, the scene is not hugely different. Trump may have lost the election, but he has not lost the Republican Party. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 75% of Republicans would like to see him play a prominent role in the party. This fealty to a person, rather than republican principles and policy, precludes any Congressional ‘reaching across the aisle’, particular for Republican members of Congress who are up for re-election in 2022. Biden now must make the fateful choice between playing by the established rules or pressing his tenuous advantage in Congressional seats to advance his agenda. Time is not in his favor. Given his age, he is almost certain to declare himself yet another one-term President, andmore importantlyhe runs the risk of losing control of Congress in 20 months. As we all know, midterm elections are notoriously unfriendly to the ruling administration.

The fateful decision to make is, of course, pertaining to the ‘filibuster rule’ (Senate Rule XXII) that requires 60 of the 100 Senate votes to close debate and bring a law proposal to a vote. That rule stands in the way of any Biden legislative initiative that cannot be passed under the rules for ‘reconciliation’, where only 51 votes are required. With a Republican Party more interested in seeing the Biden administration fail than in addressing the urgent needs of the nation, staying with the filibuster rule means that passing any substantive legislation with respect to voting rights and other democracy reforms, immigration reform, expanding healthcare coverage, climate protection, or gun control will be out of the question.

It would force President Biden to rule, where he can, by executive order, which is politically undesirable, constitutionally questionable, and subject to reversal at the next regime change.

Yet, doing away with Senate Rule XXII is politically risky as well and, as it stands, not achievable, because of principled resistance inside the Democratic Party, particularly from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. However, there may be an ‘in between’ way out of this impasse. It was suggested by Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in an article published September 3, 2020 in The Atlantic. He proposes not to do away with the ‘filibuster rule’, but to amend it so that in stead of 60 votes required to end a filibuster, the rule would require 40 votes to continue it. It would mean that, if at any time the minority cannot muster 40 votes to sustain the filibuster, debate ends, cloture is invoked, and the bill can be passed by the votes of a simple majority. Ornstein leaves open for discussion if the threshold vote in his proposal should be 40 or 45. Will the Democrats give this creative bypass serious consideration? If they do, they should think of its effect in a certain to come situation where they would be in the minority in Congress.

Without significant Congressional action on the Biden legislative agenda and tangible positive effect of these measures on the lives of American voters, another regime change will be in the cards for 2024. Particularly, if Biden will have to deal with a Republican majority in Congress for his last two years in office. He would not be able to get anything done. That is why he cannot avoid making his fateful decision, now. But, as Ornstein has pointed out, it does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ deal.

Whatever you may think of the merits of the Biden agenda, the country is in desperate need of policy making and effective governance. There used to be a time when foreign policy was a bipartisan arena and a change in administration had little effect on the pursuit of primary strategies. This consistency in foreign policy was driven by the presence of a universally identified adversary to American interests, whether it was the Axis in WWII, or communism during the Cold War era, and by the universally shared belief in the need for international institutions and alliances to promote democracy, peace, and development. The fall of the Soviet Union has shattered one of these two pillars of consistency and predictability and Trump, by himself and in only four years, has destroyed the last pillar, that had been holding up the structure of the democratic alliance.

As looked upon from the outside by other nations, friend or foe, America can no longer be relied upon to be consistently strategic and predictable in its foreign policy. As Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it: “If you know that whatever you’re doing will at most last until the next election, you look at everything in a more contingent way.” How can America be a global leader for peace and prosperity if it cannot build internal consensus on its basic foreign policy strategies?

The same absence of consistency hampers good governance at the domestic level. Here too, the Trump interregnum has inflicted serious damage. Think of all the misguided executive orders, aimed at establishing his warped views on the environment, immigration, trade, justice, and the perceived existence of the ‘swamp’ and the ‘deep state’ that now must be reversed. And think of all the civil service professionals at the Justice Department, the State Department, the Intelligence Services, and all matter of other federal departments and agencies, who have either been replaced by political hacks or simply given up and resigned and now must be re-recruited or replaced again. What a waste of time, talent, and competency!

The nation simply cannot afford to see this whipsaw effect of changing administrations perpetuated. It needs the time and stability required to provide lasting solutions for the main challenges it faces. That is why the 2022 midterms are so crucial. The country needs stability. It needs to recover from a traumatic episode in its political history and it needs the tranquility provided by smart, effective, governance. For that reason alone, it is desirable that the Biden administration and the Senate work out an arrangement with respect to Senate Rule XXII that will allow Congress to pass legislation on the highest priority issues facing the nation.